Stew reader LesInk threw an interesting morsel into the suggestion pot the other day. It is about the concept of railroading and how you force an event to happen when the plot absolutely calls for it. The concept is an interesting one, and LesInk put forth a great solution along with the question and story.
I believe I have been a victim of the suddenly-appearing-railroad scenario. There I was GMing my last gaming session when I found myself in a scenario where I thought the players would be forced to a desired endpoint where they are captured. Lo and behold, the players were able to keep fighting off the rounds and rounds of sleeping gas (4E game mechanic wasn’t working as well as I would have liked) and just when most everyone was knocked out, another was jumping back up (can’t fudge the dice, they get saving rolls). In this scenario, they were also trying to break through a grating to a pipe they had entered through and escape. The problem was I have this wonderful next scene that depends on the characters being knocked out. This isn’t my normal mode of operation, but we are experimenting with more cinematic games. Eventually, one of the players pulled out an obsidian horse and used it to pop open the gate, allowing them to flee. I could have introduced a very heavy hand to force the ending to work in my favor, but I decided the characters earned their reward of escaping — they had already been put through enough.
The game ended there for the night and we talked a bit while I stewed over some possible new next scenes. I piped up and asked the players if they would mind letting themselves get captured if I assured them that a few things would happen (namely that they would wake up alive and still have their equipment). To my surprise, they agreed knowing that I was working up to something worthy of playing out.
So, here I come to my quest for advice — when you have something that you need to happen, what are some tips on making it seem plausible without offending the players? And what do you do when you thought the odds were all in your favor and they suddenly go sour?
I should also point out that I also dislike railroading, have read http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/railroading-it-encourages-nothing  and http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/in-defense-of-railroading , but believe that sometimes you really need the players to turn left instead of right even when you want the illusion of right to be there.
Yeah, sometimes as a Game Master there are certain things that you need to happen, especially if you are running from pre-published materials. When you’ve got a plot in a game, no matter how loose or how open it is, it often requires some things to happen.
Villains would never monologue if heroes didn’t get captured. The true evilness of the BBEG would never be solidified for the players if the BBEG couldn’t get off one or two successful evil plans. Often these things can be organically created in the game situation. Sometimes the Game Master needs to do a little nudging. And sometimes, mechanics and GMing tactics are outdone by awesome rolls, great player ideas, and the desire not to push our players around. This is the way it should be, but some things need to happen or the plot needs to change, and that isn’t always a viable option.
I think LesInk’s approaching of the players was an awesome tactic. Laying out that he needed them to be captured and that it wouldn’t create unfair circumstances led to new play opportunities and an intact plot. I would whole-heartedly suggest LesInk’s approach as a possible solution for everyone encountering this kind of situation:
When you need to force something to happen tell your players about it first and assure them that they will suffer no lasting consequences once the event is over.
I’ve been in complete developer mode for the past few weeks, so reading LesInk’s story sparked an idea. As an add-on to LesInk’s solution, I humbly present the idea of the Railroad Token:
- When the Game Master absolutely NEEDS something to happen for the story, she approaches the players beforehand and tells them that an event needs to happen. She does not reveal what, but says she will place a nickel on the table. This is the Game Master’s “Railroad Token”. It indicates that the Game Master is taking more control than usual.
- Once the nickel is placed, the Game Master also gives the players a penny each time she forces something directly related to a player (“You fall unconscious from the sleeping gas.”), prevents an action (“You can’t do that until the BBEG stops talking.”), or merely gives each player one penny. These pennies are the player’s “Railroad Tokens” and are a guarantee that they will be able to buy their way out of the forced situation if they have to.
- Once the Game Master has finished the necessary event, the players are free to spend their tokens to counteract things the Game Master did. If the Game Master took away the players’ weapons (a very realistic thing if she was forced to capture them) then the players can use their pennies as plot points (ala the cortex system’s plot points) to affect the story so that they can undo the situation. They might spend a token to say the key is on the wall, then spend another token to say the guards happen to walk away or be asleep, and finally they might spend a third token to say that no matter what, they successfully string their belts together and lasso the keys off the wall.
- The players might use a mix of mechanics and railroad tokens to undo the forced situation. They might roll to see if they can lasso the key, but if they fail they can spend a token to say it didn’t wake the guard.
- The denominations of money used will be subject to change, but there are a few things to understand about this system. The points (on both the Game Master’s and Players’ sides) circumvent game mechanics and assure that something happens. The players should be given smaller denominations that add up to be equal to or more than the Game Master’s coin, representing that the players have many small guaranteed actions that undo the forced event, but that they will always be able to undo it by paying more.
This system would work best with a situation that needs to be forced, almost like a cut-scene in a video game, to progress the story along. The Game Master’s token represents the amount of control which they are buying off the players, and the player’s tokens represent the buying off of the control that the Game Master took. I don’t see it being necessary in all situations, especially if you use LesInk’s “Just Ask Them” approach. In most cases that would be enough. This adds a mechanical story element that lets the players cinematically build their own way out of a situation, but ensures them that they can.
So what do you think? What kind of situations would you see yourself using LesInk’s approach in? What kind of situations do you think the Railroad Tokens might work for? Do you have a tactic that you use when you need to force an event?