I’ve been playing a lot of Play-by-Post RPGs. This includes one that is playing out in DMs on Twitter. Our DM for the game on Twitter often expressed the idea to me that he wanted to make sure we had choice, and we never felt like he was railroading us with a story he wanted to happen. This even brought itself to a head where an NPC within the game offered us a free pass to go anywhere we want to continue whatever story thread we wanted. The game started to slow down a little, as it had a couple of times in the past.
After some discussion outside the game I brought up the idea that the character I was playing, a half-orc bard named Shump, was a character that I tried to use to subvert the critical path of the game, or to try to go against what seems would be the reasonable route. He is, after all, a half-orc with a lute. I really wanted him to have to replace the lute often because of smashing it over his enemies heads.
When a character is one that subverts the proper path, how could they possibly act when there is no proper path anymore? The problem with the slowing down of the game was not because we felt we didn’t have enough options, but it felt like we didn’t have enough direction. I told the GM that the thing I noticed was when we had a railroad to follow, the action was awesome. We had goals, we had a path to the goal, and I had expectations to subvert.
This took the GM by surprise that I had actually used railroading as a positive method that I wish had been done more. This is also one of a few Play-by-Post style games this GM had run. He made a mistake that I think too many play-by-post games make. He wanted it to be a truly open-world game where we made the story as we went. I’ve seen this ambition for an open-world game far too often in the play-by-post scene and it often ends in the game bogging down after the intro sequence.
It always seems that when we offer our players the most options, they can have the most freedom to enjoy their character in the world, but this also presents problems with how the play-by-post format handles discussions that would normally happen in real-time at a table with the players. When players are posting only once or twice in a given day having a discussion with all the players about what path they are in agreement to take come to a screeching halt as the GM waits for a week or so for a clear cut decision in which to take the story. It can also become just a lot of time not posting for those characters less invested in any particular direction, and more just interested in finding some fights or interesting interactions in the game.
Now, if you think back to any open-world video game there are plenty of places to go and plenty of stuff to do to make your own fun. But one thing they all have is a well-defined critical path that you follow to finish up the story and know that there will be encounters spaced along the way. You can do what you want, but you never run into a point where suddenly you have no goal and can’t figure out what to do or where to go. This is where a railroad, when done properly, can be one of the greatest tools in the play-by-post GM’s bag.
The way this often looks for the players is in a few more defined choices or situations, but a more free-form way to handle it. As an example I had a group of players tasked to assault an enemy stronghold. I thought up two options to offer through an NPC of ambushing a caravan on its way to the stronghold, or venturing through treacherous mountains to come at it from behind where they would be likely unseen.
It seems like that would be pretty railroading. I only gave them two options to go to a place that I wanted them to go, however they are entirely free to suggest other options, and would have also been entirely free to choose their own way. However the thing I didn’t want to say to them was “Here is the fort, how do you want to assault it?”. If I phrase it so openly they get the same objective I was giving them before, but had no ideas on anything that would possibly even help them to do this. The added bonus was, to avoid a lengthy and prolonged discussion to even proceed what options could possibly even have existed, I gave them two examples that they could take, or turn into their own ideas.
This technique is, in essence, railroading by only offering the players two paths, but the paths are only to show the options that could even be within a realm of possibility to help cut down on discussion time, as well as giving them what the next step in the critical path should be. The players, at the drop of a hat, could have easily just said, “No, we walk into the woods and look for orcs to fight”, and that would have been the direction we went, but all players eagerly jumped into discussing the caravan and how the NPC would suggest trying to attack it.
The way I like to look at a railroad in RPGs is a set of tracks that lead to the next big plot point. You should always allow your players to circumvent that if they feel strongly they have a better path to a goal, but to simply give them the goal and then absolutely no path or direction to accomplish it can quickly lead to the death of a play-by-post game where players just want to play an RPG and engage with their character that they’ve spent time creating. I think you’ll find players more willing to engage and jump into the story if there is always some form of goal and direction in mind. They then have the autonomy to accept or reject that. In a game where multiple people are posting over the span of a week their response to a GM prompt, this can also keep the game from quickly stagnating.