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Railroads (wooh! wooh!)

Heathen72

Explorer
A while ago, I raised the topic of the sacred cows in roleplaying – those things which often generate a (negative) knee jerk response - and one of those is predetermined plot direction, or ‘railroading’. So, in the interests of challenging such truisms: when is it okay to railroad a little? How do you go about it?

While I don’t advocate tying a whole campaign down to an immutable path, I do think that when you want to run a certain type of session, or set up a game in a certain way, it may require a little ‘railroading’ to achieve this. I think this is especially the case when you are running more episodic or ‘vignette’ style games (as opposed to those campaigns which every session flows into the next without any individual session having its own encapsulated story).

Let’s say you want the players to get caught by the fuzz. Perhaps you want to run a ‘prison’ game, or have them brought before a local potentate. There are different ways of going about this – and sure you could create a hook or ‘macguffin’ for your players that gets them to go in voluntarily, but that can take time (as you coax the players around to the idea, or wait while they vacillate and plan) and sometimes you just want them to be genuine prisoners!

Often the response of GM’s is to just present the players with unassailable odds (there are dozens of coppers with powerful wizards at their disposal) but this is unsatisfactory to my mind as 1) It is essentially railroading anyway, and 2) The players can be very upset when they realize they were ‘intended’ to lose the fight all along. This happened to me playing the one of the Freeport modules, and it pissed me off!

I prefer a more honest approach to the situation; The GM lets the players know that he is going to be a little heavy handed and then hands them back some ownership of the situation. It could be fun when both can describe together how, say, one by one the PC’s are picked up by the fuzz – sort of like in The Usual Suspects!

Obviously this all requires the trust of the players – not least of which that you aren’t going to enforce terrible consequences on their character; I don’t think they would appreciate having their characters molested in their cells or being told “Yeah, you got prison rot. Sorry, but you shouldn’t have let yourself get caught!” Nor should they be left in prison if they didn’t manage to escape. It’s important that once they have allowed you to control over the destinies that you treat their character concepts with respect.

Ideally it shouldn’t be something you do every session – players like to have power over their character’s lives, and you don’t want them feeling like they are puppets swung left and right by the forces of fate and destiny (unless they want to feel that way) but once in a while, with their permission, you can put the dice down and set up a fun story for the players.

So, what are your thoughts on predetermined plot direction?
 

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Rel

Liquid Awesome
I do it all the time and I was just talking to our current GM doing a bit more of it sometimes. If done wrong then it's pure "railroading" and can ruin the game. If done right I think of it more as "story guidance" and I think it can really tie things together and make the game move forward rather than bogging down.

I particularly do this in one-shot games where you just don't have time to shilly-shally around. In that environment I take the stance that you're better off with the group being a little pushed but moving forward instead of paralyzed by endless debate or indecision.

In an ongoing campaign, I use it less but sometimes I think it could still help, especially in certain circumstances. As an example, at the end of our last game session, we had a replacement PC to introduce. My character was talking to this Dwarven Runelord guy whom I knew was the gateway NPC to the new PC. But the GM was waiting for me to mention a certain bit of information about how the remains of a legendary hero we found were part of their clan. Only problem was that this was the session the day after I got back from GenCon and I was fried. I totally failed to make the connection that their clan name was the same. So we had this protracted conversation where he kept waiting for me to say the right thing and I kept hanging around waiting for the replacement PC to be introduced to the party. It induced some frustration.

If the GM had just said, "So you talk to the Dwarven Runelord about encountering Balkrag the Slayer in the depths of Karak Azgal and his eyes widen in recognition of the name. 'Let me get my nephew! He will want to hear about this!'..." Then yes, he'd have railroaded me but the game would have been funner and moved forward more smoothly.

So I think the technique has its place and too often maligned as universally bad.
 

Agamon

Adventurer
The illusion of choice is the key. It takes practice, both to be subtle in aiming them in the right direction, and handling the game smoothly when things start heading for left field.

So, you don't tell the players, this is what your going to do, and that's that. Have events that happen around them that sort of sweeps them up and soon, what they want to do is what you wanted them to do. Throw in side quests where the players diverge from the main plot when you need to, but if the main plot is engaging, they'll come back to it without any prompting. I know my players hate leaving any mystery unsolved.
 

Rel

Liquid Awesome
Agamon said:
The illusion of choice is the key. It takes practice, both to be subtle in aiming them in the right direction, and handling the game smoothly when things start heading for left field.

So, you don't tell the players, this is what your going to do, and that's that. Have events that happen around them that sort of sweeps them up and soon, what they want to do is what you wanted them to do. Throw in side quests where the players diverge from the main plot when you need to, but if the main plot is engaging, they'll come back to it without any prompting. I know my players hate leaving any mystery unsolved.

Well said.
 

Ciaran

First Post
You could just use aggressive scene framing. "Okay guys, your characters start out this session in prison. How did you get there?"
 

Heathen72

Explorer
Ciaran said:
You could just use aggressive scene framing. "Okay guys, your characters start out this session in prison. How did you get there?"

Yeah, if the players are into that sort of thing, it could work well.
 

Slife

First Post
Ciaran said:
You could just use aggressive scene framing. "Okay guys, your characters start out this session in prison. How did you get there?"

rolled doubles three times :p


Actually, that sounds like a good technique. I'll have to bring it up. Seems more inclined for an episodic format, like a TV show that has a little teaser of the episode at the beginning
 


Matt Black

First Post
Agamon said:
The illusion of choice is the key. It takes practice, both to be subtle in aiming them in the right direction, and handling the game smoothly when things start heading for left field.

So, you don't tell the players, this is what your going to do, and that's that. Have events that happen around them that sort of sweeps them up and soon, what they want to do is what you wanted them to do. Throw in side quests where the players diverge from the main plot when you need to, but if the main plot is engaging, they'll come back to it without any prompting. I know my players hate leaving any mystery unsolved.

I don't care how subtle you are, if I've been playing in a campaign - working towards character goals, making what *I* thought were important character choices - only to find out that there was never really any choice all along... I can't think of anything more disappointing in a game.

On the other hand, if the GM wants to run a particular type of game, and that game requires the players to move in a particular direction, I usually have no problem accepting the hint and cooperating. I prefer a lack of subtlety in these case. Don't try to trick your players into making decisions, unless you're truly happy for them to go in an unexpected direction.
 

Jedi_Solo

First Post
If it's a mega-adventure then tell me ahead of time and I won't care about the railroad. The adventure will, of course, assume I follow along. If I know ahead of time that this is the idea I won't care as much. After all; the mega railroad track is what I signed up for.

For the home made campaign setup, the easiest way is to ask the players at the end of the session when they plan to do for the next session. This gives them the choice and the DM time to prepare for the next session. The players will likely not purposely screw up that night's session. So... yeah... each session in and of itself is a railroad ("we're going into this dungeon/rescuing the princess/commiting suicide against the dragon tonight") but at least the players bought the ticket of their choice. That is fine by me.
 

Gold Roger

First Post
As always trust is key. Players that really trust their DM will enjoy the occasional short railroad to the next scene, because they know it's going to be fun and won't happen all the time.

Other than that, what Rel and Agamon said.
 

Eben

First Post
Agamon said:
The illusion of choice is the key.

Well said! Mastering the art of improvisation helps too. There are usually many ways to get your players in a certain direction. Just don't mind if they take the scenic route.

Peter
 

AuraSeer

Prismatic Programmer
If you want to run a game where the PCs are prisoners, you should let the players know that ahead of time. It's no different than wanting to run a game where the PCs are archaeologists or astronauts or fuzzy white rabbits.

Being a DM isn't just about you. It's about running a game that everybody wants to participate in. If your players don't want to play the part of prisoners, you shouldn't try to force them into it.
 

Evilhalfling

Adventurer
A suggestion I got from another message board regards sceane framing and starting in the middle of an encounter. Don't assume the PCs made a mistake to get there, instead assume that they did something cool or dramatic that seemed logical, and move forward from that point.
 

Ourph

First Post
spunkrat said:
A while ago, I raised the topic of the sacred cows in roleplaying – those things which often generate a (negative) knee jerk response - and one of those is predetermined plot direction, or ‘railroading’. So, in the interests of challenging such truisms: when is it okay to railroad a little? How do you go about it?

While I don’t advocate tying a whole campaign down to an immutable path, I do think that when you want to run a certain type of session, or set up a game in a certain way, it may require a little ‘railroading’ to achieve this. I think this is especially the case when you are running more episodic or ‘vignette’ style games (as opposed to those campaigns which every session flows into the next without any individual session having its own encapsulated story).

Let’s say you want the players to get caught by the fuzz. Perhaps you want to run a ‘prison’ game, or have them brought before a local potentate. There are different ways of going about this – and sure you could create a hook or ‘macguffin’ for your players that gets them to go in voluntarily, but that can take time (as you coax the players around to the idea, or wait while they vacillate and plan) and sometimes you just want them to be genuine prisoners!

This isn't railroading. I think someone called it "scene framing" which is an apt term.

By definition, RPG railroading is a linear phenomenon (just like the real-life item it's named after). It must be ongoing. A single point or bottleneck where the PCs do not have absolute freedom of choice isn't a railroad. If you force them from A to B, they are only restricted from choice at one point (point A). To qualify as railroading, the events in the campaign must be such that the PCs are restricted from choice through many points. When the DM begins exerting influence so that the PCs have no choice but to go from A to B to C to D, that's when railroading is occurring.

I have no problem with "scene framing", as it's in the nature of the game (a DM who pre-makes environments for the PCs to exist in) that the DM is in control of certain portions of the PCs destiny by virtue of his power to control the rest of the world. What I do have a problem with is a campaign where players are restricted from making the best use of their creative problem solving skills by virtue of the fact that some solutions interfere with the DM's predetermined plot.

If my character starts the session in a prison cell, that's fine. If the DM has already determine HOW I will get out of that cell and that I WILL befriend the person who helps break me out and that said person MUST survive for the next three sessions in order for their campaign to proceed, that's when I become unenthused about the game.
 

Treebore

First Post
The only time I hate the term "RAilroading" being brought up is when they are going through a module and have to recover keys, or whatever, in order to enter "X" location.

They call having to get those keys in order to accomplish entering room/place "X" railroading. That is when I get ticked off about its useage.

I guess since the "NPC", or DM, intentionally designed these requirements to make it a challenging, and preferably impossible undertaking, I should be happy when player start to cry about being railroaded.

To me it is when what I/the party does something that should change the course of the campaign, and the DM refuses to alter the campaigns course. THAT is railroading.

Now if the DM really wants to have a certain event happen, and comes up with ways for the NPC/BBEG behind everything to "realistically" mainpulate things so it does happen. That isn't Railroading. That is going up against someone with great planning skills and the ability to manipulate the right person or persons necessary to make a specific event happen.

People are too quick to cry about railroading, probably because real life does it to them just about every day. Or at least seems to. If you don't like being railroaded, stab the BBEG a few extra times when you finally get to him. They are most likely the one(s) who designed things to railroad you in the first place.
 

mcrow

Explorer
I don't know.

I most games I haev played in the GM says " Ok, so heres my idea for the next game" and we most of the time endup responding with "cool, lets do it"

The GM bounces the basic plot off of us, we either agree that it sounds good or ask for something else. So we basically , as players, buy into the GMs plot and play within that plot for the most part. I guess in effect that is railroading, but we do it to ourselves and like it. :p

too me if you are not going to buy into the GMs plot you will ruin the game for yourself.
Thats not to say the Gm shouldn;t find out what the players want ahead of time, cuz he or she should.

Of course it is a bad thing if the GM reduces the game to a story hour or doesn't let you interact with the gaming world unless it is on his terms.
 

Hmm, an example of what I hope is good railroading.

In a game of Shadowrun I'm GMing elsewhere, the PCs are currently fighting their way past a Submarine full of French Pirates for the right to negotiate with a Dragon for a piece of it's treasure it's selling.

A merchant has hired the PCs and came along with them to do the negotiating. No matter what the PCs do I intend to inflict a severe wound (But not lethal) to the NPC so that he can't handle the job and the PCs will have to do it, but he's still alive and they'll get paid if they pull it off. Railroading to give them more spotlight.

I think that's the right way to use railroading, use it to enforce a situation that makes the PCs shine more.
 

Treebore

First Post
Thats not railroading, that using "Sh*t happens" to move the story in a direction you want it to go, because you think it will be cool.
 

Treebore

First Post
Here is an example of railroading, and I would throw in bad DMing,

" I hit the guy with two confirmed crits in a row. Including my 78 points of damage, he has now taken 268 HP of damage. So since you said he looked to be about ready to fall over before I hit he is down and dead, right?" Player says to DM.

"Um, the BBEG acts next and runs away." The DM answers, hesitantly.

"What! You just said he was ready to fall over!"

"Yes, I did, but I wanted him to run away on his turn." The DM answers with guilt obvious in the sound of his voice.

"What kind of baloney is that! He should be dead!" Player responds indignantly.

"Well, I didn't want him to die yet, I want you to kill him later in the adventure." Railroading DM explains.


I can handle railroading when it is believeable that the NPC/BBEG we are after could have set things up to go in the direction things are going in. Such as designing a dungeon/lair with only one way in, or a set of actions that are necessary to acquire the keys of a given lock. or have a bunch of hunchmen make claims that would have the PC's chased by the law or some other organization.

But when it is railroading to the point of "making" things happen a certain way, irregardless of what the players have done that SHOULD have changed how things play out, that is real railroading. That is "BAD" railroading.

Realistic/believeable railroading that allows the actions of the PC's to change the course/flow of the game is good/acceptable railroading.

with the many "definitions" of railroading I have seen here on ENWorld if you so much as set up a game that has a goal and set monsters/evil NPC's in between the PC's and that goal they are being railroaded.
 

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