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Author Topic: (when) Improv is railroading  (Read 1255 times)

Eric Diaz

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #30 on: January 12, 2022, 10:25:41 AM »
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.

I think you're onto something here.

Maybe we could define illusionism as  "A term for styles where the GM has control over the a situation (event, NPC, die roll, etc.), by a variety of means, and the players are not aware (or expecting) that the GM has this kind of control."

So, in your example, the PCs are aware that the DM is doing it. But if you fudge a roll, the players aren't aware.

If you all agree that the DM can fudge rolls, it is not illusionism; there is no illusion. The players are expecting this. This is okay.

If you enter a random town, it is expected that the GM can control waht kind of town it is, etc. The GM is not expected to have everything written down beforehand.
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tenbones

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #31 on: January 12, 2022, 10:39:49 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.

/Natural 20


tenbones

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #32 on: January 12, 2022, 10:57:23 AM »
I wanna weigh in here - because it's a very good post and there are a lot of good points being thrown around.

I look at this problem of "Railroading", "Illusionism" as two stages of inevitable growth of being a GM. GMing requires some level of autonomy and agency in its own right - but we rarely talk about it. Most GM's that are relatively new to GMing start with published adventures and I'd say most do not go beyond that point.

Those that hit the top-end of only using published adventures are the ones that want, or are forced because of adventurous players exercising their own player-agency, to go off-roading from the prescribed "path". Invariably these become the Railroaders. And yes, it's a silly skillset unto itself where you learn to finagle players back onto the proscribed path. The degree of hamfistedness is the line between Railroading or Illusionism.

THIS IS BASIC GMING. This is not skilled GMing. This is not the kind of GMing that will run for multi-year campaigns. This is noobcake-to-low-middle-tier GMing skills in practice.

GMing agency requires that you are a fan of the PC's. This doesn't mean you favor them. It means they *are* the stars of the show. And it means that your setting is the unknown PC that lives and breathes with your PC's. It has it's own set of rules filled with NPC's that engage the stars of the show without getting in the way of the PC's agency. And where those two conflict? That's where the game is played.

The idea of improv-as-railroad is true only if the GM in question doesn't understand these principles in practice. This is the hallmark of a GM that doesn't *want* their PC's to enact their own agency in the game. They're passively or actively GMing from a position of being and adversary to the PLAYERS - not the PC's.

GMing is a dance. And that dance requires partners in the affair - the Players. The tacit agreement is We're Playing Together. This requires trust, to boldface say "Improv is Railroading" implies that the GM has not earned the trust of his players. And why is that? Improv is a tool. It's the tool that lets you procedurally color in the paths not painted for you by some other author of your world. That's a skill to be cultivated not shunned.

1) The Players are the STARS of the show.
2) You can kill the Stars of the show.
3) The GM is not passive in the world. The World works according to its own internal logic and the GM is Prime Mover of that logic.

The caveat to this is that these principles are what I use for Sandbox play. But these principles absolutely work for published adventures and one shots.

S'mon

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #33 on: January 12, 2022, 10:57:41 AM »
Though many published adventures have enough bad illusions all around that you need to tweak them to make game working anyway.

I stick with location-based published adventures, not plotted adventures. NPC actions such as orcs raiding the village tend to be either randomly generated or GM fiat. If the adventure says "the village may be destroyed while the PCs are away" I'll make some rolls to see if it is attacked and what the outcome is, taking into account PC activity.

rytrasmi

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #34 on: January 12, 2022, 11:10:59 AM »
Revisiting my previous argument, we mostly consider it acceptable for GMs to "balance" encounters when writing before hand. Even if they want to calibrate the balance to easy, average, hard, and run-away! What if the GM makes an error in planning and only discovers that error in real time during play? Is it wrong to correct errors?
GM error is often really player error. If the enemy was stronger than the GM planned, the players still get to choose to fight it or not. The players make the choices, so errors are on them. If the goblin camp was supposed to have 10 goblins but I just described 100 goblins, I have two choices: 1) rewind and correct or 2) run with it. If I run with it, the players get the chance to come up with a creative solution. If they stupidly charge in because of balance, that's their error.

I prefer to use two terms to describe my DM’g style: 1) Schrodinger’s Goblin and 2) Object Oriented Roleplaying

1) Schrodinger’s Goblin is an paradox. I have no idea if there is a goblin behind the door until the players open it. It doesn’t matter if it was planned to be there or not. The players don’t care either, because until it happens it didn’t exist before hand. Just because something is planned or unplanned doesn’t make it valid or invalid. You are not cheating the players if they don’t know. I am not cheating myself as DM.

2) Object Oriented Roleplaying is exactly what it sounds like. When required a process is run by me that determines what the output in the game is. The process doesn’t matter, it’s a black box for all intents and purposes. It could be a random table, an encounter pulled from another module, or made up on the spot.

Bottom Line: improv or planned doesn’t really matter.
Concerning Schrodinger’s Goblin, I'd argue that is does matter. The goblin got there somehow. He had a reason to be there and a trajectory to getting there. If his presence contradicts something else, your players will eventually notice. Maybe not with this goblin, but with the next.

"You are not cheating the players if they don’t know." - You're overestimating your abilities. Players are smart and notice a lot. Give them some credit. They will usually go along with it, but don't fool yourself into thinking you're some genius who's crafting perfect illusions. Illusionists always overestimate their abilities. It's a little arrogant to be honest.

Ruprecht

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #35 on: January 12, 2022, 12:26:18 PM »
Personally I don't think the quantum ogre is necessarily bad.  Yeah, blasphemy I know.
Recycling things makes it easier on the GM, as long as that Ogre isn't boring and the players aren't forced into the fight its not much different then having identical encounters in both locations. Players are unaware of most of what's going on behind the GM screen and wouldn't be aware of the quantum ogres movements anyway.
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Omega

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #36 on: January 12, 2022, 12:35:04 PM »
Quote
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.

In Character. The types of players who are obsessed with "muh immershun!" not normal sane immersion. But loony fringe stuff more oft than not. For a few its borderline, or full on, method acting. And for others its more like a psychoses far as Im concerned. And very often they will call for, or demand, the removal of rules or systems. Gradually trying to whittle a game down to storygaming, then just storytelling as anything else gets in the way of "muh immershun!"

Railroads demand rails and sometimes its one or more players who try to force everyone else onto their rails.

And hate to burst your bubble. But Storygamers all too often fall into railroading of one form or another. I've seen it time and again. And seen worse from them in the form of rampant abuse of sessions.

S'mon

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #37 on: January 12, 2022, 12:42:17 PM »
Personally I don't think the quantum ogre is necessarily bad.  Yeah, blasphemy I know.
Recycling things makes it easier on the GM, as long as that Ogre isn't boring and the players aren't forced into the fight its not much different then having identical encounters in both locations. Players are unaware of most of what's going on behind the GM screen and wouldn't be aware of the quantum ogres movements anyway.

I think it's a technique that (unlike railroading) can be good, but needs to be used carefully - and preferably in small doses. If you prep a tower with an ogre and place it in front of the PCs, in principle that's fine. But you need to be careful not to slip into railroading, where the PCs MUST go in that damn tower!

Wrath of God

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #38 on: January 12, 2022, 12:51:18 PM »
Quote
"You are not cheating the players if they don’t know." - You're overestimating your abilities. Players are smart and notice a lot. Give them some credit. They will usually go along with it, but don't fool yourself into thinking you're some genius who's crafting perfect illusions. Illusionists always overestimate their abilities. It's a little arrogant to be honest.

Some do, some don't. Depends of skill. And assumptions players are smart is... well also wastly overestimating.

Quote
In Character. The types of players who are obsessed with "muh immershun!" not normal sane immersion. But loony fringe stuff more oft than not. For a few its borderline, or full on, method acting. And for others its more like a psychoses far as Im concerned. And very often they will call for, or demand, the removal of rules or systems. Gradually trying to whittle a game down to storygaming, then just storytelling as anything else gets in the way of "muh immershun!"

Railroads demand rails and sometimes its one or more players who try to force everyone else onto their rails.

And hate to burst your bubble. But Storygamers all too often fall into railroading of one form or another. I've seen it time and again. And seen worse from them in the form of rampant abuse of sessions.

I mean games I consider to belong to SG movement/tradition are IMHO vastly opposed to "muh immersion" movement. Immersionists were generally anti-mechanic. Storygames mechanicised narrative elements, for Immersion crowd that's anathema as it take them out of character. Because purpose of SG mechanics is not immersion but keeping ongoing narrative withing genre batch.
Therefore it will cause things happen that are suitable for given genre.

Improvised storytelling is opposite of storygaming, and storygaming movement is like probably godfather of whole "system matters" mentality. They were first to ditch "golden rule" and claiming if you homerule you're not playing this game anymore.

I mean sure you can ditch it for ego-trip and intimidating other players in GM, but it's generally against foundations of whole game design/playstyle philosophy that is called storygames nowadays.
So it's like using simmilar abusive players as argument against classical style.

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Shrieking Banshee

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #39 on: January 12, 2022, 01:11:38 PM »
Well Id say the quantum ogre/ illusionism is railroading. It may be organic, but it still is. You can defend it for myriad legitimate reasons, but to say its not railroading is denying the truth of the matter.

Because I think all good GMs take the events into their own hands sometimes.

Like there is also 'un-quantum' boredom. Where there are 3 rooms and an ogre is in one of them, but the other two rooms may have just nothing noteworthy in them. So your session has just large periods of nothing happening and afterwards everybody is left unsatisfied.

But you can let them open the room and just skim saying it has nothing of note and you find nothing of note there.
« Last Edit: January 12, 2022, 01:15:05 PM by Shrieking Banshee »

rytrasmi

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #40 on: January 12, 2022, 01:14:06 PM »
Quote
"You are not cheating the players if they don’t know." - You're overestimating your abilities. Players are smart and notice a lot. Give them some credit. They will usually go along with it, but don't fool yourself into thinking you're some genius who's crafting perfect illusions. Illusionists always overestimate their abilities. It's a little arrogant to be honest.

Some do, some don't. Depends of skill. And assumptions players are smart is... well also wastly overestimating.

Yeah, well, who's to know for certain? Only the player. A GM that thinks he knows everything his players are thinking is fooling himself.

Personally I don't think the quantum ogre is necessarily bad.  Yeah, blasphemy I know.
Recycling things makes it easier on the GM, as long as that Ogre isn't boring and the players aren't forced into the fight its not much different then having identical encounters in both locations. Players are unaware of most of what's going on behind the GM screen and wouldn't be aware of the quantum ogres movements anyway.
I dunno man. I've sat there as GM watching my players sweat over a decision and carefully plan for what they think might happen. 5, 10, 15 minutes of discussion and some careful prep to go down path A or B. I can't sit there with a clear conscious the whole time knowing all this discussion and effort makes no difference because paths A and B are the same. It would feel dirty.
« Last Edit: January 12, 2022, 02:06:17 PM by rytrasmi »

Ruprecht

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #41 on: January 12, 2022, 03:31:09 PM »
It's only really dirty if you make a big deal about one path and then move that encounter to the option that was assumed to be easier. If they are just two roads, one is faster but you'll be seen by enemy spies while the other is slower but you'll be unseen, it doesn't matter that the ogre appears along both. Assuming he's not the boss monster or something. Most of the time travelling to get to the adventure is a hassle designed to make it appear the location isn't next to town where everyone would have picked it clean long ago. I understand the need but I'm not gonna spend a lot of time on it. Instead it's a better planned random encounter.

if the travel is a serious part of the adventure that *could* be a lot different.
« Last Edit: January 12, 2022, 03:32:47 PM by Ruprecht »
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tenbones

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #42 on: January 12, 2022, 03:41:32 PM »
I think there is a "fear" that new GM's go through - the fear of being caught off guard, of not having the answers or response to a player's actions.


You know the truth of it is that it's all a learning process. Overcoming that fear of the GMing chair is learning to overcome that fear of "loss of control" or failure, or whatever,  and it's also about cultivating the desire to do a "better" game. And I find learning good basic principles about GMing and making a better game removes that fear, and it also, uncoincidentally, removes "railroading" and "Quantum-Ogres" off the table.

Seriously, making great campaigns requires work. Whether that means work in learning how to GM well - which includes Improv, or doing whatever is "good prep" for you, it takes effort. It *seems* effortless when you have a lot of experience, which a lot of my players assume about me and other GM's of my vintage. But that's because they don't understand the work and effort put in to develop the skills we possess. And it's never perfect. It's NEVER EVER perfect.

Improv is just a paintbrush - how well you use it and to what end is up to you. Lets be real - someone that "railroads" their games is going to do it *regardless* of whether they Improv or not. I actually think learning to Improv, and do it well, may lead to freeing one from the Railroad if they put some of that imagination into it.

Of course I also think nothing gets Rookie GM's to be Journeyman GM's than having Veteran GM's around.

Opaopajr

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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #43 on: January 13, 2022, 12:41:00 AM »
tendbones, I like how you are placing these on a spectrum of discipline growth. Instead of an antagonistic "one true way" opposition, this organization is an invitation to new GMs to improve their game. Sort of like how Bob Ross gives such an inviting, relaxed aire that removes self-doubt and dogmatic defensiveness with his "Happy little trees," and "No mistakes, just happy little accidents."

We all had campaign struggles and this is sharing what we've learned to avoid (or at least forgive oneself) in the future. The blog writer is sharing a trick to keep harmony at their table. But we are challenging that advice from the perspective of "can you grow further as a performer without the shortcut of easy appeasement?" All disciplines have higher heights to explore, so sharing and learning techniques -- and understanding their limitations -- helps us make new vistas of shared imagination.
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Re: Improv is railroading
« Reply #44 on: January 13, 2022, 12:48:32 AM »
Yes, growing pains are a part of getting better at something and sometimes there is way too much aversion to experiencing those pains
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