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Acts of God and Railroads

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I hope I'm not the only one who feels like the term "railroading" is thrown around too easily by people who get butt-hurt over actions and situations gone wrong. However I also hope I'm not the only one who notices how close that line can run and how indistinguishable they can become.

So it's Friday, game day. For the last few sessions we've come back to the central plot. Early on all of the characters in our game died (save me, already dead. But that's not the point) and had to be brought back. There's some new world order that persecutes people who "wrongfully come back from the dead" whatever that means. For us it meant that the druid who brought us back had to create a spell that re-incarnated us as opposed to a flat resurrection so as to not violate the law.

Despite the druid's best efforts agents from both the underworld and the clockwork dimension have approached us ready to persecute the group for wrongful resurrection. Each time we send 'em to the graves where everyone buried their original bodies and they always said "Huh, alright. We'll go back and straighten it out" always with no avail. With other people's help we got a writ allowing us to go into hell on official business to sort it out directly with the underworld itself.

SO beginning of the session we're right outside the door when we get attacked. Nothing new, several demons before had attacked ignoring the cease-fire writ (this guy actually had a special card that voided it FF Tactics-style) so we just fought him. I went for a hammer of justice to stun the guy. I roll a one. He had a shield of sorts that reflected spells so no qualms there. But when it reflected it didn't just hit ME. It hit the whole PARTY.

I wanna say "That's not fair!" but how much fail should a critical failure be? How much should you suffer? It's supposed to be up to the GM, especially in free form games so how do you really say when the GM's crossed the line? Especially when you're arguing about one of YOUR attacks going wrong? It's real easy to just say I'm bitter because my attack failed (and admittedly I was) right? I'd say so, the others would say no.

THEN enter what happened at the end of the session. We got to the proper room and were talking with the guy we needed to see about ironing everything out. The guy naturally was giving us third degree about us being innocent. Mind scanning for memories of our deaths? could have been altered. Zone of truth via the bard? there are ways to lie through it. Guys who saw proof of our bodies earlier? they're with other divisions. Send one of your own to check? the bodies are gone.

So then we luck out. Brosef Megele, the main event, had kept his old bodies skull as a pendant! We hand it over to him and the guy looks at it for a few moments and then springs a trap that locks down everyone but our Superhero, Jedi and Ninja. (The only three who have danger senses of any sort). They try to get information out of him about why he's doing this only for him to scoff and respond "you think this is the place where I tell you my plan exactly so you can foil it?". He then proceeds to literally walk through everyone's attacks and stuns (again, grrr) and then block off escape by producing magical copies of our old pals 53 and 54.

As I was driving people home after the session this one guy was complaining to me about railroading. I wanted to just tell him he was being anal about getting caught in the traps that had sprung up only to stop and realize that I was missing a larger point he was making. There had been absolutely nothing we could have done to stop his retreat or reason our way out of it AND we learned nothing that we hadn't already known.

Obviously the two examples are largely different extremes but both involve the GM's hand and both trigger what some sadly have as a knee jerk reaction : calling failures railroading or unfair in some capacity.

How much GM do you like in your game? You like the GM's hand to be next to invisible? A whisper on the wind that compels you to follow a path rather than a brisk wind that threatens to blow you over if you don't step in certain directions? What do you guys think?

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  1. obtusehobbit's Avatar
    For me I think it a balance, and I have seen GMs railroad the story with the players being none the wiser. The trick I think as a DM is to let your players play, and adjust your plans according to their actions, sometimes you can pretty much let them do whatever they want, but sometimes you need to take measures to move them in a particular direction. Either way I prefer when it at least seems that the players have a choice in the matter.

    One of the keys to railroading while making it seem like a choice is to understand your players likes and dislikes, and their PC motives. By using those two things you can create situation where the Players are likely to take the path that you want them to take. Now since a person motives change on a regular bases you need to as a GM talk with your players and get feedback.

    At least that is my opinion on the matter, railroading is sometimes needed, but you have to do it in a smart way or your players will feel slighted.
  2. BlacktotheFuture's Avatar
    That's a pretty devious half-and-half compromise you described there. I feel ya though. Probably the best way to do it.