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Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, off to a good start

77IM

Explorer!!!
Back to Sinister Secret, now that I've had time to read the adventure more carefully, here's what I've got.

1. Some treasure (including gemstones and books) will be burnt and/or lost. Too bad, so sad -- poverty is just as fun as wealth. The biggest losses here is probably the alchemist's spellbook and the plate armor; the armor may be recoverable, as might the pound of gold in the basement (likely melted into weird shapes; gold has a pretty low melting point).

2. Some monsters probably driven from their homes, such as giant insects, insect swarms, and stirges. Mostly I think these would just scurry off without incident. The undead are a bit harder to judge, but I think they'd mostly burn up and be crushed by rubble.

3. The smugglers would retreat to the caves, along with their valuables. They'd probably make a crude effort to barricade the entrance from the basement to the cave, hoping that they can still use the "haunted rubble" as part of their operation. (I'm assuming here that the basement ceiling is the wooden floor of the house above -- I can't see someone constructing a large wooden house but making the ground-level floor made of stone.)

4. Lots of clues would be destroyed.



Questions for the Council of Sages:

A. What steps would you see the smugglers taking to put out the fire? I'm assuming one or two would go upstairs and scout it out, especially if only one side of the house is burning. I don't think they have the resources to really put out a house fire, but could they collapse part of the house, saving the rest? What would that take? How likely would it be for the PCs to spot them at these activities?

B. If you were Ned, bound and gagged and locked in a room, and you smelt smoke, what would you do? I assume he'd try to escape, possibly through the fragile floor, but what then? How would he get out of the restraints? What would he tell the PCs if he does escape?
 
It matters because the interesting consequences could be very different. Both interesting, but different.
It doesn't work that way in practice. Different implies the possibility of uninteresting. You cannot guarantee that if different outcomes are possible, that they are all equally interesting. And if you can't guarantee that they are all equally interesting, you can't guarantee that they are interesting at all. But more to the point, if the different choices are all interesting, then the choice is not as meaningful in the sense that either the player cannot own the choice, or the choice was always going to lead somewhere anyway so it didn't really matter.

Also, it's not impossible. In Apocalypse World, for example, boring outcomes are explicitly against the rules;
Well, that settles it then. All I have to do is forbid something by rule and it can never happen.

it's actually easier to obtain interesting outcomes for any group that has more creativity than a lump of lead.
Well, at least I'm sort of getting through to you. Now at least I've gotten you to consider the possibility, since we seem to have reached the point in the debate where to avoid considering the idea you just insult the participants. But let's imagine now that the players really don't have more creativity than a lump of lead, though in point of fact I don't think that is a prerequisite to this at all. It doesn't matter if you are preparing first or playing no myth, some choices are going to be more interesting than other choices and some choices are not going to be interesting at all.

I think if we go one step less abstract than the level you are, there is a simple proof.

I think only two proposition are necessary to prove the point.

a) The players must have agency to create their own story. If they can't, then there choices don't matter and so are uninteresting.
b) Not all stories are good stories. Some stories are much less interesting than other stories, and are less enjoyable to experience.

Consider a good story, say, "Shawshank Redemption." It's widely regarded as a classic movie, and it features a very well told story with the sort of features that make for good story telling.

But now imagine that this is an RPG, and the players are characters but they don't know what the story is. They are just creating it through play. They have no template for this story to follow, and if they did they would have no agency. The GM wants to tell an exciting story, but has only a loose notion of what that story is. If he had a complete understanding of the story to create, the players would have no agency and the choices wouldn't be interesting. So the players begin to play. We could easily replay this sort of story a hundred times, making different choices. But it's highly unlikely that in any of those 100 retellings that we'd tell a story as good as "The Shawshank Redeption" Certainly some of the time we'd make choices where little happens. Perhaps the players make choices that amount to, as in the words of the original story, getting busy dying rather than getting busy living. No one tries to escape or imagines an escape plan that can succeed. Perhaps they do try to escape but make choices that make it obvious that plan is going to fail. If the plans can't fail, then no interesting decisions really went into them. Maybe a redemption occurs, but it isn't as complete or poetic. Telling a good story is difficult. Perhaps most groups fail, but it should be obvious that at least some groups can fail. Could be the GMs fault, but it can equally be the player's fault - afterall we are assuming they have real agency. Real agency requires that you be allowed to create a bad story. Maybe you thought it was the best story you could create, but then in hindsight you realize that it wasn't that great of a story and that it is altogether in hindsight boring - however much the rules forbid this from happening.

Or consider, suppose as part of a story compromise some character is imprisoned as a result of the choices of the player. They tried to rob a jewelry store and were caught. They broke the law and they decided to avoid dying in a glorious shootout, and to "fail forward". But then, after that one PC is imprisoned, the other players think about it and they are like, "Yeah, I don't think we're going to risk breaking him out of prison." Now the problem here is the interesting story of the guy in prison doesn't line up with the interesting story for the other players. The escape attempt from prison could be as interesting as the story from "Shawshank Redemption", but that story might play out over the course of years or decades. Perhaps the interesting story here is something like that of Jean Val Jean from "Les Miserables". But while those choices could lead to interesting stories, meanwhile the other group is having a dense series of near daily adventures and hijinks, while the slow plodding story of life in prison plays out. Sooner or latter, the now isolated PC's player is going to decide, "This sucks. This is boring. Sure, I might be telling "Shawshank Redemption" in here, but this story is boring and I can't think of way to make getting out interesting. Sure, the GM could just decide its interesting to let me escape now, but that would mean that my choice really didn't matter. I could get back to the interesting stuff, but my agency will be invalidated both now and in the past, because of the GM's "Get out of Jail Free" card being used to get me back in play. Either I must now abandon this PC's story, or concede that it's too boring to continue and so use fiat to reboot it." Whatever choice is made in that situation, the choice happened in the metagame precisely because the in game choices weren't leading to interesting play.

And there is no guarantee either new choice would lead to interesting play or interesting decisions either. The freedom to tell your own story always implies the freedom to have a bad story. No amount of fiat force by the GM to make the choice become interesting can prevent that, and in fact the truth is the application of excessive GM force to get the story back to where it could be interesting itself means that the choices weren't interesting, because in a different context we'd recognize that application of GM fiat to move agency from the player, dice, or setting to himself is what is commonly called "railroading".
 
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Istbor

Explorer
Questions for the Council of Sages:

A. What steps would you see the smugglers taking to put out the fire? I'm assuming one or two would go upstairs and scout it out, especially if only one side of the house is burning. I don't think they have the resources to really put out a house fire, but could they collapse part of the house, saving the rest? What would that take? How likely would it be for the PCs to spot them at these activities?

B. If you were Ned, bound and gagged and locked in a room, and you smelt smoke, what would you do? I assume he'd try to escape, possibly through the fragile floor, but what then? How would he get out of the restraints? What would he tell the PCs if he does escape?
I'd ask myself, what is in it for the smuggler's to potentially put their lives in danger to put out this old house. I don't think it would be. They would either hunker down in the caves, or just leave, and find a new place to set up in. Let it burn down. If the pile of ash and rubble can still serve a purpose towards keeping curious folk away, then it is business as usual. And after a certain amount of time, a burned down building is pretty unexciting.

In context of the setting. Most of Saltmarsh think Smuggling is a victim-less crime. More or less regular people who don't want to pay extra hard earned coin to the Monarchy.

I think that is important here. The context. When others say you might get a bad rep, or question why people in town would dislike the burning of the house, I think it is simple. The town is a hotbed of discontent. Half the town is trying to push it towards progress and growth while the other seems a bunch of nosy outsiders at best, and at worst, lackeys from a King that has traditionally neglected them.

Ned is a harder question for me. How is he tied, how good are the restraints? How solid is the door or walls of this run down place? Can he get to his feet and ram the door or a not so solid wall? Can he slip the gag and cry out for help? Where did the fire start? His side of the building, would he even be able to get out or would getting out of that room lead to a quicker death by suffocation? I don't know. Personally, if I was running it and the players straight up decide to burn this place down without much forethought, I don't see that person surviving. Them's the breaks. It is an investigation story where there is no investigation. Those that can get out will try to. He probably will too, but being trussed up in a locked room really puts you at several disadvantages.
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
My question is, do the heroes know anything about what or who might be in the house? If they don't, burning it down is a very stupid idea. They could be killing innocents, losing vital information, and/or destroying valuables they might want to acquire.

As the DM, I know what is in the house, but if my PCs pull a stupid move like that, I'm definitely inventing consequences regardless of what is actually in the house. Punitively? Yeah, a little bit, try to teach them to think things through before taking action. At a minimum, I'd put the body of an innocent townsperson in the rubble, killed by the PC's actions.
 

MonsterEnvy

Explorer
As far as I see it, burning down the house is another way of saying I don't want to do this adventure. When the task at hand is to investigate what it's in the house and you don't know what's inside it. Burning it down is counterproductive.

To me it's the equivalent of asking to play a board game, then after set up flipping the table, and saying you still want to play.

My question is, do the heroes know anything about what or who might be in the house? If they don't, burning it down is a very stupid idea. They could be killing innocents, losing vital information, and/or destroying valuables they might want to acquire.


As the DM, I know what is in the house, but if my PCs pull a stupid move like that, I'm definitely inventing consequences regardless of what is actually in the house. Punitively? Yeah, a little bit, try to teach them to think things through before taking action. At a minimum, I'd put the body of an innocent townsperson in the rubble, killed by the PC's actions.

While not totally innocent there would be a the body of a townsperson in the rubble.


Also the Heroes should be going in with no info about what was in the the house other then rumors of it being haunted. With the job given by the town being to investigate it.
 
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Paul Farquhar

Adventurer
(I'm assuming here that the basement ceiling is the wooden floor of the house above -- I can't see someone constructing a large wooden house but making the ground-level floor made of stone.)
Actually, stone flags would be pretty standard, even in a house that was otherwise wooden.

Wooden floorboards on a lower floor is a fairly modern innovation, to keep people's feet warm, and provide somewhere to conceal pipes.

You might have wooden floorboarding on the ground floor of an inn or somewhere with a large cellar because the dug out basement level is effectively the lower level.

Since the game doesn't specify, you could rule either way, however, given that fire burns upwards, even a wooden floor might survive. Remember we are dealing with 1st level characters, so their ability to turn a slightly damp wooden house into a blazing inferno is probably limited.
 
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jasper

Rotten DM
It's not railroading if the world responds realistically to the players' actions*.

Railroading would be if, having burned down the house, they stumbled over a clue directing them to the next adventure location anyway.


* This is where it helps to "know what you are talking about (TM)". Those people who have actually read the adventure know that the consequences of burning down the house would be counterproductive ON THIS PATICULAR OCCASSION. It's not a case of "punishing the players", on some adventures burning down the house might be helpful, just not this one.
If I was homebrewing. I would skip to the fourth adventure. No railroad. Those meddling kids with the Wildshape Druid who favor grey danes solve the first three adventures and get the Xp and rewards. Gee Shaggy how do like the +5 holy avenger.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
You might have wooden floorboarding on the ground floor of an inn or somewhere with a large cellar because the dug out basement level is effectively the lower level.
In this case, there is an extensive, full-story basement that extends beneath the entire first floor of the house. I'm assuming that digging the basement as a pit and then covering it with wooden floor is considerably easier than propping up flagstones, but maybe there is some aspect of basement-construction that I'm missing.

Since the game doesn't specify, you could rule either way, however, given that fire burns upwards, even a wooden floor might survive. Remember we are dealing with 1st level characters, so their ability to turn a slightly damp wooden house into a blazing inferno is probably limited.
That's a good point that I hadn't thought of. I'd been assuming that the burning house would collapse inward, impacting the floor (probably breaking it, since it's rotted) but maybe the whole thing would just smolder and smoke for a while, allowing the flimsier pieces to burn off while the frame stays upright.
 
It's not railroading if the world responds realistically to the players' actions*.

Railroading would be if, having burned down the house, they stumbled over a clue directing them to the next adventure location anyway.
The gameworld doesn't have a life of its own. It's authored. As a general rule it's the GM who authors it, and who decides what is or isn't realistic in respect of it.

So the gameworld responding "realistically" (ie as the GM thinks it should/wants it to) absolutely can be railroading.

The stumbling over the clue sounds like it might be second-tier adventure design and action resolution, but witnout more I don't see how we can tell whether or not its railroading.
 

Burnside

Explorer
TBH I plan on starting this one by having one of the characters be a descendant of the alchemist, and inherit the deed to the house following the death of a relative. So they'll have a built-in reason to investigate and clear the place rather than destroy it. Money accrued over the course of the campaign could be used to restore the house if they want, and it could serve as a base of operations for future adventures - the hidden dock and cavern complex make it very attractive.

To me the glaring flaw in this adventure as written isn't to do with the house. It's the three lizardfolk on the Sea Ghost. They explicitly start out non-hostile to the adventurers (mistaking them for smugglers). But the writers of this adventure - and indeed the entire follow-up adventure, Danger at Dunwater - don't seem to anticipate the possibility that the heroes would take any course of action other than immediately butchering them on sight.
 
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Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
To me the glaring flaw in this adventure as written isn't to do with the house. It's the three lizardfolk on the Sea Ghost. They explicitly start out non-hostile to the adventurers (mistaking them for smugglers). But the writers of this adventure - and indeed the entire follow-up adventure, Danger at Dunwater - don't seem to anticipate the possibility that the heroes would take any course of action other than immediately butchering them on sight.
Maybe change it to two humans and a lizardfolk to cause some hesitation. Or trust that, now that lizardfolk are a playable race in 5E, your players won't kill them on sight.
 

Burnside

Explorer
Maybe change it to two humans and a lizardfolk to cause some hesitation. Or trust that, now that lizardfolk are a playable race in 5E, your players won't kill them on sight.
Oh my players almost definitely won't kill them. The problem is that the adventure assumes they definitely will kill then, and makes no allowances for them NOT doing so. Parlaying with or interrogating them would render 90% of Danger at Dunwater moot.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
Oh my players almost definitely won't kill them. The problem is that the adventure assumes they definitely will kill then, and makes no allowances for them NOT doing so. Parlaying with or interrogating them would render 90% of Danger at Dunwater moot.
Ah... That is an issue then. Even the most obvious solution--having the lizardfolk take up arms and fight to the death--is imperfect, since unlike in 1E, players can knock targets unconscious at 0 HP.

So if the players go that route with the intent to interrogate the lizardfolk, what do you do? Do cyanide pills exist in Greyhawk? Um... I guess they do now. :)
 

Paul Farquhar

Adventurer
The gameworld doesn't have a life of its own. It's authored. As a general rule it's the GM who authors it, and who decides what is or isn't realistic in respect of it.

So the gameworld responding "realistically" (ie as the GM thinks it should/wants it to) absolutely can be railroading.

The stumbling over the clue sounds like it might be second-tier adventure design and action resolution, but witnout more I don't see how we can tell whether or not its railroading.
If the DM authors "how would people realistically respond" it's not railroading, it's responding to player decisions. If the DM authors "how can I change the world to keep the PCs on the pre-defined story" it is railroading.

In this situation, you could have the smugglers try to assassinate the players, and one of them having a map to the ship, thus putting them back on the railroad tracks. But that would make the players' decision to burn down the house meaningless.

There is also the meta-interpretation of the players' actions. Burning down the house they where asked to investigate could be interpreted as a way of saying "we aren't interested in this story".
 
There is also the meta-interpretation of the players' actions. Burning down the house they where asked to investigate could be interpreted as a way of saying "we aren't interested in this story".
Maybe. Maybe not. Easiest way to find out is to ask them.

If the DM authors "how would people realistically respond" it's not railroading, it's responding to player decisions.
I think of railroading as meaning the GM is the one who decides all the outcomes. Whether the GM does that by deciding what s/he thinks is realistic, or in some other fashion, cuts across the issue. It doesn't determine it.

In this situation, you could have the smugglers try to assassinate the players, and one of them having a map to the ship, thus putting them back on the railroad tracks. But that would make the players' decision to burn down the house meaningless.
Why? (Assuming that it was meaningful in the first place.)

I mean, the assassination attempt could easily be railroading (depending on context). But if the players haven't taken any actions with the intention of affecting the ship (eg because they didn't know about it), then the GM deciding that the PCs (and thereby the players) now learn about the ship isn't forcing any outcome onto play.
 

Paul Farquhar

Adventurer
Maybe. Maybe not. Easiest way to find out is to ask them.

I think of railroading as meaning the GM is the one who decides all the outcomes. Whether the GM does that by deciding what s/he thinks is realistic, or in some other fashion, cuts across the issue. It doesn't determine it.

Why? (Assuming that it was meaningful in the first place.)

I mean, the assassination attempt could easily be railroading (depending on context). But if the players haven't taken any actions with the intention of affecting the ship (eg because they didn't know about it), then the GM deciding that the PCs (and thereby the players) now learn about the ship isn't forcing any outcome onto play.
The DM always decides the outcome, but they should take into account the actions of the players' when doing so. Railroading is when the players' decisions have no effect on the outcome. I.e. the outcome is the same no matter what the players do.

* Players' investigate the house and find a clue that leads to the ship

* Players burn down the house and find a clue that leads to the ship

Is a prime example of railroading, since the players' decision did not affect the outcome - it doesn't matter what they do, the outcome is the same. They may as well read a novel.

Another thing to take into account is U1-3 is a subtle story. Players who burn down houses they are asked to investigate are likely to start a full scale war with lizardfolk in U2 then die trying to fight 50 unpronounceable-shark-people all at once without backup in U3. It might be advisable to send the players' into a different sort of adventure entirely.
 
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The DM always decides the outcome, but they should take into account the actions of the players' when doing so. Railroading is when the players' decisions have no effect on the outcome. I.e. the outcome is the same no matter what the players do.
This.

* Players' investigate the house and find a clue that leads to the ship

* Players burn down the house and find a clue that leads to the ship

Is a prime example of railroading, since the players' decision did not affect the outcome - it doesn't matter what they do, the outcome is the same. They may as well read a novel.
They'd be better off reading a novel. The novelist presumably decided on a good story, and a good story at least conveys the since that the actions of the characters lead to meaningful consequences. When we read a novel and things happen purely to accomplish some preconceived plot and characters are made to jump through the essential story hoops without much motivation and sometimes contrary to what we've been lead to believe the character would do, then we tend to think, "This isn't a very good novel."

One of the problems I have with the U series as an adventure path, is that U2 in particular only is interesting if the players behave in the author's preconceived fashion. That is, the players are expected to go in blindly fighting the lizard folk, and then at some point short of killing all the lizard folk they change tactics. If the players never change tactics, then the adventure is fairly lame. If the players don't go in kicking the doors down, there is no adventure at all and the GM is provided such a minimalist idea for what the adventure should then be that it's likely to be unsatisfying even if they try to flex. In a module for low level adventurers, I consider this a very egregious flaw since the GM is often likely to be equally inexperienced.
 

Paul Farquhar

Adventurer
When U1-3 where originally published pretty much everything else on the market consisted of "kick in the door, kill the monster, take the treasure", so actually having a plot at all was pretty innovative.

I haven't run U2 with my current group, but from what I know of them (Star Trek fans) they would probably not kill any lizardfolk and would quite enjoy a combat-free session of negotiation and diplomacy. But you need to pick the adventure to suit the players, and GoS also includes some combat-heavy stuff.
 
The DM always decides the outcome
I think this is pretty contentious.

Railroading is when the players' decisions have no effect on the outcome. I.e. the outcome is the same no matter what the players do.

* Players' investigate the house and find a clue that leads to the ship

* Players burn down the house and find a clue that leads to the ship

Is a prime example of railroading, since the players' decision did not affect the outcome - it doesn't matter what they do, the outcome is the same. They may as well read a novel.
But if the GM always decides the outcome, and decides it based on stuff the players have no knowledge of, then they also may as well read a novel.

If the players don't know about the ship, don't know that burning down the house will destroy clues to the ship, if they just decide to burn down the house for whatever reason, then the only person who is actually playing the game in deciding that because of the house-burning, the PCs find no clue to the ship is the GM. It's all just the GM making decisions off-screen. Which to me seems the very paradigm of railroading.
 

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