Free-Roaming, Railroading, And The Path Between
April 20, 2013

Free-Roaming, Railroading, And The Path Between

Ask most table-top gamers and they will tell you that there are two distinct game styles that gamemasters share. There are free-roaming storytellers, meaning that they give the reins of the story over to their players, letting them go wherever they wish in the imaginary world and do whatever they like, letting the story take shape around the character’s actions. Then, there are gamemasters who railroad their players, walking them through a set, preplanned adventure in which their characters move from plot point to plot point with little to no deviation. For the most part, players tend to prefer the free-roaming style of game play, as it allows them more control over what happens to their characters. As a gamemaster, and a so called “veteran” gamer (something a friend of mine called me), however, I have seen the advantages and disadvantages to both.

In a free-roaming game, the players don’t feel shackled too the gamemaster’s plot, whatever it may be. This allows them to do whatever they like, giving them a great deal more freedom; but that freedom can sometimes come at the expense of narrative. This can be fine for some games and some gamers, but I like my stories to have a plot. I’m old fashioned that way, I guess. Purely free-roaming games tend to be numerous small encounters and stories that have little to no connection with one another. This is not always the case, to be sure, but it is much harder to generate a connecting story when the players are more content to simply wonder about.

That isn’t to say that railroaded stories are any better. In these, players often feel led by the hand (or by a collar) as the gamemaster weaves his epic tale around them, engaging in the story only to ask specific questions to specific non-player characters, fight through planned encounters, and thwart the villain just as it was “destined” they would. There can be a real feeling of disconnection between the player and their character when they are basically just going through the paces of a dance as the gamemaster leads. True, railroaded games often have a more concise story, but this can come at the expense of the players fun. I have heard it said that “If a gamemaster wants to have this much control over his story, then he should just write a book, not run a game.”

Now, obviously, I have been very extreme in my examples of both. This has been the point. In my experience, the best games combine elements of both free-roaming and railroading game play. Rather than controlling what the characters do, I let the players decide that. Then I incorporate a hook to draw them into the story, but then let them engage in it however they wish. If they need information, then I decide who has that info and who can tell them how to get it; then I let them go about looking for it however they want. This can lead to drawn out segments of “leg-work,” but these segments are in the player’s control as much as they are in mine. Social interaction with the game world is like a puzzle, and I let my players figure it out at their own pace. Letting them have that gives them a feeling of importance to the story, as they must figure out things on their own. This can leave them frustrated, but more often it makes players feel clever when they solve my puzzles.

There is no right way to run a game. The trick to it is figuring out what works best for you and your players and just going with that. Have fun. These are games, after all.

Image Credit: DVARG / Shutterstock

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