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Author Topic: (when) Improv is railroading  (Read 1428 times)

Lunamancer

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #15 on: January 11, 2022, 09:46:34 PM »
"Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome".

One of my favorite beginnings to a module ever is the one in Dance of the Fairie Rings. Spoilers ahead. The first choice players face is decide which way to go at a fork in the road, the high road or the low road. But if the players take the high road, they find themselves arriving at the same fork in the road. Again and again, each time they take the high road, they keep ending up back on the fork in the road until they take the low road. If that isn't enough, prior to the fork in the road, the "flavor text" that begins the adventure has an old man warning the PCs to avoid the low road.

I think there are a few vital things that separate this from being a railroad.

It's not sneaky. It's in your face. The GM isn't trying hide it.
How easy would it have been to give a straight road with no fork? Why present a choice and not honor it?
For that matter, why were PCs instructed to do something they wouldn't be allowed to do?
And all this adds up to make players feel as though there's some mystery afoot rather than they're being railroaded.
It creates more intrigue than frustration.

By being blatant, I think it makes it clear that you aren't being railroaded by the GM. It's some in-game force that's messing with you. There's some enemy to defeat.

Now for the rare bird who nonetheless does feel railroaded and frustrated by this, there's another surprise. That your annoyance is not justified by the facts because your choice at this fork in the road actually does matter. For it is some NPC that's doing it. The NPC is the prisoner of a dragon, and this is the NPC's way of getting heroes to help. And each time the NPC has to transport the PCs back to the fork in the road, more of that NPC's energy is sapped. And the less energy the NPC has to aid the PCs in confronting the dragon. The longer it takes you to recognize the low road is the solution, the slower you are to adapt, the more reluctant you are to embrace adventure, in other words, the poorer your choices, the less advantaged you are. Isn't that exactly what we expect out of player agency?



My takeaways here.
Reserve judgment regarding railroading. Reserve judgement by a lot.
Railroading isn't railroading when it's an NPC doing. All the railroading GM needs to do to make his or her beautiful plot kosher is hand over the puppeteer strings to an NPC.
NPC villain masterminds, to the degree that they are effective, can rob players of agency. There is no sacred right to agency, other than the existentialist choice to decide what sort of prisoner you will be. Everything else you've got to earn.

Opaopajr

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #16 on: January 12, 2022, 02:03:03 AM »
Railroading is forcing people down a track they don't want to go. The stuff you discuss is mostly bad practice, and may be used to railroad, but is not railroading per se.

I agree. What is being described in ryatrami's OP I think of more as Illusionism. Illusionism meaning "it was that way all along!", e.g. Schroedinger's Orcs "They were always behind door number [whatever the player's select]."

A little of on the fly world creation goes a long way, so when I am in the middle of things I prefer to let the randomness to decide. Bias is easy to slip into (either for or against players, conscious or subconscious) and I am struggling to not only be fair, but also keep the appearance of fairness. One of my offers to the players for their trust and our shared suspended disbelief is to prepare beforehand and 'let it ride' (gambling euphemism) during as best as I can.
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S'mon

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #17 on: January 12, 2022, 03:18:12 AM »
2 - Railroading - you guys are right, railroading is not the term I'm looking for, But railroading is and agency-stealer like the examples I mention. Is agency-stealer a better name? Or maybe illusionism (another railroad tool)?

Illusionism is giving players the illusion of choice while negating it in practice. So yes it is closer to what you are talking about. Moving the adventure location to the PC location is illusionism. It's only railroading if the players are trying to avoid the adventure. Just-in-time procedural content generation is 'improv' but is not 'illusionism', especially if player choice determines eg which table gets rolled on (hill encounters vs forest encounters, say).

IME running a sandbox there is inevitably a mix of pre-created and just-in-time content generation, this doesn't make the sandbox a railroad or illusionist.

S'mon

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #18 on: January 12, 2022, 03:30:22 AM »
Thinking about it, I do tend to agree with the OP that using published material can be good practice to avoid illusionism. I like to buy a f-ton of short published adventures and seed them around my sandbox. The players are typically aware of at least several possibilities for adventure at any one time, and can decide where to go and what to do.

Of course some player groups would really rather just be told what to do, and would prefer a linear series of balanced encounters to the risk of taking on more than they can handle.

Wrath of God

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #19 on: January 12, 2022, 03:36:40 AM »
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Actually Railroading can and is performed by players as well on the DM. This came up a year or two ago along the lines of a player declaring they find a shotgun behind a bar. Not roll for to see if anythings there, or the DM saying anything. The player just poofed it into existence. That is a player railroading the DM.

And I've seen far far far far too much of where one player forces an action on another players character.

What I've seen all too often is that its the IC fanatics and storygamers that cause the most trouble with these stunts.

What is IC fanatics? I mean what is IC, I do not recognize this shortcut.
But generally I'd still disagree. Railroad demand certain rails. It generally is term assuming GM has well long term plans and will push or trick players into following strict narrative for long time, at least adventure. So I'd not call fudging one random encounter to be one.

And storygames are different batch. First they generally try to avoid specific rails (while enforcing genre rails, which make doing un-genre stuff generally not important), but yes they ditch rigid setting and give players some elements of power over world itself. Alas you still have to roll well for some weird move to get this shotgun, you cannot just easily wish it, and it has to be a game that assume finding weapons wherever is something we're doing (like some postapocalyptic shooter game or whatever). Simmilarily if mechanics allow you to force other players to do something (which tbh is way much older problem of using social skills in PVP mode), it's still matter of chance, and roll. And quite commonly other players have their own moves to use to force you to do something. So no, with dispersion of narrative power, and such weird stunts being based on rolls, I'd say it's hard to call it railroad. Railroad assumes result is known before you start playing.
(Especially if you botch roll that would give you this shotgun, then mechanics usually demands something bad happen - rolls in those games usually demands something good or bad happens, never mere miss.)

Then alas if you play game derived from PBTA and you clutch to rigid setting you're playing it wrong.

I'd rather say "player railroading" is something that can happen in what's calling OP-style, usually on more traditional games, well nowadays mostly on 5e, where one player hijinks games, and sort of forces GM and other to tag along because he has this plan of character arc, 20-pages backstory, and he needs to fullfill those, if there is to be fun. There is see danger of player-centric equivalent of GM-railroading.

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Now for the rare bird who nonetheless does feel railroaded and frustrated by this, there's another surprise. That your annoyance is not justified by the facts because your choice at this fork in the road actually does matter. For it is some NPC that's doing it. The NPC is the prisoner of a dragon, and this is the NPC's way of getting heroes to help. And each time the NPC has to transport the PCs back to the fork in the road, more of that NPC's energy is sapped. And the less energy the NPC has to aid the PCs in confronting the dragon. The longer it takes you to recognize the low road is the solution, the slower you are to adapt, the more reluctant you are to embrace adventure, in other words, the poorer your choices, the less advantaged you are. Isn't that exactly what we expect out of player agency?

I can see it being frustrating. TBH I'd probably add caveat that after dunno 3d6 transporting of players back, prisoner faints from expending to much mana, and is eaten by dragon, and dragon later become powerful enough to terrorise whole country, while players simply move on.

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My takeaways here.
Reserve judgment regarding railroading. Reserve judgement by a lot.
Railroading isn't railroading when it's an NPC doing. All the railroading GM needs to do to make his or her beautiful plot kosher is hand over the puppeteer strings to an NPC.
NPC villain masterminds, to the degree that they are effective, can rob players of agency. There is no sacred right to agency, other than the existentialist choice to decide what sort of prisoner you will be. Everything else you've got to earn.

That I generally agree, though of course numbers of players hating such solutions is quite high.

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A little of on the fly world creation goes a long way, so when I am in the middle of things I prefer to let the randomness to decide. Bias is easy to slip into (either for or against players, conscious or subconscious) and I am struggling to not only be fair, but also keep the appearance of fairness. One of my offers to the players for their trust and our shared suspended disbelief is to prepare beforehand and 'let it ride' (gambling euphemism) during as best as I can.

I must say I simply enjoy certain dose of randomness as GM, though I'm unfortunately not that good in executing it myself :(

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Illusionism is giving players the illusion of choice while negating it in practice. So yes it is closer to what you are talking about. Moving the adventure location to the PC location is illusionism. It's only railroading if the players are trying to avoid the adventure. Just-in-time procedural content generation is 'improv' but is not 'illusionism', especially if player choice determines eg which table gets rolled on (hill encounters vs forest encounters, say).

IME running a sandbox there is inevitably a mix of pre-created and just-in-time content generation, this doesn't make the sandbox a railroad or illusionist.

Yes. I think it's good take. I mean let's say you want player meet team of assassins send for them - they can move all around map, and will catch to them eventually, no matter where player move (though of course environment may change how encounter will look like, so still choice of players to move north instead south can matter.)

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Thinking about it, I do tend to agree with the OP that using published material can be good practice to avoid illusionism. I like to buy a f-ton of short published adventures and seed them around my sandbox. The players are typically aware of at least several possibilities for adventure at any one time, and can decide where to go and what to do.

Though many published adventures have enough bad illusions all around that you need to tweak them to make game working anyway.
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Gog to Magog

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #20 on: January 12, 2022, 06:23:59 AM »
I'm going to be answering this all from my own perspective as a DM that runs 100% sandbox utilizing improvisation and random generation along to create content and to eliminate as much bias as possible

I tried to make this point a while ago in my blog. Will not link it here because I am not sure I was clear enough (probably not, got a lot of flak on reddit), so I'll try again from a different angle.

This time, I'd like to discuss this before publishing. I'm very one to adverse opinions on this

Here is the idea: sometimes, improvisation (of places, NPCs, events, etc.) leads to railroading (or quantum ogres and similar things), and sticking to a published (or pre-written) material is a great defense against this.

This is absolutely correct. Improvisation is often a pathway to railroading.

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Why?

Let's start with three propositions.

- The GM must present an internally coherent setting for the PCs to interact and explore.
- The GM must believe in the authenticity of the setting as much as the players.
- The GM should not alter the realities of the setting (at least not DURING PLAY) to accommodate, entertain, defy, reward or punish players, but only because of things that happen WITHIN the setting. In other words, the setting is defined by PCs and NPCs and not about GM and players.

I am 100% on board with all of this and this is how I present my games to players. I've explained my method of gaming as 'interface DMing' before where I am functionally the video game system through which the players are experiencing the setting essentially using their characters as their 'controls'. As DM I am as invisible as possible. I am not a wizard behind a curtain creating an illusion...I'm simply relating things to the players as an intermediary.

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I have just watched a video from a popular creator (whom I like) with these kinds of advice:

1. "If the players mention they suspect an innocent person, maybe you can decide that now HE is the culprit!"

This robs players of agency as it takes away the potential results of their actions. I don't like this. It robs the mystery of being a mystery because the answer is quantum.

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2. "Fudge your die rolls or HP if the encounter proves too difficult".

Also bad for the same reason. It robs players of the results of their actions. Running is VERY often an action and my players have taken it before. No shame in that. This is also why I roll the majority of my rolls right out in the open.

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3. "If a player rolls very well when searching for something that isn't there, maybe it is!"

This actually WOULD be good advice if it was "maybe SOMETHING is there"...because it's reasonable for a very good search result to find SOMETHING (even if it isn't directly related to why they were searching). As written, this is just another quantum-solution problem as #1.

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4. "If the players are talking too much, throw an encounter at them".

This is just garbage advice in general due to how vague it is. When my players are talking amongst each other, it is usually the BEST possible situation because it means they are thinking and interacting with each other and puzzling out what to do in a productive way. This COULD be okay advice if the players are doing this in character and time is passing in an area that is dangerous.

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Now, I can see this might be cool for some styles of play, but it shouldn't be "general D&D advice" IMO.

Number 1 is the classic example of "improv". But it completely devalues any mystery, any clues you throw at the PCs.

Number 2 will make the players believe they can win any encounter, or worse, they can win any encounter if you let them. It removes player agency.

Numbers 3 and 4, again, make the setting feel artificial - as if responding to what players, not PCs, do. Notice that number 3 is a thing that could happen in Dungeon World, for example (IIRC), but DW at least assign consequences for failing your search roll - otherwise, everyone would be searching for treasure everywhere.

Number 4 deserves a caveat: IF the PCs are in a dungeon where you roll for random encounters every 30 minutes, and the players talk for 30 minutes in-character, you should obviously ROLL for random encounters. Likewise, if someone would hear them, etc.

I like that I didn't read your response and we came to the same conclusions. Agreed on all counts.

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How to AVOID all these things? Use a published adventure, or write your own.

If you follow it to the letter, without improvising, you cannot execute any of the four advices mentioned above.

(BTW, having a plot telling you what happens if the PCs do nothing will help you tremendously)

When to improvise, then?

You often need to improvise to find out how the NPCs reacts to the PCs.

You also need to improvise to find out things about the setting you hadn't established before. But when you do so, answer your own questions using the setting's internal logic, not the necessities of the players or the "plot".

For example, the player asks, "can I full plate armor in this town?".

Ask yourself "how big is this town?", not "how bad does the PC need this for the next adventure".

You do not change inanimate things and past events because the PCs had an idea, desire, or particular die roll (unless, again, the PC could change the world in such way with his or her actions).

This is not the ONLY way to play RPGs, mind you; if you like to see the DM as some kind of entertainer, for example, adding stuff on the fly can be great (I'd still be honest about it with my players when the campaign starts).

I'd argue, however, that the way I'm defending above is the traditional way of playing RPGs (DM as referee), and that it is useful to make this distinction if you are  advocating the contrary - at least so people can try both ways and see what they prefer.

This is all true, however the weakness of a pre-published adventure is that a left turn when the adventure only has adventure along the right turn means that you may be stuck discarding the rest of the adventure...or contriving ways to get them back on those rails because the published adventure has an assumed plot.

For my part, I just create events going on and set them to timers where I roll for potential outcomes (including no change at all) and off they go. The players do as they please, interact with what they want and I do not presuppose any particular plot.
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Gog to Magog

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #21 on: January 12, 2022, 06:26:44 AM »
2 - Railroading - you guys are right, railroading is not the term I'm looking for, But railroading is and agency-stealer like the examples I mention. Is agency-stealer a better name? Or maybe illusionism (another railroad tool)?

Illusionism is giving players the illusion of choice while negating it in practice. So yes it is closer to what you are talking about. Moving the adventure location to the PC location is illusionism. It's only railroading if the players are trying to avoid the adventure. Just-in-time procedural content generation is 'improv' but is not 'illusionism', especially if player choice determines eg which table gets rolled on (hill encounters vs forest encounters, say).

IME running a sandbox there is inevitably a mix of pre-created and just-in-time content generation, this doesn't make the sandbox a railroad or illusionist.

Entirely agreed with this. I use quite a bit of random generation to create outcomes for player actions. The 'hill encounter vs forest encounter' is a perfect example of that. What I don't do is create something then put it in front of the players no matter if they go left or right since that WOULD be illusionism which invalidates agency. I pre-create some stuff, generate a lot randomly on the fly, etc instead.
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Opaopajr

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #22 on: January 12, 2022, 08:03:48 AM »
I will add that I let the emerging context answer as much as I would coherently surmise before dipping into randomness. So for instance terrain, party posture, and previously said or did things will shape my response. The context, if it narrows things down enough, might even answer the question outright.

But if player creativity goes beyond my preparation and my expectation of coherent consequences then I dip into my bag of relevant random tables and "scry" for new content.

It's not that I am opposed to improvisation. But improvisation is a big topic covering potentially a lot. And subtle favoritisms or routines slip in when in the middle of performing as a GM. To shake up everyone concerned, including myself, I like to fall back on my tables of random stuff safety nets.
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Eric Diaz

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #23 on: January 12, 2022, 08:56:48 AM »
I will add that I let the emerging context answer as much as I would coherently surmise before dipping into randomness. So for instance terrain, party posture, and previously said or did things will shape my response. The context, if it narrows things down enough, might even answer the question outright.

But if player creativity goes beyond my preparation and my expectation of coherent consequences then I dip into my bag of relevant random tables and "scry" for new content.

It's not that I am opposed to improvisation. But improvisation is a big topic covering potentially a lot. And subtle favoritisms or routines slip in when in the middle of performing as a GM. To shake up everyone concerned, including myself, I like to fall back on my tables of random stuff safety nets.

That is short and precise. "Let the emerging context answer" is exactly what I'm looking for.

And yeah, improvisation is a big topic - I think that is why I missed he mark in the thread title; improvisation can mean lots of things.
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Itachi

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #24 on: January 12, 2022, 08:59:13 AM »
Railroading is forcing people down a track they don't want to go. The stuff you discuss is mostly bad practice, and may be used to railroad, but is not railroading per se.
I agree. For railroads to happen there must be pre-planned tracks in place, and what the OP describes lacks them.

It seems more a problem of communication to me. Why the player produced a shotgun out of thin air? If that's how the game in question works then it's not a problem. If not, then why did the GM or group let him do it? Because the player has better social skills and convinced everybody in that occasion? If that's the case then have a conversation with the group after the game so it doesn't happen again. Winging things on the fly ("ok, you find a shotgun behind the counter, what do you do?") can be as interesting/important as enforcing preset scenarios ("no, there is NO shotgun behind the counter, what do you do?") depending on context and group, but when it's taking the fun out of the game for you, then it becomes a problem that should be talked out with your friends.

Eric Diaz

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #25 on: January 12, 2022, 09:05:31 AM »
A few points I'd like to add after taking some advice form my friend jens (http://the-disoriented-ranger.blogspot.com/):

- Past and future - the GM is expect to improv the future but not the past (i.e., who is the real culprit) and not change the rules on the fly (how many HP, what the monster rolled).
- Transparency - if the GM is making up as he goes, the players should know or expect it.*
- Random tables, oracles and arbitrariness - Random tables are not improv. They are written beforehand. Interpreting omens is improv (i.e., the GM rolls "an enemy appears" in a random table) and it is to be expected. Maybe the difference is that the GM is not being arbitrary, but he is bound by pre-existing rules. I wouldn't want the GM to simply decide an enemy appears because the current fight feels too easy.

* one fair caveat is: if the PCs are making up as they go, obviously the GM will do the same.
I.e., if the PCs decide to investigate Lady Bathory, the DM should know in advance if she is the culprit. If they want to enter a random town, however, the GM can just put any town there - it is fair game
« Last Edit: January 12, 2022, 09:08:55 AM by Eric Diaz »
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Itachi

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #26 on: January 12, 2022, 09:14:32 AM »
I find the above points more indicative of group taste or playstyle than any hard rule for RPGs.

- Past and Future. Why can't the GM improvise the past? If the group comes up with a cool hypothesis to solve the case, or if while investigating they give the GM ideas more interesting than what he had planned, why can't the GM adopt their ideas or change his own?

- Transparency. Why must the GM be transparent about what he does in his "backstage"? What does it change if he planned or improvised a plot, NPC or situation? As long as it's coherent and interesting, what's the problem?

- Random tables are not improv. So? If the GM improvizes in a manner that's coherent with what was established in the scene or situation, what's the problem?

Some people are good at improvising while others at planning beforehand. Let them GM/play as it suits them. What matters is if the game at the table is coherent and fun.
« Last Edit: January 12, 2022, 09:41:39 AM by Itachi »

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #27 on: January 12, 2022, 09:31:07 AM »
Agree with Smon's description of Illusionism.  My game is pretty much based on avoiding Illusionism like the plague.  I may or may not railroad depending on my time to prep, but when I do I *always* tell the players outside the game:  "Hey, I'm pretty tired this week, and this is what I have prepared.  Can we all agree that we are going to stick to that today?"  Properly done, a railroad only constrains the large scope player agency.  It doesn't change how they approach the railroad details.  (Also, it helps that even in these cases, the in game situation is usually designed to allow multiple approaches.)

As far as I'm concerned, design and GM judgment happens before the player encounters the thing.  It doesn't matter much whether it was done a month ahead and written in stone or done 5 seconds before they opened the door.  Improvisation is merely design that happens just in time.  But it is still design, and still needs to fit the world.  The question I'm asking when doing improvisation is "How would I have done this a week ago with no particular urgency?"  And then as much as possible, I do that.  No one's perfect, but there is a difference between "you fight the same 5 orcs that I would have put there giving time to think" versus "you fight 5 orcs because you've been having an easy time up until now so that I put in an extra encounter to adjust the difficulty."

Of course, from the player perspective, it can be difficult to tell the difference--except when you run for the same people long enough, you build up trust.  Avoiding Illusionism is how you build up that trust.  Using Illusionism is a nasty negative feedback loop.  However, avoiding it consistently produces a positive feedback loop.

A key element to this from a campaign point of view is that once something is introduced, it's there.  That means when you introduce the rumor of some big monster causing havoc over in the next town, then at the very least you need to decide something consistent with that rumor or decide that the rumor is actually false.  Otherwise, it becomes impossible for the players to plan as the world becomes arbitrary.  Frequently, decisions need to be made "Just in Time" before the door gets opened.
« Last Edit: January 12, 2022, 09:33:44 AM by Steven Mitchell »

Gog to Magog

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #28 on: January 12, 2022, 10:01:18 AM »
let the emerging context answer

Yes!

Wow that's a brilliant and concise way to put it. Entirely agreed. I am going to use that exact phrase in the future. Very well put.
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Eric Diaz

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #29 on: January 12, 2022, 10:13:47 AM »
I find the above points more indicative of group taste or playstyle than any hard rule for RPGs.

- Past and Future. Why can't the GM improvise the past? If the group comes up with a cool hypothesis to solve the case, or if while investigating they give the GM ideas more interesting than what he had planned, why can't the GM adopt their ideas or change his own?

- Transparency. Why must the GM be transparent about what he does in his "backstage"? What does it change if he planned or improvised a plot, NPC or situation? As long as it's coherent and interesting, what's the problem?

- Random tables are not improv. So? If the GM improvizes in a manner that's coherent with what was established in the scene or situation, what's the problem?

Some people are good at improvising while others at planning beforehand. Let them GM/play as it suits them. What matters is if the game at the table is coherent and fun.

Sure, it is a matter of taste.

My objection is saying this stuff as good GM advice without the caveat that, for example, that are people who feel that fudging the dice is cheating. I wouldn't like to play with a DM that fudges dice, I think, and I don't think it is honest if he does one thing and says another. However, if everyone in the table agrees that this is the GMs prerogative I see no problem.
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