Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Story vs. Railroad - A Reaction

Jason, over at the excellent Wasted Lands, doesn’t like people dissing on his story-based RPing style:

There seems to be this attitude that's become more prevalent over the past few years, which says that any GM who wishes to have a plot or story arc for his campaign is a shit GM and is just railroading his players…

I find this attitude from old-schoolers, who tend to champion concepts like the megadungeon, baffling. Let's look at the megadungeon concept. A dungeon is completely scripted out in advance, unless you're using a random dungeon generator as you go (and let's face it; random dungeon generators as a general rule don't work well on the fly). Every room in the dungeon is mapped out. Wandering monster tables are set. Key rooms with monsters and treasure are placed with care and detailed. Players are deposited in the dungeon and their meaningful choices amount to not much more than up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. They can choose to sally forth or leave, parlay, flee or fight.

That's...really about it. And every one of those choices exists in a story-based game as well. A plot hook is not a railroad, because you can always choose not to follow it, in which case the GM has to come up with a new hook (and a good GM will do so, even if on the fly).
Of course, not everyone agrees with Jason’s views on dungeons. For instance, pages 104-15 of Gygax’s DMG details suggested responses monsters might take, both when they are first attacked by the PCs, and then after the PCs retreat and regroup. These responses include fleeing the area before they can be attacked again, laying traps to cover weak points in their defenses, and even joining in alliances with other nearby monster groups for mutual defense.

So what gives here? The issue really comes down to definitions. Railroads don't just constrain choices; railroads dictate the end-point. The problem with Dragonlance wasn't that it was “too… Tolkien, and not enough Vance and Howard” but rather that at the end of every module the PCs must have accomplished certain goals and be in a particular place, and that they then must move on to the next module in the series. There was no option for jumping off the tracks. Paizo's Pathfinder adventures are the same way (though Kingmaker has been described as a "sandbox" so maybe it's different? Anyone who's played it want to give an opinion?). When you finish an adventure, you must have achieved certain goals and be in a particular geographic location, and you must begin the next adventure.

Yes, there are occasionally side quests. But those side quests, and the players choices to pursue them or ignore them, do not change the important fact that the PCs must finish the adventure in a particular way at a particular endpoint, and then move onto the next adventure in the series. There is no other alternative.

Here's where the issues of storytelling come in. Stories are structured to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In computer gaming, RPGs typically have a single story with a few branching options which will eventually feed back into the main trunk. Therefore, it is very easy to give them a beginning, middle, and end. Dragonlance did the same thing with pen-and-paper RPG's. The adventures of the PCs had set beginnings, middle, and a single end, and all were pre-scripted before the players even rolled their first die. This is incredibly useful for somebody who wants to tell stories. It allows for such techniques as foreshadowing and the use of a rising and falling action to set a certain pace to the story or adventures. It does so, however, at the cost of freedom; if the Dark Lord is to be present at the grand climax in Chapter 10, it really makes a hash of things if the players kill him in Chapter 3. It also means that if the players decide they don't give a hoot about the Dark Lord, well where's your story now?

This isn’t exactly how Jason is using the term “story.” Jason is talking about something a little more complex. Jason is talking about creating a living, breathing world that reacts and takes the initiative every now and then. Or, I think in Jason's case, takes the initiative every chance it can get. This is not the same as railroading. In Jason's version of storytelling, the end is not predetermined. Certain things are going to happen, unless the PCs get involved. They might choose not to, in which case the Dark Lord’s evil will sweep across the land! Or, they might fight the Dark Lord and be victorious, in which case happiness and butterflies for everybody. Or, they could decide that the Dark Lord's offer of six figures, four weeks vacation a year, and generous dental plan sound pretty darn good. These are extreme (and extremely silly) examples, of course. I suspect what actually happens in Jason's games is that sometimes the heroes win, sometimes the heroes lose, and sometimes the heroes are just in the absolute wrong place to get involved at all. The map becomes a patchwork of victory, defeat, and detente for both sides. And since nobody knows what that that's going to look like when the game starts, this is not railroading. Technically, I'm not sure I would use the term story telling either. But that's just me being anal; my battle cry in college was, “Situation, not story!” I offer players the opportunity to tell their story based on the situations I hand them, or those that resulted from what they had done in previous sessions, but if anyone was crafting stories, it was the players. Not me.

I like this sort of play because it keeps everything fresh and surprising and I don't know what's going to happen next. I suspect this is very much what Jason is doing, and what happens in Dwimmermount and at Raggi’s table as well. The give-and-take and back-and-forth between the PCs and the world is what makes these games fun for many of us. And I think it’s exactly what A Paladin in Citadel is talking about when he describes implied narrative as:

No writer-defined (or Dungeon Master defined) narrative. I think this is the key (or what we imagine to be the key) to the appeal of Trampier's artwork, and the appeal of old-school gaming. The lack of agenda on the part of the Dungeon Master when it comes to what story will be told.

Like a good Dungeon Master, Tramp wasn't necessarily rooting for the good guys. Heck, we don't even know that characters in his illustrations, or the player characters in our games, are the good guys! That is up to the players themselves, or the art-viewers, to decide.

Just like the ending to their story is up to the players.

Art by Friedrich Stahl and Charles Marion Russell.


taichara said...

The Kingmaker modules are very good ones. I have four of six at this point, and the entire structure is essentially "explore your way across the map, oh and here are some events to fit in if they get there along the way".

There's a certain predication towards setting up the next module, for a certain definition of "setting up" (if you plan to run the second, for example, your party should eventually go after the Stag Lord, get their reward, and found a settlement), but there's no timeframe or order.

They work for me, at least.

trollsmyth said...

Wow! That was fast. :D

I'm tempted to take a closer look. I like a lot of what Paizo does, but I'm not crazy about the structure of most of their adventure path design. Still, I have a handful of their books because they are certainly chock full of neat, steal-worthy ideas.

paul said...

"Situation, not story!" is about as concise a description of sandbox play as I've ever heard. Inspirational pith.

Roger G-S said...

Well said! My musings here.

Rhetorical Gamer said...

For a slightly different take...

Check out my most recent post. I've been harking back lately to some of the best games in my past and they were very GM-present.

The Grey Elf said...

I totally did not expect my blog post to take off like it has. Thanks for the response, Trollsmyth. To a point you're pretty dead-on with what I'm saying and I do suspect the issue is largely semantic rather than philosophical.

That being said, I don't necessarily think that having an end game in mind from the start constitutes railroading, either. It all depends on how things play out. The Greeks believed in both destiny and free will, which they felt worked in conjunction. How, you ask? The end might be set, but it's your choice how you get to that end.

If your players are hired to track down a dragon that has kidnapped the princess, slay the dragon and rescue the girl, there's a scripted endpoint there from the moment they accept the quest--they're going after that dragon. Does that, then, become a railroad, even if the PCs chose to accept the job? Or are you saying that it's only a railroad if after the hiring a player says "Now we skip town" and the DM says, "You can't do that!"

The second case is certainly railroading. But if the players accept the quest, go after the dragon, and rescue the girl, they've completed a story, but done so of their own volition.

trollsmyth said...

Rhetorical Gamer: You're talking about this post, yes? I'm very much looking forward to reading the next part.

Rhetorical Gamer said...


I am! Thank you for reading... that actually made my day.

I stopped by again because I'm mentioning your post in that second part that I'm working on right now.

Up soon.

DH said...

"...My battle cry in college was, 'Situation, not story!'"

Hmm, I think this excellent post has earned you a nickname.

Troll "The Situation" Myth.

trollsmyth said...

Jason: I agree, but there's a not-so-fine line between, "Ok, you search the room and, holy cow, the room has been searched!" and "Twenty years from now, no matter what you do, you'll murder your father and marry your mother."

That second can be fun, but everyone has to be on-board from day one and understand that they're playing Greek-style tragedy; the fun is how you twist and turn to escape it, and then wallow in the agony of not having been able to escape it. Can be fun, but not what I usually play RPGs for.

As for your slaying-the-dragon example, the key there is player choice. If the players choose to slay the dragon, then the expected outcome is a dead dragon and a rescued princess. (Though there are no guarantees in my games, where the PCs may end up being the ones slain, or they might kill the dragon but the princess might die in the fight as well.) But that, again, is an outcome everyone is pointing the game towards, not something the DM is demanding from the players.

Of course, once play starts, things can get a bit murky. In all three games I'm running right now, the players are in situations where their options are horribly constrained. One has been captured by her mortal enemies. The largest group is in one of those "perform this task or die!" situations. And one is under the influence of a very potent charm spell, and while the goals of the person she's charmed to mostly parallel her own, the methods he'll insist on are likely to not be much like what she would have preferred.

And this is all very grey territory. All of these situations grew from choices the players made (Emily, I am so looking at you right now ;D ) but in every case these were not the hoped-for outcomes, and in at least one case, this outcome wasn't even imagined.

So is that railroading? Again, I'd say no, because, while the players didn't choose these circumstances, they do choose how they react to them. I suspect the charmed character will settle into an uneasy alliance with her charmer when the spell ends, and I fully expect the one captured by her enemies to exact hideous and bloody revenge. But I have not chosen those for the players and I may, in fact be completely wrong in both cases. "No railroads" means everybody gets a vote, but not all votes are equal and nobody gets everything they expect. "No railroads" doesn't mean "no surprises" and it certainly doesn't mean "no consequences." Both surprises and consequences are where the fun comes from.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

My bottom line - if the game says the players "have to do XYZ so they can be ABC - no other alternatives allowed or accounted for...", then it's not the game for me.

If the game says "Players find themselves in WW3 with laser bazookas versus the Klingon High Operatic Priest and they must prevent her from scissor-rubbing the Grand Mother Oompah... Go!" and they have free will to ignore, to do as they like as the either go for it or not... then that's a game I want to play/run.

Anonymous said...

Trollsmyth, why would you buy and play a module, then be disappointed that it has a story in it?

How did you choose the module? You liked the artwork? A module is an adventure hook, a setting and a goal. That's why people buy modules. If a module was simply a bunch of random encounter tables or a list of adventure ideas, it wouldn't be anywhere near as popular a supplement as it is.

I see a lot of strawman creation in this debate, because "railroad" gaming is a lot rarer than anyone is willing to admit, and generally when it happens it only happens to the extent that the players sign up for a module with a predetermined goal, and everyone enjoys so doing.

It's only a small group of online curmudgeons who care about this stuff. Most players sign up for a night of fun and slaughter, and are happy to do whatever makes the GM's job fun and easy. Which is what a module is for.

trollsmyth said...

A module is an adventure hook, a setting and a goal.

Sometimes. B2 Keep on the Borderlands has little in the way of hooks and is notorious for its lack of goal. You have the Keep and the Caves of Chaos, and a few small encounters between them. It's most just location.

You can assume the goal is to purge the caves of humanoids and cultists, but since the module actually states that emptied caves will likely be inhabited by new arrivals, that could easily turn into a never-ending grind. And since the inhabitants of the Keep area also statted out, you could just as easily join with the cultists or the humanoids in attacking it. Or you can fight everybody and just lay up a giant pile of treasure.

KotBL is a great adventure because it's easy to drop into just about any pre-industrial setting. A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords is fun, but since it requires that the PCs be captured first, can be problematic in implementation. The less an adventure assumes about your game, the easier it is to use.

But that's mostly beside the point. Here we're talking about how much the DM can set before play starts without negating the choices of the players. I suspect you're right; railroading is pretty rare. And I'm certain some people absolutely love railroad adventures. But for those of us who don't, the goal is to understand better where that line is, so we can stick closer to what we enjoy, and avoid what we don't.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and some excellent comments~

I totally agree that railroading, despite the fear and loathing attached to the concept, happens a lot less than people think, and also that not as many people recognize it when it happens as think that they do. As has been mentioned, the presence of a plot, or potential story arc is not indicative of railroading in and of themselves.

Giving players difficult choices, or setting limits on what is, and what is not going to be covered in a given game may seem like railroading, particularly if by 'walking off the map' the players discover than they have brought about the end of the game, but again are not.

Railroading is the denial of choice, or the creation of circumstances which serve the story without concern for their impact on the previously established history and persona of the character, such as: you all wake up in a flooding prison with no idea how you go there, and now must solve this puzzle to escape or perish because I thought up this cool trap and want to see if you can beat it. The end.

Good call on the comparison between Keep on the Borderlands, and In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords.

I like your phrase: Situation, not Story very much~

Anonymous said...

Trollsmyth, I have recently put up a post on my blog about a campaign I ran many years ago (so far back in time I cannot remember some details) that many would say was a classic railroad.

I set up the railroad because I had a story I wanted to explore, and it had some interesting challenges for me as a GM that the more traditional gaming I do just didn't offer. At the time I didn't know what a railroad was, there was no such thing as RPG theory, and I hadn't read a Dragon magazine in about 10 years. I'd be interested in your reaction to the ideas that that campaign threw up - go over and take a look if you have the time.