When I was a new GM, I had a reputation for running very linear campaigns. I didn’t have enough experience with the rules or with storytelling to handle more than slight changes to a storyline; if presented with a scenario that I hadn’t planned for, I defaulted to saying it wouldn’t work and pressing my players to move on, punishing them in-game if they didn’t acquiesce. It wasn’t until years later, after I had gained a lot of experience and perspective, that I realized that I was railroading my players in those days.
Railroading, to explain to the uninitiated, refers to stories where no deviation from the written story is allowed: the PCs are stuck on a narrative train and they can’t backtrack or get off until the train reaches its destination and the campaign ends. Usually this is enforced by a Macguffin, a plot device that commonly serves no purpose other than to keep the story moving along. The two can be seen separately, but in my experience a lot of new GM’s fall into the rut of using them in conjunction to force a story along where it otherwise would, and should, fall apart. Chances are that you as a player have experienced one or both of these already, and if you haven’t then you will at some point in the future.
Railroading can ruin the players’ fun, because part of the immersion in a campaign is being able to explore and find creative solutions to problems. If the GM doesn’t let his or her players stretch their creative legs, then they eventually lose interest; if they have to follow a rigid storyline and adventure progression, why would they be playing a pen and paper game instead of a videogame? Similarly, the poor use of a Macguffin robs the players of any investment in the game. If players are only chasing after the villain and rescuing the kidnapped children because the GM told them they have to, what incentive is there to find personal reasons for their characters to want to be doing what they’re doing? Where is the incentive to interact with the world and establish a unique personality and set of motivations for the character?
These aren’t necessarily bad things overall, though. Do you have a group gets too wrapped up in side jobs and needs a reason to get back on track? Bring in the Macguffin! Does your group only have a short time to play each session and you want to make sure you accomplish something in that time? Hop on the tracks and start rolling along. Using them isn’t a bad thing, as they are merely tools. Overuse and forcing them on your players is what causes problems.
In hindsight, I can see why and how so many of my campaigns back then never lasted more than a few sessions before they were scrapped for another idea. I sabotaged myself by punishing my players with cursed items and yet relying on physical Macguffins to advance a story. You can see where this would lead: If a GM has a penchant for inflicting cursed items on his party and they’re supposed to use a magic sword to later defeat the epic monster at the end of the campaign, who is going to trust that the sword is what it looks like, or that it won’t turn out to be cursed later on? Those campaigns were doomed from the start.
I’ve learned from my mistakes, as most GMs eventually do. I’ve learned to stop and look up unfamiliar rules if they come up, or house-rule it for the moment and research it for next time if time is pressing. I’ve learned to reward my players for creativity when they come up with solutions to a problem I hadn’t thought of; maybe they’re harder to pull off, but then the reward is higher. I’ve learned that giving the players a reason to want to follow the story works better and is more rewarding than herding them down a path because that’s what the story needs.
But most of all, I’ve learned that, at the end of the day, it’s just a game. As long as everyone involved has fun, there shouldn’t be anything else to consider.