Thursday, March 13, 2014

Locomotive Breath

OK, here's something that has been on my mind...

As I gear up for several upcoming projects, I think it's about time I did a 'State of Gaming' address to tell you all what I am playing and GMing now and what the near future holds.

But later...

Right now I want to gripe a bit, hopefully constructively, about one of my least favorite GM habits...Railroading.

We all do it or have done it. At one time, each and every Gamemaster ends up pushing the players toward a particular scenario or event regardless of their choices or actions during the game.

OK...I haven't...but I get that it's pretty common.

Why haven't I? I'll get to that later.

Railroading is one of the things I've run into as a player that makes me really, really not want to be a player. I hates it. I think of it as concentrated evil.

I have recently been playing more than I usually do, and in different games, of different genres with different GMs, the tendency to railroad seems almost universal.

As with all things, there are degrees, and a little railroading, expertly hidden, usually goes unnoticed and can provide a GM with a much needed push for players unsure of where to begin.

Some genres benefit from or even require ( some extent perhaps), a push in a particular direction. Starfleet most assuredly assigns ships to investigate various planets and anomalies. In a Superhero RPG, the Mission Monitor or Trouble Alert flares up indicating a crime is occurring and the PCs are expected to go stop it. You don't really have a choice in that. As a Superhero in a Superhero game, you need to head for the crime scene and do what you can. It's in the job description.

Now, the thing is, that's not what I'm talking about here. That stuff is acceptable. It makes sense. It functions as both a troupe of many action-adventure genres and stories, as well as providing an effective model for game play.

What pisses me off (something fierce I might add) is when the GM has decided in advance that 'X' is going to happen and no matter what you do, 'X' inadvertently occurs. The worst version of this is when you can see it coming. You have your PC ask NPCs for information, look for clues, experiment with gear and it happens anyway.

Seriously dude, why did you waste all of our time? If the Magic Gem is going to flash its Magic Light and turn us all into squirrels, just do it. Have it flash in the first few minutes of the game. Don't make me think that the books in the room will help me understand the Magic Gem just to tell me, "No, there is nothing on this Gem in any of the books". Then why are there books there? Do they reference it at least? Do they say what other book or place or person may have more knowledge? "No". Brilliant. Blooming brilliant.

Oh, and then there is the Wizard's Apprentice we captured. I convinced the party not to kill him 'cause, ya'know, he must know something. "No, he doesn't. They just discovered the Gem before you all arrived." Great.

OK, our Wizard can use a spell to tell us what the Gem is and what it does. Casts it, and it's something like 'Identify' or something, and it sets off the Magic Light effect and now we're all squirrels.

Screw that noise!

Here is a constructive piece of advice for both novice and experienced GMs that I found has helped me to avoid this problem in my own games.


Yeah, just don't. When you say to yourself, "Oh man, I have to have a scene where the team is stepped on by a 50 foot rabbit", the very next thing you should do is figure out how that could possibly NOT happen.

The rabbit rolls to hit, so it could miss, or the PCs could kill it, or run away, etc. If the next thought is to not let any of that work until the rabbit steps on everyone, the very next action you should take, as a person, not in the GM role, is to bang your head against a wall in hopes of knocking some sense into yourself.

I don't ever have to railroad players because...

#1. I have more than one cool scene in my head. Usually hundreds. I am open to more.

#2. I don't know exactly what the players will have their PCs do so I never, NEVER lock myself into a particular outcome a head of time. That's dopey.

#3. I think of several interesting scenarios, not one. If the players leave the adventure or do something unexpected, I have a couple of (dozens of) back up plans.

#4. If I have a map, I look at it. I grab a piece of scrap paper. I decide what is North of the top of the page, South of the bottom of the page, West of the left side of the page, and East of the right side of the page. I know what's past the map. I like to surprise the players when they try to surprise me by going past the map. 

#5. If my players bother to investigate, I bother to provide them with Clues.

#6. If the players want to have their PCs talk to someone (or several someones) appropriate to the situation, I have the NPC give them information, or have them suggest where said data can be found. If I have a player who wants to talk to NPCs, I give them someone useful to talk to. Otherwise, I am being a jerk.

#7. I don't assume the PCs are incompetent, that they were born 10 seconds before the game started and/or that they don't know anything about the areas they live in. That's just f*#&ing dumb.

Know your world/setting, have events and stories of different types occuring in multiple locations and let the players set the tone for their adventures. They will be much more invested in a world that seems alive, and more importantly, that they live in and effect.

You may find this and this helpful.

If you don't have to railroad, DON'T railroad.

And trust don't have to.

Barking Alien


  1. The more I read railroad vs. sandbox, the more I have the same trouble I always have with dualistic arguments.

    Is it really any less a railroad, because you have multiple tracks? That is, isn't the sandbox a bit of an illusion? Isn't the "random" table just a list of ten possible scenarios that branch from the same base? Isn't the sandbox, just a railroad in the process of being built? Isn't free will just an illusion?

    I don't force them to not venture down the trash chute, but is it really a sandbox when I know where the trash chute ends up, but have just tabled that for future development?

    We all agree it's a railroad when it is A to B to C, but is it really a sandbox, when it is A to B or C, B to D,E, or F and C to E, R or G?

    1. If that's how your Sandbox works than no.

      My Sandbox, or Storybox as I prefer, does not work that way.

      It's more than just having a lot of different possible outcome ideas for any given situation. It's knowing how to generate new ideas on the spot based on the PCs actions and the information you have established in the campaign and/or know as GM.

      As I noted in my trash compactor trap post ( ), it's not about the PCs figuring the one way out, nor is it having a set number of ways out. It's understanding what the trash compactor is, where it's situated, how it works and what ways and means will get you past it based on the aforementioned attributes.

      If the players come up with an unexpected way out of the trap, that further leads in an unexpected direction, AWESOME! The tendencey I see (and which I am complaining about here) is for the GM to think, 'I'm not ready for them to go that way/do that thing/have them follow that train of thought'. They then tell the players "No!, it doesn't work", "You can't go that way", "The computer/robot doesn't know" or lead them directly back along the path they were originally following even though it's not longer anywhere near them.

      What I am getting at with this, if it isn't clear, is don't make it seem or feel like I have no choice in the matter at hand and no say in the outcome of the situation I am in. If that is going to be the case, tell me ahead of time and I'll go fire up Titanfall or something.

  2. I don't see any "dualism" here... a "sandbox" with more than one track is just several railroads...I dig (no pun intended) an actual sandbox where my character can go and do whatever seems good. A GM worth his salt should be okay with that, ready for that, and roll with that.

    And if you're gonna railroad me, just start me off in media res instead of pretending I have options.

    1. Exactly and I totally agree Matt.

      I am curious though, am I giving the impression by my post that I give several avenues? Both you and Gort's Friend mentioned it and I am trying to be clear that this is not what I am advocating.

      What I am saying is that yes, sometimes I start with multiple things going on (I am the GM after all), but I also account for the players having a completely unorthodox approach to any of the dozen or so things I am presenting them with and/or having them ignore all of that to do what they want to do.

      In the case of Traveller, I have very few if any 'paths' presented. Instead I instantly generate paths, on the fly and on the spot, based on the players' interests and their PCs actions. At the same time, since my players often provide me with backstories on their PCs before the campaign begins, I do have things related to those backgrounds going on some in my setting.

    2. No, I understood you to be speaking of a "true sandbox," i.e., here's our campaign world, where do you wanna go and what do you wanna do? A sandbox so real it stinks of kid-pee.

      I was just differentiating as I see folks use the term sandbox when they mean choose from path A, B, or C.

  3. By the by, it's a shame we are on opposite ends of the continent as many of your games sound like my cup of tea, which is exceedingly rare and why I nearly always end up having to GM instead of play.

    1. This is unfortunate. At the same time, I do plan are starting a Google Hangouts game sometime this year. If I start it at 9 pm my time that's, what, 6 for you?

    2. Yeah, but my evenings are occupied by my kids till around 8-8:30 most nights.