Monday, March 3, 2014

Railroading Is A Tactic

First off, I want to apologize for the late post today. I meant to have one written ahead of time, and then time kind of slipped away from me. It's not really an excuse, but I dislike late posts.

Secondly, today I want to talk about something that may prove controversial. One of the key pieces of GM advice given to new GMs is that railroading is bad. However, in reading a twitter rant from some other GMs/Bloggers I saw one make the claim that railroading is not inherently bad, it is simply a tactic that can be overly exploited. This got me thinking, and I actually do agree with the claim. What surprised me more was that it was something I've known/done for a while now without realizing it.

The Thing About Rules...
The thing about rules in any creative endeavor is that once you know them, once you have mastered them and truly understand them, you can break them. For writers there are rules like don't start with your main character just getting out of bed, or don't kill off your main character. Yet I'd be willing to bet that most of you could list at least three or four stories that start just that way or end that way that are really well done.

This is the case with railroading I think. For a new GM it is important to warn against it and even set it as a rule because it very easily becomes exploited and when railroading becomes the norm you can have problems. I say can, not will, because some groups don't mind. I've known groups to last years, happily, with a GM that railroads all the time because they enjoyed the stories being told and still felt they were getting what they wanted out of their characters. Your mileage may vary, but that doesn't make it a less authentic way to have fun.

Because You Don't Always Have  A Choice, And That's Not Bad
Sometimes life sucks. Sometimes the odds stack up against the protagonists and there is no way through something besides jumping through the flame covered doorway. Sometimes the actions of a group keep building and building until something overwhelming happens in response.

This isn't a bad thing by default. RPGs are, in part, about telling stories and stories emulate life. Sometimes life doesn't give us a choice. Sometimes stories don't give character's agency in parts of the tale. It isn't mutually exclusive. Sometimes a string of choices can lead to a situation where there aren't really any. Sometimes a string of being railroaded can lead to a wide open choice that changes everything. The trick is in finding a balance, and the more focus your game has on a particular story the more you're going to have to lay down tracks to keep everything going forward.

Choice vs. Tracks
Imagine this scenario. You're group is clearing a dungeon and they come to a T intersection. You have to go one way. You don't know what is down either path. Down the other is a Dragon and treasure. Your group chooses to go to the left, runs into a dragon, fights it, kills it, and gets all the hoard and gold and magical fun stuff. You then ask the GM what was down the other path. She just kind of smiles and shrugs.

This is fairly common, and most of you who GMed and are reading this probably knows what is going on. For a lot of GMs we have things crafted where certain events need to happen for things to progress. It didn't matter which way the PCs went down that path they were going to run into that dragon and have that fight. For other GMs the choice of the players is paramount and so one way led to the dragon and the other way led to something else - perhaps even an exit.

Neither of these is bad depending on the type of game you are running. The only thing to remember here is htat the first method I described isn't actually giving your players choice. You are giving the illusion of choice, but you are forcing them to fight that dragon as surely as if there was only on way to go and a moving wall was hurrying them along from behind. As a one off, or an every now and then it is fine. If it keeps happening, you may start to have problems. Especially if your players find out that you are just giving them the illusion of choice when there is actually nothing.


  1. Couldn't agree more, the trick with railroading is maintaining the illusion of choice, if the players have too much choice the game turns into a sandbox. You can make it easier for players to make those tough choices by either introducing a time pressure element or by keying them into PC backgrounds so that they become too compelling not to choose.

    GMs can also use the node based design methodology to work out PCs actual choices ahead of time, it's a really useful technique. Check out Keith J Davies work on Node-based Megadungeon Design.

  2. I think a benefit of this second golden age of gaming has been a great deal of progressive thinking on GM'ing. The vast majority of it is terrific, but a vocal minority is absolutely convinced the only "right" way to GM is to improvise almost everything. There are discussions on the subject where, if you reveal any significant preparation for your upcoming session, the accusations of railroading quickly mount.

    First of all, good improvisational skills have always been a requirement of good GM'ing, much less great GM'ing, irrespective of how much you prepare.

    The idea of GMs almost completely improvising every session is an interesting method with a couple of distinct advantages. One, the intrinsic minimal prep time could be perfect for GMs with no time. The other advantage, much talked about, is the boost to player agency; if the GM hasn't prepped anything, it's tough to force the players into it!

    But this sandbox or semi-sandbox approach is hardly the only valid way to do it - and if you dare to actually prepare some interesting things for your players, it certainly doesn't make you a railroad'er.

    There are distinct disadvantages to mass improvising, as well. For example, deep complicated multi-level conspiracies are nigh impossible to construct on the fly. Also, some player groups are less enamored with the included greater responsibility of driving the action.

    The GM'ing tent is big & roomy - there's plenty of space for everyone.