A Tour By Rail

Railroading is always bad! I read that all the time and in the majority of instances I do agree. If you’re not familiar with the term, very simply railroading is when the players have as much ability to steer the story as an engineer can steer a train. There is an expected destination and a specified route to get there. In an RPG it limits the interactivity of the story and invalidates most of the player’s choices.

Let me offer a situation where it might not be so bad after all. Have you ever taken a rail tour? I have and I did enjoy it but that was because I was expecting the tour to not offer the ability to go and check everything I saw out. I knew that if there was something cool that I saw I had one chance to see it and then it was gone. That didn’t mean that one day I couldn’t come by again (not in a train) and see the things I thought were interesting. There also were stops along the way that I could get out and look around but I did have to get back on the train as scheduled or it would leave me behind.

Lets think about that in terms of an RPG. When would that be fun? I’d venture to say it would be the same times that a train trip is fun, when you want to cover a lot of new territory relatively quickly and with little effort for the riders. So when would that be for an RPG? My thought is when players are starting up a new game or setting.

Let’s consider that for a moment. Players may want to explore a new setting or system slowly and incrementally but I know that in some games that’s meant either never getting to some cool stuff or taking a long time to get there. Taking a long time can be rewarding because when you do get there it’s a big payoff. But what if one of those really cool things is one of the reasons you wanted to play in the first place? Then taking a long time is boring and frustrating.

So if the players are new and if they want to cover a lot of ground quickly, If they want to sit back, relax and let the game flow around them, Railroading a game as a tour can quickly explain how certain challenges are intended in a system to be handled. It can explain a lot of very specific story ideas without the players having to read it all from a game book. With very limited and conscious use, railroading could be useful and beneficial to a player’s enjoyment of the game.

Ideally a “Rail Tour” should be designed by the setting or system’s writers or someone who has become thoroughly familiar with them. It would be a limited use tool that must be used carefully or it can all go wrong. The players need to know the nature of the session before hand to properly enjoy it. It also means a lot of work for the GM. There’s a lot to explain and usually a lot of speaking and acting.

What do you think? Could railroading be used in this way to good effect? If you were a player, would you be comfortable with a one shot tour if it opened up a new world for you? As a GM do you think it would somehow corrupt your normally good habits of allowing players to solve problems as they want?


Filed under GM Advice

11 Responses to A Tour By Rail

  1. Hey there,

    My comment is “awaiting moderation” on Here Comes the Plot Train! over at DiceMonkey, but I saw you posted there as well. So depending on the timing you may not have read that yet. Just to be clear, I don’t think there is an issue with my comment, it’s just my first time posting over on DiceMonkey.

    Having said that, I don’t want this to be a rehash of what I typed over there, but since your topic is the exact same there may be similar thoughts.

    What’s important to me as a Dungeon Master is that I enjoy the game along with the players. Yes, I want to entertain them and keep their interest, but if I’m bored to death because I know what is going to happen or how things SHOULD happen no matter what, then why am I involving them in this?

    If I wanted to tell them a story without their input , I could write a book or make a movie (yeah, right), but you get the idea. Movies can be awesome and they can take you on a tour to places you’ve never been before, real or imagined, and present new ideas or a twists on old ideas and have that big pay off you mentioned.

    But this is a different kind of story telling with a passive audience. I don’t want my players to be passive. In my mind, this is an interactive game that should involve everyone’s input.

    Role playing are not traditional story telling. I think where the message of “story game” gets mixed up with railroading is the that in a book, movie, tv show, etc you need a plot.

    I do not believe you need a plot in an RPG to tell a story in a role playing game. I story will emerge naturally from a game session. The Dungeon Master provides the setting, gives the NPCs personality and motivations, the villains and rivals agendas, places history and so on. The characters provide the motivation and interaction with all of what the DM provides.

    How they choose to interact with that world should not be dictated by a plot. It should be dictated by the players.

    If anything, I am just as excited to find out what happens to them as they are to have discovered the outcome of events, reactions of people, and new discoveries they make as they interact in a world off the rails.

    To castrate my entire point, if railroading works for you or Mark or anyone’s group and everyone is having fun, then don’t change your play style based on what some podcast said or some commenter named burned, who disagrees with the idea of railroading.

    • Loc

      I understand and agree that the players should drive the story, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be the main characters.

      As a GM I don’t really see a way I could not influence plot at all (or not have some kind of ‘this happens, then that’) unless I simply made a location for the PCs to run around in and didn’t populate it. As soon as I introduce an NPC that has a plan that I had to think of, I’m creating some kind of a plot. The players should be free to control their actions in response to it and they then bend or break the plot I’ve set up for the NPCs to act on. That may be an important distinction, would you say it’s not okay to make a plot for the NPCs to follow?

      Would doing this once to introduce complex ideas really ruin all the games to come? What if I put the description for people and things in the book? Am I ruining the player’s creativity then? Any game system, no matter how rules light will limit the player’s actions to some degree. My point is, that there’s no way to not influence the player’s choices. It’s only a question of how much. So then the question becomes one of cost vs. benefit. If the cost is too much for a benefit, then don’t do it. My perception is that in certain instances new players don’t know how to think outside the box of “I’m gonna blow it up!” and only learn more sophisticated methods after years of play. What if you get them to figure out how to use stealth and diplomacy in one session? Would that be worth it?

      • I understand what you are saying.

        I fully agree that I know what event will spark a particular player or if I have an NPC word something a particular way that it would influence how they take it. Sometimes just the way I describe something to my players visibly shows their suspicion, where they often openly discuss at the game table what the Dungeon Master really meant by what he just said.

        I think when it comes to discussing railroading the disagreements can be boiled down to semantics in some cases, such as this one. Using your example, you introduce an new NPC. You state he has a plan and that it introduces a plot. I say he has motivation and goals, that the players can choose to interact with or ignore entirely. We are both saying the same thing, therefore the semantics argument.

        This is where throwing them on the track comes in to play. Using your same example, railroading would be not allowing the PCs a choice whether they interact “correctly” with the NPC.

        There has to system for failure. Allowing them to choose to ignore the NPC or saunter off into some dungeon, because of that NPC should be up to them.

        All choices have consequences, so choosing not to help the NPC may bite them in the end and it may not. It’s important to be consistent. It’s not about punishing the players, because they didn’t take this quest from an NPC you planned this awesome dungeon delve for, but what would be the real consequence of them not going? Would it affect the NPC? Other people? The town? And so on.

        I personally prefer introducing “stories” and “complex ideas” via NPCs who would know such information. Not every NPC knows everything that the DM knows. It should matter who you choose to talk to, but now I feel I’m going off on a tangent.

        I think the best method to teach a player the “rules of the game” is experience in success and failure. Let that new player blow it up!
        Of course he needs a bomb, powerful magic, or whatever fits that universes rules in order to do so.

        Great topic btw!

        • Loc

          Well, I never have zero consequences in game, I also give players ample opportunity to succeed or fail. I mean that there is a series of events that are more or less going to happen regardless of the player’s efforts. That doesn’t mean their choices have zero consequences it just means there is a plot that will happen unless the PCs completely fail or walk away (and in a lot of situations, walking away means very bad things happen).

          • I think this is where some of the argument online or person may arise when it comes to railroading, because I believe we both do the same exact thing. It’s just our definition of railroading differs.

            To me railroading is providing no choice. That train is going to go down that track no matter what the PCs do. They can’t do anything to change the course of the emergent story. Stop the villain? “Try again PCs! It’s not going to happen until a particular station stop, so sit back and enjoy the ride.”

            I guess I stray away from the word “plot,” because to me that implies railroading. Because plot in movies and books implies a specific path leading to a specific events. I think the word is confusing (at least to me) when you use it in the context of RPGs. My brain knows that the NPCs, settings, or the let’s just say the DM, “schemes, conspires” all the time. He just does it in different ways from the weather to NPCs to that door you shouldn’t have opened or thing you shouldn’t have blown up!

            So, I don’t think we actually disagree on this bit at all.

            I am not sure how familiar you are with D&D modules, but as an example, think Dragonlance modules versus old school tournament ones. I might say that only one has a plot and the other is just a map with NPCs, monsters, treasure. You might say they both have plots, since G1-G3 lead to D1-D3 and climax at Q1.

            I would have to concede at your (correct) use of the word “plot”, but I would still argue that only one of them railroads you.

            I will have to rethink my use of the word plot when it comes to RPGs and railroading.

            I don’t think we agree on everything in regards to this topic, but I do understand and agree with the point you are making.

  2. Loc

    Well, like you said a lot of this is semantics because there are so many different definitions. You can’t nail down railroading to one definition and there are some pretty extreme definitions out there. I’ve run into some people that will shout “Railroading!” if you tell them “No, that won’t work.” to something they want to do no matter how silly or past their ability.

    With that thought there’s no way to not railroad to some extent as a GM, even if it’s minor. It’s just that 99% of players aren’t going to see it as railroading. To stretch the metaphor, players only get upset when the train doesn’t go where they want it to go.

    Now to coming back to the post, I am talking about limiting some choices so that the things the players are able to do in the game either by threat of pain or “The tunnel doesn’t go that way.” They would be herded (like the sheep they are! mwahahaha! oh, sorry.) more than guided. This is a continuum of railroading, it just depends on where on the scale you are. Sometimes it may not be noticeable, that’s okay for the players because they don’t even know it’s happening. Other times the players get a push in a direction and they get the sense of being controlled. Some will baulk at that and cry foul others just go with it. Then there’s the most blatant when a player’s actions threaten to upend the game and everyone can see that the GM is trying to prevent that. That’s usually where even the casual players notice.

    I’m suggesting letting the players know that you’re going to show them some cool stuff, there may not be a lot of choices on how this stuff gets presented to them but their actions will still matter, there are consequences. There may even be a branch in the tracks that depend on choices they make (whooho! agency!). That’s more restrictive than a map with monsters on it but that can be enjoyable for the players. For the GM it may be enjoyable when you see the players having fun. It is more work though for the GM. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time or even most of the time but every once in a while it can be a transformative experience.

  3. Pingback: » Semantic Railroads - The Delvers

  4. Harry

    Its funny you posted this, my friend made recently his own RPG (Unbalanced rules, weird character creation, decent story though, and has the potential to be fun!), and we have been playing that for the past month and half I think now? He’s not a very good GM I must admit-.- He railroads to the EXTREME. Basically he made his “own” character, and the entire story revolves around his one character, who treates everyone as his “tools”, I decided I had enough of him and I wanted to make my own pirate crew, but everyone that I tried to recruit just so happened to know his one character, and if I didn’t listen to his one character then they wouldn’t listen to me. -.- I was like “Ok, not EVERYONE can know your guy!”, and then if someone didn’t, when they did meet him for some random reason they would absolutely love him and join him instead of me. 😐 If you try to branch off or do your own thing, he basically makes it so you can’t. If anything isn’t quite on with the notes he made for the story, he’ll stretch the rules to fit his own idea. The only power we have really is to either save or kill people that are absolutely not important at all, and if we want them to be important, they won’t be. Sometimes he won’t let us roll for things that we obviously should be rolling, so we just so happen to get hurt, get something stolen, etc. (For example, he made a time skip in game, His character, whos name is Awkeye by the way, basically said he wanted all the players to meet in a secret location, we went to the location, he gave the players all these upgrades except me because I was evidently off on my own, which was not my choice since he did a random time skip and basically made up what my character was doing. I decided I would leave this “meeting” roleplaying my character who is cocky, has an attitude, etc, Awkeye just so happened to take one of my best items, I was like “Uhh, I think I should be able to roll for that” “Nope you can’t” …Yeah) And whats worse is when we don’t become friends with HIS one character, we lose out big time. (On items, etc)

    *sigh* sorry, just my rant. After being the GM all the time, it gets annoying when things don’t seem fair at all and I think I could do them better-.-

    • Loc

      Ow ow ow ow. I think my eyes are bleeding after reading that. I’m pretty sure you already talked to him about it, voicing your unhappiness. What do the other players think of this?

      There’s really only one way to fix a GM like this. Tell him you won’t play unless he writes up and signs a social contract that you agree to.

      On the bright side, early on a lot of GMs make these mistakes (just not usually all at the same time). Many of them grow out of it and learn good practices but it takes good communication and putting your foot down to get them to learn sometimes.

  5. Harry

    The other players don’t really care since they haven’t gamed much. (two others) They just kinda think this is how it is, so I’m kinda on my own. xD Joseph probably would have protested but he doesn’t play with us anymore. Yeah I probably should talk to him, although I’m not sure if he would change at all. I was thinking of just not playing until I get the point across.

    I was thinking of trying to start my own game up again with The Artifact (or something else, players choice I guess), to sly my way out of this, ’cause lately gaming hasn’t been fun for me as you can see. 😛
    Hopfully it works out.

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