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Thread: The Sin of Railroading

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    The Sin of Railroading

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    I am a very story driven player, and that is flowing into the campaign that I am currently writing. The campaign is very politically driven initially, with further plans for more "save the world" (or in this case, island) type stuff. When I sit down to plan out a module, I get into novel mode, and I fear this will easily lead to railroading.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to keep a story driven campaign (which is heavily fleshed out with NPCs, due to the political nature of the campaign) from railroading? Have you had any experience with a game that left too little free will?

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    Yes, I've played in disasters that were railroaded from the words, "Roll up your character"... and to be honest, I've even DMed some of them when I was younger and less experienced.

    When I set up my world for a new campaign arc, I figure out what all is happening in the world (like real life stuff). For ease of examples, I will use (some) real life (with historical inaccuracies) to demonstrate. Campaign starts on January 1st.

    Jan 1 - campaign starts
    Jan 15 - Large oil field is found in wilderness near the frozen north.
    Jan 22 - Princess Di is married to the ugly Prince Charles. Ceremony in Landon, week of holiday celebration kingdom-wide.
    Feb 15 - Tax collector and his guards are slain in PC's hometown. Goblins killed them, but set it up to look like Red Ring assassins
    Mar 10 - Huge earthquake and tsunami devastates Nippon. Huge magical experiment goes haywire and residual magic makes people sick for miles around.
    Apr 20 - Large oil geyser blows up off of fertile fishing grounds in southern US. Millions of gallons spilled, starvation feared.
    Jul 10 - Explorer comes back from trip far to the west - where he claims that he found a new route to India. LOADS of merchants and explorers want to set up missions!!
    Nov 23 - President Kennedy shot as his processional heads through Dallas. Shooter is part of Order of the Red Ring.

    This is just a quick example of what I do - and some of it MAY be of interest to the players - other stuff will just be mentioned when they go to an inn. Can you imagine a stupid stop in London to find out that there is going to be the biggest wedding in centuries tomorrow? If the players are in London, are they going to care that Japan got hit by an earthquake?

    Just write out an outline of stuff that MUST happen, no matter what actions the players take. Then, as the campaign arc progresses, you can refer back to it to see if anything changes. If Mata Hari and Boris Yeltzen are supposed to meet on June 15th to discuss invading Florida - but the players met with Yeltzen on June 1st and got him to change his mind, then the meeting will go much differently!! If the players are in a book depository in Dallas in late November, they may be able to stop the assassination... or they may be witnesses.

    I know the temptation of wanting players to follow the story - but do your best to not do it. One thing I found was to purposely prepare NOTHING for a gaming session, then just tell the players that nothing is prepared and that THEY have to decide what to do that session. Oh, I guarantee that I totally SUCKS to be on the spot like that, but it will help get you out of the railroading mindset.

    Good luck!!

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    Thank you so much for the great advice! That helped a lot. Going to a session unprepared terrifies me- I am not very good at thinking on my feet, which means it is probably something I should definitely do, haha.
    Thanks!

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    "Sin" is such a strong term, for something so relative Frankly, if the rest of the group is into it, it doesn't matter if you're putting them on the Midnight Train to Anywhere. Or, in the words of rpg.net's SteveD, "No one cares about the railroad if the scenery is nice and the destination is Awesometown." Depending on the players involved, you don't even need to hide the tracks.

    That said, as a GM, I try not to do this. A technique I've learned (and am still mastering) is to go in prepared with everything that'll happen, should the players not get involved, and a contingency plan (or three) for when someone tosses the simian-themed tool in the works. When the players do stick their noses in the NPC's business, they can react appropriately (including being flustered and sloppy, with no good backup plan - "Kill them a lot" works just as well as a Machiavellian scheme, for spurring action).

    Ultimately, I'm of the GM style that says there is no story until after the session anyway, so you can't write the middle and end beforehand. Doesn't work for everyone, but I enjoy it.

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    Sascha has some GREAT advice!!

    To clarify (since it was VERY late last night when I wrote that), I do stuff similar to Sascha - I write a short narrative (usually as an outline) of what WILL happen if the characters do NOTHING. Then I introduce the characters... and they are SURE to screw things up.

    Look at ANY movie, TV show or book - and it works the same way. The bad guys set up a plan for (insert theme here: world domination, virgin sacrifice, whatever), and then the hero comes in and tries to screw it up. From there, it's just "catch-up" for the bad guys, trying to keep to the schedule and finish whatever project they had planned - AND stopping those meddling kids (and that darned dog!).

    Once you get good at the planning for single-layer adventures (the bandits set up the ambush and looting of a wagon train), then you can get into multiple layers. Using standard conspiracy theories, try this one on for size:

    The Illuminati want to take over the world. To help them, they set up the Priory of Zion as a cover agency, who then sets up the Knights Templar and the Freemasons as other cover agencies. The KT's and Masons don't know that they are working toward the same goals. The Masons set up the Rotary Club, while the KT's set up the Knights of Columbus and the Kiwanis. The Rotary Club sets up the Boy Scouts of America to set up new members. NOW... everyone has their missions and nobody knows that they are working together (actually, some see them as working AGAINST each other!!), and we get our plans.

    The Illuminati needs a virgin princess to sacrifice to the Bilderberg Group on Halloween this year - so they get the Priory to set that part up. To get the virgin, they need to "pay" her father by eliminating his rival in Zimbabwe, so the Priory asks the KT's to do this. At the same time, they get the KT to protect the princess's honor, so the KT's tell the Knights of Columbus that they need to make sure that the princess in question is kept from engaging in slap-and-tickle sessions with her boyfriend, so they infiltrate the Church to keep their fingers around her throat. At the same time, the Freemasons are told to start a misinformation program against the Church for being too involved. They get the Rotary club to start spreading rumors. Eventually, it comes down to the Boy Scouts that need to set up an Eagle Scout project that will overload the local dog-pound with lots of extra strays to begin to funnel money to help the cause.

    Enter the party...

    And they see that there are lots of boys out finding lost dogs - or capturing legal dogs and CLAIMING that they are lost. And things have begun.

    Oh - and NO!! You don't have to be so involved!! Sascha's comment about Machiavellian schemes is what the above scenario showed. For a regular scheme, just get an evil Duke that wants to become king who hires TWO sets of assassins to kill him (and don't tell them that there's another), and you are golden!

    Just like in Austin Powers' - Goldmember, you can have TWO golden keys, so one can be captured and the villain can look all dejected - only to unzip and take out the replacement at the proper time.

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    You guys are amazing! Thanks for all your help. I have only been playing D&D for a few months, with people (and a DM) who have been playing for the same amount of time. Since I don't have experience on my side to draw from, I really appreciate your willingness to lend your own.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jimikat View Post
    I am a very story driven player, and that is flowing into the campaign that I am currently writing. The campaign is very politically driven initially, with further plans for more "save the world" (or in this case, island) type stuff. When I sit down to plan out a module, I get into novel mode, and I fear this will easily lead to railroading.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to keep a story driven campaign (which is heavily fleshed out with NPCs, due to the political nature of the campaign) from railroading? Have you had any experience with a game that left too little free will?
    I also lean toward more story-driven campaigns, and for me a huge part of the fun is weaving the dramatic story into the actions and choices made by the PCs. They will invariably choose to do things you had not anticipated, or travel to someplace far away from where you have planned the next clue or element of your story.

    I wouldn't have it any other way, because that is the part that I enjoy as a DM, not knowing what the players will do next.

    There are always going to be occasions when you need to modify your earlier plan on the fly, or make use of a compelling NPC to draw them back in to the story.

    At least IMO that is a lot more satisfying than saying, "Hey guys, the adventure I planned this week is in the cave on the left, so don't go into the cave on the right."
    Last edited by CountChocula; 07-03-2011 at 05:03 PM.

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    ^_^

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    i tend towards generating lots of background between sessions. that way, no matter what the pcs do, i have an idea of how the various interlocking parts will react to being fudged one way or the other.

    i can attest that if the scenery is nice enough, the pcs don't mind there being only one route to go. one of my current groups is trying to get to a specific point, and where they are in the world happens to leave them with only one path... but there are a number of anomalies and oddities present which are keeping them entertained trying to figure out.
    nijineko the gm: AG16, CoS. nijineko the player: AtG, RttToH; . The Journal of Tala'elowar Kiyiik! .
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    Quote Originally Posted by CountChocula View Post
    At least IMO that is a lot more satisfying than saying, "Hey guys, the adventure I planned this week is in the cave on the left, so don't go into the cave on the right."
    You *can* skirt this little conundrum by avoiding the choice altogether, and start in media res. (Doesn't always work as planned, but what does? :P)

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    Quote Originally Posted by jimikat View Post
    I am a very story driven player, and that is flowing into the campaign that I am currently writing. The campaign is very politically driven initially, with further plans for more "save the world" (or in this case, island) type stuff. When I sit down to plan out a module, I get into novel mode, and I fear this will easily lead to railroading.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to keep a story driven campaign (which is heavily fleshed out with NPCs, due to the political nature of the campaign) from railroading? Have you had any experience with a game that left too little free will?
    Have you asked your players about how much or how little railroading they want?

    You would be surprised how many players want the option of railroading. They don't object to railroading so long as they get to ask for it -- in other words, so long as it remains an option not a conscription.

    For political campaigns, especially, players often prefer having a plot train they can board once in a while whenever they feel particularly lost. Usually, the best way to arrange this is to have several Contacts (mentors, friends in high places or in strategic organizations, etc.) to whom the players can go when they have decided that they want a little plot train assistance.

    Conscriptive railroading occurs when you have fallen in love with one possible result or one possible means to a result. To avoid that, detail for yourself a world in which you can easily improvise on a moment's notice in response to players' actions, and make sure you are as comfortable with the world ending or with the bad guys winning as you are with the world being saved and the good guys winning.

    However, make sure your players are truly interested in such a "save the world" campaign before you do anything else. After all, one of the major causes of conscriptive railroading occurs when a game master has plugged away for months on a brilliant politically-driven campaign only to discover that his players really lack the interest (or lack the basic skills) for a politically-driven campaign, even a brilliant one.

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    I keep a list of factions and NPC's and what their goals are, short term and long term. I then just make a judgement call on what they would do in situation x. It can lead to some interesting games.

    I would have to agree with magic, that some players actually want to be railroaded. Though they might do it for different reasons, some because they need the auto pilot, or if lost. Though I had a player who liked being railroaded because it absolved the PC of any responsibility for their in-game actions, no matter how asinine or counter productive, because he knew the plot must continue. He spent a good deal of time whining and complaining about being railroaded. When we switched to a sandbox game, he quit playing as soon as he realized in-game actions had in-game consequences that were not scripted. There was no over arching plot to be followed and so we instead followed (since we had time and no direction) out the consequences of his in-game shenanigans.

    I'm really into running a sandbox type of game right now. Players are given possible plot hooks, they are free to take which ever one they desire, or they can come up with their own. However, I used to like to run highly scripted plot driven games with a lot of intrigue.

    My lessons learned from both types of games are...

    Most players don't like coming up with backgrounds for their character, other than something really basic and vague. So let them bounce around from job to job, and let them get a feel for their characters and the world for the first few levels. Get the background later after they have really started to like their characters.

    Most players don't like having any explicit goals right off the bat either. Though eventually they will latch onto something, and make it a goal.

    Unless your players REALLY, REALLY, REALLY love the intrigue stuff, keep it simple and rather obvious. but always throw in some twists. Your players won't get into the game if they don't know what's going on. As a DM I was (still am) always keeping to much information to myself. What I think should be rather obvious always seems to be something they miss. So whatever it takes, a tip off from a mysterious NPC, a patron, or a mundane perception check to have the character pick up on something the players didn't.

    Figure out the objective. Then let the players figure out how to get there. Your job as DM is to give them obstacles to overcome before they can achieve that objective. Basically, this leaves you to script out the major events and encounters that will follow based on their actions. Throw in minor and story appropriate encounters along the way, especially if you need some time to think about a bigger encounter.

    EX: The kingdom is invaded by it's neighbor. The PC's eventually figure out that a high ranking Baron is working for the enemy and plans to betray the King during a battle and take the throne for himself.

    It's not your problem how they stop the Barons plot and take him out. Not yet anyway, but running up and stabbing him outright isn't going to work, even though they might try it. Which, will get them beaten or killed by the Baron's or the King's soldier and thrown in the dungeon. Now they have to escape, save the King and clear their names. Otherwise, the Baron has to communicate with the enemy somehow, shadow his men, eaves drop on their conversation at the tavern, and watch for clandestine couriers.

    The more epic you make the goal, the harder it should be to achieve. If you want epic save-the-world stuff, save it for the end of the campaign. Otherwise, everything that comes after it seems lesser in comparison.
    It's as if there are people who play RPGs that don't have computers or something. Seriously, people need to upgrade to 1994 already. - - -TheRedRobedWizard

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    Quote Originally Posted by kirksmithicus View Post
    What I think should be rather obvious always seems to be something they miss. So whatever it takes, a tip off from a mysterious NPC, a patron, or a mundane perception check to have the character pick up on something the players didn't.
    Agree. "Obvious" is relative to the bigger picture; it's easier for the person who knows the solution to see the clues that lead to it. Though I'd say skip any involvement of chance here: if the players are missing vital information, just give it to them. A potential problem with things like perception checks is they can fail on you. (If you're setting the difficulty so low as to be failproof, I'd just drop the pretense of the roll entirely. But that's me )

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    There is the linear plot and then there is Railroading. AISI "Railroading" is when the GM has determined how things will happen and in what order and it will not deviate from that. All the players are doing is pulling the switches to make it happen. It is on rails and will not deviate. The players cannot move the plot off the rails, cannot take detours or find shortcuts. They will progress from scene to scene in an orderly fashion.

    A linear plot goes from A to B to C and so forth, but the player actions are not preordained. The solution is not built in. The GM is flexible enough that the players do not have to ride the rails to accomplish the goals. They can take detours, find shortcuts. Solutions are not one way only.

    That is the difference between the perfectly acceptable linear plot and the Railroad.
    Last edited by tesral; 06-28-2012 at 12:42 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by magic-rhyme View Post
    Have you asked your players about how much or how little railroading they want?

    You would be surprised how many players want the option of railroading. They don't object to railroading so long as they get to ask for it -- in other words, so long as it remains an option not a conscription.

    For political campaigns, especially, players often prefer having a plot train they can board once in a while whenever they feel particularly lost. Usually, the best way to arrange this is to have several Contacts (mentors, friends in high places or in strategic organizations, etc.) to whom the players can go when they have decided that they want a little plot train assistance.

    Conscriptive railroading occurs when you have fallen in love with one possible result or one possible means to a result. To avoid that, detail for yourself a world in which you can easily improvise on a moment's notice in response to players' actions, and make sure you are as comfortable with the world ending or with the bad guys winning as you are with the world being saved and the good guys winning.

    However, make sure your players are truly interested in such a "save the world" campaign before you do anything else. After all, one of the major causes of conscriptive railroading occurs when a game master has plugged away for months on a brilliant politically-driven campaign only to discover that his players really lack the interest (or lack the basic skills) for a politically-driven campaign, even a brilliant one.
    Can we clarify what we are referring to by "railroading"

    How about when the player doesn't know that they were "railroaded"?

    For example, let's say you are simply correcting a problem with your pre-planned adventure on the fly to make it mesh better with the flow of the unfolding narrative of the player choices.

    I think this kind of "railroading" is essential for any kind of story driven campaign, or even perhaps essential for any kind of meaningful game other than a tabletop battle simulation.

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