Several people have brought up this topic recently in their own blogs- and oddly enough, it was a subject I had been giving a lot of thought to in the past few weeks. Must be a vibe flowing through the 'gamer wavelength' or something. In any case, I'm going to weigh in on this as well.
First of all, let me define the term as I see it:
Railroading is when a game-master has a plot-line for an adventure already thought out before playing. This plot-line is so narrow that the players simply have no choice but to do exactly what the GM intended or they 'fail'. Any attempt by the players to deviate from the GM's pre-determined course results in either 'lashback' (i.e. the GM punishes them for their tangent—perhaps even killing the entire group of characters) or redirection (no matter what the players do, they find their characters turned back onto the course of the adventure. In essence, then, Railroading is a case of the GM telling the players what happens to them, rather than allowing the character's actions determine how things play out.
Looking at the above, I think that most gamers would agree this is no fun. And evidently it is something that most gamers have encountered during their 'career'- at least to some degree (I know that I certainly have. I've even been guilty of inflicting it upon my players a couple times).
I think that my preference for 'story-based' adventures is pretty evident to anyone who has read my blog. I don't dislike sandbox-style play, I just prefer story. And yet in so many places I hear bloggers and forum posters lambasting 'story-based' adventures as ruining the hobby of gaming. In my opinion, this is just ridiculous. I would agree that story-based CAN lead to Railroading- but it is not the 'natural' result of all story-based gaming. Rather, it is the result of a GM who (through malice or laziness or even the best of intentions) ALLOWS his story to become a railroad. In short, railroading is what happens when a Story Adventure goes bad. And I would also say that it could be what happens when a SANDBOX game goes bad.
Sandbox style play is what the hobby of gaming began with- as early as 1974. In my personal experience, story-based play didn't really come into focus until the mid to late 80's (for me, it was with the release of the Star Wars RPG in 1987-88). And quite honestly, I wasn't entirely sure how it would work when I first started it. A lot of other GMs were probably in the same boat. Thus, there was a 'learning curve' on just what made a good story-based adventure. A learning curve typically means that mistakes will be made. And they were. I personally feel that this is where a lot of the bad reputation for Story-based adventures began. You have a new concept being tested and it doesn't always work out that great. But to say that these early failures just show that Story-based adventures are just plain 'wrong' is ludicrous.
I posted on this a LONG time ago, but I'm going to reiterate and expand upon it here. It is my belief that a Sandbox-Style dungeon and a story-based plotline— if both are done correctly- are actually very similar to each other. I would go on to say that neither are superior to the other from a purely functional viewpoint- and that neither are pre-disposed to be a railroad.
Let's start with your typical sandbox-style dungeon. On average, you'll have more than one entry point (with one being more obvious than the rest- a main entrance and several 'secret' ones or side passages). As far as the rooms of the dungeon go, you'll have several 'main encounter' areas. These would be large 'set piece' encounters with traps or puzzles or monsters to be overcome. You would also have a lot of smaller rooms, where lesser monsters can be found. But also, a fair number of these will be 'empty'- either to serve as a place of respite for the adventurers for a few moments or as a place to build tension- because you never know when a seemingly 'safe' empty room will hide a danger. In between all these rooms, you would have several main and lots of secondary corridors. Odds are these halls would allow the players to proceed along several different paths. Either by chance or choice, players could conceivably avoid any of the main encounter areas. And in some cases, these passages could serve as encounters in their own right- as dangers spring up in between rooms.
Now, on top of this dungeon would probably be layered some kind of overarching 'theme'. It could simply be a place where the adventurers are exploring in hopes of loot or it could be the lair of a band of goblins who raided their village. Likewise, there could be a particular villain (the goblin chief) who the adventurers want to eliminate. There could also be prisoners they have to rescue. There could be a particularly choice bit of treasure or magic item they want to find. Thus, besides of the physical exploration of the dungeon you have several set objectives. Depending on what course they take, the adventurers may succeed at none or all of these other objectives. Likewise, there could be elements in the adventure that require a particular maguffin in order to gain access to- say there is a magic portal that requires the group to find a particular 'key' to open. Again, there may be several ways to get through the portal, but the intent is to get the players to accomplish 'objective A' before they can get to 'objective B'.
Anyone who has played a D&D adventure- published or homebrew- would probably recognize a dungeon like this. A dungeon like this would NEVER be classified as a railroad simply because it is up to the players how to proceed from room to room- which dangers to bypass, which ones to take on, etc. Unless the GM grossly mishandled this adventure (forcing a player to take a particular route, for instance), then nobody would accuse it of being a 'railroad'.
Now lets take a look at a story-based adventure. You typically have several ways in which a party can get involved. They get hired to do a job. They are ordered by their 'bosses' or they just stumble upon something. Multiple entry points into the plot. Within the adventure, there are going to be several 'set-piece' encounters that the GM thought up. These could be clashes with the 'enemy' (whoever that may be), they could be traps or hazards the party has to overcome, etc. Sound familiar so far? Apart from these 'set pieces' would be smaller side encounters or events. Some would be relatively benign (i.e. empty rooms or tension builders), others would be minor obstacles. And in between all these encounters would be the different routes the players take- some of them packed with their own dangers (ambushes, traps, etc.). Sounds really familiar, huh?
Now, on top of the basic plot there is typically a framework- or theme. You're a group of agents out to stop a terrorist, for instance. You have to find the main terrorist leader. You may also need to find and neutralize his WMD. There may be prisoners to rescue. And just like the 'magic door' in the dungeon adventure, perhaps there is some plot point that will require you to get 'object A' before you can proceed to 'objective B': You need to capture an interrogate the terrorist's lieutenant before you can find the terrorist's lair. Or maybe you find another informant who knows the same information and is willing to part with it for some form of payment or deal.
I look at the above examples and see that sandbox and story are not so very different. And yet I hear SO many people talk about how story-adventures 'suck' and aren't 'real gaming'. That is just B.S.- and I feel that for some people it is motivated by trying to claim the 'old school gamer' title- like it is some badge of honor that sets them apart from or above other people. I don't think that all or even MOST gamers feel like this, but there are enough out there who seem to that it just ticks me off. Sandbox vs. Story is not a matter of right vs. wrong, it is a matter of preference and perhaps even just semantics. If done 'right' the two are just mirrors of each other.
I agree that railroading is bad, but I reject entirely that story-based = railroading. Hell, if I wanted to really turn the argument back on the dungeon I could say that /IT/ is the ultimate form of railroading. In most cases you have tunnels hewn through solid rock. You can only go down those routes the GM has given you- or else you have to burrow somehow through solid rock. Yes, I know that is a weak and illogical argument. But then so is the one against Story-based adventuring.
In any case, I think (hope) I've made my point- not that I think it will ultimately have any effect on the hard-core old-school 'elitists', but I just needed to get it off my chest.