Railroading is what happens when the players' choices are forced or eliminated in the name of plot. The worst cases are ridiculous - I've played in a game where the GM actually told us that a hovering slab of concrete appeared overhead, ominously looming until we turned back and played the plot he had written.
It was kind of funny at the time, but not really in keeping with the tone of the game (this was in the supposedly serious and gritty World of Darkness game setting) - and it's certainly not the best way to deal with players moving away from your prepared scenario.
The Alexandrian made a great guide to railroading - a tongue-in-cheek list of points to embrace when deliberately writing a railroad plot.
He's also written some great blog posts on how to open up scenarios and to make the plot flow more freely, from the players decisions.
This is all great advice when you're writing from scratch. But I suspect that like me, many GMs have limited time, and want to draw on pre-published material to make life easier.
So what I thought would be useful would be to use a few examples from published adventures where heavy railroading happens, and see how we can expand the choices to allow the players to choose meaningfully.
|There's more then one way to get from Paddington to Liverpool Street|
The renowned Dragonlance adventures have a reputation for steering the party along a pre-planned path. That may or may not be deserved - plenty of pre-published scenarios presented a linear story path, from one dungeon to the next (not all of them, but plenty enough) - but when I picked one up recently, I found a few glaring instances of serious railing.
In one part of the scenario in question, the player party is asked to aid some elves escape the bad guys - if you don't know the story, suffice to say the bad guys are very, very bad, and numerous. If the party accept, all well and good: the story continues, and the game with it.
If the heroes refuse the elves (that being the title of the section dealing with that possibility), then the GM is instructed to first beset the player characters with nasty dreams showing their death, and if that isn't enough of a hint that they've done the wrong thing, then to attack them with a horde of bad guys.
What the text then says regarding these attacks is what stunned me when I read it - it's the most blatant piece of railroading I think I've ever read in a scenario. What it says is this:
"These skirmishes will continue, one every game hour, until all the PCs are dead."That's right - if the players don't want to play the story as written, then their characters must all be killed. It's not very much different to the ominous floating concrete slab, is it?
In situations like this, I tend to think about what the consequences of the player characters' inaction or failure might be, and then allow those things to happen. Let the game-world be changed by the decisions of the players!
Let's consider a few examples:
Luke Skywalker misses his "one in a million" shot, and the Death Star destroys the Rebel Base.
Now the game is about a dark dystopia, with a furtive and desperate resistance, instead of the relatively strong Rebellion we see in the other two films. The Jedi don't reappear - who has any faith in Luke, even if he survives? He's just a failure, along with any other survivors.
Our story focus turns to underworld connections and lowlifes, and morality becomes far greyer than the Dark and Light Sides of the Force - who is interested in that mumbo jumbo now?
There are plenty of adventures to be had as rebels: smuggling guns, assassinating Imperials, and so on - but the game has shifted away from the heroic path that was expected.
Aragorn and Co try to follow Frodo instead of Merry and Pippin.
Merry and Pippin are brought straight to Isengard and - once Saruman figures out they don't have the Ring - used as bait for Gandalf (assuming they are PCs, we'll want to keep them involved and alive). Gollum is probably either killed or at least kept on a far more close watch - since there are now several of the Fellowship to watch him.
Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and Co make a much easier route to Mordor (he's a Ranger after all) - but vast tracts of Middle Earth are destroyed by the forces of Mordor (Aragorn and Gandalf do not save Rohan and bring the Rohirrim to the Battle of Pelennor).
Does the Ring corrupt the rest of the Fellowship? Can the larger Fellowship make it through Mordor unseen? What evil forces are left occupying the lands even if the Dark Lord is destroyed? The adventure continues, but not in the way that was planned.
Those of course are big scale examples, but I'm using them to make a point.
When you look at scenarios, you need to think about what the fallout will be if the player characters don't succeed, or if they don't follow what you think is the best path. Or if the players hit on a simple short cut...
I probably had some stock answer at the time ("Who are you asking?" or "You don't know"), but it made me think, and it made me improve. NPCs have to act only on the information they have available. Just as players must separate their own knowledge from their character's (just because Pete knows the abilities and weaknesses of dragons in the game doesn't mean that his character knows them too) - the GM must separate his or her knowledge from that of the NPCs.
I picked up a Living Greyhawk scenario for D&D 3.5 at the Free RPG Day one year. I understand these scenarios are quite quickly written - there's literally thousands of scenarios for the setting, which was published for just 8 years - and that administration of the many regions of the setting across the world would have been a mammoth task, so I'm prepared to cut plenty of slack for copy editing, spelling mistakes and so on. What I'm far less impressed by are the frankly bizarre NPC encounters and their behaviour.
In one encounter, the PCs are confronted by a gang of thugs who have been sent to "sound them out" (and attack them).
What puzzles me about this encounter, and no doubt would puzzle players too, is that there's no explanation given for how the thugs know about the PCs or their mission.
The PCs have literally just met with a new patron (who himself is absolutely ridiculous - he's described as having a completely empty house, if the text is to be taken literally*, and he gives the player characters no reason to trust him, but every reason to distrust him...) who has sent them off to do some job - and they are accosted by these thugs, who know who they are, who they've just been talking to, and that they are in conflict with the boss thug. (At this point, due to the somewhat scrappy writing of the scenario, it isn't necessarily particularly clear to the players that they are in conflict with this thug boss.)
The scenario says "as soon as the PCs walk outside they are accosted" [my emphasis] and that the thugs have been sent by their boss "to feel out the PCs." This implies strongly that the thugs aren't just watching the patron's house, and decide to take on the PCs as they look like a bunch of adventurers and thus mean trouble - no, they've been sent there specifically to encounter the PCs for some reason.
As if this first band of prescient NPCs wasn't enough - another one arrives in 4 rounds flat! That's less than 30 seconds later, with no explanation of why they're all suddenly converging on the players' characters' party. These new arrivals are allies, too - for some reason. They aid in the fight against the omniscient thugs, despite having never met the player characters. Neither has their boss any experience of the PCs at this point - but he clearly sends his minions to help the PCs before they actually need that help.
How do the NPC bosses know about the PCs? What if the player characters take steps to avoid being seen? What if the PCs scout out the area before leaving?
As crazy as all this seems, these are simple enough questions for a GM to think up answers to (of course, if the scenario was properly written, you wouldn't need to). Here's how I might answer the issues:
How do the bosses know? The NPC bosses have been spying on each other, and the patron. The bosses are rivals, and this patron is clearly trying to manipulate things. When word gets to them that the patron has visitors - adventurer visitors - both bosses send their fellows round to see what's up. The allied boss's minions aid the players because they are fighting their rival's thugs.
The PCs are cautious. Instead of the patron's house being empty, there are a few unobtrusive servants. One of the servants is passing information to a spy of one or other of the bosses - and the other boss's spy is observing this leaked information. Thus once the PCs are safe inside the patron's house, the information can be smuggled out - and the various NPC groups can converge on the patron's house while the PCs are getting briefed.
If the PCs scout the area before leaving, they see the thugs scaring off the locals, ready to set on the PCs as they emerge. The PCs have the chance to try to avoid them, intervene, or whatever they wish - but the allied NPC minions arrive as scheduled, and the thugs start a fight with them. Our PC party is supposed to be a band of heroes - no evil player characters are permitted in this scenario - so hopefully they might intervene...
*Sure, I know the writer meant that there was nothing worth stealing, knowing that players tend to have their characters loot anything valuable, but that's not what the scenario said.
It's not a bad scenario, but it's full of points where the players can easily and very rationally pursue other angles, or overlook something the scenario writers think is obvious. This isn't so much a true railroad, but a maze, full of dead ends, with only one path through it.
The plot is supposed to be essentially three encounters: one with a petty criminal who has witnessed some dinosaur killing his mate, one with the mad scientist who has cloned the dinosaurs and one of his specimens, and one with the remaining escaped dinosaurs.
However, the progression of the story hinges on a few set pieces:
- Discovery and correct interpretation of a name tag at the scene of a crime (not too difficult)
- Pursuit and live capture of the mad scientist after he's set a killer dinosaur on them (very difficult)
- Discovery and correct identification of some tracking devices to pursue the escaped dinosaurs (medium difficult)
- Facing the dinosaurs (utterly deadly)
Name tag, chase scenes and a few alternatives
Adventures need more than one path through them, or they run the risk of getting stuck. The Three Clue Rule is well established now, so I won't go over it again here.
If the players ignore or overlook the name tag in the first scene of the adventure, then there is no path to progress the plot.
To be fair, for the scientist chase, there is an alternate method provided to get the party to move on to the next part of the adventure: a set of scanners is present in the lab.
Deadly dinosaursThe final encounter is a bloodbath, in which any of the player characters will be lucky to escape - let alone defeat the dinosaurs. Three dinos lurk in ambush in the sewer. The scenario is supposed to be written for 2nd level characters - very new adventurers. just starting out in their careers. I ran through the numbers for those dinos' attack capabilities, bearing in mind the heroes defensive stats.
Not to overwhelm this post with maths, the short version is that the average damage deal by these 6 hits is enough to immediately drop any 2nd level character in this game system, and more than enough to utterly kill most characters - and there is a third dino also in this ambush...
Also, the sewer itself is a death trap. An earlier point in the sewer has a severe undertow current, which requires a swim check to avoid submerging. The difficulty of that swim check equates to something like a 5% chance of success for an average character, or about 50% for a strong swimmer - but that's assuming the PCs are unencumbered by armour or gear. Wearing armour hugely impedes swimming chances in this game.
So, effectively, the scenario has an encounter practically designed to strip the armour off the characters, immediately before the dinosaur ambush...
Now, it's not necessarily a problem to have an overwhelmingly deadly encounter in a game - that depends on the tone. Maybe your game is supposed to end with one single survivor barely making it out alive (a horror action story, like Alien, or the Predator movie) - or maybe you expect the player characters to recognise just how deadly dangerous one of the dinos is from the earlier fight, and tool up ready for the hunt.
The scenario writers didn't plan that, though. The writing implies that defeat of the dinos is a foregone conclusion - "After the heroes defeat the deinonychuses in the sewer, they can go back and investigate ..." it says. There's no acknowledgement of the deadly nature of that encounter - nothing like "Assuming the heroes defeat..." or "...the surviving heroes can ..."
Nor is there enough time to prepare for the hunt: they're expected to rush in before they even fully investigate the lab. Okay, one can easily give the players time to prepare, but the wealth system of this game means that there's not a lot of extra equipment they can gather to help them out.
In running this game, I had to make several changes.
- I added more clues - we need at least three, remember, and the writers had only given us two each time. (Two is better than most scenarios, to be fair.)
- I gave the party time to prepare for the hunt, and more gear, and I re-arranged the encounter to remove the flanking ambush.
- (It didn't help much, though - I still had to use a deus ex machina of some rival secret organisation to extract the nearly dead unconscious heroes, in the end. Thankfully, I'd been foreshadowing the existence of this other organisation throughout the adventure, and it also allowed me to add extra plot to the ongoing story - my players' characters were now indebted to their rivals...)
As written, those dinosaurs are just waiting in the sewer. Surely, they'd be more likely to get out there and attack more prey? And with more attacks - not just people, but animals too - the party might be able to find more clues.
Those clues need not lead them to the same events that the written adventure planned - can the dinos be tracked to their lair? Can the players lay a trap for the dinos?
The scientist in the scenario as written waits until the PCs come calling before he goes hunting the missing dinos. Shouldn't he be more proactive? Maybe some witnesses say they've already been interviewed, and give a description of the scientist. Maybe the PCs are tasked with investigating a missing person, when he gets eaten by his escaped creations...
Lastly, who hired the scientist? In the scenario, it's written that some secret military organisation commissioned the dinosaur project - what are they doing about all this?
In my version of the adventure, I used this complication - and it allowed me to pull my player characters out of the fire at the end of the scenario when the dinos proved to be as deadly as I've suggested above.
Mapping the tube
Read the scenario (thoroughly - don't skim it!) and make notes where it seems to be lacking depth, or is forcing the players into one railroad path.
For every railroaded scene or encounter, you should consider (and note down) the possible fall out, what the NPCs are up to while the PCs are footling around somewhere else, why the NPCs are acting the way they are written, and so on.
Plans not plots
NPCs carry on with their plans regardless of the PCs.
Consider what those plans are, and how they progress while the PCs are busy. Don't just leave scenes primed and waiting for the PCs to find them.
(Of course, you can provide a set piece scene now and then - and it'll work better because it isn't the norm.)
Fallout and consequences
Rather than the story grinding to a halt, or all the PCs being killed when they stray from the prepared plot, it pays to have an idea of how the possible outcomes will feed into the NPCs' plans.
Who will lose out, and who will benefit? Think of a few ways in which the event can play out, and note down what the consequences are. This will make sure the players feel that their actions are really important in the game, rather than just steered toward your planned plot.
Realistic and limited NPCs
Knowing how your antagonists know what they know means that you can think about what they don't know, as well. You're not trying to defeat the players, just challenge them - and that needs to be a fair challenge.
Of course, in fantasy and some sci-fi settings, some NPCs might really be omniscient. But when you decide to legitimately used omniscient antagonists, the players will be all the more worried and alarmed because this hasn't been the norm.
And even such omniscient NPCs should have some source to their knowledge - so you can consider whether it too can be thwarted.
When I first thought of writing this post, my first instinct was to bitch about how awful those scenarios were, but it's far more karmic and constructive to show how to turn those glitches on their heads.
Hopefully, then, I've provided a few ideas on how you might use an hour or so of thought and a few notes, to take a railroaded scenario and turn it into some thing more like a choice-filled tube map.