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Railroading – It Encourages Nothing

In a recent game that a friend ran we were railroaded as players. The game was a science fiction setting using Savage Worlds, and I and the one other player were both playing PCs who had arranged passage on a small starship. While the ship was docked at a space station the PCs were in private living quarters minding their own business. Panicked pounding on the door to the quarters followed by the captain of the starship entering and bleeding from a gunshot wound started the adventure. The captain handed the PCs a data crystal and said “Don’t let them get it!” then passed out.

What did our PCs do? Well being veteran gamers we knew how to handle such a situation. The PCs stuffed the captain in the shower stall and closed the bathroom door, after a quick first aid check to stabilize her of course. The PCs then hid the data crystal on the PC who is the party’s tank (if an NPC wants it they are going to have to fight for it!). Then the PCs start cleaning the blood up as best they can with whatever is available.

About five minutes of game time into this scene there is a knock on the door. Drat! What to do? My PC took a knife out and sliced the palm of his hand giving himself a nice fresh wound. With the captain hidden, and the data crystal buried in the pocket of a two-fisted ambidextrous combat machine, the PCs open the door to some lowly NPC thugs.

“I need medical attention!” screamed my PC. “Look at all of this blood! I’m feeling faint!”

The other PC started hamming it up as well, and we began to make our way to the door. Does the GM ask for a roll? Does the GM explain what the PCs will need to do to pull off this trick? No.

“We know he came in here. Give us the data crystal.” is all that an NPC says.

That was it. Straight to initiative. You could feel the energy leave the game.

Now I do not want to pick on my buddy who was GMing the game. He was probably trying to start the game with some action to get things going. He was just off of his game that day, and to his credit he warned that there would be railroading because he was not feeling his best about this game. He is a good GM, and I know that I have made these kinds of mistakes when I have run games for him. This is a really easy thing for any GM to do without noticing it.

But players notice everything it seems, and I noticed this.

The problem was not that the NPCs knew where the captain was. They obviously followed the blood trail to the door. The verisimilitude of the game world justified this explanation.

No. The problem was that the GM gave the players time to attempt something, and then did not give that attempt a chance to fail. Even if the GM had said “These guys are not idiots. You are going to have to roll very well to trick them.” that would be more acceptable. Even if the PCs had made it out of the door only to have the NPCs immediately find the captain and start a chase, or if the PCs had failed miserably with their plan and suffered a penalty in combat because of it, anything would have been better than to just ignore what the PCs had done in the game.

That tells the players one thing on how to play their PCs: Don’t bother. Don’t bother with spur of the moment crazy ideas. Don’t bother with one-in-a-million long shot attempts. Don’t bother going to extremes and to risk it all in an attempt to have an impact upon the game world.

Instead sit in your seat and wait for the train to arrive at the next station. The train is on the tracks. Try to enjoy the ride.

Keep this in mind when your players have their PCs attempt something in a game. It is not about whether or not those attempts are successful, but any attempt by the PCs to do something is telling you that the players want a chance at success no matter how slim it might be.

That’s my opinion on the matter. What is yours? Leave your comment below to share with others, and remember that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Railroading – It Encourages Nothing"

#1 Comment By blalien On September 8, 2009 @ 12:32 am

As a DM, I tend to have the opposite experience. Many a game has been broken up with this conversation:
Player: I charge the (evil race) (position of authority).
Me: Are you sure? He has like ten levels on you.
Player: I charge him anyway!
Me: Alright…
*two rounds later*
Me: You wake up in a dungeon.

Here’s my life lesson for you guys: don’t have things happen behind the scenes that aren’t announced to the party. They will always assume you’re making stuff up on the spot to force them along your railroad.

#2 Comment By retrothomas On September 8, 2009 @ 4:51 am

I’ve done the railroad as I was learning to DM and it wasn’t pretty:

Goblins: we’re taking you to our king. He wants revenge
Players: (yawn and make rude gestures)

After that combat ensued, as planned but rather than the players investigating and going to the goblin camp, they just killed them all and continued on into town. I had a very disappointed friend who rolled his eyes and made me feel pretty stupid because that was all I had prepared for the day. My wife who plays in the group is mostly predictable and will always go in the direction of killing the bad guys and is very easy to please, but as for my other friend I never know when he’ll decide to do something completely unexpected.

That experience was something of a gift, turns out, because now I’m more experienced in how to prepare a lot of fun without spending a lot of time. It’s also taught me how to improvise a great deal.

I don’t railroad anymore because it’s simply been way more fun for everyone and a lot less work for me not to railroad my players.

I haven’t been a player in an RPG for way, way too long, but I played enough to remember that imagination and great ideas are what made the game fun and exciting. My feeling is that if I’m not going to go out of your way to be a stellar GM then I might as well have my players play a console RPG.

#3 Comment By Clawfoot On September 8, 2009 @ 5:49 am

I was accused of railroading once, about eight or nine years ago, and for the life of me, I STILL don’t understand what it was I did wrong. The situation, to try and simplify as much as possible, was that there were the PCs (a rather large group; this was a LARP), and there were a group of NPCs, who were designed to be the PC’s allies. The NPCs wanted to go take out a troll problem and were inviting the PCs along. The PCs did not feel ready to go. We were preparing for one of three possibilities: a) the PCs decided to go, b) the PCs decided to stay behind, or c) some PCs decided to go and some decided to stay behind. We were prepared for all of that.

What we weren’t prepared for were our actual players. 🙂 They ATTACKED the NPCs (in order to stop them from going on a suicide mission, we gathered later), and a masssive fight broke out. One NPC had a nasty area-effect power that he used on the whole room.

I honestly think it was one of our best games ever. It was a LOT of fun. Most of the players thought it was great, too. The events were wholly unexpected and instead of a pack of powerful but friendly NPC allies, the PCs wound up with a brutal enemy to plague them. Fun times all around!

Until later, when two of our players took us aside and told us that they didn’t appreciate the railroading. Apparently, they thought we were trying to railroad the group into going to deal with the trolls (we weren’t, but the NPC leader WAS an egotistical jerk and did try to bully them, but that was the NPC’s personality, and not a manifestation of a Storyteller agenda), and when that didn’t work, we railroaded them into combat with the area-effect power we had an NPC use.

And I’m still confused.

So how best to differentiate between a bully NPC and railroading? Or massive combat and railroading?

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 8, 2009 @ 7:41 am

[1] – If many a game has broken up because of such scenes, then why keep having such scenes? I just find that curious in the wya that you phrased it.

[2] – I agree. Laying down a railroad is a lot of work. I don’t see the benefits for all of that effort.

[3] – A bully NPC is established by other NPCs saying “He’s arrogant. He has no authority in this situation.” or “He’s a bully. You don’t have to listen to him.” If the PCs still feel that they were railroaded, well this is a hobby with a lot of subjective qualities. You will not make everyone happy. Ask the players why they did what they did. Ask why they did not choose to do something else. If it keeps coming back to the “NPC told us we had to.” then that is your cue to establish a counter to the NPC’s bullying in future situations. I hope that helps.

#5 Comment By Wild Joker On September 8, 2009 @ 9:04 am

I agree that railroading is a lot of work, but for a new DM, it’s a difficult rut NOT to fall into. You have some cool ideas that you want to try out and those pesky PCs just won’t cooperate!

In my case, on both sides of the screen, I so enjoy the guerilla tactics that my group invents that it’s easy not to railroad. You get so caught up with what they’re trying to do and trying to pull off that it’s just too fun to watch and too fun to roll for success, even when the railroad may be (seemingly) unavoidable.

Recently I had a situation where the setting seemed pretty railroady to me: room A leads to room B leads to room C. There really weren’t a lot of choices. Well, I had devised a really cunning trap for room B and was excited to see what it would do and how the players would react. Well, they suspected something immediately; I wasn’t real thrilled, but gave them a chance to roll. They rolled well and therefore deduced that there was something wrong with the floor.

I nearly wept. All that hard work? I could see it slipping away. I could have fudged the roll, I could have railroaded them into the trap. Instead, I sat back as they devised a process by which they set up a pulley system for the elves to move the heavy, unwieldy dwarves and goliath across the room (after one elf had dimension-hopped himself across the room to set up the far side of the pulley). It was absolutely amazing!

In short, by resisting the urge to railroad, even when it appears “easy” or “unavoidable” (or even personally favorable as a DM) you can gain a lot of entertainment and personal reward out of letting the PCs go their own way. At least give them a chance and ACTUALLY let the dice work it out: at least then your conscience will be clear, regardless of what they accuse you of doing.

#6 Comment By retrothomas On September 8, 2009 @ 11:06 am

[4] – spot on! Railroading is a tough thing not to do. I think it takes time to really ‘get’ what free-form RPG games are all about. The creativity and ingenuity of the players is always a surprise and delight 🙂

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On September 8, 2009 @ 11:24 am

Railroading is tough, because it is so subjective. There are many times when a GM will prepare three options, but the players feel forced to pick only one of them. There can be many reasons behind it, but even the best laid plans oft go awry.

Re: don’t have things happen behind the scenes that aren’t announced to the party. That can be true, if you have a suspicious group– and it’s worth some time to investigate whether that’s a reasonable viewpoint for them to have. But having a world that only reacts to the PCs often feels one dimensional– while that can be OK, it changes the feel. If you’re looking for a complex world, let the world roll on– and once the game’s over, you can always explain or share the timeline you worked from. An instance or two of displayed prep might counteract the knee jerk assumption that seems to be going on.

#8 Comment By Protohacker On September 8, 2009 @ 11:50 am

Here’s a new take: the most awesome campaign I ever played in (and I’ve had 30+ years of gaming) was run by the worst railroader I’ve ever encountered. The GM had exceptionally cool ideas and we now have some of the best stories to tell. But, he did it by means of running our characters for us.

So I agree, being railroaded is no fun. Even the awesome game broke up (years later; that’s how good his stories were) because no amount of awesomeness can make up for not being the character to do the awesome.

#9 Comment By blalien On September 8, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

[5] – Not literally the same scene. My players just tend to confuse “natural consequences of your actions” with “railroading.”

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 8, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

[6] – Gotcha’! you might have better luck by changing the situation slightly. Have the PCs wake up on the outskirts of town, with all of their possessions intact. Have the big bad guy or whoever they were stupid enough to fight there with 20 armed guards. He tells the PCs “No one has dared to charge me in years. You have earned my respect. Now go to Mt. MacGuffin and bring back the Chalice of MacGuffin to me. If you don’t return in one month I’ll kill twenty innocent people in your place. Now leave this land and do not return without the chalice!”

If a player says that his or her PC charges this guy again play the combat out and have the NPC kill the PC.

Now is this railroading? Nope. This is giving the PCs a choice. A choice that they are forced to make because of their previous choices.

And if they continue to complain about “railroading” tell them that they can always GM too. 😉

I hope that inspires some ideas for your game if you should have this issue again.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 9, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

*Sheepishly removes his flameproof armor* That went really smoothly for what can be an inflammatory topic.

Railroading is an easy technique to fall into, and I think it can be done gracefully. That said, we GMs have to be sensitive enough to notice when it’s not working, and flexible enough to deal with whatever’s coming our way.

#12 Comment By Christopher On September 10, 2009 @ 7:49 am

I think I know what’s going on with blalien’s players.

Particularly when playing level-based games like D&D, I’ve found that there is an unspoken assumption by *some* players that *every* obstacle they encounter should be one that they can overcome, as long as they roll well.

That may be because the player is a ‘power gamer’ who wants everything that moves to be a package of experience points and loot. Or perhaps that player is a ‘butt kicker’ who only plays for the joy of raging on monsters. Or maybe they’re a ‘combat tactician’ who simply isn’t interested in scenes involving diplomacy.

In other words, there is a mismatch in expectations between the players and the GM. The GM has planned to run a world where not everything will yield to the player’s might. The players, on the other hand, want a world where they can kick butt and chew bubble gum. And they’re all out of bubble gum.

In those situations, the players see putting an ‘unbeatable’ obstacle in their way as cheating by the GM. They expect the GM to line up situations where they can ‘win’, as long as their rolls aren’t crap, and they see the appearance of a creature 10 levels higher than them as inherently unfair. You’re frustrating their desires in the game. They want the thrill of winning a fight, and you’ve set them up in a Kobiyashi-Maru scenario (in their view). Ergo, you’re ‘railroading’ them.

If this happens to you as a GM, you could try to talk to them about your differing expectations. However, I’d suggest a different tack. Your players are sending you a clear signal that they don’t enjoy being made to feel impotent by being confronted by people too tough for them to take on. That’s how they roll (pun intended). Go with it. Stop putting them in situations where they’re clearly overmatched by the opposition. Yeah, you may see it as ‘logical’ — “Well, of COURSE the King’s guards would be really tough guys. Why would any sane person insult the King in his throne room?” — but your players just see these situations as frustrating.

And if you’re not designing the scene to entertain your players… well, why are you designing it?

#13 Comment By Stormgaard On September 10, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

Railroading is an easy pattern to fall into because it produces the dramatic “Test Your Mettle” moments that a lot of players enjoy. For instance… Gandalf was railroaded by the Balrog in Moria.

And I think that’s ultimately why you can’t ever get totally away from it. Even if you’re the most prepared DM in the world and have a dozen different possible outcomes up your sleeve at any given moment you still want to give the party those “Stand and Deliver” moments.

Because if you don’t there’s never any real risk or reward involved, and without that there’s never any real emotional investment in their characters. They never feel like heroes (or successful gamblers if you prefer a “non-hero” type party).

I try to have at least 2 or 3 main paths the party can take within the course of a gaming session, while keeping an open mind and being willing to roll with the punches if they do something unexpected.

Also I’ve gotten to where I always have some potentially party-wiping variable floating around in the background they might wander into if they’re unlucky. Path A, B, and C may all seem equally challenging, but there might just be something up path C that can (and probably will) kill them.

This makes the world still potentially “dangerous” to them without them having to role play in a stereotypically foolhardy manner.

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