Monday, 7 January 2019

Something about railroading for Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel

Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel wanted something about Railroading.

Jorge, what on earth can I say about this that has not already been said - in the long complex discussions of the Quantum Ogre, and in other places? (I’m really sorry but I couldn’t work out anything actually good to say so this is kind of a crappy mashwork post.)

DCO and MotBM have an expected 'end scene' of climax and if you don't reach it or experience it then you are not getting the hoped for experience.

Silent Titans has things you need to do, byt you can do them in any order and it has advice for putting together an end scene if it looks like the players need one.

But the possibility of not getting to 'the end' exists in all of those adventures and is part of the drive of running and playing them.

"Thing find their meanings in their end." - I wrote that ages ago. I'm not sure if its true. Meaning often seems like a spiderweb reaching across different elements and qualities of experience, with many paradoxes within it.

No human can simulate a world in enough depth to provide the theoretically-infinite possibilities of D&D.

In reality the size, depth and texture of the imagined world is decided by the Dm's imagination, memory, creativity and attention, and by the meta-cognitive tools of preparation like books, maps, notes etc. And by the questions, impulses and knowledge of the players.

A big problem with OSR 'theory' is that there is too much to say. Any statement or rule could be 'wrong' in certain situations.

I'm going nowhere with this. I'm going to turn the question into a post I possibly can write;

How Do You Know When You Are Robbing The Players?

1. Facefall after you reveal too much behind the curtain. In one game a long time ago the players seemed to enjoy a particular part and I told them outright that I made it up there and then.

They did not seem happy and we lost a lot of energy. I have tried to never make the same mistake again. From that point on, long-planned elements and crap I just came up with have blended together with the players (hopefully) none the wiser.

2. They haven't surprised you in a while. If they are exercising agency then players will usually do something odd every half hour or so.

3. You are bending geography known to you, if not to them. Places that haven't been determined yet are ok to shift around a little, but anywhere with a settled location, especially if it’s written down, really shouldn't move after that.

4. Things aren't awkward. There are no long wait followed by desperate hurryups, no weird obsessive tangents, no endless pressing at things that won't move, no irritating or forgotten things and no surprising ultrarapid successes. Free people tend to progress in staccato bursts. Smoothness is suspicious.

5. A Lack of Loose Ends. *Everything gets re-integrated. *Everything means something continually.*

6. A 1 or a 20 won't seriously challenge a PC/NPC relationship, if even only briefly. NPCs who can't be offended or others who can't be persuaded, are a bad sign.

7. No game-breaking. If that crap they brought through from that LotFP game, or that cheesy spell exploit they've been over-using gets nullified *without in-game reason*, then that’s not good. of course if the _PC's_ over-use the same tools and the _NPC's_ adapt, then that's quite another thing.

8. If the end comes early and it isn't the end.

Bad situations - Villain had yet another escape route/was a Doombot*. There is a conspiracy beyond the conspiracy. There is an end monster beyond the end monster.

Good Versions - Turn the end of the game into dealing with complex in-world consequences of unexpected victory. Skipping time forwards until shifts in the power balance after the PCs victory produce new problems. Just straight up ending the session "I got nothing left. You have won."

Ways to Get People Unstuck, or at least Going Somewhere, without Railroading;

1. Leading description to useful info, mixed with general description of the physical world.

2. 'Your *character* would know...' or "My character sits and thinks, does this remind them of anything?

You can't give direct answers or specific information but you can guide thought a better direction.

3. The Sly Wink for *negative* info only. i.e. players become obsessed with searching a castle, convinced secret is there. There is actually nothing there.

"You search for a week until your characters, *and you*, are *sure* [WINK] the place is empty."

4. Return active elements - someone looking for them or following them turns up with useful or at least interesting info. This is better if there is someone they have met, interacted with  or at least herd of, who has a sound reason for turning up.

I think the main thing you are trying to do is to find subtle or less-evident aspects of play or the imagined world which will help people, not find the answer, but re-orient the way they think, the direction of their intuitions and analysis, so they can get out of a rut and go *somewhere*.

*(As an example of my state of mind right now, immediately after this I went into mild fugue and sketched out a brief pitch for a Marvel series about a broken Doombot that gains sentience, works out it is a robot and starts editing its own programming.)


  1. Thank you!

    I think I have done many of the things mentioned here, but having them consciously though of is very helpful. Point 5 specially resonates in me. In my novel, I deliberately left many loose ends to represent real life stuff (you make plans with friends and these never are put to practice and you never talk about it), I think that something I need to do more on the game.

    Last night happened the good version of point 8. The PCs defeated the monster and the players mentioned it was a short session; we had time to buy tacos and add XP and run a little epilogue and roll on the rumours table. It was good.

    I have used rumours and "suddenly, you remember that..." to get players/characters unstuck, those work but feel implausible after a while. The options you provide add new ways to do it.

    Thank you, it was very illustrative.

  2. What are your thoughts on suggesting possibilities for future progress? I often end a session by asking what players plan to do next. This helps guide my prep. My players can be very indecisive and so I often suggest possibilities.

    Example: You could head north to find out whether the dragon is telling the truth about the source of the undead, or you could head to town to get back in time for the trial or you could do something else.

    I am genuinely fine with whatever else, but I wonder whether giving possibilities constricts the players' ability to conceive alternatives. The thing is, the questions help me so much in terms of preparation.

    1. I almost always ask for a general idea of what they want to do , in a similar way, and I also end any options given in an open way, hopefully asking them to narrow down themselves rather than just giving them a set series of isolated options.

      Just going 'what are you feeling like doing next session?' or 'Do you have any plans?' works out pretty well.

      The players and I both know the other has limited cognitive capacity so there is a kind of mutual conspiracy in which they stay within the unstated boundaries of stuff that I have probably prepared, in a somewhat fuzzy way, as they know if they go off somewhere else there are levels of organisation they won't be getting.

      However, its odd that the lines almost have to be unstated, or largely unstated. It has to be a fuzzy boundary and it always has to be possible that they game could loop out of it, which sometimes happens.

      One of the things that happens as players and DM get used to each other is they get familiar with each others cognitive patterns and abilities, each holding a model of the others mind & thinking ways, and both are re-assessing or managing what 'freedom' means in reference to the others assumed capacities and nature.

    2. Mutual conspiracy is a good way of putting it. I think it accurately describes the way players and GMs learn to adapt to each other to maintain suspension of disbelief. The idea of limited cognitive capacity on the part of GM isn't touched upon often but for me it's a key element that immensely affects how I run. Little things like lag time and looking up setting details or rules have outsize effects on my players. Reducing cognitive load is one major reason I'm attracted to simpler rulesets. Thanks for addressing this concept.

      In the future I think I'll stick to open questions first unless the players seem utterly nonplussed.

  3. The things I've learned as a DM match well with what you're saying. What emerges at the table (or in the chatroom, I guess) will never be your vision of the game--and if it is, something is going wrong. Lively, creative and engaged players will throw things at you and twist your imagined landscape in ways you could never have expected. Dull ones tend to give you that awful "read me a story, daddy" feeling. It's a fine balance because it's very easy for one side or the other to get too opposed--"do my adventure"; "never, by god." The game is like a combustion engine--it needs constant explosions to keep going, but the pieces have to run through their motions without grating or banging into each other.