How to avoid railroading

I am a bit worried that I may have an issue in that as a GM I railroad players, although I don’t mean too. Too be more specific, I tend to give my players dreams which point them in a direction, I tend to make scenarios up on the fly to encourage players to take the path I expected them to take, and I sometimes tell players that there is a thing they COULD do. First of all, are these actions examples of railroading, and secondly, what would be better ways to encourage players to take actions without railroading? I do love what my players bring to each game and as such I want to see if perhaps there are better ways to enhance the experience…

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I don’t really see much of an issue with a little bit of coercing, so long as you don’t make decisions for your players.

Life is like that. We experience things that tug us in one direction or another. We see where we are, where we want to go, come to conclusions, and make our own decisions.

You can always ask your players what they want, what inspires their characters, etc.
But as the GM, its hard to avoid railroading, especially if your players don’t drive the story for you.

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A very experienced D&D GM by the name of DawnforgedCast on YouTube has pointed out that some players very much enjoy linear campaigns and appreciate being guided along. As Brycelor recommended, you should probably ask your players before you try changing up your style.

  1. No, that’s not railroading, as long as the players ultimately have the choice and you respect that choice. It’s totally alright for a GM to notch their players in certain directions, though I find dreams a slightly ham-fisted way to do so.

  2. That’s not that hard to pull off honestly: Involve the PCs. If they try to follow and achieve their own goals, while you throw roadblocks in front of them that they have to overcome, than that’s often enough an easy setup. Or you could put something at stake that is of personal importance to the characters. Generally if a GM uses the backstories that the players have set up for their characters, than that yields the best results for both the GM and the players, as the players actively engage with the content that the GM puts forward and the players feel validated, as their own ideas find a way into the campaign.

  3. If you aren’t sure if your players enjoy the current campaign style or if you think another style might suit the group, than sit down with them and have a “Session 0”, where you discuss these things. While often it’s best to have session 0s before a campaign starts, it’s never too late to have one later on, especially if you think there is some malaise within the group. There are many great videos out there, which explain how to structure session 0s. I recommend consulting a few beforehand.


I agree with the above points: this doesn’t feel too much like railroading, and talk to your players to find out if it’s bothering them before you try to “fix” it.

Gameplay styles are a sliding scale, you can tell a story at your players and have them go along with it (railroading), or you can go to the other extreme and have no plot planned at all when you start out. Most games fall somewhere between the two, where the GM guides the players through an expected route with a few diversions, and your game sounds like that.

One thing you could do to make it feel less forced is to focus more on directing players with motivation rather than hints, give them something they want to go after (like rescuing a beloved ally, or winning the favour of the king) rather than giving them prophetic dreams, but that’s a difference in method rather than style. If you want to make an extreme change, you could check out my post on how to run a sandbox game as an MC. It’s a very different style, but you might pick up a fews tricks.


One trick you can do as a GM is to give them the illusion of choice.

You already have a scenario/event/encounter planned out and you just need the PCs to get there.
Example: A huge and exciting naval battle in the open seas!

You can railroad them towards this but in order to get there, give them some choices.

Choice 1: Use your ship to sail directly to the Dark Swamps but be prepared for dangers in the open seas. The weather has turned sour and pirates have been known to scour the oceans.

Choice 2: Use you ship for a shorter trip and make quick landfall far from the Dark Swamps. Then ride your steeds across the valleys where raiding parties victimize travelers.

Result: Whatever choice they make you can do A) pirate encounter/naval battle since they still used the ship or B) wait for them to disembark and ambush them with the raiding parties (you can choose what you have prepared).

Disguise the choices in such a way that they feel they really had a choice. Give a narration on their travel. Add skill checks along the way dependent on the choice they made. Dont ever let them know that there is no escape from your devious plans!