When it’s ajar… no wait, that’s a different joke.
The subject of railroading in RPG campaigns is a contentious one. On the one hand, the players want to feel in control of their own destinies; on the other hand, it’s very hard to maintain a coherent plot if the players manage to avoid every major event and important revelation.
This was a definite concern for me in my recent Numenera campaign; I was running it as a large open world, where the players could do whatever they wanted, but occasionally I needed to deliver a bit of exposition to further the overarching plot (particularly towards the end, in order to achieve a satisfying final session).
Now the campaign is over, I have are a few observations on how I feel railroading can be made relatively unobtrusive and avoid becoming unfair to the players.
1) Railroading should make sense – There’s nothing worse than being told “You can’t do that” or “This happens to you” when it doesn’t really make sense in game. For example, being arrested or captured is a common way to advance the plot, but it doesn’t make sense for the badass PCs to be captured by a handful of guards in a small town (unless the PCs are particularly law abiding and go without resisting), when the same number of bandits would provide only a mild challenge. However, if the PCs are discovered in the middle of a secret military installation, it makes perfect in-game sense to send increasing numbers of well trained soldiers against them until they surrender.
2) Saying “No” isn’t necessarily railroading – I’m a big fan of saying yes to player ideas, which is why I feel bad on the occasions that I have to give a flat no. However, this is not, in itself, railroading. Just because your players would skip half the adventure by talking their way through the front gate of the secret base, it doesn’t mean that you’re railroading them when you say they can’t. The guard on the front gate is undoubtedly well trained, with specific orders to shoot anyone unauthorised who approaches… he’s not going to forget all that, just because someone rolls well on a persuasion check.
3) Only nudge them once – If you want your players to go in a particular direction (to get some exposition or whatever), I think it’s ok to give them a push (a reprogrammed autopilot, capture by guards, etc..); in many cases, players invested in a good story will let you get away with this if it’s not too often. However, if they resist the push (deprogram the autopilot, resist capture), you shouldn’t keep putting more and more obstacles in their way; instead just play out the choice they make and slip your exposition in later… if done carefully, they may not even realise you’ve moved it.
This does require you to be firm, but fair – don’t punish the players for resisting what you had planned, but if they’ve chosen to make things difficult for themselves, that should have legitimate consequences or challenges.
I don’t really have a conclusion, but if you’re looking for a one sentence summation, it would probably be “Railroading is just another tool.” Everyone railroads to a certain extent; even the most open campaign, with no overarching plot, still places limitations at the start, in terms of the world and starting location (to use the railroad analogy, you might be in a tank, with not a track in sight, but if you start in America, you still can’t drive to France). Bad railroading leads to frustrated players, but good railroading can give a campaign a sense of purpose and a satisfying finish… choose wisely.