18 Oct GM Lessons #4: When is Railroading Acceptable for a GM?
I was recently running an adventure for a couple of avid gamers in a Star Wars themed setting. As republic soldiers, their mission was to transport a dangerous criminal from a remote holding bay on a jungle planet to a more secure facility closer to Coruscant. As is only natural, by the time they arrived at the bunker they found it deserted, the prisoner gone and a horrific amount of blood splashed across the walls. Shaken, they ventured back outside where they found their vessel had been tampered with and the communications system on board completely destroyed. Cool, huh?
In my head I had planned a terrifying jungle crawl against an incredibly savvy Predator-style antagonist. Traps, cloaking devices and a motley array of close-combat weaponry, they were in for one hell of a ride.
But what did my gamers do? They boarded the shuttle and proceeded to fly above the jungle, sweeping the vegetation for signs of this diabolical killer.
Now, I endeavour to run my games as realistic as possible, steering away from the abhorrent thought that I might be “railroading” my gamers (by railroading I mean forcing them to make decisions, taking away their options so that the scenario unfolds just as I desire.) You decide to get back on the shuttle and fly around? Sure, why not? And yet I found myself frustrated that they had taken the “high road.”
I was tempted to blast them out of the sky with some fancy plasma-infused balista, as that would get things back on track in a quick and bloody way. But I argued with myself that this prisoner wouldn’t have such things at his disposal. Caught between a rock and a military space shuttle, I then began taunting them with grizzly scenes of carnage, and they began finding bodies of the defeated republic soldiers who had been stationed at the bunker crucified to trees – most of them still alive.
But that wasn’t enough to tempt them to the ground. Instead they avoided the bait and returned to the bunker where they then shot a flare into the twilight sky, challenging the prisoner to fight them on their own terms. It was the smartest thing they could do given the situation (apart from leaving the planet entirely) and the ensuing combat was still exhilarating to say the least.
That night I couldn’t help but ponder about the game and the way it had deviated from my titillating plan. I started thinking of possibilities, things I should’ve done differently in order to make it run the way I had intended it to. In the end I finally came to a conclusion: it would’ve been better to get rid of the ship entirely.
A well-planted explosive underneath the hull would’ve handled all of my problems, and then some. But it still didn’t sit right with me. How would our prisoner have acquired them? Wouldn’t he want the ship intact so that he could escape the jungle planet, too? Perhaps he had a ship of his own, one that once belonged to the dearly departed soldiers? A high intensity dog-fight would have also been a possibility.
Sometimes, in a weird, inconsistent way, it is better to guide the players into a situation where they are forced out of their comfort zone and must grow through the terrifying challenges that ensue. And whilst my gamers still enjoyed the adventure immensely, there was little suspense once they were back on the shuttle. Even the combat was less intense as they were fighting on their terms.
In the end, there is no right or wrong answer to the age old question, “To railroad or not to railroad?” I have been on the receiving of both and while I prefer the “open world” feel of a creative, intelligent Game Master who knows the universe inside-out, the hack’n’slash dungeon crawl complete with a layout of the entire dungeon is still cool as hell!
Gamers need gentle encouragement from time to time or the game gets boring. Personally, if I find the pace has begun to slow down and it has lost its intensity, I throw a monster their way. “So you turn left and walk down another flight of steps. It continues to spiral downward, the darkness oppressive – BADOOSH!! Gigantic centipedes with paralysing tentacles attack! Roll for Initiative!”
I don’t know how I will react in future situations given the way I run my games (extremely free-form). All I know for certain is that a smart player can always be counted on to find the chink in your adventure’s armour and exploit the crap out of it!
Article by Stuart Holbrook
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