How Do You Turn a GM Off the Tracks Onto a Dirt Road?

As part of running Roleplaying Tips, I often receive questions about common gaming problems.

One reader sent me this question recently, which might have come up in your gaming group:

“How do you wean a GM off of a cinematic/railroad style? In a recent game, the GM railroaded the characters onto his plotline. It was evident enough that we felt we could hear the steam engine. What is a good way from a player POV to get him to let the players succeed or fail in his plot by themselves?”

That’s a tricky one because there are many possible reasons a GM might railroad:

  • Tired or off his game tonight
  • Does not know any other way
  • Is an egomaniac and control freak, like myself, and we are all his puppets
  • Is scared to give up control
  • Wants a certain outcome no matter what, probably for the best of reasons (i.e. maximum fun)
  • Is scared to try another way
  • How he was taught, or how his GMs ran games
  • Is using or designing linear modules
  • Is terrified of or poor at ad-libbing, and only has limited materials and ideas planned for the session
  • Is a cold-hearted machine with no empathy who uses a respirator for voice enhancement

The most insidious is when a GM feels he’s got an idea so good it’ll please everyone, and will force the game to make that outcome happen. Here the GM has the best of intentions, but those exact intentions almost always end up ruining the game. GMs handle so many details when in the thick of things they rarely stick their head up to see how their players are enjoying the game. Then they are so busy planning between sessions they rarely do a post-mortem to figure out what, if anything, could be improved from last session. And when they do sense something amiss amongst the group, they rarely connect the dots back to the GMing style – it’s human nature to look first for external factors and excuses.

I’ll get my top tip out of the way first, in case you are tired of reading already:

I would go out and buy your GM a sandbox module. Ask him to at least read it through, with a request he try a more free-form adventure. Even if he does not like the adventure you’ve given him, he can use it to understand your request better. Everybody likes a gift. Depending on your GM’s temperament, you can be direct or dance around it by chatting up the module’s ratings and features and style.

There are some many reasons your GM might prefer rigid plots though, so you should consider some other approaches as well:

  • How would you GM? I remember a co-worker getting feedback from our boss: “good article, but be funnier.” It is like the constant advice folks send into the Roleplaying Tips newsletter for GMs to be creative. Easily said, but just how do you be more creative? Just how do you become funnier?Take a moment and imagine two or three specific ways you would like your GM to tweak his style. Use last game session to provide examples and as a basis for alternative approaches. If you are clear on what you want, you not only will be able to provide your feedback better, but you are also sure you have something more tangible to offer than to just “be better” or “don’t railroad us.”
  • Have a private chat with the GM. Avoid commiserating with other players beforehand. Nothing kills a group and its morale faster than tearing down fellow gamers when they are not present. So gather up your feedback and have a friendly chat with your GM in private. If he is ok with having a group discussion, that’s awesome. But if you ambush him with a group discussion out of the blue, it’ll feel like an intervention. That’ll freak any GM out.Further, just as you dislike being railroaded as a player, be prepared for give and take during your discussion. Coming in with a strong agenda of how you want the future to be is just another form of railroading, which I find ironic when reading anti-railroad forum threads and players have views so entrenched or planned out it’s like they’re immovable rods – and choo choo trains themselves.
  • Try a more free-form game. I would have a chat with the GM first, and if experience, confidence or skills are the source of the problem, switch to a few one-shots with a game that’s designed to be anti-railroad and more collaborative. If you have suggestions for a good game that does this, please drop a comment below.
  • Be an influencer. Provide some leadership at the table. Be supportive. Provide objective feedback but be diplomatic about it. Offer praise when due. Be professional, respectful and non-judgmental. This is a difficult skill set to master. Bookshelves are lined with advice on how to tackle this. Some folks are naturals, but if you are like me, though, you have to work at it – and fail often and keep trying.My best tip here is to think about a person you know who embodies these traits best, then model and imitate them. Ask yourself, what would they do? For me, that’s a former manager, Robin, who had tremendous talent for dealing with difficult conversations, being supportive while providing critical feedback, and being respecting of others regardless of their current behavior. When a barb is on the tip of my tongue, I ask, what would Robin do? Soon a more productive phrasing or point of view comes to mind.
  • You can’t go wrong starting with Colin Powell’s book on leadership.

Worst thing you can do as a player is get into a power struggle. The GM always wins, and the group always suffers, if it somehow manages to stay intact. Back-biting, negative emotions, poor behavior and other symptoms of conflicts only generate a downward spiral. Clear and open communication without judgment always wins the day.

That’s my two cents. Readers, how would you advise this reader on getting his GM to railroad less?

Comments

  1. My advice: Switch places — GM a few games, maybe a mini-campaign of 4-6 sessions, and make sure your regular GM is a player. Make it very open-ended and non-linear. This accomplishes two main things.

    1) Gives both parties a new perspective. Things are different on the other side of the screen, and you might not realize that certain things might be frustrating to others (railroding) or difficult to do (run a sandbox game) until you experience it yourself a few times.

    2) Exchange of ideas. I don’t want to say “teaching the GM how to run an open-ended game” because odds are good that it will be a learning experience for all involved. But actions speak louder than words, so run the sort of game you would like to play in. That makes for an easy discussion afterwards; you can just say, “As a GM, I did x, y, and z in this adventure because that’s what I enjoy as a player. So I’d like to see more of x, y, and z in our regular game.”

    On a final note, I think it’s fair that players should expect, and go along with, a certain amount of railroading. Once in a while it really does just make the plot and game better. I think the key to making it work is to use railroading judiciously, and to be very explicit about doing it. In other words, if the GM wants the party to go a certain way, he should just come out and say, “You guys should go this way, otherwise I’ve got no adventure prepared tonight.” Used sparingly (at most once per session), most players will not feel constrained and will be happy to go along; by being candid, the GM makes the players feel like they are participating in the decision and not just spectators.

  2. Turn the table around. What does a GM do when players do not show initiative when faced with a sandbox world? When open options stall the game? When players only wait for the mcguffin to act?

  3. One important point that should be looked at is exactly how the players are defining railroading. There is almost no description of the scenario of the railroading in the question, instead being defined as self-evident. Was this really the case?

    Cinematic campaigns and encounters often include a certain amount of railroading in them, because a lot of the background stuff is abstracted elsewhere. If your GM is using an ‘In Media Res’ style encounter to start, this assumes railroading to the point to get to the encounter itself. Sometimes, exposition is moved to other parts of the story, where it can be defined once the action is over and the dust settles. Is this still railroading, or just a different style of play?

    Most adventures and dungeons are railroaded in design, simply because plot lines and corridors lead in a linear fashion from one encounter to the next. If there’s only one exit from a room, is this railroading? If something is going to happen that the PCs have not had any way to foretell, is that railroading?

    More often than not, the better GMs have anticipated certain actions and compensated for them accordingly, but because these don’t neccessarily go with what the PCs want, it is decried as railroading. Yet, the same actions, if it matches the PCs desires, is often overlooked.

    GMs sometimes throw a spanner in the works, or provide a very obvious set of options. This can be to speed up play, make the plot less complex, or be because the GM simply has a good insight into how his players are likely to act. A GM that has actually covered all the bases stands a good chance of being called out for railroading, even if they are just thinking about what is most likely to happen in most circumstances.

    Ultimately, the term railroading should be defined, before any conclusions are made, because in some cases it is actually a desired part of the game and in others is rather counter productive. This often means that there is a misunderstanding between the GM and the group, and they are essentially playing two different games, because their expectations about the game and railroading have not been taken into consideration.

  4. I find that the best thing I can do as a GM to overcome “volitional chaos” on the part of my players is to spend a good amount of time planning motivation in the campaign. Instead of physically railroading the characters by saying that the road to such and such city is completely blocked, and that spells are blocking travel by air and underground routes, I just give the characters a few solid reasons to follow the course that my adventure has planned. This way they hardly want to do anything else because it isn’t as important to their characters.

    By far the best way to pile on character motivation is to help them create a detailed and engaging background history to their characters before the campaign even starts. This way you can know what sorts of villains and circumstances will drive your PCs so crazy they can’t wait to go in the direction you’ve planned.

    Admittedly, sometimes I don’t think of something. That’s when you have three backup encounters (I usually do one with natural creatures, one with immortal or fey creatures, and one with undead or aberrant creatures just to cover my bases). I have to reference the book X-treme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy and Curtis Hickman as one of the best tomes of GM-ing advice I’ve read.

  5. The XDM book goes so far as to suggest that players should list three triggers that they can’t ignore, and one they’ll die for. Although, is it railroading if you know they’ll all respond to a necromancer enslaving orphaned dragonborn to chop down a sacred forest?

  6. I think the best advice here has to be not to stop GM from railroading, but how can the GM hide railroading so that the players cannot see the tracks. A railroad without rails is simply a road, and players follow these all the time, whether they realise it or not, because following the road is normally easier than forging your own path. That’s why the road is there.

    PC motivation, and letting them define the action at key points works very well in this regard. Let the PCs make meaningful choices about what they do and where they go, and run with it. Let them choose which track they want to take, and sooner or later they forget all about railroading.

    Railroading is only really an issue when the PCs want to leave the rails but find they cannot, being denied the choice. Then they aren’t so much roleplaying as rolling dice in a very slow imaginary video game.

    If the players keep trying to turn off, the GM should probably try to find out why – if they have another motivation they want to tend to first, then this can be woven into the main plot, or maybe once this motivation is tackled the PCs will return to the tracks. If they deliberately avoiding the main plot, maybe this is an indication that the plot doesn’t appeal to them as players, and needs to be changed to get them hooked. When in doubt, certain elements of the plot can always be adapted and changed to bring the plot to the players, wherever they go.

    As the saying goes, “if Mohammed won’t go to the mountain…” of course, the standard response that the mountain must go to Mohammed implies that their is only ever one mountain. In the words of many a roleplayer, “there is always another mountain.”

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    If none of the players are interested in the adventure, it’s time to change something. If some are and others aren’t, then the GM needs to find a way to meet the unhappy player’s needs. Sometimes it’s changing everything, other times it’s promising more of X in the future. One issue I’ve dealt with is a group of players that liked different things. Sometimes you have to sit through some of the parts you don’t like to get to the parts you like, so that everybody gets some of what they need.

    I hate the term railroading. Everybody definies it differently. Some people use the term only when the GM actually takes control of their character. Others use the term when they try something completely wacky and it doesn’t have the effect they dreamed it would. Few GM’s can handle a completely unbounded sandbox. Many GM’s have different limits to their improv abilities. And a lot of gm’s can’t put in 40 hours a week in prepwork. To maximize my limited prep time, I run from modules a lot. I make my own tweaks to them and play some things differently, but the main plot is defined by the modules.* If that’s not the game you want to play, then there’s an issue. You’re free to propose your game to the group, or decide to do something else that evening.

    *I still try to let the characters be as free as they can be within the broader plot. For example, my players tend to want to negotiate through a lot of combat encounters. This changes the dynamics of the module a lot.

  8. Great article, Johnn! I think Sturtus brings up a valid point, however, in that some GMs railroad because of that blank, deer-in-headlights look that players give them when they offer them an open sandbox to play in. Depending on the skill-level of the role-players around your table there are times when it is ok to railroad players a little, just to give them a bit of forward momentum to get them rolling. By the same token, there is such a think as having too big of a sandbox and not enough toys (mcguffins, plot points, clues), and that will get blank stares every time. Dropping the players into a sandbox with a dozen toys is fine and dandy, unless the sandbox is the size of the sahara desert! Railroading is generally bad, but not always, and it just takes some experience to know how much is needed and when to get the heroes motivated and moving along their own path.