D&D 5th Edition Judgement calls vs "railroading"
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  1. #1
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    Judgement calls vs "railroading"

    Some posts, threads etc have triggered this question in my mind:

    How do GM "judgement calls" relate (if at all) to railroading?

    In the context of 5e, GM "judgement calls" can also fall into the domain of "rulings not rules."

    By railroading I mean the GM shaping outcomes to fit a pre-conceived narrative. (This is broader than some people use it, I know. If the players get to choose for their PCs, but what they choose won't change the downstream storyline, I am counting that as a railroad.)

    My feeling is that the answer is a complex one.

    In a FRPG session I ran yesterday, the action was in a bedroom in a mage's tower, where a wizard had been lying unconsciousness on a divan recovering from a terrible wound, but then was rather brutally decapitated by an assassin. One of the players, whose PC ran into the room just as the decapitation took place, asked whether there was a vessel in the room in which the PC could catch the decapitated mage's blood.*

    I resolved this by setting a DC for a Perception check - and because, as the player argued with some plausibility, it was likely that a room for convalescing in would have a chamber pot, jug/ewer, etc - I set the DC fairly low. The player succeeded, and the PC was able to grab the vessel and catch the blood as desired.

    Setting the DC is a judgement call. Depending whether it is set high or low, the action is likely to unfold one way or another - so setting the DC definitely matters to what is likely to emerge as downstream story.

    But I don't see it as railroading. The issue of whether or not the blood might be caught in a vessel had not even occurred to me until the player raised it. And there was no preconception, on my part, of any ultimate destination for the action.

    On the other hand, had I decided simply that the room contains no vessel, because I had already decided that I didn't want the storyline to include shenanigans with a blood-filled chamber pot, I think that would count not only as a judgement call, but as one that has a railroading effect.

    I'm guessing, though, that there are other posters who would see one or both cases differently from me!


    * If you want to know why, the answer is in this thread.
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  2. #2
    The disconnect for me is 'By railroading I mean the GM shaping outcomes to fit a pre-conceived narrative.'

    Our lot doesn't really plan narratives in a linear manner, a path if you will that is to be followed. The system is set, the key agents put into play and the characters are free to pick or set a goal as they choose. As such, DM Judgment calls are simply part of play, arbitrating the events on the behalf of the world around the players with DCs being set according to what amounts to logic in a fantasy world.

    But yes, I can see how that if a DM has a specific route or path they wish players to follow, described as a narrative, then such calls can and will influence the path of play -the order and manner in which players engage with and are involved with the events pre-planned by the DM.

    The degree of influence simply depends on the nature of the narrative. A linear step-by-step narrative will be greatly effected by any deviation from the planned path and as a result, it seems to me a DM is less likely to be able to respond to spontaneous changes that occur during play, and as a result is more likely to veto or attempt to directly influence the outcome of an event, be a DC check, combat or what have you. I'd also argue that such a setup is rather dull, or at least would not be welcomed with our group. (We have video games for such antics!)

    However, are cleverly constructed narrative can include branches which are then tied together at key stages along the path. In this way, players enjoy (often the illusion of) choice and the DM can almost guarantee things coming together when they need to at a given point along the path. And with practice, they can add branches spontaneously. This style of narrative seems much more open to setting 'logic' 'realistic' DCs and more ready to accommodate the wacky antics most players seem to enjoy initiating. As such, DCs, combat, social interactions and the like are less likely to be fudged in favour of the narrative because while they can lead to branches in the narrative, as mentioned, the paths are designed to come together at key points.

    Much like in the classic 'Choose your own Adventure' game books. Which, incidental, are typically designed by working backwards - why do we end the adventure? Ok, what happened before...?

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  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gardens & Goblins View Post
    The disconnect for me is 'By railroading I mean the GM shaping outcomes to fit a pre-conceived narrative.'

    Our lot doesn't really plan narratives in a linear manner, a path if you will that is to be followed.

    <snip>

    I can see how that if a DM has a specific route or path they wish players to follow, described as a narrative, then such calls can and will influence the path of play -the order and manner in which players engage with and are involved with the events pre-planned by the DM.

    The degree of influence simply depends on the nature of the narrative. A linear step-by-step narrative will be greatly effected by any deviation from the planned path and as a result, it seems to me a DM is less likely to be able to respond to spontaneous changes that occur during play, and as a result is more likely to veto or attempt to directly influence the outcome of an event, be a DC check, combat or what have you. I'd also argue that such a setup is rather dull, or at least would not be welcomed with our group. (We have video games for such antics!)

    However, are cleverly constructed narrative can include branches which are then tied together at key stages along the path. In this way, players enjoy (often the illusion of) choice and the DM can almost guarantee things coming together when they need to at a given point along the path. And with practice, they can add branches spontaneously.
    I'm not sure what the "disconnect" is. Do you just mean that you disagree?

    But then, I would have thought an illusion of choice is, among other things, an absence of actual choice. And I don't quite get the notion of "things coming together when they need to at a given point along the path". Why do things need to come together? Who has the need? Not only to I not get the "disconnect", I'm not sure that you are even disagreeing with me. If the GM ensures events fit a pre-conceived storyline (and offers only an illusion of choice in bringing this result about) then it is exactly what I described as a railroad. The player's (seeming, but not genuine) choices seem to make no difference to the downstream narrative.
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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    I'm not sure what the "disconnect" is. Do you just mean that you disagree?

    But then, I would have thought an illusion of choice is, among other things, an absence of actual choice. And I don't quite get the notion of "things coming together when they need to at a given point along the path". Why do things need to come together? Who has the need? Not only to I not get the "disconnect", I'm not sure that you are even disagreeing with me. If the GM ensures events fit a pre-conceived storyline (and offers only an illusion of choice in bringing this result about) then it is exactly what I described as a railroad. The player's (seeming, but not genuine) choices seem to make no difference to the downstream narrative.
    Interesting. Some thoughts.

    First, a little science. We are all aware of how in our daily lives, we are constantly confronted with the illusion of choice- even the illusion of consciousness. Our body will react to something, and then our mind will, later, fill in the false belief that we chose that action.

    But moving on to TTRPG, I am reminded of a story told in a different thread. A poster recounted a story of a game they had with a DM, and the game was absolutely amazing. The events were vivid. The combats were exciting. It was one of those games that the person absolutely loved. BUT THEN (heh) ...

    Later, that same gamer had a conversation with the DM, and learned that the DM was just kind of "good enoughing" all the rolls. So all the carefully constructed bonuses that the person had made, all the ACs and everything else, didn't really matter that much. It was always, behind the screen, "Eh, a 17 seems about right." So the person's perspective changed, and it went from an amazing, best game ever, to a horrible, no good game.

    It reminded me of the conversation we had about in yet another thread about why "cheating" and/or "metagaming" (for various definitions thereof) rubs people the wrong way. It's the combination of expectations, trust, and illusion (suspension of disbelief) that works for a table in a social game.

    In a certain way, this question presents an unanswerable question, because all D&D by its very nature has some elements of railroading. Are you sitting down to play a module or an adventure path? Is it open world- but one created by the DM? What are the boundaries of the DM's imagination? So the issue is what style the table prefers, and what works best for their own narrative enjoyment; in my opinion, the DM collaborates with the players to tell the story. To the extent that the DM is "forcing" the players to tell the DM's story, that is railroading. To the extent that the DM is working with the players to tell a story, that isn't.

    And the DM will regularly make judgment calls to move the narrative along. So long as the DM is making those calls to move the table's narrative along, and not his own, that's fine. It's all about the illusion.
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  5. #5
    Once you let the PC be at an event, you must let them alter it, or at least try to alter it. Then build on any consequence that may emerge.
    If you want to impose an event, better simply reports the news. Yesterday the mage was assassinated and is body is missing.
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    Hmm - once the player made the excellent case for why there would be a vessel in the room, it would be very unfair for a DM to rule that there was not in order to save their precious storyline, IMHO.

    As far as rolling would go I think I would have had the player roll to determine how much blood they were able to catch in the vessel rather than whether they could find one.

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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post

    By railroading I mean the GM shaping outcomes to fit a pre-conceived narrative. (This is broader than some people use it, I know. If the players get to choose for their PCs, but what they choose won't change the downstream storyline, I am counting that as a railroad.)
    As an aside - I think that this is WAY too broad. By my read this would include, for example, plots where there's a time limit where an event is going to happen and there's nothing the PCs can do to stop it, but they can mitigate its effects. It would also include any GM-run NPCs having plans and counter-plans that take into account possible interference to keep their plans on track. In fact if the PCs are up against a big bad mastermind then by the definition that you give here any adventure against him/her would be a railroad as they react to the PCs' actions to get their plans back on track. And given that your post uses "railroad" as a derogatory term for "roleplaying through a narrative", I assume that you didn't mean either of those things to count as a "railroad".

    My definition of a railroad requires that there is one linear path through the adventure that the PCs must follow. A narrative that the PCs are working through is just fine as along as there are choices along the way that allow them to affect the story in a meaningful way. But if there's really just a single narrative path that they are allowed to take and the "choices" that they make just drag them through the same scenes they would see regardless of what choices they make, then it's a railroad. It's the linearity that makes it a railroad. And railroads aren't always negative things - certain groups of players are just in the game to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and if that's the case they like to have the story laid out like breadcrumbs that they can follow to get to the next ass kicking session. Nothing wrong with that if that's how you like to play the game.

    Anyway - onto your example:

    By my definition of railroad, neither choice would be "railroading". You could decide there was a cup there, you could decide that there wasn't and in no way would either choice be forcing the PCs onto some linear path through a storyline.

    By your definition of railroad above, I don't think either answer is "railroad" either, so long as the GM didn't have a pre-determined narrative in mind at all for the PCs' course of action. The GM could just think through the inventory of the room, decide that there's no reason that a cup would be there, and so say no. Or they GM could shrug and not care and just say yes (my preferred method when players ask me "is there an X here in the room" is to say yes unless it's ludicrous, in which case they get a raised eyebrow and a "what do you think" response). Or the GM could decide to do as you did and leave it to the whims of chance and throw some dice to decide.

    But the point is that none of these choices as a GM affects whether the scenario is a railroad or not. In this particular case I can take any of the choices and use them later on my railroad scenario - if I want to make it a railroad, then I can say no and not worry about it. Or I can say yes and then later, when they try to use the blood to do something in the story, I could either say "doesn't work" or I could say "it works!" and let them use that as their "plot key" to move from one station on the railroad to the next station. Or I could roll some dice to decide whether it'll be the plot key that works to move from one scene to the next. This particular choice has no bearing at all on whether it'll be a railroad or not - it's what happens downstream that matters. Likewise I can justify all three possible choices in a sandbox environment as well.

    So to the bigger question - GM judgment calls absolutely relate to "railroading", but only when deciding how the PC's actions will shift the storyline. If the GM's judgment call consciously neuters the PC's actions to keep them on the one path that the GM has in mind for the story (by either cutting the PCs off and saying "no" or by saying "yes" but the yes just takes them to the next station in the railroad that they were going to get to anyway) then it's railroading. Otherwise it's just a judgment call. (And bear in mind that a decent "say yes" GM can make a railroad feel like a sandbox to the players. I know that I've run more than one "investigative horror" scenario that is actually a fairly linear scenario of using clues as plot keys to get from scene to scene where the players involved have told me that it felt like they are playing in a far more open sandbox than they actually had in front of them.)

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by lowkey13 View Post
    First, a little science. We are all aware of how in our daily lives, we are constantly confronted with the illusion of choice- even the illusion of consciousness. Our body will react to something, and then our mind will, later, fill in the false belief that we chose that action.
    Science? Last I checked (c1989, I think it was - wow, I should keep more current, but philosophy of mind just isn't high on my list of interests), the Behaviorists were a school of philosophy, and not a very well-regarded one, at that.




    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    How do GM "judgement calls" relate (if at all) to railroading?

    In the context of 5e, GM "judgement calls" can also fall into the domain of "rulings not rules."
    As does so much. And, that's a big stone in the foundation of 5e's DM Empowerment, as it calls for DM judgement (rulings) constantly, right there in it's rules, making it natural for players to expect such calls and to accept them with far less debate than they'd've tended to under the opposite-extreme 'RAW' zietgeist of the 3.x era.

    By railroading I mean the GM shaping outcomes to fit a pre-conceived narrative. (This is broader than some people use it, I know.)
    Yeah, it is. Most of us would probably go with Railroading meaning presenting no choices, or only one valid choice (all others dead-end quickly and badly for the players). And, of course, it's viewed very negatively. so maybe some other term, or just spelling it out, as you have, without using a term that means something else to most of us?

    My feeling is that the answer is a complex one.
    I disagree. It's a simple one. DM Empowerment does, as the name suggests, give the DM a lot of powerful tools. The opportunity to make judgement calls often and all but arbitrarily is one of them. It could be used by a DM who wants to be an engineer or conductor on the RP Line to 'railroad' the party either in the sense you use it, or the usual, less pleasant sense. That's up to the DM.

    I'd also argue that a directive style is not as negative as it's made out to be. You can run a very enjoyable game that's comparatively linear, where the players have few real choices about the direction of the 'story' (adventure), (nor the outcome, beyond being free to screw it up if they play badly enough). That can be with player connivance, if you lampshade that they're all climbing aboard the train to story town (I've had players who lampshade it "where are the rails, anyway? I look for rails, we need to find the plot!" for that matter). Or it can all be kept behind the screen, to preserve some other desired feel on the part of the players.

    Being suitable for that method of DMing (I say method rather than style, because it can be used in the service of fitting the game to many different styles) is perhaps one of 5e's greatest strengths.

    I don't see it as railroading. The issue of whether or not the blood might be caught in a vessel had not even occurred to me until the player raised it. And there was no preconception, on my part, of any ultimate destination for the action.

    On the other hand, had I decided simply that the room contains no vessel, because I had already decided that I didn't want the storyline to include shenanigans with a blood-filled chamber pot, I think that would count not only as a judgement call, but as one that has a railroading effect.

    I'm guessing, though, that there are other posters who would see one or both cases differently from me!
    I see the distinction as unimportant, or at best academic.

    Except for the use of the 'railroading' label, which carries, as I pointed out, negative connotations for many.
    Last edited by Tony Vargas; Monday, 13th March, 2017 at 07:55 PM.
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  9. #9
    I would think that Railroading is a thing the DM will do (or not do) regardless of which tools he is using, whether that's making judgement calls or parsing the rules like a lawyer.
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    I'm not sure what the "disconnect" is. Do you just mean that you disagree?

    But then, I would have thought an illusion of choice is, among other things, an absence of actual choice. And I don't quite get the notion of "things coming together when they need to at a given point along the path". Why do things need to come together? Who has the need? Not only to I not get the "disconnect", I'm not sure that you are even disagreeing with me. If the GM ensures events fit a pre-conceived storyline (and offers only an illusion of choice in bringing this result about) then it is exactly what I described as a railroad. The player's (seeming, but not genuine) choices seem to make no difference to the downstream narrative.
    I'm handing all further discourse, aside from the parts that I don't, over to my lawyer and bartender lowkey 13.

    And aye, I'm not disagreeing with you, in part because you you seem to be sharing your thoughts, which I enjoyed reading. I think I chose a poor term to describe my thoughts - perhaps not 'disconnect', but simply a 'lack of current exposure to'? due to the state of play with our group.

    Spoiler:
    We've been experimenting with seeding the campaign with NPCs and making liberal use of encounter and other tables, to create a loose simulation of the world the characters are exploring - as such, the DMs don't really prepare narratives as much as they create NPCs with their own objectives, wants and whims - sites with a history and purpose/function and the characters, through their choices, bounce around/off/between them. As a consequence, the player's choices and the events that unfold because them create the narrative, rather than the DM attempting to shape or craft a specific story based upon a prepared/planned narrative. So, to cut an already long story short, a/the discussion relating to choices, DCs, outcomes and their effect on narrative, from a DMs perspective is a problem/phenomenon I'm currently not experiencing. Player agency, campaign information communication and how to encourage player initiative though? Oh heck yeah!
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