We all know we aren't supposed to railroad players. If we wanted to have full control, we can just write a book. However, written into the game are restrictions for players and some arguably even for Dungeon Masters. The extent of the control the Dungeon Master should have over events as well as the degree of influence players should have is an interesting topic and I hope to share some of my thoughts on it. I won't be able to fit everything I want in here but I feel like I should start somewhere.
Rules Are Restrictions
Games like D&D allow a lot of freedom for players to try things, particularly when compared to things such as video games, but the presence of rules still imposes some restrictions. If we wanted to tell a collective story, we could do good old fashioned collaborative story telling. The issue is that, again, we end up basically writing a book together. Role-playing happens in one direction. We don't want to need to come back and revise an event. We want to keep the story going forward. The result is that we start to develop a resolution mechanic. The player needs to know how it's handled so they can develop their characters within that framework to be what they want. It also adds some structure to what we are doing and makes it less about just making things up as we go along.
Of course, we do make things up as we go along as Dungeon Masters. We still need to come up with a world, characters, and enemies. However, we are also armed with a resolution mechanism that takes some control out of our hands and into the hands of the players. It gives the game some transparency and lets the player understand how things work so that they can act accordingly. It also adds some unpredictability to the outcomes of actions (without it, we'd just be deciding things as the Dungeon Master). By removing some possibilities and shifting likeliness, we have something more interesting. Players work within their restrictions to solve problems and can think of intriguing ways to use their restrictions in interesting ways.
What's Wrong With Restrictions?
Too much restriction is a bad thing as well. Just like being able to do absolutely anything in a game at any time for any reason is boring, it's also boring to be able to do absolutely nothing. Some people are naturally good storytellers and listening to them speak or their audio book is great. I can't remember ever hearing someone complain that their audio book was too railroady. However, tabletop role-playing games are more than that. We come into them with the expectation of interactivity and creating a story together. It's a different experience. We want meaningful choices on both sides of the screen. Even interpreting and running a pre-written adventure is a creative task and requires decisions on the part of the Dungeon Master.
Reason For Railroading?
The main cause for railroading I've seen is that the Dungeon Master wants a particular and specific story event to occur. It's more than just coming across a particular situation. Putting your players into a situation is perfectly fine. The problem is when the solution to that situation is already thought up and you refuse to consider any other, even when they should make sense. Say you want your players to be captured. Fine. It might even make sense. If they just killed someone high ranking, it would make sense someone might be after them. However, if they think of a clever way to escape and roll appropriately, they won't be captured. You can force them onto the railroad and capture them anyway, but in that case it feels cheap. There isn't much of a choice in cases where you want to railroad because even if they think of something, or beat the odds and win a straight up encounter, you'll still go back and try to force them onto the path. Railroading often leads to more railroading.
Players eventually ending up at a particular spot is fine. However, they still need to choose their path to where they are going. The extent and specifics of this is hard to discuss since it depends on a number of things including the players themselves, the stories being told, and the Dungeon Master themselves.
How Much Restriction?
This is a hard thing to talk about. Rules are restrictions and the way we interpret and actually use them are important. Do you let a player succeed based on the pure logic or points of their argument that they role-played, their character's charisma and persuasion score combined with a roll, or a bit of both? Does it depend on the situation? What situations fall under what rules? All of these put restrictions on what player characters can do.
If you are playing a comedic game, your player's arrow might very well be able to hit the moon on a natural 20. In this case, the tone of the game will play a part into the restrictions. Some players also like some degree of restriction. There is nothing wrong with a good dungeon delve. Having your players being part of a guild that chooses from some number of missions and does it is more restrictive than a sandbox world where your players are looking for tombs in the desert. However, the guild scenario still allows your players to choose how they approach the mission they decide on. Some might hate this restriction. Some might like not spending half an hour arguing with each-other over which direction they should look for the tomb next. Regardless, both need to have meaningful choices and your players should be comfortable with it. Of course, the exact definition of meaningful varies from person to person. Sometimes you need to adjust on the fly as well. Don't feel like you need to be locked in.