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Did you say RAILROADING!?!?!

By Shamus
on Thursday May 24, 2007
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


In my Derailers post Purple Library Guy has this to say:

although, he was asking for that controversy by titling a post “The Case For Railroading” when in fact, once he and everyone else looked rather more closely, by most definitions what he was making a case for *wasn't* railroading.

He’s right. That’s where a lot of this went sour. A lot of people took the “railroading” very seriously and personally. I sort of expected it to be taken in a spirit of fun – I manage to advocate all sorts of outragous stuff at the end of each DMotR comic without people getting all worked up. I realize the post wasn’t attached to a comic, but I thought some people would understand that I was being a little hyperbolic on purpose. I could have titled the post The Case for Guiding the Direction of a Roleplaying Campaign with Deference to Unspoken Social Contract in Order to Facilitate a More Entertaining Gaming Experience” but for whatever crazy reason I just thought that the “railroading” one was more appealing.

Anyway, what should have been a fun discussion between people who all like the same hobby but have different play styles turned into an angry debate. Next time I’m not going to be so tolerant when people storm in here and start a freakin’ fight. I should have reigned reined this one in sooner. There are lots of places where you can flame people over how they choose to enjoy their hobby, and I don’t want this to be that sort of place. To wit: Think twice before you come in here and call me a liar. I enjoy discussion. I have no time for babysitting the crazy people of the internet.

Thanks to everyone who joined in and put up with the huffing and puffing.

Comments (33)

  1. Stranger says:

    Angry is such a harsh word. I would have picked . . . spirited :) With a few exceptions, of course.

    I just have been feeling and thinking on this topic since I just started a campaign, which is why I opted to comment a whole lot. This place IS a whole lot better than the WoTC forums, though. A lot fewer trolls lurking about.

  2. Telas says:

    I’d have to agree with Stranger. It really wasn’t too terrible… I think both sides eventually realized that they were arguing more about the definition of the word than about anything else. There were a few exceptions, which everybody seems to have ignored.

    Although it was a definite detour from your usual fare.

  3. Mordaedil says:

    I always enjoy intelligent discussion and you provide some of the best there is on the subject. I try to soak in as much as possible, even if I don’t use it in my own work.

  4. RodeoClown says:

    Look, look!
    He’s railroading us away from the discussion!


  5. Grant says:

    I came late the the discussion, and probably skipped the worst of it, but I think that what resulted was a discussion on a very interesting and important topic. It certainly made me think.

    The discussion may not have been what you intended, but I liked it anyways, so thank you for that.

  6. Poet says:

    Last time I attempted to guide a group and someone moved against it and caused plot problems, I decided to turn to literal railroading. He’s a little shorter, and we have to throw the dice for him, but I think he learned his lesson.

  7. Miral says:

    FWIW, you rein in a discussion (like a horse). You can’t reign in a discussion, although you can reign one (but that means something else) ;)

  8. KGrape says:

    “FWIW, you rein in a discussion (like a horse). You can't reign in a discussion, although you can reign one (but that means something else).”

    I claim dibs on King of Pointing out the Obvious for this discussion, and only for this discussion. I don’t care about the rest of the discussion, only pointing out the obvious. Therefore I will not reign the entire discussion, only one section (i.e. I will reign in the discussion).

    As sovereign of Obvious, I request that if you wish to point out the obvious that you first pay some minor homage. Thank you. I now return you to the rest of your discussion (over which I refuse to reign). ;)

  9. mark says:

    shamus, you liar! “Guiding the Direction of a Roleplaying Campaign with Deference to Unspoken Social Contract in Order to Facilitate a More Entertaining Gaming Experience” is much snappier!

  10. Attorney At Chaos says:

    I think the discussion demonstrated pretty well that there is no single approach that works best with every group. Shamus started with a choice of 3 alternatives and indicated why he didn’t like 2 of them with his players. Some people agreed with his reasoning, others gave reasons why one or both of the choices Shamus dismissed had their place with their own group or situations, and likewise there were those who indicated a choice for “all of the above” and “none of the above”.

    Knowing what your players like and dislike is a large part of that. If Shamus says his players will dislike the big bad suddenly teleporting away, I trust him to be accurate in his assessment of his players. When other DMs say that their own groups would find that escape perfectly normal, I likewise trust them in their assessment of their own groups.

    I have one player who absatively, posilutely HATES level drains (2E style, that group never moved to 3E). It doesn’t matter if the party has access to RESTORATION spells afterwards, having level drains be part of the story simply makes the story Not Fun for that player. Like a host at a party not serving a food that he knows a guest is allergic to, I don’t include level drains when I DM for that group.

    In my younger days my gaming groups would meet more often, so there would be more time to explore blind alleys and people would remember the game situation more clearly from session to session. Published modules often had lists of rumors a group could come across, usually containing several false rumors in the list. While this was realistic, it could take up a lot of time. Right now I’m in two active groups, each of which only meets once every 2 weeks. There simply isn’t time to have parties go chasing after false rumors. Keeping the game situation straight is hard enough meeting only every two weeks, adding in false information makes it a nightmare. It’s one thing when you might be playing every night at college, it’s quite different playing only every other week. So I keep false information to a bare minimum. Does that mean that sometimes the players can meta-game “Hey – we got false information – that must be hiding something REALLY important”? Yes, it does. But with widely separated gaming sessions there is still much more upside than downside to minimizing false information. I go with what works for our groups.

  11. Dave says:

    Oh my.. now I’m hoping my rants weren’t misconstrued.. If it was me I’m sorry. Now for something completely different.. cats with socks.

  12. Josh says:

    Sorry you felt it went sour – I found it an interesting and quite civil discussion, for the most part. Admittedly the differences in GM styles were perhaps exaggerated for purposes of debate – but it was interesting to see how people do things differently. :)

  13. Harvey says:

    Speaking of different styles of making corrections, I notice Shamus corrected his homophone error (when pointed out to him) by use of strike-through tags.

    Personally, I prefer to simply make homophone and spelling corrections, delete the original errors, and make an acknowledgement in the comments (usually something like “oops!… fixed now”).

    On the other hand, factual errors and changed opinions I’ll use strike-throughs for (as Shamus did in a prior post when he crossed out “which were diminished by stooping to petty insults.”)

    I know “transparency” is an issue in the blogosphere, and I’m generally against stealthy changes in content. However, I guess I do have my limits :-)

  14. Aaron says:

    Every group has its own way of doing things, its own style. It’s just a matter of finding what that style is :)

    I enjoyed the debate myself and, as Telas said, the abberations to the discussion were easy to ignore. On the whole it was quite spirited, and gave much input on the topic (even thought it wasn’t the intended topic).

  15. Margaret says:

    Hey, I’m in the top twenty!

    I can’t decide which one is more apropos

    Railroading, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria


    If I’m wrong, nothing happens! I change my blog – peacefully, quietly. I’ll enjoy it! But if I’m *right*, and I *can* stop this thing… gamers, we would of saved the lives of millions of rpg’rs.

    Have a good weekend Shamus.

  16. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    At the risk of starting another angry spirited debate, Harvey, I think it likely that Shamus was using the strikethrough to demonstrate irony. I admit that I don’t know if the “correction” was made after the original post, but it seems to me that it would fit his sense of humour to use the homonyms in this manner.

    Of course, I could be wrong mistaken. ;)

  17. Shamus says:

    The strikethu was the result of lazyness – I didn’t want to have to jump to another window and add the “fixed” comment.

  18. Daniel says:

    Well if you want to know how it feels being railroaded read your review of grand theft railroad here. It will give you a bit of insight from your own perspective. As much as the DM wants to make a good story the players want to feel they are in control of their own destiny. Sometimes both points contradict each other they have problems. What do do?

    Well make your story nonlinear. Give it a broad arc and let the players choose from a number of choices and be ready to make adventures that correspond with their choices. Make the world a bit more nebulous and solidify things as they go on. Maybe give some choices that turn out to be red herrings and later they will go on the adventure that you have planned. In the end have fun. Some players like railroading then they know exactly what they need to do some want to feel in control of what is happening. Most want to be in control of their own destiny.

  19. Dan Hemmens says:

    Well make your story nonlinear. Give it a broad arc and let the players choose from a number of choices and be ready to make adventures that correspond with their choices.

    As Shamus has already clarified, this seems to be pretty much what he does. Nothing in any of Shamus’ posts have said that he presents his players with linear *quests*.

    To follow up the “Grand Theft Auto” analogy: the mission Shamus describes in his “Grand Theft Railroad” article would, in an RPG, be frustrating to 99% of people. You’re given a quest, only one method of solving it will work, it’s obvious that any attempt at trying it a different way will meet a complete brick wall.

    Some people, however, go further. Some people, outside the context of a computer game, would feel railroaded by having to do the mission at all. They’d want the option to say “screw this, that Leone guy is a lying, murderous, drug-selling, wife-beating scumball, why would I want to rescue him?”

    Some would go further still. They’d say “hang on, why am I stuck this one city? Why do I have to go around stealing cars and shooting people? I’m not interested in that at all.”

    To put it another way:

    For some people, the advantage of RPGs over computer games is that you can solve the plot in more than one way. You can decide exactly how you want to rescue Salvatore Leone.

    For some people, the advantage of RPGs over computer games is that you can influence the plot. Whether or not you rescue Salvatore Leone affects the outcome of the game.

    For some people, the advantage of RPGs over computer games is that the plot is what you choose to make it. Whether you rescue Salvatore Leone or not will only be important if you choose to make it important.

    And for some people, the advantage of RPGs over computer games is that the *game* is what you choose to make it. You can turn Farenheit into Grand Theft Auto into Police Quest if you really want to. You could wind up rescuing Salvatore Leone, or arresting him, or working for him, or killing him and taking his place, or killing him as part of a series of strange events relating to a sequence of ritualistic murders.

  20. Harvey says:

    Lazyness – perfectly acceptable motive :-)

  21. Daniel says:

    Sorry I was not trying to attack Shamus. I know that he has not been a player much so I thought to give him a bit of insight.(that was an extreme example) Basically it works better if you don’t have the entire campaign mapped out from day one and work on the campagn as it is being played.

    I played in a game where I felt why am I here? I can’t effect the outcome. Needless to say I did not come back for a second session.

    I am at best a mediocre GM. I come out with some good ideas but I have problems with long term goals and drive like better GM’s do. I do best at tournament play single session kind of stuff.

    Shamus keep up the good work and if the players are being difficult have some empathy and think from their point of view. Then make the best decisions you can. Enjoy the game and have some fun.

  22. Dan Hemmens says:

    Sorry I was not trying to attack Shamus. I know that he has not been a player much so I thought to give him a bit of insight.(that was an extreme example) Basically it works better if you don't have the entire campaign mapped out from day one and work on the campagn as it is being played.

    I didn’t think you were, I just thought you might have been misinterpreting his playstyle.

    If you check out his D&D campaign writeup (click the link saying “D&D campaign” at the top here) you get a pretty good idea of how he runs things. There’s definitely A Plot, the players are clearly expected to go along with The Plot, but they’ll be allowed to find their own way through it.

    Having read the logs, Shamus clearly puts a lot of effort into his games, and his players clearly appreciate it (the minigames were very cool). He’s certainly not insensitive to their needs. It’s just that his group clearly expects to play through a story, not make one up as they go.

  23. Zaghadka says:

    I’m sorry, I didn’t follow the main argument and am just depositing some thoughts.

    Railroading, even artfully performed, is tempting, but I always give my players the chance to reject the rails. If they don’t go for the 20 pages of maps and backstory, then I put it all on a shelf and cuff it.

    I *do* let them know that I’m cuffing it, however, and that I just put 3 binders of adventures on the shelf, sometimes right in front of them (Jewish mother jokes apply).

    But, in the end, if they decide to run off to the woods of Allidaer in quest for an orphan character’s elven parentage, rather than help the halflings of Callas in their plight against the “King of Spiders,” I tactfully let them know that I am marking their alignment graphs, and we go traipsing through the Elfwoods (as soon as they can suitably save up for a means of travel to the other side of the continent!)

    The resulting grind is perhaps somewhat boring to me, but what the players asked for, and the story we are telling is OURS, not mine, and so the results are usually more rewarding than having them ruin my single-minded “epic tale.” Your players will surprise you if you let them exercise their storytelling abilities, but it is never a surprise when they are forced into something they don’t want and refuse to participate.

    That alignment graph is your ultimate rail, of course. It’s the third rail, in fact. When it is clear party alignment goals are not being met, and experience and level loss ensues, then you can quietly ask if everyone would like to re-roll with a differently aligned party, or if they’d like to get on with saving/ruining/freeing the world for posterity as is their duty. Some people don’t like alignment in D&D, for exactly this reason, but I consider it the primary story guide.

    As a last resort, the GEAS spell, is, of course, included mostly for use by the DM. Make money scarce and force them to accept indentured servitude if you like, but make sure it is their *choice*, or they aren’t going to help you tell the story.

    That’s the way I’ve run my table, at least.

    You can always find time later to dust off that artfully written “great adventure” with WILLING partners. All too often, the rail line isn’t as pretty as you thought, when it only reflects one person’s work. Therefore, the DM’s yoke should be easy. ;^)

  24. Cezar says:

    Hi guys, this is my first post. Thumbs up Shamus for all the content.
    Now, on topic. I’m from Romania, D&D is relative unknown around here. Apart from a few gaming groups there are no PnP communities to be found or share experience with. No, we’ve been playing this game (me and a couple of lads) for like a few years. I’ve been DM-ing a lot, and from my experience (both as a DM and player) I can honestly say that railroading kills the game (at least our games). As soon as the people realize it, they run for the hills. Literally. They take off to the “Kingdom of the Uncharted”.
    I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing but it kinna forced DM’s (mostly me) to reconsider our approach on the game.
    Thus, when creating the foundations of a setting, I create a story of some sorts, but rather as a history refference to somehow justify the forces and why the landscape is shaped like that (arcane cataclysms, blood thirsty conquerers, earthquakes, floods and so on).
    http://h1.ripway.com/kasumaru/Veil_Map.jpg (an example of such a map done crudely in Corel, apolagies)

    Next thing, I create (what I like to call) “Places of wonder”, location rich with context, each with a piece of the history attached to it. (i.e. Solon: This secluded establishment is the home of the Solon Society, strange and eerie folk which talk gibberish most of the time. They avoid contact with the outside world, sending only caravans to the major cities to buy commodities. People speak that they managed to enthrall one of the titans believed to be living under the water to do their biding. There is really little information on why Maszjara hasn't yet crushed the Solons in her campaign of conquering the remnants of the Dathomiri.) Some locations are former battlefields haunted by the spirits, others are intriguing shaped landscapes and of course there are the forbidden land/lake/city etc…
    And I literally fill the map with such locations, each linked to one another by lore. No CR done at this point only adding color to the map. If the player find bits of this map all over the continent, they may or may not be inclined to go exploring. They could stay in the cities and do the urban adventuring. Either way is fine by me.
    So you see? There is no story, no actual dialogues written. My NPC’s are not story driven, they are not the pillars on which all this structure rests. Creating exceptionally individuals is not exactly my ideea of a great NPC, but one that fits in that particular area and that all his actions point out that he has an agenda of his own, but it can still be influenced or persuaded (weaknesses outline great NPCs)

    To conclude, my GM motto is “The world should exist along side the player, not for the player.” People can come and go as they please (we’re all working for the same studio so it is actually a pain in the butt, to gather in full formation) they only loose what it is obvious: lore and loot. I am not saying this method is viable 100%, nor that you should create a rigid modus operandi. Before any D&D campaign I email them a questionnaire for them to fill. It’s not like being in school :) Some people are having fun answering questions related to personal D&D experiences.

    Here it is in case your think this might do the trick.

    Cheers everyone,


  25. Cezar says:

    oO wow, I wrote a wall of text… sorry!!!

  26. Shamus says:

    A quick note: I love your map. Very cool.

  27. Cezar says:

    I am glad you like it Shamus.
    Thing is that one of my players (which works in the art department) took his time to make it look more eye-candy.
    http://h1.ripway.com/kasumaru/THE_VEIL_map1.jpg (the new map)
    I liked it enough to print it and hang it on a wall. The actual map’s resolution is 4959×3508 and it has 11 megs :)

  28. Zaghadka says:

    What a great idea for a spell:

    “Wall of Text” (Illusion, Bureaumancy)

    Upon casting this spell the mage bathes a 10’x10′ cube/lvl. area with mindless mutterings, ranting, copious formulaic backstory, or repeated iterations of “Romani ite Domus!”

    Anyone in the area of effect must make a will save or suffer one of three effects: Confusion, Emotion of Hopelessness, or their head explodes. Blind targets are not affected. Dyslexic targets save at +3.

    Counterspell: Erase

  29. Ellimystic says:

    Zaghadka: That might be a lot of fun in the right hands, especially if the DM had a few Walls of Text prepared ahead of time as part of the game papers. They’d mostly be inane babble, so the players wouldn’t want to read them every time they cast the spell, but if just one or two had some useful hints embedded in them…I can really see the poor guy sitting there casting Wall of Text repeatedly while the rest of the party prods at him, hoping for another tip.

  30. Gilf says:

    You see this so rarely nowadays that it’s frankly terrifying to see Shamus so worked up, so… angry. I had an experience similar to this once; I had an English teacher in middle school, one of the nicest teachers you could know, but the class I was in was particularly rowdy and unpleasant.

    At one point, when he simply could not get the class to quiet down so he could tell us our assignment, he just… snapped. Yelled out to the class, and not even particularly loudly (our gym teacher talked louder than that as a normal way to address the class), but it was so striking that everyone was just stunned silent.

    So yeah. Shamus is the kind of person that you just sort of expect infinite patience from, and it’s jarring to see that he is indeed human like the rest of us (excluding me; I’m part lizardman, obviously).

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