D&D General Railroads, Illusionism, and Participationism

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Composer99

Adventurer
I know, right!?
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This kind of post always gets likes in the thousands and that makes me unreasonably angry and frustrated with the current state of the game.

Yes, I'm old and full of hate for these kids.

I guess Thaco the Clown was really aimed at me after all.
But why? I thought DMs were suppose to be empowered to run the game however they like? Isn't DM EMPOWERMENT a central tenet of the OSR? Shouldn't we be happy that a DM is not letting the rules get in the way of a good session?
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Plenty of people don’t have schedules that allow writing a session at a time. That’s a luxury.
Really? The entire hobby is a luxury from start to finish. It's a luxury to have enough disposable income to buy the books and accessories you need. It's a luxury to have the time to read the books and a further luxury to have time to learn the system. It's a luxury to have time to play at all. It's a luxury to have the time you need to DM at all...to say nothing of doing it well.

Is that like the thing when you're driving that anyone going slower than you is in your way and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

It's a "luxury" to put in more prep work than you are willing to.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The problem with having to create dozens of hooks and quests as @overgeeked suggests is that it’s wasteful and labour intensive. If you then repurpose those hooks for other locations as a practical measure you’re then railroading again according to them, because you’re forcing encounters.
LOL. No, you keep the hooks and progress them through time. The situation isn't static and it changes over time. So the goblin cave you cleared out becomes infested with spiders. If you clear them out something else moves in. The world is dynamic and evolving...based on the PCs choices. If the PCs choose not to clear out the goblins, then there are consequences of that...like they start raiding nearby villages and towns or caravans on roads nearby. The world exists independently of the PCs. It's not static and waiting for the PCs to appear to come alive. There's no pre-determined story to play through. Whatever story there is emerges from play. What's played at the table is the story.
 

TheSword

Legend
Really? The entire hobby is a luxury from start to finish. It's a luxury to have enough disposable income to buy the books and accessories you need. It's a luxury to have the time to read the books and a further luxury to have time to learn the system. It's a luxury to have time to play at all. It's a luxury to have the time you need to DM at all...to say nothing of doing it well.

Is that like the thing when you're driving that anyone going slower than you is in your way and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

It's a "luxury" to put in more prep work than you are willing to.
No it’s a luxury to have spare time to write 12 hooks for every one you’ll need and to have that time consistently each week to not have to postpone sessions because you didn’t get time to open your notepad that week.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
This kind of post always gets likes in the thousands and that makes me unreasonably angry and frustrated with the current state of the game.

Yes, I'm old and full of hate for these kids.

Why? There were always tons of DMs who essentially played this way and tons of players that liked it like that, going back to the 80s at least. I knew/know plenty (though I doubt you'd find many of them on these forums). Not my style, personally, but 🤷‍♂️ - nothing new except better chance of people finding a table with similar expectations (not mine, tho).
 



Gradine

Final Form (they/them)
This kind of post always gets likes in the thousands and that makes me unreasonably angry and frustrated with the current state of the game.

Yes, I'm old and full of hate for these kids.

I guess Thaco the Clown was really aimed at me after all.
DMs who sacrifice fun for strict adherence to the rules make me unreasonably angry and frustrated.




Oh wait no it doesn't, it's cool that there are so many different types of DMs.
 

Hussar

Legend
Personally, I find all these railroading arguments go away with a simple definition:

Railroading - when the DM is acting in bad faith to enforce a particular outcome pre-determined by the DM.

There, no more problems. @RangerWickett is not engaging in railroading in the slightest because he is not acting in bad faith. He's doing what a DM is supposed to do, keep the game moving along at a pace the group finds enjoyable.

I find that this particular definition of railroading is so much more productive. We can ask ourselves why we decided to do something like moving the ogre. Is it because we have decided that no matter what, that ogre MUST BE ENCOUNTERED, regardless of any other consideration? Then, yup, that's bad faith. Typically this sort of thing happens when the DM has decided that X must happen in order to increase difficulty/challenge. The NPC acts in blindingly suicidal fashion so the players MUST rescue the NPC. That sort of thing.

As soon as we move the discussion away from the tool to the intent of the use of that tool, then we can get to the heart of any issue much more easily.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
As soon as we move the discussion away from the tool to the intent of the use of that tool, then we can get to the heart of any issue much more easily.
I agree that in the instance of railroading it's better (as in, more helpful) to examine the why than the how. This is superb when the querent is the GM. The GM can explain their motives.

It can be harder, though, to determine the GM's motive when we're getting a report from a player--in the same way it can be hard to determine a player's motive when we're hearing from the GM.

I guess the upshot is that maybe we should presume good faith around the gaming table until we can be certain otherwise. That's not always satisfying, of course.
 

I guess Thaco the Clown was really aimed at me after all.
I don't think Thaco the Clown was intended to be mocking. It was more like a reminder of a shared dumb hurdle we all had to overcome, like those "Remember when you'd try to call your friend, but you couldn't because he was online?" things, or "Remember when we had to keep a pencil to fix our Walkman cassette tapes?"
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
I'm quite amazed that there are still arguments or misunderstandings about what railroading is. When did Alexandrian write his Railroading Manifesto? Six years ago?
I suspect it's because, while the negative emotions people react with to a perceived denial of agency are quite consistent, the details of the situations that lead to such perceived denial of agency are incredibly idiosyncratic. So we can talk about the emotional outcome of railroading coherently, but it's much harder to discuss the causes.
 

Oofta

Legend
One thing that I find, shall we say interesting is another type of false choice and how it relates to quantum ogres.

Let's say the party is facing two doors. Door A has an ogre behind it, door B does not. They have to choose a door, and some people would claim that it's somehow wrong to have the ogre behind door B when the prep said he was behind A.

But here's the real question for me. Did the party have enough information to make a real decision, or was the choice just down to random luck? If it was just lucky, is it really that much different from the quantum ogre?

When I set up options I do my best to give the party meaningful reasons to make choices. Door A is more dangerous but more rewarding. Door B is less direct risk, but takes more time and there's reason to believe there's a ticking clock.

Anyway, just a before I hit the hay thought.
 

theCourier

Explorer
This kind of post always gets likes in the thousands and that makes me unreasonably angry and frustrated with the current state of the game.

Yes, I'm old and full of hate for these kids.

I guess Thaco the Clown was really aimed at me after all.
I'm not even old and it just makes me kind of befuddled. If they're gonna arbitrarily end combat when you like, why make players roll all those dice in the first place? Just... narrate the battle being won?
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
With regards to placing an ogre, I personally would consider it railroading to place the ogre in the PCs' path only if by doing so the DM is thwarting the actions the players have declared in furtherance of their characters' goals. So if the PCs have taken action to avoid the ogre, or to avoid encounters more generally, or even just to get somewhere quickly without interruption, then deliberately placing the ogre in their path I would consider railroading. In any other situation, I see placing the ogre as just content creation--if the location makes sense for the ogre to be and doesn't contradict any previously established fiction, then I don't see it as railroading, regardless of whatever the DM's notes said (or didn't say) about the ogre.

Heck, if my notes put the ogre in a specific place that coincidentally happens to thwart the characters' active attempts to avoid it, I'm likely to move the ogre out of the PCs' way just to avoid creating feelings of arbitrarily denying player agency unless there is some specific reason (learnable IC!) for the ogre to be in that exact location.
 
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The problem I have with the definition #1 of Railroading is it describes lots of things GMs do in standard adventure creation. One of these is adding twists to travel. There are lots of adventures where the PCs need to get to a different location. If they don't get there, the adventure is put on hold. At the same time, the GM wants to thematically showcase the dangers of a particular area or travel in general. This would be considered "railroading" under these rules while in previous years we would have simply called it "random encounters." There was nothing malicious on the part of the GM. However, there is a predetermined outcome: the PCs will reach their destination.

I used this in my epic campaign years ago when the PCs were unwittingly investigating a crashed Spelljammer. The PCs had to travel through the Barrier Peaks in winter. At the mountain's feet were camps of Orc marauders. The mountains themselves housed packs of Winter Wolves, one of my favorite D&D monsters. All but the Ranger were failing their endurance checks as they drudged through the snow. The PCs were too weak to fight off a pack of three Winter Wolves. I reduced the number to two. The PCs fled and hid in an abandoned stone cottage built into the side of the mountain. The Wolves demanded they give their rations otherwise they'll blow their house in (naturally). The Ranger was being quite witty so I had her earn the respect of the Wolves (she spoke Giant), and the Wolves left them alone, leaving them one days worth of rations each. None of my decisions eliminated or ignored player actions or decisions. Their actions changed the NPCs. They were also able to avoid combat through Stealth. Even though I've left out PC shennanigans, there was one place they had to go. Most of this could be considered railroad, scripting, illusionism or a combination. That's where I have a small problem. The campaign hinged on the PCs finding the crashed ship. There were a few turns they took but ultimately there was one starting point, and one ending point. Most adventures are designed with a single destination.

I remember years ago reading a really good breakdown of dungeon adventures by Ari Marmell. He was able to show how many dungeons ultimately have one starting point and one ending point. The players don't get to choose where they start or finish, just everything in between and that's limited to a few options. These adventures often don't create a fan base because they lack those epic surprises that stick with us for a lifetime. Those surprising adventures are a mini-sandbox and can be played multiple times with each time being very different, The Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is my favorite for this reason. According to definition #1, the conscious removal of player choice in dungeon design would be railroading. In the old days we would call it a tournament style module.

Too much choice leads to choice paralysis.
No choice at all is railroading.

What's in between? Regular old D&D.
 
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Per the discussion in the other thread, are any of these examples of railroading or illusionism against the rules? Or are they just--arguably--"bad" dming? Because the argument in the other thread (from @pemerton among others) are that the rules of 5e are a guarantor of agency, whereas my contention is that you need a gm that you can trust and that is operating in good faith. It's not hard to play a game of 5e with plenty of player agency, but the rules alone will not get you there.
 

Per the discussion in the other thread, are any of these examples of railroading or illusionism against the rules? Or are they just--arguably--"bad" dming? Because the argument in the other thread (from @pemerton among others) are that the rules of 5e are a guarantor of agency, whereas my contention is that you need a gm that you can trust and that is operating in good faith. It's not hard to play a game of 5e with plenty of player agency, but the rules alone will not get you there.
That's an interesting question!

I think the answer is generally no, the rules do not prevent railroading, because there are a lot of way to railroad via adventure design. And adventure and encounter design are not constrained by any rules in DnD.

BUT ignoring the rules is another key way to railroad - the above-mentioned "the fight ends when I feel like it" could be a kind of railroading if the players ever find out (and they will) because it renders their choices meaningless. If this annoys the players, you have railroaded. Sticking to the rules is one way to keep yourself from railroading. It doesn't prevent railroading entirely.
 

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