I think a lot of the fear of railroading goes to the stereotype of the antagonistic DM. There’s this archetype in which the DM is the enemy of the players, a vengeful entity who creates fiendish challenges and nail-biting encounters just to watch them suffer. I’m not saying this type of DM doesn’t exist—I’ve been in such a campaign at least once—but I think its prevalence is overblown. Most DMs just want to create a situation in which everybody is having fun. They aren’t villains, even if they do control villains, and they don’t enjoy player suffering, even if they design challenges that cause suffering. The DM-versus-player dynamic is an outlier that shouldn’t really enter into the conversation.
As such, railroading isn’t usually the hallmark of a DM who wants to rip power away from the players and hurt them despite their best attempts. It’s more often used by an inexperienced, underprepared, or focused DM who feels she needs to nudge (or shove) the game in a specific direction to achieve a specific goal. Railroading isn’t actually a problem. Railroading is one solution to several problems DMs face all the time. Continue reading
Players can’t have perfect agency. The rules of the game don’t allow it—technically, anything that requires a roll prevents the players from having full knowledge of the results of their actions. But players generally believe that when they make a decision, that decision will have some consequence on the game, whether the consequence is “we have ascended to godhood” or “my turn accomplished nothing but verifying that the monster is, in fact, immune to slashing damage.” They accept some unpredictability for the power to make meaningful decisions.
This is what makes the quantum ogre such a sneaky DM tool. While it’s a useful trick for a DM who wants to give players freedom but limit the effort he needs to put into providing it, it is still, in the end, a type of trick. It removes some of the meaning from their decisions by predetermining some of their consequences. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By easing the impact the quantum ogre has on the players’ choices, it becomes less of a heavy-handed railroading tool and more an agent of convenience for the DM. Continue reading
As we discussed last time, all campaigns have some sort of railroading and all DMs use it. There’s always some sort of “this is the game we’re playing” restriction. It’s so commonplace, it’s hard to see it as railroading until you think about it, but it is a form of denying agency to the players, specifically the agency to play something other than the game on which they agreed. The difference between that and scene-by-scene or action-by-action railroading isn’t a difference in terms. It’s a difference in scale.
When we talk about scale, we usually differentiate between the macro-level and the micro-level. Macro scale is top-down, looking at the broad picture, and micro scale is bottom-up, looking at specific actors. For example, macroeconomics considers the economy at large, like how the government affects the market or how inflation grows, and microeconomics considers how a specific person or company within the economy manages money, including making purchases as a result of changes in price. A complete picture of anything with scale has to include macro-level, micro-level, and everything in between, and railroading is no exception. Continue reading
One of the greatest sins a DM can commit is railroading. It’s the hallmark of an inexperienced, controlling, or incompetent DM. It hurts players, hurts characters, and hurts campaigns. It’s a dirty word in gaming and an incendiary accusation, and it flies in the face of the stated principles of every gaming system I can think of.
Or, at least, that’s its common interpretation. While it can be wielded like a bludgeon by an inept DM, it can also be used to enhance a campaign and the game around it. The key is in understanding how much to railroad, when, why, and in what way so it benefits both players and the DM, even when everything is stuck to rails. We have to railroad with Charisma.
Before we get too into how to make railroads interesting enough that players want to stay on the train, we need to define our terms. What is railroading, and if it’s so bad, why is it a thing at all? Continue reading
It’s time to fulfill a promise I made more than a year ago:
Concept: Alternate fear mechanics
Tested in: The Worldwound campaign
What it is: Fear is, appropriately, the scariest affliction in 3E and Pathfinder. Being shaken isn’t so bad, just a -2 penalty on d20 rolls (and weapon damage rolls, which is a weird addition), but being frightened or panicked is devastating. A frightened or panicked character must flee from the source of his fear if fleeing is at all possible. While it’s not as obvious as being paralyzed or petrified or knocked unconscious, this takes the character’s action away from the player just as these rarer ailments do. In fact, it takes away even more actions; a character who is paralyzed for three rounds gets to act on turn four (if he survives), but a frightened character flees for three rounds and has to spend rounds four through six just returning to the fight (again, if he survives—there’s nothing stopping enemies from taking potshots at a running character who can’t retaliate). At higher levels, a character can expend consumable effects, like item powers or spells, to flee, and they remain expended when the fear ends. A moderate-level fear effect that lasts a single round can irreversibly take a teleporting character out of a fight. But unlike paralysis or petrification, moderate-level fear effects are available to PCs and monsters as early as L1. That’s too early to put save-or-dies in everybody’s hands.
We do like the narrative effects of fear, so we haven’t tossed them out entirely. Instead, with our house rules a frightened character can take either the normal effects of the status ailment or a -4 penalty to d20 rolls (and weapon damage rolls). A panicked character can optionally take a -6 penalty to the same rolls. A character must make this choice when they first suffer the effect; they cannot flee for two rounds then convert the effects to a d20 penalty or vice versa. This means a player remains in full control of a frightened or panicked character, but the fear still imposes a significant consequence. Continue reading