[RPG] How to avoid “railroading” the players by giving them a limited set of choices with only basic descriptions


I play Dungeons and Dragons 5e.

I have a habit of highlighting certain choices, without realizing I'm doing it, because what I feel like I'm doing, is telling not showing. I have a problem with my descriptions if you want to call them that. Whenever I describe something, my players feel that I'm railroading them into three different paths. I have told them, they can do something else.

They feel like they have too much choice, vs not having enough descriptions that let them choose what they want to do.

My description, if you want to call it that is as follows:

"You have chased the orcs into the pit of the cave. You are at the cave's entrance. There are a pile of bones which seem to have some teeth marks, possibly from a wolf. You hear orc drums coming from the village you just came from in Coldharbor."


"Heaven's roar drums through the Sky Sea. Your hawk-like eyes catch sight of a druid dancer waltzing by the pyre, a ritual to ignite Gimble and Gamble's Zipping Zeppelins."

Not only is this description loaded with too many railroading choices, but I'm not describing anything. You know that saying of show not tell? Well, I'm telling, I'm not showing and I just don't get it. I'm just telling information that is only important to me, vs. what description is important for my players. I don't understand the process of how to describe something (Showing not telling) and giving the players tools to interact with their environment and doing their own thing. I want to give my players the total agency of choice, not me force feeding it to them with descriptions that feel like I'm letting my players do stuff when I'm not.

For the longest time, I thought I wasn't railroading, but I am. I'm giving my players to much choice, and using choppy bland descriptions. I noticed whenever I describe something, I sound choppy. I'm probably doing that right now. Okay, I am. I'll admit it. I'm choppy as Hades right now, but I want to improve. No, I need to improve in order for my game to survive.

How do I narrate in a way that draws my players' attention in, and has them at the edge of their seats while giving them freedom of choice?

I haven't been able to find an article on the subject, a book or video of what I'm talking about. If anyone has any sources that they can recommend, that would be great. (Please elaborate on such recommendations by explaining how they're relevant to solving my problem.)

Best Answer

A railroad can make a slot of stops along the way... at sandboxes

I agree with Timothy A Wiseman's answer about railroading and sandboxes being opposite ends of a spectrum. Turns out, I have players with strong preferences in both of those opposite directions, so to serve them as a group, I need a mix of both.

The basic pattern: intersperse sandbox and railroad segments

Every quest starts and ends with a railroaded event. We will start with event A and end with event Z. But in between there are several sandboxes - places to just play around for awhile. This takes more up-front work on the part of the GM. You essentially need to plant several nuggets in each sandbox for them to find, such that by spending enough time in that sandbox, and going down variant pathways, they will inevitably get to the next "railroad" stop.

An example

For example, at one mid-point in a quest, I have them needing to rescue a kidnappee but they have no idea where. They find out someone else is already tracking the kidnappers, so they could track the trackers. But around the same time, an NPC reports the kidnappers were last seen in a certain locale -- so now there are two ways to go. Meanwhile, questioning villagers reveals a problem with orcs that could be a sidequest. But one conversation reveals the place that the kidnappers have made into their home base -- so the PCs could try to go straight there, gambling that this would work. And so on.

The key is knowing when to "weave fate" together

Eventually they will cross trails with the kidnappers or ambush them or get ambushed by them. It might take one session or four. If it gets bogged down or really off track, I'll have an NPC or strong clue fall in their lap. By this time, they've had enough "play time" in the sandbox that they are really ready to board the train again.

Likewise, when I sense that the railroad plot-train has been going non-stop, then I let them off the train into a different sandbox of options.

For my group at least, this seems to please everybody.