There’s an interesting comment over on Playing Dice With the Universe from an aggravated Dungeon Master aggravated at his players complaints of his railroading ways:
My only real concern as a 1e DM is the cries of “railroading” when players try to leave the the established play area. We’re playing a game, the context of the game has been established in (pick your module, etc…) the pre-determined area by the DM.
If the player continuously tries to not abide by those established boundaries, I reserve the right to use means that move the game along the prepared outline or end the game (for that player or as a whole).
Yes, players want to make choices and DM’s want to watch the game unfold as prepared. When either starts forcing changes beyond that preparation, it hoses the whole experience up.
This is exactly wrong.
Yes, it is possible to play a standalone module pretty well as written for a fairly long period of time. But that is not the type of play that the classic role-playing games were designed to create. And while many game masters can cobble together a campaign by moving the players from one prepared module to the next, that is not the only way to play.
If you run the classic module Keep on the Borderlands, the players have a lot of choice when they get to the Caves of Chaos. There’s so much there to choose from! But that is not the only choice they have. There’s the wilderness area surrounding the Keep. They may choose to go investigate the Mound of the Lizard Men instead. Or they might tackle to Raider Camp. Or they might fall afoul of the Mad Hermit.
And even that’s not the only choice they have. Many players love to explore the civilized area within the Keep itself. They really want to know who is in the Tavern. They want to play out conversations with the people that are there– sometimes for clues and rumors, other times just because it’s fun. And then there’s the Chapel– is the cleric there any help…? Is he up to something? What’s going on? And what does it take to meet the Castellan?
It’s like three different games at once! Think about the variety that’s entailed with this and how neat it is that the players can determine for themselves what proportion of town, wilderness, and cave interactions they dedicate to the session. The combination of a range of options plus the freedom of the players to choose means that you will get exactly the sort of game that is most entertaining for them every single time!
And yes, it’s possible for a referee to get caught flatfooted. What if he prepared for the dungeon crawl and didn’t make any effort at all to review the other areas? That happens. And is it really so hard to skim a keyed entry and then improvise something on the spot…? Hey, that’s something referees have to do no matter what. That’s synonymous with game mastering.
But what do you do when the players start asking about stuff that’s off the map edge. Is it really that much harder to just make something up…? Not really. Oh, but you already know what’s going to happen when you do. You will make up something downright silly, but it will strike the players fancy somehow anyway. And they’ll start talking about it… and then decide to go do this thing that doesn’t even exist yet.
The commenter over at Playing Dice with the Universe says that that is the exact point where “he reserves the right to use means that move the game along the prepared outline or end the game.”
I would argue that the game had never even begun to begin with in that case. Because the entire point of role-playing games is that they can handle unplanned and even unimaginable circumstances and keep on rolling into something that is more interesting than anything anyone could have worked out as a perfectly engineered adventure module. That’s the thing that they do that makes them different from every other type of game. That’s the lightning in a bottle that caused role playing games to garner the cult following that they spawned way back in the seventies.
But let’s be honest here. When you cease being a neutral arbiter and use your powers of referee fiat to put the game back on track after it goes off the rails, then what you’re doing is railroading. And while the players may have some agency within the narrow scope of what is explicitly laid out in some adventure module, they clearly don’t have it where it counts.
Maybe the module is going to be way more fun than the sort of thing you end up making up on the spot. Or maybe the players are the ones that are best positioned to be the judge of that. And the referee has simply decided to not perform his function!