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

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

There's no chance that they might not have had the manpower, or that some other crime might have been of more importance?

I heard a story recently: a local area had passed an ordinance to make it illegal for truckers to park their big rigs overnight on certain residential streets. Months passed and no tickets were written and the problem persisted. When they were questioned, law enforcement explained that they only had a single officer assigned to enforcing that particular ordinance - and that he only worked during the day.

Point being that just because it's "logical" for something to happen in a game doesn't mean it will. If it does, it could be due to the GM deciding that it will.
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enduran wrote:


Point being that just because it's "logical" for something to happen in a game doesn't mean it will. If it does, it could be due to the GM deciding that it will.


Well, I suppose I could have made a hidden roll to see if the town guards had something better to do than search for a group of wanted individuals who were known to be at large. There may have been a dozen other things outside of the box that could have prevented them from finding the PCs if the PCs didn't try to avoid being found, but I'm not about to introduce that much randomness into a game!

If I simply decide that the town guard is so understaffed that they can't afford to pursue known criminals, then I'm still "deciding". Unless you are making tons of rolls on random charts, a GM has to make decisions. The PCs are the focus of the story. Let them come up with any method they choose to do anything they want to do to react to these things. If someone or something gets in their way, roll the dice and see what happens.

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Jamie Hardy
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enduran wrote:
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:
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.



The first thing I would like to point out is that just because a decision is made by a human does not make it objectionably arbitrary. Just because a decision is made does not automatically create a problem. I think this is a point that some of the pro-railroad side miss.

Arbitrary means without reason. If something occurs in the game because of the GM decision, is there a reason behind it? If so, what is that reason? This is where the rubber meets the road. What counts as a good reason?

For the non-railroad camp, a reasonable reason would be that given how the game world works and assumed background knowledge, this is going to happen. For example, I know based on reality, that if I were to shoot and kill a police officer that all of law enforcement would mobilize for a massive manhunt. So, in a modernish style game, that would occur if the PCs did the same.

On the other hand, a pro-railroad camp might not find that a good reason. Someone on that side might think that a good reason would be that it makes a good story. I am sure there are other reasons, but many of them are likely focused on some type of narrative.

This ties into a particular issue. There are some who want the story to drive the game. Others want the game to drive the story. For me, and I am sure many others, the story comes about by playing the game. It is like a person's real life. The story of your life comes about by living. In the same way, the story comes about from playing the game. Please keep these ideas in mind while I raise a second point.

There are many cases I have seen or heard of where it turns into the GM vs players. I do not understand this, but I know it is a common occurrence. One of my guess is that the players perceive the GM as being bias and trying to go after them, so they behave in a certain way. That in turn leads the GM to actually go after the PCs in retaliation. This is one of the reasons why some players really like a lot of rules and rule lawyering. The cause I suppose does not matter because I know it exists.

You seem to have now or in the past, a "combative" relationship with your group. By that, I mean they have or you expect them to argue with you of aspects of what is reasonable or not. If, generally, I do not trust the GM's decision, then why is that person the GM? Why am I in this group?

Now, I want to go back to the issue of the GM's decisions, not being arbitrary. Is there a reasonable explanation based on the logic of the game world? Does the GM's decision follow the rules? Those are the issues I am concerned with. Provided so, then I am fine with a decision.

The role assigned to the GM is to make these decisions. It is not the role of the player to make these decisions. My players accept this distinction. It am not capricious. I do not drive a narrative. I do not based decisions on what I think is "fun." I let the outcome be determined by dice. I have had it where the PCs jumped into a situation stupidly, were getting theirs butts handed to them, and one managed to get a vorpal sword and rolled a natural 20 so off with the main person's head. It derailed things, but so what? That is what happened. In the same way, players have taken precautions and things ended up with a TPK.

enduran wrote:
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?


I do not agree with that. I think that is part of the design philosophy behind WotC D&D, which is one of the reasons I dislike it. You take the risk of resting in a dungeon, there is a chance of being attacked while weak. There is a chance of there being overwhelming odds if you make a wrong turn.

I have put a situations where the PCs should have lost. Not intentionally, it just made sense in the situation. The players found ways to overcome those challenges. What I did not do was adjust the odds to be fair or give them an even chance of success.

enduran wrote:
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.


What I am about to say will likely upset some people, but it is not my intention. I think when it comes to RPGs, it is possible for two GMs to run the same rule system and generally enforce them the same. However, the style of play at the table essentially leads to the different groups not playing the same game.

I am not saying that one style is not a game or not an RPG. Instead, I am saying that your style is focused a lot on collaboration, what would make things fun, what would make a good story, getting players to have a "say" in what happens to the PCs, etc. That is a very different game than the GM being a neutral decision maker who runs the world and lets the dice determine what happens.

I think this is part of what goes on in discussions such as these. I will give you a final non-consequential example. In a Star Wars game, one of the PCs got a crystal for her lightsaber. She wanted to know what color is was. The GM said it was up to her. That bothered her. She wanted the GM to decide the color. She was expecting the GM to make all of those decisions and it bothered her when he didn't. I could image other gaming groups where the color and in fact the entire story about how the PC got the crystal to have been determined prior to it being played out. I am not saying that is how you would GM the situation. I am just saying that other gaming groups that would occur.

For my PC, I didn't care and just choose a cool looking color for the type of crystal it was. Like her, I would have preferred the GM to decide, but it was not a huge issue having to pick out my own color. Nonetheless, how a game is played can lead to the same game feeling and playing as though it is a very different game.
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SteamCraft wrote:
The first thing I would like to point out is that just because a decision is made by a human does not make it objectionably arbitrary. Just because a decision is made does not automatically create a problem. I think this is a point that some of the pro-railroad side miss.

Arbitrary means without reason. If something occurs in the game because of the GM decision, is there a reason behind it? If so, what is that reason? This is where the rubber meets the road. What counts as a good reason?

I think you're onto something here.

In my games, everything that happens is plausible. Likely I don't know about, but it's plausible.

But more to the point, it's enjoyable. I find that helps with the plausibility because people tend to look less critically at things they're enjoying.

There's also usually a reason. There might be a clear reason, because the cause and effect happened right in front of the players, or there might be a reason that isn't clear, and perhaps is unknown even to me as GM. The reason might not ever matter, if the game doesn't turn in that direction, or last long enough. Or the players might know the reasons and the characters not. Or the characters might know the reason and the players not.

I also tend to play in fantastic settings, which helps broaden the range of what's plausible and what reasons there might be for things, and probably also weakens the players' need for a clear reason.

SteamCraft wrote:
For the non-railroad camp,

I don't know if you did this deliberately, but making pro-'thing I don't like' and non-'thing I don't like' groups is a bit iffy, rhetorically. It's overly simplistic, for one thing. What group do you think I'm in? Hint: I'm not "pro-railroad."

SteamCraft wrote:
a reasonable reason would be that given how the game world works and assumed background knowledge, this is going to happen. For example, I know based on reality, that if I were to shoot and kill a police officer that all of law enforcement would mobilize for a massive manhunt. So, in a modernish style game, that would occur if the PCs did the same.

On the other hand, a pro-railroad camp might not find that a good reason. Someone on that side might think that a good reason would be that it makes a good story. I am sure there are other reasons, but many of them are likely focused on some type of narrative.

I'm not quite sure what you're saying here.

The "pro-railroad" group might not find what a good reason for what? It reads a bit like you imagine that in very clear cut situations, there are people who deliberately cause something to occur that's a non-sequitur. If so, I think that's a straw horse, at least as far as what I'm talking about is concerned.

I don't want illogical things to happen, I just want things to happen that my players and I actually want to have happen. It could happen that they shoot a police officer, sure. And normal police procedure (as we all understand it in our group, not being experts) would follow from that. But unless we want the game to focus on them dodging the police, that's not what the game focuses on. It happens, but it doesn't necessarily matter that it happens.

What happens instead? I myself don't know, and it would greatly depend on the kind of game. Since, as GM, I allowed it to be possible for a police officer to be shot, I would have done well to consider ahead of time what could happen next, but assuming I didn't I'd ask the players. After all, it's just possible that they'd love to be on the lam from the police (we might have established that earlier as well), in which case, that's what we focus on. If not, well, something plausible happens such that the manhunt can rage away and maybe even complicate things, but not be the focus of the game. The way we determine if it's possible is a player suggests it. If a player suggests it (and is playing in good faith) then it's plausible to that player, and is therefore plausible to me. If it's not plausible as-is to anyone else at the table, they're welcome to add to it until it is plausible to them.

The plausible next thing might fit neatly into a narrative, or it might not. That's not the point. The point is that what happens next is inherently enjoyable, in and of itself. It might also be an additional payoff for something that happened earlier, and might itself turn out to set up something that is a pay-off later. But it's definitely enjoyable on its own.

SteamCraft wrote:
This ties into a particular issue. There are some who want the story to drive the game. Others want the game to drive the story. For me, and I am sure many others, the story comes about by playing the game. It is like a person's real life. The story of your life comes about by living. In the same way, the story comes about from playing the game. Please keep these ideas in mind while I raise a second point.

Yes, I'm aware of this style of play.

In my experience, such a game consists largely of nothing. There are long stretches of real-time between anything engaging happening. My understanding is that people who enjoy this style of play feel that the build up and the occasional interesting moments make the whole thing worthwhile. If so, I can readily believe that. But in my experience things can easily go wrong and if an interesting thing isn't reached (possibly because people got tired of waiting) or turns out not to be interesting to some or all of those involved, then a lot of time has been wasted. So, I focus my efforts on bringing about interesting situations almost constantly. Maybe there's also a long term payoff, but if not at least we still completed some interesting things.

SteamCraft wrote:
There are many cases I have seen or heard of where it turns into the GM vs players. I do not understand this, but I know it is a common occurrence. One of my guess is that the players perceive the GM as being bias and trying to go after them, so they behave in a certain way. That in turn leads the GM to actually go after the PCs in retaliation. This is one of the reasons why some players really like a lot of rules and rule lawyering. The cause I suppose does not matter because I know it exists.

No, the cause is quite important. The cause is that the game is not what the players want to be experiencing. It's a waste of their time. They are quite rightly troubled by that, especially when the game takes hours of their weekend or, worse, their money at a convention. Concerns over bias might enter into it, or might not. "Being bored" is often too vague a term to give vent to, so players do find game-based reasons to be annoyed, but that's not necessarily the real reason. It's not necessary about GM vs. players.

SteamCraft wrote:
You seem to have now or in the past, a "combative" relationship with your group. By that, I mean they have or you expect them to argue with you of aspects of what is reasonable or not. If, generally, I do not trust the GM's decision, then why is that person the GM? Why am I in this group?

Maybe they were the only one who wanted to do it. That doesn't mean they're any good at it, that they're worthy of trust. And, yeah, many groups fall apart quickly when the GM abuses the players' trust. It's well known.

There's no reason, inherently, to trust the GM right out of the gate. That trust needs to be built. I prefer to get started on that quickly, by setting up a fun situation immediately and concluding it at least partly to everyone's satisfaction. Part of how I make it fun is I give the players a degree of say as to the particulars of the encounter. Usually not exactly how it turns out, but what the possible outcomes are (eg. what total success, partial success, draw, partial failure, complete failure might mean) and what some of the details in the scene are.

It's possible I could just craft the whole scene myself and the players would enjoy it. I've done it before. But I've also had my own scenes fall completely flat, since I'm not a mind reader.

SteamCraft wrote:
Now, I want to go back to the issue of the GM's decisions, not being arbitrary. Is there a reasonable explanation based on the logic of the game world? Does the GM's decision follow the rules? Those are the issues I am concerned with. Provided so, then I am fine with a decision.

Based on that, you wouldn't necessarily have an issue with anything that happens in any of my games.

Reasonable people can disagree about what is a reasonable explanation. Reasonable people can even disagree about whether a DM's decision follows the rules. Does this ever happen in your games? I could believe it doesn't, but given how common it is it in the hobby, it also wouldn't surprise me if it did. Logic and rules just aren't always enough. Relied on them for a long time, and didn't get the results I wanted. Not because my players were antagonistic, just because they, as reasonable people, disagreed.

SteamCraft wrote:
The role assigned to the GM is to make these decisions. It is not the role of the player to make these decisions. My players accept this distinction.

Okay, I do make those decisions. I base those decisions on a lot of things including: what my players think would be fun to include in the game. You don't do this, but lots of GMs do this to one degree or another, with one degree of success or another. Some of them talk to their players about what would be fun. That's what I do, and sometimes I do it during the game.

Sure, that can make it seem like they're deciding things, but I have to agree that what they are saying is a good idea. It just so happens that I always do.

SteamCraft wrote:
It am not capricious. I do not drive a narrative. I do not based decisions on what I think is "fun." I let the outcome be determined by dice. I have had it where the PCs jumped into a situation stupidly, were getting theirs butts handed to them, and one managed to get a vorpal sword and rolled a natural 20 so off with the main person's head. It derailed things, but so what? That is what happened. In the same way, players have taken precautions and things ended up with a TPK.

When you say it "derailed" things, what do you mean?

I also let outcomes be determined by the dice, it's just that I don't put outcomes we wouldn't enjoy on the list of results. I generally request that players be able to smile their way through three natural 1s in a row, since I do like to play combat by the rules, but I also do what I can to ensure that losing in combat is still interesting for the players, so that there's less need for them to make sure I'm getting every roll right.

Re: balanced encounters
SteamCraft wrote:
I do not agree with that. I think that is part of the design philosophy behind WotC D&D, which is one of the reasons I dislike it.

You dislike it because of whose philosophy it is?

SteamCraft wrote:
You take the risk of resting in a dungeon, there is a chance of being attacked while weak. There is a chance of there being overwhelming odds if you make a wrong turn.

Sure, and I think that's really interesting. If I wanted to play a game like that, I'd talk to the players about it, to make sure they also thought it would be interesting. But then again, the cost of failure of being attacked while they're weak would be (to the best of our ability) something they'd find interesting. Maybe death or capture, some people dig those, but hopefully something else.

SteamCraft wrote:
I have put a situations where the PCs should have lost. Not intentionally, it just made sense in the situation. The players found ways to overcome those challenges. What I did not do was adjust the odds to be fair or give them an even chance of success.

Same here. They lose at least partially on a regular basis.

SteamCraft wrote:
What I am about to say will likely upset some people, but it is not my intention. I think when it comes to RPGs, it is possible for two GMs to run the same rule system and generally enforce them the same. However, the style of play at the table essentially leads to the different groups not playing the same game.

If you mean not having the same experience, I agree. But it's misleading to say that they're not playing the same game. If they have the same books, it's the same game. But if someone says "Let's play D&D!" you can bet that I'll ask them a lot of questions about what they mean.

SteamCraft wrote:
I am not saying that one style is not a game or not an RPG. Instead, I am saying that your style is focused a lot on collaboration, what would make things fun, what would make a good story, getting players to have a "say" in what happens to the PCs, etc.

Not what would make a good story, but otherwise yes, that's a pretty accurate assessment.

SteamCraft wrote:
That is a very different game than the GM being a neutral decision maker who runs the world and lets the dice determine what happens.

The difference for me is that, while I have no doubt that you and your players have fun, there's nothing in that description that indicates fun is likely to be the outcome. I believe neutral decisions and random determinations happen, but unless someone finds that inherently fun, I would not tend to believe that anything fun happens on anything like a regular basis.

That said, I'm a firm believer that people can find fun in anything, if they're bought into it, and I believe that some people need assurance of neutrality in order to be bought in. So I would guess that for such people, they make anything that happens to them part of the fun.

SteamCraft wrote:
I think this is part of what goes on in discussions such as these. I will give you a final non-consequential example. In a Star Wars game, one of the PCs got a crystal for her lightsaber. She wanted to know what color is was. The GM said it was up to her. That bothered her. She wanted the GM to decide the color. She was expecting the GM to make all of those decisions and it bothered her when he didn't.

Why, though?

Is it because she wants to believe that the game world is real, that there's a right answer that exists independently from her? I know there are people who feel that way. And the GM giving up narrative control to that player or another player can actually make the immersion much deeper. I wouldn't necessarily say "What color do you think it is?" in response to her question. I might say "It's exactly the color you expected it would be" or "least expected." Or "It's the color of your murdered lover's eyes." In my game, another player would be allowed to answer and if that happened, I'd confirm it. All of those things seem to me like they would enhance the believability of the answer.

SteamCraft wrote:
I could image other gaming groups where the color and in fact the entire story about how the PC got the crystal to have been determined prior to it being played out. I am not saying that is how you would GM the situation. I am just saying that other gaming groups that would occur.

Yep, I can imagine that. And I can imagine all that work coming to nothing when the PCs make a decision that would negate it all. Since I'm not planning a story, I'd set that work aside (it might be useful later, but might not) and go with that new decision, rather than railroading them. The more work one puts in ahead of time, the harder the urge to railroad can be, so I put in a little as I can.

SteamCraft wrote:
For my PC, I didn't care and just choose a cool looking color for the type of crystal it was. Like her, I would have preferred the GM to decide, but it was not a huge issue having to pick out my own color. Nonetheless, how a game is played can lead to the same game feeling and playing as though it is a very different game.

A minor quibble with the phrasing, but that's how I generally see it phrased, sadly. It makes us seem more different than we really are.

Thanks for laying out your views on this. It has helped me understand things a little better.
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Jamie Hardy
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This has gotten way off track from the original thread that it may be best to let this go for this thread. My original point was that talking to resolve issues related to railroading is far more complicated because railroading is related to so many other issues.

Beyond that, I would like to clarify what I meant about WotC D&D design philosophy. It is that the ethos of the game changed to a very different type of game. One with much less PC death and the concept of balancing encounters out for the PCs. Making things fair, etc. For me, it is about what should be there based on the game world. Sometimes it means the PCs and kill them on on the first round, other times it might be the PCs would likely die before even taking their turn. That might be extreme, but my point is that I do not factor in balancing the encounters for the players to generate any particular type of odds.

The last point is about that two tables can play the same rules and yet it basically be that they are playing different games. I used to think in terms of "style" of gaming, but I think that glosses over many things. I think there is a point where something is so different that it does not seem like the same game as another table. I played 3E at a couple of different tables. They were very different. To an outside observer, it would not look like the same game other than the books and dice. Yet, the rules were followed the same.

I do not want to go so far as to say that people observing our respective games would come to the same conclusion. However, I have started to think that RPGs can be played so differently, even if the the rules are followed, that it feels like you are playing a different game. Take a particular RPG. That creates a "language family." Withing that language family, there are particular languages. Within particular languages, there are dialects. In many cases, most people encounter other gaming groups that play different dialects. In other cases, it is as though they are speaking a different, yet related language.

When it comes to discussing how people play games, sometimes it is that they are playing different languages but do not realize they are. In other cases, they think they are playing in different languages, but as it turns out, it is simply an issue of pronunciation or a grammar difference. It can be difficult to discern.

In any case, it might be best to focus on the specifics of this OP.
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I think a lot of this is really based around: are the GM and the players on the same page?

Do they want the same things?
Have they communicated what they want?
Do they know what they want?

I've used this analogy before: RPGs are like bands. Some things will work and some things won't, depending on the musicians/players, what you are trying to accomplish, and how long you want to do it.

Sure, you can have a smooth jazz soprano saxophonist be the front man of a death metal band and that would probably be a pretty funny single/one shot, but I can't imagine the Kenny G and GWAR collaboration putting out an album and going on tour/running a campaign.

People need to communicate their expectations and desires, and that goes on both sides of the table. Do that and you have a structure for how to run the game, including whatever rail roads you want or don't want.
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M. B. Downey
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Personally, I prefer longer campaigns with

A well-developed characters with lots of potential hooks and goals
B tying those hooks together in interesting ways to come up with several possible story directions
C letting the players decide which goals and hooks they want to pursue
D allowing the story to unfold organically around the players' actions (or inactions)

I don't railroad on my end in any fashion. It's literally reminding the players of all the things they have going on and asking "so...what do you want to do?"

This definitely takes a combination of lots of planning and the ability to make up things on the fly. But I never say "here's the plot, this is what's happening, these are the encounters in this order and let's go!" In campaigns anyway. One shots/convention games are a different matter, though I still set up the scenario and then react to what the players do.
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With your head held high and your scarlet lies You came down to me from the open skies It's either real or it's a dream There's nothing that is in between
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SteamCraft wrote:
I think when it comes to RPGs, it is possible for two GMs to run the same rule system and generally enforce them the same. However, the style of play at the table essentially leads to the different groups not playing the same game.
Truer words about RPGs have rarely been spoken.
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StormKnight wrote:
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Did your GMs ever tell or warn you that capture was in the cards beforehand?


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


I submit that if you've never been forewarned, you can't be sure this is the case. If the GM has been amazing up until that point, and capture was a trope of the campaign you were playing in, you wouldn't give her the benefit of the doubt in any case?

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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.


There are presumably 2 ways out of a linear dungeon: straight out to the end, or retreat the way they came in. It's not railroading as long as the party chooses the latter and the GM suddenly caves in the tunnel. If, as in Moria, the cave-in happened before the retreat idea was floated, I'd still be OK with it. Maybe that means railroading should involve a conscious reaction to a player's decision? Arguably, this addresses the quantum ogre situation too, if the encounter is planned before the players get to the fork in the road.
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enduran wrote:
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.


I don't consider this railroading as long as the party didn't take ambush-preventing steps that had worked in the past & somehow didn't work on this occasion. Otherwise it's just dynamic npcs.

Quote:
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.


So the artifact was there, or was stolen?
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committed hero wrote:
I don't consider this railroading as long as the party didn't take ambush-preventing steps that had worked in the past & somehow didn't work on this occasion. Otherwise it's just dynamic npcs.

Though even if they had taken such steps, perhaps they could have been worked around by the NPCs?

committed hero wrote:
So the artifact was there, or was stolen?

It was there when they arrived at the vault (which we skipped to, rather than having the heist foiled at some earlier point), but it was stolen by a third party while the PCs battled the security forces. They had an opportunity to succeed on determining who the third party was, which I believe they achieved.
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downeymb wrote:
People need to communicate their expectations and desires, and that goes on both sides of the table. Do that and you have a structure for how to run the game, including whatever rail roads you want or don't want.

Very much agreed, to the point that I believe that communication must be ongoing. I like to do it in the midst of the game (easier now that I mostly do play-by-forum, but I used to do it at the table too), but communication outside of the game could be just as good.
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Here is a style of GM'ing that leads to a very different game than the one I run. The GM has a very clear vision of the entire storyline that will happen when they sit down at a table. They know that the characters will first do X, then do Y, then have a problem while doing Z, and finally have a big climactic battle against the evil ones and defeat them. Or something like that. This GM is utterly convinced that this story is AWESOME! And they may be right about that, or they may not. But what matters is they are convinced.

This style of GM'ing can lead to at least two different games being played (as Jamie wisely put it).

* There is the game where the players sit down and enjoy the GM's planned story. They work out their roles in that story, performing the script, as it were, making such decisions as necessary around the edges, improvising dialogue and minor business, and after the defeat of the evil ones leave the table thinking "Wow, that was such a great game! That was the best GM ever."

* There is the game where the players sit down and start playing the game, and find that every decision they make is contradicted, every choice they make made meaningless, by the GM. They chafe and buck against this, fighting it every step of the way. The session is a trainwreck, and the player's leave the table grumbling about what a railroad it was.

This is why I think the bad emotional reaction is crucial to the perception of railroading. Because I have been in both those games. I can see, in hindsight and sometimes while it is happening, that the EXACT same GM style was at play.

I've seen GM's who use this style at conventions, people who have been running games like this for years and years, probably with very stable play groups (because anyone who didn't want that GM's story has dropped out long ago), and who are honestly convinced that they are the best damn GM's in the world. And then are astonished, hurt, and confused when the run a game for a group of players and it is a 2nd bullet game. Four of my top five worst experiences at conventions were these GM's.

But its because of that first bullet point that I hesitate to call this style dysfunctional. Its not what I want in a game, at all. I'm pretty sure its not what most of the people who are reading this post want in a game. And yet, across the history of RPGs I think it has been one of the more common styles of GM'ing, and has led to some of the most long-term stable campaign play.

I'll go a step further and say it has led to some of the most lucrative RPG products and lines for RPG companies. Both Forgotten Realms and all of the Old World of Darkness arise from and directly support this style of gaming, for example. I am certain that any RPG that has led to a novel was this style of GM'ing.
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skalchemist wrote:
I am certain that any RPG that has led to a novel was this style of GM'ing.


And I am certain that this is false.

Plenty of amazing games and stories arise from significant player input beyond the GM's plans and in the style of "so...what do you want to do?" Just look at Critical Role.
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..My definition of the term is "intentional deprivation of meaningful choice that’s not fun for the players." ....
I am glad you said players with the s. Instead player. If 6 out of 7 players are having fun then it is not railroading.
However you did not cover buy in railroading. Which basically covers the DM running only modules. And the adventures are linear.
It not railroading if it is logical and in the theme of situation. I had a player said I was railroading his pc when He got exiled for attempted bribery of official in Waterdeep. Yes that 6 pack of free Pabst blue ribbon cost him a year. He had gotten off on 14 counts of murder with a reason. I forget all the crimes his pc got away with just fines.
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I will say that convention games are a different beast. I accept railroading much more in convention and one-shot type games. Which is interesting that you think they instead lead to more stable campaigns. My experience is almost the exact opposite - the most stable campaigns that I have run or played in stemmed from more sand box or significant player input games, with one exception.
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I think there are some concrete solutions to make sure you get the first case and not the second:

(1) GMs can think in terms of scenes the party is in, as opposed to actions that must be done. Ideally, any required actions become obvious by the details and/or inhabitants of the scene.

(2) GMs get clear and reliable information about what motivates PCs, so they can design leads to more scenes that players will not hesitate about grabbing. The more scenes these hooks can be in, the likelier it becomes that players will reach for one.
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jasperrdm wrote:
..My definition of the term is "intentional deprivation of meaningful choice that’s not fun for the players." ....
I am glad you said players with the s. Instead player. If 6 out of 7 players are having fun then it is not railroading.
However you did not cover buy in railroading. Which basically covers the DM running only modules. And the adventures are linear.
It not railroading if it is logical and in the theme of situation. I had a player said I was railroading his pc when He got exiled for attempted bribery of official in Waterdeep. Yes that 6 pack of free Pabst blue ribbon cost him a year. He had gotten off on 14 counts of murder with a reason. I forget all the crimes his pc got away with just fines.


Sounds like someone who has a very different idea of roleplaying than you do. I wonder, how would he respond to this: "The GM's job is to provide verisimilitude." (paraphrasing Matt Coleville)
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committed hero wrote:
(2) GMs get clear and reliable information about what motivates PCs, so they can design leads to more scenes that players will not hesitate about grabbing. The more scenes these hooks can be in, the likelier it becomes that players will reach for one.


This is definitely one key aspect of my successful GMing experiences.
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downeymb wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
I am certain that any RPG that has led to a novel was this style of GM'ing.


And I am certain that this is false.

Plenty of amazing games and stories arise from significant player input beyond the GM's plans and in the style of "so...what do you want to do?" Just look at Critical Role.
I think you misunderstood me. I was not making a comment on the quality of stories in RPGs, which can be awesome regardless of the style of GM'ing/play, agreed completely. I was making a comment on the sort of GM that ends up writing a novel (or series of novels) based on the games they ran.

However, this is definitely a tangent to the main point I was making, so I withdraw the point.
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I think there's a bit of binary thinking about what is/isn't railroading in this thread. I'd encourage you to think of it more like a continuum, where there's more-sandboxy vs. more-railroady type games. The former tend to present an open world for the PCs to interact with, while the latter tend more toward driven storylines.

Both have their pitfalls. The pitfalls of railroading have been well-enunciated in this thread: The frustration with lack of player agency, the sense that what the characters do doesn't matter, etc.

But the sandbox-style game can devolve into a world so open that the players don't really have any idea where they should be going next. "Well, what do we do? I dunno."

Every game needs some limits on it so the GM can provide content for the players, but enough freedom that the players feel like the GM isn't constraining them down to a single path*. And that changes depending on group dynamic, too. Right now, I'm running a game for some dads-and-kids. Sometimes, I just have to say, "Hey, here are some options. You can pick one or do something else. What do you want to do?"


*This has applications outside gaming, too! I work in a product development shop, and we continually have discussions about our constraints vs. prescribed solutions, and how deep those constraints should be.
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robbbbbb wrote:
I think there's a bit of binary thinking about what is/isn't railroading in this thread. I'd encourage you to think of it more like a continuum, where there's more-sandboxy vs. more-railroady type games.

As well as a continuum of player-GM collaboration.

I admit that I have a hard time not focusing on the worst-case pitfalls of approaches other than the one I use... which is why I use the one I use. But it's hard for me to tell if people don't like my approach because they're focused on the worst-case or because even the best case wouldn't be enjoyable for them.
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From my notes on a recent 1st level adventure:

Railroad Conductor wrote:
4-1. HAUL OF VAULTS

A long hallway of vault doors, all of them hastily-reinforced with extra welded slabs, chains, braided wizard corpses, etc., etc. And all them them seething, breathing, straining to open... The very fabric of spacetime throbs with HATE.

One is popped open, and a giant pile of gold pieces has spilled out—along with Magnhild Hrungvirsdottir (the third-eldest daughter), shredded and sprayed across the floor, wall, and ceiling. She has a Lightning Staff (2 charges, 3d6) clutched in her disconnected hands.

WHAT GOT OUT?!

The vault itself is covered in gilded frescoes that stab cruelly at the mind; the floor is awash in gold, sweet, sweet gold...

(If anyone insists on figuring out how to open another one, and comes up with something that could concievably work—even as you describe the ABSOLUTE AND ALL-ENCOMPASSING HUNGER that beats through the very æther—well, then let 'em have it. And by "have it" I mean let the thing out to forever-nightmare-fuel devour 1d4 party members per round until they're all gone.)

And goddamn if the 13-year-old didn't try his hardest to open one.

#meaningfuldecisions
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robbbbbb wrote:
I think there's a bit of binary thinking about what is/isn't railroading in this thread. I'd encourage you to think of it more like a continuum, where there's more-sandboxy vs. more-railroady type games. The former tend to present an open world for the PCs to interact with, while the latter tend more toward driven storylines.

Both have their pitfalls. The pitfalls of railroading have been well-enunciated in this thread: The frustration with lack of player agency, the sense that what the characters do doesn't matter, etc.

But the sandbox-style game can devolve into a world so open that the players don't really have any idea where they should be going next. "Well, what do we do? I dunno."


I do not think that there is necessarily a binary thinking in this thread in terms of what is or is not railroading. I think people will agree there are different levels and types of railroading. However, I think it is a grave mistake to view the issue as one of a continuum between railroad and sandbox.

There are some potential issues with sandbox style games. Once you think that there is something the players "should" be doing, then you already have a different mindset than a sandbox style game. In this case, it is about there being plots for the PCs to discover.

The problem you point as is more to with issues of player initiative or the degree of structure in a game. With player initiative, it is expected that the PCs desires and actions direct the direction of the game. It is all driven by them. Sometimes it is planned out by the players and other times it is a spur of the moment. I had a group do some playtesting for me. The write up of the session I got was that the PCs were starting to work on an adventure, got distracted by an airship, and instead they went and stole the airship.

If players have no idea what to do, it means that they are not the type of players who are driven by their PCs internal motivations. Many players, even in 'sandbox' games, need some type of input. Again, I like MMORPGs as an analogy here. In those games, there are lots of NPCs to give quests. So, in a PnP game, it is simple to have situations where there are NPCs that the PCs interact with directly or indirectly that can lead the PCs to do something. Of course, there are some games that are essentially missions oriented like Shadowrun (5th Edition) that do not have this problem.

However, I think it is a mistake to think that the potential problems with sandbox games are from it not having enough railroad elements. The problems are caused by other factors.

In other words, you may think that railroad and sandbox each have potential problems. But the problems are not one that can be mapped on to the same line. If you were going to mix all of the different aspects involved I think you will be looking at a complex coordinate system instead of a gradient.
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