That second track leads to the walled city-state of S’an d’Bauks, but I’m not sure Fighter will be any happier there. Lemme explain.

Game designer and DM to the stars Chris Perkins once described railroading as a style of GMing that “denies [players] any opportunity to affect change through their actions or decisions.”  Contrast this to sandbox design, which Technopedia defines as, “A style of game in which minimal character limitations are placed on the gamer, allowing the gamer to roam and change a virtual world at will.” It’s easy to picture these styles as a continuum, with the complete freedom of players at one extreme and the absence of freedom at the other. It’s also easy to imagine the sandbox as “good thing” and the railroad as “bad thing.” Poppycock, say I! An individual player might prefer more or less structure in a game, but I believe every game needs a little bit of both.

If you’ve ever endured a GM “reading his novel at you,” then you already know that pure railroading can be less than fun. My group mocked me mercilessly for designing a combat where a couple of drone robots literally picked up the party and moved them from set piece A to set piece B.

“They’re programmed to follow this path,” I explained.

“Can we jump off?”

“Ummm…no. The robots are moving too fast.”

“That’s fair,” they replied. “Can I blow the whistle then?”

“Can I shovel the coal?”

“Chugga-chugga!” they chorused. And I could only hang my head in shame, for I knew I deserved their derision.

But I remember a high school game too. It was DragonBall Z: The Anime Adventure Game of all friggin’ things. We made ridiculous characters, spent an afternoon pummeling each other on Kami’s Lookout, and then sat there wondering what to do next. We were so sure that an alien menace or a magical pink marshmallow monster were about to come and wreck our day. You know, the same way the plot always unfolds in the show. But when we turned to the GM to find out what happened next, he happily explained that, “You can do anything you want!”

In retrospect, I suppose we could have taken over the world or blown up the moon, but somehow it felt empty. We desperately wanted a push in the right direction, and without that first shove we could only wallow in our collective lack of initiative. The game ended after one session, and our Z Fighters were consigned to the back flap of history’s trapper keeper.

Here’s my point. As a GM, it’s your job to give players meaningful choices. However, it’s also your job to provide them with interesting situations. That’s not a continuum, kids. It’s a loop. And it’s awfully tough to hula-hoop with only half a circle.