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Railroading vs. Character Choice and Agency

    One of the most essential things about GMing that you should care about is Character Choice and Agency. To begin, your players must have the freedom to react to the situations or world around them free of your influence as a GM. The characters belong to the players, not you. Do not control what they do. That would be very boring and defeat the game's purpose. They must have the agency to react and deal with what you throw at them however they want. This is the basis of the social gaming contract between you and the Players.

    Railroading is when the GM ignores that player's input for no reason other than that's not what you want the players to do. But there is often confusion among players as well as new GMs. Because role-playing games can be more open world than even the best video games, there are times that a linear adventure allows the GM to direct the players. Players assume that if you limit player choice that you are railroading the characters into doing what you want to do. Limiting players agency is railroading, but limiting player choice is normally good because the more you limit player's choice the easier it is for the players to get involved in the game. It also allows helps us to be better Game Masters, limiting choice means you can focus on the content of the game and campaign.

    To avoid railroading your players, you need to entertain any reasonable idea they come up with to solve a situation they face. Most of the time, players are convinced that there is always a SINGLE solution when in fact, if they stop to think about it, they can change the test conditions. Sooner or later, your players may feel that they are being railroaded by you when they are just not thinking outside of the box or tried one idea and it didn't work making them give up or become frustrated with the outcome. Never shoot down clever, fun, or interesting ideas unless they are unreasonable. Allow the players to get in over their heads, do not try to force an outcome. That is railroading. Of course, if players acting on their agency can come up with some very radical ideas that you cannot easily improvise, does not mean you need to say no. Take a small break think about what they want to do and figure out a way to allow it happen reasonably.

    All your games are essentially sandbox games when you all any reasonable idea occur. Railroading happens when you do not permit reasonable ideas. There is an important and subtle distinction between railroading and herding your players toward the content that you have prepared for them to play.

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