When confronted with a situation where they are losing control of the plot, the most common GM tactic is to bully, cajole, or trick the players into following the preordained course that has been laid out for them. These methods are collectively known as Railroading.
Railroading is to the tabletop RPG what the Rail-shooter is to video games. The players are essentially on a track that leads inexorably along the path the GM has devised. All wrong paths are blocked, all wrong actions are punished, all wrong objectives are impossible to achieve. Only actions which advance towards the destination the GM has predetermined can possibly succeed.
By far, the worst campaign I was ever involved in fell apart because of this sort of railroading. After several near riots—and a nearly successful hijacking of the plot—the game ended with the players sitting there for an hour while the GM simply gave a monologue explaining the climactic final battle. We were not even permitted the illusion of participating by being allowed to roll dice.
That is, however, a particularly egregious example. You rarely run into railroading quite that severe. Rather, railroading is often a subtle and insidious problem, committed in small doses by a GM with the best of intentions and accepted by players who don’t want to fight over minor details. As a game master it can be tempting to simply kill every player idea which strays away from the path you had intended. While on a certain level it’s alright to “dead-end” ideas that are completely off the mark, in the long run it’s better to adapt the story around what the players are trying to do.
Years ago, I ran a D&D game in which the party was negotiating to gain access to a nobleman’s private library. Soon after arriving in the city where the nobleman lived, they were visited by a messenger—a gnome, as I recall—who gave them a letter from the nobleman asking them to meet him at a specific time. For reasons that have never been clear to me, the players decided that the gnome was suspicious and decided to follow him.
In my mind, the gnome was a nobody. He didn’t even have a name. I didn’t have anything planned for him, so I tried to kill this plot divergence. I had the gnome perform some incredibly mundane actions, hoping the players would get bored and move on. Instead, they followed him across the entire length of the city, until he finally went home.
Now, at this point nobody had really done anything wrong; either myself or the players. Perhaps they should have given up a little sooner, but for whatever reason, they were interested. So once the gnome went into his home, the party decided—again, I have no idea why—that they would break into his home, take him captive, and search the building.
At this point, I had two good options. The first would have been to simply pause the game for a moment and tell the players flat out, “Hey guys, this guy is really honestly a nobody. Maybe you should move on to something else.”
Not the best option, but sometimes you have to give in to the nature of the game as a game and do whatever is going to get things moving again, regardless of how you rationalize it in- character.
Option number two would have been for me to make up something interesting for this guy to be. It wouldn’t have had to be terribly complex, but I should have at least give them some kind of reward for pursuing the guy. This was potentially the best option, assuming I could have come up with something good on the spot.
Option three—which was, sadly, the direction I went—was to try to shut the players down however I could. Note that I said there were two good options, because this was where the railroading really starts. I basically turned this guy’s house into a fortress. I stated that the door was locked and un-pickable and all of the windows had bars. After several unsuccessful attempts to break their way in, the players attempted to scale the building in order to get access from the roof. So I inform them the walls were flat surfaces, too slick for them to climb. They pulled out a rope and grappling hook, so the gnome responded by cutting their rope from a second story window and overturning a chamber-pot on their heads.
By this point the “mysterious gnome” sub-plot had been going on for over an hour, and the game had devolved into a narrative shoving match between the players trying to get into this random nobody’s house and me trying to come up with reasons they can’t. Having reached this point, everyone was way too frustrated with each other to continue, and we had no other choice than to completely stop the game for the night and come back to it fresh the next week.
Now, while not every instance of railroading is quite so…mundane, there is a common thought process on the part of the GM: an idea that there is a “right” thing and a “wrong” thing for the players to be doing, and if they don’t do what you were expecting then they are wrong, and that wrongness needs to be corrected, by force if necessary.