Our characters in the JAGS Have-Not game graduated from the academy, leaving it, in PC-fashion, a smoking ruin. We reported to the capital city in our new capacity as recently graduated Political Officers.
The GM presented us with these two documents.
I suggest clicking to take a look. They are, to my mind, an example of what Grade-A hand-outs to the PCs would look like. Furthermore, there is a lot of meaning embedded in them (we ran into someone with one of the guns in the Gift Catalog--which is essentially a treasure list and I was able to look them up).
Staff Officer's Handbook
Imperial Gift Catalog
This also shows what someone who is a professional with presentation software can do if they put their mind to it.
What These Are: Creating Player Agency
I closed this post too fast. Let me talk for a minute about what these are for. They're not just to wow us with the GM's PowerPoint skills. The goal of the GM here--and I am mind reading--but I am pretty sure I know--is to give us players a set of "hooks" or "levers" to use to take meaningful action on the world. In the game we are no longer being driven by missions where we are "sent into dungeons to get treasure and go up levels." We are now playing on a socially important playing field with a 'sand-box' style map and world.
To be sure we will still get missions (in fact there is a wheel of missions in one of the documents) and forces will act on us. There are NPCs waiting in the wings who are potential friends, enemies, and possible patrons. There will be a lot of forces at play.
However, these documents provide us with the information necessary to give us clues as to what avenues of action will be interesting and fruitful. This isn't to say we couldn't choose our own--but this sort of context is hugely important in giving us agency that fits into the world and each other's visions.
A Note On Railroading
I have seen people's "threshold" for "what constitutes railroading" vary from extremely sensitive (if the PCs have any forces acting on them it's GM-pressure and therefore railroaded) to the far more general ("It's railroading if the GM has a specific plot and absolutely forces it on the players"). I come down a bit in the middle with the note that "I know railroading when I feel it." I think that's the real condition that's important: if all the cards are on the table and it didn't bother me (or anyone else in the game) then it's not dysfunctional (assuming I don't like having my player-agency stripped--and I don't).
I also think that a good deal of the more finicky definitions are agenda driven (there was a lot of this in the Indie-game scene a few years ago).
That said, if the GM is going to provide a "sandbox" style environment where the PCs get to achieve their own goals is it railroading to give them a menu of goals as the document does? I don't think so--it's true that if the PCs decided it was their life's mission to "climb the highest mountain" and that's not on the list ... and our roles as officers of a dystopian post-bizarro-world-apocalypse would likely preclude going AWOL to climb a mountain, therefore bringing some consequences down on us if we insisted ...that the document would not support that nor would the current structure of the game*.
However, I submit that if the PCs, for no in-game reason, decided to do something totally outside the context of anything we were told when the game begin (that we were at the academy training to be military officers) then there would be some meta-level dysfunction that the wishes of the Players does not trump. In other words, while I wouldn't know exactly what's going on in that hypothetical, the fact that the PCs want to do something weird would, to me, indicate a breakdown where the Players might well be at fault (i.e. in passive-aggressive resistance to the GM's reasonable effort to entertain them and without making necessary efforts to communicate and resolve whatever problem is prompting the resistance).