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In Defense of Railroading

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On June 2, 2008 @ 9:56 am In GMing Advice,Hot Buttons | 10 Comments

“Or: How to draw aggro on a GMing blog”

One of the Holy Grails of gaming is the “sandbox game”, where there is no overarching meta-plot, or even individual plot arcs, but where the characters are put into a world that is both realistic and autonomous, and allowed to interact in that world however they see fit. To a True Believer of the Way of the Sandbox, everything else is ‘railroading’, where the GM is nothing but a wannabe novelist who wants to Tell A Story. (Like this.)

And like most stereotypes, there’s a bit of truth to this one. The GM Express can be a long and boring ride to a foregone conclusion. Everyone likes affecting the outcome of the game, and having their actions and decisions really matter. But just because railroading is BAD, the opposite of it is not necessarily GOOD.

Nobody likes railroading. But very few gamers have the same practical definition of ‘railroading’. To some gamers, railroading is when player input is completely ignored or superfluous to the progress of the plot. To others, railroading is any attempt by the GM to introduce a plot, or otherwise influence the story.

The truth is, railroading is what you call it, and that definition is only good for one person: you. Most gamers will find their happy spot on the spectrum between Freedom and Storyline, and will call everything on the Storyline side of that happy spot “railroading”. Most gamers will also change over time. Personally, I like story-driven games with enough flexibility that I can go outside the box from time to time. You may or may not. And there’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with any of these approaches.

(Extra XP if you figured out by now that this really isn’t a defense of railroading, but more of a discussion of freedom vs. storyline.)

The Sandbox as Myth and Reality
(or: self-important headers make me look smart!):
Some players relish the ideal of the sandbox, but when it comes down to actually playing the game, it often results in option paralysis as the players try to figure out which goals are attainable and which are unrealistic, and the optimal way to achieve them. Sometimes the difference between the two is not clearly marked, but very fatal. A good GM can send the right signals as to which goals are attainable, but then we’re back to a possible railroad situation as the GM guides the players actions…

Another layer of complexity pops up when Player A wants to do This, but Player B wants to do That. This and That are (of course) mutually exclusive… Conflicts like this can be worked out at the table (and it may be fun to do so), but they can also wreck a campaign or even a friendship. An effective story or plot can draw disparate players into a cohesive unit with some shared goals.

GMing a sandbox can be a nightmare. If you want a complex and dynamic world that also appeals to the individual tastes of your players, then you’d better get started a few years in advance…

Finally, a sandbox game can expose some group issues that would otherwise stay out of the way. One of these is the difference in player personalities. A player with a strong personality (for lack of a better term) may well find something to do, and go do that thing. The players who don’t want to rock the boat, or who don’t know how to effectively disagree will end up doing Mrs. Strong’s work for her. (And you thought I was going to say Mr. Strong, didn’t you?) Being the gamers we are, handling inter-group conflict is usually not our forte.

Finding Your Happy Place:
So you’re saying, “OK Telas, for the sake of you shutting up already, I’ll accept your that a sandbox game has some drawbacks. Does that mean I have to lead the players by their noses?”

Not at all. There’s a lot of room between the ol’ GM Express and “I dunno; what do y’all want to do?”:

  • Guide, but don’t railroad. The difference is all in how the players perceive the GM’s handling of the game. This is one of those skills that can only be learned with practice, so get to GMing.
  • Talk about it before the game. Have each player define ‘railroading’ in very specific terms, with examples. Use their agreed-upon definition as your own for this game.
  • Be flexible; if the players aren’t enjoying something, then change it. I don’t care how cool you think it is; the players are the audience.
  • Listen to the group conjecture about the game, and adopt their ideas if they’re cooler than your own. Nothing makes a player happier than a “I knew it all along!” moment.
  • Look for clues on their character sheets for what they want to do, and provide them with those opportunities.
  • Dangle multiple paths in front of the group, and prep the ones they follow. The group gets the freedom to choose the ones they want, and the GM doesn’t have to prep an entire world. Plus, if you manage it properly above-game, you can let each player pick a thread in turn, so Mrs. Strong doesn’t always do the choosing.
  • If you do choose to give the players a lot of freedom, talk about it above-game. Make sure the group lets you know where they want to go, and what they’re interested in. If you need to, manage the discussion so Mr. Strong doesn’t walk all over the rest of the group.

What’s your definition of railroading? Any suggestions on how to balance Story and Freedom? Do I have this completely wrong? Sound off and let us know.

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "In Defense of Railroading"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 2, 2008 @ 10:44 am

Option paralysis. We should add this to the GMing dictionary.

#2 Comment By Taliesin On June 2, 2008 @ 10:47 am

While I know the genres are completely different, there is a parallel that can be drawn here to videogaming.

My response to a completely open sandbox is the same with Pen and Paper as it is with video games. If I don’t get at least the MAKINGS of a storyline, I get bored really quickly. It’s not that I’m not creative, or that I can’t think of anything to do. It’s that I can think of so many things to do that I get paralyzed into inaction!

I have defended Pen and Paper RPG’s to RPG-haters as “Interactive Storytelling”. I stand by this definition, especially when it includes the GM. I want to tell my character’s story, but I want the GM to be involved too. I don’t just want him or her to react to what my character does. I want him to proactively present me with challenges, story hooks, etc. Let me come up with my own way to solve the problems with which I am presented, sure. And believe me, if I am given some latitude, I’ll come up with my own problems in addition to what the GM has given me.

For my own style of play, I prefer a healthy balance between GM plot and player character freedom. YMMV

#3 Comment By brcarl On June 2, 2008 @ 11:10 am

The groups I’ve played in prefer for there to be an overarching plot that they feel they can tackle as they see fit. For the most part they understand that the GMs we have aren’t spontaneous/creative enough to handle going off on some haywire direction every time The Feeling hits one of the players.

I think the aspect of railroading that ticks off most players is when they feel they have a neat idea but the GM just flat c*ck-blocks it. For instance:

“The goblins are charging down the hall at you, what do you do?”

“I smash the five flasks of oil across the corridor and then light it with my torch.”

“Um… that doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“There’s not enough air… or something.”

“That’s stupid!”

“Well, you’re supposed to FIGHT the goblins, not roast them!”

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 2, 2008 @ 11:40 am

I can be pretty happy at most points on the freedom v storyline continuum.

I suspect most frustration about railroading comes when the GM makes a claim but doesn’t follow through. If the GM says “do anything you want”, then module play feels constraining. But if he’s upfront about running a module, then it feels pretty natural to follow the prepped points. Similarly, advertising a game as having a strong storyline often encourages players to concentrate their roleplaying in the pauses and rely on the GM to introduce the next major plot point. I feel lost (and quickly frustrated) if I’m told that it’s strongly plotted but can’t figure out what to do.

Where it’s most problematic is when you’re playing with new people for the first time. Everyone’s definitions of freedom are local– it can be a strong dose of culture shock when you realize that their “freedom” doesn’t allow half the wandering off course that your old group is used to.

#5 Comment By Hella Tellah On June 2, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

As a player, I’m fine with railroading, as long as the train goes to Awesometown.

I’ve run into problems with this Freedom vs. Storyline continuum myself in trying to bring members of two different gaming groups together. About half my players came from a Nobilis game, which was very much focused on player generated content. The other half had only ever played D&D and approached it very “hack n’ slash.” I wanted to run a heavy roleplay, sandbox game of Mage: The Awakening. My method actor/co-creator players were thrilled with it, but the players who approached the game as audience members were bored to tears. I tried to impress upon them the idea that, if they want their character to have a cool story, their character has to do cool things–but I was going at it the wrong way. Some players just don’t want to be co-authors of a collective storytelling system. Some people want to be told a story and use their cool powers to kill things, and there’s no reason they can’t have fun, too.

#6 Comment By Kavar On June 2, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

As someone who has been GMing about once a week for more than five years now, I’ve kind of settled into my way of handling this issue. I more or less just consider myself The World. Which sounds kind of intuitive, being the GM and all, but what it amounts to is mostly sandbox-type play. Some NPC(s) will give them direction, and a goal (or multiple goals), but they may wind up rejecting them completely. Just recently, my players were asked to help someone out with an item, which upon further inquiry, turned out to be cursed. So they all turned it down. Which left me to create a whole new adventure on the spot. Fortunately, I’ve gotten quite good at that over the years. Essentially, I suppose what it comes down to is, I point them in a direction, and hope that they go that way. There’s been quite a few sidetracks, and sometimes simply ignoring of those goals, but I just make sure that the world continues on, and make sure there’s realistic consequences for their screw-ups. Often, I also include consequences for them turning down or ignoring the mission at hand. Not necessarily things that happen to them, but the world changes somewhat for what wasn’t accomplished.

The only time I actually do any railroading is because some character(s) within the world itself would be railroading them. Powerful people blackmailing or threatening them into something. But I’ve never used it simply as a method for the GM to make them do something; only when the NPC would have reason to do it in the first place, often because they made someone mad. Which they usually do.

#7 Comment By Tommi On June 3, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

There’s a fallacy in work here and it says that either there is a free sandbox with no direction or one moves towards railroading. Personally, I consider this to be, well, a fallacy.

Railroading, by every definition I have ever heard, implies structure that originates from the GM. Certainly a totally free sandbox is totally not railroaded, but there are, as usual, other directions to move towards.

My particular way away from railroading is embrace unpredictability.

Example 1: The game I currently run is designed so that preparation is impossible due to each session being built around a set of random elements. In game, my role as the GM is to set up a starting situation (if the players don’t) and from thereon simply to keep important characters encountering each other under interesting circumstances.

Example 2: In the Burning Wheel game I game mastered, first I set up a starting situation, then characters were created, but after that I threw almost every plot-important choice to the players or to the dice (which the players can influence). There is little control I had of the story when running the game in such a way.

The examples above are not sandboxes, because they have a very strong situation every time they are played and there is a gentleman’s agreement to not ignore that situation. They are not railroaded in the least because as a GM, I don’t give them any plot structure from on high. My role is to increase uncertainty and chaos by having players and dice make important decisions.

On more abstract level, even though railroading-sandbox is one continuum, it is not sufficient to cover all ways people can and do game. It abstracts away a lot of information; too much for it to be useful to me, at least.

#8 Comment By Hautamaki On June 5, 2008 @ 3:52 am

I don’t think it becomes ‘railroading’ (negative connotation) until the DM starts trying to make the players do something they don’t want to do, or, even worse, starts trying to make the players do something they don’t want to do in the way they don’t want to do it.

My second worst gaming experience was when a DM wanted to try his hand at DMing an evil group of PCs. We started out trying to escape from a prison colisseum where we were forced to fight monsters every day until we could hatch an escape plot. We came up with a plan, pulled it off, and worked in a very satisfying revenge fantasy on the warden. Then what…? Some *good aligned* NPCs showed up to give us a quest, but there was nothing in it to interest an evil party, the actual conversation encounter went awry, and we ended up killing them. Then the DM threw up his hands in frustration and that was it for that.

My very worst was when I was playing a lawful good samurai (pretty much inspired by the samurai leader in ‘The Last Samurai’.) There were three big problems in the campaign. Problem 1: I wanted to play/act like a badass, but the DM insisted on starting us at level 1 so my guy was a weakling. Problem 2: I had a blood feud with an enemy samurai that wiped out my clan and he was 6 levels higher than me. Then the DM insisted on dangling him in front of me on multiple occasions. Naturally, being an honourable and fearless samurai I had no choice but to attack, even knowing I would die. That was the whole POINT of my character concept, but the DM wasn’t interested in my character concept–he was interested in his own complex plotlines. So he had to work out a compromise where the 6th level character completely owns me (of course) but doesn’t kill me for some reason. So I just get to have my ass handed to me. Not high on the list of ‘fun’ for a guy who wanted to play a badass character. Finally the game breaker was when I had to go kill a lord who was a troublemaker. How does an honourable samurai go about such a mission? He just walks in the front door, announces his challenge, and prepares himself mentally for a duel. So that’s what I did. But the lord just laughed at me and told me to go away, and when I didn’t, he sicked a whole wack of thugs on me and kicked my ass again and sent me packing. The DM wanted me to relinquish my sword and decieve the doorman to get an audience with the lord, then get into the lord’s chamber and use an improvised weapon or something to kill him. But that’s just not the way I think honourable samurais ought to be going about their business. I certainly couldn’t imagine Katsumoto doing that to Imura in The Last Samurai, but the DM insisted that I was wrong, that I was playing my character stupidly just to spite him, and ended up berating me on being a bad player. THAT’s what I call railroading. The DM makes up an intricate plot that requires characters to think and act in a certain way in order for it to even work at all, and then, when the players don’t do exactly what he expected he reacts by getting angry at them and blaming them for ruining the game by playing like idiots.

Since then I’ve taken care of all the DMing duties and things go much better.

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#10 Comment By leurnid On August 5, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

When I still played p&p, and I was sitting behind the screens, I was a regular engineer… but most people never realized it.

I would create a series of choices that all led to the same conclusions… the players were under the misguided notion other choices would have led to other places and events, albeit thru slightly different channels.

In one campaign I was running via a series of one on one sessions with scheduled larger groupings. After one such scheduled meeting (where most of the players wound up in a pitched battle with one another), one of the players who was fairly new to my GMing style was amazed at how all the random elements had conspired to bring everything off. That I took as testament to how fluidly I adjusted to all the individual choices of the players and still managed to bring them together for a climactic battle, and not a one of them felt jilted or railroaded at any point.

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