I Dreamt of a Railroad...

edited October 2012 in Story Games
All this talk about railroading had me thinking about it lately. I would have added this to an existing railroad thread, but they're all pretty deep in their discussions now so I figured I'd make a new thread.

I was watching the Office last night. It was an episode where the characters are at a silent auction, where items are put on display and people quietly write down their bid for each item on a sheet of paper. One of the characters, Dwight, didn't know it was a silent auction though and instead thought it was a "Quaker Fair", where you guess the price of an item and the closest person gets it, Price is Right style. So it turns out Dwight unwittingly bids the highest on all of the items and is on the hook for 34 thousand bucks. Why? Because he had a key piece of information wrong when the scene started.

How is this relevant? Well, I started thinking about how this could happen to a character in a game. One option is the GM tells the player straight up "This is a quaker fair" and the player acts on this knowledge. At the end, the GM says "Well, you THOUGHT it was a quaker fair but it was really a silent auction the whole time."

I've used similar strategies in the past on the my players - giving them purposely false information (usually as a result of a bad roll) to act on, only to throw the twist in later with the reveal that they had it all wrong the whole time. Looking back, this was clearly railroading, but my players always got a big kick out of it and seemed to enjoy the twist and the revelation that everything they thought they knew was actually wrong and all of a sudden all the hints make sense.

A pretty common example of this is the secret door technique. The players walk into a room in the dungeon and the DM rolls their perception check to see if they notice the secret door. If they roll low, the DM says there are no secret doors in the room, when really there are, but the information is corrupted by the DM on purpose due to the way the dice land.

Another example of False Information Railroading is the cliche "dream twist" technique. I would have the players play through a scene and then reveal at the end of the scene that it was all just a dream. This one is noticeably less popular, unless something horrible happened in the dream, in which case the players sigh with relief but none-the-less curse me with a grin.

I know for a fact that a lot of players would call foul on these types of techniques. I recently asked my players if they wanted to share GM responsibilities during a game instead of having just me as the GM and most of them hated the idea. They prefer having one person represent the world, the enemies, the story, and act as the window into the world because it creates the feeling of experiencing something that is beyond their imagination and control. Some likened it to playing a video game - they like the excitement created by experiencing whatever is up the GM's sleeve.

Looking back, I'd probably avoid some of these techniques. What do you guys think?


  • I've used similar strategies in the past on the my players - giving them purposely false information (usually as a result of a bad roll) to act on, only to throw the twist in later with the reveal that they had it all wrong the whole time.
    When I roll badly on some sort of perception check or whatever, I expect to get false information. In fact, I expect to potentially get blatant misinformation likely to lead me to incorrect assumptions.

    When I just plain get false information without any real hint as a player that it's false until it's revealed, them I'm much less likely to be happy about it. The "it was just a dream" situation fits this category as well, depending on how it is presented.

    The GM is the eyes and ears of the characters. If my character's basic ability to trust their eyes and ears is going to be messed with so thoroughly that as a player/audience member I don't have a strong reason to suspect that it's happening, then I'm going to want the opportunity to explicitly buy in to that ahead of time.

    Some scenarios do this inherently. I played a Cthulhu game where the characters were all in a mental institution. I don't think the GM did any false perception tricks, but if he had, I would totally have been up for it, given the setting and situation in play. By choosing to play that scenario (it was at a convention), I knew that getting false perception information was on the table.

    Likewise, in some sorts of genres, like embarrassment-comedy, you expect characters to have false perceptions/assumptions that are going to help drive the humor.

    But in most tabletop games, I am already in a position where I am like a blind man in an unfamiliar room without a cane. I have to trust that my guide is going to get me through and make me aware of the potential dangers, rather than walk me into a nightstand where I'm going to hurt myself because I didn't know it was there. Messing with people's perceptions without getting them on board first is about as considerate as walking a blind person into an obstacle. It leads rapidly to mistrust.
  • edited October 2012
    I'm actually interested how the ones who hate railroading will say about these techniques.

    I just wonder why this is considered railroading. Can't it be in a different category?
  • Seem people are evaluating railroading only at a mechanistic level, not a moral level. It's like judging someone taking money from your wallet without you knowing about it and someone taking money from your wallet (after asking you and getting your permission) as the same dealio, since they both involve the exact same physical actions. Then since the latter is okay, for some it bleeds through that the former is okay...both the 'same thing', after all (if you ignore anything else but the mechanistic level involved).

    The secret door shows it up - who expects, on a failed secret door detection roll, to still know there's a secret door? No one does - in other words, they have accepted you don't. At the moral level, they have consented. But if you ignore any moral level and just look at it mechanistically, hey, it just works that the GM corrupts information. And this sort of false conclusion quickly bleeds over to the idea that you can do that elsewhere. Which is a conclusion which igores the moral level of whether anyones accepted that or not.

    The dream example, in it's unpopularity even shows the clash of just looking at it at a purely mechanistic level. The dream means everyones actions were nullified and really didn't mean anything. Why's it unpopular - because no one took those actions accepting they'd be pointless. However, if you skip the moral level, it's no different than other missinformation giving. Just like the wallet examples above are identical if you only look at the physical/mechanistic level.

  • It's probably better than telling them that there is a secret door, then having goblins attack them, and then revealing that, no, it was really just a crack in the wall all along.
  • It's probably better than telling them that there is a secret door, then having goblins attack them, and then revealing that, no, it was really just a crack in the wall all along.
    This can be a really cool thing in the right perspective.

    Perhaps the characters are under the influence of some hallucinogenic drug?
    Perhaps they are facing their worst nightmares as children in a modern world?
    Perhaps it's a surrealistic world?
    Perhaps it's some sort of precognition?

    It's so many things you can do with this, as long as you put it in a context.
  • I could see how that could be fun as a player.
  • Yeah, but I don't think of that as railroading. It's a different kind of narration technique. I usually give subjective descriptions like that when I GM horror games. I know one bloke who uses this for CoC, where he change how the world is perceived by the characters based on the monsters powers. So if the monster is flying, the characters can see things float in the air and so on.

    Describing from an objective point of view is pretty much the traditional way to do it, but if you turn into subjective descriptions, you can create different feelings.
    × Just describe from one characters point of view. For example, we played mad magicians and I used the wizards elements (fire, ghosts, darkness etc.) to change the world. When the fire magician was in the scene, I focused on describing how the torches gave away a calm feeling that warmed everybody and things like that. At the end, not one trusted anyone else.
    × Just describe from one NPCs point of view.
    × Describe a place or person based on emotions. If the nature hates the characters, the wind blows so hard it feels like it's trying to eat the characters' faces.
    × Describe from a frog perspective. This can be used in Moue Guard, for example, where everything is just overpowering the characters with its size.
  • In that actual play report I posted in the other railroad thread, it actually ended with a "you wake up from a dream" twist. Players didn't mind at all. The setting includes a goddess of dreams who has pulled this stunt before, and the temples they were exploring included the dream goddess prominently, and there was a place in the adventure where they decided to "sleep for a couple hours, but no more" after 20-30 hours of physical activity.
  • As long as the false information comes from a bad roll, it's not railroading.
  • My favorite use of this technique was giving a player a cursed item (it made the bearer paranoid) and then I started handing notes to the other players that said things like "Just nod like there is something here, than subtly glance at [player x]." Sure enough, the character became convinced people were plotting against him.
  • I like the term Rollercoaster better, when speaking of nice and fun railroading. You can actually take away player's choices, as long as you give something in return in the exact moment. It can be amazing moments, incredible narrative, appropiately flavored spotlight, unexpected twists and outcomes, etc, but you have to give it to the players in the appropiate moment. XP or items are a bad reward since, poorly rationed, will only make it harder to keep a good railroad later. Unless they are part of your plans for building and amazing moment later, but then again we're back to reccomend good moments as an exchange for taking away player's choices.
  • Or if the established fiction warrants it, correct? What about if the character lost their spectacles?
  • edited October 2012
    No, the GM establishes the fiction to take control of the creative agenda. By stating that (among all things that the character could lose in a previous fumbled roll) the character loses their spectacles, you're signaling the players this fact will be important in an scene later. Now players will be expectant of what would come from that. Maybe not all players, maybe not all the time but that's the trick: to make those lost spectacles more important when the players lest expect it.

    Of course, not everything can be calculated so precisely. Maybe the GM had something else in mind, like having 5 kobolds attack the character and use the best of their attack rolls to steal the spectacles from the character (which is a poor but practical act of illusionism); but then that character rolls a fumble and ¡poof! You get a perfect excuse for narrating "You trip and almost fall to the pit, barely managing to grab to the loose stonework of the broken bridge with both hands. Count you lucky, since all you lost into the pool of magma below were your spectacles"
  • Veeeery interesting. Thanks for sharing peoples.
  • I think this kind of behavior plays out better with greater shared authority(the Dwight example).
    Players who feel safe are free to do dumb things, for the sake of a good story.
    A central authority can put people on the defense.
    This is just my opinion.
  • Why's the kobold example illusionism? Is the GM just declaring they all attack rather than they are using some kind of 'disarming' rules, when by the rules he should declare that? If so, it just seems old fashioned cheating, really.
  • The illusionism in the kobold example is for the part where the GM, instead of making a separate roll for pick-poketing the character, calls out later that the highest of the attack rolls was actually not an attack but a pick-pocketing roll. The player might get tipped of this by the fact that suddenly the GM indicates that the highest roll doesn't do damage, but it certainly does something else.

    Anyway, I concede that it isn't completely illusionism: here the GM needs to steal those spectacles and instead of risking to fail one roll of pick-pockets, he makes 5 attack rolls and declares later that the highest was not an attack, but a pick-pocket roll which the character didn't notice, since he was being attacked at the moment. There's still a chance that the GM fails all attacks, but at least that won't tip the player yet that the GM original intention was to take away the spectacles.
  • Yeah, I wouldn't call that illusionism as much as the GM is sorta fudging the roll in a way to make sure he has the best chance to affect the fiction in the way he wants to. Still could be considered questionable, but really only if the player values their character's spectacles over their health points or whatever.
  • I think if there's a supposed fork in the road and to go left, say, you need spectacles, then the whole thing ties into railroading.

    If the lack of spectacles makes a certain choice of direction potentially more problematic, but certainly the GM is cool with you taking that choice still, then instead it's cheating ('fudging' - again the line is determined by consent. Whether it's cheating or fudging is whether the players have given you permission to just ignore the rules).
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