Railroading: A Definition
'Railroading' means that an out-of-game white-list constricts in-game actions.
A 'white-list' is a complete list of things one can do. A white-list of websites would mean that someone connecting with this white-list can only visit sites which exist on that list. Conversely, a 'black-list' is a list of things which one cannot do, such as a list of websites which one cannot visit.
Changeling: the Dreaming states that myriad actions will inflict banality on changeling characters, and eventually, and once they have accrued enough world-weariness, they will die. Changeling effectively states that characters will not survive long into their 20's, and enforces this harshly.
Changeling does not railroad players, because the rules on banality form an effective black-list.
Now for a D&D example, from a campaign I once played in:
This pot has a demon trapped inside. You must break the pot, and kill the demon.
1 "Can the demon fly?", I asked.
Since the demon could not fly, I asked for my character to find a deep pit, such a dried-up well, and break the pot by throwing it down. My character had some class ability that dealt 1D4 Damage to evil-aligned creatures, so I wanted to use that to repeatedly 'ping' the demon until it died, without endangering myself.
The GM had a history of railroading. He intended for us to solve this problem with combat, rather than standing at the top of a well, going 'ping' with 1D4 Damage. He had a few questions about the setup, then eventually allowed the fix: my character killed the demon without any need for combat.
If the GM had held firmly to his idea of defeating the demon with combat, this would produce railroading, because it would have been a fixed list (of one) which players could decide in order to solve the combat.
I plan all my campaigns in advance.
This is not railroading. No matter how much planning you do, it does not constitute railroading until you do two things:
- Plan for players to solve a problem with a set list of solutions, and
- Disallow all other solutions, simply because they are not listed.
Players must select one of the following classes...
This doesn't count as railroading, because it's not in-game. And the same applies to 'levelling up', and having the game tell you that wizards must advance along their class lines.
However, I feel some exceptions exist. If a mage tries to don chainmail armour, and the GM simply says 'no, mages can't wear armour', then the system has definitely begun to 'railroad' the players.
You can only activate the item with the command-word.
This in-game stipulation does not tell players what they must do - it tells them what they cannot do (specifically, they cannot activate the item, without the command-word).
But of course, as long as characters can act feely otherwise, this does not count as railroading.
As the goblins cut the rope-bridge, you fall into the ravine. Do you want to activate the amulet, or die?
This list of what the characters can do comes from inside the world, so this does not imply any railroading.
Going Completely Off the Rails
I hope this little essay has not made me sound like some kind of railroading apologist. Any session or scene can feel stifling, even without harsh rails.
I've found making a world feel alive and open - to cast away any shadow of the rails - demands throwing away any ending or solution, and simply presenting problems.
I've thrown eighty hobgoblins at my players, together with a seriously powerful spell-caster. It formed a very tense scene: the hobgoblins woke slowly, the caster nearly killed them, the PCs summoned a 30' illusion to take the spellcaster's lethal lightning spells, they confused the entire camp by running to the anterior side of the abandoned keep in the centre then throwing rocks at the other side, then finally escaped by jumping into a river (which then forced harsh checks, and killed a couple of horses).
By the end, the players (nearly breathless, despite their safety), asked "how the hell were we meant to get through that?".
I have no idea how you'd deal with that, but I knew you'd think of something.
Adopting this method has made writing a lot easier, and if it ends up killing a few PCs, at least it shows the players than the world won't forgive a lack of imagination.