The other threads about railroading inspired me to do a little write-up on my own theory of how to play railroading games. I didn't want to just go and hijack Sandra's thread, so here we are.
I've been thinking about how to execute traditional railroad gaming effectively since say 2006 or so. I've a couple of friends here in Finland with whom we occasionally play various traditional games with leanings towards railroads, trying out different things. My theoretical background on this is Forgite, so I'm pretty much trying to figure out how to do "effective participationist simulationism".
The sort of railroad gaming that I'm discussing here applies equally to atmospheric horror games like Call of Cthulhu as well as fantasy adventure games like Dragonlance. I've been running a participationist wuxia drama game this winter myself, informed by our findings. The defining technical feature of "railroading" for my purposes is that the game includes significant amounts of pre-prepped content, arranged into a plot framework, to be delivered by the GM to the other players during play itself.
Most of the following points are probably familiar to old hands from here and there; I'm just doing a quick article to put them all into one place, to form the big picture on railroading.
The creative payoff of railroading
Looking at that definition, I think it's pretty obvious that we are talking about a form of storytelling as much as a form of game. For railroading to make any sense to an experienced roleplayer, the GM must be able to deliver a better storytelling experience with prep than he could off-the-cuff. If the prep does nothing, you're better off with some other type of game structure altogether. It's just wasted work if it doesn't enable you to deliver better.
This is why I interpret railroading as a fundamentally Simulationist activity, in GNS terms: there is only ever a reason to railroad if your assumption is that the players want to enjoy delivered content for its own sake.
Considering your creative strategy, it's good to notice that even if your creative goals are simulationistic, railroading does not directly follow; it's just one possible strategy for delivering a powerful sense of the fictional moment. There are other ways to go about that, too.
Distribution of tasks in railroad play
Your usual dialogue on how railroading works concerns itself heavily with players who don't want to be railroaded. So let's just put that aside and assume that the players don't have any hang-ups with the basic premise of playing characters stuck in a plot not of their own design. What, then, is the role of the railroaded player in a railroaded game?
My central realization in this regard is that treating railroading as a problem and a bad habit to be divested, while justifiable for historical reasons, does tend to obscure the reality of the types of interaction that railroaded games favour. Specifically, we tend to focus on the worst of it, assuming that a fixed plot specifically means that the players have nothing of significance to do in the game - they're just there to listen to the GM's story.
However, after thinking about it for a bit, I came to conclude that there are several important artistic contributions that are clearly possible for character players in a railroaded game's framework. These are, I imagine, what actually successful railroad games focus on:
* The character players have control of the pace of play: you can choose whether to skim a given scene/topic, or to stop and delve deeper. Just declare your intent to move on, or your intent to stay, and the GM will adapt.
* The character players have control of the focus of play at any given time: by asking direct questions and paying active attention to certain facets of the on-going play situation, you can direct the GM to change their delivery.
* The character players have control of their own acting, insofar as the expressive actions and reactions of their own characters go. This is explicitly not control over the events in a true railroad game, but rather control over the Color of how those events come to pass.
You know what is the perfect simile for this kind of roleplaying game? Old-fashioned point-and-click computer adventure games like Monkey Island and such deliver a very, very similar artistic experience: some light (or not so light) hoop-jumping to prove that you're paying attention, pretty audiovisuals and plot directly delivered to you, an opportunity to explore dialogue trees and scenery, and an unique first-person perspective on the narrative: unlike a movie or a novel, which do not allow you any control over the aforementioned aspects of the narrative, both adventure video games and railroaded roleplaying games allow you to pro-actively choose where your character looks and are we ready to move on to the next scene. These may seem mean details for a different type of roleplaying game, but compare to other narrative artforms, and you may start to see the significance.
A side-note about princess play and doll-housing
There's been some talk over the years about different creative forms of roleplaying. Forms that I like to call "princess play" and "doll-house play" have occasionally been discussed on this forum as well.
I'll just note here, for the theory-heads, that while both of those are specifically simulationistic activities, and they're both compatible with railroading, the three concepts are technically independent of each other - not all railroad play is necessarily princess play as well, and vice versa. Call of Cthulhu is usually not a princessing game, for example, while Pathfinder very much is, yet both are clearly railroad games in their default execution.