Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!
In one of the gaming podcasts I listened to, the hosts (there were several of them) unanimously declared that railroading in RPGs is flat-out horrible. No exceptions! (Railroading, for those of you who are unaware of the term, means that you are shoehorned into a particular path.) Do I agree with that assessment? As someone who's been on both sides of the table (as a player and as a GM), my honest answer is that it depends on the situation. The important question for me isn't whether players have freedom or not but whether they're having fun or not. Allow me to elaborate. (I'd like to make a disclaimer that this applies to tabletop RPGs in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons rather than the more story-oriented RPGs where players might take turns acting as GMs.)
For me, there are three kinds of "railroads" so to speak. The firsts and most obvious one is the linear railroad: there is only one path, you cannot veer off that course (well, you can, except it's game over). One example of this is the haunted house session: you have players and the plot revolves around them entering the haunted house. As the GM, you will make sure players will enter the haunted house and this might take the form of the weather (typically a storm), geography (there's no other shelter in sight), or some supernatural element (in Ravenloft, this could be the Mists). Nothing the players do will prevent them from not entering the haunted house except perhaps death. The second railroad is what I'd like to call the illusion of freedom. Using the same haunted house premise, you still have a haunted house except it's located in a ghost town. The players have a choice where they want to stay for the night, whether it's the tavern, a ruined keep, or a simple house. The catch is that no matter what option the players pick, that will be where the haunting takes place. The third is absolute freedom. You might have a ghost town and there's a different scenario in each building. The tavern might lead to an underground cult of deranged cultists, the ruined keep a fortress housing an ancient demon, and the simple house simply being a modest haven.
Back to the question on whether to railroad or not to railroad, there are several factors to take into consideration. For me, when I play RPGs, it's not necessarily to tell a good story (I have my writing for that) but rather to simply play a game that I'll enjoy. I can very much imagine playing a linear railroad adventure or an illusion of freedom adventure and still enjoy the game. I mean when I'm playing a game module, a published adventure, or a tournament, I am making an assumption that most likely it's going to be a railroad of some sort. As a player, I've accepted that fact and I go with the flow of my GM. That's not to say the game can't take a life of its own--a GM running a published adventure might skip some inappropriate encounters or add new ones, but if I'm say, participating in a tournament, I think it's honestly too much to ask if I went north when the adventure is clearly hinting for us to go south. And don't misunderstand me, there will be situations when the GM has to improvise or simply go with what the party is intending but that's not always possible, especially if the GM intends to be faithful to the game module or published adventure. An important element I think is to set expectations so that players can go along with their GM's intent and vice versa.
Theoretically, the ideal situation for players is to have an absolute freedom scenario. Now if you're that kind of GM who's used to running such games, good for you. However, some GMs need lots of prep time and "preparing" for the absolute freedom scenario simply takes too much time. Worse, all that planning might be redundant. For example, if you prepared ten options for the players, it's very much possible that by choosing one option, the players lose out on the other nine options (i.e. in a modern campaign, it might be a question of which country to invade/scout/rescue first when the aliens are currently launching an invasion). The GM's preparation for the nine other possible outcomes is wasted unless he or she plans to run them for another gaming group.
Here's one factor that governs the world. Sometimes, it's not about what's true but rather how people perceive it. And when it comes to games, it boils down to execution. For example, as far as players are concerned, I don't see any real difference between the illusion of freedom and absolute freedom game. Players believe that they've made a choice and there are repercussions for their choices. They don't have to know that this is what you really planned for them (or didn't plan for them as the case may be). It only becomes a factor on how you narrate your choice. For example, in the ghost town scenario, you can run either the illusion of freedom (the haunted house scene) or the absolute freedom scene (different events depending on which building they enter). I am operating under the assumption here that either scene takes up the entire game session. Whether the players receive the haunted house scene or something else is entirely irrelevant because they're operating under the assumption that the building they entered determined the outcome of their adventure. It becomes noticeable that you were railroading them only if you had a definite floor plan to the adventure, such as tavern having a labyrinth the size of a mansion, or a mansion simply having just two rooms. This is I think where GM improvisation comes in. If the original site of the adventure was this huge keep and your players ended up staying the night in the tavern, you can't transform the tavern into a castle but the tavern might have an underground passage that leads to such an adventure locale. On the other hand, you might have this really elaborate flowchart accounting for each encounter yet if poorly executed, might give the appearance of a railroad even if it really was an absolute freedom campaign. For example, you planned that goblins were staying in the tavern, orcs in the simple houses, and troglodytes in the keep. If players simply wandered in each of those locations and don't investigate (or you don't leave substantial clues as to why those creatures are there), it might seem to the players that you're simply throwing random encounters--even if in fact you had planned for freedom of choice on their part. So at the end of the day, it boils down to perception, unless you're the type of GM that shows to his or her players your notes after each session.
I think what's important to remember is that "freedom" isn't about having unlimited potential. At the end of the day, everyone simply has one decision to act upon. Of course there will be exceptions but for most people's games, they will only be going through an adventure once. One last example I have is the original I6: Ravenloft adventure module. What set it apart for its time was that it had a random method of generating the plot points: who was the real villain, what the villain's motivations were, and how to stop the villain. That random element however is honestly meaningless unless a) you've played the adventure more than once or b) you're someone who's read the adventure before. I6: Ravenloft's strengths I think is aside from the solid adventure that it is, is the fact that it has replayability. You could run or play the game three times and get entirely different results. But again, most gamers, or at least your own gaming group, isn't going to run into that scenario often. Most RPGs are designed to be played once after all and so players don't necessarily need all these choices. Now I'm not advocating that you use the railroad method to your games. What I'm saying is, sometimes, you must ask yourself: is this planning all worth the effort? Or better yet, are my players enjoying this?