How Much Railroading is Okay?

The concept of railroading - the GM forcing the characters down the track of a mostly predefined story - is very much a maligned concept in roleplaying games. Players want the freedom to choose what their characters do next. Sure, there are those players who expect to be more or less led by the nose, but even those players seem to want the illusion of choice.

I usually run very open-ended campaigns. I have a major villain or three who lurk in the shadows for a long period of time, influencing things from behind the scenes while the characters do pretty much whatever they want until they are powerful enough for their interests and the interests of the primary villain(s) to intersect. Then, based on what the heroes have done up to that point, I figure out why and how they will come into conflict.

In tomorrow's session, I'm planning to railroad a little. Things have been pretty open ended up to this point, and I intend to keep it that way. But there is a twist in the story that needs to happen ASAP in order for it to be meaningful and relevant, and I might have to push the players more than usual in order for it to make sense.

I'm not even sure it's "true" railroading since it's only one session worth of events, and they'll be free to once again do their own thing as soon as it is resolved. But I'm wondering if my players will see it that way. With the exception of one player whose background ties into the plot twist in a major way, none of them have any clue what might be about to happen. The plan is to spring it on them, see how they react, and then talk about it later if I need to... if I discuss too much ahead of time, it will ruin the climactic encounter. If I don't railroad a little, the climactic encounter might never happen. I'll be pondering this between now and this week's session, and I might not make the final call until we actually sit down at the table together. But until then, let me know what you think...

Is railroading ever okay? If so, how much?
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