A bit of railroading theory

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  • Which experience do you think is more common?
  • I'd say most people start with railroad because it's easier to understand, apply and get results from. If you learn to GM from trad modules railroading will look like the only way to go. You get to prep a lot in advance and can quantum-ogre the frag of it to use all your prep. Prep well and players get quality content and a perfect illusion of choice. Use well all your smoke and mirrors and nobody will be able to tell the difference. You can force in things like deep story, character development, etc. Everybody gets their fun.

    But then either you get burned up as a GM (my personal case) or your players find out you deceive every choice out of them (worst case possible, been a player there) and later find out that there are other ways to play. More ethic, healthy and fun ways that require less prep, or just require you to prep for interesting coherent improvisation.

    Do these ways actually cost the GM too much? Well, it takes reforming a couple of habits and getting out of your zone of confort, which will both apply to the GM and the players. You need to inspire the players, learn to follow them, build on whatever they bring up (even the most stupid jokes can be translated into something serious and exaggerated a bit to make things interesting), think of whose could be the consequences of their actions and bring them to life. You need to learn to let go and Play Unsafe (that book is gold) and never again prep solutions to your challenges, just let the players come up with those.

    You could say that the only actual toll is experience, but after that it's way easier and totally worth it.

  • I guess my main point is the prep part of a railroading session, far from being a chore, is actually the fun part of being a GM for a large percentage of trad GMs - they want to be authors and world builders and GMing a game gives them a captive audience for their creative endeavours.
  • Steve,

    To each his own, of course (it's hard to say exactly what payoff any particular person is going for and gets most excited about), but my experience has been this:

    * "Playing to find out" does not mean that I cannot prep detailed content, build worlds, daydream, write exciting characters and backdrops, and so forth. Pick the right game and set the right expectations and you can still have all that GM prep fun.

    * World-building, prepping exciting content, AND also determining how it will all end PLUS constantly trying to keep the game "on track"... that feels like work.

    (Not to mention that it can often include or entail lying to the players, or otherwise getting involved in complex social relationships.)

    * World-building, prepping exciting content, and then getting to find out what actually happens... that feels like play.
  • edited August 2018
    From my point of view, GMing an improvised game - a no /low prep game - removes a major part of the incentive to GM, and replaces it with a task that requires order of magnitude more skill, and inflicts an order of magnitude more performance anxiety.
    Depends on where the GM gets their fun in railroading. If they really want the players to be enthralled by the railroad at all times, that's an equally tall order to what you describe with improv, IMO.

    Though of course it depends on the players. Some are much easier to please with improv and others are much easier to please with a railroad.
    I guess my main point is the prep part of a railroading session, far from being a chore, is actually the fun part of being a GM for a large percentage of trad GMs - they want to be authors and world builders and GMing a game gives them a captive audience for their creative endeavours.
    I was totally that GM (and still have interest in being that GM again!), but I've never found, and don't actually want, a completely passive audience. I want player participation in my authorings, and I want us both to do fun and meaningful things without stepping on each other's toes. I've yet to see a railroad system that reliably supports that. Working on it...
  • Sure. To be clear - Im not advocating railroading.

    @Paul_T I feel like being an improv GM takes a fair amount of skill. A prohibitive amount for a lot of players. Im not really arguing for or against anything - its just how I see ther state of things.
  • edited August 2018

    I feel like being an improv GM takes a fair amount of skill. A prohibitive amount for a lot of players.
    A couple thoughts:

    1) All GMs constantly improvise in small ways.

    2) If you remove improv from the statement above, it still remains true.


    Really, most players have no interest in being a GM at all. To some degree, most of them have no interest in doing anything even GM-like, on a temporary basis or occasional, momentary basis.

    This is all part of the feedback loop of behaviors that led to Railroading Methods being developed in the first place.

    Let's be clear about that: railroading methods did not develop in vacuum, nor over night, nor simply because there were horrible people that wanted to inflict their fiction on unsuspecting victims.
  • Agreement with Komradebob -- being a GM isn't easy, and being an improv GM can actually be EASIER than doing huge amounts of prep and trying to cover every angle in advance (I mean, yes, you can quatum ogre it to hell and back if you want to avoid having to cover every angle, but that has Serious Issues as pointed out above). The correct style of prep can make improvisational GMing pretty straightforward and to a certain extent, more like being a player because you're "just doing what your NPCs would do."

    What is it about improv GMing that you think is so hard?

    Though I do think that railroading did develop in part because people wanted to "inflict their fiction" on their players. They just didn't think of it that way.
  • FWIW, I have a buddy trying desperately to build a setting and "inflict" it on us right now.

    I'm hoping all those hours I spent chewing his ear, extolling the virtues of Dirty Hippie Indie-style Open and Frank Pregame discussion will help. That one is indeed a case of wanting to build a cool setting, having some general ideas about Big Concepts and Big Conflicts, but not just wanting to write a story set there.


    Funny thing is, he hates GMing. And he hates being railroaded as a player. I'm concerned about how this may turn out.


    What I meant about the feed back loop that led to the development of railroading techniques is that it was at least partly driven by players who wanted something more "story"-like, certainly more than dungeon-bashing/strategic scale wargame kingdom building, but not at the cost of being required to do things outside of playing their character.

    It's not the only thing that drove that development feedback loop, but it was certainly part of it.
  • I'd say most people start with railroad because it's easier to understand, apply and get results from.
    I think railroading simply comes from the fact that all written adventures automatically becomes a rail due to the structure of a book.

    I don't buy at all that one method is easier or harder than another, it's just preferences or previous references (game masters, written adventures, other media).
  • Old school, site base adventures aren't really railroads in that sense, Rickard. Or were you referring to non-game adventures of some sort ?
  • I was referring to almost all the adventures to CoC and Swedish games during the 80s when I grew up.
  • CoC is weird in that early adventures are almost site-based to the extent that you build flow charts of them that are almost dungeon-like, except not all at the same "location".

    Adventures, as time passed, certainly got more railroady for almost all games, as people tried to figure out how to make them more "story-like"
  • Yes. Given models of linear adventures and game rules and procedures which really don't help anyone create story (and often actively get in the way), it's not a surprise that games can devolve into power struggles.

    I don't think that good improvised GMing is any harder than good "railroady" GMing. They both require work and skill, though in different ways.

    Given a game which gives you good tools for improvising, though, I find that removing the need for strange social foibles leaves me with more attention for good play (both as a GM and a player).

    The improvising GM might be thinking, "Hey, what might this NPC do in this scene?"

    The railroading GM might be thinking, "Hey, what does this NPC need to do in this scene that won't contradict what needs to happen next, and will get the players to do the thing I want them to do?"

    It's a question of having the proper techniques to do it, though. Give someone a D&D rulebook, a culture of Mystery Cult GMing, traditional linear adventures to read, and a culture of play which demands "no metagaming", and railroading is a pretty natural solution to this rather sticky and involve problem.

    On the other hand, take a game and a play culture which gives you strong tools for collaborative, unscripted play, and I don't see railroading arising in anything but extreme cases (because it will be a lot more work and a lot less fun than what the game already does without all that effort).
  • edited August 2018
    @Paul_T I agree with you in principle. Although I think railroad GMing is easier because the constraints of a pre-arranged plot make it easier. constraints aid creativity. Its easier to steer back towards a single thread than continually branch off into new directions.

    Another advantage for railroading is that it IS so GM centric - as long as the GM provides the initiative and creativity, the rest of the people at the table arent required to bring that for the railroad to function, whereas for improv GMing, there is a requirement for all the players to be onboard with that.

    So in principle, as long as the GM is sufficiently skilled AND the players are all onboard AND you have the right rules, then improv games are great.

    On the other hand all you need to railroad is a single guy/gal who wants to do a 'plot', and pretty much any old rule set is good enough for that.
  • On the other hand all you need to railroad is a single guy/gal who wants to do a 'plot', and pretty much any old rule set is good enough for that.
    I thought we were talking about what was necessary to make it GOOD.
  • edited August 2018
    I'm sorry, but I really don't think I agree with that. You sound like you're speaking as someone who has experience and skill at doing that, but not the other thing. Of course it seems easier to you, if that's the case. (I'd submit that, for a group coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, the opposite might be true.)

    For instance:
    Its easier to steer back towards a single thread than continually branch off into new directions.
    Then why do players, in this style of play, "continually branch off into new directions"?

    I submit that constraining play to a single thread is actually a much bigger challenge. There's only one "right answer" to anything that comes up. Worse yet, in this style of gaming the "right answer" is usually not shared or known, so the players are shooting in the dark.

    The improvising GM just has to say, "What do you want to do?", and the players can come up with anything they like.

    The GM attempting a railroad has to devise a situation where the desired outcome is the one she thinks the players are most likely to choose, then lie to them, saying that they can do anything, then continually revise the outcomes so that the players' choices can be steered back onto the tracks. Finally, the players are often smart enough to feel that something's fishy and start trying to figure "what they're supposed to do".

    The latter has so many more failure points than the former.
    Another advantage for railroading is that it IS so GM centric - as long as the GM provides the initiative and creativity, the rest of the people at the table arent required to bring that for the railroad to function, whereas for improv GMing, there is a requirement for all the players to be onboard with that.
    You're right that a strongly GMed game, in some ways (creativity) requires less from the other participants. (I think it requires more from them in other ways - restrictions, acceptance, being willing to be passive, act as audience, hold back creative impulses, etc.)

    However, what does this have to do with railroading vs. improvising? It seems to me that a single GM improvising can just as easily "provide the initiative and creativity". What does it have to do with a preset plot? All you need is a game where the GM presents most of the content; it doesn't matter whether it's prepped, improvised, railroaded, or open.
    So in principle, as long as the GM is sufficiently skilled AND the players are all onboard AND you have the right rules, then improv games are great.

    On the other hand all you need to railroad is a single guy/gal who wants to do a 'plot'
    Why do you think that a railroaded game doesn't require a) a skilled GM, b) players who are onboard with following a preset plot, and c) the right rules?

    I think the opposite is very much true. Railroading (and having the players enjoy it, having you yourself have a good time) is a painfully slow skill to learn. The players must learn to be on board with this kind of play, or quit out of frustration. The ruleset has to support whatever tricks the GM is going to consider pulling in order to maintain the integrity of the storyline.
    [...] and pretty much any old rule set is good enough for that.
    I think that traditional GMs have found ways to make railroading work with most traditional games. But it doesn't always work well - you often (very often, in my experience) have to fight against the rules themselves. (As a simple example, consider the problem of any game where the PCs can face random death, but the "plot" expects them to survive until the end.)

    However, take a game from any other design tradition, and those problems multiply tenfold. Try running a railroaded game using The Pool or Dogs in the Vineyard or many PbtA games as the system, for example, and you'll quickly see what I mean. Your game will simply fall apart.

    The GM who is "improvising" (I think that's a silly term, though - all GMs improvise, it's just a question of whether they're working under one set of constraints or another) doesn't have to worry about "fighting the system/rules" at all, in comparison - much easier. She can just play the game.

    And none of this takes into account the work and time spent which is necessary to develop a plot, bulletproof it, prepare content, then sell it to the players, and make sure they're having fun without deviating from it. Those are all very real costs and demand time and attention.

    Now, one area where this might not be true is anywhere a game demands very specific things from its players, and those things are best prepared ahead of time. For instance, for a very rules-heavy combat-oriented game, it might be quite difficult to play without prepping, because each "encounter" needs to be statted out in advance, and that takes too long to do at the table. For such games, of course, pre-planned encounters will be dramatically easier.

    The point is that the GM's methods must match the procedural techniques of the game, so as to suit the activity/experience well.
  • On the other hand all you need to railroad is a single guy/gal who wants to do a 'plot', and pretty much any old rule set is good enough for that.
    I thought we were talking about what was necessary to make it GOOD.
    dont railroad me, man

  • Then why do players, in this style of play, "continually branch off into new directions"?
    Im talking about the GM not the players. thats the person who is reacting to the players and inventing consequences of their actions. Steering back towards the plot is easier than steering into uncharted territory.
    I submit that constraining play to a single thread is actually a much bigger challenge. There's only one "right answer" to anything that comes up. Worse yet, in this style of gaming the "right answer" is usually not shared or known, so the players are shooting in the dark.

    The improvising GM just has to say, "What do you want to do?", and the players can come up with anything they like.

    The GM attempting a railroad has to devise a situation where the desired outcome is the one she thinks the players are most likely to choose, then lie to them, saying that they can do anything, then continually revise the outcomes so that the players' choices can be steered back onto the tracks. Finally, the players are often smart enough to feel that something's fishy and start trying to figure "what they're supposed to do".
    all true - the railroading GM is pretty much just blocking players until they do something for which there is a canned response - which is atrocious!! - but blocking is easy to do. Reacting to a response with improvisation is much harder.

    Im not arguing about merits of either approach here. Its my opinion, but I feel comfortable asserting that my opinion matches the majority of players experience.
    However, what does this have to do with railroading vs. improvising? It seems to me that a single GM improvising can just as easily "provide the initiative and creativity". What does it have to do with a preset plot? All you need is a game where the GM presents most of the content; it doesn't matter whether it's prepped, improvised, railroaded, or open.
    railroading -> 100% improv is a spectrum, and I reckon as far as accessibility/ease of GMing goes, it follows that spectrum from least difficult to most difficult. Im not using easy->hard because, as we know, there are a world problems with this approach that require experience and skill to deal with or at least paper over - and yet I think its still the path of least resistance.
    The GM who is "improvising" (I think that's a silly term, though - all GMs improvise, it's just a question of whether they're working under one set of constraints or another) doesn't have to worry about "fighting the system/rules" at all, in comparison - much easier. She can just play the game.
    railroading seeks to minimize the amount of improv the GM does. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the GM is there to block players from straying, read from the 'module', and roll dice for NPCs. We all know how this goes.
    The point is that the GM's methods must match the procedural techniques of the game, so as to suit the activity/experience well.
    furious agreement.



  • There are a lot of assumptions in there, and a lot of unsupported statements. Maybe those are learned behaviours, and so they're familiar to you (and most gamers)? For a person who spent just as much time mastering improvisation techniques, might not the opposite be true?

    It's my experience that new gamers struggle with all of these things when first encountering RPGs.

    Im talking about the GM not the players.
    If your view of a creative group activity like a roleplaying game omits the majority of the participants, I'd hesitate to put too much stock in it.

    In any case, it's clear that I'm not convincing you, so I'll quit while I'm ahead. Suffices to say that I don't agree with any of that, nor does it match my experience.

    Roleplaying would hardly be the first field of human endeavour where the "traditional" or "tried and true" way, it turns out, isn't actually the easiest or smoothest.

  • Im not exactly sure what your trying to convince of - that with the right people, the right game and the right skills, everyone can have a great RPG experience? I agree.
  • Yeah, exactly. And, also, that a game which features a railroaded plot and the appropriate GM techniques requires all the same things, at the very least.
  • Im not exactly sure what your trying to convince of - that with the right people, the right game and the right skills, everyone can have a great RPG experience? I agree.
    The assertion is, essentially "If this is so easy, why do new GMs constantly have issues like 'how do I keep my players on track when they keep leaving the plot?'"
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