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D&D General Railroads, Illusionism, and Participationism

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Helpful NPC Thom

Adventurer
The other thread about railroading is getting pretty incendiary, and there's a bit of confusion over terminology used. "Railroad" is very vague and not well-defined, so let us instead discuss participationism and illusionism, which are specific modes of play. The definitions of these terms are a bit muddy, and there's not an "official" RPG lexicon, but Darkshire.net has a fairly comprehensive glossary.

Railroading:
Broadly-used term for linear plotting in RPGs. (1) GM behavior when the planned scenario requires a particular sequence of events/scenes leading to a particular ending. The GM ensures that it arrives there by a variety of means. This is generally pejorative, but is sometimes defended as valid as long as it is not overused. (2) On the Forge, a purely negative term for GM behavior that breaks the Social Contract via the GM controlling a player-character's decisions or opportunities for decisions.
The term is used interchangeably to describe moving a scenario from Point A to Point B to Point C, which is typical of adventure path design, and it is likewise used as a descriptor of GM behavior that usurps player agency. In the RPG community at large, this has strongly negative connotations, whereas the other two terms less so. But the basic gist of railroading is that the players don't get to do much beyond what the GM deems acceptable. Because this term spans a host of behaviors and rouses tempers, I don't think it's particularly useful when discussing GMing techniques.

Illusionism:
A term for styles where the GM has tight control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control. Coined by Paul Elliot on the Gaming Outpost in January 2001.
The term is used to describe the "magic trick" of providing the illusion of player agency yet performing trickery to ensure that the game proceeds as he has envisioned it. A style of railroading.

Participationism:
A term coined by Mike Holmes for play where the GM is fudging results behind the scenes to result in story qualities to the play. This is distinct from Illusionism, however, in that the players are aware and active partners in this process.
The interesting part here is the players-aspect. I'm sure we've all had GMs who fudge the dice and script encounters, yet participationism relies on the acceptance and participation of the players. The GM is given the authority to control character actions and deny player agency, within reason. We have all done this, and it's pretty normal. I'll give an example I'm sure we can all relate to: the party is talking amongst themselves about their next course of action, and they've decided to visit some location, say the Mad Hermit's Hut. They stop and stare at the GM at this point, which is the GM's cue to say, "You travel to the Mad Hermit's Hut, a residence of dubious quality. The thatched roof is half-rotten, and you're uncertain if the crumbling mortar in the stone walls could withstand a heavy rain. (Pause to see if anyone has anything to say. No characters act, so the GM continues.) Entering the structure, you see the Mad Hermit himself..."

Right there, the GM usurped player agency to narrate. The players are probably fine with it, though, so that's participationism.

By these definitions, we can talk about good, better, and best gamemastering.

Tools of the Trade
The GM's arsenal is filled with tools to enable these styles of gameplay. Most of us have done them at some point or another.

Fudging
The act of changing dice outcomes to achieve a preferred result. The characters defeat the climatic end-of-story boss in two rounds? The GM gives him another round or two worth of hit points to keep the tension up. The players missed an important roll by 1 or 2 points? The GM gives them the success anyway. The newbie takes a sneak attack critical hit in the first encounter and is about to be insta-gibbed? Turns out that the natural 20 was really a natural 19 all along.

Try, Try Again
The characters fail an important roll, but this roll is necessary for the story to proceed. Solution: try again until you make it! The single door behind which the MacGuffin resides is locked, and the rogue biffed it. Roll again until that lock comes loose. The clue upon which the investigation hangs is hidden due to a failed Perception or Investigate check? Test again...and again...and again until they find it.

Roll Calibration
The characters are trying something that isn't supposed to succeed, but it feels like the GM should offer them a roll, even if it's impossible. The solution is to set an arbitrarily high DC so the players feel like they have an opportunity to influence things, but gosh-darnit, they failed anyway. Alternatively, the characters are trying something that is theoretically risky but they're supposed to succeed? Give them a roll so it feels risky, but drop that DC to ground level so success is nigh-guaranteed.

The GM may also simply deny the option to roll when he feels it is vital. The players want to talk down the Evil Overlord into changing his ways and accepting the goodness and light of Pelor? No way, Jose.

Scripting
Scripting outcomes, events, and plot points is commonly seen in adventure paths, for both good and ill. The NPC refuses to barter with the players. The ritual completes at midnight. The bandits are gambling in their lair and don't notice the player characters. The villain will kidnap the princess when the players return from fighting the dragon. Etc., etc., and etc.

Dice Fishing
This one's a form of probability manipulation that's not quite the same as Roll Calibration. Similar to Roll Calibration, Dice Fishing seeks to enforce particular outcome, but it uses a multitude of dice rolls to manipulate probability. The GM calls for multiple dice rolls for something, and a single roll (success or failure) shapes the entire skill check. You might have six players rolling, but if one succeeds, they all succeed (or vice-versa). In d20-based games, natural 1s and 20s are exceptionally sought after as they provide justification for the results, as many groups than play these as special successes and failures. (Other games that specifically include critical success and failure mechanics are utilized in a similar capacity.)

Players can also do this, GM permitting, when cycling through characters to succeed at a skill check. If Gandalf fails his Intelligence check to guess the password to enter Moria, Frodo gives it a roll. Related to Try, Try Again, but relies on GM's willingness to permit it.

Accepting the Validity of Illusionism and Participationism
Some groups thrive on these styles of gameplay. The players want the GM to act as a story-weaver, telling a story in which their characters participate. They expect him to fudge dice, waive rolls, ignore mechanics, and alter outcomes as a normal part of the game. Personally, I chafe against this and detest it, but many players adore it. They have the opportunity to playact their characters in a grand story and be entertained for a few hours every week.

Adventure paths often rely on this. They state unequivocally that A > B > C progression happens, and the players are ushered along this path. It's called an adventure path, not an adventure off-the-beaten-path. Many GMs don't have the time required to plan out detailed adventures with battlemaps and interesting foes. They need the RPG equivalent of a takeaway dish, and adventure paths provide this option. Likewise, many players are more interested in the characters and story than forging their own paths, so they're happy to share the takeaway dish with the GM. They know he's ordering it and serving it, and they're content with that.

For many players and GMs, this style of gameplay serves them well.
 
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payn

Legend
You have described some concepts and techniques well here. However, there is a heavy assumption that adventure paths are strict railroads and rely on tools of the trade exclusively, and thats not always the case.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Railroading is the negation or elimination of player choice to force the players along a predetermined path. Linear adventures don't have to be railroads. They're not synonyms. If the players choose to move from A to B, that's a linear adventure. If the DM eliminates or negates every choice the players try to make that doesn't result in moving from A to B, that's railroading.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
If the players agree to go from A-B-C-D then it's not railroading - it's merely linear. Not only is that "not bad" it's a preferred playstyle of many groups.

If the group wants to go from A-D-B-C or wants to go to Z but the DM has them do A-B-C-D regardless? That's railroading and it's a bad way to do an adventure.

Illusionism - I've certainly seen this, and generally, I don't like it because most DMs that engage in it are not nearly as skilled/clever as they think they are. You can see the strings/manipulation. That's really annoying and, for me, I'd much rather have the DM be up front and explain the linear nature so we can hopefully participate/enjoy it.

Participationism: If the players are willing participants and understand/approve of what's going on? There's generally no problem. It's not even railroading because the players agree to the direction they're going or agree that the DM is putting them in a direction and they're fine with it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
@Helpful NPC Thom

I think you've outlined the issues very well. I think that that many tables find some value from the judicious application of some, or all, of these techniques, and some don't.

Unfortunately, this is the internet, so we must all take extreme positions, and assume everyone else is arguing an extreme position as well!

So, uh, you're wrong, and your mother was a bard.
 



Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Accepting the Validity of Illusionism and Participationism
...
They have the opportunity to playact their characters in a grand story and be entertained for a few hours every week.

So, the "playacting" language here is kind of loaded, and, I think, dismisses a major point, which can be illustrated by one game - Ten Candles.

Ten Candles is a tragic horror RPG, and all the PCs WILL die. There is no question about this, no way to avoid it. No clever last minute saves. All the players enter into the game knowing this fact.

This gives us a different perspective on agency. You are going to die - you can resist and try to avoid, but it will happen. So, then, what other things can you have agency over? It turns out there's lots of things you still have control over - like, do you reconcile with your estranged parents? Do you die bravely, or cowered in a corner? Do you embrace your faith, or reject it? And so on - the game is determining not whether you end, but how you end.

Even if you are on a plot railroad, you still have agency over the character, who they are, what kind of person they choose to be, how they feel, and so on.
 

Can I just say that with the whole (Try again) and (Moving DCs) ones I laugh because the game pretty much give some of the first one and player make the second one hysterically mislabeled.

Gee this door is locked... the rogue misses the DC, yea the rogue can roll again, or the wizard (swiss army win button) can cast knock or the barbarian can kick the door/lock... but here is the thing... why CAN'T the rogue roll again on the locked door?
If I have a basic idea how to pick a lock (I don't my sister does so and has) she can spend a minute and get lucky, or an hour and swear and get annoyed but finally get in... unless there is a time restraint. I would say the checks are more "how long it takes you" then "if you do or not" now the perception one is a bit better...
do I see the clue or not? well if I don't spend more time looking I don't get another roll, and if I am not sure if I am wasting my time why would I keep checking (maybe one double check makes sense)

as for the moving DCs I find players (even me it is something about how players/DMs interact) have a very bad understanding of DCs... "I only rolled a 3 with a +8 for 11 I'm sure I failed" is often heard before "it was DC 10 dude, your +8 means you were almost assured to make it" however equally likely is "I rolled a 18 I must make it with my +3 that is 21" followed by "Nice try dude, if you only have a +3 even a nat 20 wouldn't do this ungodly thing you are trying to do"

Now I often get asked "Why let them roll if a 20 doesn't make it?" but that assumes the DM remembers everyones stats, skills and special abilities at all times... a nigh impossible DC 25 could be cake if it is an expertise skill, or impossible if it is a low stat untrained. a 10 could be an auto pass for some and a need to roll for others.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Fudging
The act of changing dice outcomes to achieve a preferred result. The characters defeat the climatic end-of-story boss in two rounds? The GM gives him another round or two worth of hit points to keep the tension up. The players missed an important roll by 1 or 2 points? The GM gives them the success anyway. The newbie takes a sneak attack critical hit in the first encounter and is about to be insta-gibbed? Turns out that the natural 20 was really a natural 19 all along.
I used to do this a little bit but stopped. I let go of the idea of having predetermined outcomes from rolls. If I already know that outcome, I'll declare it. Simple as. If dice are used, the dice determine the outcome. Period. If that means something is wildly harder or easier than I planned for, good. I like to be surprised, too. I prefer emergent storytelling in RPGs.
Try, Try, Try Again
The characters fail an important roll, but this roll is necessary for the story to proceed.
Solution: don't make them roll. If success (or failure) is "necessary" for the game to proceed, then it automatically succeeds (or fails). Investigation games learned this a long time ago. If the only way to continue is finding this one clue, then finding that one clue is automatic.
Roll Calibration
The characters are trying something that isn't supposed to succeed, but it feels like the GM should offer them a roll, even if it's impossible.
Say no. It's impossible.
Scripting
Scripting outcomes, events, and plot points is commonly seen in adventure paths, for both good and ill. The NPC refuses to barter with the players. The ritual completes at midnight. The bandits are gambling in their lair and don't notice the player characters. The villain will kidnap the princess when the players return from fighting the dragon. Etc., etc., and etc.
The NPC are independent of the PCs. They have plans and goals and resources all their own. I vastly prefer Fronts and Clocks as it gives a more organic feel rather than the NPCs waiting around for the PCs to do things.
Accepting the Validity of Illusionism and Participationism
They exist. They are used. They're incredibly bad tools. DMs can do better.
Some groups thrive on these styles of gameplay. The players want the GM to act as a story-weaver, telling a story in which their characters participate. They expect him to fudge dice, waive rolls, ignore mechanics, and alter outcomes as a normal part of the game. Personally, I chafe against this and detest it, but many players adore it.
I don't get it either. I'd rather not play than have the DM run me through their pre-scripted novel. Write it out and I'll put it in my to-read pile. But don't run your novel as an RPG.
For many players and GMs, this style of gameplay serves them well.
Everyone's different. Don't assume everyone's down for the same style and talk to each other about what you want and what you expect and what your red lines are. Getting everyone on the same page up front is a vital tool. It might not happen. You might find that everyone in the group wants wildly different things, but at least you know that and can proceed accordingly rather than have a bad time.
 

TheSword

Legend
There is a technique I’d like add that is a form of railroading, which relies on encounters being triggered by the presence of the PCs.

Im not sure what it would be called maybe the Twist of Fate, but essentially it’s the narrative conceit that the action just happens to take place as the PCs are traveling through.

- The PCs are traveling down the Main Street just at the moment the manticore in the market escapes it’s cage.

- The PCs are walking through the sewers at the same moment the thief is returning to their hideout.

- The inn the players choose to stay at has various hijinks and capers occur throughout the night that the PCs can participate in as they choose.

These examples all involve putting encounters in front of the PCs arbitrarily, irrespective of when (or in some cases even where) they choose to go. Nevertheless I think they are useful techniques for improving pace, adding plot hooks and driving the story forward.
 

Composer99

Explorer
I think these kinds of discussions are bound to run onto the shoals of Internet Disagreement because not only is there no widespread consensus as to the definition of potential terms of art (such as what, exactly, "railroading" ought to mean) but often no widespread consensus at the conceptual level.

For instance...
Participationism:

The interesting part here is the players-aspect. I'm sure we've all had GMs who fudge the dice and script encounters, yet participationism relies on the acceptance and participation of the players. The GM is given the authority to control character actions and deny player agency, within reason. We have all done this, and it's pretty normal. I'll give an example I'm sure we can all relate to: the party is talking amongst themselves about their next course of action, and they've decided to visit some location, say the Mad Hermit's Hut. They stop and stare at the GM at this point, which is the GM's cue to say, "You travel to the Mad Hermit's Hut, a residence of dubious quality. The thatched roof is half-rotten, and you're uncertain if the crumbling mortar in the stone walls could withstand a heavy rain. (Pause to see if anyone has anything to say. No characters act, so the GM continues.) Entering the structure, you see the Mad Hermit himself..."

Right there, the GM usurped player agency to narrate. The players are probably fine with it, though, so that's participationism.

Here I must perforce disagree with the general thrust of this paragraph (that the GM's narration of the journey to the Mad Hermit's Hut qualifies as "usurp[ing] player agency").

First, obviously, in D&D 5e (an obviously pertinent example since, as far as I can tell, this thread is being posted in the D&D forum category), the central gameplay loop as described on page 5 of the PHB leaves it to DMs to narrate the results of the decisions the player characters made and the actions they endeavoured to undertake. But, crucially for the sake of player agency, it does not leave it to the DM to make those decisions or attempt those undertakings.

Secondly, on principle, the players have in fact exercised their agency by deciding to travel to the Mad Hermit's Hut. Leaving it to the DM to narrate the result of that decision is not, so far as I am concerned, a surrender of their agency. (At worst, it might be a partial delegation of it.)

Thirdly, player agency does not begin and end within the fiction, at least not if we are calling it player agency. If the players agree to play in a linear-plot adventure and agree to stay within its bounds, they are exercising their agency by agreeing to remain within the premise of the adventure.

(At this point, I should note I am in full agreement with you that what might be "GM misbehaviour" becomes, with player consent, "legitimate GM technique".)



So... uh... yeah, like I said, it's hard for these discussions to have lasting traction (in the sense of coming up with definitive terms of art) because we as an aggregate can't seem to agree on either terms or concepts.
 


There is a technique I’d like add that is a form of railroading, which relies on encounters being triggered by the presence of the PCs.

Im not sure what it would be called maybe the Twist of Fate, but essentially it’s the narrative conceit that the action just happens to take place as the PCs are traveling through.

- The PCs are traveling down the Main Street just at the moment the manticore in the market escapes it’s cage.

- The PCs are walking through the sewers at the same moment the thief is returning to their hideout.

- The inn the players choose to stay at has various hijinks and capers occur throughout the night that the PCs can participate in as they choose.

These examples all involve putting encounters in front of the PCs arbitrarily, irrespective of when (or in some cases even where) they choose to go. Nevertheless I think they are useful techniques for improving pace, adding plot hooks and driving the story forward.
Yeah, I agree that it's a useful and common technique. I think a couple of folks in the other thread referred to this as Instigating by the DM.

I wouldn't call it Railroading because it doesn't involve a set path where the PCs MUST go from point A to point B. They are given situation A and could go any number of directions with it, including simply running away and refusing to deal with it.
 

TheSword

Legend
does anyone here use Roll20? if so I find the unalterable in front of everyone die rolls has meant no fudging on either side... "Did I just drop a double crit on the first level wizard... sorry bye bye"
You don’t have to use the dice rolling feature, and it is pretty easy to alter monster/npc stats on the fly. Changing a miss into a hit is harder but giving a monster extra hp or making it’s attack harder is pretty easy
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Yeah, I agree that it's a useful and common technique. I think a couple of folks in the other thread referred to this as Instigating by the DM.

I wouldn't call it Railroading because it doesn't involve a set path where the PCs MUST go from point A to point B. They are given situation A and could go any number of directions with it, including simply running away and refusing to deal with it.
I would agree that instigating an event doesn't really fit into railroading, especially if there's no preconceived outcome.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Yeah, I agree that it's a useful and common technique. I think a couple of folks in the other thread referred to this as Instigating by the DM.

I wouldn't call it Railroading because it doesn't involve a set path where the PCs MUST go from point A to point B. They are given situation A and could go any number of directions with it, including simply running away and refusing to deal with it.
It‘s railroading in the sense that there’s no meaningful choice leading to the event, therefore no meaningful choices that could avoid the event. No matter what the DM will put this event in front of the PCs. It’s the same illusionism-railroading as the quantum ogre.
 

TheSword

Legend
Yeah, I agree that it's a useful and common technique. I think a couple of folks in the other thread referred to this as Instigating by the DM.

I wouldn't call it Railroading because it doesn't involve a set path where the PCs MUST go from point A to point B. They are given situation A and could go any number of directions with it, including simply running away and refusing to deal with it.
They choose to ignore it, though that encounter is in their way, whether they like it or not. Avoidance might require resources hence it being seen as railroading.
 

Secondly, on principle, the players have in fact exercised their agency by deciding to travel to the Mad Hermit's Hut. Leaving it to the DM to narrate the result of that decision is not, so far as I am concerned, a surrender of their agency. (At worst, it might be a partial delegation of it.)
As it's used in that paragraph it isn't the DM narrating the travel that's referred to as Participationism. The part where he takes (minor) control over from them is where he ends the narration outside the hut, pauses to see if they want to do anything, then immediately narrates them moving inside the hut without requiring further action declaration.

Normally in the standard play loop, once he's described the exterior of the location, it would be common for the PCs to make another action declaration at that point. Which could be shouting hello, scouting around the perimeter, or just walking in. If, for example, I were the DM and knew there was something dangerous inside, I would be unlikely to move forward from this point and state "you walk into the hut", without a specific declaration from the PCs to that effect.
 
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Helpful NPC Thom

Adventurer
These examples all involve putting encounters in front of the PCs arbitrarily, irrespective of when (or in some cases even where) they choose to go. Nevertheless I think they are useful techniques for improving pace, adding plot hooks and driving the story forward.
Absolutely. I would classify these as Scripting, but regardless, I don't think it's poor GMing to present dangling plot hooks for the PCs. This works especially well for getting the game started or prodding the PCs to take action if they're twiddling their thumbs. The way I like to utilize these is by giving a series of random events a chance to happen and rolling to see if they occur. This allows me, as GM, to disclaim responsibility, as the storygamers say, and it provides a less-arbitrary method of event scripting than would otherwise occur.

Mind you, it's all arbitrary, all the way down: I'm the one writing the events and choosing the probabilities, so it's not like I'm unaware of what I'm doing. But a big part of my gaming style is that sense of immersion within a living (albeit fictitious) world. Having a 1-in-6 chance of the PCs encountering Artful Dodger being chased by his latest mark and offering them the opportunity to choose how to react to that improves the game, from my perspective.

They exist. They are used. They're incredibly bad tools. DMs can do better.
I agree with your assessment and am one-hundred-por-ciento with you. I view the majority of these tools to be the province of novice GMs who aren't aware they're poor form or are too inexperienced and rely on them as crutches.
 
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