More on railroading

5 December, 2007 at 5:18 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

In my previous post, I defined railroading. Before that, I listed some heuristics for choosing to use or not use the game’s resolution mechanics. Adaen of Bridgewater asked if there is a connection between these two. I think there is.

Most railroading happens because the GM has something in mind and an action initiatiated by players is threatening it. Maybe it is an entire script. Maybe a single scene, like the death of a villain, has been planned. Maybe the player characters should simply be somewhere or meet someone. Maybe the pitiful goblins should really not have been a threat, only a simple diversion.

Generally speaking, players can ruin something in three ways:

  1. Ridiculing it out-of-character. “Wouldn’t it be a huge surprise if the tavern-keeper died right after we left the place?” If the plan was that someone assassinates the tavern-keeper, they have guessed it. Chances are that players know of the railroading if this happens with any frequency. They may or may not be okay with it. One should talk to the players in this situation.
  2. Making the “wrong” decision. Having discovered the big bad’s true identity, they choose to ally with him instead of the assumed blood spilling. Or maybe the clues are interpreted in a totally wrong way and party investigates the wrong rumour. This can be a sign of rebellion, not caring about the existence of prepared material, or simple mistake.
  3. Failing or succeeding where they should not have. This is a matter of rolling the wrong result or not figuring out the riddle or whatever.

Dice, in games where railroading can happen, generally are tied to the third option. So, that first.

The maxim “roll dice only when both failure and success are acceptable” is a relevant one. It deals with many unwanted effects of the third kind. If PCs need to find something (a clue, a secret door, whatever) simply letting them do so without rolling is a solution that makes any rails explicit, and, generally speaking, accepted. It also makes all relevant skills useless or at the very least less useful. Some other benefit should be given for them. For example, the better the skill check, the faster the research. The maxim essentially makes railroading easier and makes it more explicit.

One trigger for rolling that absolutely kills railroading is to roll the dice whenever two participants disagree about what should happen next, assuming the roll’s result is lived by. Including this statement in game text is a very strong anti-railroading message.

Rolling only when nobody particularly cares about the result, which is somewhat common among the people who think that it is a virtue to not use the rules of the game, makes railroading pretty easy if the default is that GM decides what happens otherwise. The opposite, rolling when the situation is dramatic, will encourage fudging when combined with preparation that tends to cause railroading, otherwise it is not special in any way.

Rolling when something might go wrong is pretty standard. Just thinking hard about what will go wrong before rolling allows on to avert many an undramatic death or failure and put something entertaining as the consequences. Failing the jump roll doesn’t mean a 50 metre fall into rapids for the character, but all his foodstuff does go down and he is now clinging to a steep cliff. Situation potentially becomes more dramatic in the short term (gotta climb up; especially cool if there are enemies there) and long term (gotta find food; especially effective if in hurry) and the game can go on.

I’ll be writing a bit more about railroading sometime soon. Specifically on how to avoid it, if one is willing.


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