Do Plot-Based Adventures Necessarily Involve 'Railroading'?

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
Do Plot-Based Adventures Necessarily Involve 'Railroading'?

Unless a game setting is one-hundred percent complete or entirely randomized (or some combination of the two), so that no matter where PCs go they are exploring what exists before they determine to go there or is randomized from infinite possibilities on the spot, there will always be some of what certain people term as "Railroading".
 

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wedgeski

Adventurer
Akrasia said:
Much of the fun of running a game, for me, comes from the unanticipated course the campaign can take as a consequence of the players' decisions.
Different strokes and all that. Honestly, there are plenty of 'unanticipated' changes of direction even in campaigns I have run which have epitomised what I'm saying. But I just don't want a campaign, which I have built to have a certain style and, yes, to have certain over-arching themes and villains, to veer off into territory that I'm not at all prepared for, or worse, which I don't feel suits the game I'm trying to run. For me, this necessitates a certain control at the table. Achieving that with transparency and finesse is the ultimate goal (for me at least).

The opposite of this style of campaign, which is where a world is built as little more than a sandbox for the whims of the players, is unsatisfying for me. The difference here may be that I tend to run relatively 'short' campaigns (say, 1-2 years of real time) with a definitive beginning and end. It's the middle bit where the players get to enjoy the most freedom, and can choose any number of goals from the selection on offer. If they want to make their own goals, of course they can, but I'll prepare scenarios around those goals which mesh with the world and, if I can help it, mesh with the campaign arc. It's an unspoken rule and quickly becomes clear in my own games that the story hooks will tend to come from the DM, not from the players. And you know, they seem to have a pretty good time.

I've made my games sound a lot more egocentric than they actually are, but this is just the way that roleplaying has evolved over the 20-some years I've been doing it.
 

ThirdWizard

First Post
It's perfectly possible to run a plot based game without railroading. The "plot" consists of what will happen without the PCs doing anything. The actual gameplay consists of what the PCs do to change this "plot" into something else. The DM has to know the NPCs extremely well and he has to have good improvational skills.

See, you get your nice linear plotline that will never actually happen. The PCs can do anything they want. Everyone gets a nice story to unfold around them. And, there's no railroading.
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
I railroad pretty hardcore, but the players desire it. They want to be told a story about the characters they create, they want to have a chain of events happen in the world, they don't just want to explore a site. They want to be motivated, and it's my job as DM to motivate them.

The best way to satisfy them, I've found, is to only plan a week or two in advance, and just have general ideas about what you want to happen by the end. Every week, there are big, plot-altering descisions they can make, but if I only work a few steps ahead of them, they are, in effect, determining where the plot goes. I have a vague idea for an ending, but if the PC's provide a better one, I go with that.
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
ThirdWizard said:
It's perfectly possible to run a plot based game without railroading. The "plot" consists of what will happen without the PCs doing anything. The actual gameplay consists of what the PCs do to change this "plot" into something else. The DM has to know the NPCs extremely well and he has to have good improvational skills.

See, you get your nice linear plotline that will never actually happen. The PCs can do anything they want. Everyone gets a nice story to unfold around them. And, there's no railroading.


Of course, there is. It's reactive but it is still a form of railroading (funneling, channeling, whatever name you use) since during any improvisation individual decisions are made what information to convey and thus, subtly or otherwise, how to guide the plot/game.
 

ThirdWizard

First Post
Mark CMG said:
Of course, there is. It's reactive but it is still a form of railroading (funneling, channeling, whatever name you use) since during any improvisation individual decisions are made what information to convey and thus, subtly or otherwise, how to guide the plot/game.

By that definition it is railroading for me to choose NPC actions period.

Just what are you trying to say? That every decision a DM makes is railroading? If that's your position, then I think we are at considerable odds in how we look at the game and what railroading is.

I don't funnel. I don't channel. Unless you define funneling as deciding an NPC is hungry without rolling on a table to find out.

EDIT: I define railroading as the DM limiting PC actions (in a metagaming sense). A DM deciding on NPC actions can never be railroading in my book.
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
ThirdWizard said:
By that definition it is railroading for me to . . .

Like I said above, and by the strictest of definitions, all gaming has elements of what some people will call "Railroading".

ThirdWizard said:
EDIT: I define railroading as the DM limiting PC actions (in a metagaming sense). A DM deciding on NPC actions can never be railroading in my book.

As I also said, call things what you will but ultimately the options available to the players are those the DM is either conveying initially or is presenting by way of selective reactions and as such are limited.

Personally, I don't like the term "Railroading" and, especially since, people use it to describe a wide, wide range of DMing styles.
 


Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
ThirdWizard said:
By making the term railroading an all-inclusive term, you are effectively making it a useless statement.


Or, it was a useless statement from the start and I am merely drawing attention to the fact. Either way, one can only hope.
 

DarkMaster

First Post
What I do,
1 create the plot
2 create the actor and their relation to the plot
3 participate to the creation of the PC linking them right from the start with 1 and/or 2
4 Play the NPC like if they were your PC.

makes totally unpredictable game. Given that the PC do a certain action how does it affect all your NPC and how do they changed their initial plan. It's a lot of work but it make DMing extremely interesting.
 

Kahuna Burger

First Post
Some people seem to have broadened the definition of "railroading" until it basicly means "having an idea of a plot" or even "being a dm". I choose to reject the overly broad definitions. Railroading to me is forcing players to have their characters pursue a specific course of action, by unrealisiticly truncating all other courses of action. A module with a plot does not require railroading if the DM is open to alternate ways of resolving the plot, on a micro or macro level.

Railroading, imo, indicates a lack of trust in your players to cooperate in creating a game. A DM who always has to have the PCs kidnapped, enslaved, blackmailed or otherwise railroaded into 'the adventure' is showing that he doesn't trust his players to take a reasonable plothook. A DM who only leaves one way to resolve a situation, arbitrarily stopping any other ideas from working, doesn't trust his players to work creativly within the rules. Sometimes this lack of trust is well founded - I see obstructionist players and railroading DMs as feeding off each other.
 

Kahuna Burger

First Post
ThirdWizard said:
By making the term railroading an all-inclusive term, you are effectively making it a useless statement.

this is an unfortunately common messageboard style of discussion, which I choose to name "obstructionist posting". ;) Broaden the usage of a term until it's meaningless in order to claim it's a meaningless term. I'm not sure what the apeal is, but I see it a fair amount. :\
 

ThirdWizard

First Post
Kahuna Burger said:
Some people seem to have broadened the definition of "railroading" until it basicly means "having an idea of a plot" or even "being a dm". I choose to reject the overly broad definitions.

Agreed. This is going to have to be a time when the answer just depends on whatever the person's definition of railroading is. I suppose one person's definition is not less valid than mine, but that doesn't mean I have to accept it. I've already given my basic definition, and I fear I'm not any more likely than Mark to change my mind.

So for me, you can have plots in games without railroading. The answer must be decided for each person individually based on what they think railroading is.
 

S'mon

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.

This 'Matrix' approach is one way to have a plot without railroad scenario, but it substitutes a rather limited, "gamebook" sort of approach for the railroad. Better, but not ideal. I think the best way to do this kind of thing is with lots of NPCs with motivations & agenda, and suggestions to the GM on how to use them - basically, no pre-written plot. I think pre-planned plots just aren't a very good idea in RPGs.
 

S'mon

Legend
Mark CMG said:
Of course, there is. It's reactive but it is still a form of railroading (funneling, channeling, whatever name you use) since during any improvisation individual decisions are made what information to convey and thus, subtly or otherwise, how to guide the plot/game.

This is such a silly statement that I think you should withdraw it. Unless you were just trolling to get people riled up.
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
Kahuna Burger said:
this is an unfortunately common messageboard style of discussion, which I choose to name "obstructionist posting". ;) Broaden the usage of a term until it's meaningless in order to claim it's a meaningless term. I'm not sure what the apeal is, but I see it a fair amount. :\


The fact of the matter is that there are degrees to how much influence any DM will allow in his game and it's different for each player how much influence they believe they should have. The term Railroading becomes meaningless on its own. We're saying the same thing, I'm just acknowledging that the term is useless and you're choosing to continue using while acknowledging it is essentially useless. Tagging me as "obstructionist" really just proves the point that derogetory terms like "Railroading" will often be used by some gamers who feel more secure when they can claim to be on the "correct" side of a line they know to be drawn in the sand.
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
S'mon said:
This is such a silly statement that I think you should withdraw it. Unless you were just trolling to get people riled up.

Oh, I wouldn't be so quick to call "troll" if I were you. It's just an observation drawn from 30+ years of interactive gameplay coupled with majoring in Speech and Performing Arts in school (with a focus in and out of school on comedy and improv), plus logging thousands of hours of post-college stage time. It is, afterall, an area in which I have some expertise and knowledge.
 

Lobo Lurker

First Post
Just thought I'd pipe up and say that I'm one of those players who *likes* being railroaded to a certain degree. If you stick me in an open-ended world w/out any pointers about what I should be doing, I'm lost. But at the same time, I don't like to be completely shut into a plot.

If the DM says that I'm in Dungeon X, of Country Y then that's fairly cool with me (unless I had something going on that the DM is ignoring).
 

Steel_Wind

Adventurer
S'mon said:
basically, no pre-written plot. I think pre-planned plots just aren't a very good idea in RPGs.

Ahhhh. And there we come to it. The true divider among men when this issue arises.

Thanks for that. It helps set this debate in stark relief.

There are two basic clashes during all of the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of threads on this subject on ENWorld:

Clash #1: The Deep Divide The pre-planned and plotted adventure is The Ideal Form of Gaming vs. Improv Roleplaying is the One True Game.

This is a pretty stark fundamental divider among players and DMs alike. While most incorporate a bit of both in to their games, there are some improv players/DMs who insist that their form is the only way to game.

For this conflict - any pre-planned adventure is a Bad Way to Game.

Impact on terminology: "Railroading" is a term used in the pejorative to describe any DM style which uses a pre-planned adventure in any manner, no matter how artfully done or accomplished. I it's not about maximizing player choice - it's about the wrong thing.

Clash #2: Overt Control is Bad: This clash focuses not on pre-planned adventures are bad/ improv is good - but looks only at how the player perceives their game experience in play. Acts which resort to kidnapping or forcing the PCs to march at sword point to a location are the only acts which classify as "railroaded". Other more artful devices are excused.

This clash defines the debate not in tersm of pre-planned vs. improv, but in the nature and degree of the control device used in game.

Impact on terminology: "Railroad" in this discussion is used in the pejorative to imply an overt and highly objectionable way of controlling player choices in game.

From these two different clashes - you can see how a supporter of the artful and subtle control who is "anti-railroad" in clash #2 is "pro-railroad" when it comes to debating clash #1.

So no - it's not about defining terms to mean sily things and then calling the objection silly. It's about two discussions being carried on under one banner.
 

ThirdWizard

First Post
My point is that its possible to have "pointers" which I would just call adventure hooks without railroading. Railroading would be forcing you to take a plothook because that's what the DM wants to happen. I don't think its railroading to tell the players that there is a dungeon off to the west, that a local noble is paying for someone to investigate some strange occurances in the local temple of Pelor, and that there seems to be some kind of goblin threat in a small town to the south.

The PCs can take one of these hooks, or look for new ones. Limiting what is happening in the world around the PCs isn't railroading; it is simple logistics. An infinite number of things shouldn't be happening in the area. Now, if the PCs take some initiative and try to accomplish some goals, say, trying to find a rich merchant who they can gain favor with because one of the PCs wants to further some plans, then that's cool too. The DM decides if any nearby merchants (via Gather Information rolls) are hiring PCs. Then a whole new adventure can spawn off.

But, I wouldn't call it railroading because the DM didn't initially tell the PCs about the merchant from the get go. It is in fact not railroading! The DM has allowed the PCs to go off of the trail he initially had planned out. This is exactly what a railroading DM would not have done.

Now, it does get tricky. If the merchant wants the PCs to investigate the dungeion, is that railroading? I know what I think of it, but I'll leave that one unanswered for now.

EDIT: An interesting thought Steel_Wind. My excessive loading times made me miss that post just now. I definately fall into the second camp. Railroading, to me, is about taking away player choice.
 
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