A quick thought today : I stumbled on this article about the “The 13 worst game design crimes”. It’s about computer games, but some points could also be applied to tabletop RPGs (the numbers are from the article) :
- 1. Defeating the player in a cutscene, which is pretty self-explanatory.
- 4. Invisible walls and unconquerable waist-high barriers, where a player cannot wander farther than some arbitrary limit, even if there is nothing to stop them in the fiction.
- 6. The arbitrary insta-fail, where a choice is offered to the player, but all choices but one is doomed to fail.
- 7. Invincible locked doors, where some ordinary-looking doors just cannot be opened or broken.
- 9. Invincible story characters, where an important character cannot be killed or harmed in any way, at least for a time.
In tabletop RPGs, all of those “crimes” are usually instances of what we call “railroading” from the DM. Sure, most of the times, the invisible walls are not literally invisible walls, but there are plenty other ways to limit the playground (broken bridge, high-powered NPC or monsters, magic, anti-magic…); same goes for invincible doors and characters.
But the term “railroading” is a pretty broad one. After all, playing Call of Duty does not exactly offer a choice to use a diplomatic way, but it’s not an instance of #6; in an similar manner, if a player were to decide that his PC opens an inn to lead a peaceful life in your average D&D game, nobody would accuse a DM telling them that they’ll need another PC to continue playing with the group of railroading. There are some assumptions in every game and at every table; railroading does not mean refusing some possible course of action outright, it means refusing the ones that are compatible with the assumptions.
So making assumptions clear can help avoid railroading. After all, some assumptions can be contradictory, so what count as railroading in one game may very well be understood as good DMing for another. For example, fudging the dice to avoid getting a PC killed by a mook could be seen as a form of railroading (the DM wants to see epic battles with the big bad evil boss, so they decide break the rules to make it happen), while, at the other end of the spectrum, some could see not fudging as railroading (the DM wants the PCs to use boring preparation instead of just being awesome, and so let them die if they do anything rash).
This can go both ways, too. The DM may assume that the PCs are going to work together to help people, so offer hooks and choices that are meaningful for this type of party (do you help the hostage, letting the mastermind escape, or do you go after them, letting the hostage die?) If the players go against that assumption, they could see the DM as attempting to railroad them into a specific type of game.