Railroading in Commercial Adventures (May 2018)
One of the greatest sins of roleplaying seems to be railroading. Many (most?) players dislike the idea that they are not in control. Others grudgingly accept it to move from one interesting encounter to the next. There are of course other ways to structure an adventure (sandbox, random adventures, story-empowered players) but I plan to cover these in future posts.
Despite this dislike, commercial adventures are often considered railroading. As a classic example, Curse of the Azure Bonds has an encounter which is basically designed to defeat the PCs – otherwise, there will be no adventure! But where exactly does railroading start? And what kind of preplanning assumptions for the DM are acceptable on behalf of the designer? This blog entry is my attempt to come up with a classification of types of railroading. Each of these has different problems but (which might surprise some of you) also benefits.
Fully Scripted Story: In this case, the whole story is pre-scripted, including the major decisions of the PCs. The heroes are going to be overpowered and captured by the enemy to get the Azure Bonds impressed on themselves. The players do flee into the bar in the Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Game.
On the up side, that way the players will miss none of the interesting things in the adventure. Azure Bonds without the brandings which force the party to perform certain deeds under compulsion, is not the same memorable adventure. Going into the bar in Edge of the Empire is fun because that is where the DM can show off the shiny location map everybody was looking forward to. Also, from the standpoint of the designer, an adventure which tells an interesting story is possibly more fun for the DM to read and thus might sell better (because the DM is her customer, not the players).
On the down side, the players are not in control. I think it was Robin D. Laws who said that many RPG adventure designers have a nice story they want to tell and so their adventure is not about interaction but about the story. In my experience this is not much of a problem for decisions that come natural to them (like helping orphans) or for a premise to kick off an adventure. However, if the players feel they have to act against their best interest or character concept, such a level of determinism can lead to frustration. I remember playing the Shadowrun campaign München Noir where the premise of each session was that we would trust the guy who had consistently screwed us over every single time. I knew there would be no adventure without taking that step but I resented that part of the story a lot. Finally, in fully scripted adventures, the players contribute less to the story. There are many thoughts on player contribution, which is something I will probably cover in a future blog entry.
Decision Points: A lesser level of pre-scripting leaves in some important decision points but generally sticks to a prepared story. In Azure Bonds, there is an assumption that PCs will follow a certain whispering thief. If they don’t, they are essentially left with little clue where to go. However, the adventure could also go into more length to describe what happens when the party does not take this leap of faith. Maybe they will have to react to the actions of their enemies, then.
If done well, the introduction of decision points will give the players more control of their characters’ fates and create a more interactive experience. (Which to me is the main distinguishing point of RPGs.) As a caveat, in my opinion, this is a benefit only if these decisions are meaningful. In the adventure Princes of the Apocalypse, the players can decide which cult they want to tackle first. However, from my point of view, there is no motivation to make such a choice because there are no major consequences. No matter which cult you pick first, the others will follow their scripts and patiently wait their turn to be addressed.
Some of the drawbacks of the scripted story remain if only a few decision points are introduced into the adventure. On the other hand, the more decisions there are, the more material in the adventure will be of no use to you. For example, if Princes of the Apocalypse was written in such a way that the other cults would flee after the first one is defeated, you would miss out on 75% of the material you paid for. My suspicion is that such adventures would not sell well. Personally, as somebody who likes to create maps, I am disappointed if my players miss a nice map in the adventure. Yet, it is not easy to design an adventure with meaningful decisions without producing a lot of superfluous material.
Dynamic Use of Plans (“Fronts”): Some adventures provide a plan of action for the bad guys based on the fact that the villains are unaware of the upcoming player interference. They might also account for some major decisions, leading to a more flexible plan. The DM follows the plan as well as he can, thinking of ways how to compensate for the wrenches the players throw into the system. This is especially fun if there are multiple enemies and the PCs have to turn from problem to problem as the plot unfolds. I recently read Desolation and I think this would be a really good adventure of this type. This approach is in essence the Fronts concept advocated by Dungeon World (and I assume by other Apocalypse games as well).
In my opinion, it allows the DM to come prepared and leaving enough flexibility for the players to make their own choices. For example, my German-language Dungeon World adventure Tempel des Krokodilgotts has two villains and a giant monster who act on their own until the PCs intervene one way or the other. Since the two villains are enemies, the players can essentially use one against the other but they might end up helping the greater of the two evils to gain control that way. I really like such types of adventure since as a DM I can also be surprised by what happens.
On the other hand, some DMs might be uncomfortable with dynamically taking adaptations. Once mistakes are made, the story might derail and turn into a boring or confusing experience. Also, some players (for example, casual gamers) might be quite happy to follow a given trail if they are rewarded with an exciting story. As I mentioned before, Azure Bonds is a lot less fun if the players avoid getting the bonds put on them. It goes without saying, that the “fronts” approach can lead to material being missed in the same way as in the decision points style of design.
Of course, there are other kinds of adventures (such as sandboxes) which have different advantages or problems. The question I want to discuss here, though, is how much of a prepared story will lead to an adventuring experience which would be perceived as “railroading”. Railroading to me is when I as a player feel forced down a certain path, especially when it is a path I do not enjoy. I found it frustrating to knowingly walk into a series of traps in München Noir. On the other hand, I am willing to accept some nudging to experience a strong story with surprising twists, cool locations, and fun encounters (Azure Bonds). An adventure that goes nowhere because nobody really knows what to do is not enjoyable to me. I have spent some of my worst roleplaying evenings looking for clues, not really understanding what meaningful choices I had. So, I am willing to let myself be nudged into a certain direction if it is done in moderation and serves the purposes of providing a fun and entertaining experience. What are your thoughts?