Awesome Rails!

edited October 2012 in Actual Play

Have you ever played in a game (as player or GM, or both/neither) where someone railroaded the game in some way... but it was awesome?

In this thread, tell us how it went.

* What made it awesome, fun, exciting, interesting?
* What were some GM techniques in play? (i.e. How was the railroading carried out, exactly?)
* Was the railroading hidden or out in the open?
* Did anyone resist the railroading, or were people happy to go along?
* If someone resisted, how did the group or the GM deal with that?

Don't worry about the definition of railroading for this thread; please just share your experiences. We can figure out what railroading is to you from you Actual Play story.

Thanks for sharing!


  • Well, the concept of "railroad" is a bit loose, but does Dead of Night count? That game's essentially a GM's joyride, and it's consistently awesome. Dread is another similar thing, they're both horror games that are all about laying out the GM's vision for the enjoyment of everybody else. They've been very successful with me as venues for visceral imaginative experiences; players get to experience the GM's presumably brilliant content with good pacing and story-telling. (I want to emphasize that good storytelling is the non-trivial part here, that's what the game system is for - relying on GM genius alone is bullshit trad-think.)

    As for techniques, I have my own pet model for participationist play. The key insight is that while the GM has his key scenes or whatever that'll happen no matter what, the players still have three essential powers:
    • The players control the focus of attention: by asking questions and having their characters pay attention to this thing over that thing, the players control what, exactly, the GM puts on the table as an experience for them.
    • Players control pacing: by moving slower or quicker the players determine the pace at which the game progresses on the rails.
    • The players control character color: what player characters say and how they do things is determined by the players as they depict those characters.
    My hypothesis is that more successful railroading game systems rely on magnifying and appreciating the above trusts. Players do not need to control plot to have relevant and important roles in a roleplaying game. By communicating the distribution of tasks clearly within the group you can ensure that instead of worrying over a plot he can't affect a player can relax and take full responsibility for the above types of duties.

    My practical recent (say last decade) experiences of railroading are almost all from horror games of the sort I mentioned. My overall experience has very little in the way of discord over the railroading; this is probably because I've only ever played these sorts of games with people who have similar experiences with me and who are capable of understanding the above sort of structural theory. Simply put, when our crew is told that in this game the plot is unnegotiable, then they don't waste time fighting about it in-game. No doubt there can be trouble with railroading (it's a common theme in traditional rpg discussion!), but I'd say that it's just a subcategory of more general problems with system coordination: the trad scene of roleplaying has a history of inflexibility and noncommunication, which would explain why people end up fighting over something like plot control in-game instead of agreeing upon the rules in advance. It's just one of those things that people may have strongly differing expectations over, so it features prominently as a possible source of argument, even if the issue itself is no more difficult or special than anything else.
  • In the recent game of World of Shadows I GM'd, it was the players that were suggesting railroads. In more then one case, they said something like "Hey it would be cool if the scene turned out this way in the end, that way it would lead to some other cool scene." After briefly discussing, it was approved by the group and I, as the GM, attempted to steer the remaining part of the scene towards the pre-described ending, with some assistance from the players.

    For example, during the middle of a drug deal scene, one of the players was like "Hey, it would be cool if the cops busted in and we got into a car chase," and the other player was like "Hell yeah! I want to use my Driving skill!" So I let the scene continue to play out until a pivotal point, then low and behold in drops some unexpected company. However, I decided on the fly to change it up and have a rival gang show up all pissy about their territory and what not. A chase ensued and once the tires were squealing and guns were lighting up the street, I threw a LoneStar chopper into the mix.

    What made it awesome for me was the fact that the players were choosing to challenge their own characters for the sake of excitement and story, as opposed to fighting against any potential trouble on a meta-level. There weren't any special techniques used on my end, other than the twist in the agreed outcome. The railroad was obviously out in the open and agreed to by the three of us. Nobody resisted the railroad.
  • edited October 2012
    Awesome rail:

    Some years back; we ran a scenario in the fantasy-rpg Fabula.

    Premise; the characters were all villagers. The village was threatened by evil spirits. The only known way to save the village, was to take a goat to an ancient stone altar on a distant mountain top, and sacrifice it in a blood rite. The path is known to the characters, and no other path exist, so the "journey there" is all laid out in the scenario.

    The leader start off by prepping the players thus;
    This is not a scenario about where you go. You all know where you are going. This scenario is about what happens on the way, how you act in the face of hard challenges, how you support each other, and what you do at the altar, if you get there ...
    - there are dangers underway, and no one is guaranteed to survive; if your character dies, it spells the end of the session for you ...
    - you may give up, of course, and return to the village, laid waste by the spirits ...

    The end of this tale is in your hands!

    The game, in short:
    In the opening stages of the game, when the young and healthy hunters and warriors of the village made ready to go, they were charged with the village simpleton. The old shaman bids them; Take him with you, and guard him well. We all love him dearly. You know he is strong, but also naïve. He can carry the goat, so you are free to defend yourselves.

    The simpleton is played as an NPC by the leader of the game. The leaders (we ran this in several groups, in a convention) were instructed to play this NPC as often and as intensely as possible. One of the tools to make it intense, was to touch the players a lot, as the simpleton; hugging, prodding, stroking, shaking hands vigorously, etc. All in enthusiastic love for the "comrades" the simpleton had grown up with. The simpleton should be present in a lot of scenes, doing this.

    They met a dragon on the way, but was allowed to pass it by giving up the goat.

    No group stopped there. They climbed on, and reached the mountain top, short one goat (and 1-2 characters in each group). They had a vague idea that some solution would present itself once they came there ...

    No solution presented itself. The village; their parents, younger brothers, sisters, old grandmothers, small children, friends ... all would face the evil spirits, which would take their souls and leave their bodies ...

    That is; until the simpleton, whom all of them had grown rather fond of in the course of the game, said that he could be sacrificed. He insisted, on the virtue that he had no other function in the village; all helped him, but he helped none; Because I am stupid, and don't know how to do the things you do. But I know that I love you, and that I love my village. So now I can do the right thing; I can save all my loved ones. So I must bleed on the altar.

    And then he (the leader) proceeded to lay himself on the game-table, and presenting his wrists for them to cut. The leader then instruct the players that they make the cut, if they choose to do so, by indicating with a finger on his wrists that they cut him open.

    The altar scene is of course what this scenario is all about. The scenario is a hell of a ride up to that point, but in that scene tears are streaming and hearths are pounding. The relationships built throughout the journey, between the simpleton and his peers, is blossoming in that hearth-rendering scene.

    When they finally cut him (all did), he bleeds, and starts feeling cold, and frightened of death, they all join in comforting him, giving him as much as they can, in recognition of his sacrifice. Simpleton/leader lying on the table, characters/players standing around him; holding his hands, stroking him, speaking softly ... a simple return of all his clumsy hugs and unconditional love ...
    - and then he breathe out, and lie still, dead.

    The End
  • edited October 2012
    Man I wish I'd played that before reading about it just now. That sounds brilliant.
  • Thanks! It was a milestone to us, both leaders and players.
  • For the purpose of this conversation, does Montsegur count? You can literally do nothing to stop the siege from failing, you can do nothing to avoid the final tragedy of the game. Of course, within that framework you can do literally anything, but it's all an exploration of character as you march towards the inevitable end.

    Because the (half) game I played of that was a lot of fun.
  • Internet ate my post the last time I tried. This time I will copy it before I send it. :)

    The first scene started with a dinner with a land owner. Huge diorama windows showed his lands outside the dinner room on the second floor. He said that the PCs had been in the village for a week know and wanted to know if anything happened during the week. Then I cut to a scene when the PCs arrived to the village. Every time a village scene ended, I cut back to the dinner, made some remarks in the role of the land lord and then continued with a new scene. "I heard that there was some trouble at the pub. Can you tell me about that?"

    While we played, the PCs discovered that the land lord were a former military officer fighting in the American colonization war and lost his whole band except one due to his incompetence. I could see the players reactions when we played. How they thought why they would eat dinner to with this man. They found out that the remaining man of the band lived in the village and that he was in control over a the band who now had come back as ghosts. The PCs made a deal with that man to exploit the land owner and when they did that, I cut back to the dinner and how the former officer accepted his faith. He stood up and looked out the huge windows, and could see the band of ghosts was marching against his house.

    The players now understood that the reason why they ate dinner with the land owner; they were there to tell the man that he was about to die. One player tried to convince him by telling him that he could confess and turn himself in, but the land owner said that he was tired of the guild and had accepted his faith. "There is a third solution", said one of the players. He left a gun with one bullet in it at the table and they all left. When they came outside, the horde of ghosts flew passed by them, and from inside the diorama windows they heard a bang.


    I told the players on beforehand that it was going to be a rail. They helped me during the village scenes to set up a dinner on Sunday with the land owner, so that explained how there got the invitation. The actual scenario was something that was pressed into my hand. I had to playtest it for a friend for a convention, and it had a pretty normal structure with the PCs arriving at the village, discovering what was going on and so on. I thought it was a little bit boring, so I switched the scenes around and it got the same structure as The Usual Suspects. Cool story, everything flowed, and the players enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed what the player did in the final scene.

    I also played around with the windows in a theatre technique called "plant and harvesting" (I'm translating the Swedish words, because I don't know the English term for it). It's about planting something that you will come useful later on. It's used all the time in movies and TV series.
  • Nice one, Rickard! Thanks for sharing!
  • Rickard,

    In your story, it sounds like the general content of various scenes was predetermined (e.g. "tell me about the trouble at the pub"), but the players made free choices within the scenes themselves. Does that sound about right?

    For instance, would the players have the liberty to say whether the "trouble at the pub" was something they CAUSED or something they helped RESOLVE?

  • For instance, would the players have the liberty to say whether the "trouble at the pub" was something they CAUSED or something they helped RESOLVE?
    Not really. In that particular scene, it was more about showing the ghost soldiers for the first time. At the start of the scene, it was a cheerful atmosphere at the pub with the soldiers and then it started to get more violent and I added more and more stuff that seemed stranger and stranger. Like how one of the PC attending noticed how the beer that a soldier were drinking flowed out his thrashed throat and I started to describe the soldiers more and more like zombies.

    They were usually allowed to do whatever they want though. Some scenes were mostly to show something to the players, like the pub scene, while others were handed over to the players to investigate or interact with others. In this scenario, the players could either side with the surviving man (who I portrayed as a loony talking to himself) or the land owner, but it was kind of fudged to the crazy man's advantage. I can't recall any scene with the land owner, except the dinner invitation, that showed anything positive about him.
  • I see, thanks! Now it sounds like the scenes are set pieces designed to display a certain angle on events to the players, and their choice in the game is really how they portray their characters' reactions and judgements to those set events. (Not unlike Tomas's "simpleton" scenario.) Is that closer?
  • Yes, that sounds about right.
  • Games with some kind of fate play, like a set series of events or sequence of scenes work really well for me. Examples are Doubt or A Flower for Mara. Having a story structure like this makes engaging with the characters and their emotions & interactions take center stage.

    The first time I played Mara, I was surprised at how simple the characters were. It is a family, where one person has died, and you play out the aftermath of the relationships among all the family members left behind. Each player is assigned a family role (mother, sister, etc) and then chooses one word to describe the relationship with the lost Mara (resentful, loving, etc.). And it all flows from there.

    In my first Doubt game, I played one of the tempters, putting pressure on the main characters and playing out their roles as represented in the play they perform in together as their relationship breaks apart. The scenes are pre-set in the game, but in a very simple way. You just choose who is in a scene, and where it takes place, then they all get played out in order. The players make these choices at the start of play. That felt good, and the scenes felt natural when they came about.

    In both games, the characters came to life through play. And the potent situation created drama. Plus other techniques available to the GMs like asking for monologues, whispering direction and so on.
  • Games with some kind of fate play, like a set series of events or sequence of scenes work really well for me. Examples are Doubt or A Flower for Mara. Having a story structure like this makes engaging with the characters and their emotions & interactions take center stage.

    The first time I played Mara, I was surprised at how simple the characters were. It is a family, where one person has died, and you play out the aftermath of the relationships among all the family members left behind. Each player is assigned a family role (mother, sister, etc) and then chooses one word to describe the relationship with the lost Mara (resentful, loving, etc.). And it all flows from there.

    A very similar game to Mara, by the sounds of things, is discussed here.

    I have to say, for my own part, I would never choose to play either of those games, and the less I know about them the better, but if you're interested in that sort of thing, that's the link.
  • Ask how something happens, do not ask what happens.

    Asking how leaves players with something to express but does not demand too much from them or leave too much open.

    Asking what happens is a totally open question that leaves players little to go on and demands a great tole on them.

    (when i say players i include the GM)

    I say asking how is a roller coaster, asking what is ill-advised and telling them everything is a railroad.
  • I posted my favourite example of awesome rails in this similar thread a while back (the thread contains some other good examples, too).
    My favourite DM is also my oldest friend, and he doesn't always do a lot of pre-determining, but on occasion he does, and it usually works out really well. The best example I can think of is a d20 Modern steampunk campaign he's running right now - it's a sequel to a campaign I played in a few years ago featuring some of the same characters, and so I made a cameo while visiting home as my old character. The party had travelled back in time in order to ensure that certain events happened as planned and did not disrupt the space-time continuum Back to the Future style. But the brilliant thing about it was that the whole adventure was based on a PREVIOUS adventure they had played almost ten sessions ago, so they had to make the past versions of their own characters do the things that they had already done. They had encountered my character as an NPC in the original adventure, but this time I got to play him myself, interacting with the time-travelling future versions of the party, later the same day. It was too fucking funny (and just as brain-hurting as every other time-travel story ever).

    At the end of the original adventure, the party's aether-ship had been blown up by sabouteurs in a spectacular explosion. This event was highly traumatic for both the characters and the real-world players, as the ship had been around since the original campaign that I played in and it was essentially their home in the game-world. The party had never found the real culprits, and had since built a new, crappier version of the ship and used it to travel back in time. So, naturally, they ended up having to blow up the ship themselves for complicated macguffinny time-travel reasons - but they stole back the original, better version of the ship and blew up the new, crappier ship instead. My favourite part was the party gathering on a nearby rooftop to enjoy the explosion, and watching the shocked reactions of their past selves, which they had themselves roleplayed ten sessions ago, before sailing back to the future in their beloved original ship.

    It wouldn't have worked without extensive GM pre-planning and railroading, but it was just glorious!
  • That's pretty cool, thanks!
  • Ask how something happens, do not ask what happens.
    I like this.

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