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Thread: On Railroading

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    Default On Railroading

    Something I've been musing about.

    I think the railroading level of a game (or campaign, or adventure) can be expressed as a level between 0 and 10. There's the extreme cases, but most campaigns fall somewhere in between. A game with 0 railroading can be as boring as one that's completely on the tracks.

    An example of what I'd consider a 10:

    The DM tells you what your characters do on a regular basis. That pretty much sums it up. Most games have "as you leave the town" at some point, but this goes beyond even a stand along NPC to "remind" you of what you need to do.

    An example of what I'd consider a 0:

    DM: Ok, where are you guys?
    Player: We're in a bar, that work guys? Yeah, in a bar.
    DM: Ok, what do you do?
    Player: Ummm, I'll ask the barkeep if there's any jobs available.
    DM: Nothing.
    Player: Well, what's outside the town?
    DM: What do you want there to be?

    This would have absolutely no plot hooks, no preplanned environment, everything is 100% malleable. A "Sandbox" type game taken to the extreme.

    All campaigns have some aspect of railroading. That farmer whose crops were burned by orcs? The DM's trying to guide you where to go. Any mention of a Thieves' guild in town? You can bet the DM's expecting some interaction there.

    However, this is not a bad thing, as long as all involved have the same expectations of the relative level of railroading there will be.

    I've seen many DM's request that players be "good", willing to help others, etc. This is basically saying "I just want to dangle the plot hooks, not shove them down your throat, but in return don't completely rewrite the script too much."

    Similarly, I think games in the higher numbers can be fun, if done right and by willing parties. I'm planning in the future to run a campaign for my girlfriend and her sister. When I told her about this, I specifically stated it as a story that's been bouncing around in my head, that I want to run a campaign of. Well, the first part will be, second will be much more "now that you've played through the backstory, what do you do now" much more open ended. The way I view it for the first part is a stretch of railroad tracks, then open plains, more tracks further along, open plains, etc. There's events I know will happen in the world, and there's things that are much more flexible, but will not impact the main events. The end of the first part I'm basically expecting to be a full on cutscene (in the second part one of their first tasks will be to find out how to counter what prevented them from acting), but I plan to make this known to the players beforehand, and I also hope to involve them in the story enough that they actually enjoy finding out what happens (It'll also lead straight into "it's no longer my story, now it's yours, you are full on center stage" part 2).

    Note that I know (at least 2 of) my players. They love stories, I really think it'll be fun (I'm planning to leave plenty of wiggle room for most of it. It's a very wide train car which they can move around in, despite it steadily moving along the tracks).

    But I digress. I think that railroading != bad, it's surprise railroading that's an issue.

    Thoughts?

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    This.

    Quote Originally Posted by huttj509 View Post
    But I digress. I think that railroading != bad, it's surprise railroading that's an issue.

    Thoughts?
    This is the problem. If I go into a game knowing it's going to be a full-on "DM is telling us a story, we just get to roll dice in combat to see how long it takes us to win/lose", then I can accept that. If I go into it expecting shared control over the story and the DM strips that from me, I will be annoyed.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Railroading has a number of definitions. I think what you termed surprise railroading (I would call it blatant, or immersion breaking) is generally agreed to be the problem moreso than a DM simply taking a more proactive stance.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    I usually try to have a world filled with a lot of inconspicuous plot hooks. I have a plan for the where the playrs will eventually want to go and what will happen when they get there. The group I'm currently DMing is actually actively trying to get to the next unraveling piece of the plot, so I like to throw in a bunch of dead ends and false leads so they keep getting stumped and keep having to actually think about what they need to do next. For example, their big quest right now is finding the uncle of on of the PCs. So, I filled his mansion and the surounding town with clues. Depending on which they follow, it could lead them on three different little quests for information. Two of them (the most obvious two I might add) are red herrings. When they follow the right lead (and figure out where to follow it) they'll get a little bit more information, and a few more leads. If they were to decide to hop the rails and go freelancing, that's fine too. I have adventures planned out for everywhere their little hearts could possibly desire.

    Yes, I am tooting my own horn. I am at peace with this. After being led by the nose through canned plots by my old DM, I am proud of the fact that I don't do that same schtick with my players.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Railroading at any level, even a 10, is fine as far as I'm concerned. Just so long as the players -think- they're acting as they want to, and not just following a pre-planned plot then the story will work fine. The best part is, that epic battle is now something they'll remember as their own, not a cutscene.
    When they remember that time Grok took out a dragon within one round, or when the Bard convinced the NPC city guard to let the party go free even when the group had just killed his best friend, they'll remember their characters, not your description. Even if you planned for the dragon to die straight away, or for the guard to let them go, it will be -their- acomplishment.
    This is railroading at it's best. I'm not saying that railroading is the best DM style, or that it's the worst. It's one of many, and like all the others it can work well, or screw your chances of ever sitting behind a DM screen again.

    Edit: Goddamnit! Someone please suggest some synonyms for me to use, my brain seems to hate me today. Fine, good, when... I think I used each of those words something like 15 times...
    Last edited by Malacode; 2009-06-20 at 04:17 AM.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    I agree with the OP that the main concern is the the players and the DM/GM have close expectations for the amount of "railroading" that will be in a certain campaign, and that this is laid out ahead of time.

    A campaign I'm in currently has the problem where the DM is operating on about a 1, while the players were expecting about a 6. The DM refuses to give any sort of leads whatsoever, and expects us to generate solutions and plans ex nihilo without any leads, 90% of which lead to nothing but dead ends and wasted time. The plot hooks and clues are so subtle that we can never pick up on them, but the DM won't "metagame" and nudge us one way or the other, even when we explicitly beg him to do so because we've been following nonexistent leads and bad hunches for weeks of playtime.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    I think the danger in railroading is that sometimes the players can't get off the tracks. Like, they'll be really into some NPC or minor plot hook and the GM doesn't let them explore it. That's problematic railroading.

    The game I try to aim for is a sandbox with rollercoasters. Players can see the coasters and they can pick one out and hop on at their leisure. If they want to wander off the track, that's fine too. Most games I play in tend to be of the cruise ship variety. We're on rails until the GM lets us off and we can explore freely until it's time to move on to the next attraction.

    I agree that some amount of railroading is necessary. Most of my gaming is done on weeknights from 7-11. Counting the time we spend waiting for people to show up, dealing with paperwork, passing out beers, etc, we generally get 2.5-3 hours of game done a week. If the GM doesn't railroad a little, nothing happens. Players should feel like their characters accomplished something each session and railroading helps accomplish that when you have a limited time frame.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    I run games of Exalted, which is quite the teacher in how to avoid railroading your PCs. See, in Exalted, the characters have ways to simply say "I succeed at doing this" and there is no way to stop them. They have enough of these powers that there is almost no predicting how they will solve a problem. So you have to plan on your feet.

    Instead of sneaking into the fortress and finding the maguffin that will allow them to stop the impending demonic invasion, they might decide to go to the kingdom next door, make themselves the rulers, and then bring their own army to fight back the legions of hell. They might also decide to just annihilate the fortress by using sorcery to call down a rain of acid upon the whole thing or they might pull out giant robots with which to level the building with their footsteps alone.

    So, you have to try to outguess your players, because they have ways they like to do things. Some charge in. Others like the subtle aproach. Some like solving problems with magic. Others like working behind the scenes. Etc. You don't always get things right, but you can at least have some basic contigencies handled and have enough NPCs statted to react at a moments notice.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    The term railroading implies that you're on rails, and thus there is only one direction to go. Any GM that sets up possibilities for several outcomes of events or even several approaches, is not a railroading GM. Railroading is never positive because the term is meant to signify a negative quality specifically.

    There tend to be too much people who confuse a GM preparing for a campaign with a GM railroading.
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    To quote Lord Vetinari:

    "Only idiots and presumptuous fools plan. The wise man steers."
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    My little episodic campaign usually involve quite a lot of railroading. It can't be helped, I got too little time to plan for anything bigger (also, my "campaigns" have so far all been episodic. That tends to limit mobility for the players). With that said, I try to keep myself open for original solutions from the players. All for fun, right?

    (And yes, my current campaign will happen on a railroad)
    Last edited by Learnedguy; 2009-06-20 at 01:16 PM.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    What I'm planning to do for my campaign is dangle some plot hooks in front of the PC/PC's but leave it to them to choose where and what to do. The thing is there is going be consequences if they pick up on them or not. Ex could be a rumor in town of a growing cult, if the PC's find them can stop it or ignore it and have the cult spread and take over the town. Can than start to drop multiple hooks where the party needs to choose to do 1 or the other or split up

    (ex do you investigate the cult which is rumored to be summoning a demon, or help the villagers that are currently being raided by orcs)

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Quote Originally Posted by MrEdwardNigma View Post
    The term railroading implies that you're on rails, and thus there is only one direction to go. Any GM that sets up possibilities for several outcomes of events or even several approaches, is not a railroading GM. Railroading is never positive because the term is meant to signify a negative quality specifically.

    There tend to be too much people who confuse a GM preparing for a campaign with a GM railroading.
    Pretty much.

    This is railroading, people.
    Last edited by FoE; 2009-06-20 at 02:33 PM.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Here are some examples of what I'd call railroading:

    1. A monster never dying because plot calls for it dying later. (This is actually excusable in some cases, I'd think, but as an exception and not a rule.)

    2. The PCs being forced to go to one particular place and everything else disappearing. I think there was someone who posted in a thread once about this. They were in the middle of a flat, featureless plain with a city/tower that had absolutely no entrances, and the tower wall was impossible to climb.

    3. Taking away the value of the PCs actions (which is the point of a heroic fantasy game). Now this is excusable, but again, it's an exception and not a rule. Having to go through the wringer to rescue the princess only to find that she isn't there could work if you didn't do it with the same frequency as a Mario Brothers game.

    That said, I always prefer a game that has a story element. I don't really enjoy having a totally sandbox game. I kind of like the feel that my character has a destiny that I can shape. Real life is boring enough.
    Last edited by AslanCross; 2009-06-20 at 05:19 PM.


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    Default Re: On Railroading

    2. The PCs being forced to go to one particular place and everything else disappearing. I think there was someone who posted in a thread once about this. They were in the middle of a flat, featureless plain with a city/tower that had absolutely no entrances, and the tower wall was impossible to climb.
    Start digging.

    I have all my characters carry shovels and picks for such an occasion.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DamnedIrishman View Post
    To quote Lord Vetinari:

    "Only idiots and presumptuous fools plan. The wise man steers."
    Hehe, definitely true.

    As long as the players *think* it's their idea; then you're gold. (Of course that said, you need to make sure the campaign is able to handle them actually diverging - because no matter what you do, someone is going to do something to get off those rails, even if they never knew they were on them.)
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Quote Originally Posted by Pharaoh's Fist View Post
    Start digging.

    I have all my characters carry shovels and picks for such an occasion.
    At the rate the DM was going, I wouldn't be surprised to have him say that the ground was impermeable rock an inch or two under the soil.


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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Quote Originally Posted by Face Of Evil View Post
    Pretty much.

    This is railroading, people.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Players tend to be oblivious, often even oblivious when you make the hints and plot hooks obvious. Sometimes a DM really can't avoid hitting them with a clue-by-four unless they completely abandon the story.

    I agree with the OP entirely. I don't like a directionless campaign, I like to maintain a modicum of control as a player, but I do like to feel like i'm part of a story and not in a poorly designed world simulation.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Quote Originally Posted by AslanCross View Post
    At the rate the DM was going, I wouldn't be surprised to have him say that the ground was impermeable rock an inch or two under the soil.
    Start a fire, smoke out the inhabitants of the tower.

    Then it starts raining, I suppose.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Actually, you can't get a fire going. Because it's windy.

    I would argue that one can have multiple scenarios and still railroad. Railroading is when you make the players feel their actions are meaningless; choosing between Cinematic Endings 1&2 is still fairly pointless.

    An RPG is like a journey, see? It's not about whether we go to Burma or Sudan, it's about whether we take the train or not.
    Last edited by shadow_archmagi; 2009-06-20 at 09:45 PM.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    To quote, well, me, railroading is not saying "There is a wall there", railroading is when you say "There is a wall everywhere BUT there".

    It's also not Railroading to set a goal. The DM's job is to set a goal the characters would want to do, its the player's job to not mess things up just for the sake of messing things up by saying "I don't feel like protecting the village from the bugbears. Let's go find a dragon and kill eet!"
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    I think it's possible to railroad with multiple scenerios too.

    Going with BRC's wall quote...

    There are walls everywhere except for 3 spots. So there are 3 doors.◙
    We go down the first one...
    An evil group of people that I will ramroad down your throat until you beat them. And you will beat them, thanks to my ultimate NPC that's going with you.
    Wait, we change our mind and go down the second one.
    *Political Intrigue that you cannot avoid and happens regardless of what you do*
    Nevermind, we get the third.
    Same as the first, different flavor.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Seen some interesting discussion points.

    I think the main disagreement I see is whether one can term the low end of the scale as "railroading, but only a little." I just ran with a term I could think of, but I can see where that might cause confusion, as some are used to just using "railroading" to refer to, say, 8+ on the scale.

    Maybe "DM guidance level" would be a better label for the scale.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    It can be used. But everyone is used to a different method that's working well for them. Why bother changing? What benefit would it bring? An arbitrary rating system doesn't seem very useful.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Perhaps another phrasing of it could be that in a non-sandbox game, the DM should know the basic plot, but not the teleplay?

    That is, the DM has mapped out some major points the players will likely deal with (Deal with the cultists in town, trace them back to their temple in the mountains, venture across the sea, find the fabled dungeon, fight a dragon), but not know the player's actions or reactions to any of it.

    In a blatant railroading game, the DM could just as easily hand out scripts with each player's lines highlighted for them. In a reasonably guided game, the DM has little more than the Table of Contents of the book that the players are about to write.

    Wow...huzzah for english major's metaphors

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Railroading in itself is not bad - there are cases where the result must be the same no matter what the PCs do, because otherwise the adventure won't work or will be much less awesome (a big bad running away to reappear later, for example). It must be, however, done subtly - it's all about players not seeing the rails.
    Last edited by Tengu_temp; 2009-06-21 at 08:08 AM.

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Quote Originally Posted by Tengu_temp View Post
    Railroading in itself is not bad - there are cases where the result must be the same no matter what the PCs do, because otherwise the adventure won't work or will be much less awesome (a big bad running away to reappear later, for example). It must be, however, done subtly - it's all about players not seeing the rails.
    Not really. As any series of anything will tell you, it's easy to bring back villians everyone thought was dead.

    Video games are by nature railroads, but the thing about a D&D campaign is that you can't play it a second time to make different choices and notice how meaningless they are. In Fable, it doesn't matter whether you kill twinblade or let him go, both scenarios result in assassins coming after you. But the players would never know that unless they went back and played it again, or unless you gave them some implication that assassins would come.

    In fact, you could easily complete the illusion of free will by waggling your finger and saying "Remember how you (kill/spared) Twinblade? Well now there are assassins after you. You picked wrooong!"

    Now the players have gotten to make a decision and believe it had a repercussion when in reality there was only ever one thing that could happen.
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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Ah the age old issue of killing the major villain.
    The way I see it is that a DM should introduce his major villain early on at a point wheres its impossible for the players to kill it. The players then know their foe but the DM can quite happily have various "major" goons to send after the players while the main badguy sits safely in his underground lair behind 50 inches of concrete.

    I know this is a form of railroading but it works. Depending on how the goons are set up each will be a memorable fight with the potential of them escaping for a rematch later on, possibly as a part of a larger battle with the villain himself

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    Default Re: On Railroading

    Quote Originally Posted by shadow_archmagi View Post
    Not really. As any series of anything will tell you, it's easy to bring back villians everyone thought was dead.
    That's not always possible - for example, it's a setting where you can't bring the dead back to life, there are no convenient ways of making the body disappear before the players can check if this guy really is dead or only appears so, and you need precisely this bad guy to appear later, not his clone, ally, brother or whatever.

    Besides, that was just a very non-specific example. There are other situations where railroading is mandatory to push the story forward, for example "no matter which direction you travel, you'll meet the mysterious stranger on the way".
    Last edited by Tengu_temp; 2009-06-21 at 08:49 AM.

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