Wednesday, February 9, 2011

DM's Corner: Railroading Is Not A Crime

Have you ever been accused of railroading a party? A while back (before my self imposed exile from GMing) I was running a short adventure for a few friends. It was a 1st level adventure for "Just made up", wet-behind-the-ears adventurers. The beginning premise is that the party stumbles on a dead adventurer in the wilderness and find the deed to an inn. Once arriving in the town that the inn is located, they find that it is in disrepair, thus beginning the adventure to restore it and run it as an adventurer hot spot. After all, all those "You all begin in a tavern" adventures have to take place somewhere!

Anyways, as soon as they got the gist of the adventure they started making train noises and saying things like "I can hear the train coming" Was that a fair assessment considering how little they knew about the adventure itself? Was I actually forcing them down a path without realizing it? I know i'm out of GM practice, but I thought I was just laying the background and lead in for an adventure, not twisting their arm and putting them on the railroad tracks.

If that were the case, aren't all pre-made modules "railroading" the players into following a set path of some sort? By that logic, the only way to NOT railroad them is to say "You all begin at a tavern, now what do you want to do?"
The Inn in Question
I may have been a little overly-sensitive at the moment because I was nervous to run a game after so long away from the GM screen, but I didn't think that giving a party a lead in to the adventure was forcing anything on them. Especially considering the fact that moments later I explained to them that there were numerous things that needed to be fixed at the inn and each of the merchants in town that could help them would need "favors" and they were free to pursue them if they wished or work on their own. And yet I still got the vibe that they felt they were trapped into playing the adventure.

I guess I'm a little protective of my GM skills and when people aren't entertained or not into the adventure, I take it a a personal insult. Not from them, but from myself, that I didn't do a good enough job or my writing skills sucked in this case. Anyone else get the "Whoo whoo" noises at a game table?

17 comments:

  1. Sometimes I think the whole railroading issue has become a knee-jerk reaction for gamers who think all the cool kids are playing sandbox. I've been playing D&D and other rpgs for 30 years now and quite honestly, I have never had a problem with going along with whatever the DM has prepared. Sure, I could be a pain in the butt and purposefully go off on a tangent to what I know the DM has worked on, all the while wearing my sunglasses at night. But you know what, the gaming experience would likely suck. Unless you have a superhero DM who can improvise a compelling story out of thin air (and in three decades, I've never met one), you will always have more fun if you play what your DM has spent 10 hours of his prescious time preparing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sounds like you've been on the DM side of the screen at least a few times to appreciate what someone goes through to create a night of entertainment for a group of friends.

    I think, for short term or one-night adventures, you HAVE to have a certain amount of railroading just to get the ball rolling and into the meat of the game.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Railroading is not a crime. At most, its a misdemeanor.

    Would it have been okay if they had burned the inn down, or sold it to one of the townspeople, or simply used it as a flophouse with no intention of repairing it? If so, then it was not a railroad.

    You simply presented a situation, and let them decide whether they want to take advantage of it. That's not railroading.

    ReplyDelete
  4. More than a few times, that's for sure. But even back in the early days when I was just learning the game, I had an appreciation for the work my DM (who was also my best friend) put into the game. It would have seemed like a slap in the face to say "I don't care how much work you put into the Dungeon of Ultimate Doom. I want to go off the map and stir up trouble in some city three kingdoms away. Now entertain me."

    ReplyDelete
  5. @A Paladin In Citadel, yep, it was theirs to do whatever they wanted with it. But I thought I had presented enough reason to keep it as it was haunted and a potential source of income and further adventure.

    In fact, they did use it as a flop house for a little while before they started to catch on to the idea of fixing it up

    @Rognar, I have no problem with players going off the map to see whats out there, but if they do it intentionally to thwart the adventure, then its sorta rude. I like players like you that are appreciative of the work that goes into the adventure and adventurous enough to just wanna see where things take you

    ReplyDelete
  6. Even if they were right about railroading (which it doesn't sound like, but for the sake of argument), train noises and snarky asides are flat out rude on the part of the players.

    I've been seeing the value recently of a GM and players taking some time, out of game and out of character, to talk about assumptions and play style and what they want from a game. That can result in the GM changing things up, but it should also be a prompt for a player to ask themselves if they want to play the game on offer, or else bow out politely. Because the GM does put in the most work usually, and other players may want what he's offering. Just dragging that down if its not your cup of tea shouldn't be acceptable gaming etiquette.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @David R, all excellent points. Sometimes it would be nice to have all players try their hand at GMing just once to see how much work goes into it

    ReplyDelete
  8. That's a great seed for a low-powered campaign. Might have to steal it.

    I once tried to kick off a campaign by having the players stumble across an orc-occupied tower while the orcs were off raiding. The idea was that they could fend off the orcs when they came back, then turn the tower into their own base of operations. Instead, the players were confused by the fact that there was "no one home" and quickly lost interest.

    As for railroading, the litmus test is what Paladin said: if you're willing to let the players do whatever they want with your hook, then it's not railroading. And I agree with David R: making train noises just seems plain rude.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "… thus beginning the adventure to restore it and run it as an adventurer hot spot."

    Your language is telling. You want them to restore it, or at least assume they will do so. That isn't the worst sort of railroading, but it does suggest some railroad intentions on your part.

    "I like players … that are … adventurous enough to just wanna see where things take you."

    More telling language. "Things taking them" suggests at least mild railroad intentions.

    It's one thing to design a backstory … build a situation and environment … construct a house of cards, if you will. In your case, that's the presence of a dead adventurer with a map to an abandoned inn. Not a railroad so far, and hopefully there are kernels of adventure in/around that abandoned inn: Creatures to interact with, enigmas to find and consider, places to explore -- possibly including more than the superficial details of the backstory suggest. It's not railroading to present a situation & backstory.

    But stop there.

    Once you start designing with the notion that the party must/will do something particular with that house of cards, then you're on a slippery slope down the railroad tracks. Maybe not the steepest slope in the case you describe, but still heading in that direction.

    For a long-term campaign, it's best to prepare more than one hook & adventure site, in case the first hook/site you provide isn't interesting to them.

    (But in the case of the players willingly agreeing to play a one-shot, as would also be relevant for a convention game, it's reasonable to expect the players to stay within the constraint of the single adventure hook or site.)

    If I were preparing the one-shot you describe, I would have done two things differently to avoid the mild railroad feeling:

    1) Tell them in *advance* that the one-shot is about a group of adventurers (them) who stumbled upon the deed (and body), and the session will be about them investigating the inn for whatever reason they choose. That is, I *wouldn't* have them find the dead body & deed during play. I probably also would have given them other mysterious details found with the body and/or map that might suggest events that may (or may not) be occurring in and around the inn.

    2) My preparation would be in detailing interesting stuff to discover, see, do, manipulate, knock down, kill, and/or ignore (as they see fit), in and around the inn. Some of this would build on the aforementioned mysterious details and/or some of the mysterious details might be unrelated or have twists.

    So yes, for a one-shot, it's hard to avoid the initial railroad of "you guys need to check out location X" because, well, it's a one-shot, not a totally free-form campaign.

    But at the same time, by being up-front about the session's requirement to "check out location X," you can avoid the railroad twinge during play.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "aren't all pre-made modules "railroading" the players into following a set path of some sort?"

    No.

    But first, consider your language. You initially described your effort as making an "adventure." Yet here, you are asking about "modules." Superficially they seem like somewhat interchangeable terms (especially since TSR called some of their products "Adventure Modules"), but at a deeper level, they're not interchangeable, IMO.

    A Module is a description of an interesting area (which might be large, small, indoors, outdoors, whatever), it's current occupants, their current plans, and some history/backstory. Hopefully it suggests (either implicitly or explicitly) a number of possible ways of connecting it to your campaign -- potential reasons for your players to want to adventure there.

    An Adventure is a series of events that happen in play as a result of the player's choices at the interesting locale. (I've heard this described as the emergent story.)

    If you think of your process as "writing an adventure," then you are dangerously close to making the players' choices for them. Whether done at a micro level or a macro level, that's starting down the railroad path.

    But back to the "pre-made modules" question: No, not all are railroading. Many just offer a compelling location for the players to explore via their PCs, or not, if they choose to ignore the given site. Off the top of my head:
    Tomb of the Iron God
    B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (orange version only – the green version is railroady)
    I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City (ignore the assumptions imposed by the tournament set and just use the backstory & environment)
    B2 Keep on the Borderlands
    F1 Fane of Poisoned Prophecies (I am biased on this one, lol)
    WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
    B1 In Search of the Unknown
    just about every MERP module produced by ICE

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Guy Fullerton, I have to disagree with you on a couple of points. First, I don't think there is any difference between a "module" and an "adventure". I've been playing a long time and I've never seen an official RPG dictionary that specifically stated that a module will only be 'x' and an adventure can only be 'y'. It's just semantics.

    And second, what I mean by "aren't all pre-made modules 'railroading'" is that once you begin the module/adventure, you're working within the confines of that booklet. You give B1 and B2 as examples of non-railroad modules, but in reality they are exactly what I'm talking about. If you have a party of players standing at the edge of the road looking up at the Keep on the Borderlands and as one they all say "we turn around and walk away" you're not exactly playing the module anymore, so in a way you are railroaded into completing the tasks as presented by the book regardless of how or which order.

    What I mean by railroading is a module/adventure, whatever you want to call it, that tells the party "This is your job and you will complete it in this order. First you must do 'a', then you will proceed to 'b' and only then can you fight the BBEG at 'c'." Basically outlining a series of encounters and the order in which they will be done that leaves very little choice on the players part other than what they will do once they get to the predetermined spot.

    Every adventure I've ever run lets the party decide what they want to do and where they want to go, but with some sort of over all goal in mind.

    I think what you have in mind is some sort of supplement that gives overall details about an area with no goal or end-game attached to it. That's fine, and I've certainly used those in the past, but to have nothing to strive for or a goal to the game would just mean an aimless party wandering around looking for things to do. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Eventually they will stumble on something and an adventure will begin.

    Like I said, I'm a little out of DM practice, I haven't done much in the past couple of years, but I don't think giving the party an end goal and allowing them to explore how to achieve it is railroading, but maybe I'm in the minority here.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Regarding "Module" vs. "Adventure," like I said: IMO. I'm explaining a mindset, more than a strict definition. When I make up my own material or look for published material to use in my campaign, I aim for modules, not adventures.

    "what I mean by "aren't all pre-made modules 'railroading'" is that once you begin the module/adventure, you're working within the confines of that booklet."

    I think your intended implication here is that you believe the play experience you presented to the party is no more of a railroad than the play experience that would be delivered by the modules I listed, yes?

    "If you have a party of players standing at the edge of the road looking up at the Keep on the Borderlands and as one they all say "we turn around and walk away" you're not exactly playing the module anymore, so in a way you are railroaded into completing the tasks as presented by the book regardless of how or which order."

    In a campaign context, you *are* still playing that module. That environment is still there, and although the characters walked away from it, they *did* interact with it (at least superficially – they saw/encountered the exterior of the keep, and made a decision based on that info), and they can choose to go back to it (or not) for some future reason of their choice. They're not forced into experiencing the environment presented by the book.

    (Aside: Your "completing the tasks presented by the book" phrase is again potentially revealing a railroad mindset. B2 doesn't present tasks; it presents an environment. Presenting *tasks* sounds more like a railroad to me than does presenting an environment.)

    ReplyDelete
  13. "What I mean by railroading is a module/adventure, whatever you want to call it, that tells the party "This is your job"" … "Every adventure I've ever run lets the party decide what they want to do and where they want to go, but with some sort of over all goal in mind."

    If you have already decided what the party's job is, or if you have already decided on their overall goal, then it's probably a railroad*. Maybe not as bad as a railroad as one that also tells them each of the steps they will take to achieve that goal, but still a railroad.

    * Unless the job/goal is merely a suggestion or possibility, and you're okay with them turning it on its head or ignoring it completely and looking for other possibilities.

    "I think what you have in mind is some sort of supplement that gives overall details about an area with no goal or end-game attached to it."

    Indeed. And the best ones are written such that goals will naturally suggest themselves to a party that hears about the game world location described by that supplement. That is, a party, upon hearing about the environment (and any relevant backstory available to them), will likely think of multiple possible goals to achieve within that environment, without the DM thrusting a goal unto them. (Though there's nothing wrong with the DM *suggesting* some possible goals.)

    Further, as the party explores a good supplement, new goals will suggest themselves to the party as they see more of it, gather additional information, interact with denizens, and so on.

    "to have nothing to strive for or a goal to the game would just mean an aimless party wandering around looking for things to do."

    Don't underestimate a party's ability to come up with their own goals, even in a minimal environment. Most rpgs have several built-in goals, including but not limited to: acquiring gear, improving characters, and the thrill of combat. Many players are happy with those built-in goals at the start of a campaign.

    In my experience, if you focus on providing multiple interesting environments, optionally suggest some possible goals (but not required goals), and expand the scope of the campaign when necessary (as the players reach the "edge of the map" or otherwise look for new options), then the players will do just fine directing themselves in the campaign.

    (One-shots and convention games are a different story, IMO. In these situations, it's usually a good idea for the DM to provide the singular goal, and it's reasonable to expect the players to stick to that goal.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. That last parenthetical paragraph had the wrong implication. I implied that railroading is bad outside of conventions or one-shots. Although I personally dislike railroading, I know some people are fine with it, and so it's not universally bad. I really meant this:

    One-shots and convention games are a different story, IMO. In these situations, the DM is usually expected to provide a singular goal, and it's reasonable to expect the players to stick to that goal.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Ooh! There's stuff in your Glutton for Punishment blog entry that's relevant to this railroading discussion:

    You described your DM role as, in part, one of telling stores that affect the adventurers. You also imply that your players are expected to navigate quests that you bestow upon them.

    Both of these things are probably somewhere on the railroad spectrum. You may not agree with that assertion, but I know lots of players that would. So maybe my overall point is this:

    If you use those DM techniques, don't be surprised if you hear "whoo whoo" noises at the table. The players may not mean it as an insult, but it's reasonable for them to perceive that DMing style as railroady. (At least somewhat so.)

    If this perception bothers you, remember that you are in full control of your DM style, and it's within your power to change...

    ReplyDelete
  16. @Guy Fullerton, wow...there's still hope for the internet. And intelligent discussion with reasonable opinions that didn't turn into a flame war when there was a difference of opinions. I award you with 65xps towards your Internet Etiquette skill. You may now level yourself up :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I know this is a rather old post but I'd like to input here. I've been playing AD&D2e with some friends for about two years now, and this is NOTHING compared to the railroading we've been through. As the article says, there's railroading and there's railroading.

    If the DM lines up an adventure for the players then there's an "escape hatch" for people to use in case things get bogged down.

    The problem comes when (as was our case) the DM forces us to play HIS story and shuts down any and all attempts to do something outside his planned story-line.

    We finished the campaign, greatly disappointed, the DM had already planned out his next campaign before finishing the previous one, and the next campaign was even worse than the first. More railroading, even less inspiring story and half the group were so fed up with the "roleplaying" we were doing that we intentionally derailed it by insisting on doing what OUR characters wanted instead of wanking the DMs ego by doing the "right" thing to drive the story forward.

    The DM should have a story in his mind when starting a campaign, but it shouldn't be set in stone, and a good DM can weave that story into the campaign without the players feeling railroaded. The main thing to remember about roleplaying is that it's a social and collaborative experience. Our DM couldn't see his own group's lack of interest because he had his DM hat so far down over his eyes, and therefore he didn't try to adapt to make the campaign feel more involving for the players.

    Since we derailed his campaign so hard he needed a break from DMing and we missed getting together and rolling dice, so we started playing D&D4e without him (he said himself he doesn't want to be a player, nor does he have anything to do with 4e despite never having tried it). His reaction? We're stupid stupidheads so he gathered some new people to play with instead of confronting us about why we chose to not invite him for the baby-step sessions.

    Long rant, I know, but the point is: if your players are still playing with you then either they are to stupid to leave for another group, have no other group to go to, or they think that you're doing a much better job than you give yourself credit for. ;)

    ReplyDelete