Do Plot-Based Adventures Necessarily Involve 'Railroading'?

Akrasia

Procrastinator
Some of my favourite published products for D&D include the old B2 (Keep on the Borderlands) and L1 (Secret of Bone Hill) modules. One of the things that I really like about those modules is that they essentially give the DM a relatively compact setting with plenty of interesting adventure locations -- plus room to add your own ideas. Adventures using those modules do not need to involve any 'plot', or the 'plot' that does emerge can be created by the DM and/or her/his players as they play through the module.

Similarly, I also really love ICE's classic 'Middle-earth' campaign guides from the 1980s and early 1990s (Arnor, Angmar, Mirkwood, etc.). Those campaign guides, in addition to including the most beautiful maps ever produced for FRPGs, provide the GM with an overview of the main towns, fortresses, ruins, etc. of the region in question. They also include a few adventure ideas, plus lots of NPC stats. However, what actually happens is up to the GM and his/her players.

Current products that have similar qualities include Necromancer's 'Lost City of Barrakus' and, I believe, Gygax's upcoming 'Castle Zagyg', as well as the new 'Wilderlands' box set from Judges' Guild.

In contrast to these 'setting-based' modules and campaign books, I rather dislike the original Dragonlance series produced by TSR. Those modules were all heavily plot-driven, and seem terribly 'railroady' as a consequence.

Similarly, I've been reading through the new 'Ashes of the Damned' series for WFRP 2e (the sample adventure in the core book, as well as the 'Ashes of Middenheim' book), and am starting to think that I will not run it. I really love WFRP 2e, but this series strikes me as a railroad (at least so far).

So, in my experience, it seems hard for 'plot-driven' adventures to avoid being 'railroads' -- i.e. adventures that require the DM to 'push' her/his players down a specific, pre-established path. At least I cannot think of any plot-driven module or campaign product that avoids this quality.

Maybe I simply prefer products that let me, as GM, come up with the plots on my own -- or improvise in response to the players' actions -- but give me the resources to do so (i.e. provide me with an interesting setting, stats, maps, etc.).

What are other people's views on this? Are there examples of 'plot-driven' adventures that avoid the 'railroad trap'? If so, what are they?

Thanks!
:cool:
 

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Crothian

First Post
Railroading is something a DM does moreso then the module. A good DM can not railroad even the most plot driven module. THough this might be hard and take some work, I fully belief that a good DM beats a raidroad module any day of the week.
 

Akrasia

Procrastinator
Crothian said:
Railroading is something a DM does moreso then the module. A good DM can not railroad even the most plot driven module. THough this might be hard and take some work, I fully belief that a good DM beats a raidroad module any day of the week.

Is your point that in the hands of a good GM a module/adventure that appears to be a 'railroad' will in fact not be one (i.e. the GM will figure out a way not to run it in the manner that it was written)?

I guess I consider myself to be a decent GM, but I've never had success with (what I perceive to be) 'railroady' adventures.
 

Crothian

First Post
Akrasia said:
Is your point that in the hands of a good GM a module/adventure that appears to be a 'railroad' will in fact not be one (i.e. the GM will figure out a way not to run it in the manner that it was written)?

I guess I consider myself to be a decent GM, but I've never had success with (what I perceive to be) 'railroady' adventures.

Yes that is my point. But it does take more then beign a good DM it also takes a bit of time and creativity and possibly luck that the module can fit into a campaign.

So, what d20 module do you consider rail roady?
 

caudor

Adventurer
Crothian said:
Railroading is something a DM does moreso then the module. A good DM can not railroad even the most plot driven module. THough this might be hard and take some work, I fully belief that a good DM beats a raidroad module any day of the week.

I agree. Imagine if you showed up at a game and the DM announced that he was simply going to read you a novel. Boring right?

A good DM sees 'plot' as the skeleton on which to weave the story based on the way players react to what is presented. Adventure hooks are used to create expectations for the adventure and to gently guide PCs into the forces of conflict that already exist. To create believable drama, there often needs to be some structure, but I would not necessarily call this plot.
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
If you have a story you want to tell, you cannot let the PC's do as they desire -- it destroys you story.

Railroading isn't always nessecarily a bad thing, of course. Some groups LOVE to be lead by the nose. Most of mine do. But if your group likes the freedom to decide what stories to tell, a DM who has a story to tell will be a bad fit.

Composing a story out of a collection of events is often seen as "better DMing," but it's only better for a group who knows what to do when given a collection of events. Versus a group who doesn't know what to do unless you give their characters really defined motivations.
 

Klaus

First Post
What is everyone's opinion on using a flowchart of sorts for plot- or event- based adventures, like was suggested in the DMG and used (only) in Speaker In Dreams.

Y'know, treating decisions and events like corridors and rooms in a dungeon, for the DM's ease.
 

CarlZog

Explorer
I think there's a difference between an adventure with a plot and an adventure that is driven by a linear series of events. The latter becomes like a video game that robs the PCs of free will and drives them along a predetermined path.

Crothian's right that a good DM can salvage most linear modules, though it may take more work than it's worth.

I hear a lot talk these days about "storylines", which to me suggests the linear format of narrative fiction. As a DM, I've never thought of myself as storyteller. I create "situations" that PCs are either thrust into, or choose to get involved in. What manner of involvement they choose is up to them. Often, the situation is a conflict between two entities. The PCs nearly always have their choice of sides, and the outcome is usually as much a mystery to me as it is to them.

When culling modules for use or for ideas, I'll look at the more linear ones, but will only adopt those whose core conflicts could easily allow for a breadth of possible outcomes. I usually end up borrowing the central idea, but discarding the progression of events that the designer has deemed necessary to his/her "story."

Carl
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
Still railroading, just flexible railroading, where you can switch tracks. :)

It's the style I use most commonly myself, but it is still limiting. They can't branch until given options A, B, and C, and then those options can only lead to outcomes X, Y, and Z. Unfortunately, plots aren't like a dungeon where you can't diverge until the DM says there's a corridor. In-character, there are ALWAYS multiple paths.
 

CarlZog

Explorer
Kamikaze Midget said:
Unfortunately, plots aren't like a dungeon where you can't diverge until the DM says there's a corridor. In-character, there are ALWAYS multiple paths.

Exactly. Flowcharts may be a useful tool to help a DM prepare for the possibilities, but once players get a hold of things, all bets are off. They'll invaribly take the one course of action that NEVER occurred to you as a possibility. Letting them do it will keep you on your toes and require a lot more work, and often a lot of ad-libbing. But it can be very rewarding and lead to whole new adventures that are better than anything you could have thought up on your own!

Carl
 

Crothian

First Post
Kamikaze Midget said:
It's the style I use most commonly myself, but it is still limiting. They can't branch until given options A, B, and C, and then those options can only lead to outcomes X, Y, and Z. Unfortunately, plots aren't like a dungeon where you can't diverge until the DM says there's a corridor. In-character, there are ALWAYS multiple paths.

And it takes a good DM to be able to handle that. But luckily it is one of those things that pricatice helps with, so if people that want to develope the style all they need to do is start trying and learning.
 

Akrasia

Procrastinator
caudor said:
... To create believable drama, there often needs to be some structure, but I would not necessarily call this plot.

I agree that 'structure' is important. But there is a difference between having a structured 'setting' for adventures, and a linear plot that needs to be followed by the players.

In my own 'homebrew' campaigns I usually have 3-5 overarching potential plots. After the campaign gets going, based on the players' actions, only 1-2 actually get developed. This worked extremely well with my last group.

However, with increasing time constraints, I'm looking for less 'prep-intensive' ways to run campaigns.

In the past, I normally either came up with my own adventures, or radically redesigned the ones I purchased.

Now, however, I guess I'm looking for a 'middle ground' -- I want tools that will save me time (e.g. a basic setting, stats, maps, etc.), but the room to improvise and come up with plots in response to my players' actions (rather than pushing them along a certain path).
 

Akrasia

Procrastinator
Crothian said:
Yes that is my point. But it does take more then beign a good DM it also takes a bit of time and creativity and possibly luck that the module can fit into a campaign.

Creativity I think I have (though perhaps I'm just deluding myself). This is why I like 'bare bones' or 'open' modules (like Bone Hill, the old ICE campaign settings, City-State of the Invincible Overlord, etc.). They let me come up with my own adventures, while saving me some of the tedium of writing up stats, drawing maps for different inns and ruins, etc.

So ... time I don't have so much of (and the time I do have, I would rather not spend on what I consider 'chores').
 

Akrasia

Procrastinator
CarlZog said:
... As a DM, I've never thought of myself as storyteller. I create "situations" that PCs are either thrust into, or choose to get involved in. What manner of involvement they choose is up to them. Often, the situation is a conflict between two entities. The PCs nearly always have their choice of sides, and the outcome is usually as much a mystery to me as it is to them. ...

I agree very much with this. At any rate, it certainly describes my own experiences as a GM. More precisely, my best GM experiences have been in sessions where I don't know the outcome at all ahead of time.

My favourite campaigns have been those where the story went in a direction I didn't really anticipate -- players acting on stuff I gave them, but running with it in an unanticipated direction.

:D
 

The Shaman

First Post
I prefer to create site-based as opposed to plot-based adventures - here's the environment, have at it.

I don't recall ever having a problem making a campaign out of site-based adventures - I have encountered players who are hopelessly adrift in this kind of campaign however. They just don't know what to do without someone tugging on their noses.

I don't enjoy adventures that self-consciously, purposefully begin and progress with a story already determined - that means I'm only there to roll dice at the plot points.
 

Steel_Wind

Adventurer
There's railroading and then there's *railroading*.

It's all a matter of style more than substance I think. But style counts large in terms of player enjoyment.

Any campaign arc is necessarily path based and inherently "railroadish" in nature. That does not mean that it needs be inept and to jolt the player from the enjoyment of the game by constantly revealing the man behind the curtain. For DMs, it is a learned skill. (the DMG II has a few things to say on this in Chapter 2)

It's more a matter of accommodating different and unexpected player choices and still keeping things reasonably on track and seamless that defines a good railroad from an inept one.

I believe the a strong plot focussed campaign with an artfully done railroad is the very height of DMing and provides the strongest enjoyment and fondest memories for characters.

At the same time - there are players who get simply *incensed* with the idea that ANY pre-planned adventure is afoot at the table. Once they smell it, they take it as a challenge to their freedom and go out of their way to ignore anyhitng that smells of pre-planned adventure.

I had a plyer like this once; my best friend as it so happened. We don't game together anymore. :)

It comes down to a matter of preferred style.

Story focused = good; railroad = bad
plot =good; metaplot = bad

Certain terms tend to be used in the pejorative, others in the positive.

That's a pretty clear indication that politics and values are behind the analysis and terminology.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Klaus said:
What is everyone's opinion on using a flowchart of sorts for plot- or event- based adventures, like was suggested in the DMG and used (only) in Speaker In Dreams.

Y'know, treating decisions and events like corridors and rooms in a dungeon, for the DM's ease.
I definitely use flowcharts, but mine tend to get very convoluted. Also, I hardly ever use dungeon/palace maps, though I use city and country maps quite a bit; my games are political and often philosophical so the freeform nature of flowcharts suits them well. In other games I could see a flowchart getting reduced to a linear adventure.
 

Akrasia

Procrastinator
The Shaman said:
I prefer to create site-based as opposed to plot-based adventures - here's the environment, have at it...

Yes, I quite agree. I like this style of campaign.

The Shaman said:
... I have encountered players who are hopelessly adrift in this kind of campaign however. They just don't know what to do without someone tugging on their noses...

I've found it helpful to emphasize to players in such situation that it is part of their job to determine the direction of the campaign. (I've found similar pedagogic techniques useful in freshman seminars -- strange how teaching and GM'ing can be so similar.)

Usually, with a bit of encouragement, the players get the message.
 

Dark Jezter

First Post
I DM, but my players are actually the ones who write the story. I just give them some hooks, an ultimate goal, and let them figure out the best way to get it done. This has resulted in some surprisingly good and unforseen storylines (for example, one character that I actually intended to be a one-time-use NPC for a single session has since become one of the party's most important contacts and sponsors) as well as a lot of very fun sessions. :)

I loathe railroading, having played under two different DMs (who also both happened to be aspiring fantasy authors, interestingly enough) who were quite obviously more concerned with telling their own pre-scripted story than running a game that was enjoyable to be a part of. Lucky, each one of those campaigns only lasted a single session because they group wasn't happy with their lack of freedom.
 

the Jester

Legend
Imho, it's tricky but possible to have a heavily plot-driven adventure without railroading. The key is knowing your group and what motivates them.

You have to finesse the pcs into following the plot, rather than beating them over the head with it. It helps to be flexible enough to adapt your stuff to lead the pcs to the end you want while allowing them to choose the path to the end. Better still is knowing the group well enough that you can preplan the path based on predicting which way they'll jump.

This works best if you know the players and the characters before you start the heavily plot-dependent stuff. For instance, my games' plots are typically driven by the pcs' actions. I'm currently running a low-magic experimental campaign that is significantly more plot-driven than usual (one of the many experiments involved ;)) and, after the first few sessions, I think I have a good enough handle on the pcs to predict where they're going next.

So far I've been right on the money, but I know that sooner or later I'll have to adjust in a hurry and play it off (*whistles* nothing to see here, move along).
 

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