Oct 8, 2013

When is a railroad not a railroad?

Babbling at the Counter #11 – Pen and Paper

When is a railroad not a railroad?

I was reading this post Sandboxes vs Railroads at The Space Masters and it got me thinking.

While I agree with most of the ideas expressed there (mainly about the dangers of the sandbox style), I think that railroading should be a last recourse option for a GM. Instead, I offer two alternatives to start a campaign or to keep the motivation up and the story moving forward:

Heroes and other White Hats

First of all, unless you are playing a survival-kind of game, it’s assumed the characters are going to be on the adventurous side. They should have their own reasons to go out and risk life and limb on quests. If they didn’t, they’d be innkeepers instead of wandering swordsmen, right?

Maybe they do want to avenge their homeland; but why would they help a poor farmer if they are not heroes fighting the good fight?
Unless each and every action they take is tied to the main plot, they’ll have to go out of their way every now and then to complete a mission, and they should be as motivated as ever.

That’s why most fantasy characters are noble and/or greedy. It’s not just about the Big Bad threatening the universe; it’s about saving damsels from bandits, too. You don’t need to threaten the party with “Save the world or suffer the consequences” if they are Heroes. You just need to point them towards an injustice and they’ll take care of the rest *.

*For greedy characters, replace “injustice” with “treasure” or “monetary reward”.

You brought this on yourselves

Now, this is a neat idea. Start your campaign with a sandbox kind of world. Let the players do whatever they want. Then, use that to create the main problem to solve. You see, instead of taking aim at the characters’ motivation, shoot for the players directly.

Maybe they survived the zombie attack, kudos! Oh, wait, remember that little girl they saved? Yeah, should’ve taken a look to be sure she wasn’t infected. Now they have to hunt her and everyone she bit down before they infect the city. That’s a good campaign starting point.
Or perhaps the dungeon they destroyed on their way out was the prison of a demon. Better put it back, pronto!

The idea here is not to tell them what to do, it’s to say: “Well, what you did caused that, are you going to do something about it?”. If they refuse, they clearly don’t want to play this kind of game. What about backgammon or something else?

Final Thought

Yes, a campaign with no motivation is bad. But one with a player driven motivation is even better than the railroaded alternative.

What do you all think?

-The Storeman

Extra reading: A way to railroad stealthily, if you absolutely need to. 2 Links (Schrödinger'sGun a.k.a. RailSchroding)


  1. Nobility and greed are fine motivations if they can be depended on, but I find an even better motivator is the threat of loss. If they don't do something, something bad is going to happen. Really it all comes down to player choice. Give them hard choices, because that's when they come up with creative solutions.

    1. Yeah, loss can be powerful too. Don't know why I forgot it.
      I guess it isn't there because I was thinking about wandering heroes, which are hard to threaten with something besides their equipment… not sure, though.