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I see a lot of sound and fury about railroading on various internet fora. Trouble is, I think almost all of it is bullshit.
The discussion which spawned this thoughtful essay is here:
In it, a chap asked, “Would it be extremely cruel to have an NPC join my PC’s group, having them get attached to it and then killing it at the end of the campaign in a heroic sacrifice?”
Another chap insisted that such an idea was railroading.
There’s this trend I’ve been seeing lately where anything which the players don’t decide or the dice don’t determine is classified as “railroading,” and roundly savaged by commenters.
That needs to stop.
Player agency only extends to the decisions you make for your character. Player agency does not extend to anything in the campaign world except insofar as your character’s interaction with that thing can affect the thing. Taking your logic, the DM deciding that it’s raining this morning is railroading. That’s preposterous.
It’s the DM’s job to set up the skeleton of a story, to provide story beats which increase the tension, all in pursuit of collaborative storytelling. Part of that job is making decisions in which the players have no input. THE DM GETS TO MAKE DECISIONS, TOO. It’s time to stop pretending that every decision a DM makes is railroady fiat, or that railroady fiat is always and without question a bad thing.
If a campaign is nothing but a sandbox where you get to do what you want, or everything is randomly determined by die rolls, there’s no story. There’s no reason to be in the sandbox in the first place. If the only thing that’s acceptable is the player’s whim, then you’re not collaborating in creating a story. You’re murderhoboing your way through an area like some kind of completionist video gamer. D&D isn’t Skyrim.
DMs, if your story requires you to kill an NPC to ratchet up the story, you go ahead and do that. Because if you do that, you’re in the company of storytellers like Joss Whedon and GRR Martin and JRR Tolkien, and you should take *their* idea of what’s good for a story over that of people on the internet shout “RAILROAD” any time you make a decision without them.