The Railroad You Know
Seven years ago I was playing in a campaign run by the World' Greatest Liar. He claimed that the campaign would have a rich and evocative world attached to it; that our characters would develop a beautiful backstory and that this campaign, this campaign would change our perceptions of how Dungeons and Dragons is played and would give us a glimpse of the game's true potential.
I was intrigued so along with Poot, Biggboy, and Kid Icarus we decided to join him for the night and see where this thing was going. We were given characters and told that we could not rename them, change their equipment, classes, or even their eye color. I started to leave but Poot talked me into staying for a few more minutes.
The story began with a terrible dragon attacking the Good Kingdom. We were called before the king and our scripted conversations were recited by the World's Greatest Liar for us - how thoughtful of him. We then, apparently, agreed to leave the city immediately and travel across the Wastes to the home of the terrible dragon. It was at that point that we were allowed to act for ourselves which was signified by the World's Greatest Liar giving us three options for us to take. Go left, go right, or straight ahead. Our guide, we were told, was the good paladin Theobald and he could go no further.
"Great," said I as I signaled Poot that the good paladin Theobald had to fucking die, "I would like to speak with Theobald."
"Certainly," said the World' Greatest Liar, "Theobald asks you what you need."
"Nothing but his attention." Poot attacked the paladin with a natural twenty while Biggboy dropped the horse.
"Why would you do that! You can't do that!"
"We just did," Poot told him. "and I rolled maximum damage."
Not surprisingly the dragon killed us all on the spot.
I don't mind the idea that a game I'm playing in has a storyline or an overall story arc, in fact I love when a campaign has a theme or underlying direction; but when that comes at the price of my free will I get volatile. I hate the idea that my character has a limited number of options based not on circumstance but on my Dungeon Master's unwillingness to allow for me to think my way out of a situation.
Unlike the World's Greatest Liar I have always viewed my job as Dungeon Master not as a narrator telling a well orchestrated story but as a referee who presents options to my players and lets them tell the story.
In my current campaign I have taken this further than ever before. I began with a simple one paragraph explanation of the immediate world around the city of Dyvers and then briefly expanded on that paragraph during the first five minutes of the campaign. After that the players were left to their own devices. I provide them opportunities for adventure in every direction they look and no matter where they choose to go, it is my job to give them something there. If they want to work in a bar as waitresses, cook, and entertainment then I let them do just that. But I have to make it fun. So I look for ways that such situations start going off the rails. Mobsters, wild magic, tantalizing tales - those are my tools - but no matter what it all comes down to them and to their decisions.
Anything less is asking to get burned.