I lightly touched upon this in my previous piece “How the World Acts”, but the influence players have is an extremely important part of a campaign. The entire tone of the game can be influenced and created based on the amount of freedom players have. For the rest of this piece, I will talk about the concept of freedom and how it applies to creating adventures.
Railroading and Bounded Freedom
An important part of being a Dungeon Master is not to railroad your players. However, depending on the kind of game, there will be certain things that cannot be achieved no matter how high you roll on the D20. If your players are expecting a down to earth, realistic-ish game (yeah, yeah, magic isn't real but it still follows internal rules), a natural 20 shouldn't let your character jump to the moon. Part of running a game is defining this boundary in a consistent way. There are even games I have played in where there is nothing off the table and while it was fun, it created a tone that was comical. For this reason, bounded freedom is an important element in creating the overall tone of a session.
The idea of limited freedom isn't the same as railroading, and I want to make that very clear. In normal day to day life, you are limited by the rules of the world but at the same time you have freedom to live within those rules. I like to think of a game to be the exact same. The issue is when your players don't like the rules and boundaries you have set up as the Dungeon Master or when you restrict their choices because of a grand plan. It is easy to accidentally railroad players, especially when lacking experience as a Dungeon Master, so keeping these ideas in mind is important.
Finding the Right Balance
Trial, error, and knowing your group. That basic approach to just about every element of a good session is also needed here. There is such a thing as too much player freedom. When is this the case? That depends on your players. The nature of role-playing games is that player actions should have effects and be acted on (actions have consequences). Certain reactions may limit player choices but that makes sense from a narrative perspective (consequences can limit freedom). Depending on the kind of game, though, the difficulty to accomplish a task will be different. For example, how difficult should it be to cut a rope from 300 feet away using a single arrow from a longbow? Well, depending on the kind of game you are playing, the answer could be from easy (though this is probably unlikely), to hard (more likely), to nearly impossible (the more realistic games would probably say this). If the difficulty is off to either direction, players won't be happy.
“Design the problem and the rules for the world but don't worry about the best solution.”
From my humble experience, the line from bounded freedom to railroading is crossed when the game master has a storyline in mind for the entire game. What this article boils down to is that quote at the start of this section. If the Dungeon Master defines the rules and consequences for actions, the players can solve that problem or confront that situation in any way they wish within the framework the Dungeon Master has set up. If the Dungeon Master has defined the entire story with every scene having a solution he has placed there, we tend to end up having railroading. This isn't to say the Dungeon Master can't give help through items and non-player characters, but the players should be free to use that help as they see fit as long as it fits into the framework built.