By Shamus Posted Wednesday May 23, 2007

Filed under: Tabletop Games 110 comments

Once I’d gotten around to clarifying my point, yesterday’s discussion on railroading yielded a lot of interesting comments and suggestions. A few people copped out and refused to consider the hyothetical situation presented with reasons why the DM shouldn’t ever BE in such a spot or how they would avoid the situation by having the bad guy escape. This is why they are called hypothetical situations. Sheesh. The point wasn’t to argue about game mechanics or playing styles, or the appropriate strength for the antagonist in a game, but to illustrate a situation where altering the unknown portions of the gameworld was preferable to letting the story run into the ground or lose momentum

A few other people joined in with posts at their own blogs: Catalyst had interesting things to say. Big City, Bright Lights jumped in with some interesting thoughts which were diminished by stooping to petty insults.

Also, while not directly a response to my post, this post at New Media Matters has a lot of related thoughts on the subject. (Also, NMM looks like a brand-new blog, and there are already a lot of great posts there.)

A couple of people took reflexive and almost irrational offsense at my suggestion, and some were even insulting. You’d think I was barging in and telling them how to run their game or something. I have bite marks all over my ankles now.

However, many people took the time to form an interesting answer and proposed a few other ways of dealing with events that threaten to take the excitement out of the plot of the game. My point, which some agreed with, was that changes to the storyline were justified in order to save the plot from a bad (that is, uninteresting) turn. Nobody wants to see a great story end with a shrug due to some unforseen actions on the part of the players or lack of foresight on the part of the DM, although nearly everyone has different ideas on what sorts of actions are the best and show the most respect to player freedom. As lots of people said: It depends on the game you’re playing. I know if I saved my bad guy by having him teleport away my players would feel robbed, but if I were to reveal that they had just slain the antagonist’s second, they would feel like they are working to uncover a real conspiracy. Other people made it clear that the opposite was true in their groups, and that having the adversary teleport away was the best device to heighten tension. Cool. Know your players and give them what they want.

In any case, my point was that the DM should work towards making a thrilling tale, even if it means altering the undiscovered aspects of the gameworld. The point isn’t to follow the predetermined path, but to follow whatever route looks to be most exciting for your players. I’m willing to make whatever changes, retcon or no, planned or no, to achieve that end. If that means re-arranging the bad guy org chart, so be it. If that means altering his loot, or adding clues, inventing new NPCs, or changing the alliances of NPCs, fine. Really: If I was making it up as I go, I would make it up to be as dramatic as possible, right? So, I’m making it up as I go, but I’m using my initial plot arc as a framework. In act 3 they are going to fight somebody huge in a big way when the stakes are high. If they lower the stakes or kill the big bad, I’ll alter things to return the plot to my act 3 ideal. I don’t think this is being inflexible at all. I think this is going in with a plan, and being adaptable from there.

I’m not saying my way is best, but it works for us so far and we’ve enjoyed our games. For the curious, I have many examples of changes I made to an evolving storyline in our D&D campaign, which is full of DM notes which detail changes to the world. That plot was designed to build to a climax in act 3, which it did. There are a few examples in there of when I did and did not alter the world to suit the plot.

Update: Locri responds here. If I’d read the word “inexperienced” instead of “immature” – which is what he was really saying – it wouldn’t have phased me. No big deal. It’s nice that Locri took the time to respond and smooth things out.


From The Archives:

110 thoughts on “Derailers

  1. Dan Hemmens says:

    In any case, my point was that the DM should work towards making a thrilling tale, even if it means altering the undiscovered aspects of the gameworld. The point isn't to follow the predetermined path, but to follow whatever route looks to be most exciting for your players.

    I get that, the thing is that you seem to be starting from the assumption that “what is most exciting for your players” is what you originally planned to have happen.

  2. Jeremiah says:

    “The point isn't to follow the predetermined path, but to follow whatever route looks to be most exciting for your players.”

    That’s probably the most important sentence in the post. Too many DM’s just want to tell THEIR story in THEIR way, and just drag the PC’s along trying to force them to be interested in all the cool shit they’ve made up.

  3. Cenobite says:

    Sure, every DM needs to be adaptable to the situation, and be creative enough to do re-writing on the fly. But there has to be a limit. What do you do when it becomes obvious that the players no longer want to have anything to do with the module/dungeon?

    I offer a brief tale from my days of running Cyberpunk as an example. Granted, it’s not fantasy, but the analogy still fits. My players were tasked to do a mission. However, in the course of completing that mission, they were insulted by a representative of a rather large corporation, and decided to avenge the insult.

    I warned them that pursuing this would lead to certain death for most if not all of the party. I even had an NPC mentor-figure stop by and tell them to their faces that this was suicide. (Not to mention, campaign breaking.) They ignored the warnings and made preparations for war.

    It was several hundred well-armed cybernetic mercenaries against six amateurs. I don’t think I need to get into details as to who won.

    But I will say that the players took out more of the opposition than I had expected them to…and one of them even managed to survive for quite a long time. Of course I had to throw out the campaign notes, and my players all had to re-roll characters. But they agreed (several years later) that it was some of the best gaming they had ever done, because the total absence of script or structure felt oddly liberating. What they had done was stripped the “role”-playing game of the pretense of the universe (and having a persona, or a stake, in it) for a matter of hours…effectively reducing it to a pure combat simulator game…and it was loads of fun. It was not a rebellion against my rule, it was not something that they planned to do at the outset, and it was not a protest against the campaign by trashing it. It was simply a shift in the winds…a sea change of how they wanted to play the game. I was against the change (the last person to get onboard with the new idea) because, as the DM, I was used to enforcing the rules of the railroad against all player opposition. This experience made me realize that the railroad can sometimes be viewed as a constrictive prison, and if the players ever get into this kind of collective mood, then the best thing for the DM to do is convert the session into a jailbreak.

    (Caveat: I certainly do not recommend to anyone that they try to use 3.5 as a pure combat simulator.)

  4. Dan Hemmens says:

    I warned them that pursuing this would lead to certain death for most if not all of the party. I even had an NPC mentor-figure stop by and tell them to their faces that this was suicide. (Not to mention, campaign breaking.) They ignored the warnings and made preparations for war.

    Another option, though, would have been to roll with it.

    Make the game about their quest for revenge against the corporation. You could easily have stopped them getting creamed by 600 armed mercenaries if you wanted to: give them a softer target to strike at, have the corporation, impressed by their chutzpah, offer them a job. The possibilities were endless.

  5. Hi Shamus,

    Thanks for the shout out!

    Strangely, I had no idea that the broohahaha about railroading was taking place here when I nabbed that page from “DM of the Rings” page.

    I started a thread back on a long time ago about Railroadig, and the final conclusion I drew was that “railroading” is a slippery term… People don’t apply it until they are BOTHERED by what happens!

    That said, there are plenty of ways to play. The issue is how the style and techniques of play are working for the group.

    My own style is looser in GM control than yours. (And the links I provide over at NMM offer up a half dozen games that support that looser play.

    But as long as everyone at your table is happy with the techniques you are using, then all is cool.

    You’ve got a great site. And I love “The DM of the Ring”! Keep it up.


  6. Shamus says:

    After reading a few comments on earlier posts, I think I’m finally getting what is upsetting the derailers: It isn’t any one particular change, but the very idea that the DM would make these sorts of changes. For them, it is breaking trust with the players.

    I see how that would be really upsetting for players who expect a deterministic world.

  7. Dan Hemmens says:

    As I say, it’s not changes for me, it’s rejection of input.

  8. Cestus says:

    Shamus, I think that is exactly it. If I were playing in the game and I found out that we would fight a bad guy in act III regardless of what we did in act II, I’d be bummed. If even killing the main bad guy just means we have to fight another bad guy, the game is not simulating reality at all, and I lose interest. And the fact my character’s action cannot influence the world, that would make me lose interest.

    But if I never found out, I might be okay with it. I might actually enjoy it. It’s a dangerous game.

  9. thark says:

    Uh, yeah, what Chris said. *waves cute ‘me too’ flag* :-)

    Interestingly, I can enjoy playing in a classic-style DM-spoonfeeds-players-with-plot game, as long as it’s done well (and I get to have fun hamming it up with a shallowly eccentric character on the way).

    Trying to run one, though, would bore me to tears these days. Not to mention I’m not very good at it. (And it typically involves a lot more up-front prepwork than the type of game Chris describes much better than I could be arsed to–yes, I’m a lazy booger.)

  10. Benedict Cusack says:

    Hey Shamus. This was a really interesting debate.

    Just one idea to add re your suggestion about what to do when the characters accidentally killed the uber-bad-guy too early. Instead of switching the leader with his 2nd in command, how about having said second-in-command-bad-guy “usurp” the leader’s throne? Maybe he has been waiting for just such an opportunity to do so, but couldn’t before for some reason (eg he didn’t have possession of some special magical device that the leader had – make something up). So now that our team has killed the main bad guy, what if this second-in-command bad guy turns out to be a much worse bad guy now that he’s in charge? Perhaps he’s got his own plans for world domination? And his own powers and allegiances that he brings to bear? Perhaps he was always going to take control, but our characters just sped up the process?

    This is even more than rolling with the punches, it’s writing your team’s actions into the story as you go, in a way where they’ll eventually see the direct effect they have on the game world. You still have to make a few changes (eg the battle with the main bad guy didn’t occur in the “real” hideout after all, so now you have to invent the actual hideout someplace else…). Maybe the characters don’t find out right away who they killed? It’s not like the big bad guy has a note in his pocket saying “I am the big bad guy”, so maybe the characters find out another way later on? Perhaps there is a change in the “modus operandi” of whatever evil-deeds are going on, for example the troll attacks on the villages suddenly change to goblin attacks, because goblins are the 2IC’s henchman of choice? Or the dark-alley murders stop, and instead some money-transportation stage coaches get hit? There are lots of ways of subtlely letting your characters know that something big changed, and then leave them to work out what it was…

    I don’t actually plan out every detail of my campaigns for this reason. I work out a series of events that will happen somewhere, and I make a plan whereby my characters should be somewhere in the vicinity at the time, but if they didn’t show up to the village til a day too late, then so be it: they find all the houses burnt down and they miss their chance to save the villagers! This is a more immersive approach, rather than aiming for epic. It is hit-and-miss, but probably no more so than other strategies. It’s also a really great challenge of your creative powers to tell a _good_ story completely on the fly. There is a big payoff if you nail it.


  11. Telas says:

    Be advised, there’s a definite line between “people who discuss gaming theory” and “people who actually game”.

    The talkers (vs gamers) are very similar to the self-proclaimed martial artists who will roundly criticise no-holds-barred fighting (UFC, Shooto, Vale Tudo, Pride, etc), but will never actually spar with anyone. Or the Monday-morning quarterback who played football that one year in high school. Or the drama critic who makes horrid movies (Valley of the Dolls, anyone?).

    Last year, I got in a debate with a alleged gamer, and he made some pretty strong comments about D&D that had no basis in my experience. I asked him when he last played, and after some evasion, he finally said that he had played a high-level 3.0 game two years ago.

    And these days, it’s just fashionable to criticize. *shrug*

  12. Telas says:

    BTW, that post was not aimed at either side in the debate. There are inexperienced critics on either side of almost any debate.

    As for this one, both sides have a point. It really comes down to what you want out of a game, and acknowledging that it’s probably not going to be what everyone else wants out of a game.


  13. Dan Hemmens says:

    Be advised, there's a definite line between “people who discuss gaming theory” and “people who actually game”.

    No, there isn’t. It’s just fashionable to say there is.

    Your “alleged gamer” probably gave up on D&D those two years ago because he had legitimate issues with it and has probably been playing other games since.

    Saying “your criticisms of D&D are invalid because you no longer play D&D” is bad enough, but to equate “no longer playing D&D” with “not being a gamer” is ludicrous.

  14. Smith says:

    I haven’t necessarily agreed with your previous material on railroading, as havign the players derail your plan only to pull a switcheroo and put th eplan back on the rails is, IMO, still railroading, but this I wholeheartedly agree with:

    “In any case, my point was that the DM should work towards making a thrilling tale, even if it means altering the undiscovered aspects of the gameworld. The point isn't to follow the predetermined path, but to follow whatever route looks to be most exciting for your players. I'm willing to make whatever changes, retcon or no, planned or no, to achieve that end. ”

    I believe that the best campaigns are the ones in which the DM sets the options, but the players make the story based upon their choices and how the world reacts to them. The DM might do some behind the scenes adjustments to be able to reuse old plans, but at a minimum the players must have the illusion of free will. If the basic idea is that the PCs must retrieve the MacGuffin to defeat bad guy X and prevent him from carrying out his evil plan, and the PCs figure out a way to stop the evil plan without retrieving the MacGuffin or defeating bad guy X and they succeed, that’s ideal. If the DM has to substitute bad guy Y for X, that’s OK, if done logically. What’s bad is if no matter what decisions the players make, their PCs are forced to first retrieve the Macguffin, then defeat bad guy X in some predetermined way. If my decisions as a player don’t matter, I might as well be reading a novel or watching a movie.

  15. Doug Brown says:

    Not repay evil with evil, or whatever, but:

    That Locri guy’s post is priceless. “Interesting thoughts?” You give him, oh, 1×10^35 more credit than he deserves. He offers nothing but question-begging and silly ad hominems.

    And if you weren’t so immature, you’d agree with me.


  16. Nathanael says:

    From the perspective of both a GM and a Player (of tabletops and a few MMOs)…

    I think both LotR:O and KotOR are good examples of how I like my stories in my tabletop RPGs. I like having stories and plots available for the taking, and I like being aware of the various things that can be done. However, I also like having the choice if/when to do them. I’m not fond of the typical Final Fantasy “Oh, but you must!” railroad approach, nor am I fond of the Morrowwind “Here’s the world, go do stuff” techniques.

    I think it is safe to say that I like having the railroad tracks laid down, but I also prefer to be driving an ATV when (or if) I (choose to) follow them.

  17. Jim in Buffalo says:

    I was going to write five or six long paragraphs detailing my exact take on this topic, but then I had to go to the bathroom and when I came back I forgot it all.

  18. bruce says:

    The example of the major villain dying early and being replaced there have been complaints of “I would have felt cheated…”. Well, only if you found out. It’s only railroading if the players find out you’ve done it.

    We played in a game once where we were chasing a NPC whom the DM had decided was going to get away. However we were making all out rolls and catching him. The DM had him make a 90 degree turn while running at full speed (remember the TV series Automan anyone?). It was obviously contrived and see all knew we were railroaded with no chance of catching him no matter what we did. However if he had done it subtly we would never have realised. (As he runs past the door of the local tavern, a crowd of rough looking characters step out into the street. Roll your to avoid running into them…) But we were young and inexperienced and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    In the example of the players vs 300 mercs, by fudging die rolls to keep them alive when they did something stupid and refuse to run away just railroading as well (hey, the DM isn’t letting us die, we can do what we want…) It made for a heroic and memorable story, but next week it was time to re-roll new characters. If they were happy with that fine.

    This discussion seems to be spending a lot of time stripping off the paint and looking underneath to see what’s there instead of just enjoying the picture. RPGing has to have an amount of co-operation between players and DM to work. The DM is not God. He doesn’t have a detailed background for every character you meet or every square inch of the imaginary world the characters are walking round in. If you want to believe in the Wizard of Oz, don’t go looking behind the curtain.

  19. bruce says:

    Hey, if you use the little left and right v shapes while posting, it deletes them and what you’ve written between them…

  20. pseudosilence says:

    Shamus, I didn’t post earlier, cuz, well, I agree with you. Your approach seems pretty reasonable, and I’d probably have a blast playing in your game.

    Just to throw a little support into all the discussion.

  21. Telas says:

    Dan Hemmens @ 13:
    Your “alleged gamer” probably gave up on D&D those two years ago because he had legitimate issues with it and has probably been playing other games since.

    He may well have legit issues with D&D (God knows I sometimes do), but it’s not valid to use a single imbalanced experience with an old version of a game for a one-sided flamewar. :)

    Saying “your criticisms of D&D are invalid because you no longer play D&D” is bad enough, but to equate “no longer playing D&D” with “not being a gamer” is ludicrous.

    I agree with you, which is why I didn’t make that comparison. I equated “no longer gaming” with “not really being a gamer”. The Forge and many other gaming forums are full of people who tear apart rulesets without actually playing them. I’m merely suggesting that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. ;)

  22. “The example of the major villain dying early and being replaced there have been complaints of “I would have felt cheated…”. Well, only if you found out. It's only railroading if the players find out you've done it.”

    And it’s only theft if you get caught?

    Seriously. The point at which you say “this is bad if you get caught” is the point at which you admit that “this is bad” and lose the debate.

    Dan Hemmens nailed it earlier in the thread: Railroading is about negating the contribution your players are making to the game. The entire structure of an RPG is designed SPECIFICALLY for the players to contribute in exactly the fashion that railroading negates.

    Playing in a railroaded RPG campaign is like playing a game of Monopoly where you can’t buy property and aren’t required to pay rent. Sure, you may be rolling the dice and moving your piece around the board, but you’re not exactly playing the game.

    There’s a reason why the archetypal player response to railroading is: “I’m just going to sit back, relax, and let you finish your novel.”

    If you want to write a story, write a story. If you want to GM an RPG session, then GM an RPG session.

  23. Attorney At Chaos says:

    IMHO, knowing what your group wants and playing towards that end is the key. Playing towards your original storyline may or may not be a major part of that. Every year I get more experience DMing (around 30 years now….). Every year I spend less effort in pre-detailing the universe and plotlines and spend more effort modifying things based on what the players are actually doing.

    Party of 1st-3rd level adventurers needs to sneak into a walled city.

    Preparation 25 years ago: I work out 7 ways they can accomplish this. Standard stuff – they have thieves so they could contact the local smugglers guild, they can go up the sewage outfall, they can wait two days for a major ceremony they know will be held outside the city and then sneak into the crowd going back inside, etc. etc.

    Actual result 25 years ago – they don’t try ANY of the 7 ways I planned for. The party splits and tries ways 8, 9 and 10. (Group trying 8 gets captured, group trying 9 gets in, single person trying 10 should have been captured but the dice are kind – needs AND GETS a roll of 00 on percentile dice. Group 9 meets player 10 and they break the 8s out of jail.)

    Preparation nowadays: None. See what they come up with and evaluate it on the spot. Enjoyment level about the same, much less wasted effort and frustration for the DM.

    Just like the above tactical situation, much the same thing happens with strategic (plot) situations. I just never know which item the players will fixate on. They might fixate on an item that I improvised on the spot, something which had no importance whatsoever in my plans – up until the point they fixated on it. Well, this is cooperative storytelling as far as I’m concerned. If it’s important to them it becomes important to me and I’ll improvise something around their fixation. They may or may not ever make it back to the story I originally had in mind, but they’re generally happy playing the game that THEY chose.

    If the big bad is at all intelligent he will have reasonable contingency plans. Maybe INVISIBILITY and FLY at low levels, maybe CONTINGENCY (TELEPORT) or GEMJUMP at higher ones. He should not be impossible to kill but if he is posing as a merchant and the group only takes precautions to keep a merchant from fleeing in this spontaneous fight I’d expect him to get away. But if PCs toss in a DIMENSIONAL ANCHOR or ANTI-MAGIC FIELD and prevent his escape, so be it. Shifting the storyline around is something I’m prepared to do at any time.

    Besides, quite often the players will come up with storylines that sound BETTER to me than what I had planned. If they are discussing the situation and one of them comes up with some “I’ll bet this is what is happening” that sounds better than my own intended storyline, I may adopt their premise on the spot. They feel good about having “figured it out”. Since I’m not wedded to my own storyline, I don’t feel bad about abandoning it for something better. IMHO the overall enjoyment of the players is just as high if not higher going in with an open storyline.

  24. Arson55 says:

    Railroading debate…I don’t think I’ve ever had players jump the tracks completely during a campaign once the story has gotten started. I’ve had them ignore the initial hooks frequently. I try a few reserve hooks and if they don’t get a bite, I start scrambling for a new plot (I run a lot of diceless games so I generally don’t have to worry about stats for the bad guys) sometimes it works, more frequently it doesn’t. At that point, I call the game off, admit I don’t know where it is going, and we take a break for awhile. I think over things while we dosomething else, and we come back later with a new setting and new ideas for a plot.

  25. Alan De Smet says:

    “Immature”? Gah! That’s a crude and sloppy way to escape debate. It’s one of the things that drives me so mad about The Forge. There is lots of really interesting discussons there, but if you disagree with some of the core beliefs (like that GNS might not be the One True Organizing System, or that maybe system doesn’t matter quite as much as they think), they fall back to “You just don’t understand. We’ll try explaining it in small words once more.”

    As to railroading, I appreciate your point Shamus. And you’re definitely right; how you tweak the story strongly depends on your players. If you know your players well enough, they’ll never suspect they’ve been railroaded.

    There is another option, although it’s not applicable to all cases: if the players are about to stomp the boss bad guy in Act I or II, can you reframe the scene so that it’s actually Act III?

    By way of example, several years ago I was running a moderately epic Deadlands campaign which had the PCs running all across the US trying to save their brainwashed town from a variety of third parties struggling for control. In what I guess you’d call Act II, the PCs defeated who they thought was the Real Bad Guy, only to discover that they’d misinterpreted the situation. At that point the Real Bad Guy made what was supposed to be a very brief appearance before an escape, entering into Act III proper. Instead the players burned Fate Chips (like action points) like mad and made and insane attempt to catch him. Well, so be it. I did what I could to make their capture an exciting moment and turned it into the climax, making it a very abbreviated Act III. It wasn’t what I planned, but it made my players happy and was a pretty good end to the story.

  26. Locri says:

    I feel I have to respond a bit to the post since my blog has been dragged into it. Thank you though, I’m actually strangely honored to be linked to from a blog that is far more popular than mine will ever be.

    I get the impression that you are saying that I add petty insults because I said (although possibly poorly) that you haven’t had a lot of experience DMing before your first game. I’m not sure why that would be a problem considering that you yourself have admitted that on the podcast interview you did a bit ago. I didn’t mean it as an insult and I’m sorry if it came out that way. The truth of the matter, though, is that the way you phrased your first post on railroading made it sound like you were very entrenched with the idea of not letting the characters do anything outside of your predefined plot.

    That, more than anything, is what I was railing against (pun not really intended). Possibly my choice of words was bad, but does that make sense?

    And to Doug Brown:

    What question-begging am I doing? I can see about how saying there is a lack of experience might be called an ad hominem the way that I phrased it, but an argument against the person is EXACTLY the case that it is. It’s impossible to argue someone lacks experience without directing it at a person. I’ll also note that it was a rather off-the-cuff entry that I definitely didn’t expect to be throughly scrutinized, otherwise I definitely would have put more effort into explaining exactly what I meant and possibly offering something more than what I wrote.

    Getting back on topic, I think Shamus’s second post on the topic illuminated his views on the subject a bit more, but I still tend to agree with a lot of the replies that it is important to be flexible and not let your elaborate plans get in the way of the players’ enjoyment.

  27. Laithoron says:

    22 Justin Alexander Says:
    “If you want to write a story, write a story. If you want to GM an RPG session, then GM an RPG session.”

    Back when I was first learning D&D, part of the hook was that I finally had a way of objectively describing the characters I wrote about in my short stories. When I heard that the original Dragonlance stories were written based off of how events turned out from being roleplayed by an actual D&D group, I was was absolutely fascinated. Instead of a single author writing a story or a play with many characters, You instead had many people cooperating to flesh out a single work. To me, it seemed like an ingenious way to craft a tale. Just as truth is stranger than fiction (because fiction has to make sense) when You throw in the dynamics of perhaps illogical choices or some randomness, there’s no telling what You’ll get.

    A good case in point from the current WotC-published campaign I’m DMing happened several months back…

    The party had learned of an approaching army of indeterminate size. While heading out to investigate, they came across a well-guarded choke-point: a long stone bridge spanning a deep, white-water filled chasm. Now the adventure designers had concluded that the only viable option was for the characters to (at some point) decide to take out this bridge to delay the advancing army. In addition to outlining the enemy positions and general tactic, they also gave some notes on how to take out the bridge as well as “2-meter-wide ventilation shaft”.

    Now the party leader (yes, the players acknowledged a leader) was fairly set on not destroying the bridge if it wasn’t absolutely necessary “” at least not until determining the size of the enemy force. The truly ironic thing, which involved absolutely NO “railroading” on my part was that the party accidentally ended up taking out the bridge in felling one of their enemies. You see they had easily finished off the cannon-fodder but not before the lone, young green dragon had quaffed a potion of invisibility and circled around for a sneak attack. Having witnessed the party in action for several rounds, I decided the most logical choice of action would be for it to try swallowing our airborne pixie-warmage and then make a snatch to bowl the cleric into the rapids far below. After all, the pixie was the only one who could damage him and without the cleric’s healing, the others could be whittled down at his leisure…

    Well the pixie got swallowed sure enough, and the cleric, who was standing between the two towers anchoring the bridge on one side got snatched and was about to be bowled into the warlock standing on the south-side of the centerspan which would have dropepd them *both* over the edge. However, the unexpected happened. The minotaur ranger (whom the dragon dismissed as a real threat due to insufficient ranged attack capability) was atop one of those towers. When the dragon “split the wicket”, the player nailed both his timing and his die rolls and leapt onto the dragon’s back with a Golden Axe-style critical hit that killed the as-yet-unscathed dragon in ONE hit! (We’re playtesting a variant Wound Point damage system.) Given the dragon’s initial trajectory, speed and the fact that it suddenly had a 900 pound minotaur surfing his carcass, the beast plowed right into the cliff beneath the south-east support tower on the far side.

    “Wait, the south-east support tower?” I thought, “I read something about that…” A quick check of the adventure text while the rest of the players were cheering and I discovered that was the DeathBridge’s key weakspot. I didn’t suddenly fudge the weakspot but instead allowed the spectacular to happen. The minotaur made his reflex save and leapt clear of the collapsing tower even as the span began to shudder and the party ran both ways to escape a nasty fall.

    Cinematic to be sure, but as a writer that’s an resolution I never would have imagined for that key encounter. Suffice it to say that there was a healthy share of XP awarded solely for style points and the players were talking about that night for weeks and months following. The funny thing is, some might say it could have been “railroading” to make the bridge collapse even though the party had not yet decided to take it out. However, it would it then have *not* been railroading to spontaneously change the adventure so that it didn’t? Either way, the players were greatly amused and respected the fact that I hadn’t pulled my punches (I showed them the design notes) and played it fair and square which resulted in the unlikely happening.

    Moral of the Story: When the DM and players are all working to have a fun time, sometimes the story is more memorable and exciting when You let the unexpected play out.

  28. Hal says:

    Y’know, they should write pre-made campaigns like a “choose your own adventure” book.

    If the players decide to take the door, turn to page 5.
    If the players decide to kill the guard, turn to page 8.
    For all other decisions, turn to page 13.

    Heh. I loved those things.

  29. Carl says:

    I think Attorney At Chaos’ post just about sums up this whole big misunderstanding of a conversation, in that he initially seems to think that he disagrees with Shamus, but really he ends up agreeing. Shamus’ point is all about having the flexibility as a DM to rearrange the storyline at need depending on the players’ actions rather than being wedded to one storyline! The fact that he chose the controversial term “railroading” to describe it just got a bunch of people’s hackles up who didn’t really seem to comprehend what he was talking about.

  30. Shamus says:

    Locri: I see the problem. If you’d used “inexperienced” instead if “immature” I would have got what you were saying. The way it reads to me now, it sounds like I’m childish, not lacking in experience. (And I am, as you point out, not very experienced.)

    Glad we could straighten that out.

  31. Shamus says:

    Justin Alexander: Like I asked you in the last thread – are you aware of how combative you sound? I don’t think you’ve posted here once that it didn’t sound like you were spoiling for a fight.

    I like talking about this game. I enjoy conversations with other people about a hobby we all love. I don’t like when someone strides in here with the YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG attitude. You’re not sitting at my table. What the hell are you so exercised about?

  32. Traiden says:

    Leave the poor man alone. I have just started playing D&D as the Newb DM for my group of Newbs, I have some experience with RPing through my online profile on gaia. So I felt I can run things well, wrong! The players have little idea how to play the game at all and are interested in only wholesale slaughter… even those playing as supposedly good characters. The cleric – I reach for my crossbow and aim it at the bar tender. The other characters are all elves, god I hate these people… the first thing they do when walking into a store is ask for the bows when they have no gold! I am ranting… let me get back on my original topic. You have all types of DMs and all kinds of Players. Just because you don’t like the way someone is running a campaign, be it be to much RPing and not enough fighting or visa-versa, does not mean you have to flame the man to hell over his style of PLOT MOVEMENT.

  33. Stranger says:

    Seriously, the whole thing I believe is “as long as the players are enjoying it, then there’s no foul”.

    I also support the statement of: “It’s only wrong if you get caught” in this case. The GM’s role in the world is to make it fun and interesting, and the players shouldn’t be trying to cry foul at him for making an honest effort. Of course, that’s assuming the GM *IS* making an honest effort . . . there are many who don’t, and those are the ones who train players to hate “railroading”.

    There has to be some kind of balance between “structure” and “free roaming”. Make a game too structured and you might as well make an interactive story (I know there are players who would enjoy playing in those, though). Make it too open and all it becomes is a game of the players running around and seeking out whatever interests them (money, loot, women, positions of power high enough to sate even the most avaricial soul . . .). I know there are players who would love that too.

    NEITHER of these are wrong . . . they’re just not MY cup of tea, and a lot of people I know wouldn’t like it either.

    It REALLY all boils down to: “What do the players want, or expect, from the game?” Their GM should meet this expectation, or possibly exceed it, rather than bring his own wants and expectations to the table. Without the players, you don’t have a game to GM, so treat them right and you’ll have more fun and more mileage out of the game than you imagined at first. You might even net a SECOND game in the future with the same group.

  34. Penny7b says:

    I think a lot of the argument comes from a fundamental difference of opinion about who should be making the story, the GM or the players. If you’ve got some very proactive players who have a good understanding of the game world, then (in my experience) it’s usually best to let the players drive the story. I know my players are very proactive and have a great understanding of the tropes and assumptions of the genre, so they’ll happily build a three act hero’s journey story with only minimal steering from me. But sometimes you’ve got more reactive or even passive players, or players who are inexperienced or don’t know the game world very well, in that case it’s probably better to direct them a bit more strongly.

    And I’ve always been of the opinion that if you haven’t revealed it to the players yet, then it’s not canon, it’s just a draft.

  35. Stranger says:

    #34 – “And I've always been of the opinion that if you haven't revealed it to the players yet, then it's not canon, it's just a draft.”

    The best words to GM by by far :)

    Malum consilium quod mutari non potest . . . “It is a bad plan that cannot be changed”.

  36. Dave says:

    The problem is with the players.. not the DM.. in the original Gygax bible.. the DM is always right…

    Players want the world to hinge on their decisions.. fine.. but each player wants _their_ character to be the important one.. and a DM has a group to think about.. and many players always hit.. always manage to max damage.. always save.. then whine when the DM tries to make the game fun for everyone and not just appease whatever short-coming the player has in their real-world existance.

    Shamus is absolutely right.. the problem is with his that he is naive.. The players don’t want to see the man behind the curtain.. they don’t wanna know that you saved their asses over and over because of their stupidity.. A derailer is just a spoiled brat.. if you change everything for him/her you’ll have a very boring game.. I say kill the spoiled brat at his own game.. don’t fudge the dice .. let the game kill him. Treat the others as you should.. and let the rules kill the derailer.. eventually he’ll ever figure out D&D is a social game.. or he’ll go away.. either way works for your game.

  37. Mavis says:

    I’ll pop up with a ‘sorry!’ since I’m one of the people who did not answer your specific question. I think it was that I’d simply missed the first thread and so said what I wanted to say there.

    I’ll admit I’m tempted to post again in that thread since the little back and forth about co-operative games is interesting. But I won’t….

    Personally I’ll change things at the drop of a hat both to fit round what my players are doing if it’s cool and fun, and to block it if it’s cool. But players have to be a) able to change the world and b) fail.

    Actually that’s a good point. Your currently framing the situation in a negative way “the players are stoping my plot x”. But the total opposite is also an example of the same issue – or at least I think so.

    I have plot X. It’s all going well, the players don’t quite know what’s going on yet. While trying to work out the plot – the players come up with plot Y. They love plot Y – I think it’s cool – better then plot X in fact. Should I change the world (and retrospectivly change the world) so that it was Y all along?

  38. Josh says:

    Mavis: do you mean that the players come up with a theory that Plot Y is what is going on? Or that the players pro-active actions effectively create a new plot, Plot Y?

  39. Knight says:

    A note from a player whose DM was rather attached to the “The enemy teleports away” trick.

    Let’s just say that my mage ALWAYS has Dimensional Anchor memorized. Sometimes multiple copies. >:)

  40. Mavis says:


    I mean the players suggest that the plot is theory Y. They think it’s cool. You think it’s cool. It make sense. And it’s better then X.

    Are you ‘cheating’ the players to make it so that Y is true – and always has been…..

  41. Josh says:

    Mavis – thanks for the clarification.

    I wouldn’t call it “cheating”, but I wouldn’t do it either. I’m a big believer in games taking place in a “real” world, for a range of reasons. Some of them have something to do with my ability to actually keep things consistent (I guarantee that if I started monkeying around with the background and plot in that way that I’d wind up with holes you could drive a truck through), and some just have something to do with my seeing the game as an interesting interaction between the player characters’ actions and the world and plot I have invented. What I might consider doing would include: (a) ripping off the players’ idea for another game or story arc within the campaign, (b) considering whether their theory has strategic merit, i.e. might the villain (if there is one) have the same idea, and introduce it as an innovation on his part, (c) consider somehow absorbing the idea into the existing plot, without actually retconning what had gone before.

    I think an earlier poster made an interesting point that by sticking to a consistent world you sometimes get unexpected and interesting outcomes. Stuff you had never forseen can come about. If you keep changing things to suit what sounds cool, then you tend to restrict those possibilities. Cool things only happen if you spot them and help them to happen – rather than them emerging from the interaction between PCs, NPCs and world. It’s a personal preference that I like the latter.

    Also, I’d be peeved as a player if I discovered that the GM did this. Granted, I might never find out – but I would hate to think that all my previous investigations had been essentially meaningless as there was no “real world” for me to investigate. Like discovering that the town you’ve been wandering through is actually made out of plyboard scenery, and there isn’t really anything behind it.

  42. Mavis says:


    You say “Cool things only happen if you spot them and help them to happen -”

    Well as a GM – I’d say that’s what I’m doing. I’m helping it happen. The interatctions between me and my players – and also the characters and the NPC’s – have created a cool thing. So let it happen……

  43. Josh says:

    Mavis: Sorry, my phrasing wasn’t clear. What I was trying to say was that if you chop and change the background to suit what you think will be cool, then cool things can only happen if you spot them and help them to happen. In effect, you are excluding other (more natural, IMO) ways of cool stuff emerging.

    It’s kinda like the distinction between state-run industry and the free market… if you as GM make all the important decisions then the game could be very cool, or not so cool, depending on how good you are at picking out interesting things and making them happen. If you play it a bit more laissez-faire, then sometimes really apalling things will happen like the players destroying a carefully crafted and potentially enjoyable plot, leaving you scrambling to adapt; but other times spectacularly interesting things can happen which you might never have foreseen. Maybe there’s some kind of triangulated “regulated market” approach that will combined the virtues of both…

  44. Bruce says:

    #22 “The example of the major villain dying early and being replaced there have been complaints of “I would have felt cheated…”. Well, only if you found out. It's only railroading if the players find out you've done it.”

    And it's only theft if you get caught?

    Seriously. The point at which you say “this is bad if you get caught” is the point at which you admit that “this is bad” and lose the debate.

    That may work in a moral debate, but this is a game. The outcome is the “bad”, not the action. The outcome is that the players have lost the illusion of the game world reality. If you made something up on the spot which made no sense, it would still ruin the illusion. When you watch LOTR it looks like a real world, but spotting an actor with a wrist watch is bad because it spoils the illusion and instead of seeing an army of middle earth marching to war, you see a lot of men dressed up in skirts, waving rubber swords.

    I don’t advocate a strict A-B-C path, but the boundaries of the world can only reach so far. I don’t see the difference between having a rough plot-line and amending it to fit what happens and doing it all off the top of your head. If the illusion is maintained you have done your job.

  45. moonglum says:

    So shamus, gettign to the conclusion of your story is all important, what do you do when your players fianly relsie this, have teh charicters sit down in a room and wait for deus de machina to get them to the climax?

    Josh very easy solution to your false problem…never cearfluy craft a plot..

  46. moonglum says:

    talking to the fiction writer in my group last night…her response was that in her novels she can’t get her characters to fallow out the plot…its just a frame work, she lets her characters run free and in the end the story is a lot different then she intended…so at least one (I have heard similar statements form others as well) writer railroads her fictional characters less then you guys are advocating for players.

  47. Telas says:

    I’m of the “triangulated” approach myself (even though my degree’s in Economics, and there’s very little “cool” about regulation ;) ). GMing is an art; it’s not a rigid science where there’s only One Way To Do It.

    I’ve played in a number of “sandbox” games, and even ran my game that way for a bit. And here’s the issue as I see it: the game turns into a beauty contest among the players. The most personable player (“Charismatic”, to use a game term to refer to a real person) is the one whose game is played. So you end up doing whatever Johnny wants to do because he’s more persuasive/stubborn/outgoing. For a shy or confrontation-averse personality, it’s actually worse than following the DM’s plot.

    Now, if you have a group of players that are all old friends, and have their social interaction worked out, this may work fine. But most of my games have had at least one pick-up player, who can’t understand why we always have to do what Johnny wants to do. I think this is complicated because a lot of gamers game to get away from social hierarchy BS. (Remember Shamus’ sordid tale from the FLGS?)

    My sig on a number of boards is “A game is only as balanced as the GM.” A good GM is the key to any RPG, and one element of a good GM is listening to the players, and letting their characters’ actions affect the game world. Another facet of good GMing is to give each player some time in the spotlight.

    I think there seems to be a false assumption that the mere presence of a plot means that any player input is ignored. As someone who writes plot-driven adventures (and has done so since my alpha-player missed a session, and the players all sat around asking “I dunno; what do you want to do?”), I make damned sure that character actions impact the world. When the PCs approached a Lizardman village peacefully instead of the expected attack, I let their approach work out. It wasn’t what I had foreseen, nor it wasn’t what I had prepped for, but it worked out in the end. (Of course, they first had to win in a trial by combat against the guys trying to turn the village against them, but…)

  48. Josh says:

    Moonglum: Argh nooo! I can’t be doing with games where you just make the plot up as you go along. With rare exceptions, players can normally see right through such games and tell what a paper-thin world they’re dealing with. Of course, there are some GMs who are so good at improvising that this isn’t a problem – but I don’t think I’m one of them :)

  49. moonglum says:

    I think the crux of the railroading debate is that some of you fell that its ok to quietly keep players from derailing your story. while some of us feel that its not possible for a player to ever derail a story as they are the ones laying the tracks.

    while it would end for a rather boring game to go in completely unprepared as a gm. have anything more then a rough outline for the story (and hell take a que from the guys writing Battlestar Galatica, don’t get more then two games ahead of the players) is just setting yourself up for heartache. Sure have a goal for the game, but don’t strongly script out the path to that goal…that will only set you up for hart ache.

    Players may be happy with a choose your own adventure for a while, but eventually they will figure out that they have no control over the story, at that point you will just be playing with your self.

  50. Josh says:

    Telas: I agree that “sandbox” by itself is never enough. You need GM plot to keep things interesting and give players something to do when they don’t have any ideas of their own. Indeed for me GM plot is normally the primary driver. Not to mention the fact that IMO a world where stuff only happens if the players prod it appears barren. And like you, I’d argue that having interesting GM plot doesn’t mean that players can’t make interesting decisions to change the direction that plot is moving (or ignore it outright). But for me there must be a plot that exists independent of the players before you can get that interesting interaction.

  51. Dan Hemmens says:

    And it's only theft if you get caught?

    Seriously. The point at which you say “this is bad if you get caught” is the point at which you admit that “this is bad” and lose the debate.

    I think, frequently, when people say “It’s only bad if you get caught” what they really mean is the somewhat less pithy “it’s only bad if it violates your group’s social contract.”

    Players aren’t stupid. I’d lay even money that, nine times out of ten, they notice when you try to “subtly” railroad them. It’s just that eight and a half times out of those nine, they actually don’t care. If I’m playing a traditional D&D game, then I don’t want to do much apart from follow the plot and kill the monsters. I’ll view it as a CRPG with (hopefully) a better AI.

    The point is not that people don’t *notice* railroading, it’s just that they frequently expect it.

  52. Dan Hemmens says:

    Moonglum: Argh nooo! I can't be doing with games where you just make the plot up as you go along. With rare exceptions, players can normally see right through such games and tell what a paper-thin world they're dealing with.

    Bugger, long post, deleted due to lack of anti-spam-word.

    My basic point was: like the “it’s not railroading if you don’t get caught” argument, you’re making a fundamental mistake in assuming that the job of the GM involves deceiving the players somehow. If I make something up as I go along, the players will know it, because I’ll be completely up-front about it.

    Also: I don’t see why a plot you made up five minutes ago is “paper thin” but a plot you made up five days ago isn’t.

  53. moonglum says:

    Josh: you make one major point that I think shamus is missing. the players need to be allowed to ignore the plot if they so chose. it is not the GM’s job to fight with the players…as the gm Your story cannot be derailed, as it is not your story to tell. The story may go in a direction that you never imagined…roll with it, your plot needs to be fluid enough to handle this.

    If you insist on having strongly structured and scripted plots remember this…give someone a choice and they will always chose the wrong one.

  54. Dan Hemmens says:

    I'd argue that having interesting GM plot doesn't mean that players can't make interesting decisions to change the direction that plot is moving (or ignore it outright).

    That’s true, but the acid test comes from what you *do* if the players ignore the “plot” outright.

    If the players ignore your GM-driven plot, so you ignore it as well, and engage fully with what the players decided to do instead, then that’s one thing. If on the other hand you let the players ignore your plot, but then just let them wander around aimlessly until they get bored and come back to the plot, that’s quite another.

  55. Josh says:

    Moonglum, Dan:
    I wouldn’t say that I literally plan the campaign out like some kind of script. But I think through the likely things the players might do, where they might go, and what things might happen along the way. So there’s plenty of scope for manoeuvre within that framework (in other words MG, I think I’m agreeing with you :))

    The advantage of planning it five days in advance rather than five minutes, is that you can spot potential inconsistencies and fix them – and likewise you can spot potential links and make them. The resulting plot will be better thought out, and likely have more in the way of twiddly details that I like. When you make it up on the fly you can still get something good, but it will require luck, judgement and the ability to make it sound like you didn’t just make it up.

    Of course, if your players are happy with you being honest and saying “I’m making it up as I go along” then that’s all good – it wouldn’t be my style (well, possibly late at night while drunk, when my inhibitions are loosened ;)), but if it works, great!

  56. Josh says:

    That's true, but the acid test comes from what you *do* if the players ignore the “plot” outright.

    Yes, true. For me if they were literally wandering into territory I hadn’t thought about at all, I might be tempted to say “you know what guys, I didn’t plan for this happening, and I have no idea what will happen next – let’s call it a day, I’ll go and do some thinking and then we’ll come back next sesh”. But I would hope that my prep was sufficient to have some way of reacting to what the players do… the point is that I don’t just invent something from nowhere, because therein lies the plywood set problem.

  57. heartflare says:

    Disclaimers: I’ve been playing for less than 10 years, I’ve only played with one group, and I’ve never GM’d. I dodged the “geek bullet” in high school and started gaming when I was old enough that I should have known better. :)

    Warning: Novel to follow.

    Two of my experiences come to mind with regards to the whole “railroading” debate. Again, same exact group of people, but different GMs, different game systems, different world settings.

    First game, d20, been running through this for a few years (on and off) at this point. GM is generally pretty big on planning things out for us, in order to keep the game (and our enjoyment of it) moving. We never end up having to call a session b/c the GM has run out of ideas, and he’s excellent at letting us play things out, even when they go a bit wonky from his plan.

    So, an NPC comrade (with whom we’ve had a sometimes-shaky relationship) is arrested on (we’re pretty darn sure) false charges. No way he could have done this, but he’s put on a show-trial with the *sure outcome* of a death sentence. We are unaware that the GM has planned the whole trial (yeah, it’s a frame-up), and is arranging us into a daring prison-break scenario, after which we will have to flee the city (where we were kinda getting bored hanging around anyway).

    As Heroes of the City, we manage to convince the Powers That Be to let us into the trial. (This was the first wobble on the tracks.) We’re listening to the testimony and we know it’s just not right, but we can’t prove it. We’re scrambling for ideas. One of us comes up with the idea for Zone of Truth, but none of us can cast it. We role/roll and manage to convince one of the judges to cast the spell. (The train hits a larger bump.) We role/roll well again and get the judges to allow us to ask questions of the witness. (Small flashes of “uh oh…” creep onto the GM’s face.) Somehow we manage to hit on the ONE AND ONLY EXACT QUESTION WE NEED to exhonorate our friend. (THAR’ SHE GOES!!!!) So, no jail sentence, no prison break, no leaving town in a hurry.

    The GM could have fudged/altered anything along the way — not let us talk our way into trial, not had a spell available, fudged the rolls behind the screen, etc. But he let us play it out as he watched his plan crumble before him. We didn’t realize what he had intended for us till after the gaming session, so there was no intent to derail. It just kind happened. And the GM was actually amazed and impressed that we’d been able to pull it off. He adjusted and adapted and scrambled for some “and later we’ll do something like this” ideas he had running around in the back of his mind. It worked.

    2nd game, RoleMaster, different GM, HEAVY on planning and script. She’d created her own world setting, and it was very impressive and VERY detailed. Now I’m generally a go-along/get-along player, more than happy to follow a hook even when it’s an obvious one. Problem was, my character would have had no interest. I didn’t want to derail the game, but there was no way that my character was going to run off on a (granted, necessary) adventure and leave her younger sisters when they seemed to be in danger/vulnerable. (The GM can be blamed in part for this, as she created the whole family structure.) So, in order to play my character true to type, I (player) was prepared to sit out the session and I (character) did not try to convince the other characters to stick around the homestead.

    Well, this would have ruined the GM’s plans. So she started sending visions and suggestions from multiple other NPCs. My character held her ground. Finally, the GM sent the sisters in to tell me that *a goddess* had told them that I needed to go on this trip. Her next step was going to be direct divine intervention. I had ABSOLUTELY NO CHOICE in what my character was going to do unless I stood up from the table and walked away.

    THAT, folks, is railroading in the worst sense of the word. As a player, I REALLY resented it, and it pretty much killed the rest of the session for me.

    Thus endeth the novel.

  58. Dan Hemmens says:

    When you make it up on the fly you can still get something good, but it will require luck, judgement and the ability to make it sound like you didn't just make it up.

    Can I just press you a bit more on this, and ask what you actually mean by “plot”.

    Sorry if it sounds like a really pedantic question, but I think it might help us get on the same page.

    Perhaps a concrete example is in order here:

    Suppose a player, in response to my epic backstory says “screw this, I’m going to find a brothel” I would probably, if I was on the ball at that point, try to make a point of coming up with a “plot” which made the character’s trip to the brothel into an interesting event instead of a throwaway line. I might, for example, introduce a sympathetic prostitute who’s looking for somebody to help her get out of the life she’s in, or have the PC run afoul of the local thieves’ guild, or something.

    Is there anything in that which you, as a player, would object to? Would you feel that I’d “obviously just made it up” and that it therefore didn’t fit into the world?

  59. moonglum says:

    josh, thats why I have a fleshed out and structured world (well at least region…any where the players may wnader to in one games travle time…if they have to take a boat it gives me time to plan :) ) with a very lose story…there is no where the players can wander that dosn’t at least have a rough framework (I tend to fall back on some random town generation for small towns and whatnot )

  60. Erazmuth says:

    I would have to agree, as a player.. knowing no matter what im fighting the big bad? I’d start screwing around..cause, no matter what, im fighting the big bad.

    Then you get the PC’s who murder shopkeepers for no good reason.

    Now if the second in command or some other villain takes over, great..but make him WEAKER than the original big bad guy. That way the players feel like they really did accomplish something useful. By ganking him early, they made their job easier later on.

    In essence, they feel like they got away with something. Players love to feel like they got away with something. Im pretty sure thats universal.

    If it is some other situation, like they join the badguy.. I generally allow that to happen. Again though, each campaign I play is after the last one ends. So if they go evil in the first one, they are just the guys who need to be brought down in the second ,again, think star wars, If the player of the character “Anakin Skywalker” no matter how much you prod, joins the sith..don’t force him not to. Just make sure his next character has to fight against him , perhaps make him Chewbacca next time so he doesn’t turn to the dark side..again.

  61. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    Hehe. “Bite marks all over my ankles”. I have milk all over my monitor now. My boss has no problem with me laughing, but I think he’s getting cranky with me spewing my drinks all over the company’s electronics. :)

  62. Dan Hemmens says:

    The problem is with the players.. not the DM.. in the original Gygax bible.. the DM is always right…

    “The DM is always right” is a remarkably easy thing for a DM to believe.

    Tell me, if *all* of your players “whine” when you “try to make the game fun for everyone” does that mean that *all* of your players are spoiled brats?

    If you say “the DM’s job is to make the game fun for everyone” and “the DM is always right” what you wind up with is the statement that “whatever the DM wants to happen is, by definition, most fun for everyone, and anybody who doesn’t think so is a bad player.”

    This is obviously nonsense, but a surprising number of people genuinely believe it, even if they don’t admit it to themselves.

  63. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    I am reading this at work, so my time is limited. Please forgive me if this post regurgitates something someoen has already said. Earlier, Nathanael brought up CRPGs:
    “I think both LotR:O and KotOR are good examples of how I like my stories in my tabletop RPGs. I like having stories and plots available for the taking, and I like being aware of the various things that can be done. However, I also like having the choice if/when to do them. I'm not fond of the typical Final Fantasy “Oh, but you must!” railroad approach, nor am I fond of the Morrowwind “Here's the world, go do stuff” techniques.”
    The one thing that this argument does not take into account is that in a CRPG you are the only one who is requiring entertainment. When playing a tabletop RPG (TTRPG?) you have to consider the entertainment of the whole group, including the DM. So you feel like going exploring right now. How does everyone else feel about that? Will you be taxing your DM’s imagination by doing this? Will it be fun for everyone, or just you? Trust me: if it is only fun for you, eventually the others will make sure that is won’t be fun for you for long. The reason the “determined derailing” attitude by players can be so infuriating to me is because I make it my personal goal to craft an enjoyable evening for all involved. When one person won’t play along, it can ruin the fun for all.

  64. Roxysteve says:

    Shamus Says:
    After reading a few comments on earlier posts, I think I'm finally getting what is upsetting the derailers: It isn't any one particular change, but the very idea that the DM would make these sorts of changes. For them, it is breaking trust with the players.

    I see how that would be really upsetting for players who expect a deterministic world.

    Deterministic? I expect these players eschew the non-determinism of the “saving throw”, right? Riiiight.


    PS :o)))))))))

  65. Dan Hemmens says:

    A lot of people have talked about how the job of the GM is to “create an enjoyable evening for everyone.”

    The problem with that is that it’s got a nasty assumption built into it.

    It leads to the circular logic in which you assume that the GM, by definition, is looking out for everybody’s best interests, and therefore everybody should go along with the GM. Essentially it defines the GM as the only source of legitimate fun.

    If you assume that your players are mature, sensible people, then we wind up with the assumption that *everybody* wants *everybody* to have fun. When a player decides his character wants to go off exploring, he isn’t saying “I want to go off exploring”, he’s saying “I think it would be fun for everyone if we went off exploring.”

    If you define the GM as “the person whose job it is to provide fun” then you necessarily define fun as “that which is provided by the GM.” Which doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

  66. Dan Hemmens says:

    Deterministic? I expect these players eschew the non-determinism of the “saving throw”, right? Riiiight.

    Yeah, I’m not entirely convinced by Shamus’ “determinism” theory. In fact in many ways I think it’s the exact opposite. It isn’t that I expect a deterministic world, so I object to the retcon, it’s that I expect a dynamic world, so I object to the retcon which essentially reinforces a predetermined story arc.

  67. Stranger says:

    @ Dan Hemmens

    Mind if I ask a couple questions? Are you a GM, or a player . . . primarily? What role is it you like to play more at the table?

    It’s rather obvious you don’t agree with 90% of the descriptions of what a GM’s job is supposed to be. So why don’t you say exactly what your perfect GM style would be? I’m very curious . . .

  68. Aaron says:

    Ok I’ve been keeping up with the many posts in this and the other thread and I’ve gotta say there are some very compelling and good ideas as to what railroading is/isn’t, how it can work/can’t, why it should/shouldn’t be done, and if it’s theft/not theft … still working that one out. Regardless, here is my 2cp:

    I’ve been a GM for close to 10 years, for somewhere around 10 different game systems. My favs have to be AEG games, but D&D is in there in it’s various editions.

    I’ve written games that were so plot heavy and directorial that my players had absolutly no choice but to follow along. I’ve also written games that were so close to sandbox as to be nigh unrecognizably different. I’ve learned a couple of things from this, but the biggest one is simply this:

    Create a framework, then work with it.

    I present examples:
    1. Ravenloft, 2nd Ed D&D (possibly my favorite campaign world). We’re running a published adventure that starts my players in a swamp, groggy and disoriented. They have to find a way out and have no idea really where they are going, nor where they are. Instead of staying together to attempt to help the party, one member decided to go it alone and trek out into the swamp to find help. One 1st level rogue vs. one 4 HD Ravenloft crocodile = lunch. The player was so pissed because he was “just playing his character” and accused me of railroading. I calmly informed him of the party situation AGAIN, and told him to reroll. He’s never gamed with me since.

    2. Cyberpunk 2020, self written adventure. The party has to break into Arasaka branch in Night City to bust out the party leaders netrunner sister. The team had been together for about 4 sessions (all players were long friends though) and worked very well with each other regardless of character differences. I had lead up to this adventure with the previous 2 sessions. I gave them a base framework to work within (rumor of her death in 1 week, new program she’s forced to work on will do something horrible to whatever, etc.) and let them have at it. My players came up with the most convoluted way of doing things, but in the end saved the sister and I never had to fudge one die roll, push them in a direction, or in any way “railroad” them.

    Ok, so besides the railroad issue in each example, the biggest difference is simply in familiarity. When I ran the Ravenloft adventure I was at the beginning of my DM “career” and was running a pregen (which IMHO leaves little room for flexibility). The player that was killed was not incorrect in saying I was railroading, but at the time I didn’t know of any other way to deal with the situation. I wasn’t as familiar with the campaign world as I probably should have been, and (unfortunatly)the player thought there was no way I’d kill him in the first few minutes of the game.

    The Cyberpunk setting I was far more familiar with, and instead of working from a pregen, I simply wrote some notes on 3″x5″ notecards to denote some events that HAD to happen (and did with no prompting) and relied on my knowledge of the system and the game to guide the players through their trials and tribulations. I knew what the end result was going to be going in, but I let the players discover their own way there.

    Now come the “what ifs”. What if they decided to say “screw the sister, lets go just blow up Arasaka Tower”. Sure, they could have said that. But why would they? All of them were (and still are) intelligent gamers, who prefer role play over roll play. They are IN IT FOR THE STORY. The party leader HAD to save his sister, not because I said so, but because HE said so. These characters had bonded in game. Everyone in the group (Solo (leader), Cop, Medtech, Techie, Netrunner, Nomad) all had a vested interest in helping the Solo because he had helped some of them in some way (again without prompting) or because they were being paid, or because they had something against Arasaka or corporations in general.

    Longwinded (and I apologize for that), but the point is simply this: If you want to run a hack/slash game, go sandbox and let the players have their way. If you want to run a story from start to finish, run a pregen. If you want to run a game, build a framework and YOUR GM knowledge about the world, and let the players play in the world you help them create.

    The best “rule” of GMing just about anything is that all rules are considered guidelines to be changed as the GM sees fit. The best “rule” of playing is to help the GM tell the story, don’t try to find a way to ruin it for everyone involved by ignoring the story completely. Find the middle ground, and you’ll be amazed at the amount of fun you’ll have.

    Shamus: If you change something behind the scenes without the players knowledge, you have commited no sin that I know of. In the effort of keeping your game (and story) going for the players, changing something behind the GM screen is totally acceptable (and frequently expected). You are the one guiding the game, and if it gets off track a bit, so be it. By simply changing things in the module that players having been exposed to yet you can keep not only their enjoyment of the game and your telling of the story going smoothly. That’s why GMs are given editorial leeway with adventures. :)


  69. Cenobite says:

    Actually, even the philosophers have not been able to come up with good solid definitions of “determinism” or “free will” over the centuries of human civilization…so it should not be too surprising if we also cannot come up with good solid definitions of “derailing” or “plot” either.

    Just a simple recap of where we all seem to be going with this…feel free to pick it apart.

    The Standard Gaming Session Set-up:

    DM has a goal (a mission and a conclusion) for the party to work towards. The detail-oriented DMs will have lots of back-up materials (maps, encounters, characters, etc.) already prepared for immediate reference. We’ll call this Goal A.

    Where It All Goes Wrong:

    The players decide to pursue Goal B instead. This can be any deviation to any degree from the path to get to Goal A. Some deviations can make it impossible to reconcile the two: i.e., the party cannot achieve Goal B and then logically go back to pursuing Goal A, or vice versa. Some deviations will not present this impossibility, so they are minor and not worthy of this discussion. (Meaning: that a good DM will let the party achieve both goals and wing it when necessary.)

    Assume for purposes of discussion that A and B are not compatible at all. Also further assume that all of the players are acting in unison, and it’s not just one individual or some faction within the party who wants to attain this new Goal B. (That’s a separate debate.)

    The DM has two choices at this point:

    1.) Scrap the path to make Goal A, and roll with the flow to help the party achieve Goal B. The upside is that players stay happy. The downside is that, if this mission is part of a larger overall campaign, that campaign could be damaged beyond repair. Do the re-writing later.

    2.) Ignore input about Goal B, and enforce path to Goal A. Does it matter if the means which the DM uses to put down the player rebellion might be too strict? Not really. The players will be unhappy because they are facing a DM who is not responding to their gaming needs. The fact that the DM chooses to enforce the railroad using XP penalties instead of subtle clues is just a matter of degree. The tyrant remains a tyrant, and if he starts out with offering you candy instead of sending waves of minions after you, that doesn’t mean the minions aren’t waiting in the wings to beat you senseless if you should refuse to accept the candy. The dissatisfaction with the rule of the DM is already established, the rest is just a question of “the amount of violence inherent in the system” to butcher a quote, and the player rebellion is, from this point onwards, inevitable.

  70. Dan Hemmens says:

    Mind if I ask a couple questions? Are you a GM, or a player . . . primarily? What role is it you like to play more at the table?

    Primarily a GM.

    It's rather obvious you don't agree with 90% of the descriptions of what a GM's job is supposed to be. So why don't you say exactly what your perfect GM style would be? I'm very curious . . .

    I view the GM as very similar to the host of a party. Your job is to make sure that the event *functions*, to get the right people in the right place, with the right music, food, and entertainments available to them.

    To be less metaphorical about it: I believe that the job of a GM is to actively support and engage with the decisions of the players. What this means is that if a player says “I go out and look for a brothel” you don’t say “okay, you find one, you have sex, make a fortitude save versus venereal disease” instead you say “okay, cool, what kind of brothel are you looking for? High class or low rent?” Your job is to make the PCs trip to the brothel every bit as important as any “plot” you might have worked out in your mind.

    This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be other things going on in your world, or that you shouldn’t have any big events going on in your setting, just that you shouldn’t let yourself forget that the game is about the PCs, not about your plot, just like a party is about the guests, not the host.

  71. Shamus says:

    Dan Hemmens:

    Sweet mercy you have little faith in the GM. You seem to assume – despite my many assertions to the contrary – that I’m STILL clinging to my plot because I’m enamored of my bad guys, and I don’t care what my players think.

    Look, if your GM doesn’t know how to make fun, can’t improvise without getting caught, and can’t read his players to see when they are unhappy (out of game) with a turn of events, then your game is in trouble regardless of how much or how little plotroading he does. Yeah, if your GM is a jerk then I suppose the less input he has the better. I don’t advocate this play style for everyone, but I also don’t advocate letting a jerk run your game.

    But I’m about thirteen years older than most of my players. They are all good friends, two of them are my brothers. I’m a guy who spends a majority of his time doing some form of creative writing. Yes, I can make changes without presenting a fractured game world. I can impovise characters on the spot. I can tell if players would have objections with something before I even introduce it. Above all, my 100% goal is that the guys have a blast each and every time we play.

    I wouldn’t create a new bad guy if I thought they wouldn’t like it. Or if there was a better way to handle it. I’d take whatever route keeps them engaged. They have enough to do keeping track of the parts of the world they can see and the running of their own characters to try and puzzle out what elements of the world I had when I came in the door and what ones I came up with twelve seconds ago. If I didn’t think I could pull it off, I wouldn’t do it. (It helps a lot if you commit the world to memory so you can mostly run a game without looking at your notes. Then they can’t tell where stuff is coming from.)

    My guys trust me, and I respect them. They know I alter the world if they are about to do something that will take the fun out of the game. For example: I know they dislike being lost in the woods and don’t go in for lots of petty random encounters. If they put themselves into a situation where they were going to end up doing a lot of it, I’ll come up with a way to shorten it and help them through so they don’t spend the next three hours doing something that bores them just because that’s what would happen based on the game world as it was at the start of the session. So, I’ll “railroad” them out of the boring stuff. They’re okay with this.

  72. Stranger says:

    Re: Comment #70 . . .

    You and I agree a lot on style, so I still wonder why it is your posts and your statements seem to be very much anti-GM and anti-plot. Every time I start reading one of your posts it starts looking like you would like the GM to make no decisions without being prompted by the players.

    You don’t put forth the impression you want a GM who is the host of a function. Consider a convention, even a small one, in which there are all sorts of functions planned at certain times, usually more than two going on simultaneously and the host and his staff would rather you not go into the AV room and hijack the movie which was playing so you can put in Rush Hour 2 because you want explosions. God forbid they say “you can’t do that” because it’d be your equivalent of railroading them into doing what THEY wanted and how DARE they do that?

    Rather, it would seem you want a GM who rents out a space and leaves it unlocked. He doesn’t put out food, since someone might object to the food which got put out, and he doesn’t plan any sort of entertainment at all, just brings a television, a DVD player, a VCR deck, a turntable, all of the gaming systems available, and a cassette deck. And he trusts his guests can entertain themselves while he just explains how to operate them all.

    I may be misreading your posts, but that’s the impression you leave me with. I don’t mind it, though, since it’s highly unlikely since you’re a GM that I’d be GMing a game with you in it. I also am quite unlikely to be involved with your games, given I move in a very different circle of people than you. If your players don’t mind it, then I won’t say you’re doing it “wrong”.

  73. Dan Hemmens says:


    (Had a longer post. Got deleted. Damn)

    Please, please don’t assume that not liking your style of roleplaying is the result of “not trusting the GM”. I, and the rest of the people I play games with, simply do not want to play a game in which our characters are just going through the motions of somebody else’s story. It’s not about something being well done or badly done. It’s not about noticing or not noticing, it’s about fundamental attitudes to roleplaying.

    You tell me that you care what your players think. I believe you. But I think you care about it in the way that a performer cares about his audience, not in the way that a collaborator cares about his peers. And that’s the crucial point.

    I have no doubt that your goal, when you run games, is to make sure that everybody has fun, but you seem to do this by deciding, in advance, exactly the form the fun will take. You say “the way we can have the most fun is for the heroes to initially trust the villain, for him to betray them, for X Y and Z events to happen, and for there to be a final climactic battle at the foot of the dark tower.” You then decide that anything which deviates too far from this sequence of events will “not be fun.”

    Now perhaps you’re absolutely right. Perhaps your every decision maximises the fun experienced by your group. The point is that it only works because your group has fun in that precise way. For many, many people (and I’m one of them) “fun” is not something that it presented to me by another person, it is something that I and my friends create together. For me, your style of play can never be fun by definition. It’s not a question of having had a bad experience, or a bad DM, it’s not a question of the story not being presented properly. I, as a player, want the story to flow from my character’s actions, not the other way around.

  74. Ryan says:

    Justin Alexander – How to say this?

    Please shut up.

    Insulting someone who’s simply asking questions and posting fodder for discussion is childish, petty, and inappropriate. Your comments come across as egoist and boorish.

    If you disagree with Shamus’ ideas, and want to let that be known, do so as an adult and a gentleman.

  75. Dan Hemmens says:

    You and I agree a lot on style, so I still wonder why it is your posts and your statements seem to be very much anti-GM and anti-plot. Every time I start reading one of your posts it starts looking like you would like the GM to make no decisions without being prompted by the players.

    Partially I’m just in hyperbolic internet mode, so take what I say with a pinch of salt.

    Partially, though, it’s that I’m highly pro-player. I’m not opposed to “plot”, I just think that “plot” should be something that arises as a response to player action, rather than being (as a friend of mine was fond of calling it) “little pre-packaged chunks of game-experience”.

    It’s not that the GM makes no decisions without being prompted by the players, it’s that the GM prompts the players to make decisions.

    I don’t go into a campaign saying “the BBEG will try to invade the kingdom and the players will stop him”, I go in saying “this kingdom is being invaded by the BBEG.” The campaign could then be “try to stop the invasion” or “try to find love in a kingdom under invasion” depending on player choices.

    To put it another way, I’ll create *events* but I won’t create *plots*.

  76. Rolld20 says:

    70 Dan:
    I’m gonna have to disagree with you on the ‘GM/host should always yield to the players/guests’.

    When a friend invites me to her house, she has the right to her own house rules. Take off my shoes in the hallway? Sure thing. No writing on the walls in crayon? Fine. No chocolate allowed, because you’re on a diet? disappointing, but ok. She has made the effort of preparing the venue, and we the guests should respect her wishes.

    Similarly, if the friend invites me to play in her game, she has the right to expect cooperation from me as a player. Don’t kill important NPCs without very good reasons? Make sure my character plays reasonably well with others? Respect the fact the the GM has more to keep track of than any one player and not intentionally cause them trouble? Can do; it’s your game. If I don’t like her running style, I will talk with her about it, hoping to find a compromise, but I respect her right to hold her ground. I will learn to deal with it, or I’ll find another game.

  77. Arthur says:

    Rolld20: You seem to be going to some unusual parties. At the parties I attend, sure, we abide by the host’s rules, but the host in turn is willing to make some effort to attend to our needs as well. It would seem churlish to make everyone eat the meat course, even the vegetarians, for example…

  78. moonglum says:

    shamus. I am almost always the GM in my games. I do not think that your are forcing the plot because you are enamored with your bad guys, I think the problem is that you are forcing the plot because you are enamored with Your Plot that is the major problem. You can create the adventure hook, and the world, but in the end the players (and more importantly, hopefully their characters) create the story. This is how the best games (and a lot of the best fiction) is done.

    Its notable that the two guys arguing for fluid, dynamic stories are long term GM's (I have been mainly Gm'ing various games for 20 years…mostly palladium, but I have run almost every system out there) When I started with AD&D games I attempted to force the story on my players, I eventually learned that it quickly leads to the wrong type of conflict. You as the GM end up being adversarial to your players…leading them to see you (not the villains in the game) as their enemy. The game is dynamic, trying to change that only leads to metagame conflict. Go with the flow…that will end GM temper tantrums, that will end the worst of the munchikinisms, that will allow for a game that is enjoyable to every one….yes as a GM you need to have an adventure hook, and an idea for a goal…but don't be too in love with that goal . Let the game evolve organically, in the end you will have a better story, even if it isn't the story that you set out for.

    When I first read your strip I thaught it was a comic about a turly horrible GM and the players inflicted with him…..

  79. Dan Hemmens says:


    All of that falls, to me, under the banner of “common courtesy”.

    This is one of those “the right to swing my fist” things. Obviously the players don’t have the right to be assholes, but that’s a very different thing to the GM having the right to place arbitrary restrictions on player behaviour.

    To follow your “friend’s house” analogy: if you don’t like me smoking in your living room, fine, I’ll smoke outside (or I would if I smoked, which I don’t). On the other hand if you – say – insist that if I come into your house I have to take all my clothes off or clean your toilets for you then you’re being unreasonable.

    To pick a less extreme example: if you invite me around to your house to watch movies, and then you pull “my roof my rules” and insist that I don’t get to have any say about which movies we watch, I’ll be pissed off.

  80. Dan Hemmens says:

    I do not think that your are forcing the plot because you are enamored with your bad guys, I think the problem is that you are forcing the plot because you are enamored with Your Plot that is the major problem

    To be fair to Shamus, I don’t think it’s actually a problem, I think it’s the social contract of his group. It seems fairly clear that they want and expect a structured plot, and that they expect the GM to directly prevent them from “spoiling” that.

  81. Aaron says:

    Dan Hemmens: I hate to tell you this, but that’s not “role playing” by any definition of the word that i’ve ever come across that relates to tabletop RPGing in any way. You’re basically saying that the Players are the GM’s. That would make the GM’s job … pizza orderer? Person at Who’s House You Play? If the story (as you say) is intended to hinge around the players entire, with no intervention by the GM, then why would you have one? With your description, you’ve just ended every gaming session because the moment the GM opens his mouth to describe the scene to the players, they basically take over and accuse him of railroading because he set them in a particular setting and that’s not where they wanted to be.

    I could be misunderstanding what you’ve posted, but I’m fairly certain I’m understanding it correctly. To me that sounds like a game where the GM has absolutly no input, no story, no anything.

    This leads me to another thought. I’d have to assume you don’t run any type of publish pregen campaign. I’m sure the maps are useful (assuming the players accept those as something not considered railroading) and the story of the location might be fun (again, making broad assumptions here) but on the whole the story would be totally useless because it has a start, finish, and plot. If the GM can’t furnish those things because the players are supposed to, then there is no point in purchasing them.

    Now … following that logic, why even buy core books for a game? I mean, if the players don’t buy into the world because that’s not the one they want to run, then why waste the cash/time reading/effort in having the game world? And to go with that, the GM CAN’T create a world from scratch either, because the only way he could do that is with player approval. Players are the story and plot drivers after all … shouldn’t THEY be the ones that create the world and the rules to go with it?

    Now, going that 2nd step too far: Wouldn’t it be better if the players created these things on their own? Story, world, plot, everything? I mean, that’s the point right? So then we have a players who are in charge of creating everything from the ground up. This leads to a new problem. What if the players can’t agree on what that world should be, the story, plot, rules, etc.? They each go their own way, basically solo playing a world in which they make all the rules.

    Yup, this is the extreme example. To me, your description leads to this totally chaotic malestrom of player controlled gaming. A GM’s purpose is to tell a story. A players purpose is to be a part of and interact with that story to make it as grand and epic as they want, or as small and unassuming as they want. Build a framework that the players and the GM can live with. This gives the players satisfaction of having fun, the GM the satisfaction of having fun watching the players have fun in his or her game, and no one has to work exceptionally hard at keeping it that way.

    I guess the biggest thing is style. If your players are happy and you’re happy, who cares how you play? I just can’t see your way creating much happiness. But each person has a part to play, including the GM. Without a GM, it’s just chaos.

  82. moonglum says:

    Aaron: what you are basicly advocateing is recreating a CRPG on table top…..table top can be so much more then that.

  83. Aaron says:

    You have defeated me with your Acronym-fu. I’m assuming thats Computer RPG?

    I’m not advocating that at all, though I can see how you’d get that. I’m just so definatly not a sandbox GM. I like to have a structure (though a small one, gives the players more freedom) to the game, just enough to keep my players interested. My players are all very much Role Players though, and want a story to keep them (and thankfully, me) entertained. What I don’t do is create the epic story FIRST. I create enough material (or wing it if i run short … I always have a good idea of where the story is going because of what my players are doing) to get through one session, then write up the guidelines for next weeks based on character interactions, plot movement, story progression, etc.

    There are many times that the story changes focus, or even totally gets off track. Thankfully, my group likes the stories I create for them (even though they are fluid … but don’t tell them that) and can’t wait to hear more and experience more. I’m not saying I’m a great GM for doing these things, I am saying I’m good enough for my players.

    In essence, I give my players what they want within a structure they can live with that makes my life easier for creation purposes and their game fun.


  84. Purple Library Guy says:

    Seems to me, as has been said a couple times, that some of the disagreement here is more apparent than real. And for that matter, that much of the discussion turning around “railroading” in general theory has relatively little to do with the kind of scenario Shamus is envisioning. I think in fact that Shamus would be against much of the “railroading” that’s been discussed–although, he was asking for that controversy by titling a post “The Case For Railroading” when in fact, once he and everyone else looked rather more closely, by most definitions what he was making a case for *wasn’t* railroading.

    I sympathize with GMs like moonglum and a couple of others, I often run my games rather that way. But aside from the basic point that styles differ and players differ, there are other considerations. Some of the GMs saying “You should just improvise off the cuff” have, like me, been GMing for more than twenty years, and reading fantasy books (or whatever subject is relevant) the whole time. So, hey, I can improvise pretty good medieval town/city interactions and minor plot off the cuff with one side of my brain tied behind my back, because I’ve been doing that stuff for so long it’s just *there*. But I got there by doing it lots and gaining experience. There’s no point telling a new GM to do that any more than there’d be a point to telling a kid “No, don’t dive straight into the water–it looks way cooler if you go into the pike position and do a double revers somersault with a half twist.” If the kid tries it, they will go PLORF instead of entering the water cleanly, which they could have done with a straight dive.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that, even in one campaign, you won’t always be approaching things with the same style. In my long-running campaign I’ve had sandbox happening, I’ve had “sandbox isn’t going so let’s dangle some hooks and see what interests the PCs” happening, and I’ve had relatively carefully planned goings-on happening (which sometimes get jettisoned; a while ago the characters had decided to get involved in espionage stuff in a city where big political stuff was going down, and I put together the spy teams of various different factions with different objectives and methods, and after muddling around a bit the PCs decided they didn’t really have the skills or connections to work the situation and switched to a military approach; all those cool spies at least temporarily useless). Each has advantages. I’ve pulled off some cool stuff off the cuff in pure reaction to PC brilliance. But at the same time, I do often find that if I take the time to do some planning and work on digging into what the situation is and who is in it and what they’re up to, things get more interesting because there’s more “there” there, and creativity with time to think can add layers that even brilliant improvisation won’t have. I think it’s certainly a bad idea to go so far into “The players make the story” that the GM becomes the only person who *doesn’t* have creative license.

  85. Rolld20 says:

    #77 Arthur: I’m not saying the host *never* considers the guests, just that the guests cannot and should not expect to be catered to always. i.e., if I’m invited to dinner and decide I do not like the menu, I have the right to not eat it; but I don’t expect the host to make an entirely new entree just for me.
    in situations like this, I think the key is communication; if you suspect there may be a problem, speak now, or forever eat your peas.

    #79 Dan: “Obviously the players don't have the right to be assholes, but that's a very different thing to the GM having the right to place arbitrary restrictions on player behaviour.”
    Actually, I believe the GM *does* have the right to arbitrary restrictions. There may be important in-game reasons which the players don’t know about, or the GM may just have fixed ideas about the game. Since the GM will have trouble keeping players if the rules are too obviously out of whack, this is usually fairly self-limiting.

    “To pick a less extreme example: if you invite me around to your house to watch movies, and then you pull “my roof my rules” and insist that I don't get to have any say about which movies we watch, I'll be pissed off.”
    Which is your right, but the host does have final say about what goes on in their house. A *good* host knows how to compromise; otherwise, she must find people who always agree with her, or be stuck watching movies alone. Again, a self-limiting behavior.

    Anyway, it’s not always bad to be forced into things; I’ve experienced fascinating movies/meals because I allowed someone else to make the decision. I consider it a trust exercise; sometimes it pays off big time.

    (And I apologize if this thread has drifted too far from the original topic.)

  86. baac says:

    Wow… that’s a lot of typing up there…

    What I hate about some DMing is the bending of the rules in order to fit a story thread, more than the bending of the story. Case in point, a DM we have recently said that throwing a flask of oil more than 20 feet was ‘extreme range.’ I have wee, girly arms, but I could do 3 or 4 times that easily. What the real deal was, was that he didn’t want to have us nuking a second or third wave of attackers because it would have thrown off his combat.

    I think a good DM will never tip his/her hand when you’ve taken them off course – they’ll roll with it and adapt, and you should probably never know the difference as a player. But I hate when they defy physics…


  87. Aaron says:

    Roll d20: LOL Don’t worry, we should probably all be apologizing for the thread getting off track. We’ve derailed our GM!!! Sorry Shamus!

  88. Telas says:

    I think there’s another disconnect going on. And as a result, I think the sides in this debate are closer than previously thought.

    Dan H said something like, “I don’t create stories; I create events.” So it’s not actually just a GM sitting there, waiting for the proactive players to step up. (Which, until that comment, was my perception of the anti-railroadians.)

    I think most of us “railroadians” also create events, and modify them heavily as the story progresses. I did this during a year-long “invasion” story arc, where some of the player actions thwarted some of the invader’s plans, other actions alerted other entities to their presence, and some actions just wasted the resources of the homeland.

    Regardless, the invasion was going to happen, whether or not they cared. Had the party decided to betray the homeland in the hopes of freedom under the invaders, I would have stopped the game for a bit, asked the group what they really wanted to do, and possibly ask for more time to prepare the new path for them. I would not have forced them to defend the homeland, but it was the expected scenario. (This is an extreme example, like the smoking one above; I frankly do not enjoy playing in or running ‘evil’ games, and actually would have found another route. FWIW, the character creation guidelines did say “no nonevil characters” and “must be from the homeland”.)

    Is this railroading? Some might say it is, because I had a Big Assed Plot. ;) Some might say it’s not, because “semper gumby” is my middle name. Regardless, we all had fun.

    I think there is a gradual progression from “The Plot Is All-Important” to “What Do You Want To Loot Today?” I also think that most gamers cluster in the middle of that, like a good many-dice probability curve. We may disagree on minor points, and through perception or subjectively-defined terminology (“railroading”), make them out to be bigger than they actually are.

  89. Kristin says:

    Sometimes, having too much plot is better than having too little plot.

    I picked up a D&D book because I write fantasy and a lot of the stereotypes/tropes/etc. are covered by D&D rules. My brother picked one up because after reading the book, I wanted to play, and I talked him into playing with me. My brother and I are both fairly asocial, creative, people who don’t care that we’re not “playing it right” if I’m DMing while playing most of the party as NPCs while he roleplays his one character (or vice versa, we go both ways). In this situation, having most of the plot written up beforehand makes so much more sense, even when the railroad tracks are not only visible but wearing bright neon signs while dancing in full-plate armor covered in tiny bells. (Actually the way my dice roll, that person would probably get a natural 20 on a Hide/Move Silently check…)

    If I were playing a different style of game where all I had to do was DM, I’d be much more willing to keep it looser. The amount of plot vs. character input should depend on the group as a whole.

  90. Dan Hemmens says:

    A GM's purpose is to tell a story. A players purpose is to be a part of and interact with that story to make it as grand and epic as they want, or as small and unassuming as they want.

    Leaving aside the hyperbole, I think this hits the nail on the head.

    Specifically, I think the pro-railroaders think that roleplaying is interactive whereas I think it’s collaborative.

    I don’t want to play an interactive game, where all I get to do is decide precisely *how* I get to the next chapter in somebody else’s story. I want to play a *collaborative* game, where the story is all about my character’s actions and decisions.

    As for your other points: We’re totally on different planets here. I’ll say this.

    There exist real, published role-playing games that, amongst other things:

    – Do not have a default setting.
    – Do not contain any maps.
    – Involve systems whereby players can create, in whole, or part, important NPCs and sections of the gameworld.
    – Run without a GM.
    – Are actually very popular.

  91. thark says:

    When I first read your strip I thaught it was a comic about a turly horrible GM and the players inflicted with him…

    It’s a comic about a horrible GM and his equally horrible players. (In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.) I sincerely hope nobody here disagrees on either count.

  92. Dan Hemmens says:

    Regardless, the invasion was going to happen, whether or not they cared.

    That’s fair enough.

    Ultimately, having big events going on in your gameworld isn’t railroading by anybody’s definition.

    What us anti-railroaders object to – in essence – is the idea that there is one specific sequence of events which is “The Plot” and that anything outside of that is secondary.

    Having an invasion going on in the background isn’t railroading, having an army invade the city the PCs are sitting in isn’t railroading. It only becomes railroading (or rather, I would only start to consider myself railroaded) when I am prevented from doing something I want to do because it takes screentime away from the “invasion plot”.

    Also, remember railroading is usually moment-to-moment. If I *do* decide to try and thwart the invasion, I want to do it on my own terms. I don’t want the GM to force me to use a particular set of plans because those are what he has prepped.

  93. Dan Hemmens says:

    It's a comic about a horrible GM and his equally horrible players. (In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.) I sincerely hope nobody here disagrees on either count.

    As I said on another post, I’m usually very much on the side of the players. I mean, they’re rubbish, but I identify it very much as the sort of behaviour you get as a reaction against that sort of DMing.

    It’s sort of a roleplaying personality test really. Read DMotR 1: are you thinking “hey, that’s really funny, those lousy players are ignoring the DM’s carefully prepared backplot, I’ve totally had players like that” or are you thinking “hey, that’s really funny, the DM is still going on with his backplot even though the players are obviously really bored, I’ve totally had DMs like that.”

  94. Dan Hemmens says:

    I think it's certainly a bad idea to go so far into “The players make the story” that the GM becomes the only person who *doesn't* have creative license.

    This is of course entirely true (although some modern games do in fact dispense with the GM entirely), however in a traditional RPG the balance of creative power between the GM and Players is so overwhelming that a little reapportioning is no bad thing.

    Even if you’re running, say, Nobilis, in which the PCs (who wield godlike power) their Chancel (a world in itself) and their Imperator (a being of even greater power, for whom the PCs all work) are all player-created, the GM still has absolute control over everything else in the world.

    I also dispute the suggestion that off-the-cuff (or “Develop In Play”) GMing is actually harder than prepared GMing. I started out planning everything, and I never got anything done, because I never knew where to start. It wasn’t until I realised that I could just make stuff up that I actually started being able to run games effectively.

  95. Grant says:

    Hello world!

    I’m going to start with a couple of disclaimers. Take my thoughts and comments with the following grains of salt:

    1) I’ve never GM’d, and only been a player once (in progress). I’ve played lots of CRPGs though.

    2) I skipped the comments from about 40 onwards.

    Anyways, here is my opinion…

    It seems that a fundamental conflict exists between gaming as a story and gaming as a simulation. This conflict appears in many forms (example… player death), but here it shows up as whether the non-visible parts of the world should be mutable.

    Some extremes, to illustrate:

    With gaming as a simulation, the world shouldn’t be mutable. The villains should act within their characters and means, and so should the PCs. Whatever happens, happens. If PCs die, they die. If the boss is killed in act 1, so be it. From such a situation, you wouldn’t expect a truly epic plot to result, since the GM’s control would be limited to the initial conditions. In this environment, all random events are decided with die rolls.

    With gaming as a story, the “chance” in the simulation bends itself to creating an epic tale. At this extreme, protagonists will always be saved from death, and the world can change to fulfill the story. The situation will look bleak and hopeless but good (or evil, as the case may be) will somehow triumph in the end.

    I think this is a continuum, with most games somewhere in the middle. The d20 system encourages this, with die rolls for combat but a GM moving events off-screen, and sometimes on-screen, to keep the story alive. How much the world can change to preserve the appeal of the story is really up to the group involved. Your personal opinion on the matter is probably related to which of the above extremes bothers you more.

    On the subject of “if the players don’t know about a change, then who cares?”… This is avoiding the question really. It is more apparent in CRPGs because you can save and redo a particular scene to see the different results. If I do A and get to point C and then go back and do B and, once again, get to C, then I know that I’m being forced to C, which may or may not be a bad thing (see above). I will know as a player that things are being manipulated behind the scenes if every time I play a game, I always end up with an epic battle in “Act 3”. Even if my (or the antagonist’s) guardian angel isn’t visible, the effects will be, since epic stories don’t often happen by chance. This may or may not be a good thing.


  96. clodia says:

    Tl;dr. ;)

    For me it is simple – you eventually ruin the game if you care about one specific aspect more than having fun and making sure that other people are having fun as well.

    If the DM cares about the story more than the experience, it’s railroading.

    If someone cares about stats, rules lawyering.

    Staying in character – err…you get my point.

    The point is to have fun! To make sure that everyone is having fun to the best of your ability. It’s a game. When you forget that, and think that it is, shall we say, “serious business”, it is too easy to stop having fun, and to make other people stop having fun.

  97. Samrobb says:

    clodia: You said “The point is to have fun! To make sure that everyone is having fun to the best of your ability.”

    To me, getting lucky with the dice and killing the Big Bad too early in the story line is un-fun. It can absolutely ruin the pacing and tension that the GM has tried so hard to establish, with a goal of providing everyone a fun, challenging, and satisfying resolution further on down the road.

    I’ve had GM’s pull a Big Bad out of the fire when *I* was the one who got lucky. In one case I’m thinking of, while the Big Bad escaped under… odd… circumstances, I’m pretty sure the fact that we *almost* killed him immediately popped us from “Minor Nussiance” into “Major Threat” category. This happened well before we were really able to deal with the upgrade, which made the game very interesting :-) So while we were “railroaded”, it was done in a way that still let our actions have a major impact, and led to a whole boat load of more fun stuff, just be changing “you killed the Big Bad” to “you thwarted the Big Bad and almost killed him.”

    Similarly, misunderstanding what the GM meant (or simply getting massively *unlucky* with the dice) and running into a total party kill situation isn’t fun, either. So you have a bad night, and everybody’s rolling ones, and a few rounds into what should have been an easy encounter, the entire party is unconscious, dying or dead. You’ve completely managed to destroy the GMs plot, and rather than start over, he “railroads” you by having you captured and held for questioning… or sold into slavery… or left in incrimnating circumstances that get you thrown in jail… whatever.

    However you slice it, *both* forms of improvisation are “railroading”. The GM is not insisting that the players be nothing more be actors in his story. He’s saying, “You know what, guys, just because of the roll of the dice, I’m not going to destroy what’s been a really good story so far. I’ll change it, but we’re not going to end it right now, because that wouldn’t be as much fun for any of us.”

  98. RichG says:

    I once overheard one of my players comment to another that he thought I was railroading the campaign I was GMing. The irony was, there wasn’t any railroading going on… I was simply tidying the loose ends sufficiently that the campaign felt concise and tightly-plotted, adding (I hoped) to the feeling of being at the centre of a really well-told story.

    However, the player merely seemed to have concluded that everything that was happening was something predestined, because of a high content of foreshadowing. At the conclusion of the campaign (now in its fourth and final year) it will become evident that they have been changing fate all along, and the final climactic stand-off affected by the outcomes of numerous earlier chapters.

    Of course, I can’t tell the player that.

  99. Dave says:

    Josh, Dan… I hate to tell you this.. no.. the world you game in isn’t plyboard.. it’s not even paper.. it’s all in the DM’s head. His/her ability to let you in on that world is special and should be respected. If you see the cracks in the transfer of the DM’s imagination into yours.. well.. ignore it .. or better yet.. help by pasting over that hole with something that fits the world.. even if that pasted chunk puts your character at greater risk… Oh.. and here’s another shocker.. that character of yours.. it’s not real.. it is part of your imagination.. if your ability to let that character interact with the DM’s imagination is lacking and you simply are trying to win some imagined prize.. well.. you’ve lost. .. go play Monopoly… or chess.. but let us keep our imaginary worlds.. holes and all.. let us have fun even if you can’t.. Thanks.

  100. Josh says:

    The moral of the story is, never leave an online discussion for more than a few hours, or when you come back you won’t recognise it anymore ;)

    Anyway, my own personal confusion aside:

    – Re cracks in the plyboard, I don’t mean to give the impression that I spend my days picking at holes in the gameworld. But, y’know – there are some holes so gaping you can’t help but stick your head through them. Likewise in many games you really feel that the set isn’t just plyboard, you believe in the world; as such the feels-like-plyboard game can be a little disappointing by comparison. I think my metaphors may have got mixed somewhere here.

    – Re interactive vs. collaborative, I think perhaps that’s making a distinction I don’t entirely agree with. I’m not talking about a situation where there’s a fixed sequence of chapters which the players just navigate between in their idiosyncratic way – otherwise why not just play a pooter game? Rather like Telas, I like to set up a sequence of “default” events, some of which are so big that they are virtually unstoppable (the war in Telas’s example), others which can be influenced, averted, avoided, ignored… etc. The point is that there are things in my world which the players interact with, but which are in themselves fixed (i.e. I won’t just magic them away if it seems convenient for whatever reason). I think in Dan’s lingo that interaction may be the point of collaboration between the players and the GM.

    Oh, and re your example, Dan (the brothel, the sympathetic prostitute, the thieves guild) my answer has to be that unless you have specifically created a district that is known to have no brothels in it, and then had the players find one there anyway, or specified that prostitutes are always nasty and then made one all sympathetic, or where it is known that there is no thieves guild in the city… etc – then you hopefully haven’t created an inconsistency or issue. I’m more thinking along the lines of the original example, a villain being killed. Suppose he’s in his secret base at the time, and the GM decides to give him a secret exit to escape by. The risk there is that the (previously non-existent) secret exit might have been handy to the villain earlier in the story. The players may find themselves thinking “why didn’t he use that secret exit three sessions ago, when we had him cornered in this very room?” (that being the session where the GM had the players distracted by kittens). Clearly, this won’t happen every time – but when it does, it risks the “gaping hole in the plyboard” moment. I guess equally if you’ve got a map of your city and spontaneously plonk a brothel at location X you might conceivably have players say “wasn’t this the really fancy posh district five sessions back?”. So the key for me is having a well-developed world so that when the player asks to visit a brothel I can stand a good chance of knowing where they might find one.

    So… I’m beginning to suspect that the question some of us are discussing is “to what extent should the GM focus on the bits of the gameworld that the players seem interested in”? I think the answer is obviously “yes”, although I do think that many GMs (myself included) would quite possibly get bored if the players seemed only interested in roleplaying out scenes in brothels ;)

  101. Dan Hemmens says:

    It seems that a fundamental conflict exists between gaming as a story and gaming as a simulation. This conflict appears in many forms (example… player death), but here it shows up as whether the non-visible parts of the world should be mutable.

    I think there’s actually three positions here, or if you prefer there are two sets of two positions.

    First, there’s Gaming as Story versus Gaming as Simulation. Here I come down firmly on the side of gaming as story, possibly more so than a lot of the people on the “pro-plot” side of the fence.

    The second discussion (and one which a lot of people seem to be failing to notice) is about how you define story.

    At the risk of putting words into people’s mouths, I think a lot of people here think of “story” as “the events which are going on in the gameworld”. To take Shamus’ original hypothetical example, in that the “story” was “there is a palpatine-esque villain, who the players originally trust, who will eventually betray them, and against whom they will then fight.” From that perspective, anything which causes events to deviate from that arc “ruins the story” and therefore makes the game less fun. From that perspective “railroading” is absolutely the right thing to do.

    I, and some other posters, define the story in terms of the characters. If I were running a game with a particular villain in it who started out looking like a good guy, I wouldn’t be banking on them trusting him, or not trusting him, or on their paying any attention to him at all. I’d just have him there, doing his thing, and if the players ignored him I’d quietly forget about him in favour of people the PCs *were* interested in.

  102. Dan Hemmens says:

    Josh, Dan… I hate to tell you this.. no.. the world you game in isn't plyboard.. it's not even paper.. it's all in the DM's head. His/her ability to let you in on that world is special and should be respected.

    And you see that right there is my point of contention.

    I don’t see the game as existing in the DMs head, I see it as existing in the heads of everybody in the room. I see it as existing in the interaction between the GM and the players.

    So I don’t view the GM as having a “special ability” to “let me in on” anything. I don’t see the role of GM as sacred. I view it as a set of related tasks which are, in a conventional RPG, placed entirely in the hands of one player.

  103. Kristin says:


    He never said the *game* existed in the head of only the DM.

    The *world*, or the *setting* if you prefer, exists in the head of the DM. Your character, and the characters of the other players, exist only in their respective player’s head. Where the game comes in is in the ability of the two to meet and form a plot (or decide that there should be no plot).

    Since the DM brings the setting to the table, he knows what’s out there to be done (to a limited extent, anyway). Since you bring the characters, you know what you want to do. It’s not any more fun for the DM if what you want to do is not something he wants to do in his world than it is for the DM to force you to do something your character wouldn’t want to.

    This game is a collaboration. The DM is inherently part of that game. (Unless you’ve chosen to play a system without a DM.)

  104. moonglum says:

    Grant. you are makeing the smae mistake as a lot of the prorailroaders I beleive. you are tryign to recreate the crpg experience with table top..there is a lot of irony there as CRPG’s are a very poor simulation of table top…its liek the new civ board game…you are playign table top trying to simulate computere taht was trying to simulate table top….table top can be so much more than that.

    Kristin if the world only exists in the head of the GM you have a very sad game….the entire group should be involved (inthe process of the game) of devlopeing and evolvign the organic world that the players play in….

  105. Laithoron says:

    104 moonglum says:
    “Kristin if the world only exists in the head of the GM you have a very sad game….the entire group should be involved (inthe process of the game) of devlopeing and evolvign the organic world that the players play in….”

    I’ve been working on the setting for my own world since about 7th grade (i.e. for well over 1/2 my life now) which was a few years before I was introduced to D&D . Every time I start up a new group (I’m DMing for my 5th group now) *initially* the world exists only in either my head or the notes and maps that I’ve already managed to pour out.

    Now unless my memory fails me, it seems like Kristin and her brother’s reason for getting into D&D/roleplaying was not too much unlike the one I mentioned in #27: i.e. The initial attraction began because D&D contained elements that they had looked for as a writer. Most of my close friends agree that D&D (or any RPG) often isn’t so much something that one gets into so much as something one is already predisposed to like. To paraphrase Dune, “they shall know their game as if born to it.”

    I see nothing “sad” or “pitiable” about the bulk of the game world having its wellspring inside the DM’s head. In fact, part of the reason I cherish having a gaming group is that running a game provides a constant motivation for me to work on fleshing out that world and making it more real. It’s often not until someone else reads or tries to understand the world that You’ve been creating that an author or DM realizes what things everyone else doesn’t know and what needs clarification and description.

    When players want to explore a blank spot on the map or make an unexpected plot-turn, I secretly relish the chance to fill in more of that ethereal map complete with whatever tales of tragedy or heroics they help to author…

  106. Dan Hemmens says:

    The *world*, or the *setting* if you prefer, exists in the head of the DM.

    I get that a lot of people play like that, but it’s not how I play. The world is something which all the players dynamically contribute to (I think Moonglum plays the same way).

    Let me put it this way: if I’m running Your Standard Fantasy Game, and a player says to me “I try to get in contact with the local thieves’ guild” I will not take this as them asking me whether there is a pre-existing thieves’ guild in the game for them to get in contact with, I will take it as them asking that I put a thieves’ guild into the game for them to contact, and I will usually oblige. At most I might say “thieves’ guilds per se are something I find kind of cliche, but you can certainly find a powerful criminal organisation.”

    Either way, I certainly don’t view a game as a means to support my writing my fantasy worldbook.

  107. Deacon Blues says:

    Referencing clear back to #68, Aaron:

    The incident you cited in Ravenloft was not, IMO, railroading. You were simply letting the character experience the natural consequences of his actions.

    Look, Ravenloft isn’t Happy Fun Land, with kittens and rainbows and pastel unicorns whose horns aren’t sharp. Ravenloft is a nasty, scary place inhabited by vampires and liches and other unpleasant beings. If you go wandering through the swamps at night, you can expect far worse than a few bug bites and maybe a couple leeches.

    Now, had you not permitted the character to leave (say, every time he tried, he got turned around and wound up back with the party again), *that* would have been railroading. (I’ve only had to railroad a character once, and that was because the rest of the characters were ready to stumble across the villains’ secret lab and find the time-travel device, but he was determined to hunt down some drug dealers and steal their stash instead. And he was supposed to be a superhero!)

    I also don’t think that the original proposition from our good host here was an example of railroading – rather, when the characters wiped out the freeway he had intended for them to drive down, he hurriedly constructed an off-ramp to a parallel highway instead. “Railroading” would be if he simply made it impossible for the PCs to win, no matter what their tactics and die rolls were like.

    (I did have a railroad DM once. After a trap wiped half the party out, even after the rogue rolled a natural 20 on Find/Remove Traps, we decided not to play with him any more.)

  108. Dan Hemmens says:

    The incident you cited in Ravenloft was not, IMO, railroading. You were simply letting the character experience the natural consequences of his actions.

    Quite so. It’s certainly not railroading, it’s arguably what indie-types would call “deprotagonisation”.

  109. Matt says:

    I think most DMs are willing to keep evolving the plot and setting to accomodate what the party does. I think part of the problem is that what often gets called railroading is the DM attempting to deal with a player who absolutely refuses to evolve his individual PC to match what’s enjoyable for the rest of the players.

    Players are just as capable of railroading the plot as DMs. D&D’s a social game. If you absolutely must play a character who just CAN’T go along with what the party’s doing because that “wouldn’t be in character,” maybe it’s time to think about why you’re playing a game with others. OF course some of the fault lies with the DM for allowing that PC to begin with. For example, as a DM, I probably wouldn’t allow a chaotic evil character in a game where the rest of the party is lawful and neutral good unless the player could give me some very good reasons why their PC was going along. This saves me from having to constantly change things to accomodate someone who is grandstanding and forcing the attention onto their PC at all times.

  110. nevered says:

    One of my first experiences with D&D went something like this:

    before I start, let me tell you that I hate contrivances. I fight long and hard to stop games from following old cliched plots. I find them stupid and silly and unimaginitave, and there is nothing that ruins the game for me as much as a cliched plotline.

    I was playing as a true neutral druid, and at this point, there was no ‘party’ to speak of: our characters had not yet met eachother.

    we are all in the town, the focus of the campaign. The paladin was almost robbed, and dragged the criminal back to the sheriff, did a bit of roleplaying that led to him in the public square denouncing the town guards as a load of corrupt, incompetent idiots. the guard are dragged off by a bunch of peasants with torches and pitchforks, and the paladin goes to the nearest inn to celebrate his victory, where he meets the rogue and the sorceress, who had spent the time so far rolling dice to see how drunk they were.

    And now it was my turn. My druid (the first character I had ever made) was a neutral/neutral hermit: I came to the city to deliver a message or something, and once it was done, I went back to my forest. the DM didn’t know what to do: he hadn’t made anything past the city walls. I tried to throw him a bone by looking for tracks in the woods to follow: you know, maybe he would put something at the end of the tracks: a band of brigands that I would be angered about defiling my forest, and return to town seeking help in defeating them. a lost and confused dragon which threatened to destroy everything in a 50 mile radius (at which point I would warn the townspeople about their impending doom): a band of savage orcs which… you get the idea. any number of interesting things which would bring the party together in a unified cause. what do I find? plains. I find a vast expanse of emptiness where the tracks just stop.

    At this point, I look at the DM, and tell him just what I typed above: “Plains? you’re making this up on the fly and you can’t think of anything more interesting than plains?” Now, If he had planned it that way since the beginning: if he had written in his notebook that there was a prarie on that side of the town, I would have been fine with it: it was my fault for going somewhere which he had already established as empty.

    but he had the opportunity to throw anything at me: anything interesting and exciting that would have advanced the plot.

    so i say (quite angrily) “Fine, I go back to the goddamn tavern because my character is really thirsty for some bad ale” Obviously, this is what he had wanted all along. I was just a backseat driver: he had his hands on the steering wheel, and there was nothing else for me to do. If he didn’t want my character to do it, my character didn’t do it, end of story.

    Apparently, some of what I said sank through to him apparently, because on the way back, I found a shack.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the party had met a mysterious, cloaked stranger. In the tavern. Who wanted them to do something. (I hit my head against the table) But first, he had to test them, to make sure they were strong enough for the task, and he opens up a portal to his own private dimension, with a maze, locked doors, and riddles.

    Meanwhile, I enter the hut in the woods, and am teleported into the maze, with locked doors and riddles.

    I am teleported right next to the rest of the party.

    clearly, the DM had spent a lot of time making this place, and goddamn if we weren’t going to enjoy every minute of it.

    the place itself was pretty fun, though, once I found a door which, upon entering, caused my to appear on the other side of the room walking on the ceiling. He meant it as a temporary amusement, but I went through the entire rest of the dungeon this way, and easily circumvented a number of difficult traps he had made.

    We never actually found out what quest the man from the tavern wanted us to go on after his little ‘test’: next session, we got a new DM

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