August 27, 2013

When a Railroad is a Good Thing

Last week I talked about the two forms of the 'railroad' and how dangerous one of them can be. Railroads, in general, are looked down upon as an inherently bad thing. However, as with most things in life, there are times when railroads are a good and positive thing for a game. Similar to how a game table has snacks other than Doritos and Mountain Dew, there are circumstances when a railroad is exactly what a gaming group needs.

Here are a couple of times when a railroad is advised... 

Poor Group Initiative
Some players simply don't have good self-motivation when it comes to a campaign. They hem and haw and wander aimlessly for far too long. They begin to get upset by the lack of direction. Some groups need a strong lead and the best way to do this is with a railroad. A railroad gives clear goals and an avenue to accomplish those goals. It is better to run a railroad than to let the players flounder. 

It's the Journey That is Important
For some groups the ends are not as important as the journey to get there. For those groups the plot is irrelevant and nothing but the "excuse" to go on an adventure. They don't care how they get to an adventure, just that they are in it. Often these groups enjoy the challenges of the encounters, seeking to overcome them as a purely mental contest. Some only care about the vistas of an encounter; how they get there is less important than fighting titans in cloud castles. For these sorts of groups providing a non-linear setting could actually get in the way of their goals. If the choices in a campaign's direction is left up to them they may wander too much, not reaching the exciting encounters they are looking for. For these groups a railroad of encounters provides enough of a framework to provide incentive to the encounters but also keeps the encounters coming for the group in a timely manner.

To sum up, for some tables, it's okay to run a railroad. Sometimes it's the right thing to do.

August 20, 2013

The Forms of a Railroad

In my mind there are two forms of the "railroad". The first is fairly common and not always a horrific thing, the second is insidious and can destroy a campaign without anyone even knowing why.

The first is the plot railroad. In this the characters are driven to follow the main plotline that the DM has set up. They are characterized by the fact there is series of events that need to happen in order to move the plot along. Depending on the DM, sometimes the characters will be allowed to wander off and do their own things, but eventually the characters will be drawn back into the plot. There have been numerous articles throughout the years giving details on how to do just that - how to get the characters back into the plot after they have gone astray.

The second is the character railroad. This is similar to the plot railroad, but in this one the characters have little choice but to follow the plotline. Whereas the plot railroad is fairly obvious, this one can be hidden by an experienced DM which makes it all the more dangerous. For example, in a pulp adventure I was reading recently, the characters give chase in cars after an adversary who is carrying a briefcase that the characters need to continue the plotline. There are rules for describing the chase, including the fact that the GM should ignore any result that allows for the adversary to escape. Basically, the players can not fail; it is preordained that no matter what die rolls they make or what happens, they will succeed. They have to succeed or the plot will derail. As another example, we have the classic 'the bad guy got away but left behind a slip of paper leading to the next encounter'. In this case there is no penalty for failure.

This is a far more dangerous form of railroad. On one hand because it so subtle (the GM can move things along from behind the scenes) it often feels as if there is no railroad. However, this form of railroad requires that no matter what the characters always succeed. Over time, the players will begin to feel as if their choices have no meaning. They will begin to resent the game, and will have no idea why they feel this way. A campaign can come to a crashing end and no one will know why.

Sometimes a DM has to have some form of a railroad in order to provide an interesting story, but a good DM will avoid the character railroad. Failure must remain an option. If the characters fail, it is still possible to remain on plot, but the next stage of the plot must be reached through an avenue outside of what the characters just failed at. In effect, instead of a character railroad, you would be implementing a plot railroad. Going back to the 'the bad guy got away but left behind a slip of paper leading to the next encounter' example. Instead of leaving behind a slip of paper, allow the characters to fail. Introduce a new element to the story to move the players to the next encounter. But never allow for plot advancement to come out of the character's failures.

August 13, 2013

Minimalist Encounter Descriptions

I've been reading some adventures of late (for the fun of it) and comparing writing styles between them. One thing that struck me was the way encounters are written, and how one methodology is inherently better than another. Here are a couple of examples of what I am talking about...

-In a recent Necessary Evil (a super-hero rpg) encounter the characters are tasked to move a bulky and heavy generator from a warehouse to a secret lair hidden in the sewers. The encounter then gives absolutely no information on how this is to be done. It is completely left up to the players.

-In a recent Savage Worlds super-hero adventure (a generic one I've been reading), the character are tasked with entering a catacombs through a hole in the floor that is 15' deep. The encounter description then proceeds to list a variety of ways the characters can do this.

Of the two, I much prefer the first method for describing the encounter. All too often, if the text lists options the GM has a tendency to only allow those options to work. Then if the players come up with something "off-track" the tendency is to disallow it, or to come up with some in-game explanation of why it doesn't work. By not giving options, the task falls completely on the shoulders of the players to resolve the encounter and the GM can roll with whatever they come up with.

For the last couple of years there has been a trope of saying "yes". Basically this means that whatever the players come up with, a good GM will allow it, as long as it is feasible. How an adventure encounter is written can actually help a GM "say yes". In effect, the lack of options steers a GM into allowing player actions to dictate how an encounter will unfold instead of the writing of the encounter dictating what will happen. And the best way to do this is to write an encounter as minimalist as possible.

August 6, 2013

Are All The Races Done?

One of the mainstays of fantasy rpgs is the variety of non-human races available for play. The availability to play elves, dwarves and halflings has been there with us since the beginning of D&D. With the advent of science-fiction rpgs the number of playable races skyrocketed. Soon fantasy games caught up to sci-fi and the amount of races available for play is staggering. But, have we reached the limit of new races that can be designed?

These days you can play Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Orcs, Centaurs, Cat-people, Dog-people, Rock-people, Light-people, Shadow-people, Lizard-people, Snake-people, Bird-people, Dragon-people, Demon-people, Angel-people, Genii-people, Elemental-people, Fey-people, Insect-people, Plant-people, People who can change their form (race) at the their whim, a plethora of Half-races mixing together all sorts of races, Monsters as People and variations on every sort of race already established (such as High Elf, Wood Elf, Sun Elf, Drow, Eladrin, Sylvan Elf, Sea Elf, Winged Elf, Moon Elf, Silver Elf, Star Elf, Wild Elf, Ghost Elf, Grey Elf, Painted Elf, Snow Elf.)

New settings and games often seek to offer up new races as a way to entice gamers to their system/setting. However, all too often it is nothing but a variation on what has come before. This is often done one of two ways...

The Culture Swap
This method takes a race and gives it another culture often associated with a different race. For example, the Indara are a Cat-people who are very outdoorsy and love nature and the woods. They sing to nature and have bonds with Fey creatures. They are renowned for their grace and mastery of magic and proficiency with weapons such as the sword and bow. They are long-lived, capable of living more than half a millennium and remaining physically youthful. Possessed of innate beauty and easy gracefulness, they are viewed as both wondrous and haughty by other races. In effect, the Indara is an elf with a race-lift.

The New Culture
This is where the designer takes a race and gives it a new culture. Imagine halflings as shamanistic cannibals that live in treetops. Dark Sun did it that way. Of the two ways this one at least presents the players with new ways of playing that race, even if it is still nothing but a variation on something that has come before; much the same as a Wild Elf is a variation on the Elf race. However, they are not true new races.

Is there still a new race out there for rpg games or have we done it all?