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Subject: Behind the Screen #43: To the Untrained Eye, this looks like Railroading! rss

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Michael Daumen
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These are a series of articles written by RPG Geek Games Masters (GMs) designed to provoke conversation, idea-sharing and to give other people helpful insights into what the author thinks makes for a better GM and a better experience for all involved with the game. Feel free to offer up your own opinions on the subject, but keep to the rules of RPGG when doing so. Basically, that means be courteous and don't shoot someone down in flames for their opinion!

Visit the sign-up thread here: Behind the Screen - GM signup thread.
Visit the topic ideas thread here: Behind the Screen - Topic Suggestion Thread
Visit the Article Archive here: Behind the Screen - GM Article Archive

Railroading: A Discussion


Accusing a GM of railroading is seldom a compliment. But since it has many definitions, there may be a genuine disconnect between what a GM is trying to do and what a player is complaining about. This article seeks to hammer out a workable definition of railroading while discussing what’s bad or even good about the tactics it involves.

Just What is Railroading Anyway?


My definition of the term is "intentional deprivation of meaningful choice that’s not fun for the players." There are several elements I want to highlight:

intentional deprivation; i.e. the GM seems to be deliberately shutting off possibilities for the party. Most gamers don’t consider the result of a die roll to be railroading, since that activity is fundamentally random. However, if your thief can’t climb a wall because he failed a check, the result is the same if the GM states that the surface is too slippery.

Likewise, a GM who runs a highly linear adventure isn't responding to player actions as much as starting in a narrow space. The opportunities for railroading are greater, however, as the players have many ways to go off-script.

meaningful choice; i.e. the PCs are denied one or more significant options. This can also be a matter of intent if a GM hasn’t foreseen a tactic that the players want to try. Some players are perfectly content not to make earth-shattering choices, and happily let the GM drop their characters into peril if it leads to enjoyable adventures.

not fun; i.e. the resulting situation or encounter frustrates the players – or at least fails to captivate them. In other words, some trains are pretty swank! For me, this addresses the “quantum ogre” that is wandering down whatever fork the party takes. If everyone at the table is having fun, it’s hard to say that something’s not right.

How Does It Happen?


Most railroading happens when a player attempts something a GM is unprepared for, and she struggles to accommodate it. This might be because a published module lacks a response for every PC-related contingency that might arise. But just as often, a GM has a cool scene or situation in mind and wants the players to experience it. When a party veers off of a session’s planned path, the GM may feel that returning them to familiar ground preserves her prep work or prevents unproductive flailing for new ideas.

Again, bear in mind the question of fun: with the right players and/or right GM, railroading might not ever be an issue.

How Do You Prevent It?


Assuming a GM doesn’t want to railroad a party, there are ways to avoid the temptation. One useful tactic is to begin a session as close to the start of meaningful adventure as possible. This is doubly handy if players might spend session time fighting the creation of the party or traveling to the dungeon. You can always ask one player to explain their bond of companionship afterward, or another to describe something about the journey – especially if doing so involves a bribe of experience or rerolls.

Speaking of incentives, a GM might not see that two options placed before a party can be unequally enticing to the players. Always have a PC’s motivations in mind when designing choices with a preferred selection – and be willing to reward activity a player might think is suboptimal.

In a more general sense, a GM can close off unproductive possibilities by framing the campaign ahead of time. If you do expect that creating the party will be too long and too unexciting, say that PCs will already know each other, begin in the same place or with the same job, or have a reason to adventure together. Players are still making an important choice: to decide to play under these conditions. But now, their decision doesn’t affect things within the game.

If you have setpieces and ideas which you think are cool, be patient if the first opportunity to introduce them comes and goes. NPCs are easier to repurpose; but again, just because the players overlook them once, little keeps you from bringing them back for later. As a bonus, you’ve potentially extended the length of your campaign.

Finally (really, this first and foremost, and applies almost universally, but still), talk to the players! If you are surprised by an unexpected choice, and you don’t want to wing it, say so. Most players are understanding enough to at least delay an activity if they understand that entertainment will suffer at the expense of immediacy. Even dropping a hint at the start of a session (“I’m expecting you’ll be able to visit the palace tonight” – or simply “I have an idea for tonight that I think will be fun”) can alert players that you have something in mind that you hope will be fun.

The Players' Perspective


Roleplaying is a surprisingly nonintrospective activity. Few players will worry that they missed an opportunity because they chose one path another. After all, when a PC looks back over their shoulder, there will always be only one route they’ve travelled.

Just like it can be hard to break character for a GM, players often naturally push back on railroading in game rather than as an aside. This can lead to hours of escalating conflict that might have been avoided by 30 seconds of discussion. No one – player or GM – should feel hesitant to bring concerns up to the table if the goal is to improve the experience for everyone. It’s far better for a player who feels frustrated to bring this to the GM’s attention rather than to harm everyone with angry play.

Players should always have the right to think that a GM has their entertainment in mind, Usually, this is the case, but sometimes there is a disconnect between the plan and its execution. The ability to give a GM the benefit of the doubt goes a long way.

Capture: the Final Challenge


I'll wrap up with something that's a staple of movies and fiction, but probably the number one situation where railroading is invoked: imprisonment. But while James Bond gets captured during every movie in the franchise (sometimes more than once), only a notorious first edition module makes it a centerpiece, which was still resisted at the time.

If you want to try a session where your PCs get captured, make this offer, suggested by Robin Laws, at the start of the campaign or session:

-your characters will be faced with overwhelming force and given the opportunity to surrender at some point in the future
-your characters will have something interesting to do on the inside
-your characters will have the opportunity to escape and recover their gear

You will be surprised at how far honesty will get you!

EDITING NOTE: I added a second paragraph to the "intentional deprivation" part of the definition.
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committed hero wrote:
In a more general sense, a GM can close off unproductive possibilities by framing the campaign ahead of time. If you do expect that creating the party will be too long and too unexciting, say that PCs will already know each other, begin in the same place or with the same job, or have a reason to adventure together. Players are still making an important choice: to decide to play under these conditions. But now, their decision doesn’t affect things within the game.
For me, personally, anything that happens BEFORE we start playing cannot be railroading, so I'm not sure I consider this directly relevant to the article. But I don't care, because it is such great advice anyway. I have have never seen a campaign fail because the GM exercised too much control over the initial circumstances, but I have seen them fail multiple times because the GM exercised too little. When I start a campaign, I won't hesitate to place whatever restrictions I see fit on the character creation process:

* specific motivations: "you are all soldiers of Nation X, and patriots"
* specific occupations: "you are all spies for a particular organization"
* specific relationships: "you are all well acquainted with each other, having done many jobs in the past, and therefore get along with each other at least grudgingly"
* specific circumstances: "you need to play a character who, at the start of the game, has been thrown in a pit on Tortuga by pirates to starve to death"

etc. As you say, players can then self-select into or out of the campaign.

As an corollary, there is an inverse to railroading by the GM, I'm not sure it has a word, but it is where the players intentionally work against the GM's plans to deprive the GM of the GM's own meaningful choices in a way that is not fun. A classic example would be when a GM clearly sets up a "heroic good" campaign for D&D and clearly communicates by what happens in the game that "heroic good" premise, but then one or more players insist on chaotic neutral murder-hoboing while ignoring every possible signal and engagement opportunity the GM is giving. (of course, the exact opposite situation can happen as well, there is nothing more disruptive to a solid murder hobo game than that one person who insists on playing the Lawful Good paladin and ruining the fun.)

I have personally been guilty of this in the past, a fact I am not proud of. I have stayed in a game far longer than I should screwing with the GM's ideas out of...I don't know, misplaced stubborness?...when I should have just thanked the GM and the other players and quit the game when it became obvious what I wanted was not what the other players wanted. In those cases, the GM would have been justified, to some extent, in railroading the heck out of me, because I was being a jerk. But really, the answer was for the GM to take me aside and say "Hans, do you really want to play this game? Why are you doing what you are doing? Can you stop?"

EDIT: the last thing this thread needs is more discussion of what the definition of railroading is.
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Roger Hobden
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Quote:
My definition of the term is "intentional deprivation of meaningful choice that’s not fun for the players."



Hmm ...

So what word would you choose to describe "temporary intentional deprivation of choice in the best interest of the player's fun in the long run" ?

Or, could we simply use the terms "bad railroading", and "good railroading" ?

I am sincerely curious about this.
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I tend to define railroading in a game as "when the characters want to do or affect something and could reasonably do so, but aren't allowed to."

Quote:
If you want to try a session where your PCs get captured,

Personally, I'm of the opinion that if you want to try a session where the PCs get captured, the first rule is DON'T DO IT WILL GO BADLY.
Once you've mastered rule 1, consider just holding onto your capture scenario until the PCs managed to screw up and get themselves into trouble, then instead of a TPK...knocked out, wake up into your capture scenario!

(Sorry...I've been the victim of so many terrible 'railroad you into getting captured' scenarios...)
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Mallet wrote:
So what word would you choose to describe "temporary intentional deprivation of choice in the best interest of the player's fun in the long run" ?


I'd call it "scene framing" unless you are thinking of an example I'm not. The tricky part is that the GM's notion of what is or isn't fun needs to be the same the players'.

Here is my quintessential example of railroading:

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StormKnight wrote:
I tend to define railroading in a game as "when the characters want to do or affect something and could reasonably do so, but aren't allowed to."


There has to be a line between letting the players do anything and having them do something the GM signed up to run.

Quote:
Personally, I'm of the opinion that if you want to try a session where the PCs get captured, the first rule is DON'T DO IT WILL GO BADLY.
Once you've mastered rule 1, consider just holding onto your capture scenario until the PCs managed to screw up and get themselves into trouble, then instead of a TPK...knocked out, wake up into your capture scenario!

(Sorry...I've been the victim of so many terrible 'railroad you into getting captured' scenarios...)


Did your GMs ever tell or warn you that capture was in the cards beforehand?
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All of us have our own definition of railroading, the definition has been discussed ad nauseum on RPGGeek in the past. For example, this thread has four pages of it: https://www.rpggeek.com/thread/2039191/qotd-aug-8-what-amoun...

Therefore, if I could suggest in all seriousness, I think we should all focus on specific behaviours, activities, and responses that Michael's article prompts us to think about, focus on practical advice for GMs, and not get bogged down in definition discussions. That is, if you think his actual advice is good or bad, say so, give your own advice or suggestions on how to make better games or to help GM's, and avoid getting too deep into discussing what counts as railroading and what doesn't.

I've edited my own reply above along these lines.

committed hero wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
I tend to define railroading in a game as "when the characters want to do or affect something and could reasonably do so, but aren't allowed to."


There has to be a line between letting the players do anything and having them do something the GM signed up to run.
In my own experience, this line is actually pretty obvious in practice. Its the moment where I realize that my character is going to end up in a situation I do not desire regardless of what I do, and that situation does not arise organically from the fiction in the story, but rather from the GM's desire for that situation to occur, and this realization makes me mad.

The realization is crucial, I think. If I never realize it is happening, I can't get mad. This is why a lot of advice, I think reasonably, around railroading boils down to "don't let your players know you are doing it." I don't personally like that advice, because for me personally if it fails its going to lead to even more bad feeling; the worst case scenario is worse, in other words. But I think it is reasonable advice because it is based on something true; players can't be hurt (much) by what they don't know is happening.

The anger is crucial, because if I just chuckle to myself and think "whatever, dude, I'll play along" then I'm fine as well. If I am enjoying myself, then who cares? I'll provide a specific example of this. I was in a convention game of Mutant Crawl Classics at Origins last year. The game was literally one big railroad (ignoring Michael's "not fun" element for a moment); stop at Encounter station a, have fight, stop at encounter station b, have fight, etc. Between set pieces, the GM didn't even act like there was any choice; she just pushed things along. But you know, it was a blast! The GM had these fantastic miniatures (they have since done a Kickstarter for them) she was a pile of fun, the fights were hilarious and also tactically interesting. I was happy to ride along on her railroad for four hours.
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committed hero wrote:
You will be surprised at how far honesty will get you!

Perhaps you meant this statement ironically, because I don't see why we should be surprised. It's a pretty normal human reaction for them to dislike things they're forced or tricked or manipulated into.

committed hero wrote:
If you want to try a session where your PCs get captured, make this offer, suggested by Robin Laws, at the start of the campaign or session:

-your characters will be faced with overwhelming force and given the opportunity to surrender at some point in the future
-your characters will have something interesting to do on the inside
-your characters will have the opportunity to escape and recover their gear

The thing is, this must be presented not as what will happen, but as what the DM would like to happen. If the players have no choice but to go along with it, and can't offer any useful feedback or suggestions or preferences of their own then they're still going to feel forced into it, whether or not they trust that what the DM is describing as "interesting" will actually be interesting to them.

At the start of the campaign or session is too late to announce this kind of thing, unless the DM is prepared to make adjustments up to and including not running things this way.

Let me be clear: a capture situation is a fine thing to want, and I think plenty of players would go for it, even blindly. But before planning something that requires the players to be captured, or injured, or robbed or anything else one can reasonably expect them to dislike, it's not a bad idea to ask beforehand whether or not they'll enjoy it. If they won't, then it's likely to be better for the game to either part ways with that player, or try a different approach.
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Who gets to add what to the emerging story of the game? You can cut that allocation of rights and responsibilities many ways. Or even change it as you go. But it is the principle of RPGs to have some established arrangement.

Railroading is unilaterally breaking that arrangement.

If one moment the player can decide actions for their character, but the next they cannot so choose, then they are railroaded. If players ignore the GM or choose actions for characters to abuse or misuse a setting, it is very similar to railroading too.
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skalchemist wrote:
In my own experience, this line is actually pretty obvious in practice. Its the moment where I realize that my character is going to end up in a situation I do not desire regardless of what I do, and that situation does not arise organically from the fiction in the story, but rather from the GM's desire for that situation to occur, and this realization makes me mad.

The realization is crucial, I think. If I never realize it is happening, I can't get mad.


I don't think I could distinguish organic rising from GM desire when the GM is in charge of the fiction. If we are looking for specific activities, I would say not allowing a skill roll in a situation where one has been attempted in the past - and critical hit rules allow for the chance of success in every roll - is bad railroading.

Also, as players we need to express how dice putting us in the undesired location is preferential to a GM deciding it so.

Quote:
The anger is crucial, because if I just chuckle to myself and think "whatever, dude, I'll play along" then I'm fine as well. If I am enjoying myself, then who cares?


I'd be more interested in what you would have done if you weren't having fun. In my mind, butting heads with a GM just because you are unhappy with the setup - as opposed to talking about the situation OOC - can be just as destructive to a session as "bad" railroading. So I will cite the specific activity of punishing a GM via the game and not person to person.
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cosine wrote:
If one moment the player can decide actions for their character, but the next they cannot so choose, then they are railroaded. If players ignore the GM or choose actions for characters to abuse or misuse a setting, it is very similar to railroading too.


Even after failing a save against mind control? When dice are involved, we should either be willing to let them fall where they may, or state your specific preference against such activities prior to play.
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enduran wrote:
committed hero wrote:
You will be surprised at how far honesty will get you!

Perhaps you meant this statement ironically, because I don't see why we should be surprised. It's a pretty normal human reaction for them to dislike things they're forced or tricked or manipulated into.


The surprise is not that honesty works, but that few GMs use it to foreshadow a no-win situation.

Quote:
Let me be clear: a capture situation is a fine thing to want, and I think plenty of players would go for it, even blindly. But before planning something that requires the players to be captured, or injured, or robbed or anything else one can reasonably expect them to dislike, it's not a bad idea to ask beforehand whether or not they'll enjoy it. If they won't, then it's likely to be better for the game to either part ways with that player, or try a different approach.


Here is where a GM needs to stress that she thinks the following scenes will be worth the ignominy of capture. To cite Hans again, she knows the fiction - and deserves the benefit of the doubt if she has delivered so far (evidence to the contrary would obviously affect my ultimate decision). But yes, she should also be willing to table the idea.
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committed hero wrote:
When dice are involved, we should either be willing to let them fall where they may, or state your specific preference against such activities prior to play.

I tend to agree with the first part of that statement, but I don't think the second part of that statement covers things adequately. Agreeing to let the results of dice rolls stand, doesn't necessarily mean upfront agreement with everything the dice might be rolled for. One might agree in principle with every attack roll, but still not be on board with being attacked by an overwhelmingly superior force.
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committed hero wrote:
Even after failing a save against mind control?


It's a troublesome staple of fiction. Tentatively the answer is "yes, mind control, even by the rules, breaks the norms of narrative division" but your point that it is good to roll with the punches is probably best.

The GM should probably limit their use of such effects in traditional games.
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committed hero wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
The anger is crucial, because if I just chuckle to myself and think "whatever, dude, I'll play along" then I'm fine as well. If I am enjoying myself, then who cares?


I'd be more interested in what you would have done if you weren't having fun. In my mind, butting heads with a GM just because you are unhappy with the setup - as opposed to talking about the situation OOC - can be just as destructive to a session as "bad" railroading. So I will cite the specific activity of punishing a GM via the game and not person to person.
I agree completely, that is exactly what I was getting at in my first reply to your post.

I think a one-shot convention game (as I was describing in my anecdote) is a very special case in all discussions of railroading (by any definition), because it has several unique features:
a) it has to be completed in a satisfying way in four or less hours
b) it almost always involves complete strangers
c) the only option for "buy-in" prior to the start of the game is the blurb in the convention program
d) in many cases people have paid real money to participate

Because of these features, I myself accept a much higher level of "railroading-like" activity on the part of the GM in such games than I would in a regular campaign of some sort, but at the same time I am much more likely to "fight back" (in constructive and sometimes non-constructive ways) against what I perceive as misplaced railroading-like activity. Nearly every example I can think of where I probably behaved like a jerk was in a one-shot convention game where I perceived the GM as an awful GM. In my defense, I think that if I provided the details of those situations nearly anyone would agree with my assessment, but the fact is, the better response on my part would have been to stand up and say "yep, I'm done, see ya" at about the one hour mark instead of what I actually did.
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committed hero wrote:
The surprise is not that honesty works, but that few GMs use it to foreshadow a no-win situation.

Yet, I think we know why that is: it's an extremely tough sell. As evidenced in this thread, some people think it's important not to be up-front about a no-win situation, but to make it seem like other than a no-win situation, or (presumably) at least make it seem like a "logical consequence" of something the players have already done. If the players have broken some law and demonstrated their capabilities, it's only "logical" that the authorities would overwhelm them to capture them, rather than give them a fair fight. Of course, that goes for the evil wizard too....

I think GMs assume that if they suggest to the players that the party be captured, the players simply won't go for it, or will put in so many caveats, or demand so much insight into their circumstances, that the purposes of the capture (i.e. surprise, inducing a sense of limit, narrowing choices, requiring new tactics, etc.) will be utterly negated.

I think that GMs who think that are probably right, unless they are willing to be flexible on a lot of points. But I think there's something else that might surprise them, depending on their players: some players, when given control over what happens to their characters, will actually come up with worse things than the GM would be comfortable imposing unilaterally. So, one benefit to being up front with one's player on a railroaded scenario is that they wind up making it better than the GM had intended.

I've railroaded a few things openly.

One was a surprise attack. The party were in a place where they stuck out (they were in a drow city and the party included two eladrin, one a cleric of Corellon), so I told them that their rented room would be attacked. I asked them who would attack them, and they told me "half-drow" (I didn't have stat-blocks for half-drow, so I used shadar-kai). Because he had a habit of shutting down encounters, I asked the wizard if he would mind not being present for the first three rounds of combat, given that he had stated he was going out to look for information. He agreed, but I think we settled on two rounds, rather than three.

The ambush occurred, and was a lot of fun. The wizard had no complaints about being left out initially, because he had agreed to it.

Another time, the party planned a heist to capture an artifact. I felt that the party should not have the artifact at this point, and I told them this. I asked them if we could change the stakes of the encounter: instead of success meaning they had acquired the artifact, success would mean that they would know who had actually stolen it. Failure would mean something else, that might have been more of a dead-end than I prefer these days. They agreed and we proceeded. I forget if they succeeded or not.

At one point, one of the players stated that her character was picking up the artifact and putting it in her bag of holding. I and the others reminded her that we'd agreed that they wouldn't succeed so, while she could do that, it wouldn't ultimately save the artifact. It occurs to me now that it still should have improved their chances of succeeding on the pre-arranged stakes. Anyway, she agreed after we re-explained the arrangement, and we proceeded.

I honestly don't know how I could have handled either of those situations without their cooperation. I mean, I could have tried them, but they would have fallen flat. Arguably, if I'd wanted a particular outcome, I should have planned for it and brought it about "naturally" rather than asking for it to be set a certain way. But I think the player's use of the bag of holding illustrates that it can be tricky to take every player option into account. Sure, a bag of holding shouldn't be too surprising, but I probably couldn't have told you all of the characters' powers and items, and even if I knew them it probably would have taken me hours to concoct something that covered all the bases and wasn't "obviously" designed to overwhelm them. As it stood, the whole thing was arranged on the fly in minutes, and (I felt) was a lot of fun.

So, I feel I've definitely had success with pre-arranging things with my players.
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committed hero wrote:
Also, as players we need to express how dice putting us in the undesired location is preferential to a GM deciding it so.
I think for me the answer relates to what Eric referred to as "unilaterally breaking the arrangement".

In the vast majority of cases, as a player I will accept whatever the arrangement of the game says should happen, using Eric's phrase. By arrangement I mean...
* the actual written rules of the game
* the way the game was advertised to me (either personally by the GM or literally in a convention program)
* my own conversations with the GM prior to joining the game and the agreements I feel we made
* past practice by the GM and the players in the game (related to your skill roll example).
* the flow of the games fiction up to that moment in the game, that is, the shared history of the game so far.

I think that in the vast majority of RPGs all of us have ever played, a die roll putting you in an undesired situation is part of the "arrangement", mostly because it is part of the written rules of the game. Its actually when the GM starts NOT having you roll dice that one begins to suspect a railroad...

EDIT: just to be clear, I agree completely with what I think you (and Paul and others) are saying, that overt person to person (as opposed to mediated by the game itself) conversation is the best way to resolve most of the problems people talk about with respect to railroading.
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skalchemist wrote:
EDIT: just to be clear, I agree completely with what I think you (and Paul and others) are saying, that overt person to person (as opposed to mediated by the game itself) conversation is the best way to resolve most of the problems people talk about with respect to railroading.


I think it depends on the type of railroading and the players involved. For example, one of the worst RPG groups I have ever played in, was railraody. That, however, wasn't my issue with the group (although I hate railroading.)

Anyway, the adventure for them was agree to whatever the NPC wanted (it set the "quest" up.) Then walk from point A to B. They would sit around and talk in character. Not about what to do, but just making up stories about their PCs or other things I found infuriating. At some point between A and B, there would be combat. Combat would take a long time, but not be really dangerous. When it came time to actually resolve anything with the main plot, it would be us observing some high level NPC group coming in to save us and then resolve it.

I was not the only one that had an issue with this. However, there were 3 dominant personalities that dictated things being this way. The other couple of people tuned everything out until it was combat.

I raised the issue and go nowhere. I just bailed on the group. The issue is that what the GM, his wife, and her BFF considered fun, I considered to be one of the most painful RPG experience I have lived through.

I have a much more encompassing definition of railroading than is being used in this thread. I do not want to get into the definition issue, I am just mentioning it for the next point I am going to make. For me, the GM is the neutral arbiter who runs the game world based on an internal logic of the game world. For those familiar with the MMORPG world, the GM is the server that renders the programs and controls the NPC. I have no vested interest in forcing a story, or outcome, or anything on the players. If they do bad and are observed, then it is going to be reasonable for law enforcement to show up. That is not railroading an outcome, it just is what follows from the PC actions. The PCs will deal with the situation however they want.

With that in mind, take Paul's examples. He believes he is railroading some things. However, he gets player's buyins. All of that is perfectly fine for him and his group. It is far better for them to come to an agreement.

However, for me, that is never acceptable. No amount of discussion would make me find it acceptable. The only solution, is for me not to play in that game. Why? Because the others are on enough of a wavelength as to what is acceptable or not for their table. I am not remotely close.

In other cases of railroading or other types of players, talking it out can help. But I think a resolution depends a lot on what players consider to be railroading, their tolerance for it, and more importantly the "style" of gaming that players enjoy.

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SteamCraft wrote:
I have no vested interest in forcing a story, or outcome, or anything on the players. If they do bad and are observed, then it is going to be reasonable for law enforcement to show up. That is not railroading an outcome, it just is what follows from the PC actions.

That's the GM deciding what's reasonable and what does, in fact, happen. As you say, that's not forcing a story, and you're not forcing an outcome to the ensuing encounter, but I'm curious what aspects of that decision are based on the rules and on rolls of the dice. Is it possible, once you decide that law enforcement is looking for them, for law enforcement to fail to find them, without the PCs taking any action? Or do you simply decide that they will be found?

SteamCraft wrote:
However, for me, that is never acceptable. No amount of discussion would make me find it acceptable.

Could I ask though what you find unacceptable about it?

Do you feel that situations like the ones I described could come about without the GM arranging things to the purpose? In my experience as both a GM and a player they don't. What come about "naturally" and get player acceptance are utterly bog standard, conservative, "fair" situations of a very narrow range of variability. I'm honestly not clear how one might bring about anything else "naturally" and I'm honestly curious about the methods, though I'm not likely to try them at this point.

Edit: Or, how does one deal with complaints if the players react with displeasure to something the GM thinks is entirely reasonable? The ambush I talked about was "reasonable," which is why I suggested it to the players, but if I had just launched it and just told the wizard player that he wasn't present, I would have had displeased players on my hands, who might very well have decided that their only reasonable recourse was not to play in the game. Should I just accept that?

Edit: I guess, from what people have said here and elsewhere, that I'm meant to place the blame on the players. "You shouldn't have committed that crime," or "You shouldn't have been so conspicuous," or "You shouldn't have left your allies" and I should be honest (or at least believe I'm being honest) about a different course of action having made a difference. But then aren't there also things that can and reasonably should happen to characters that they can't necessarily do anything about unless they stay home and don't take any risks at all? Who's to blame then? And even if the players are to "blame," does pointing that out really make up for how the players feel about the situation, or does it just make them feel worse? If it's the latter should they or the GM really accept that?
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enduran wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
I have no vested interest in forcing a story, or outcome, or anything on the players. If they do bad and are observed, then it is going to be reasonable for law enforcement to show up. That is not railroading an outcome, it just is what follows from the PC actions.

That's the GM deciding what's reasonable and what does, in fact, happen. As you say, that's not forcing a story, and you're not forcing an outcome to the ensuing encounter, but I'm curious what aspects of that decision are based on the rules and on rolls of the dice. Is it possible, once you decide that law enforcement is looking for them, for law enforcement to fail to find them, without the PCs taking any action? Or do you simply decide that they will be found?


Here is the issue, and I think it is one of the unspoken aspects on the debate between railroading and not, the GM has to make decisions on what is logically possible. This is one of the roles of the GM. However, when making a decision, he is deciding something. If he decides something in this case, how is that different than deciding something more restrictive? I do not know if this is exactly what you are getting at, but part of me is sensing that from your question.

In general, I roll dice when the outcome is uncertain. I probably let the dice determine the outcome more than other people. So, it is fully possible for law enforcement not to find the players. It all depends on the situation, genre, rules system, etc.

For example, if it is a near future RPG and the players are entering a secure area, then there is going to be facial recognition. If law enforcement has been flagged, and they have pictures of file (cameras everywhere, ID stored, etc.) then the machines are going to catch them. (Unless the PCs do something to avoid it.)

If a picture, or even worse, a sketch of the PCs had been made and circulated to the police, then this creates a possibility of the PCs being identified. I would roll dice to determine if there are police in the area of the PC. I would then run a check to see if the police NPC would recognize the players. This would be based on the stats of the NPC with modifiers for if the sketch was there, the quality, identifiable marks, etc.

If the PC made a big enough stink that it becomes a priority, then I would use a NPC investigator. It would run through clues and make checks based on the rule system just as if a PC was trying to track someone down.

enduran wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
However, for me, that is never acceptable. No amount of discussion would make me find it acceptable.

Could I ask though what you find unacceptable about it?


In general, I do not find your example of law enforcement ambushing them to be particularly railraody. I would need a lot more to go on to see how railroady it is. I mean, in a fantasy setting in a fairly small population, I would not find it unreasonable for the PCs to be found. The only actual issue is deciding that the wizard was not there. I would not have warned the players and then had random checks at a time where an NPC might find them the most vulnerable. Perhaps they are being watched. Of course, if the rule system allows it, then the PC would have a chance to notice they are being watched. If a PC (wizard or not) is there or not there would be determined by that.

So, I suppose the main issue with that example is making the wizard not be there for the purpose of how you want the combat encounter to play out.

enduran wrote:
Do you feel that situations like the ones I described could come about without the GM arranging things to the purpose? In my experience as both a GM and a player they don't. What come about "naturally" and get player acceptance are utterly bog standard, conservative, "fair" situations of a very narrow range of variability. I'm honestly not clear how one might bring about anything else "naturally" and I'm honestly curious about the methods, though I'm not likely to try them at this point.

Edit: Or, how does one deal with complaints if the players react with displeasure to something the GM thinks is entirely reasonable? The ambush I talked about was "reasonable," which is why I suggested it to the players, but if I had just launched it and just told the wizard player that he wasn't present, I would have had displeased players on my hands, who might very well have decided that their only reasonable recourse was not to play in the game. Should I just accept that?


I think such things can come about "naturally." For example, in AD&D, there were just lots of random checks for things. That is not the same as what you are thinking, it I do think it gets to my point. Instead of planning X encounter at Y spot, you can use randomizers to determine when or if an encounter happens.

What I am hearing, and I may be wrong, is that you are concerned about disagreements with your players. You have adopted a method of getting them to accept something prior to doing it, to prevent that. A reasonable approach.

I hope that answers what you were asking.

I, on the other hand, would not be concerned. So, let's take the ambush situation. Let us assume that the guards are not idiots and know that one of them is a wizard. They know the group is dangerous. What do you do? Well, you attack when they are most vulnerable. It seems reasonable that they would do this while the party is resting. Why is the wizard not there? He is down the hall going to the bathroom. If the player objects, your answer is, you have to go to the bathroom sometime. They simply waited for you to be out of the room. I would probably go further and have some guards attack the wizard on the toilet.

In your example, part of the issue is that I do not consider it to be particularly railroady. The only issue is the wizard being away, which, if you motivation is not to have a specific type of combat encounter, I would not object to.

I suppose the main issue is that you think railroading is necessary, you want an encounter to go a certain way (or at least start a certain way, and that you are focused on getting players buy in of the situation ahead of time. I do not want to sit around and have things like the ambush be a communally decided on decision. That is more of the wavelength issue I was pointing to.

For me, the railroady aspect is primarily about outcomes or forcing an encounter when there shouldn't be one. For example, the GM had intended them to go path A, but they went B. The GM then forces them to go A.

I have seen your predicament from actually an inverse perspective. It was a Shadowrun game. The players/PC were trying to decide what/how to do something. The GM kept shutting them down. He was not letting them try. I realized this was a situation where the players needed to play the GM and not the game.

I started just talking to them players suggesting a course of action. The point was really just to get them talking about it. It was not about really suggesting a course of action, but rather, explaining how everything worked out. A goes to B goes to C, etc. Then add in my own possible objections and how those would be dealt with.

By having a complete talk through of the plan while the GM was listening, I got the GM to buy in. Previously, it had been the players arguing with the GM. The GM was never going to back down. However, but not directly challenging him, but instead, having a through discussion of a plan and why it is reasonable, he accepted it.

How does that apply to you? If what you have is reasonable and you can provide an explanation for how A goes to B goes to C, then, if challenged by the players, you give them that explanation.

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committed hero wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
I tend to define railroading in a game as "when the characters want to do or affect something and could reasonably do so, but aren't allowed to."


There has to be a line between letting the players do anything and having them do something the GM signed up to run.


I suppose I should amend that to "when the characters, acting reasonably within the genre and agreed on premise of the game, want to do or affect something and could reasonably do so, but aren't allowed to."

Quote:
Personally, I'm of the opinion that if you want to try a session where the PCs get captured, the first rule is DON'T DO IT WILL GO BADLY.
Once you've mastered rule 1, consider just holding onto your capture scenario until the PCs managed to screw up and get themselves into trouble, then instead of a TPK...knocked out, wake up into your capture scenario!

(Sorry...I've been the victim of so many terrible 'railroad you into getting captured' scenarios...)


Did your GMs ever tell or warn you that capture was in the cards beforehand?[/q]

Nope. Forewarning wouldn't have made any of it better though, had things played out the same way.

Quote:
-your characters will be faced with overwhelming force and given the opportunity to surrender at some point in the future

The problems I have with this are:
1) PCs in heroic action games get faced with overwhelming force all the time. That's what heroes in heroic action do - overcome overwhelming force.

2) Players can come up with really damn clever ways of making what was supposed to be overwhelming force way less whelming. Or of escaping from really nasty situations. Which if the GM is determine to capture them and then insists of thwarting...puts us back into railroad territory.

Quote:
Here is my quintessential example of railroading:

To me, that's not really railroading. Well, to the extent its taken to it is, but...the party presumably wants to rest somewhere, this look like a good defensible place to rest. That's a reasonable assumption for a GM to make.

I don't even consider a totally linear dungeon "railroading", as long as its the logical thing for the PCs to be doing and in keeping with the premise of the game. Nor should players be trying to actively thwart the premise of the game. If we're playing a game about heroically questing underground to fight monsters, they should be willing to go underground to fight monsters.
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SteamCraft wrote:
Here is the issue, and I think it is one of the unspoken aspects on the debate between railroading and not, the GM has to make decisions on what is logically possible. This is one of the roles of the GM. However, when making a decision, he is deciding something. If he decides something in this case, how is that different than deciding something more restrictive? I do not know if this is exactly what you are getting at, but part of me is sensing that from your question.

Yes, I think that's what I'm getting it.

Part of the reason I'm wary of the GM deciding what makes sense or what should happen, which I think others are too, which is part of why railroading is an issue, is that people are rarely completely neutral. At best, they have different preferences for fun ways a situation could go, and at worst they are acting on negative emotions such as retribution. Is the law catching up with the PCs because that's what could/should/would happen, or because the GM thinks (and thinks the players would agree) that it would make a fun scene, or because the GM is ticked at the PCs and wants to teach them a lesson? The same can be asked for any situation. The latter two possibilities are arguably railroady, but the last possibility is the worst kind of railroady while the other might be rather acceptable to some people.

SteamCraft wrote:
In general, I roll dice when the outcome is uncertain. I probably let the dice determine the outcome more than other people. So, it is fully possible for law enforcement not to find the players. It all depends on the situation, genre, rules system, etc.

Okay, that's interesting and good to know. I think I've seen random encounter tables in which "law enforcement" is listed with a note to the effect that the encounter is more or less severe based on certain in-game circumstances. Or anyway I can imagine such a table. Is that the kind of thing you roll on?

Without such a rule, it still seems to be up to the GM what to roll, how often to roll, and against what difficulty. GM preference would have to come into it. I feel like when I've tried to take my own bias out of the equation, I'm bending so far over backwards to keep from appearing to have just decided the outcome that I'm reducing the chances of the situation occurring below where I should have bothered even coming up with them in the first place.

SteamCraft wrote:
So, I suppose the main issue with that example is making the wizard not be there for the purpose of how you want the combat encounter to play out.

Yes, I think that was the biggest hitch with that situation, but I also didn't provide any real way for them to avoid the ambush, since they were on-board with it. I think I had them roll Perception checks to determine surprise, but not to have a chance to prevent the attack.

SteamCraft wrote:
I think such things can come about "naturally." For example, in AD&D, there were just lots of random checks for things. That is not the same as what you are thinking, it I do think it gets to my point. Instead of planning X encounter at Y spot, you can use randomizers to determine when or if an encounter happens.

While that seems true to me, that has the potential for encounters I'm interested in never happening, or happening less frequently than is entertaining for me.

It could be argued that I shouldn't have a preference, but I do. I want interesting things to happen in the game. If there's a chance interesting things won't happen in the game (e.g. the wandering monster check never hits, or the wandering monster is always something dull, or the rules always allow the players to avoid it, or defuse it) then I feel like I'm putting my enjoyment of my free time on the line.

SteamCraft wrote:
What I am hearing, and I may be wrong, is that you are concerned about disagreements with your players. You have adopted a method of getting them to accept something prior to doing it, to prevent that. A reasonable approach.

Thanks. Yes, that is my concern. Players who disagree with the GM's assessment that something takes place and that it's both reasonable and fun (for the players) that it take place then they are likely to make me wish I'd never allowed the thing to happen, even if they're fully to blame (which I'm unlikely to agree they are).

SteamCraft wrote:
I, on the other hand, would not be concerned. So, let's take the ambush situation. Let us assume that the guards are not idiots and know that one of them is a wizard. They know the group is dangerous. What do you do? Well, you attack when they are most vulnerable. It seems reasonable that they would do this while the party is resting.

It also seems reasonable that they wouldn't attack at all unless they could do so with overwhelming force that gave the PCs no chance of escape or avoidance. Perhaps they're simply mistaken, but if they're not idiots they'd catch on very quickly that they couldn't dare give their quarry any fair odds at all.

I don't know about you, but I think many GMs would agree that it's preferable for somewhat fair odds to exist, for the enemy to attack when there's still a pretty good chance for them to fail, i.e. for the PCs to be victorious. That seems to me to be the GM deciding to make a certain outcome much more likely than it "should" be, even if they don't guarantee it. Should we see that as railroading?

SteamCraft wrote:
Why is the wizard not there? He is down the hall going to the bathroom. If the player objects, your answer is, you have to go to the bathroom sometime.

Do you find that that settles the matter? In my experience, that's merely the opening salvo in an argument, possibly one that devolves into discussion of biological functions and waste disposal that no one present really wants to have.

SteamCraft wrote:
They simply waited for you to be out of the room. I would probably go further and have some guards attack the wizard on the toilet.

While reasonable, it means having a fight in a toilet with the wizard in a state of undress. I wouldn't want to play out such a scene even if arrived at totally impartially. I take it you and your players would enjoy such a fight as much as they would anything else, though. Is that right?

SteamCraft wrote:
In your example, part of the issue is that I do not consider it to be particularly railroady. The only issue is the wizard being away, which, if you motivation is not to have a specific type of combat encounter, I would not object to.

As you see it I would have to have no motivation at all except to simulate the facts of the ambush. Is that right?

SteamCraft wrote:
I suppose the main issue is that you think railroading is necessary, you want an encounter to go a certain way (or at least start a certain way, and that you are focused on getting players buy in of the situation ahead of time. I do not want to sit around and have things like the ambush be a communally decided on decision. That is more of the wavelength issue I was pointing to.

Okay, I think I understand. What I don't want is to sit around arguing with my players about why what I have brought about is impartial and plausible. And I also don't want to sit around only having encounters that they wouldn't find reason to argue about if imposed unilaterally. Yes, I'm looking at the worst possible case, but I've seen a lot of arguments around this kind of thing. As I see it, discussion is going to happen either way and it can either be collaborative and fun or oppositional and divisive.

SteamCraft wrote:
For me, the railroady aspect is primarily about outcomes or forcing an encounter when there shouldn't be one. For example, the GM had intended them to go path A, but they went B. The GM then forces them to go A.

Yes, I agree that that's worst case. I don't plan on them making a particular choice, but if I don't see how to make a particular choice they do make interesting, I won't hesitate to ask for their input.

SteamCraft wrote:
How does that apply to you? If what you have is reasonable and you can provide an explanation for how A goes to B goes to C, then, if challenged by the players, you give them that explanation.

I'd rather not be challenged in the first place, because by that time they are already in a position to disagree and to not accept my explanation, no matter how plausible. And there are three to five more of them than there are of me, and I'm not three to five times cleverer than each of them.

Thanks for go into detail about your point of view, though. That gives me at least a little more understanding as to why some people react so viscerally to the idea of collaborating on what happens to their characters.
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I've already had a situation where the town guards were searching like crazy for the PCs who for quite some time succeeded in evading them by using disguises and sticking to the back alleys as they tried to get out of town. When, due to a roll of the dice, the PCs did get caught, they, due to a different die roll, managed to bribe the guards that caught them and still got away!
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Mulligans wrote:
I've already had a situation where the town guards were searching like crazy for the PCs who for quite some time succeeded in evading them by using disguises and sticking to the back alleys as they tried to get out of town.

If the characters had not deliberately taken steps to evade them, would the guards definitely have encountered them? I ask because some crimes can simply be difficult to solve, without the perpetrators taking particular pains to evade discovery, or can be outprioritized by other things. Or, law enforcement might be inept or corrupt, or be allowing certain crimes to go unpunished due to political wrangling having nothing to do with the perpetrators.
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enduran wrote:
Mulligans wrote:
I've already had a situation where the town guards were searching like crazy for the PCs who for quite some time succeeded in evading them by using disguises and sticking to the back alleys as they tried to get out of town.


If the characters had not deliberately taken steps to evade them, would the guards definitely have encountered them?


For sure. If they would have stayed put at a location that they were known to frequent, that would be a given.
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