Let’s try this again

By Shamus Posted Tuesday May 22, 2007

Filed under: Tabletop Games 100 comments

Some people had great responses to my earlier post on railroading, although a lot of the controversy arose from different interpretations of my hypothetical situations. I think many people were not seeing the heart of the difficulty I was trying to present, perhaps because my examples was too poorly defined. So let’s try to tighten up the definition and see how that changes things.

I have a main villain in my campaign. He’s pretending to be a good guy, and later I have a plot twist where his evil is revealed. He’s a sort of Palpatine character: He seems a little “off”, but not evil, and the players don’t yet have enough information to suspect him as their true foe. His plans are taking shape in the background while the players try to figure things out and dispatch his henchmen.

Then the players go to see him as part of their investigation. A fight breaks out for whatever reason, initiated by the players. They have no idea this is the bad guy, they just know they’re dealing with a bit of a jerk and the conversation gets out of hand. Perhaps they try to threaten information out of him, and he calls what he thinks is a bluff. Perhaps he catches them doing something illegal while conducting their investigation, like spying or swiping documents. Whatever the reason, a fight ensues.

There are only three outcomes I can see:

  1. If I stick to the plan, they will kill the main bad guy and only after the fight would they discover who he was, and that the adventure was over. They accidently won, there was no climax, and all of my plot twists go to waste.
  2. I can brute-force railroad them, by making my bad guy escape, overpower them, or otherwise prevail in a situation where he should have been outmatched. This is “cheating” to most people, and it will not result in happy players.
  3. I can do as I said before: Create a new bad guy, and have this guy be a servant of that greater power. They get the satisfaction of defeating one of his lieutenants, gaining some loot, and moving the plot forward. Tension builds in the story, instead of the whole thing fizzling out.

For those who dislike my style of railroading: How would you approach the given situation? Would you let things fizzle or would you make changes to keep the game going? Is there another option I’m missing?


From The Archives:

100 thoughts on “Let’s try this again

  1. AR says:

    You don’t necessarily have to change things to keep going. People with grand schemes do not exist in a vacuum. Presumably, there are components to whatever evil plan is going on here that do not simply up and disappear when this guy dies. What happens to all that?

  2. AR says:

    Opps, sorry for double post.

    Anyway, in general, this entire problem could be avoided entirely if you remember a simple axiom: if the players didn’t see it, is may or may not have actually been true, as is convenient to the plot. If they didn’t know who he was when they killed him, then for all they know, he wasn’t that person at all. I would hesitate to even call 3 “railroading” at all.

    Interestingly, the most overt case of railroading I’ve ever encountered was a literal railroad track. The job involved hijacking a locomotive, and once you’ve done that your options are, realistically, rather limited…

  3. Dave says:

    The only problem with this approach is that as a player, you don’t want a recurring bad guy that you killed a few months earlier than the DM expected to be just a mid-level flunky (or even a high-level flunky). So I’d shake things up a bit. Sometimes you’ll want the (late) BBEG’s henchman to show a real talent for evil when given the chance to take over the BBEG’s operation courtesy of the PCs. Sometimes another bad guy will move in and take over for the BBEG even though he had nothing to do with the original setup. Etc.

  4. Robert says:

    As the combat begins, there is suddenly a terrible scream from outside. The party is horrified to see (from the window) that some kind of tentacle beast has oozed out of the sewer and is attempting to drag some local children down into the muck. (The scream was a mother seeing this.) The party races outside to save the day. In the confusion, the villain is able to make good his escape.

  5. Robert says:

    Also, unless your party is absolutely bloodthirsty, why couldn’t the villain just throw down his weapon, beg for mercy, and then – having been caught in his crimes or whatever and turned over to the civil authorities – escape to seek revenge, via his already-extant diabolical plan?

  6. 5h4n6 says:

    Hmmm… interesting one…
    I agree with you in that being adaptive is a must when DM’ing a game.
    I can’t say a lot about that because I have only DMd a very informal game, loosely based on Eternal Darkess (a la call of Cthulhu), and it was intended to be only two sessions in length (between some vampire and hengeyokai). But the thing is, I let them choose whatever character & background they wished (for a Chicago 1920s setting), threw in some enemies and hidden places for tension building and (as I had a 70% finished idea of the game’s objectives, final boss and ending) let them choose how to get to the end of the game, what alliances to form and which weapons to use. I remember a monk getting the weapons intended for a professor (a sword) and for a P.I. (enchanted gun) from an undead dean that wasn’t even created for him to confront and were a little plot central, but with some hints and an ominous light appearing in the skies of an old mansion, everything came into place. So, yeah, adjusting and being dynamic allows a DM to have fun with the gamers, and it even adds a little more challenge at creating an universe.

    Oh, btw, in the described scenario I would add something like:
    1. Kill the main enemy and make it seem like an adventure was over, but as they are already packing to somewhere else
    2. Investigation would slowly reveal that something is not quite right, like a seemingly side quest with a loose end, and
    3. Make the worst possible enemy, made from the worst possible fears, come through the least expected way, making the adventure one of apocalyptic proportions (well, maybe a little exaggerated). But the point is, make them seem the despair that the new foe is to the small one like a galaxy versus the moon.

    Happy dicing :D

  7. Cineris says:

    Robert — “…why couldn't the villain just throw down his weapon, beg for mercy…?”

    I refer you to DM of the Rings 36.

  8. Wes says:

    DM of the Rings 36 notwithstanding, I think the idea of having such a shady character “surrender” makes the most sense. Up to this point, the characters think he is a good guy. Surrendering is logical for a good guy who has pressed too many buttons, and the ensuing escape would be an exciting plot point as well (the location where he is being kept gets overrun by some unknown element and the bad guy is “kidnapped”, avoiding blowing his cover).

    Or, the local authorities track the characters down and demand release of this bad guy, who is probably deeply insinuated into the local government.

  9. Telas says:

    If we’re talking D&D, I call a minor “shennanigans”.

    If the PCs discover the BBEG early on, they should get wiped out. If he’s truly the BBEG, he should be powerful enough to take them out if they’re not fully buffed and ready.

    Any decent BBEG should also have an escape plan handy, even if it’s a one-use teleport item that the DM suddenly “remembered”.

    And he will, of course, have all those loyal minio-, er guards down the hall…

    Now, having said all that, I agree that it would be far better for the BBEG to get the hell away than for any of the other options to take place, simply because of continuity. But yes, they’re viable options, too.

    Regarding the “Russian Doll” phenomenon, the manner in which it’s handled is far more important than the actual presence of “a bigger badder eviler guy”. :)

  10. Wes says:

    Ooops, itchy submit finger.

    The key is that the characters are not privy to the “expected flow” of the story. I remember a set of “adventure planning tools” for the 2nd edition AD&D that included a flowchart template for major plot points.

    That flowchart idea allowed for some “choose your own adventure” detours while avoiding totally derailment. Likewise, having a set of side quests handy that can be “dropped in” at most any location is a good thing. These kinds of side quests make the world seem “full” and yet only derail the game for a session or two before returning to the main flow.

    With a flexible plot with contingency paths built in and side quests for those off track days, the only concern is the *really* disruptive group: the one that decides that being the heroes of a story is a distraction to the murder and mayhem they could be causing.

    In those cases I allow the murder and mayhem, and then make it clear that while they were off slaking their thirst for non heroic activities, things back home got a *lot* worse.

    After all, if the “heroes” of the story become agents of evil, then evil *should* win and you can close down the campaign that much sooner: with a “loss” chalked up for the supposed heroes when they find their homelands overrun, their loved ones murdered, enslaved and worse.

    For some reason, that tends to focus the minds for the next campaign.

  11. Jeremiah says:

    Honestly, I don’t see a problem with option #2. He should be super powerful. I’ve been in games where the group I was in made a bad decision, fought some bad-ass and had to retreat or otherwise get the hell out of dodge. That should be a viable option. If your PC’s get to that point and they CAN take him out, then he probably wasn’t powerful anyhow.

    Plus, what big bad doesn’t have a contingency plan? “What, the PC’s are here? Enact plan B now!” and he gets teleported out in a shower of magical sparks.

    I don’t think that just because the group got to that point before you were counting on it means you should give up on the guy and make some story about how he’s some lieutenant. Let him show off how powerful he really is, and once he’s done toying with them, just leave, or find some other way to make it dramatic. I’ve would feel railroaded if I came up against someone that was just plain too powerful for me.

  12. Laithoron says:

    In my own campaign, one of the players is running a highly honorable knight who has made it his goal to protect the helpless no matter the cost to himself “” even if that cost is losing his life against hopeless odds. He doesn’t expect anyone else to share his high ideals and has even instructed the other characters before to leave him behind so that he can ensure their escape. Of course, the other players (being the sympathetic sorts and having characters who would also be sympathetic) aren’t about to let their noble knight martyr himself alone.

    Now the campaign I am running for these fine folks is a published one, “The Red Hand of Doom”. Normally I write my own adventures from scratch but being as part of my goal was to play-test some fairly heavy modifications to the d20 combat system, I needed a good baseline to work from. Now the crux of the adventure is that a huge army is sweeping across the region and the PCs are all that stand between life and death for the inhabitants of the two major cities based there. While it is never intended for the party to try and fight the whole army en masse, provisions are certainly made for those who are brazen or foolish enough to try. (Most of which lead to rather inevitable capture or death of some or all of the party.)

    Now given the huge investiture of time myself and all of the players put into their characters, a TPK isn’t what any of us would consider a good time. Furthermore, matters of karma, spirituality and responsible leadership are of interest to a number of players in the group as they are to me.

    In one instance, the party knows that the army is rolling up on the town they’ve been based out of and they’ve made all the delaying actions they can. Most of the townsfolk have evacuated and some NPCs are shepherding the stragglers on their way. Yet sometimes players *think* that what they are there to do is to always engage the enemy no-matter-what. Had the party stuck around to fight, there’s the chance that they might have finally run (once they realized they were severely outmatched) but more likely they’d have all died heroic but ultimately pointless deaths and the people they were trying to protect would simply be wiped out a few weeks later. Given the knight’s vows to protect the weak (the party looks to that player’s character as the leader) he would have essentially failed in his duties to deity and lord.

    Now it just so happened that another player, whose character is a ranger, had been absent for a couple session. Since I dislike controlling PCs when I’m DMing, the player and I jointly decided it would be fine if his character was off performing guerilla tactics against the army as they made their way. In order to save the party from themselves and to give the hook to the next logical course of action (so that the whole game wouldn’t end prematurely) the ranger got captured by the next ‘boss’ up the chain. When his eagle animal companion flew into camp carrying his latest intel report (only incomplete and blood-stained), they realized their friend was in danger, that there was another threat other than the obvious one. Couple with the compassionate diplomacy of the captain of the town guard, whom many of the characters looked up to, *they* decided to go save their friend and investigate this possible second front.

    Railroading? Perhaps.

    But the story and the enjoyment of getting to keep playing D&D continued without require a month or two of downtime while people made new characters and the DM proofed all their choices (math isn’t their strong-suit) and got all their customized character sheets done up in Word… not to mention rewriting the story. Call it railroading if You will, I call it knowing what Your players want and doing Your best to ensure they still have a game to play the next weekend.

    So fast-forward a couple months and the characters are flying back across the vale (on their new winged mounts) taking in the ravages of the army as it progresses in its march. As part of the descriptive text, they notice a road-side shrine that is currently evacuating some injured refugees who had fled there to escape free-roaming raiding parties. Due to the hilly terrain, the army had not been spotted until it was only a couple miles away and they had only 10 minutes now before the vanguard arrived.

    Now call it a lapse in DM judgment or perhaps not having re-read all the “boxed” text ahead of time but I instantly knew the knight was going to try and take on the army to save them. Sure enough he did and commanded the three characters who were no good in a fight to escape with as many of the injured as they could on our flying mounts. He and the other 3 would try to stall the army long enough for the clerics at the shrine to evacuate the more road-capable refugees to some nearby caves I decided would lead them out of the army’s path. Should the knight and his three remaining companions get overrun, the cleric would cast an “angel wing” spell on the minotaur ranger who could then fly her and the warmage to safety while the knight stayed behind…

    Cliff-hanger for the next session!

    Long story short, the players are committed to saying in character but dreading what they see as the end of the campaign… at least with four of characters they know and love.

    So come game day, the three characters who really can’t fight (and needed to go ahead to research or at least *warn*of* a new threat the party had learned of) evacuate those whom they can while the other three don’t want to abandon their dauntless friend. Their numbers thinned, I allow an NPC sorceress (an enemy spy) to join their ranks to help out. Battle ensues. They defeat multiple ranks of fliers and then a big ass red dragon and it’s wyrmlord is upon them with the whole worg-rider cavalry and lots of flying spellcasters and flying monsters swooping in, dropping off chain-wielding monks. Fliers have also caught up to the retreating peasants barring their egress. The party is surrounded, the minotaur dead from trying to 1-on-1 the dragon, the cleric is pinned and the warmage is out of spells… but the knight is still fighting. The NPC spy got “knocked out” early on when she was hit by a barn.

    At last, the wyrmlord himself confronts the knight and after suffering a really well-placed smite-evil attack, decides to parlay… Should the knight lay-down his life, the general will allow his friends to collect their dead and retreat with the refugees to the city unharmed. Otherwise, the cleric gets crunched the warmage is reduced to ash and the hobgoblins dine on the flesh of the refugees. Knowing that there are other battles yet to be fought, the knight’s player gives quite a rousing speech to the other players’ character about courage and keeping faith (exemplary roleplaying really considering the player considers himself an atheist) and bravely goes to meet his fate.

    Railroading? *shrugs*

    What I do know is that this was one of the most dramatic and touching scenes I’ve witnessed in 15 years of DMing and that rather than being bummed and upset about losing all their characters, there’s an even greater sense of heroics and solidarity among the players and PCs alike. Having expected this eventuality, I had prepared a surprise for the knight in advance… sainthood and getting to continue as a positive-energy ghost (see Sacred Watcher in the Book of Exalted Deed). You can bet that I felt just as well-rewarded by the players good roleplaying of the battle just as the knight’s player did when he realized he was now like a Jedi-Ghost.

    To those who might say this is an unbelievable out and highly unlikely:

    So the lawful evil general finishes off his toughest adversary and allows what he sees as a bunch of despairing and beaten heroes to return to town with a number of people who have witnessed how hopeless it is to fight their army. Morale is a big part of the fight. Furthermore, he has now secreted a spy in the ranks of his enemy “” one who has seemingly fought and bled with them “” one who will now be able to get close to the enemy commanders (as one of the “heroes”) and possibly be able to swing the siege from within!

    What some might call railroading, I call looking out for the interest of everyone being able to continue having fun. If the objection to DMs trying to force a plot is that it deprives the players of choice and creative input then what is challenging what they fear is inevitable with twists and turns?

  13. Lars says:

    “Is there another option I'm missing?”

    When I have time to prepare, I usually have several plot-threads that the players can possibly pick up on (sometimes even interwoven with each other). Individual gaming sessions can see the players working on one of several different leads, depending on which they think is the most important (or easiest). They might not always even find all the possible leads. In a situation like the one you described, where they killed off a bad-guy “prematurely”, I would just let him die, and that thread would fall out of the pattern. There would still be other things for the players to do though, other bad guys to fight.

  14. kat says:

    I think the problem here is one of mixing method with execution. Your option #1 is pretty much always bad, but option #2 has a lot of possibilities — if it’s played right. For example, if the bad guy escapes by silly “trapped DM” methods, BUT you let the players ransack his desk and get all kinds of interesting information/toys, they’re not gonna be too unhappy with the turn of events. If the players get their asses kicked by what they thought was a mid-level bad guy, but this unlocks a huge section of the plot (preferably one that comes with toys), they won’t whine much either. “Ooh, look! A shiny!” derails all sorts of player complaints.

    If you simply drop the vanishing bad guy on them, then yes, they’ll whine that it’s not fair. But that a crappy execution is possible doesn’t negate the method.

    Now I personally wouldn’t use your option #3 much, because my plots tend to hinge heavily on character and it just wouldn’t be that easy for me to shoehorn in a new Big Bad. But tweaking things to speed up the plot or using the “Big Bad screams for mercy” or “ooh, pink tentacle monster!” methods suggested above are quite natural for me. I suspect it’s all in what you consider flexible.

  15. Janus says:

    I think that if it was reasonably possible to do so, the bad guy should try to escape. Maybe when he’s at about half HP he realises the fight’s going poorly, so he uses whatever means he has to attempt an escape. And if he dies anyway, option 3 goes into effect.

    Although this is just a reflection of my view that it’s bizarre that every enemy the PCs assault is willing to fight to the death over whatever it is he’s fighting for.

  16. Unglued says:

    “Time to prepare” is the key issue. If you've just sat down for a five-hour game when this fight begins, you may have to think on your feet, or take a re-write break. I'd do anything to avoid the anticlimactic ending (outcome #1), and almost anything else to keep from breaking the mood (option #2). But the proverbial train has left the station. Will I have enough time to come up with a coherent gambit, and a new set of tracks? Personally, I'm not above grabbing my notes and barricading myself in the washroom for 45 minutes.

    As far as our example story is concerned, I submit this end:

    “Shuffle the deck:” The hierarchy changes, but the plot does not.
    Well, you've killed this man and revealed his nature – but not his scheme. Wheels are set in motion and now with the death of one villain, the party has inadvertently paved the path for greater evil to take the reins of the whole nefarious campaign.

  17. Thad says:

    There’s the option 1#2 twist. “You thought he was dead, but…!” which might depend on how the person died (fell into a stream and carried away, pretty sure he’s dead) or something else. EG., magic item that is triggered by bad guys death and casts resurrection (or whatever) after a short time. (Which can either be one-shot or something the players will have to take care before tackling the big bad next time!)

  18. KGrape says:

    Obviously it all depends on the specific players, campaign, DM, and what ideas strike the DM. Personally, I find the best role-playing experiences come when making these on the fly plot changes.

    For example, most people here have said that Option #1 is anti-climatic and therefore bad. Anti-climatic is generally bad, but again Option #1 could work with the correct group. I’m thinking of one campaign I GM’d. If this situation came up in that campaign, I’d probably let the villain die. The plot would then morph from stopping the villain to doing detective work to find out what the plot really was and stamp out the remaining elements before they can reorganize into a real threat.

    I also agree with AR’s axiom, “if the players didn't see it, it may or may not have actually been true.” That said play to your strengths, pay attention to what your players want, and try to make it fun for everybody. Some fast thinking on your feet helps.

  19. Dan Shiovitz says:

    All the options you list off seem good to me, used in moderation. I don’t think #3 is obviously the best: if you use it all the time, it’ll be obvious to the players that they’re being scammed and the tension goes away (and not just out of this encounter, but out of all future ones — since, hey, they know you’re willing to change the plot to make them not succeed even if they win a fight). A couple other options, beyond what other people have suggested on this thread:

    – Don’t pick a bad guy in advance; have a couple possibilities and choose one (who’s still alive!) when things get nearer the climax. Subtly different from your option #3 in that it discourages fighting random bystanders without actual evidence that they’re bad guys.
    – Have the bad guy have been bad and doing all this stuff and working on their own — but when they’re eliminated, somebody steps into the power vacuum. Perhaps they were holding back some other evil force, for instance, and now that they’re gone …
    – If the bad guy’s tough enough, have him get the drop on and totally nail them. When he’s about to put the finishing touches on them, have a deus ex machina save the day — now they know he’s a bad guy, so what are they going to do about it? Especially if they can’t prove it, and he knows they know?
    – Don’t pick the ending in advance! It is totally possible to have a dramatic ending without forcing it to be any particular kind of dramatic ending. Up above you say letting the PCs win the fight would be throwing away all your plot twists — so don’t create so many in advance, or be prepared to reuse some of them elsewhere (so they kill the bad guy, which creates political upheaval locally and forces the players into the spotlight, which means they’re the prime target of the sleeper agent the enemy country has decided to activate as they begin their takeover bid). Look into No Myth GMing, specifically this post.

  20. Dreamy McSleepland says:

    What if they kill him and then, by going through his stuff, find out that he’s already set some dastardly things in motion that they need to further investigate?

  21. Henebry says:

    I actually prefer method 2, the one you term “brute force.” Any bad guy worth his salt is at least as well prepared as the PCs. And we know that they insist on combing through their sheets looking for the perfect spell or piece of equipment to put to innovative use whenever they get into a tight spot. So surely the bad guy has a spell or magic item “get out of jail free” card.

    This isn’t railroading, in my book. Unless the PCs have given thought to forestall the obvious getaway methods, they don’t deserve to take down the BBEG.

    In fact, I’d go a step further to assert that this is part of what helps them realize that this guy IS a BBEG, rather than just some minor encounter: he’s wily and tough to kill.

    If you want to sling Star Wars precedents, think of Darth Vader at the end of the first movie (yes, I know, Episode “IV”). He gets away.

  22. Mike says:

    #3 is ALWAYS the way to go. It’s always best to be adaptive, and reshape your plot and campaign around the actions of the PC’s. What I do is have some basic ideas to work with, a general state of the world and a few jumping-off plot points; then, depending on what happens while the party is exploring those plot points, I take what’s been established and build from there.

    A simple example was in a campaign I was running, one of the players was a mysterious knight-ish figure, very reserved and quiet, always wore his full black helmet…pretty typical “dark brooding hero” type. The player had aspirations of turning the character into a wyvern rider in the future.

    After about a half dozen sessions, in which the PC’s had yet to meet the “big boss”, the player told me he wanted to switch to a new character. I said fine, but after one more session. During the session, his character betrayed the party at a crucial moment, seized the relic of power they were fetching, and collapsed a tunnel so as to prevent pursuit. The rest of the players were completely shocked, as was the player whose character had just switched sides, but they all thought it was great. Later on when they met him again, he was riding a wyvern, which his former player appreciated. He also knew all their weaknesses and tendencies. And finally, because the player had built him, they all knew his stats, equipment, fighting style…all of it was perfectly legit, and as they well knew, very, very effective.

  23. Steve says:

    I could go either way in this situation. One particularly interesting approach would be to have the NPC behave exactly like any other NPC would in his situation — run off as fast as his legs will carry him, screaming all the while for the guards. If the NPC has a reputation as someone respected (a priest, someone high in the government, a powerful merchant) then you could even let the party kill him, then have the judicial system penalize the players by forcing them to pay for his resurrection. The party will grow to have a personal grudge against the enemy, which will be made all the sweeter when they can reveal he’s not such the good guy that everyone thought.

  24. WolfSamurai says:

    With a properly designed bad guy, there’s not even really a need to make a choice. A smart bad guy is going to have a way to escape. It may not be foolproof (a low level bad guy isn’t going to be able to teleport all over, after all), but it’s planned for. I most certainly don’t think that this is railroading. If the characters aren’t prepared for an escape attempt, either through lack of resources, lack of planning, or lack of knowledge on who they’re after, then they don’t really deserve to bag him.

    Characters aren’t the only ones allowed to be creative after all and if you don’t want your smart bad guy dead earlier than expected, then make sure he ~acts~ smart. Escape plans are only part of this. If he really is a smart bad guy, he should be able to derail the heroes anyway with lies, half-truths, false leads, faked cooperation, red herrings, whatever.

    A powerful bad guy might not have an escape planned, but I think that they probably shouldn’t need it. If your big bad guy isn’t powerful enough to beat the heroes within an inch of their lives, I personally don’t think that they should be the big bad in the first place and you should have anticipated him getting offed and set up the bigger bad ahead of time. I think it’s better to have a big bad who is too powerful initially and then trim him down to reasonableness than to have too weak a bad guy and expect him to survive in the face of players who are doing their best to beat him.

    And if the players end up getting dead because they faced off with someone too powerful and didn’t have the good sense to run the hell away? Well, hopefully your players will be smarter for the experience as they think on it while rolling their new characters.

    You should be at least somewhat flexible on what you have planned, you can’t get around that. No plan or plot survives contact with the players entirely intact, after all. But if you’ve done a good job planning in the first place, you’ve already ~built~ that flexibility in to the game up front and just have to put it to use when the players pull something unexpected.

    In the hypothetical situation presented, it’s pretty easy. Have the bad guy give up and lie his head off, sprinkling enough truth in them to make it believable, but not so much that they’re going to be on the right track. Have big bad sell out one of his more expendable/incompetent flunkies and set the characters after him. Have big bad imply that he’s being set up/framed and set him on the trail of someone else who is a bit dirty. Your characters feel like they’re really doing something, the big bad probably comes out smelling like a rose, everybody wins.

  25. Barbara says:

    As a player who never GMs, I’d be perfectly happy with option 2. Option 3 is what I’d call a “Shroedinger’s villain”, rather than railroading. It can work, but you need to be careful: perhaps the players already have some clue you’ve forgotten about that is inconsistent with the new reality?

  26. Dave says:

    Geez.. don’t try so hard.. Change the guys name and give him a beard.. viola.. new guy.. We writer/DMs have a problem that once we create a character WE see them. If something changes our brains go “akk.. but that can’t happen.” because we’ve seen the ending.. But players have no clue what is SUPPOSED to happen or WHO it’s supposed to be.. Let go of the perfect NPCs and embrace the idea you created.

  27. Rick says:

    I absolutely don’t see #2 as cheating or railroading if done right. A smart BBEG is going to have an escape plan or surround himself with minions in the event that he finds himself up against more than he can handle – which a group of PCs may or may not be.

    Given a choice between the other two options, however, I’d far rather go with #1. Let the players have their victory, although they probably don’t yet realize just how significant it is. As they continue their investigation into the now-deceased BBEG’s plot, they realize what they’ve done: perhaps both for good and ill. The story can still be satisfying: stop the bad guy, then unravel his plots instead of the other way around.

    As for #3, I probably wouldn’t know they’d done it, but if I figured out the DM’s response to me killing the BBEG was to suddenly create a “man behind the man” behind the scenes, I *would* feel railroaded and be unhappy.

  28. Jeff says:

    The only problem with ‘railroading’ is freedom of choice.

    Players NEVER really have TRUE freedom of choice, as the DM responds and so what happens will ALWAYS be up to the DM.

    The key to a good game is the ILLUSION of freedom of choice. Players have certain actions they can take that will affect their game world (attacking something, casting a spell). For their action there is an expected reaction. There are things that have little effect on the game world (ignoring a dungeon, going into a dungeon, going left instead of right) because the game world will adapt to them. Their action has NO expected reaction – because they have no knowledge of what is to come. When a character casts Mirror Image, he expects the effects of Mirror Image to come into play (pending things like Anti-magic fields, which he can also expect to function.) When a character scouting out a dungeon enters a T intersection and can choose to turn left or right, he has no expectation of what is behind the left door or the right door. Thus the DM can choose to put the room with the potion of fire immunity in the first room the character enters, and the fire elemental in the second. The players are none the wiser, and indeed would have little to complain about.

    In this context, railroading is when the players are stripped of their illusion. This means when something they expect to happen DOESN’T happen. THAT is railroading. Players have a small sphere of influence. Some things are out of that sphere (such as what lurks beyond the next hill). The things that are within their sphere of influence should not change. When players deal 50 000 points of damage in one round, they expect the NPC to have some possible responses. The most obvious is death, but another possibility is to trigger a Chain Contingency. If the NPC does none of the possible actions, then there is railroading. The place of the NPC in the ranking ladder of Evil isn’t a possibility within their realm of influence, UNLESS their sphere of influence has extended to include him (for example, if they actually discover he’s the real BBEG via tools in their sphere of influence – Detect Evil, Detect Thoughts, what have you).

    So long as players do not have their sphere of influence violated, there is no railroading. (Consider the previous example of a character choosing a left room and a right room. If the DM has a map, and changes the rooms so that the character gets the potion so he doesn’t get his ass handed to him, is that railroading? If you answer ‘yes’, then what if the DM was running completely on the fly? I’ve done so more than once on minor dungeons.)

  29. Laithoron: Nothing that you describe is railroading. You created situations and let the PCs react to them. Because you knew the players and their characters you had a strong sense of what that reaction would be, but that’s not railroading: It’s only railroading if you force them to do what you thought they might do.

    Jeff: No. I’m sorry. Railroading is when choice is stripped away. Whether you strip away that choice openly or secretly is irrelevant. There are people who are OK with being duped as long as they never know about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re being duped.

    Shamus: You’re presenting a false dilemma.

    #1: The PCs kill the bad guy without ever realizing it. The irony! Of course, they still need to discover that’s what they did. And root out whatever remains of his evil plans. And deal with the people trying to assassinate them because they killed them. And they have to do all this while avoiding the authorities because, until they can conclusively prove this was a bad guy, they’re murderers on the run. Anti-climax? Nonsense. This isn’t a climax at all. It’s just a step in the road.

    #2: The villain can try to escape, using whatever powers and resources are at his disposal. Maybe he succeeds. Maybe he doesn’t.

    #3: Depending on how you designed the conspiracy, the logical consequences of this guy being killed play out. Maybe a lieutenant steps in to fill his shoes. Maybe the demon he was keeping imprisoned breaks free. Maybe one of his allies in the criminal underworld takes over his turf. Maybe an ally or a friend or a lover arranges for a resurrection.

    What’s legitimate? Anything that flows naturally from the situation you’ve created.

    What’s railroading? Anything which purposefully negates the PCs’ success because you don’t like the PCs succeeding (whatever your misguided reasons for disliking your PCs’ success might be).

  30. Shamus says:

    Justin Alexander:


    I know my players. My goal is to make sure they have fun. Offing the bad guy in a random scuffle and then doing cleanup is WAY less epic than a final, pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower when the kingdom itself is in the balance, which is the kind of finale they are going to enjoy.

    Also: What is it with you? I don’t know if you’re aware, but every time you post you sound like you’re pissed and spoiling for a fight.

  31. Adam says:

    I’d like to point out the obvious (which I, and the rest of the people in my campaign, missed a few months ago): if players can be killed and then brought back, why not NPCs? Ok, so Justin already mentioned it, but I’ll say it again. Our campaign, we got sidetracked for a bit, ridding this one city of corruption (which we decided to do, of course, only after the thieve’s guild stole my spellbook, and *then* discovered how much influence said guild had on the city). So, we say we want to bargain, we find the local Big Bad, we walk in and smack him around. He dies (I have a feeling our DM thought we were actually going to bargain with him). We celebrate… then he jumps us a few days later. Turns out he has a wife, who happens to be a high level cleric. Now we get to fight him again, and this time, also his wife!

  32. wererogue says:

    I think #3 is a reasonable way to deal with the situation, but I don’t think it’s the only way, and I don’t think you’re trying to present it as such. I would, however, avoid getting into a situation where players find out who the bad guy is prematurely, off him, and then you reveal that “oh no, he was a decoy/minion/clone” too often – deceiving players is fine, but changing the gameworld on them a lot is going to feel like ‘cheating’ too.

    The main system that I run is an ongoing larp game, and the players and their interests change a lot. We’ve had a couple of GMs run unkillable bad guys, plots, monsters etc. and it’s never any fun for the players. If they’re smart enough to fix your plot, you need to find a new plot (for this kind of game).

    As previously, I don’t tend to write epic stories in which the players fill a role – the people I tend to GM for don’t want to be a part in my story, they want to experience the story created by their choices, as their characters. With that in mind, I’d completely disagree with the idea presented above that “Players NEVER really have TRUE freedom of choice, as the DM responds and so what happens will ALWAYS be up to the DM.” – players in my style of game should always be free to chose their actions and path, and I should reflexively provide the content and consequences to their choices.

    If there is an ongoing plot that is the basis of the game, I’ll subtly railroad the players only as far as getting them into a group if they start separately, and as far as hitting a plot hook. After that, if they spend the next couple of sessions trying to hit on an npc or whatever, then Cthulhu’s going to eat the world and I recruit some new players.

  33. Mavis says:

    I think what your describing is the tension between the part of roleplaying that’s a game – and the parts that’s storytelling/theatre.

    And to my mind these parts are almost always in conflict.

    If it’s just a game – then ‘cheating’ your players is unfair.
    If it’s story telling – then there is no way to cheat your players.

    But it’s both. I’ve been railroaded and it sucked. However I think your looking at the wrong side – that’s what needed for an RPG is not the ability to beat the bad guy but the ability to FAIL to beat the bad guy has to be there. Only when you can fail – is your triumph worth while.

    Personally I think that you need to just play it by ear. Be willing to kill the bad guy and change your plot if events really go that way. But have ideas up your sleeve to protect your story.

    In all honesty – I often don’t have stats for bad guys. Even major bad guys. Am I cheating the players? But if they do clever, unexpected things – then you should let them get ahead of your plot, or kill a major NPC or bad guy. Weather it ultimetly helps or hinders you……

  34. C David Dent says:

    You can let them kill him. This is a fantasy world where resurrection is a viable alternative. So they fight, he dies, and then the body mysteriously disappears.

    Whether it is a failsafe device, a henchman, or some sort of diabolic bargain he has to abandon this persona and and continue his evil plan anew.

    Polymorph spells could allow him to come back to the party as a new mole. All the time seething with rage at his apparent defeat by these inferior fools.

    You don’t read comic books? A villain is never more dangerous than when he’s dead because you are never quite sure if he’s got a plan to get out of that too.

  35. Lavastine says:

    My suggestion is that you NEVER have a npc call a players bluff, cause they are almost certainly not bluffing(or at least thats how it works with my group.)

  36. Dan Hemmens says:

    Coming direct from the previous entry (I’ve not checked the gaming articles in a couple of days) I can’t answer your question, because it’s meaningless to me.

    A fight breaks out, the PCs kill a character. That character is now dead, that character’s death is now part of the story. The story is not the villain, the story is the players.

    In my current WotG game, the main villain was originally going to be an NPC who the players showed no interest in whatsoever, so I got rid of him, and created somebody they found more interesting.

  37. Dan Hemmens says:

    I think what your describing is the tension between the part of roleplaying that's a game – and the parts that's storytelling/theatre.

    Actually, I think what’s being described is a tension between “story” as a creation of the GM handed down to the players, and “story” as something the players and the GM create collaboratively.

  38. Vegedus says:

    Wow, that just sounds epic Laithoron. I’m a martyr-ish sort of paladin and which died in our last session. It’ll be a while before we can game again, but I’ve remained hopeful that he would have a like plot twist for me. His death wasn’t as heroic, but it wasn’t due to stupidity.

  39. Dan Hemmens says:

    I know my players. My goal is to make sure they have fun. Offing the bad guy in a random scuffle and then doing cleanup is WAY less epic than a final, pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower when the kingdom itself is in the balance, which is the kind of finale they are going to enjoy.

    As ever there is precious little you can do against Argument From Fun.

    All I can say is that, for a lot of people, a final pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower is only enjoyable if you don’t feel that the GM forced you to be there and if you aren’t saying to yourself “you know, we should have wrapped this plotline up months ago.”

  40. Mavis says:

    “Actually, I think what's being described is a tension between “story” as a creation of the GM handed down to the players, and “story” as something the players and the GM create collaboratively.”

    Hmmmmmm – maybe – not sure. Take a collabrative game – it’s still the case that important plot NPC does not die until ‘the time is right’. In a collabrative game the right time is determined by the GM and players – in a railroad game – it’s determined by the GM.

    Of course in a game game – the right time is when the dice say it’s the right time. And story be damned.

  41. moonglum says:

    is this a game, or is this forced story telling? if the players kill the main villain “early” good for them. as a GM you need to be flexible. the leader of your faction as killed…dose he not have underlings, there will be a nice story arch dealing with the war for control of his evil empire that the PC’s can get sucked up into. sure your campaign is sucked off into a new direction, sure you wasted a lot of time building your story….that's YOUR fault not the PC’s this si their story not yours you are just facilitating. Next time don’t make such intricate details, and expect the PC’s to go off on what you see as a random tangent.

    If you want to write a book, go write a damm book, don’t force your friends into the role of potted plants in your story.

    The most important skill a GM has is improvisation. If you can't think on your feet don't GM, and never invest so much in your plans that you get upset when the players are inventive. Again this is there story to create, their epic, not yours.

  42. Roxysteve says:

    Wow. Interesting.

    As I’ve said before, I’ve run Call of Cthulhu almost to the exclusion of any other RPG for decades and the players I’ve had have been of a very different attitude than some of the respondents to this thread. It’s a bit of an eye-opener to read these comments, I’m not ashamed to say.

    There is a school of thought that the best Call of Cthulhu games must be scripted in a way that pretty much defines the hardest definition of railroading. DMs espousing this style of play claim that Call of Cthulhu “must” be played as an emotional experience rather than as an intellectual one. “It’s all about atmosphere” to use the vernacular.

    I’ve never played it that way. I have players from many different backgrounds including a dyed-in-the-wool D&D uber-munchkin who’s first reaction to anything – even after years of going mad or getting eaten as a result – is to blaze away with his “trusty” 45. I’ve managed to cater to each player’s needs by emphasising the detective side of the adventures.

    To do this is to railroad the players, yet I’ve never heard a single complaint. The players are aware there is a ticking clock in most cases and are focused on solving the clue-trails. I gently guide them when I can without it being obvious and let them run about inside the adventure as they will, yet they generally stay on course and I get none of the rabid (and thematically unlikely) leaping off the tracks I saw in my last D&D game (in which I was the least experienced player I might add).

    Perhaps the basic premise of the game forces a different mindset? Perhaps the focus on the problem at large rather than key individuals inside the plot makes the difference? I don’t know. Someone smarter than me will have to figure it out.

    Rerailing a busted campaign isn’t about saving the DM work, despite those who feel that way. The reality is that even were the campaign to grind to a halt, that work would find its way into the next one or the one after that. If the players destroy one of the major plot wayponts too early, the fun of playing through the campaign (assuming you aren’t in DMotR) demands some sort of remedial fixing by the DM. The multi-instanced villain is as good a fix as any.

    After all, the point of playing D&D or any other RPG is the playing experience, not the “winning”. They used to print that in the rulebooks when the idea was a new one. As a player I’d rather play in a campaign where a gallant giving of a character’s life before the end was recognised and encouraged as a prime heroic RP experience to be savoured in the event it happens than the “ressurrect until the job’s done” hack’n’slash. If I accidentally kill off your lead villain too soon Shamus, by all means have his boss waiting in the wings, bent on revenge.


  43. Roger says:

    I think the #1 situation is a pretty awesome plot twist, and I’d be happy to see it as either a player or a DM.

    The PCs just *murdered* someone. They went in to have a chat with spome guy and they got all stabby. Furthermore, they murdered someone who was powerful and connected.

    Now everyone is out to get the PCs. The legitimate authorities, the bad guy’s underlings, everyone. The party is on the run. Can they find the evidence they need to clear their names? Can they find anyone who will listen? Can they avoid supernatural retribution from beyond the grave?

    Some players might enjoy that; some players might not.

  44. Roxysteve says:

    I think a couple of things are emerging from the discussion.

    The first is that some people view an RPG as a battle of wits between the DM and the players rather than as a cooperative effort. I’m not surprised that people with that outlook have confrontational styles of play (the urge to behave chaotically irrespective of PC alignment simply to “derail” the game). I don’t intend to judge between the two style except to note that trouble is certain if the DM and one or more players aren’t on the same page stylistically.

    The second is that some people seem to feel that there is benefit in wandering around a campaign in the unstructured (or unplotted) parts of it. I allowed people to do this in my old Traveller campaign, and it was less fun for everyone than you might think. If players or DM get bored the game goes south pretty quickly.

    Perhaps the term “railroading” is causing more problems than there really are? It seems to mean as many different things as there are respondents to the thread.


  45. Dan Hemmens says:

    Hmmmmmm – maybe – not sure. Take a collabrative game – it's still the case that important plot NPC does not die until “˜the time is right'. In a collabrative game the right time is determined by the GM and players – in a railroad game – it's determined by the GM.

    That’s the point: in a collaborative game there are no “important plot NPCs” because the story is about the PCs and their decisions. The story is never about the villain, it’s about the PCs and what they do.

    To put it another way, in a collaborative game, if the PCs decide to kill an NPC, then ‘the time is right’ by definition, because a decision has been made, and that’s what the story is about.

  46. Marty says:

    I think only one other poster has touched on this, which surprised me…

    The player characters should be treated as murderers.

    In the scenario as described, a fight breaks out initiated by the players, not the “villian” (who has not been revealed to be a villian).

    So the characters are basically attacking and killing an innocent victim? In no uncertain terms, the DM should warn the players before the action begins to get out of hand that, not only are they acting out of alignment (ie – evil), but local law enforcement looks down on killing townsfolk for no other reason than “He was a jerk.”

    The villian in this scenario should do exactly as desribed by another poster. Run screaming to the local constabulary. Even if he is powerful enough to defeat the PCs, he wouldn’t want to reveal himself so early in his schemes. He’d rather let the law “take care of these ruffians.” Let the PCs stand before a judge and explain why they were attacking this poor, innocent victim.

    That aside, if the PCs do succeed in offing the bad guy accidentally, as many others have said, power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. His lieutenant should be ready to step in and grab the reins, especially if the schemes will bring wealth and/or power to her. The lieutenant may have been hoping to off the boss herself.

    If the Emperor dies, who do you think becomes the new big bad Sith Lord on the block? He already commands the Imperial star fleet after all. Vader would then run the Empire.

    It should be no different with any other Big Bad Evil Guys. He’d probably have a few underlings.

  47. Dan Hemmens says:

    The first is that some people view an RPG as a battle of wits between the DM and the players rather than as a cooperative effort.

    That’s one way to look at it. The other is that people have a different definition of what constitutes “co-operation”.

    Some people seem to define “a co-operative effort” as meaning “the players co-operate with the GM to help him tell his story” and others take it as meaning “the GM co-operates with the players to help them tell *their* story”.

    Railroading is when the GM follows the first definition and the players follow the second.

  48. Shamus says:

    “It should be no different with any other Big Bad Evil Guys. He'd probably have a few underlings.”

    Everyone keeps making this suggestion, that I should invent or rise up an underling to take his place. In my game, I suggested creating a new villian above him. In both cases I’m inventing a new character to take his place. Why is one bad and the other not?

    Given the choice between the two, I chose the one which was more dramatic.

  49. Dan Hemmens says:

    Given the choice between the two, I chose the one which was more dramatic

    Why do you think your option is more dramatic?

  50. Lebkin says:

    “Everyone keeps making this suggestion, that I should invent or rise up an underling to take his place. In my game, I suggested creating a new villian above him. In both cases I'm inventing a new character to take his place. Why is one bad and the other not?”

    I think that having an new villain above is the killed BBEG. Marty uses the comparison to Star Wars that if the Emperor (BBEG) was killed, Vadar (minion) would take over control. There is an equally valid comparison in Star Wars for higher evil.

    When Obi-Wan killed Darth Maul (BBEG) in Episode I, the evil continued on with a more powerful villain in Count Dooku. Similarly, in Episode III, the heroes killed two BBEG in Count Dooku and General Grevious, only to be confronted with Darth Sidious above them.

    As an aside, Count Dooku in Episode II uses Option 2 above. He overpowers the heroes (Anakin and Obi-wan), requiring an NPC (Yoda) to rescue them while he makes his escape.

    I think these kinds of issues all relate to your players. THEY decide what is railroading. We could argue to the cows come home about what the theoretical definition of what railroading is, but that wouldn’t matter in the real world. Each DM must design his adventures with his players in mind, and then shape it during play for their enjoyment.

  51. Lebkin says:

    Sorry for the double post, but I made a mistype in the post above. The first sentence in the second paragraph should read:

    “I think that having an new villain above the killed BBEG is an acceptable solution.”

  52. Dan Hemmens says:

    Why is one bad and the other not?

    Okay, I’m going to make an attempt to answer this, it is going to involve making some assumptions, so just bear in mind that this has “I” labels all over it.

    I feel that the decision to replace your Big Bad with a Bigger Bad who you retcon in as having “been there all along” is different to having them replaced by one of the previous Big Bad’s former minions because I think it carries the strong implication that you don’t care what the players actually do.

    You said in your earlier post that you wanted to “tell an epic story with the PCs as the main characters.” The thing is that it doesn’t sound like you do. It sounds like you want to tell an epic story which has some main characters who just happen to be the PCs.

    If the PCs kill the villain, and he gets replaced by a minion, then that means that the rise of the new Big Bad is a direct result of the actions of the PCs. This is, in my opinion, extremely cool and highly dramatic.

    If the PCs kill the villain, and he gets retroactively replaced with a different-but-identical character who goes on to do all the things that the original villain would have, then this shows that the PC actions were entirely meaningless.

    This implies to me that you are completely unwilling to let the PCs actions influence your plot in any way, that you define “the most dramatic option” as “the one which most closely resembles my original idea of what would happen.”

    The first option is a reaction to an unexpected event. The second option is a stonewall. In the first situation, you say “wow, the PCs did something completely unexpected, how can I make something cool out of this” and in the second you say “damn, the PCs did something unexpected, how can I stop this wrecking the plot.”

    One engages with player input, the other ignores it. One attempts to integrate a player-initiated change into the game, the other attempts to remove it.

    The two are very, very different.

  53. Cenobite says:

    Okay. At the risk of sounding like a cheering yes-man…I have to throw in my 2¢ here and agree with everyone who said that the Escape clause of Option #2 is really not so bad.

    Think about it. No matter what D&D version is being used, it remains a fantasy-based universe. One that contains magic. Magic which is frequently employed to create portals / gates / teleportation scrolls, rings, and other devices. Is it really such a stretch to assume that a BBEG (one who isn’t a total moron) would not, in fact, keep such an artifact on his person 24/7 for the express purpose of avoiding battles (or assassins) and saving his evil life? Come to think of it, what BBEG worth his monologues would prefer to do physical battle instead of taking the easy way out and letting the henchmen fight in his stead?

    The actual trapdoor of escape is something that heroes should expect BBEGs to install by now, as demonstrated in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Add magic to the picture, and the options for making a quick exit multiply exponentially. Even in a sci-fi setting, I would still expect a decent BBEG to carry some form of protection field that can be activated immediately…or even with an automatic swtich keyed to a personal radar of some sort…or even worn all of the time, as demonstrated in David Lynch’s version of Dune. This is not so much of a trick of railroading as it is a harsh reality of evil: players should not expect BBEGs to fall upon their swords when cornered.

  54. RibbitRibbit says:

    Railroading means just that any choice the players make (through their PCs) is ultimately irrelevant to the progress of the scenario.

    This means stuff like actively trying to avoid the Big Battle but then have it happen anyway.

    I think that in the example the only thing that constitutes a railroad is option #2, as it denies the players their hard-won victory in favor of some nebulous “plot”. The opposite, however, is generally accepted by the majority of roleplayers – having the players survive by Deux Ex Machina when the villain almost TPKs them. I see this as two sides of the same coin, and they both are wrong. Because death shouldn’t be the default stakes in the first place.

    The issue is stating the stakes of a scene beforehand. Do the PCs find out the villain’s plans? Do the PCs manage to thwart the villain’s plans? Do the PCs discover he’s the villain at all? Those are the stakes. Once they’re clear, the “Do the PCs kill the villain dead” can never be an outcome. Once everyone is clear on that, there is no need to bluff or retcon or cheat on the dice.

  55. RibbitRibbit says:

    Shorter version: What Dan Hemmens said.

  56. Josh says:

    Well, I’m a bit late to the party but never mind.

    I think there are at least two issues here: whether the players perceive that they have a choice, and whether they actually do.

    The former is very important IMO. There is (almost) nothing more frustrating than feeling in your gut that your actions were such that the bad guy should be dead, when in fact he escaped via the convenient teleportation device (or whatever) that he/the GM pulled out of his ass. Lots of people have made a range of valid suggestions as to how to get your NPC out of danger, but the bottom line is that players can and do act in ways that will overcome any plan that your NPC (and by extension, you) come up with. When that happens, if you pull a blatant deus ex machina then the players will feel as though there was little point in even trying.

    As for the latter, it’s a very different story. Let’s assume that you are such a competent GM (or your players so dull-witted) that you can effortlessly invent deus ex machinae that no player can detect, and that as a result your players will not notice that nothing they have done has made any difference to the plot you pre-planned from the start. We’ll also put aside the fact that you’ll have to lie to your players forever more (since if you admit you “cheated” then your players will assume their actions make no difference in future games). This is the “minion/uberboss takes over where boss left off” suggestion, but it might also be the teleportation device, assuming you can make it look like the device was “there” all along.

    That assumed, there are a range of considerations. The first is that even if you can keep your players from realising what you are up to, you will probably diminish the consistency of your world (this does depend on how much detail you put into it, but we’ll come back to that later). After all, we’re talking about the situation where you have to actually invent new stuff – if you already had a second-in-command who would naturally take over then you wouldn’t be asking the question! Inventing stuff on the fly is very unlikely to result in the same rich, detailed and internally consistent world that results from decent planning. To me as a player (and as a GM), that matters.

    But even if you are such a creative genius that you can literally make stuff up by the seat of your pants and wind up with a wonderfully consistent, real feeling world, there is another question. I was going to say that this was about “fairness” but I don’t think that’s quite right – roleplaying isn’t a competitive game (normally – if you are running a competitive roleplaying game then the answer must surely be unequivocally that you should never arbitrarily make up stuff just to preserve your story), so “fairness” doesn’t apply. It’s all about what’s fun. But where a few people seem to have missed the point a bit is that it shouldn’t just be fun for the players – it should be fun for the GM as well. I think that’s an important aspect of why I prefer not to just arbitrarily make stuff up; I like to put the players in an interesting situation and watch what falls out. If I’m constantly intervening to change the situation to fix the outcome, then I get less out of it, even if the players were unaware of it.

    For me as a GM I want my games to have a rich, detailed and internally consistent background, and I want my interactions with the players to be authentic. For that reason, I prefer not to just make stuff up. That said, there’s nothing wrong with actually building some failsafes into your plot. Why have one villain when you can have three? That way if the players kill one of them you have something left to play with. Similarly, why not specify in advance that the villain has a teleportation device that he keeps in his back pocket at all times. If you do this, it will be more work, and your players could still foil it by taking out all three villains, or picking the teleportation device out of the bad guy’s pocket. But they, and you, will enjoy the experience more (if you’re anything like me).

    On the point about collaborative fiction, and the player characters being the centre of attention: there is something in this, but in my experience it is very rare to find a player group who have enough of their own ideas and drive to make a campaign interesting all by themselves. Most players come to a game expecting to be plunged into an interesting world where stuff is happening. They may have some ideas about what their character will pro-actively do in the world, but they are usually fairly re-active in their approach. It certainly isn’t going to be a fun game if the players just wander aimlessly around doing nothing of interest! Then again, I’d certainly be interested to hear of games with players who exclusively followed their own agenda that didn’t look like this. The closest I’ve seen have been strategy/roleplay hybrids. They worked well, but still needed GM-led plot to thrive.


  57. moonglum says:

    Shamus in your version you are forcing the players to fit in to your story…this is forced story telling. the players are props, you may as well play with your self. In version two, and underling rising up…well that will throw the villains (and your plans) out of whack, the scheme that villain one had may not be the same as villain twos scheme, and the chaos that happened while he takes control will be significant. This allows the players to have a dramatic effect on the game world….they are the heroes, this is their story, not yours, not the villains, they should be the ones writing the story.

    The game can still be epic, you just have to remember that its their epic not yours. Players can not derail the story with their actions… Their actions are the story.

  58. Stranger says:

    As has been said here, the key is knowing what your players want to play and have fun playing. Shamus, if you know what will be fun for your group . . . why ask us our opinions? We’re not your players, we’re not YOU. This decision is in your hands.

    That said, I’d likely go for allowing them to kill this villain and reshuffle the expected “deck” of what was going to happen. They just killed someone without provocation and thus need to deal with that. Any devout members of the party should feel a weight from their patron deities for the sin they committed . . . the law should be thrown at them for this, but they should have it revealed to them (after making them sweat) what was going on . . . and the lack of information on what plans were in motion. The minions, and lieutenants, have things already in motion and are more than likely going to continue their tasks . . .

    As so many people are willing to analyze the meaning of “story vs game” . . . what is a game without something going on? Sure, I could run D&D as it was way back in the beginning where it was “Players, meet dungeon. Dungeon, get smashed by players. Gold, experience, loot, next dungeon?”. But it’s not very interesting for me to run without knowing WHY. WHY are things like that? WHY are the evil people hanging out in the dungeon? WHY would the player characters care?

    To say it again, there’s no “wrong way” to play the game when the players are enjoying themselves.

    Now, as for my own method of plotting story to a game? Take a simple theme, a world setting (I invent my own, because published settings come with all sort of extra baggage I don’t want) and start to piece what I want to happen together. There is a course history is going to take without the PC intervention, and I want to know what that is. Put it together so there is a realistic timeline going on for when things happen, but keep it loose enough so that it can be shifted and moved as needed.

    Step two is to pick out a number of points in that “course of history” where PCs and NPCs can alter fate and change how things fall. Don’t bother figuring out the potential effects, just identify the points. Pick a number which reflects how long you want your campaign to go on . . . say, one point for every four sessions. Describe these to yourself on index cards, or something, and make sure you know the possible outcomes.

    Step three relies on the characters you have before you. Once you have them (presumably, you’re getting the character sheets before your first session, so the DM knows who’s whom and what they have in mind) you can start extrapolating what’s possibly going to happen through the first couple “plot points”. Don’t go too far ahead, because all this can be MEANINGLESS if the PCs fail to follow what you expect will happen. Keep it simple, keep it fluid and flexible.

    Step four is the best part, in my humble opinion. Let the players do what they want. If they reach a time when an event should occur and they’re nowhere near solving it . . . let it be an NPC group who takes care of it and sprinkle news before the players about how something big happened and their attention might jump like a spark between two wires to pay attention to it.

    I’m running a campaign now, and I had the intention of playing it so the PCs are central to the GAME but the world does not revolve around them (yet). There are other forces and people in the world than themselves, and the sooner they realize it the sooner they can know what is exactly staring them in the face. And of course, who it is they “need” to whallop to make things better (for the world, for themselves, for their amusement, whichever).

    Oh, yes, and there’s the ever-present rule I drop when I start a group playing: “I’m not running a campaign for misfit mercenaries who would just as soon kill a man as help him. If there’s no redeemable qualities about your character’s nature, start over. No rapist-murderer-thieves in this game.” That usually curtails the players having characters they claim would do whatever they feel like doing that week.

  59. moonglum says:

    josh there is a sate in-between, you can have a rich world, with a story outline and some important NPC’s figured out…from there, while your world may be detailed(locations and what not, organizations ect) the story it self need to be dynamic. This is how I run all of my games, the PC’s never end where I expected them to but the journey is always fun. I have been running my games like this for decades, both with teenagers that tend to be munchkins and with my current group that includes a stage actor and two writers…

  60. ninjadwarf says:

    If the big bad dies early, before his plans come to fruition does teh rest of teh world suddenly stop?

    If palpatine had been killed by anakin and obi in E2 there would still have been lots going in on. The players wouldn’t know that they had killed the big bad, or what would have happened if he had survived, instead they carry on investigating what is going on.

    Now either the forces set in motion by palpatine might run to a climax with the remaining NPCs doing their little bits, but the grand scheme never coming to fruition, or it might fizzle out quite fast without his overview.

    Either way it doesn’t matter because there are going to be others out there who have the potential to be equally powerful and another bad guy will soon enough pop up with different plots for the players to solve.

    They might figure out that it was the killing of palpatine that stopped the big plot that was going on, they might not, but that doesn’t really matter, there will aways be another bad guy out there for them to seek out.

  61. Jeff says:

    The problem remains with the illusion of freedom. In fact, every complaint of railroading comes from when this is violated.

    I may be misinterpreting here, but almost every ‘anti-railroading’ post I’ve read thus far sounds like a litany of complaints from players.

    Yet looking at the initial example, neither the 1st nor 3rd option makes a single bit of difference from the viewpoint of the players – because they don’t know a decision has been made.

    From the viewpoint of a DM, I’ve more than once turned a minor bad guy into the major bad guy (within a mini-arc, obviously) simply because the night was dragging on and everyone wanted to finish. At the same time, I’ve also run without prep before, with only a few rooms defined and throwing them together on the fly. In both cases, what happens is defined entirely by me, with the actions of the players being incidental.

    From the viewpoint of a player, “railroading” is bad, but having “paved roads” isn’t. I don’t need a big empty slate to forge a future. I want at least a general objective, a sense of progress to be made. I don’t care if you’ll let me buy an inn or raid a town. That’s useless and pointless. I want to delve into an intricate storyline and unravel mysteries and conspiracies and discover an epic adventure.

    Perhaps that is where the difference is. Some players want a sandbox where you scrabble about and do what you want, some players want a few dusty trails up a mountain towards a destination. Those who want a passive sandbox will call anything a DM does actively “railroading”.

  62. Jeff says:

    It could also be a difference in what stage of life we’re at. Back in high school, where life was more or less regimented and predetermined, freedom to do whatever the heck you wanted and blow stuff up was very appealing. Now as a graduate, where I have previously unimaginable freedom of choice, it’s nice to have a set problem to unravel.

  63. Dan Hemmens says:

    The problem remains with the illusion of freedom. In fact, every complaint of railroading comes from when this is violated.

    People always say this. I don’t think it’s true.

    For me (at the risk of sounding like I take all this way too seriously) it’s about respect. It’s about knowing that the GM is actually listening to my input, that he actually understands that I am an intelligent, creative human being who has a story of my own to tell.

  64. John says:

    I think option 2 can be used every as long as it’s not overdone.

    I had a friend who was running Aberrant and everytime we faced the super villains, they used their “teleport” rings. It was nifty he first time they got away. But then we started to get annoyed the 3rd time they did that.

    Also Why can’t there be an option 4? Evil diabolical plan continues. The plan entails the resurrection of the BBEG.
    The PCs need to stop the plan before the world is thrown into a 1000 years of darkness. They get there just in time for the ritual to complete for the BBEG’s ressurrection. BBEG becomes even more powerful than before. Heroic fight ensues.

  65. Roxysteve says:

    RibbitRibbit Says:
    This means stuff like actively trying to avoid the Big Battle but then have it happen anyway.

    The issue would seem to hinge on whether the party is destined to be the heroes at the fulcrum of events or mere bystanders to the carnage, most likely to be ground to paste as a result. What place in the world would there be for the team playing DMotR if Sauron were to win? Would you rather play a series of ultimately futile amushes as some sort of “resistance” after the fact or do something on a grander scale?

    One might argue that epic events can have an inertia that is greater than the ability of the participants to change anyway. Doesn’t mean a damn good story can’t be gotten from the attempt though. Dune (the book, not either of the godawful screen adaptations) had this as one of its central themes. The protagoist spent the entire novel attempting to avoid a (foreseen) future he ended up precipitating.

    I think the “underling vs hidden boss” debate is pointless. Shamus has the right of that. It really doesn’t matter other than when the dramatic element is considered. Either way can be engineered well or be a terrible fiasco.

    That said, there I see no need for a “trapdoor” inasmuch as there are a plethora of D&D street-legal ways for a powerful character to avoid the finality of death. It is entirely reasonable that any powerful character would have access to such magic if the players do. Everyone talks about railroading. How is not giving an umptytump level NPC baddie the same options the PCs get not railroading the NPC into an unlikely death?


  66. Roxysteve says:

    moonglum Says:
    This allows the players to have a dramatic effect on the game world….they are the heroes, this is their story, not yours, not the villains, they should be the ones writing the story.

    Not so. They are a vital part, but without the villain there is no dramatic tension and no story.

    Unless you are into mood pieces, in which case you should be playing Call of Cthulhu.


    Without worthy opponents a group of players are just a bunch of guys, no more heroic than the local blacksmith. The campaign story is very much that of the antagonist too.

    Lovecraft had enough trouble getting “The Call of Cthulhu” in print. He’d have had no chance with “The Call of the Local Greengrocer” and Robert E. Howard would never have found the resonance he did if his hero had been “Conan the Guy from Home Depot”.


  67. Roxysteve says:

    I just thought (it happens occasionally):

    It’s only the players’ story if they ponied up for the campaign scenario book.



  68. Dan Hemmens says:

    The issue would seem to hinge on whether the party is destined to be the heroes at the fulcrum of events or mere bystanders to the carnage, most likely to be ground to paste as a result. What place in the world would there be for the team playing DMotR if Sauron were to win? Would you rather play a series of ultimately futile amushes as some sort of “resistance” after the fact or do something on a grander scale?

    What place is there for them if Sauron loses?

    Win or lose, once it’s decided, the campaign is over.

    If I were playing Aaragorn, and I wanted my character’s story arc to be “Scion of an ancient line of kings, rejects his heritage, and ultimately fails to save the world” then that’s the arc I want to stick with, and I don’t want the GM to push my character to develop differently just because it fits his idea of how the story should go.

  69. RibbitRibbit says:

    Steve: What are the PCs destined to be? Before that I’d ask: In the game world, who ARE the PCs?

    At the risk of D&D-bashing, here I go.

    In D&D there is no mechanical, in-game reason for the PCs to do anything other than what they are good at. The reasons for doing anything else are all verbal agreements between the GM and the players, sometimes mediated by in-game system material (e.g. Following a god, and to a lesser extent Aligment). And even this does not tickle the PCs into any kind of action.

    However, there are other games there. I’m playing a modified TRoS game, with my character’s Drive (Become a Harper), Passion (Lady Aleira Starsong) and Destiny (Destroy the Black Brotherhood) driving the plot forward. Yes, what creates the story are MY character’s traits. Those are used as both bonus dice (applied to whatever I’m doing in order to, say, rescue my Lady love) and XP (so if I don’t act to save her my character does not advance). Without them my PC is just a bunch of skills. Those traits are known to the GM, and are partly worked out in advance with him. So if the GM has a villain in mind, he knows he should make him a scion of the Black Brotherhood, or have him kidnap my Lady love. This is critical for the success of the game.

    So the story here is really ABOUT my character. It must be. No pointless side quests where he can get himself killed for nothing (remember, XP comes from pursuing one’s goals). No “story” that has anybody BUT my PC as the main character who actions and desires basically define the game.

  70. Shamus: “”Misguided”?

    I know my players. My goal is to make sure they have fun. Offing the bad guy in a random scuffle and then doing cleanup is WAY less epic than a final, pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower when the kingdom itself is in the balance, which is the kind of finale they are going to enjoy.”

    And I consider that misguided. I’m not sure what you think you’re accomplishing, but if you’ve got a novel then, by all means, print out a copy and hand it to your players.

    If you’re interested in DMing D&D, on the other hand, you should let your players making meaningful decisions, even if those decisions should force you to adapt the plans of your bad guys.

    It really isn’t the end of the world.

    Shamus: “Everyone keeps making this suggestion, that I should invent or rise up an underling to take his place. In my game, I suggested creating a new villian above him. In both cases I'm inventing a new character to take his place. Why is one bad and the other not?”

    If your BBEG’s conspiracy has been so poorly detailed that he literally has no associates, partners, or overseers predefined, then there isn’t a difference.

    In reality, of course, this isn’t the case. And the point is not where the new villain comes from. It’s more subtle than that: In your scenario, the new villain is being introduced for no purpose except to screw over your players and negate their unexpected success.

    Having the game world react believably to the PCs’ unexpected success, however, isn’t designed to screw over the players and negate their actions.

    Shamus: “You accuse me of being enamored of my plot, but I'm right now changing it, throwing away my previous villain and creating a new one on the fly because I think it will be more fun.”

    You say this now, but what you actually said was: “I will invent a New Badguy that will do everything I had originally planned for this badguy.”

    Yes, you’re “changing” your story, but only insofar as you need to change it in order to keep everything exactly the same as you originally planned it.

    Which is why you’re railroading, why you’re negating the actions of the PCs, and why playing in your game is (apparently) no different than playing a second-rate CRPG with really bad graphics.

  71. Josh says:

    Moonglum: I agree with you on that. The story should be dynamic and capable of reacting to what the players do. But for me it’s about saying “given this situation, given this pre-defined world, and given what the players have just decided to do, what would plausibly happen?” If I know that the villain still has an ace up his sleeve, he’ll use it. If he doesn’t, then he dies. After that I’ll take a look at the new situation (i.e. villain dead) and apply the same reasoning. If he had a henchman whose personality, skills and position are such that he might reasonably take up the reins, great. If not, then it won’t happen.

    In another thread (next post by Shamus) someone mentioned the maxim “if you haven’t yet revealed it to the players then it isn’t canon”. I have to disagree with that. If you’ve decided something is the case in your world, and if it has informed your decision making, then you should stick by it – there will always be other ways to create an interesting game than just changing the scenery around while the players aren’t looking. The only situation I’d feel comfortable changing my world’s parameters would be if there had been literally no interaction between the players and them – i.e. the details concern another continent that the players have never visited, or something; but I would not as a rule do so just to rescue my pre-decided idea of how the story would go.

    I think, insofar as we are discussing whether it’s ok to change things to suit the story without the players knowing we may be discussing the great simulationist/storyteller divide. :)

  72. Matt P says:

    Justin Alexander: You really are getting too emotional about this whole thing. You’re insulting Shamus over how he chooses to play a game. I can’t imagine an issue more trivial to insult someone over. Why don’t you badmouth him over how he likes his hair done?

    This was a really great debate to go through (mostly, see above) as everyone made great points and I can’t really say I stand on either side of the “railroad” debate. I suppose my stance is “if it works and the players like it then that’s the way to go”. Having said that I’ve got some thoughts.
    Firstly, I think I oppose the belief that “if the players go that way it should happen, realism and alignment be damned”. Looking at this scenario that means I think it’s not even wrong for the big bad to get away with an escape plan (unless of course the players don’t like it but I’m assuming they’re neutral to the subject of railroading). Any big bad worthy of the title should have a way out of a tight spot. It may be railroading if no one knows but it certainly isn’t if things should have happened that way in the first place. Hobbling the big bad to give the players what they want is railroading too, just with a happier outcome for the players. That’s a great goal, but I’m just saying using Teleport isn’t railroading if the evil guy would have done it anyway. It might be unpopular though, which is different.
    Moving on, some of the soultions people suggested really are cool but I want to nitpick on the basis of realism. Making an underling take power or even creating a power struggle is cool. Having the villain surrender under false pretences and then break out is cool. Making the players vigilantes afterwards is cool. However, some people have suggested that as vigilantes the players should set about proving their innocence. Looking at what they did, this just wouldn’t happen. They killed a man because they didn’t like him. It doesn’t matter if what he was planning was on the order of Hitler, they didn’t know that when they killed him. The murder can’t go unpunished whether they prove the man was the big bad or not. Unless this city chooses not to punish him, which is perfectly ok to get the players out of this bottomless hole.
    In case I’ve been confusing (I’ve even forgotten what I mean by now) my point is you don’t have to got the realism route and you don’t have to go the “if the player doesn’t wants boomerangs to come back then that’s fine” and you don’t have to take any of the options between those extremes but if context says that something should happen and the DM takes that route then people shouldn’t cry “railroad”. Railroading is an entirely different issue.
    I’ll use an example from my group to clarify. Last time we were on a trail between two cities when suddenly we were ambushed by some members of the Bid Bad cult we’d been trying to suss out. During the course of the fight our DM happened to mention that he’d nerfed the encounter to keep us alive as our group was much smaller than usual. I was a bit annoyed by this. I’d thought we were doing well up until that point and instead I’d found out we were living by the grace of our DM. I had no problem with him doing it; it made the encounter much cooler but that was taken away by him telling us that. This is the equivalent of Shamus using the Russian Dolls BBEG, but TELLING the players he’d done it. It’s ok only as long as they don’t know and you did it to allow them their sense of accomplishment. After my Beguiler Charmed one and Whelmed a second to unconsciousness (double 6s: oh yeah) we had two of them to question after the fight. We started with the obvious ones: who sent you (that was for giggles) where did you come from, who’s your leader etc… A voice in my head told me that we’d be destroying a lot of the campaign I planned to enjoy getting answers from these questions but I couldn’t resist asking. Our DM, thinking the exact same thing I guuess, intervened and sprung on us an ability the cultists had, which was to become really powerful and grow scales (among other abilities) for a short time but die soon after. It was cool and it saved us from ourselves, really. The cultists were fanatical enough that they hadn’t answered our questions and died keeping those secrets (pretty realistic as fanatical cults go). This is kind of the analogue of the big bad teleporting away: the cultists were doing what they would have done anyway and if that involved frustrating our attempts to outsmart the DM so be it. Plus we enjoyed the revelation a lot more than if we’d found the Super Secret Enemy HQ, stormed it, and finished the campaign in 1/10th the time it was supposed to take.

  73. Jeff says:

    For me (at the risk of sounding like I take all this way too seriously) it's about respect. It's about knowing that the GM is actually listening to my input, that he actually understands that I am an intelligent, creative human being who has a story of my own to tell.

    And this, again, is merely the illusion of choice. So long as you believe all of the above, you feel respected.

    And again I point at the fundamental difference in game style here. When I have a story I want to be explored, I run a campaign. When I am a player, I want to explore what story the DM has prepared. I’m probably the easiest to satisfy player ever – give me a sense of progress, even if it’s just digging up information, or hacking down some enemies, and I’m happy.

  74. Josh says:

    I guess with all questions of manners and feeling respected one could argue it’s about appearance. But I think we can all agree that if I give the appearance of respecting you but call you names behind your back, the respect isn’t real.

    It definitely is about style though. There is nothing wrong with a completely railroaded roleplaying game, if that’s what you enjoy. There’s a spectrum of gaming styles between a totally railroaded story, to a totally open field, with variances for strategic gaming and collaborative worlds and all sorts of craziness.

  75. fair_n_hite_451 says:

    A bit late to the game here, but for me, it would depend on the “rest” of the game situation. I generally am working on more than one plot line at any one time – which I know confuses the players sometimes, but rewards them when they connect the threads that go together by sorting out the ones which belong somewhere else (it just seems more realistic to me if the setting isn’t a straight line between plot points).

    If I had a plot thread that they could take up if they killed the bad guy “accidentally” then I’d let him die and move on from their. They get their minor reward.

    Later, during my next prep session, I’d work out the consequences of their actions – who fills the power void they created, what do the authorities do when they find out, that sort of thing, to determine if there is a way to rescue the story line, or at least play out a different ending so they become aware of their good fortune.

    If there was no way to move any of the storylines forward, and letting the bad guy get killed would lead to the characters standing around scratching their heads, then I’d railroad an escape.

    The session has to keep moving forward and be entertaining, and I’d choose no railroading if I could pull that off, otherwise I’d be busting out the iron rails.


  76. Dan Hemmens says:

    And this, again, is merely the illusion of choice. So long as you believe all of the above, you feel respected.

    How exactly do you create the illusion of being listened to and respected?

    If a friend of yours rings you up and asks you if you want to go for a curry, and you say “no thanks, I’d rather go for a Chinese” and he says “alright, Chinese it is” then he has listened to you and respected your opinion. It’s impossible to fake that. It’s not like he can take you to an Indian restaurant without your noticing.

    It’s the same with an RPG. If I try to avoid having something happen to my character, and the GM makes it happen anyway, then no matter how he did it, not matter how consistent or inconsistent he is being, he has failed to listen to my input. And again you can’t fake that. If I say “my character goes looking for a brothel” and the GM says “there are no brothels nearby” then he has blocked my input. It doesn’t matter whether he just decided there and then that there were no brothels, or if he had it written in page 27 of his notes about bordello distribution in southern Eastwitch, he’s still blocked my input.

    Nodding, smiling, and pretending to listen doesn’t work in day to day life, why should it work in an RPG?

  77. Roxysteve says:

    Dan Hemmens Says:
    What place is there for them if Sauron loses?

    Win or lose, once it's decided, the campaign is over.

    I quite agree, but the key thing here is that (in the situation we have set up during this discussion) the players be convinced that unless they personally intervene in events, Sauron *will most certainly* win.

    If they choose not to get involved, well, no-one will give them the rewards they presumably exist to earn. In game terms, no XP.

    If I were playing Aaragorn, and I wanted my character's story arc to be “Scion of an ancient line of kings, rejects his heritage, and ultimately fails to save the world”

    Perhaps *you* should be writing a book then (no insult intended there). My personal take on the FTF RPG experience is that no player should decide out of game how the game is going to end – that should be down to their in-game planning and actions. I don’t say you shouldn’t be allowed to play your way, just that you and I wouldn’t have much fun in each other’s games.

    Look, in life sane people do not consciously strive to loose. They work for their own ends, some of which can be very twisty , but their actions are always to make things better in their own terms. To play a character as otherwise isn’t realistic. Moonglum* was a pessimist (most of the time) but didn’t knowingly work to his own detriment. Ditto Elric, Corum and all the other doomed characters of fiction. Your Aragorn would not *be* Aragorn were he to turn aside from the challenge.

    Should you wish to play a character as ultimately fated to loose, you can engineer that either by slanting your stats and skills in a counter productive way, then let events take their course.

    Or you can switch to Call of Cthulhu. Of course, then your character might end up as “Aragorn, ultimately doomed to sit naked in a field eating dung while claiming to be a small ballpoint pen named Gerald”.

    Actually, I can remember a fictitious character that exhibited the kind of behaviour you seem to be advocating – Tomas Covenant. I regard the White Gold W@nker as one of the lowest points in my reading addiction and definitely do not recommend the books to others.


    * Comapnion to champions. From one of the interminable Moorcock “Multiverse” book lines, I forget which.

  78. Roxysteve says:

    Sorry about the indadvertent link there, everyone.


  79. Roxysteve says:

    RibbitRibbit Says:
    Steve: What are the PCs destined to be? Before that I'd ask: In the game world, who ARE the PCs?

    At the risk of D&D-bashing, here I go.

    In D&D there is no mechanical, in-game reason for the PCs to do anything other than what they are good at.

    Ah, well, I can’t argue there. I never thought of it as a problem though. Teh D&D rules are a framework in which to play, not a universal set of axiomatic physical laws. The “missing” elements you go on to describe are what I usually place firmly in the responsibility of the players.

    Some do it better than others. Some do it way differently to anyone else. It’s usually all good. I, for example, usually role play in thrid person. I don’t believe doing voices is anywhere near as important as being able to firmly isolate out-of-game knowledge from in-game characters, but I don’t know anyone who can do it properly and the last toime I did this myself I got yelled at by the other players (all of whom had more games of D&D under their belts than I did).

    Sadly, I think you are right that the majority of today’s D&D players would need strictly enforced rules to force them to acknowledge character flaws or shortcomings. I’ve read through some rulesets that try and do that. None of them “work” well in my opinion. It’s like bolting on more alignment restrictions to most people.


  80. Roxysteve says:

    [f*ckup department] Blimey, I’m all thumbs today. Sorry about the missing italic markup to separate your stuff from mine Ribbitribbit. My bit starts with “Ah, well,”.


  81. RibbitRibbit says:


    Other than almost completely missing my point (or so it seems to me), you’re quite right :-)

    Anyway, I wasn’t talking about the “how” but rather about the “what”. D&D has no inherent “what” to speak of. Just for kicks, try asking every player of yours “What does your character want above anything else?” – and NOT accepting “Being the most powerful in the world” as an answer. The answer must have something to do with the story arc, but nothing as blatant as “Saving the world from the badguy”. Tie it nicely together so everyone has interesting (and sometimes crossing) goals, then give them XP based on pursuing that goal. And not just an XP BONUS. Double, heck TRIPLE their XP if they were pursuing that goal during the session. Every time they go up a level or if their mission is complete, allow them to provide another answer to “the question”.

    This way the “story” will by default be their story. Or – see how the DM is bound by it as well? – you’re hosing them because they get less XP!

  82. Dan Hemmens: “If I say “my character goes looking for a brothel” and the GM says “there are no brothels nearby” then he has blocked my input. It doesn't matter whether he just decided there and then that there were no brothels, or if he had it written in page 27 of his notes about bordello distribution in southern Eastwitch, he's still blocked my input.”

    Don’t go looking for brothels in the posh part of town. PCs shouldn’t automatically succeed at everything they attempt to do.

    Player: I kill the dragon.
    DM: Your 1st level. You can’t kill the dragon.
    Player: I wanna kill the dragon with my sword!
    DM: Fine. Give me your attack roll.

    (thirty seconds later)

    DM: The dragon breathes fire. (rolls damage) You die.

    Neither the brothel nor the dragon-slaying is an example of the DM blocking player input: It’s an example of a PC failing in their goal.

    Now, if the DM makes it impossible for the PC to ever find a brothel or slay a dragon (by going to the seedier side of town or gaining the power necessary to kill a dragon), then you’re looking at a railroad.

  83. Dan Hemmens says:

    Neither the brothel nor the dragon-slaying is an example of the DM blocking player input: It's an example of a PC failing in their goal.

    No, it’s not.

    When a player says “I kill the dragon” what they’re really saying is “I attempt to kill the dragon using the combat system which you and I both know is an integral part of the game we have both agreed to play, and which regulates, through the use of a tactical miniatures wargame, questions relating to who kills whom”

    When a player says “I go look for a brothel” they are saying “I would like to play out a scene in a brothel” or possibly “it is important to me that my character would look for a brothel in this situation.”

    The point is that in D&D “killing things” is a part of the core gameplay, and whether or not your character can kill something is modeled very clearly using a highly explicit ruleset. “Looking for brothels” is not part of the core gameplay, so it’s player creative input.

  84. Christian Groff says:

    I think that the idea of a right-hand man suddenly rising and taking power from the bad guy that was killed by stupid adventurers reminds me of Dimentio from Super Paper Mario, the crazy jester. He seemed to be a mere minion, but in truth he was trying to usurp Count Bleck’s power by stealing the Chaos Heart after Mario and the gang defeated him.

    In my own example, here’s another form of railroading(taken from the official AD&D Book of Villians) using Super Paper Mario again:

    * A spoiler to the game(so please don’t flame me) – Count Bleck was once a nice guy called Blumiere, but when his parents banished his beloved Timpani to her home world, he lost the will to live and used the Dark Progonoctis to become the evil Count Bleck and create the Chaos Heart to suck up the universe into oblivion.
    * However, Timpani ended up becoming a Pixl(fairy creature) who was helping the heroes. Eventually, in the confrontation with Count Bleck, Tippi tried to reason with him because she realized that Count Bleck was Blumiere and she was Timpani, his lover.

    Now, suppose I was DMing Super Paper Mario and Mario and the gang tackle Count Bleck on the samurai world(before getting the seventh Pure Heart) and kill him(not defeat, but actually rip off his head or something violent leading to his death). The Chaos Heart is destroyed, the Void vanishes, all is well, right?

    Well, not really…

    I’d have Tippi realize Bleck’s origins and, after seeing her beloved die at the hands of those she helped, she loses it. She runs away, finds a way to the Chaos Heart, and takes its power for herself, turning her evil. In short, she started blowing up the universe with the Void because she has become like her lover had been – losing the will to live and seeking to destroy those who killed her lover. She becomes the new villian and may be even more dangerous than Bleck. ^_^

  85. Marty says:

    I think the underling idea works a little bit better, but YMMV… I wasn’t super opposed to the other idea, but the disucssion was about looking for better or more logical alternatives.

    during my next prep session, I'd work out the consequences of their actions

    fair_n_hite_451 said better what I was trying to say. The actions of the characters have consequences in my scenario. The characters may become on-the-run outlaws, and there will be a power struggle to fill the void that the Big Bad left. This changes the plot according to the players’ actions, rather than just saying “Well, he wasn’t the *real* Big Bad… there’s this other guy…”

    In the Star Wars example, if the Emporer is killed, he isn’t replaced by a higher Emperor… but there may be all kinds of chaos in the Empire as others compete for position in the new heirarchy (under Darth Vader likely, but maybe there are some who think Vader is too bloodthirsty for the good of the Empire [Thrawn?] and would like to off him too).

    The same should happen with this scenario. Maybe there isn’t a single Big Bad now, but 3 or 4 Slightly Smaller Bads who are now all trying to become the new Big Bad. This could be a real hoot (and a challenge) for the DM because the Lesser Bads will not only be trying to thwart the PCs, but each other as well (and may use the PCs to do so).

    This is a more logical result of the PCs killing off the Big Bad accidentally…

    Though, in honesty, I’d probably have had him escape.

  86. Shamus says:

    What is it about this very simple situation that eludes people? I wouldn’t have to say, “Well, he wasn't the *real* Big Bad… there's this other guy…” because the players HAD NO IDEA who he was when he died.

    And what is this “logical result” assertion? It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to create an epic story, then hunting down minions doesn’t build to a climax the way fighting one big bad does.

    Look, I’m tired of debating this with people who refuse to acknowledge my differing goals or the particulars of the situation I’ve set down. Do what you like, but if you want to debate this with me you need to get into the same hypothetical situation I’m in. Otherwise this will be another 85 comments of people talking past each other.

  87. Josh says:

    I still think this boils down to simulation vs. storytelling. If you’re simulating a gameworld where there is this Big Bad dude with some Little Bad minions, and the Good Guys come along and kill Big Bad, then the logical consequence is that the Little Bads will fight it out to see who becomes the new Big Bad. Now, that might or might not lead to a good story (it depends on a lot of factors).

    OTOH my impression of what Shamus is saying is, he’d consider writing in a new Bigger Bad (Biggest Bad?) to keep the plot going. Or maybe promote one of the Little Bads to Big Bad. Because that leads to a smoother transition from the original storyline, from a pure storytelling POV it could be considered better. The “Little Bads fight it out” version is just too risky from a storytelling POV – could lead to the players hunting down minions in a non-dramatic way.

    Equally though, if you do happen to have some Little Bads on hand, it would be simplest to declare that one of them wins the Little Bad War relatively quickly, enabling them to take their role of New Big Bad without being easily defeated by the Good Guys while in disarray. The result would be that the story stays somewhat on track, but might change direction a little due to the new Big Bad’s personality shaping things.

    Maybe the best rule is “railroad/retcon only where necessary, and by the smallest amount necessary to avoid a total trainwreck[*].”

    [*] See what I did there?

  88. Dan Hemmens says:

    I still think this boils down to simulation vs. storytelling.

    I think it does for some people, but not for everybody.

    For me in particular, it’s about whether the best story is always the one you had in your head from the beginning, and whether the players can expect to actually influence the *nature* of the story, rather than just the direction of it.

    To take Shamus’ campaign (his actual campaign, see the links on the right) as an example: the campaign was always going to be about the PCs fighting Mordan. That was The Story, and Shamus tailored the events of the game to make sure that story happened. Some events happened in a different order, some sidequests got skipped, and the players came up with a solution which (as far as I can tell) wasn’t what Shamus had expected, but the Story (group of heroes are tricked into awakening ancient Lich, they must find a way to weaken him by destroying his Phylactery, while slowly learning more about the history of the island on which they have landed) was written before they even sat down to their first session.

    That’s a perfectly good way to play the game, and clearly Shamus’ group are very happy with it, but it *does* deny the players an element of creative involvement. They don’t get to contribute to the story, only to take part in it.

  89. Dan Hemmens says:

    Look, I'm tired of debating this with people who refuse to acknowledge my differing goals or the particulars of the situation I've set down.

    I acknowledge your goals, but I don’t agree with your definition of “an epic story”.

    Specifically, you seem to define a story as a sequence of events which take place in the gameworld: a Dark Lord arises, the heroes initially trust him, he betrays them and they discover the truth, the heroes fight the dark lord and he is defeated. What you seem to be saying in this example is that you will change the gameworld specifically in order to preserve the structure of the plot.

    It isn’t replacing the villain that I find so irksome in this example: there needs to be a big bad, after all. It’s replacing the villain in such a way as to preserve the pre-designed plot-twists. It’s not that you’ve changed the world to put your plot back on track, it’s that you’ve made the immediate assumption that the plot *needs* to be put back on track.

    The way this situation is described, your PCs aren’t *really* the main characters of the story: they’re just there to witness the story and move it along.

  90. Marty says:

    Shamus — don’t misinterpret my comments. I’m not trying to tell you that your approach is wrong for your group. I was just trying to offer alternative possibilities because the article asks “How would you do it?”

    That’s all.

    I still think this boils down to simulation vs. storytelling.

    Somewhat… read on, MacDuff.

    Perhaps I lean more toward simulation… If I set up a scenario where there’s a villian seeking Ultimate Power(TM) and he somehow dies, I try to think of what would logically happen next in in the game world if it were left to its own devices. Thinking about it in those terms, that does sound a little more like simulation since I’m trying to find a solution that fits the logic of the fantasy world.

    Even if I hadn’t (yet) designed all his minions or underlings, the “reality” of the game world would say that he’s probably not trying to pull this off alone (obviously this depends on the scenario, but bear with me for a moment). If his plans included raising an army or having powerful creatures and/or persons helping him achieve his goal, those below him may try to achieve the same goal once he’s dead. They might even turn out to be more dangerous in the long run.

    I’m just saying, for my own purposes, I would let the world spin out its own “reality” with the absence of the Big Bad and look at what results. Call it “narrative causality” for lack of a better term. I ask myself, “What would happen next? Given the logic of the game world I’m creating, how would events move forward?” This is what works for me, but others might have a different approach.

    However, I don’t think this is strictly simulation because even storytelling has an internal logic that serves the narrative. Saying that one approach is storytelling and the other is simulation may be over simplifying.

    In any case, this part of the discussion has turned into being about more narrative style than anything else…

    However, my favorite part of this described scenario would be revealing to the party (later in the campaign) that their part in the death of Joe Bad Guy earlier has actually lead to the rise of the new, even more evil Bob Bad Guy — that their actions can have detrimental effects on their world (especially if they’re just randomly killing people they don’t like).

    That would be where I get to have some fun at their expense. :)

  91. Josh says:

    It would be even more interesting to have the players discover the existence of Bob Bad Guy in advance – so they have the moral choice whether to kill Joe Bad Guy and let Bob take control, or let the lesser evil continue (for now). I love presenting that kind of moral choice to players.

    Re narrative causality, you’re exactly right of course. Even a simulated world will normally have a tendency towards interesting events noticably lacking in the real world. But that still works within what is plausible and logical for that world, even if the players don’t know it. The best thing about this for me is that when players say “you just made that up to railroad us” or similar, I can always say “I didn’t; there was a reason for it, you just don’t know about it (yet).” Having the players know OOC that for the most part everything happens for a reason encourages them to take the world seriously.

  92. Marty says:

    Getting even more off the track, this reminds me of a campaign plot that I fleshed out, but never got to DM.

    I had a rival kingdoms plot set up so that tensions between two countries were winding up and things were getting heated on both sides — starting out with small skirmishes, but eventually blooming to all out war (if there were no proper intervention).

    Neither side was truly “evil”, but there was good and bad on both sides and depending on how the PCs got caught up in the struggle, they might end up more sympathetic to one side or another.

    Because of all the shades of gray on both sides, it would have allowed for some really nice ethics and morality choices during play.

    But I ended up moving away from that group due to life circumstances, so we never really got going.

  93. tussock says:

    We killed the bad guy, great. Now, how the hell do we convince everyone else we didn’t just slaughter the ambassador for no reason at all before they hunt us down? Oh crap, here comes the guard, this looks bad, let’s try not to kill them, the back door, quick.

    Great fun ensues, trying to be the heroes when everyone thinks you’re the villians.

    Not every campaign has to progress the way you expected, and your example presents fine challenges to overcome without railroading.

  94. Freggle says:

    Interesting setting Shamus,

    I like your idea of builing a new Bad Guy quite much, but I think letting him get away sometimes is not always cheating. You can make it clear that at this stage the Bad Guy is still way to powerfull for the players to beat (if they will get to level up before the final meeting), or let the Bad Guy run for it, through a route that is fast for one NPC, but slows a group down, so he can get away fair. Like traps, that hurt one PC, so they have to stop and heal him, thus sloowing down or so.
    Still I like your idea too.

  95. Anonymous Bosch says:

    No one believes he was the bad guy; the players are disgraced, fined, and banished or imprisoned. Now they must escape and find a new place to settle, and if you can’t use that time to come up with something else for them to do, you can try to convince them to restore their reputations by uncovering proof that the guy they killed really was bad, finding his hideouts, stashes, secret documents, etc. You can reuse most of your material, but instead of racing against the clock to stop the villain, now they must avoid the guardsmen/assassins/spies/whatever. And who knows what might happen to complicate matters further.

  96. Anon says:

    Over the past month or so, I’ve been putting together a loosely constructed Lovecraftian Epic set in an original multiverse. Four of the dark gods that existed before the multiverse was birthed by their treacherous sibling (the current over-deity, something like an 80~120Lvl/90rnk entity) have spent countless, timeless eons plotting their escape and overthrow of their brother.

    By corrupting four beings of the material ream with epic weapons forged by an insane mage (total enhancements of 30 each). BBEGs that will release the four gods from imprisonment in the Far Realm can be anyone and BB status can transfer to new weilders (using corruption and depravity rules from heroes of horror)

    I figure, this way, the villains can be defeated several times, and can even become a PC(s). Of course I have to build the entire world and five extremely epic deities, plus supporting cast and archetype guides, but I figure I’ve got plenty of room to keep several leaps and bounds ahead of the characters’ adventures, I hope.

    So, uh… I’m not exactely sure any railroading done in this type of setup could really be considered railroading, more like “actively guiding the story towards the players’ interests” the ideal is to have the plots in a prefered order but the storyline only has a begining and an end, so the middle is left up to how the characters act and how the dice fall. they could all die, but I have something up my sleeve should that happen; they could go insane, or only some of them; they could achieve a storybook ending, or a grim victory.

    So, I think my established goal for the campaign is to write the story how it happens, the adventure is set, but the events therein are left to will and fate.

  97. Fiery Diamond says:

    I DM. Here’s what I would do in that situation – not get in that situation. I run games with plot, but I don’t come up with all the plot prior to the game. I never plan more than a few sessions in advance. I’m not writing a novel (although I love to do that, too). I’m not the author of the story – the players are just as involved as me. If they unexpectedly kill someone I intended to be a primary villain, then I have plenty of time to think up some way of incorporating that into the story. I also tend to have lots of small arcs, rather than one giant arc with a lot of detail. I start with a vague idea of the overarching plot, which becomes more concrete as they affect the world through the smaller arcs. The “plot twists” are often things I have only come up with a few sessions in advance, or they come about /because/ of choices the characters made giving me ideas.

  98. Roninsoul7 says:

    I never put anything into stone except my NPC’s, and that means that should my players “skip” right to the big bad of an epic long campaign from the getgo, then they were looking for a hack and slash, and I plan the next campaign around that idea. That being said, before you begin any campaign at all, you should take time to talk to your players and see what type of game they actually want to play. If they want roleplay and you like that, go with it, if they like rollplay and you don’t, tell them to find a new DM. Once you have a party together, you make your world, your npc’s, and then set it all to spinning. Nothing in life is static, even rocks move incrementally all the time, so your campaign shouldn’t be either unless you already planned it to be short. They don’t go the way you want, oh well, there should be a whole world out there for them to explore, and that means more to do, with you having a general idea of what is out there.

    My players once skipped to the end, the premade bad guy used the abilities he had, my party wiped. They learned from it though and didn’t make the same mistake twice. Not every game has to last forever (unlike my dialogue), they just have to have fun while it was there and possibly learn something.

  99. RCN says:

    Ok, here goes nothing on another ANCIENT AS DIRT post.

    This is actually interesting for me. A mental exercise on the case this hypothetical situation happen in my current group.

    Now, it can happen that the group happen upon or take the drop at the high-ranking magistrate that is personally hunting down the master of the group’s wizard. What to do in this case…

    Actually, this is easy. If they defeat and kill HIM, then Vectorius, the true leader and high ruler of the flying magocratic city (see my post on the last, even older post in this), will be pissed. He himself is mostly indifferent to the case of the group wizard’s master, but if one of his magistrates end up killed because of this he’ll not be happy. Sure, the characters would be aware of what just happened, and this I think would be an organic progression of events. But it certainly wouldn’t be positive for the group. Vectorious is one of the few high-profile, epic level characters of the setting. Having him as an enemy would be really, really one sided.

    And Vectorius IS willing to act directly when it comes to his close magistrates.

    So… this is actually a big no-no. I’d rather they deal with this problem through political channels, but if they happen to kill this magistrate… it is actually feasible HE’D have some backup plan. Those magistrate have lots of resources and are high-level wizards themselves… STOP. Bad thinking. Ok, he can easily evade the group… but what if by some unusual occurrence, he can’t? Go back. He’s dead… how to deal with it.

    I mean, the wizard knows perfectly well exactly who is the magistrate after his master, and the only one directly above him is Vectorious himself… Having his master interceding in favor of the group would feel too much like NPC to the rescue to be a valid approach.

    Actually, I know. Vectorius would play his hand. They’d be captured (or at least, very likely captured). And Vectorious would charge then and then put them on trial. Now… this is interesting.

    Now all the plot twists and ideas I have prepared for this magistrate can become clues the PCs can investigate in order to clean their name and expose the magistrate as a truly vindictive and nefarious persona, cleaning their name. I’d just need to find a way for the PCs to be mostly free to roam around and do their investigations while at the same time being in undeniable custody in the flying city. And in this they’d uncover and confront this magistrate’s accomplices and allies. Actually, this can even end up more interesting than just the slow and compartmentalized games of political intrigue… though I really want to make this intrigue something more of a biteful at a time so that the players don’t get slogged into all of it at once, but you must admit this works.

    Not to say your way doesn’t work, Shamus. Actually, I find some interesting elegance about it. But I couldn’t just discard everything I’ve put in a character to exchange him for someone else. I guess it is not my style, or I’m just not mature enough to deal with it. But I’m glad I got to an answer I’m actually okay with.

  100. Aeshdan says:

    Shamus, your Option 1 makes an assumption that I disagree with. You assume that if the players accidentally kill the BBEG, then the story ends in an anticlimax and nothing interesting can come of it. Why? Why can’t the preliminary defeat of the BBEG simply cause a new and interesting set of adventures to arise? For example, you mentioned that the BBEG has been running various schemes and manipulations in the background. Now, without him to guide them, all his carefully managed plots and plans are going to run out of control, causing chaos which the PCs may have to resolve.

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