Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chokers And Chandlers

"Let's see what this thing does."

The object in question is something simple and unassuming--a spinning wheel or a harmonica--and the day is bright and sunny.

If a sandbox D&Der says "let's see what this thing does," the phrase might not mean anything to whoever's listening, and even if using the spinning wheel does lead to a 3/4 party kill and the remaining players reversing alignment and/or gender, those words--"Let's see what that this thing does"--will only take on significance retroactively.

If, on the other hand, a Call of Cthulhu player says "Let's see what this thing does" you can hear the mood music and the crackling of thunder already--sunny day or no. The very set-up of the game is a kind of foreshadowing.

This isn't just because Call of Cthulhu is a horror game and therefore has the atmosphere of horror. It's also because Call of Cthulhu usually takes the dramatic form of a horror movie or thriller. All paths sooner or later lead to doom. The players know that and they know they are inviting trouble by playing that harmonica.

This gives all CoC dialogue, even the most banal--especially the most banal--a second significance.

"Your uncle seems to've had a terribly vivid imagination, Chauncey!"

"Leave me alone, I want to watch the birds eat."

In this way, Call of Cthulhu not only (like all role-playing games) allows acting, it automatically deepens it--even without trying. The more you can "act" (in this case, largely a matter of pretending to not know whatever you do know about the Lovecraft mythos and the fact that this game tends to end in tragedy and madness) the more fun this double-meaning is. "I don't trust this cheese, Lady Crustingham". In effect, the Call of Cthulhu player is both a participant and a knowing observer.

This isn't true in most sandboxes because what loads your Cthulhu PC's words with meaning is the intimation on the part of all players that certain future events will occur. Of course, the whole point of sandbox D&D is you have very little intimation of of what sort of future events will occur.

Duh. They're different games, with different roads to fun. Anyway...

The Rewards of Acting When You Already Know The Plot

Consideration: In effect, if certain elements of your characters' future fate are sketched out, and everyone at the table knows it, then there is an automatic extra reward for role-playing in the sense of "acting"--you get a "double effect" every time you role-play. Not only does everyone get whatever aesthetic pleasure there is from hearing a character say "Ho ho! They'll only let us go to the party if we stay for drinks and a lecture? I guess we'll just have to live dangerously, Pubblemayer!" you also get the aesthetic reward of knowing that that party is probably a cult meeting and the drinks are probably drugged and so that remark is a little funnier.

I could draw the obvious parallel to another genre: porn. Improvising porn dialogue (which--shocking I know--is often how we do it) is fun because, likewise, whatever you say is automatically given a second significance by what everyone knows is about to occur--"Where'd you put the melons, Cecilia?"

In a sandbox game, this isn't automatically so. If you say something your character "would" say, the players get the pleasure of acting in character and thereby contributing to creating the characters, and that--depending on how future events play out--might be all you get. You could step on a rusty caltrop and die for no reason 3 seconds later. If you act bold it might pay off, it might not, if you act sneaky it might pay off, it might not. No-one knows precisely what genre they're in (except, broadly, "adventure") and that's part of the fun and the challenge. It's a different kind of fun.


Point being it is the intimation that future events of a certain character will definitely occur that creates these kinds of double entendres in role-playing.

The intimation that future events of a certain character will definitely occur is also one of the elements that can turn a game into a railroad.

Now DIY D&Ders are often to be found howling (rightly so) against railroads. This is why we like sandboxes--it's almost impossible to railroad someone if they have total freedom of action. Good, problem solved. We just do location-based adventures and we can be sure we're never, ever railroading.

I think, however, it's important to realize that there's quite a lot of territory between the total sandbox and the total railroad and some of that territory allows for unique aesthetic effects (such as the double-meaning) unavailable at the other extremes and I would like to try to help create a way to talk about plot construction in a more detailed way than just having people argue about whether a given published adventure or type of campaign "is a railroad" or not. So here it is...



It'll be helpful to nail down the kinds of techniques that can lead to railroading. Basically, railroading usually proceeds from excessive and continuous use of certain GMing techniques which are, in themselves, harmless.

These techniques are techniques designed to limit the PCs options in a given situation, and I'm going to call them "chokers". Chokers can be good, for example: An adventure including a trick room where the PCs can't talk is not a railroad. The problem comes when chokers are used to elicit specific courses of action from the PCs for a decent chunk of a session or for whatever the group thinks of as too long to be fun.

Here are the chokers--if you think of any others, let me know, but make sure your choker doesn't fit into one of these categories--(for example the Interfering NPC is not so much a choker as a device capable of providing other chokers for the GM at will.)

Limiting Resources: Basically, this means creating a situation in the game where the PCs can't get their hands on things or people or abilities that they normally would in order to solve a problem. Nearly all RPG scenarios involve limiting resources in one way or another. A problem (like a riddle, for instance) with only one or two possible solutions is a kind of limited resources. Limiting resources or solutions so much that only GM-approved solutions to a problem are possible ("...the only way to break the curse is to..." etc.) is not, alone, railroading, but it can lead to it if combined with other restrictions.

Limiting Information: The PCs are only given enough information to make one course of action plausible. The familiar example is an investigation-type plot. If there's only one clue and it suggests only one possible course of action, this can turn into railroading. Again, like limiting resources, limiting information is a part of nearly all RPGs.

Unanticipatable Events: The PCs are affected by an event they could not have foreseen. Maybe they have to then deal with it, maybe it just affects them in some way indefinitely. Note that if the PCs could reasonably have foreseen and prepared for or avoided the event but didn't it's not a choker. A trap that might be detected isn't a choker. A trap that the PCs have no option but to fall into is.

Anticipated Uncontrollable Event: "It all goes down on the 16th!" What goes down? If the PCs don't know and can't know, or know but can't do anything about it, yet still know it's important, then it's an Anticipated Uncontrollable Event. They know something important will occur but have no way of addressing it. This can create a sense of (obviously) anticipation and it can generate excitement or mystery, but it can also make whatever the PCs are themselves doing seem irrelevant since they have no idea how or whether it'll have anything to do with this obviously important other thing the GM is going to all this trouble to let them know about.

Mind Control: Because of magic, science, insanity, brain damage or the like, the player loses control of his/her actions temporarily and the GM gets to tell them how they behave. Note that in some cases there's a fine line here: a player who is suddenly informed s/he is a kleptomaniac or a servant of an evil necromancer may actually welcome the opportunity to change personalities for a while and not see it as a restraint at all. In cases like that, the question of whether the PC enjoys and finds things to do in the new role or basically just has to grudgingly do things s/he would rather not can affect how much of this choker someone can take before it's perceived as railroading.

Unique Reward: There's something cool which the PCs can only get through a given GM-presented course of action. Presenting PCs in a game of AD&D with the prospect of lots of x.p. isn't using this choker, since there are other sources of xp, presenting the PCs with the prospect of attaining some specific artifact or relic is. Thanks to Menace 3 Society for bringing up this choker in the comments.

The next 4 chokers are worse than the above chokers--that is, they're less often justifiable and will lead to players feeling railroaded more often...

Nullification: The PCs take an action that they know should, by rights, lead to another event further down the line in the scenario working out differently. The GM, in order to preserve his or her idea of the scenario, thinks up--after the fact--a reason that the event still happens pretty much the same way despite the PCs' action.

Example--The PCs are going to fight Superman, they get some kryptonite, it turns out Superman is wearing a radiation suit that day.

In order for this to be nullification, the PCs have to know or suspect that the future event is coming. If they don't it's just, essentially, an unanticipatable event (i.e. the PCs run away from the monster that the DM planted a secret bomb on, so the DM puts the bomb on some other monster in a different adventure somewhere else). Now unanticipatable events are chokers, too, but this difference matters because nullification is the worst kind of choker, and is rarely, if ever, justifiable.

It's important also to note that, unlike limiting resources or information, nullification occurs after the fact of the PC's action. If the GM can hold up her notes and go "See, right here: Superman--in his radiation suit--is in room 6b, fixing the Orgulator from 6am-7:30pm." then that's just limited resources and limited info--which are chokers, too, but not quite as bad as nullification. Why not as bad? Because the PCs will at least be able to see that the reason that the GM stymied their plan was because she out-thought them ahead of time. Which feels more fair.

It'd feel yet more fair if the PCs had a way they could've known that--like if they had scouted ahead or checked Superman's calendar, which was hanging on the wall in the room they just went through--"April 12th--fix Orgulator--Get new rad suit first!".

Nudging: The PCs "should" take some action, notice some clue, make some choice, etc. They aren't doing it. Someone or something comes along and points them in the "right" direction. Nudging is bad because if the idea is that the PCs need to do A in order for B to happen and they don't do A, then they've failed and there should be consequences--otherwise the players aren't really being challenged and there was no point in putting the clue, choice, etc in there in the first place. At least in-game. (Obviously you could rig it so the PCs don't get xp if they don't notice your clue on their own, but that still means their actions had no effect on the story.)

Another reason nudging is bad is it has the possibility of eliminating interesting alternate solutions before the PCs have time to think of them.

Pointing By Punishing: A kind of nudging. The scenario is constructed such that the PCs "should" take some action (urging specifically toward not a goal but toward a specific tactic), notice some clue, make some choice, etc. They aren't doing it. There are consequences such that leaving the vital thing ignored or left undone makes things harder for the PCs and tells them that they should've done the thing.

For example: if nobody realizes they have to stop Orbach The Despised, then everything metal in a 20 mile radius slowly begins to rust. Pointing By Punishing lets the PCs know what they should've done, but also makes the thing they're supposed to accomplish harder--that way the PCs get a second chance, but there's still consequences to their actions. It's a choker, but it's preferable to straight nudging.

Nursing: Similar to nudging, except it's usually about combat or some other character-skill-based (rather than choice-based) thing--that is, fighting or rolling or otherwise doing something involving chance and tactics. There's a challenge to the PCs. The PCs fail or are going to, so the GM invents (or prepares in advance) some plot device that helps them out so they can win and the plot can keep rolling along.

Nursing essentially makes it so that the PC's failing has no in-game consequences. Essentially, it's a form of nullification except that sometimes the PCs actually like it.

The theory is that even if the players want to be nursed, eventually they'll get bored and frustrated in the long run if there's no consequences to their failures. I don't know if that's necessarily always true (someone should take a poll), but I do know that the GM will get frustrated and bored if there's no consequences to the PC's failures, since the story becomes predictable.


So those are all the techniques I could think of that could lead to railroading.

Now I'm gonna take a look at the different kinds of adventure structures you can set up, and how railroading might appear in them. I'm gonna start with the kinds of campaigns that have the most freedom (the least chance of railroading) and move to the ones that have the least freedom (and, therefore, the most chance of railroading).



It's probably impossible to get railroaded in these kinds of game except maybe in some whiny psychsocial way, they are...

Total Improv/ Brainstorming "Game"

A bunch of people sit around and, with no rules or formal agreement, dream up a story and take parts in it. (Note that many more structured games often begin this way, especially with really experienced players who are trying to think up something new to do.)

Common Law Game + Common Law Story

A bunch of people sit around and draw up rules for a game before or while playing it (one possibility is the way it's described here), then play the game following these rules, with everyone contributing to the story both in and out of character.

(The next two types of games are, dependng on the levers and dials, of varying, but relatively high--levels of player freedom)

Certain Story Games, Like 'Shock', For Instance

A bunch of people contribute plot and/or setting elements according to a given rule scheme, and play characters in the game. The players also have an ability to affect things in the game out-of-character once the games already started.

Common-Law Rules Within An Otherwise Traditional RPG Set-Up

This is a game with a game master and all that and a fixed setting, but the actual rules are made up by the group as they go along, like this.

Certain Other Story Games

A bunch of people contribute plot and/or setting elements according to a given rule scheme, and play characters in the game. However, the players don't have the ability to affect things in the game out-of-character once the game's already started. There's a GM.


Now we come to the more familiar types of games in D&D. Railroading can happen, in extreme situations, here.

Extreme Sandbox

This has, for the most part, a traditional RPG set-up. GM and players playing PCs. The PCs can go anywhere (and there are lots of meaningfully different places to go) and do anything their characters could according to common sense and the rules. The villains act mostly like traps--they don't make their own schemes at all, and will not proactively do anything creative or involved that might affect the PCs other than, basically, fight them if they show up. No natural disasters or other world-affecting events occur unless triggered by the PCs.

Any kind of dungeon that is mostly traps and/or animal-level monsters is like this. If there are intelligent NPCs but their behavior is somehow randomized rather than intelligent DM-inflected scheming, then you're still in Extreme Sandbox territory--point is, the DM 's ability to shape events even through the NPCs is limited.

The only way you could possibly get railroaded in a game like this is if there were extremely limited resources or limited information in the initial conditions, or if you slip down into some area of the sandbox that it takes a long time to get out of which is full of automatic nudges, nurses, resource limiters, etc.

PC prep is important here--if PCs are given the opportunity to prep before going somewhere, it's hard for them to be railroaded.

(The next two, depending on the dials and switches, are at approximately equal levels of player freedom.)

Sandbox With Triggerable NPCs or Plot Events

As the Extreme Sandbox except the PCs can "activate" an NPC by choosing to interact with him/her and thereby place that NPC in a position to affect the plot in the way an intelligent, thinking, proactive person would. The PCs can also trigger events which have the ability to alter the plot (or create a plot)--like, say, if they steal a certain gem then children all over the gameworld starting eating their parents.

There's a thin line here: In Raggi's Death Frost Doom, for instance , the players can inadvertently wake thousands of corpses from their slumber--if the DM treats these undead as the kind of monsters that'll get in the way for a bit and then disperse after a session or two, it's an Extreme Sandbox, if the DM keeps the skeletons around but randomizes the movements of the army of undead, then it's still an Extreme Sandbox. If the DM decides when and where the skeletons go for some time thereafter in order to spice up the game (as I myself have done) then we've moved at into a genuine Triggered Plot Event.

It's possible for a DM to use the thus-triggered NPC or event to then start forcing all kinds of actions onto the PCs, so, technically, the possibility of railroading begins here. Once an NPC is unleashed, all chokers become possible.

Clockwork Simulation

As the Extreme Simulation, except the world has natural disasters and intelligent NPCs that (theoretically even when off-screen) do things which the PCs may or may not, depending on their own actions and perhaps some probability tables, intersect with. To be a 'perfect' clockwork simulation, all the NPCs must be directed by the GM strictly on a "What would this person actually do" basis and never ever ever on a "What would be interesting for this person to do right now" basis. Whether a totally clockwork sandbox would be desirable or even possible is another question, but it's here as a sort of platonic marker on the freedom scale. It's certainly possible to have a fun game by going for it.

Basically, this would be a sandbox that attempts to act as much as possible like a real world.

Again. as soon as a sufficiently powerful (and intelligent) NPC takes interest in the PCs, all chokers become possible.

Sandbox With Interested Forces

As the Clockwork Simulation except some NPC, force of nature, or other entity is definitely and unavoidably going to act on one or more of the PCs or has been designed specifically so that their interests overlap or are in competition. However, this force does not necessarily demand events unfold in any given way.

For example: in episode 2 of I Hit It With My Axe the medusa and the city guards want the party to take on a mission, and threaten them if they don't, but the PCs can still remain alive and have adventures if they just fight the medusa and guards or just run away, or take the mission and then say screw it once they're outside the city gates and go do something else., .

In order to fit here, the PCs should be able to deal with these interested forces in many different ways (not all of which are obvious to the DM)--including violating the "rules" of the genre (e.g. the investigators saying "Who cares who murdered the monk?", deciding to let the tsunami crush the city and just move, deciding to train a giraffe to fetch the coin from the haunted well., etc.) and still have a satisfying game.

(This, incidentally, may be why sandbox D&D so often goes gonzo--the wacky solution is often the only one that the DM hasn't thought of. Letting the players do whatever works pretty much encourages gonzo. Which is awesome.)


The danger of railroading begins here in earnest, however, so does the ability for the DM to create a plot or to create a game existing consistently in a specific mood/genre. You can't, for instance decide to do a noir detective story or a horror story or a thriller on purpose without going into this zone.

Sandbox With Unanticipatable Events

As any of the sandboxes above, except the DM proactively introduces distinct events into the PCs' lives. This "event" has to be more than just introducing a NPC, trap, or monster that the PCs can immediately dispatch if they play their cards right (or be dispatched by if they play their cards wrong), it has to be an encounter which leads to a predetermined end. For example, the DM decides that the encounter with the rust monster will destroy the paladin's +5 sword or the pickpocket will get the dwarf's healing potion and secretly replace it with a gender-switching potion no matter what else happens, and then arranges things so that occurs.

This can be ok--like an adventure where the PCs will be shrunk down to the size of peanuts before entering the lizard king's palace is not necessarily nothing but a boring railroad. However, I would argue that an adventure where the PCs ended up shrunk down to the size of peanuts before entering the lizard king's palace because they went and opened the wrong drawer is slightly more fun for everyone because that way the PCs know that what happened was the result of their own curiousity (or whatever) and the GM isn't sure whether s/he's running a shrunken adventure or not until it actually happens. However, that's a minor quibble--particularly if you just finished having a really fun shrunken adventure...

How railroady this feels depends on whether these events prevent the PCs from doing the kinds of things that they individually, are playing RPGs in order to do.

If the player loves acting and doing voices above everything else, then an endless stream of unavoidable unfortunate events might be just what the doctor ordered to give their player something to chew the scenery about. If the player enjoys plotting and scheming against the DM, then a bunch of out-of-nowhere events which keep interrupting her while she's trying to build her Invincible Squash Golem are a problem. If the player enjoys solving mysteries, then having every solution but one be a dead end might be frustrating, if the player involves solving puzzles on the other hand, having every solution but one be a dead end might be exactly the kind of challenge s/he wants.

Sandbox That Changes By Itself

As the Clockwork Simulation above, except the GM (or whoever wrote the scenario) knows things are going to happen which will fundamentally alter the setting in ways that will matter to the PCs. Basically a big unanticipated event that affects the whole sandbox. Since a Sandbox That Changes By Itself is not yet a full-blown Plotted Adventure, these changes do not necessarily require the PCs to do any specific thing, they just require them to do things in a different way from now on. That is, they change the realities on the ground. A cataclysmic earthquake that affects the whole gameworld is an example.

Sandbox With Miscellaneous GM Intervention

This is arguably the most common sort of sandbox--it's an open game where pretty much any of the things in the above five categories can happen and occasionally do. The GM can introduce interested NPCs, decide there'll be disasters, impose events by fiat, and generally muck about in the machinery.

Again, the danger here isn't any one thing, it's simply taking care that whatever sandcastles they PCs are building in the sandbox get as much (or more) chance to actually amount to something and change the shape of the game as ideas introduced after the game's started by the DM. Sandboxes depend on the PCs having information about their surroundings. Keeping the sandbox a sandbox means that whatever the GM does to the game or gameworld, this information must, for the most part, continually to actually matter and be usable by the PCs.

Plots Requiring Use of The Sandbox

The PCs don't get to do whatever they want, they have a problem to solve. The DM (or scenario) formulates this problem such that having an adventure at all requires trying to solve it. However, the problem is long-term and open enough that the PCs can pretty much pick and choose how exactly to go about solving it and they have any resources of the entire gameworld that they can get their hands on at their disposal.

A simple and relatively "closed" form would be the Epic Sandbox, a more open form would be the scavenger hunt sandbox, and a middle form would be the Preparation Adventure--an adventure where the PCs have a given amount of time before a certain climactic confrontation takes place and they have to do as much as they can between the beginning of the adventure and that confrontation to prepare for it or otherwise tilt the odds in their favor. In order for it to work the PCs will need lts ofinformation about what's around. Like: you have five days before twelve far-flung evil wizards converge on the city and you also have tons of vital information on where all twelve of them live and the layouts of their homes, go.
Plot Requiring Use of the Sandbox With Miscellaneous Occasional Chokers

From the point of view of Gandalf and Aragorn, this was what most of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was. Timetables, NPC Hobbits randomly doing or undoing your bidding, various interested parties interfering, having to use hard-won gameworld information to solve The Big Problem.

This points up one way to throw in DM-generated plot stuff without ruining the PCs' sense of freedom--spread the DM interventions way out over time.


Small World
Something's going on, the PCs have to address it or die (or otherwise be rendered not-playing). Only certain tactics can be used, either because of limited information (like in an investigation--no use questioning anyone unless they had something to do with the crime) or limited resources (stuck in a shopping mall when the zombies attack, wake up in a dungeon with all your stuff missing, etc.).

In this kind of plot, there are no DM-imposed events or interfering NPCs after the initial set-up, it's just, in a sense, a very small sandbox--either because the PCs have very little information about the world to use or because their access to the world is physically limited. There's no danger of this being a railroad unless the only solutions possible are ones the DM has already conceived of, in which case, see Unipuzzle, below.

The Raymond Chandler

This is a typical noir or Cthulhu set-up. Another example is The Big Lebowski. Lots of unanticipatable events., basically. The PCs are trying to do something, and then someone interferes pretty much out of the blue (as far as the PCs know at the time) and creates a new problem, and then while the PCs are trying to solve that problem (or the original one still) there's another and another and another until the PCs basically realize that Unexpected External Events which they have no capacity to prepare for are pretty much a feature of the landscape around here.

Is this a railroad? Not always.

If the PCs have the ability to influence events outside themselves in ways the GM didn't anticipate, then it's possible to escape the railroad. "Outside themselves" is an important phrase here: in pretty much every game, PC's know their decisions can affect whether their fellow PCs live or die or solve the problems or don't--so that's not a test of railroading. The test is whether their responses to the problems are capable of creating unanticipated changes in the nature of the conflict itself.

If the GM has to think about what the PCs did and then meaningfully change the plot to reflect that--and the PCs can see that change, and see that it was a result fo what they did, the railroad tracks are gone. It's true that Lebowski's rug got peed on by DM fiat, but his troubles really began when he decided to talk to the other Lebowski about it. And he knew it.

In other words, this kind of event-heavy plot can avoid being a railroad if all these unexpected events are shaped by the GM to reflect actions the PCs have taken and if they don't push the PCs ineluctably toward some events whose important lineaments are predetermined.

The quibble here is the word "important". If, no matter what the PCs do, they're going to end up fighting the villain alone in unarmed combat on a moonless night on top of the Empire State Building, there's some railroading going on. If PC actions can change it so they fight the villain on top of a zeppelin with a swordfish (in a way UNanticipated when the scenario was conceived), then it's not a railroad. But there are obviously shades of grey in between. If it's hand-to-hand combat on a moonless night in a dark alley is that a meaningful difference? When has the change become "meaningful"?

My plan would be: overdo it. Every time the PCs make a decision, find a way to make the next event reflect it, even if you don't have to. This is harder than sticking to the plan and requires quick thinking, but it's also more fun for everybody involved.

I don't think it's that hard to run a railroad-free Lebowski adventure--however, what is hard is to publish one. The problem is: a published scenario has to anticipate player actions, and the longer the scenario is, the further into the future the scenario writer has to project the game events. Unless the scenario is endlessly filled with stuff like "make up something clever to happen here depending on how the PCs dealt with things so far" then someone writing a 20-session event-driven campaign for commercial publication pretty much has to assume the GM will railroad by nudging or nullifying in oredr to spit out a continuus stream of encounters. People with published scenarios need to learn to improvise if they want to get around this.

Waiting For Godot

Basically a plot consistently hinging on Anticipated Uncontrollable events--someone or something over which the PCs have no control must show up on its own and do things in order for the adventure to end and the PCs know it.

If you were playing R2-D2 and every other character in Star Wars was an NPC, Star Wars would be this kind of adventure. If you were in the middle of playing an adventure module you knew was called "The Coming of Glorp" and your PC hadn't heard anything about Glorp yet, that would also be this kind of adventure. There's more going on than you can encompass.

One of the big problems with this situation is that because the PCs know they'll never possess all the keys to solving the situation himself/herself, they aren't sure how fully they need to engage the gameworld. In a Preparation Adventure, if you don't do it, clearly nobody else will, in the Waiting For Godot, the PC doesn't have to truly examine or grapple with the world in detail because there's always the possibility someone or something else will shape events for him/her.

This is pretty much a railroad no matter what. Something has to happen and the PCs have no known way to hasten it happening. They don't know what to do to prepare, either. All they know is they have to pretend to be interested in whatever their immediate task is until the DM makes it actually happen.

The best, and perhaps only, way to make this good, is to use it as a source of tension and mood. It begins! Beware! Soon! This tension won't last long, however, so it's best not to let it drag.


As Small World above, except the resources are so limited that it effectively actually limits the solutions to any problems to a few things the GM's obviously already thought up and provided for (as in a video game) and is waiting for the PCs to figure out.

Examples: there's only one suspect that actually knows anything and only one way of approaching him/her that'll work or there's a puzzle door with only one or two solutions, and this suspect or puzzle door in turn points to one specific room with only one specific clue which in turn points to one specific device that can be used in only one way to take the PCs to...and on and on for the length of a whole session.

Contrary to what you might believe from hearing discussions about railroading, players do a lot of things during an RPG besides sit around and try to find a plot. A party that does a lot of inter-party dialogue and role-playing, or really enjoys combat, or is enjoying the snacks, etc., can probably handle a day of UniPuzzle without bucking, but it will probably begin to feel like a railroad if it goes on much longer than that. If the UniPuzzle also manages to prevent the players from doing the non-plot-problem solving things they like to do (talk in-character, hit monsters, etc.) then their patience will be even more limited, since, in effect, there really will be nothing to do but jump through hoops.

Personally, as a GM, I avoid writing this stuff, since I really don't like sitting around waiting to see if the PCs manage to learn to think like me, but as a player I don't mind running through this kind of scenario once in a while, since I think it's fun to try to figure out what whoever wrote the thing was thinking.

The Gauntlet

There's a fight. Winning automatically leads to a clue, the clue points unambiguously to a new encounter, which means you fight. If you survive, you'll automatically find another unambiguous clue, which leads ineluctably to another encounter, etc.

The only meaningful choices you have are what tactics to use in the fight, what to talk about between fights, and whether to keep playing or not. You either have no access to the outside world or the fight is concocted in such a way that nothing from the outside world could possibly help you. Again, a party that enjoys just being a party (dialogue, rolling dice, etc.) can probably tolerate this for a session before it feels like a railroad.

Essentially identical to a UniPuzzle.

UniPuzzle or Gauntlet + Unanticipatable Events

Like one of the adventures described above, except in addition to being made to jump through hoops, the PCs also get interfered with at intervals by events they themselves did not initiate. Whether this is automatically any more of a railroad than the UniPuzzle, or Gauntlet is arguable, but it easily has the potential to be a good deal more confusing and frustrating, since the PCs are not only trying to figure out what's on the GMs mind, they also have to stop in the middle of doing that to think about what else is on the GM's mind.


There are things to do, if the PCs don't do them, someone or something will do it for them. If they make a choice that isn't planned for, it's somehow nullified.

These always suck unless the players consistently think of it as a point of pride to try to surpass obstacles in the scenario before the GM does it for them. Even then I think they still suck, from the point of view of the GM who wants to be surprised.


Johnni said...

Very good post. It's always great to get a reminder of how things can be and then ask myself if I want to do such and such to my players. I probably sit in the nudge area quite often. However my party of PCs are gamists first before role players so when you see them shine it's during combat. *sigh* I've got one and another joining next session who are instigators so we'll see what kind of shit they'll stir when they get together.

E.G.Palmer said...

Great Ceasar's Ghost,man! It would take me a day just to type this, much less give you a considered comment. Let me get back to you after work.

Zak Sabbath said...

Took me 3 days to write. I had laryngitis, so i didn't have much else to do.

Joethelawyer said...

Jesus Christ, this is gonna take 3 reads and another beer or two to digest. I don't think I have it in me at 10:30 pm though.

Unknown said...

Fantastic post, Zak. Very detailed and much food for thought.

However, as much as love the OSR/DIY D&D community, I always get a little defensive when talk comes to "railroading". Believe me, I love a good Sandbox. But I'm also a big fan of games where the DM/GM/Referee/etc injects events to drive the game to a) keep things exciting and b) wind up at some kind of cool conclusion (or cliffhanger) at the end of a session. I run and play in a lot of games are self-contained sessions that last just about 4 hours. I've also been running a Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG game for over a hundred "episodes". I think by your definition, our game certainly has a railroady component. We made a decision, as a group (not just me), that we'd try to fit into the Buffy continuity. So our "show" takes place in the six years (roughly) that precede Buffy getting called. Some events have to happen and we're all cool with that. It doesn't detract from the fun. In fact, the Buffy game has, hand-down, been the most enjoyable game I've ever run or played in. For us, the fun is in the collaborative story-telling experience.

In some sense, it's like the Call of Cthulhu example that you provided. Part of the fun is that the players know what's coming even if the character's don't (though our characters are now fully aware that the Slayer is going to die at some point). We have season plot-arcs and, of course, episodic plots. But I never "script" how the characters get from point A to point B. And point B is by no means determined (though it can be quite likely).

I'm rambling. I guess my point is that we all play these games for different reasons and that some of us find fun in different games and different modes of play. As you implied, the *same* group of people can enjoy a completely wide open Sandbox *and* really get their kicks playing something much more restrictive. It's the people at the table that matter, the cool shit that happens in a game, and all the shared memories that are created.

PS See for the fan site we created for our "show".

Anonymous said...

There is a variation on the Nudge idea that people on RPGnet call PixelBitching. It's basically Nudge without the actual nudging. The name was taken from an old X-Files video game, where the plot stopped dead if you didn't click on a bullet hole in a wall that was basically a nearly invisible 2x2 collection of pixels. Until you found it, you could wander the area, have the same chats with NPCs and basically accomplish nothing. A PixelBitch game is similar. You have secret word that must be said, an action that must be performed, or a person who must be convinced. But the GM is convinced that the players will figure out the code somehow. And no one will show up to point the way. No nudgers here. So nothing happens, and more nothing, and more nothing. The players get madder and madder, and the GM sits there pissed that the players aren't reading his mind.

Zak Sabbath said...

well the idea was to open up some territory where that discussion can be had--like i said, there's a lot of things BETWEEN railroad and sandbox, and a lot of them are fun. like i repeat over and over, chokers aren't bad in themselves.

pixelbitching is a form of "limited resources" as in--only one possible thing can be used to solve the problem. if the GM hints at the answer, it's nudging.

Jonathan said...

My favorite games, as a GM, are always ones that are completely wide-open but with the occasional "quicktime event". By that I mean the players will find themselves in a situation that they 1) did not anticipate and 2) have little-to-no control over. In these scenes, the players have limited options that are almost exclusively related to their role-playing (not "roll-playing"). Eventually, the PCs will have (with luck) gained the knowledge I want them to have gained, and they are able to return to the wide open world to do whatever they want with their new knowledge.

I do feel that more plotted campaigns are better for shorter term games. A sandbox, IMHO as both player and GM, can be annoying and meaningless if you know you have exactly six games in which to play the game. Since most of my gaming group lives 3000 miles away, these plotted and condensed games are my preference whenever we can get together for a few sessions.

Zak Sabbath said...


makes sense--though I do think a "Small World" set-up with maybe one big Unanticipatable that responds to what the PCs have been doing is also a good choice for a quick game.

Menace 3 Society said...

Do you consider outsized mechanical (as opposed to set dressing, e.g. getting to be called "Sir So-and-so") rewards to be Nudging? As in, the party has several mutually exclusive courses of action, and one of the options promises much greater rewards than the others. The party can go fight the red dragon in the mountain, or they can rescue the princess from the Troll Lord, and the princess's father offers a bounty of 100000 gp to any person or group who brings his daughter back alive.

It seems like Nudging to me, but a carrot approach rather than the stick.

Zak Sabbath said...

interesting question.
I hadn't considered it, since in my own experience the specific rewards of any given course of action (if more than one option is formally presented) are generally fairly mysterious.

Plus, I would imagine most GM's would only present options that they want to run, so the idea of nudging toward one of several options--all of which are the GM's idea to begin with--seems like a fairly rare case.

Since the idea of railroading seems to necessarily involve getting the PCs to do the GM;s bidding, I'm not sure nudging toward one of two disparate GM biddings is relevant.

However i suppose the idea of offering a reward that is not obtainable by any other means but doing the GM-suggested thing would be a kind of choker in itself.

I'll have to add that.

thekelvingreen said...

I tried to run a Call of Cthulhu sandbox a couple of years ago, and it fell apart, for various reasons, one of which was an expectation from the players that the plots come to them. So while I had never considered what you say about the game up there, it does fit with my recent experience. There does seem to be an expectation in CoC of structure, not necessarily at a plot level, but at some fuzzy level above that; it can only end either in a horrible death or victory (the latter of which is itself temporary and often redundant), and while you might go in some unexpected directions, that's where you'll always end up. Which is why the game is so great, of course.

The same players are now happily poking about in the sandbox I've created for my Rogue Trader game, wandering around making their own fortune (although I must admit I've slipped in a couple of minor nudges); based on this entirely unscientific survey of two games, I'd say there's definitely something about Call of Cthulhu which resists the open, sandbox approach.

Zak Sabbath said...

not knowing anything about your sandbox cthulhu game i'd assume the thing about it that resists the sandbox is that whereas you can plausibly have space trouble in every direction with Rogue Trader or Medieval trouble in every direction in DnD it seems implausible that there could be apocalyptic astrohorror in every direction. After all, if that were true than wouldn't the world end no matter which direction the PCs went because of all the paths not taken?

However, i feel like you could probably rig a decent Preparation Adventure Sandbox out of Cthulhu. Try to do as much damage to the cult as possible before some summoning comes up on a given day.

thekelvingreen said...

I think that's exactly it. If you set up a situation where, whichever direction they turn, the players trip over a cult or an eldritch horror, then you've somewhat undermined the setting, and the mood goes from vaguely nihilistic to completely pointless.

As for your second point, it's been a while since I've read it, but that setup seems pretty close to what Masks of Nyarlathotep does, which may be why it's considered one of the best published campaigns.

Anonymous said...

i think all campaigns have some level of railroading going on. at least in the beginning. bad? i don't think so.

with an approach like "here is the world, do something with/to it!" you always risk the players simply "missing" all the stuff you prepared. if you don't give out any starting (limited) information or start with a certain (unanticipatable) event the campaign can't really lift off and might turn into a (at worst, very long) series of improvisation from the dm, which is usually terrible.

so at the start of most campaigns (if not all) lies some kind of railroading, most likely a nudge of some kind.

i don't see any issue there. i don't think railroading (unless you overdo it or with extreme stuff like nullification, which seems like cheating to me. cheating in an rpg... wtf?!) is a problem at all. i think what is scoffingly called railroading is essentially "actively acting as a dm". very little you do as a dm while playing the game will not somehow fit the description of one of the techniques you described. (not including the most basic stuff like dice rolling or playing npcs.)

it is all about presentation. if you manage to integrate your railroading efforts into the campaign without the players realising (or if they realise it, without complaing) and the result is more fun/excitement for the players (and the dm, hopefully), then i wouldn't call that railroading...

i would simply call it good dm'ing.

ps: i consider a bit of nursing to be necessary with low-level characters/unexperienced players to avoid frustration.

Ragnorakk said...

yeah - dense post! It'll take a minute to digest this, but I do agree that there's a lot of area between pure sandbox/pure plot or story. It's something IO think about a lot, but haven't been able to analyse so deliberately - so I thank you in advance!

Out of curiosity - where do you think Warhammer sits in the scale of D&D <-> CoC - I do think that "Let's see what this thing does" has a different feel in WH...

Anonymous said...

My own experience with games tends to run towards the Pulp and Superhero Genre. In those sorts of games (especially the more modern ones) it has become the thing where the genre itself serves the role of the interested party trying to change the outcome of the game. This comes in the form of a resource.. hero/drama/whatever points.. that the game uses a carrot to reward you for acting within the genre's restrictions. Its a definite choke but you know that going into it and you're only too happy to take the bribe.

Zak Sabbath said...

I feel like you;re not seeing a distinction i;ve made: mere use of chokers is not railroading.

Railroading happens when the use of chokers outlasts the PC's patience. It's not an objective situation, it's a feeling generated in the players.

To say "railroading is unavoidable" is like saying "unhappy PCs are unavoidable".

Also,I totally disagree that DM improvising is bad, and that nursing a low level PC is "necessary".

Zak Sabbath said...


I don't think it's useful to put most games on a gradient. Warhammer can pretty much be played any old way, like DnD. Cthulhu is a specific case because of the sanity mechanic and the way it is usually used.

Anonymous said...

it is about the exact definition of railroading. i rephrase my position:

"skillful use of chokers means good dm'ing, overdoing it leads to railroading (which is bad).

occasional use of chokers is unavoidable, railroading (and therefore unhappy players) is."

would you agree to that?

also, i never said dm-improvisation is a bad thing. i wouldn't dare on your blog as you obviously love it. :)

what i said was that "too much" of it is "usually" terrible. as a dm you have to improvise a lot during play, and being able to do that well is an important dm skill, but when this goes on for a long time playing quality usually (again, usually) degrades.

i remember a session i played not long ago, where we as players perceived a certain event as a major plot hook. it wasn't. so we spent an entire 8 hour session hunting for some (strangly elusive) info about or action concerning our plot. the dm let us do this, improvising the whole time, which resultet in a very boring session (at least most of it) for everyone. after the game i wished he would have nudged us at some point.

nursing may not be necessary with low-level pc's when the players are veterans (or at least have a bit of experience). but with rookie players...

would you go for a party wipe with a group of rpg-noobs in their first session, for example? because of freak dice rolls or the fact that they can't use their characters to full potential (which, as rookies, they won't be able to.)?

i wouldn't.

charles mark ferguson said...

I think another axis here could be a group's shared expectation of setting density.

What I'm trying to say is that the more preparation a GM is required to do to engage themselves & their group, the less freedom that group will have for moving outside the prepared material, for purely practical reasons.

So if you love that your PC can approach any NPC (or building, or organization) in your in-game surrounds, and be confident that that NPC/building/organization is fully statted in your chosen arena of interaction (social, combat, or whatever) then you have to accept the trade off that you need to stick pretty much what your GM has prepared earlier.

Roger G-S said...

@ Charles F: > ... the more preparation a GM is required to do to engage themselves & their group, the less freedom ...

Precisely. There is an exact symmetry between this observation, and the effects of a system's heaviness of player character development on the balance of survival and danger. There is more temptation to fudge and rescue a character that took an hour to develop, vs. 5 minutes.

Arguably, though, there is a level of preparation that can be reached in a published/publishable product, where so much is described that there is something to do no matter where they turn. This is much more efficient to do in a rules-light system. But so is true improvisation.

The classic trick, of course, is to have a number of floating pre-gen situations that you can use whenever the players go off the tracks. They usually won't care that you're doing it this way as long as there is something to do that's not too out of line with the theme.

@ original post (Zak):

I disagree - D&D does have genre conventions that ironies and foreshadowings can grow out of. These may not be apparent to a group of new players, but just present a lever to a group of fairly experienced players and the meta-comments will come thick and fast. "Don't pull the lever" is as much a part of D&D lore as "Don't read the book" is a part of Cthulhu lore.

The implication of most of the in-jokes is that the game is being run by an adversarial ref who revels in TPK, sadistic tricks and Grimtooth-style traps, or by a railroading ref with a constant chain of maps and babbling old men in taverns. It's a nice bugbear to keep players on their toes while secretly being an ol' teddybear ...

Zak Sabbath said...



in D&D Sometimes pulling the lever is good, sometimes it's bad. There's even a LOTFP scenario where you have to pull the lever and it;s good.

the cliches of D&D are just that, "cliches"--things that have been worn out by overuse (or allegedly have) that you can take or leave in practice.

The intimations in Cthulhu, on the other hand, are absolutely necessary to engaging the genre the game emulates and incarnates.

in D&D they;re a bug (and an avoidable one). In Cthulhu they're a defining feature (and good).

Reverend Keith said...

Excellent post.

Listening to chatter about sandboxes and railroads before this post always filled me with the same sort of dislike I get when people bring up GNS theory. Interesting ideas turned into one dimensional straight jackets.

This post helped describe them not as absolutes, but a spectrum, which is far more interesting and believable to me.

Good job.

Adam Thornton said...

"Leave me alone. I want to watch the birds eat."

Have you, by any chance, read the Trail of Cthulhu module, Watchers in the Sky?

It was inevitable that someone would mash-up The Birds with The Tentacles.

Anonymous said...

I like your breakdown of the Godot style adventure. I've been in a game for a while where the promise of an impending cataclysm is essentially acting as a timer for our adventures (as in we need to get our shit in line before fire rains down from the sky and destroys the city).

The key really seems to lie in the fact that the GM has managed to get us committed enough to what we're doing that we're not just going to get the hell out. It's been a good way to add a sense of urgency to the game and the fact that the rest of the world is still open (as opposed to us waiting for something to happen while on a dungeon crawl) takes off just enough pressure that we're not feeling stifled by the GM.

Roger G-S said...

@Zak - Okay. I see where you are coming from with that.

But is it a bug if it's safe, sane and consensual? If the GM and players are all happy in their A-Team Candyland dungeon where villains may bluster, but never kill? Or more mind-warpingly, if somehow the system and the temperament of players was oriented not toward survival and advancement, but toward the death foretold of wave after wave of characters?

You only get a 2nd level character if your 1st level character dies well.

These different styles may reflect something fundamental about fictional forms, then; the tragedy with its inevitable outcome, and the comedy with its own inevitable outcome. What does it say about readers' preferences for this second sight of meta-fictional awareness, that it takes until the 19th century for the West to develop novels in which the happy outcome is not promised?

Unknown said...

Video games (particularly platformers and street-racing games) have to analyze this stuff all the time. Players like me are always jiggling doorknobs, talking to random NPCs, etc., always trying to get "off track".

How all this comes off in the game depends on whether or not the head designer is any good. When it is well done (RAYMAN 2 and BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL; ICO and SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS), it doesn't bother me. (Probably because the designers of those games -- Michel Ancel and Fumito Ueda -- gave the issue a tremendous amount of thought.)

The one thing video games lack are true breakouts. I mean, you can do grenade-jumps and vertex-walking and so on, but that tends to lead into Error Country. There are some examples in video games where a brilliant strategy completely short-circuits the railroad ... but normally, that sort of thing is treated as a "bug" and heavily targeted in playtesting.

In my DMing days I always loved it when players broke out of a railroad with extreme lateral thinking.

Jademonkey said...

Usually, I start a campaign as a clockwork simulation and leave it up to the party to build connections to the sparks of interested parties, but that initial clockwork phase can often be a bit rocky.

I have a lot of trouble running any amount of clockwork simulation with experienced players; they can get easily irritated by anything that seems autonomous beyond the party's purview. Newer players really enjoy the living world going on around them, but they have a harder time figuring out that they can actually interact with it.

I'm prolly just having trouble easing players into the idea of a sandbox, but I don't know what to do besides tell them, as you'd said in a previous post, there's D&D in every direction.