Railroads aren't always bad, are they?


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion

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Scarab Sages

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So I've been reading through the reviews of the starfinder society scenarios (and several of the pathfinder ones) that come out, and it seems to me that people are preoccupied, and putting an inordinate amount of importance on choice in a scenario. In short, I think people are too fast to cry 'railroad!'

Like, I get it, I hate blatant railroad scenarios. But some reviewer for Starfinder Society scenario 1-04 (cries from the drift) gave the scenario a 2 out of 5 despite the fact that he liked the story, he liked the space combat, he liked the atmosphere, he just didn't like the fact that it was (essentially) a dungeon crawl.

This always kind of gets me. I guess I have a definition of a 'railroad' plot that differs from most others. And I wanted to know what others thought.

To me a railroad isn't a 'scenario with little choice.' A railroad is scenario where the players are expected to commit to one and only one course of action despite the fact that opportunities or logic dictate otherwise.

Take pathfinder scenario Master of the Fallen Fortress. By all accounts, it is a dungeon crawl with little choice. You go to a tower, explore it. The tower is set up in such a way that there is little you can do EXCEPT explore it in the way intended (bottom to top.) Is this a railroad scenario? I say no. You are set up with a task (explore the fallen fortress) and then you go through it in a logical manner. Unless you want to refuse the scenario (in which case, why did you show up to the gaming table), there's not a whole lot you could do differently. I do not call that a railroad scenario, despite the little choice involved.

To me Railroad scenarios are things where the game doesn't realize you have options. Where you apprehend a criminal, bu are expected to make a deal with him instead of turn him over to the authorities. Or you are expected to side with the Hatfields or McCoys instead of trying to bring the two to peace. Or where you are in a city and there are a million ways you can go about finding the secret mcguffin, but the game expects you to start asking around despite the fact that it is supposed to be secret.

I dunno, I think people are just too quick to hate on any scenario that's not sandbox-ey. Thoughts?


I play sandbox almost exclusively, though in my greener days as a DM/GM it was pretty railroad-ish. It's just how things have evolved for me and my group. Lots of dungeon crawls and the like. I don't have a problem with railroading. In fact I sometimes have to do it in my games just to move the over arching campaign plot along. But I do it in such a way that the players sometimes don't even realize it's happening (I guess 30+ years at this has taught me how to do things like that).

But remember this one thing; more people gripe than compliment. So for everyone who hates something, there's at least one person who tends to like it. They just prefer to keep to themselves about it and not start a forum fight over something they enjoy.

Grand Lodge

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In my experience Railroad is not always bad and in some types of games is probably better.

(This is assuming that Railroading refers only to the overall plot of the adventure.)

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When you are DMing for a group of folks who have never played (and are still learning what the d20 looks like) or even when you have a very inexperienced group, it's probably better to put an adventure on some tracks, and feed the Players obvious indicators of what they're suppose to do next. If you give them options -- or worse, a Sandbox -- they'll likely stall with absolutely no idea of what they could do. Instead, have an obvious McGuffin send them to the evil dragon's lair via the secret entrance underneath and they know what to do. If you even give them three choices of possible entrances to the evil dragon's lair, well, they just don't understand how they're suppose to come up with the right choice.

More experienced Players will think of a hundred-and-one ways. Heck, you don't even have to tell them about a secret entrance; they'll look for one on their own. Often, Sandbox games, or near-Sandbox is much better for experienced gamers.

What you don't want to do is have a railroad for a specific encounter. You don't want to put a river in front of them and have in your head that the only way to get across the river is to pay the river boat captain his toll. If they, scratch that, when they come up with some other idea to get across the river -- get past the locked door, talk their way out of fighting the Hobgoblin by Bluffing -- whatever, let them try. Don't Railroad them into taking actions to get past an obstacle or encounter just because it was the solution you thought of in your head.
(Indeed, I recommend that you not even come up with a solution, just a problem/ obstacle/ encounter.)

Other types of groups that may work better with adventure Railroading include the group that just manages to squeeze a few hours maybe once a month for gaming and doesn't want some broad, big story or setting. That's the group that wants to maximize their precious time adventuring a specific plot and not waste time on decisions, options, character development, etc. They miraculously forced four hours of gaming this month, damn it, they better get four hours of adventuring in the dragons lair instead of three god dang hours talking and one finally going into the dragon's lair.

Finally is the group that, though experienced, just doesn't have the drive to move the game forward. They know the game inside and out. They can come up with creative solutions and have grand ideas about their characters. They just don't want to move the game forward; they want to see how the DM unfolds it for them. Here, when you try to Sandbox it, the game slows to a crawl and the whole campaign fizzles into three boring sessions and then ends.

. . . .

So, Yes, there are times to Railroad. Just don't railroad an encounter resolution.


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Railroads are not always bad: sometimes you need a mechanism to get from Point A to B and you don't want to make everything up in between. Railroads can get you where you need to be.

Sandboxes are not always bad: sometimes you just need to stop and stay awhile and play.

They can both be done well and they can both be done poorly.

Many/Most? of the Adventure Paths include a decent mix of both.

Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Railroads are great fun when the train stops in Funtown. They are no fun when the only stops are Nowhere and Nothing.


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I don't think a linear plot is inherently a bad thing. I used to, but then I played Half Life (the first computer game). Almost perfectly linear, still a good game.

I think the problem with linearity isn't inherent, rather it comes up when the linearity is not what the players want. If they go into an adventure knowing there is a specific objective and relatively little freedom, and the restrictions are all built into the fiction, then the fact that it's linear is far less of a problem than if they are expecting total freedom and then frustrated by invisible walls and plot armour.

So dungeon crawls can easily be places where restricted choice is totally fine - the dungeon as an IC construct builds lack of choice into the fiction.

The Exchange

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Lucy_Valentine wrote:
I think the problem with linearity isn't inherent, rather it comes up when the linearity is not what the players want.

That's an important point to make. Even when I run APs I try to make the game as unrailroady as I can make it (by including other plots, probably developing out of PC backstorys or any kind of things the PCs might throw at me, giving the players every possibility to deviate from the AP's plot). But more often than not, I have found that the players don't take that offers, because they actually want to play out the AP according to the official script. So trying to go even more sandboxy on those players might not work too well.

On the other hand, trying to work a deep plot into a sandbox campaign might not be that, what the Sandbox player wants to have.

So in my eyes, a railroad is bad when it invalidates players' choices or if it simply denies them to make any choices at all. Everything else is probably fine as long as it fits the players' needs and wishes.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

The answer is no. TOZ above has the right of it.

It all boils down to trust. Players should trust the GM to provide a fun and/or memorable adventure. If they don't then there's no way a campaign is possible.

Scarab Sages

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Over the decades, I've lost count of the players who insist the next session/adventure/campaign be totally free of rails or restrictions, and they be allowed complete free reign to go anywhere, and do anything they can think of.

And when you give them that, they stare at you like a nest of startled baby owl chicks.


ericthecleric wrote:

The answer is no. TOZ above has the right of it.

It all boils down to trust. Players should trust the GM to provide a fun and/or memorable adventure. If they don't then there's no way a campaign is possible.

As long as the GM does provide a fun and/or memorable adventure. That's the key. I've had a few that were neither.

And a few that were memorable because of how not fun they were. Not a good approach either.


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I say character agency is your primary goal. As long as the characters feel as though they are making a choice, and that they are in an equal and balanced relationship with the world around them, and not that the plot is happening to them and they are helpless about it. In a more linear game, an event happens, the PCs are hooked, and the choice is clear, but there is still a choice to be made, and all the little decisions made along the way have consequences. In a more open game, the players are given an environment, the setting, and the choice isn't clear, or there are many choices to be made all at once. Little hooks may be planted all over the environment, little seeds of stories, and the PCs decide which ones to nourish. But the choices made have an impact, the characters are agents of the story, and not just passive victims.


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This can also be a matter of attitude and perspective.

Say the party arrives in a new city hot on the trail of a ninja assassin. The CN gnome rogue of the party is feeling a little bored and decides to practice their sleight of hand at the local jeweler. This leads an epic chase through the bustling city streets, a confrontation with the city constable, and the gnome rogue ends up in jail. Now the rest of the party needs to get their associate out of jail in order to continue the assassin hunt.

Now, did the rogue derail the story? Or did they add to it? What if, by happenstance, the DM decides to place the assassin in the next jail cell over?


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djdust wrote:

This can also be a matter of attitude and perspective.

Say the party arrives in a new city hot on the trail of a ninja assassin. The CN gnome rogue of the party is feeling a little bored and decides to practice their sleight of hand at the local jeweler. This leads an epic chase through the bustling city streets, a confrontation with the city constable, and the gnome rogue ends up in jail. Now the rest of the party needs to get their associate out of jail in order to continue the assassin hunt.

Now, did the rogue derail the story? Or did they add to it? What if, by happenstance, the DM decides to place the assassin in the next jail cell over?

Depends I think on what the rest of the players thought of it all. If the rogue player had a ton of fun with his robbery and chase and the rest of the group is fuming about being on the run from the law again, then it's a derail.

Especially if that epic chase and confrontation were just with the gnome while the rest of the group sat around.

And when the DM places the assassin in the next cell, it's not by happenstance, it's a choice. Either to try to recover from the disastrous session or to reward the rogue for causing so much chaos.


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Snorter wrote:

Over the decades, I've lost count of the players who insist the next session/adventure/campaign be totally free of rails or restrictions, and they be allowed complete free reign to go anywhere, and do anything they can think of.

And when you give them that, they stare at you like a nest of startled baby owl chicks.

That's pretty much my reaction when a GM sets up a game with no direction whatsoever. I'm like "Okay, so there's nothing going on. My character goes on about their life."

Of course, I know that and don't ask for those games.

I like some direction, but a lot of freedom about how to get there. I like big villains with complex plots, but not a laid out step by step process for how we'll beat them. Even some real moral ambiguity about who the real villain is and whose side we should be on.

Paizo Employee Organized Play Developer

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What matters is that the players feel like they have agency and control, and the game continues moving. If the railroad involves dead-ends where the party is spinning their wheels because there's only one solution and they have no idea how to reach it, or requires the GM to take control of the players by telling them what their characters do, you're probably running into "bad railroad" territory. A linear story can actually be really helpful for the party though, especially if they're a group that frequently needs a helpful nudge to keep the story going.


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I think everyone has hit the right notes so far. Lucy_Valentine hit it on the head: what do the players want? If you collectively decide you want to be a part of a story where a legendary wizard of old has awakened and wants to reclaim his kingdom and the PC's start at level 1 and work their way up to a final showdown, then you look at an AP like Rise of the Runelords. If instead the players want a number of adventures where they wander around and find things to do, and maybe there's a small plot here and there, then you build them a sandbox (or, if they want a little structure, something like Kingmaker). Problems really set in when there's a disconnect between what they players want and what they are given.

In reality, players generally want some mix of both. Rigid adherence to only railroad or to sandbox is just as big an enemy in my eyes. Like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, there's nothing wrong with getting a little sandbox in your railroad, or the other way around.

Even if I sign up for a railroad, as TOZ put it I do occasionally want to stop in funtown and play. Enjoy the city at one of the stops, do some RP with NPC's we meet, etc. I don't want to be rushed from encounter to encounter just for the sake of plot.

The same goes for the sandbox adventures, too. Game time is a precious commodity (at least, it is for me). I am OK with playing in the sandbox and have had a couple of campaigns of this nature, but if there's a plot or subplot involved, I'd rather have a nudge from the GM to get us in the right direction. Nothing is worse than spending hours of game time aimlessly wandering the town, the countryside, the plane, or wherever, not making progress because we're so committed to the sandbox that we've forgotten we're supposed to be having fun.

Dark Archive

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It seems to me that railroads and sandboxes are terms that mean different things to different people.

To me, a railroad is a situation where ultimately my character’s choices don’t matter. Some NPCs can’t be killed, the adventure will proceed as scripted out in advance by the GM, the PCs successes and failures in individual encounters has been predetermined, and point A will lead to point B to point C with no detours or shortcuts. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying that kind of adventure.

Just because an adventure is linear doesn’t make it a railroad. If the party choose to travel through a mountain pass, then they can expect to face encounters in a set order – but they can still opt to turn back, or climb the mountains instead. Just because the adventure assumes they will fight the orcs of the bloody moon, and then fight the nightstalker ogres, it doesn’t mean that the party can’t sneak past the orcs, or even convince the orcs to fight the ogres.

And however linear the adventure, at least things are happening. In a bad sandbox campaign, and perhaps even in a decent sandbox campaign with an unsuitable group of players, hours of game time can be wasted trying to find the adventure in the first place.

My players complain if they don’t know what they are “supposed” to be doing. Given a choice of 3 adventures hooks, they will ask me to decide for them which one to follow up. They honestly have no opinion as to whether they’d prefer to fight the harpies of the sundered crag, search for the tomb of the forest king, or investigate why the caravan from Deepwater is two weeks overdue. And from their point of view, since the GM knows much more about the three adventures than they do, the GM should pick the best one and run it.


Essentially railroad and sandbox are two ends of a spectrum, but people often decide every campaign must be classified as one or the other. And people have very different opinions where on the spectrum the dividing line is. Since "railroad" is obviously bad, it's not uncommon for the dividing line to lie "just a little more railroaded than my game".

Though it's also possible to do both at once - have a sandboxy choice of different adventure hooks, but have those adventures be very railroady once chosen. Worst of both worlds in my opinion.


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I feel like it's okay to confront the player characters with circumstances they are unable to prevent, and have to deal with, as long as you eventually step back and let them figure out what to do (and you don't just have one solution in mind.)

I feel like ideally the story in these sorts of things should be kind of shaped like a lens: it's somewhat linear at the start and at the end (i.e. you have a beginning and an ultimate confrontation in mind) and open up in the middle. Even if the showdown with whomever is planned from the get go, the things that happened in the middle that didn't need to happen (i.e. they happened because the PCs made choices) are going to give context to the ending. This is, after all, why every table who plays through an entire adventure path is going to have a very different experience despite having basically the same beginning and resolution.

The trick is figuring when the players are happy to go along with the plot (so they don't even notice when you're railroading) and when they'd go offroad. Like many things in GMing it's largely a matter of "reading the room."


I completely agree.


I think the time you see people yell RAILROAD is when they want to do something, it's logical and possible and should net them the results they are needing to accomplish, but not doable because of scenario or plot or whatever. Like say there's a lady that asks for 3 wolf tails, you happen to have 3 wolf tails on you cause one person has a strange hobby, but no, she won't accept those tails for some reason cause the plot said when you were getting the tails that X would happen. So the railroad is that the lady didn't really need 3 wolf tails, it was just a way to get players to be at a place at a time for plot. Now if the party doesn't have the wolf's tails and they'd really want to do the quest then it's not a "problem" that there's actually rail-tracks they are on because since they aren't aware of them they don't have anything to complain about.


VampByDay wrote:
Take pathfinder scenario Master of the Fallen Fortress. By all accounts, it is a dungeon crawl with little choice. You go to a tower, explore it. The tower is set up in such a way that there is little you can do EXCEPT explore it in the way intended (bottom to top.) Is this a railroad scenario? I say no. You are set up with a task (explore the fallen fortress) and then you go through it in a logical manner. Unless you want to refuse the scenario (in which case, why did you show up to the gaming table), there's not a whole lot you could do differently. I do not call that a railroad scenario, despite the little choice involved.

I remember that one! We ended up having to run it backwards--the PCs crashed an experimental aircraft into the top of the fortress and had to work their way down. Surprised the heck out of the inhabitants (and me). That was a wonderful day of improvisation!

Just goes to show that no rails are secure enough that the players can't jump the tracks. It's best to interpret "railroad-y" scenarios as simply one or more possible paths and use those as a baseline from which to extrapolate what happens when the players inevitably do something else. (Yes, this can render entire chapters of an adventure path moot or require you to do a lot of rejiggering. Welcome to gamemastering.)


thejeff wrote:
djdust wrote:

This can also be a matter of attitude and perspective.

Say the party arrives in a new city hot on the trail of a ninja assassin. The CN gnome rogue of the party is feeling a little bored and decides to practice their sleight of hand at the local jeweler. This leads an epic chase through the bustling city streets, a confrontation with the city constable, and the gnome rogue ends up in jail. Now the rest of the party needs to get their associate out of jail in order to continue the assassin hunt.

Now, did the rogue derail the story? Or did they add to it? What if, by happenstance, the DM decides to place the assassin in the next jail cell over?

Depends I think on what the rest of the players thought of it all. If the rogue player had a ton of fun with his robbery and chase and the rest of the group is fuming about being on the run from the law again, then it's a derail.

Especially if that epic chase and confrontation were just with the gnome while the rest of the group sat around.

And when the DM places the assassin in the next cell, it's not by happenstance, it's a choice. Either to try to recover from the disastrous session or to reward the rogue for causing so much chaos.

I'm not trying to be combative here, I am just enjoying the opportunity to practice GM theory crafting.

So how would I handle such a situation if I were GM?

In such a case there would have been certain clues planned on being discovered in the city that would lead the party even closer to their quarry. The clues are the rails in this working metaphor. How exactly the party discovers the clues is the sandbox. When the gnome is off on her little solo adventure, the rest of the party is busy doing other investigatory things, maybe getting into little side adventures themselves. They are definitely not 'just sitting there'. As a DM, there will be things prepared, but as a GM, I should be able to respond to a derail flexibly. So, the other party members will possibly have the planned experiences, while the gnome has an unplanned one. The idea of having the assassin in the next jail cell over is admittedly ham-fisted, hand-fed, and deus ex machina-y, but perhaps its an associate of the assassin in the drunk tank after an all night bender, who just might spill some beans if the gnome can convince them. In the end, when all the clues are brought together, the party will be pretty confident where to look next, and every party member would have played their role in gathering the info.

This fits with that lense shaped story model PossibleCabbage describes, yeah?

not to derail the post with a completely hypothetical gaming situation ;)


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Railroading has a broad and deep number of interpretations I think. If you know the BBEG is going to do X from session 1, is that railroading? Some may say "but what if the players stop it!" and you respond "it happens too soon!" or something; some will consider that railroading no matter how many things the party can do in the world that thing X is happening.

Some of those same people would see that there is a way to stop it rather than dealing with what the BBEG does; but because it's a single way; it's railroading (even though they have the option to do it or react to the problem.)

Some others may think that if you offer only 3 ways to solve the problem that that's railroading. Some may think that the very idea that there is a problem to solve is indeed railroading.

That's my interpretation of the lack of consensus anyway.
_______________________________________

In reality, even a sandbox game needs stuff to happen; a world to live in. This leads you to have some plot points and some side quest things. Plot points (as narrow or broad as you make them) will always involve some amount of railroading based on the expectations of the GM and the Players.

It's when the Rails are apparent *and* the players become annoyed that it's a problem. If the story is "off the rails" and the players are annoyed; they in fact are looking to get back "on the rails" because you've been too vague with what they should do with their characters. If they are not annoyed, then what you're doing is working for them (even if it's not working for the campaign or for yourself.)

Long story short; I'm in the middle. I've built a plot that can be tackled over time or more deliberately and an area to exist in that is affected by it. The players are somewhat compelled to solve it because the area they're in is changing in a way that is suspicious and/or bad. They don't have to pursue it (and interestingly, some actions that would probably not happen could derail it quite a bit) but their own interests seem to be enough to cause them to pursue it. This is pretty ideal.

IMO, railroading happens because a GM has built a plot/world that people don't care about. If your drop your players somewhere and their interactions begin to show them that it's changing in a way that they don't like; they will *want* to solve the problem.


My (weird) opinions:

Do not force an encounter to end a certain way. This is important, I will be annoyed with you if you do.
Do not remove abilities without it being agreed upon OOC.
I am fine with linear splines if it is acknowledged that that is how it is to function. If you say it's fully open, you better be prepared for me to take an extremely convoluted path from point A to B (I would love to visit the starting town only after having completed all dungeons).


Used to play TORG with a guy who only ran the modules. If we went off track (or off script, as he called it) he would just vapor lock and shut down, unable to think on his feet and we'd have to make ourselves give up on what might have been an interesting side quest.


Snorter wrote:
And when you give them that*, they stare at you like a nest of startled baby owl chicks.

* "that" being a sandbox

That's me! :) I like to be given problems that I can solve using my brain. Not a blank canvas of a world within which I can just mess around.


The trick is to mix the two. I think I'm pretty good at that. At least my players say so, so my ego demands I believe it.


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Railroads aren't always bad. In fact, I find most players purposely put themselves on one. I have a group of gamers that only meets once a week for short periods of time. Also it often comes up that one of the players can't make a session since they're on weeknights. Finally these are all old-skool type players who've all expressed nostalgia for campaigns ranging randomly through Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms.

I figured this was the ideal place for a "West Marches" style campaign. I drew out a city and hinterlands map on notebook paper, then laid out a second hex map with a few hexes filled in. I proudly unveiled everything and set the first few hooks in place, then I triumphantly set back and waited.

... and waited, and waited.

My players didn't know how to self start. I added an "adventurer's guild" and forced them off on the first mission. Once completed, they only wanted to follow up on the mysterious tower at the first locale. Then the kobolds from the first locale. Then it was back to the guild to put some pieces together about a dragon the kobolds were worshipping.

I mean don't get me wrong: they were having fun and so was I so I'm not complaining, but the game couldn't have been designed more "sandbox" without playing in a physical sandbox. Despite that initial setup the players forced a linear story to play out until frankly I couldn't think of anything else for it so I gave them a side quest to do with one PC's backstory.

TL/DR. I guess my point is just that often folks engineer a logical, straight-line approach to their game out of habit or necessity, regardless of a "sandbox" setting.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

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At the end of each session, I try to place the PCs in "Grand Central Station" and have them purchase tickets for their next journey. Then I can create the railroad that they want.

A railroad isn't necessarily a bad thing. Especially if it is an express line and takes the PCs to a dynamic destination.

For example, as the intro to my current campaign, the PCs each character got a letter with a key, and address, and a time. They all showed up at the same time, used their keys to open an elaborate lock, and then explored a haunted house for a couple days. There was a central garden with about a dozen doorways that lead to three or four floors. Inside, the majority of rooms had three or more exits, which gave the PCs lots of choices. There were even multiple stairways that provided access to different levels.

In a different campaign, our World Serpent Inn campaign, a campaign that is practically designed to be a bunch of railroads since it's run by a rotating collections of DMs, I had the PCs talk their way out of TWO big and complex set piece battles! :-O Good thing I had plenty of extra material just in case....


In my experience most players are happy to go along with whatever storyline the GM puts forward. I can only think of one player who insisted on very open sandbox games. Fortunately he was good at coming up with alternatives and getting the other players to willingly follow along. Often I would still design a fairly linear adventure and just wing it when the game inevitably went off the rails.

I've noticed that my current group is way more engaged when the GM sets a clear objective. I think we like the concept of sandbox games but the reality is that we struggle to turn them into interesting games and usually the GM has to intervene.


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A railroad is a tool. Like just about any tool in existence they can be used to create things both wonderful and gross.

One type of adventure is what I might call the "cruise ship' - the 'railroad' takes you from place to place but then lets you off and says "you have all day/week/whatever to do what you want, here's a list of interesting sights'

Or the 'build your own pizza' adventure whch could alternately be called "Mongolian Grill" - you are presented wi a list of adventure ingredients that you can mix and match however you like, however it is a 'relatively limited' menu of ingredients. Agency but not unlimited agency. Unlimited agency for me often seems to end up with the confused baby owl chicks scenarios. Full railroad all the time ends up with disturbing contemplative looks at new uses for kitchen utensils.


thejeff wrote:
djdust wrote:

This can also be a matter of attitude and perspective.

Say the party arrives in a new city hot on the trail of a ninja assassin. The CN gnome rogue of the party is feeling a little bored and decides to practice their sleight of hand at the local jeweler. This leads an epic chase through the bustling city streets, a confrontation with the city constable, and the gnome rogue ends up in jail. Now the rest of the party needs to get their associate out of jail in order to continue the assassin hunt.

Now, did the rogue derail the story? Or did they add to it? What if, by happenstance, the DM decides to place the assassin in the next jail cell over?

Depends I think on what the rest of the players thought of it all. If the rogue player had a ton of fun with his robbery and chase and the rest of the group is fuming about being on the run from the law again, then it's a derail.

Especially if that epic chase and confrontation were just with the gnome while the rest of the group sat around.

And when the DM places the assassin in the next cell, it's not by happenstance, it's a choice. Either to try to recover from the disastrous session or to reward the rogue for causing so much chaos.

I think thejeff has the right of it here - it depends on how the rest of the party reacted.

Admittedly, I'd be highly tempted to leave the Rogue to cool his heels in the jail until the rest of the PCs were ready to move on, unless there absolutely needed him to find the ninja assassin.


Okay, this actually starts before the game. When you start, the GM needs to get player buy in to the concept. If the players don't want to do the game on offer, then there's always going to be problems.

If they do accept it, then they are agreeing to go in the direction of the game. Now a good GM will allow players to take different ways to follow this. It's not a railroad but it's a series of paths to the same end.


rairoads are not all bad, if not railroaded a bit the players might never get together, or do the adventures they are meant to, and might engage in various undesirable things, like requiring the DM to make up on the spot the situation for what they are doing, or do things that won't let them rise in level


Pathfinder Pathfinder Accessories Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Railroads! Sheesh!

While I agree that in general it is best to give maximum choice to players, to set their strategies, choose their objectives and do what they want to do in a given gaming session, sometimes the railroad has to take precedence.

For example...

Minor RotRL spoilers:

In my recent RotRL game, the players were tracking the giants back to a fortress in the Storval plains, and had to cross the supposedly impassable cliffs. The scenario wanted them to fight their way through the Storval stairs, but one of the players (a sorcerer) pointed out that he could just fly the characters over the obstacles some miles away from the stairs, and proceed to their real objective. Normally, I would applaud such thinking, but...

I had spent countless hours sculpting polystyrene sheets to build the Storval Stairs in a really impressive setup that was like a yard high and a yard and a half long. I had already spent some game session time setting it up on the table, and everyone was like "oooh! That's so cool!" Then the sorcerer points out that they don't even need to go that way. They joked about it for a while, but eventually started working out their clever plan for a frontal assault on the stairs.

Sure, it was a clear case of railroading. I never said they *had* to assault the stairs, but it was clear that they really, really, really needed to go that way, given the heavy DM prep involved.

So I'm deeply conflicted about this subject. Sandboxing is all well and good, but DM prep time has got to count for something in the "fun" equation.

At the end of the day, everybody had great fun, the PCs conquered the nasty giants and harpies waiting for them on the stairs, and raked in some essential loot for future adventures.

So, is the railroad intrinsically bad?


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Never forget the value of the Magicians Choice. The illusion of freedom in a situation that is in fact scripted. Example: having been captured by the BBEG while trying to escort a caravan of civilians outside of the evil empire; the party is told they must choose between the civilians of the caravan or the last goodly heir to the recently invaded kingdom. Regardless of their choice, you can guide the plot to its conclusion by saying "Then by your will the X are saved" or "By your will the X are damned"

As a GM it is up to you to provide either freedom, or the illusion of freedom, to your players while still telling a coherent story. Learning how to fudge situations to further the plot without breaking your players immersion is key. Rail roads are easy to enjoy when the ride is smooth.


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ShroudedInLight wrote:
Never forget the value of the Magicians Choice. The illusion of freedom in a situation that is in fact scripted.

White wolf love this as an approach. But, it's fundamentally flawed because it's being dishonest with the players. If they never work it out then things go okay, but if they ever do work it out then you damage their trust.

As a player, I'd rather someone just made clear to me how linear things are. Then, if I don't like it, I can play something else. I really don't like being lied to.

---

As a sort of tangent, I don't know if anyone's mentioned the difference between linearity on a strategic and linearity on a tactical scale? Like, I don't mind at all if the game is advertised as saving the Queendom from evil necrodancers, and then turns out to be exactly that. That's fine. And I don't even mind if there are rails along the route to do that (as long as it makes sense in-fiction). But if individual combats can only be won in one specific way, that annoys me immensely.


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ShroudedInLight wrote:

Never forget the value of the Magicians Choice. The illusion of freedom in a situation that is in fact scripted. Example: having been captured by the BBEG while trying to escort a caravan of civilians outside of the evil empire; the party is told they must choose between the civilians of the caravan or the last goodly heir to the recently invaded kingdom. Regardless of their choice, you can guide the plot to its conclusion by saying "Then by your will the X are saved" or "By your will the X are damned"

As a GM it is up to you to provide either freedom, or the illusion of freedom, to your players while still telling a coherent story. Learning how to fudge situations to further the plot without breaking your players immersion is key. Rail roads are easy to enjoy when the ride is smooth.

Illusion is a lot of it. I suspect players in many cases really want the illusion more than the reality. The illusion of choice, the illusion of risk, etc.

This ties into players claiming to want a sandbox, then floundering when given one. Or claiming to hate railroads, but riding them happily as long as they're not obvious.

This also leads to a problem in that you can't really ask the players about this and expect to get useful feedback. That destroys the illusion.


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Pathfinder Pathfinder Accessories Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Illusion! Heh!

Like preparing a nice little dungeon, but waiting to actually place it in the wilderness until the PCs decide where they're going. Or having them meet a given NPC in a place convenient to the flow of the evening session, rather than not having them meet the key NPC just because they didn't go to the place you'd intended him to be lurking. Or having an ingenious trap that could potentially be in several different corridors.

Would that make it Schrödinger's trap?


I didn't need to fake it to have the players walk straight into a trap. After the shaman finished casting call lightning as the combat ended, we went barrelling down the hallway not yet cleared out so she could actually get some use from the spell. When everybody fell in the pit that had always been there, they felt they deserved it.


Wheldrake wrote:

Illusion! Heh!

Like preparing a nice little dungeon, but waiting to actually place it in the wilderness until the PCs decide where they're going. Or having them meet a given NPC in a place convenient to the flow of the evening session, rather than not having them meet the key NPC just because they didn't go to the place you'd intended him to be lurking. Or having an ingenious trap that could potentially be in several different corridors.

Would that make it Schrödinger's trap?

I do this all the time, and in nearly every game. We've always joked that my players usually ignore options A, B, or C and choose option Q instead. So if they don't go where I expect them to, I just move the encounters I really want them to have to Q. And they never know that I've done it.


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Wheldrake wrote:

Illusion! Heh!

Like preparing a nice little dungeon, but waiting to actually place it in the wilderness until the PCs decide where they're going. Or having them meet a given NPC in a place convenient to the flow of the evening session, rather than not having them meet the key NPC just because they didn't go to the place you'd intended him to be lurking. Or having an ingenious trap that could potentially be in several different corridors.

Would that make it Schrödinger's trap?

It's probably only a Schrödinger's trap it's also conveniently the type of trap that targets the low save of whoever triggers it. :P


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I'm so putting in a pit trap with a (possibly dead) tiger in it.


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It depends on the players you have. Some players prefer a more guided experience, and want to be given quests or a job to do. Others are self starters and just want a world to play in. The tricky part is when you have a mixed party.


Scythia wrote:
It depends on the players you have. Some players prefer a more guided experience, and want to be given quests or a job to do. Others are self starters and just want a world to play in. The tricky part is when you have a mixed party.

And some, like me, want some thing to do. Preferably some kind of large scale overarching plot to get us hooked. Once we've got that, I don't need or want to be given quests or assigned jobs. I like getting my teeth into a problem and finding ways to deal with it, but there has to be something to work with.

Put me on a hex map in a town with nothing to deal with and I'll flounder. Send me to find jobs off a "adventuring guild" board and I'll be bored stiff.


Mark Hoover wrote:

Railroads aren't always bad. In fact, I find most players purposely put themselves on one. I have a group of gamers that only meets once a week for short periods of time. Also it often comes up that one of the players can't make a session since they're on weeknights. Finally these are all old-skool type players who've all expressed nostalgia for campaigns ranging randomly through Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms.

I figured this was the ideal place for a "West Marches" style campaign. I drew out a city and hinterlands map on notebook paper, then laid out a second hex map with a few hexes filled in. I proudly unveiled everything and set the first few hooks in place, then I triumphantly set back and waited.

... and waited, and waited.

My players didn't know how to self start. I added an "adventurer's guild" and forced them off on the first mission. Once completed, they only wanted to follow up on the mysterious tower at the first locale. Then the kobolds from the first locale. Then it was back to the guild to put some pieces together about a dragon the kobolds were worshipping.

I mean don't get me wrong: they were having fun and so was I so I'm not complaining, but the game couldn't have been designed more "sandbox" without playing in a physical sandbox. Despite that initial setup the players forced a linear story to play out until frankly I couldn't think of anything else for it so I gave them a side quest to do with one PC's backstory.

TL/DR. I guess my point is just that often folks engineer a logical, straight-line approach to their game out of habit or necessity, regardless of a "sandbox" setting.

Isn't this the ideal goal of a sandbox game, though--the players set their own goals and concentrate the story on the things that they feel are important? Sounds like you hit a home run on that campaign.


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I think this also invokes a discussion on the working definition of 'plot'. Usually, in the narrative arts, plot is used to mean the sequence of events in the story. I think what people mean by railroading in the pejorative sense is that this series of events is fixed. I like to view roleplaying as collaborative storytelling, and an alternative working definition for me is that the plot (from the DMs point of view) is the plot of the antagonist, as in, what is the antagonist (or BBEG or whathaveyou) trying to accomplish, what steps have they taken, and steps are they currently taking, and what steps do they plan to take next? This becomes the mechanism which drives the story forward, as the protagonists (PCs) become increasingly involved. Ideally, the plot works out more like a dance between GM and PCs.

I'm working on developing a campaign scenario now that involves several factions, each with their own active plots which will be revealed over time, and it will be up to the PCs to decide which factions to side with and which ones to side against, to work towards maintaining peace along a volatile borderland or to join in on the chaos for their own gain. I'm hoping this leans more toward the 'open' narrative side of things, but initially it may seem pretty linear, episodic even, as the PCs are slowly introduced to all the factions and sent on missions and quests by their mysterious employer (who is a faction on his own).


Lucy_Valentine wrote:
ShroudedInLight wrote:
Never forget the value of the Magicians Choice. The illusion of freedom in a situation that is in fact scripted.

White wolf love this as an approach. But, it's fundamentally flawed because it's being dishonest with the players. If they never work it out then things go okay, but if they ever do work it out then you damage their trust.

As a player, I'd rather someone just made clear to me how linear things are. Then, if I don't like it, I can play something else. I really don't like being lied to.

---

As a sort of tangent, I don't know if anyone's mentioned the difference between linearity on a strategic and linearity on a tactical scale? Like, I don't mind at all if the game is advertised as saving the Queendom from evil necrodancers, and then turns out to be exactly that. That's fine. And I don't even mind if there are rails along the route to do that (as long as it makes sense in-fiction). But if individual combats can only be won in one specific way, that annoys me immensely.

I use magician's force only on things that players have no idea they are 'avoiding' - basically use the force to get them to the decision point where they can make whatever meaningful choice or course of action they choose. So it's a magician's force used to make sure they have the opportunity to exercise their agency. If I've drafted a scenario it's because I'm pretty certain my players are going to enjoy it, knowing them as I do. So I'm not going to let a 'choice' that has nothing to do with the scenario derail it. If it's going to be derailed it will be directly derailed by the players themselves as it is presented to them.


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RDM42 wrote:
Lucy_Valentine wrote:
ShroudedInLight wrote:
Never forget the value of the Magicians Choice. The illusion of freedom in a situation that is in fact scripted.

White wolf love this as an approach. But, it's fundamentally flawed because it's being dishonest with the players. If they never work it out then things go okay, but if they ever do work it out then you damage their trust.

As a player, I'd rather someone just made clear to me how linear things are. Then, if I don't like it, I can play something else. I really don't like being lied to.

---

As a sort of tangent, I don't know if anyone's mentioned the difference between linearity on a strategic and linearity on a tactical scale? Like, I don't mind at all if the game is advertised as saving the Queendom from evil necrodancers, and then turns out to be exactly that. That's fine. And I don't even mind if there are rails along the route to do that (as long as it makes sense in-fiction). But if individual combats can only be won in one specific way, that annoys me immensely.

I use magician's force only on things that players have no idea they are 'avoiding' - basically use the force to get them to the decision point where they can make whatever meaningful choice or course of action they choose. So it's a magician's force used to make sure they have the opportunity to exercise their agency. If I've drafted a scenario it's because I'm pretty certain my players are going to enjoy it, knowing them as I do. So I'm not going to let a 'choice' that has nothing to do with the scenario derail it. If it's going to be derailed it will be directly derailed by the players themselves as it is presented to them.

Unimportant choices aren't important. It's kind of a tautology.

Whether you leave the city by the west gate or the east gate or whether you leave in the early morning or the evening, you're still going to run into the burned out caravan that was attacked by the bandits. The interesting decision point is what you do when you find it.

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