Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Linear Adventures

In the winter of 1625, Riordan O'Neill, a King's Musketeer, and Guillaume Sébastien, a physician, were, at the behest of the duke of Savoy, dispatched to Milan to seek the ransom of the Sabaudian vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, a captive of Don Alvaro de Salamanca, the Spanish governor of the Forte de Fuentes. Along the way, a French diplomat informed them of an important fact - should Don Alvaro, who to this point steadfastly refused to ransom his captive, die, the vicomte's parole would pass to the governor of Milan.

Mission-oriented advetures are a staple of roleplaying games; because they made for convenient tournament contests, many of the earliest roleplaying game adventure modules were of this sort, and as a result of their initial prevalence, the model became deeply ingrained in the expectations of many gamers. Rescue-the-hostage and retrieve-the-mcguffin were - and are - a staple of gaming action, so much so that when a poster at Big Purple referred to this as "trad," I had to agree, my own sandboxy proclivities notwithstanding.

Adventures of this sort have a somewhat ambiguous reputation among gamers; over time, the influence of would-be writers - [khan] NILES! [/khan] - on adventure design produced modules which increasingly prescribed the scope of player choices for risk of the adventure failing to deliver the anticipated conclusion. Plot-heavy adventures in which the player characters were ushered from scene-to-scene resulted in a backlash against modules, and the referees who ran them, as 'railroads.' Over time, the pendulum swung so hard the other way that a number of gamers took to describe any adventure with 'a plot' as a railroad.

I believe it was 3e D&D that referred to the 'trad' adventure model as 'linear adventures.' Linear adventures are the now-classic scene-scene-scene-climax, or event-event-event-destination, or encounter-encounter-encounter-boss fight, format found in most game books and modules. Despite the linear set-up, they may be experienced in a non-linear fashion, as when the adventurers succeed in bypassing one of the scenes through smart play or dumb luck, such as avoiding a bandit ambush.

Railroading, on the other hand, doesn't allow the adventurers to bypass the encounters the referee or adventure sets in front of them; attempting to do so results in the players being forced into facing the encounter, as when players' characters attempt to take the west road instead of the east road with the bandit ambush the referee has planned, and a massive lightning storm springs up that keeps the adventurers from going west.

Illusionism is railroading's kissin' cousin. In this instance, the players are free to go whatever direction they like, but no matter what they do, the referee springs his encounter on them anyway, as when the bandits attack the adventurers regardless of whether or not they take the east or west (or north or south) roads.

Unfortunately, some suggest that 'railroad' is somehow the opposite of 'sandbox,' ignoring or failing to understand that a referee can just as readily railroad the players and their characters in a sandbox as in more traditional adventures. Railroading and illusionism, are, to me, profoundly dysfunctional ways to play roleplaying games, and conflating all plot-driven adventures as railroads is a serious error.

Moreover, I don't think scene-scene-scene-climax is actually a good approach to defining linear adventure so much as it's the most common way it's presented in roleplaying games. A linear adventure is more about operational progress from a discrete starting point to achieve an explicit goal or end which is frequently external to the player characters, that is, the goal is imposed upon them by someone else. It is often structured as scene-scene-scene-climax in order to ape a story's rising and falling action, conflicts and crises, and conclusion; the problem is that much of the advice to referees for running linear adventures expects or encourages railroading or illusionism in order to maintain that structure. This is poor adventure design, of course, but it doesn't inherently need to be that way.

Rather than structuring a linear adventure as scene-scene-scene-climax, I may prepare a slew of options for how the npcs react depending on what the adventurers do, like in "The Lady of La Rochelle" for Flashing Blades, or set the actions of the npcs against a timeline in which the antagonists are acting and the adventurers are free to respond, like in Operation: Ace of Clubs for Top Secret, or as a series of events to which the adventurers may or may not respond, like in Burned Bush Wells for Boot Hill. Burned Bush Wells is an adventure which takes place in the eponymous town during a hard winter. There is a conflict between two factions, a powerful businessman and his crony marshal and the other business owners of the town. Sequential events in the adventure detail the steps taken by each faction to overcome the other, concluding with one faction or the other winning, depending on the involvement and actions - if any - of the adventurers.

BBW can be viewed as scene-scene-scene-conclusion, but it can also be viewed as a timeline which exists independently of the adventurers; the adventure makes only very general assumptions about how the adventurers will respond, if indeed they respond at all, to the sequence of events. It's entirely possible for the adventurers to bypass all of the events, side with either faction, or progress from starting event to ending event in order.

The events of the adventure unfold linearly - a thief, helping the doc, a shotgun wedding, and so on - moving toward a conclusion. The events are even dropped at the player characters' feet. But what BBW doesn't do is presume the adventurers's responses to the events, and it loads up the referee with enough information to wing it if the adventurers try something completely different, and it even gives advice to the referee on how the events change based on adventurer action and inaction during previous events.

When you get away from trying to structure the actions of the player characters as part of a story, then linear adventures can be constructed in such a way that they still lead from A to E but provide for meaningful player choices instead of ham-fisted transitions between scenes or encounters.

Linear adventures make sense in a sandbox when the player characters submit themselves to some authority - they join the army, they are inducted into an order, they buy an office, they are granted a title, &c. Requiring adventurers to fulfill their responsibilities gives meaning to accepting titles, offices, ranks, and so forth, and linear adventures arising out of those responsiblities may be one logical way for those duties to present themselves to, and impose themselves upon, the player characters. Unfortunately, linear adventures - specifically badly conceived and presented linear adventures - have poisoned the well to some degree, leading some gamers to dismiss them out of hand and even to claim that any attempt to control the actions of the adventurers - especially in a sandbox game-world - is railroading. This does not need to be so, but referees should also take care not make the fear become a reality when introducing linear adventures into their sandboxes.

33 comments:

  1. Nice distinction.

    That said, published Linear Adventures encourage Railroading. When player actions put the adventure on a path not described in the book, a DM who isn't used to thinking for himself/running a sandbox may not know what to do. He will then railroad the party back on track.

    I've played in a few adventures where this happened :(

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    1. Do the published adventures *encourage* railroading?

      Or does *inexperience* encourage Railroading?

      Not all that long ago, I played in a game that my young son's friend ran; we really had no choice in anything that happened, even down to saying "I do this" in a fight, and the young GM saying things like "it'd be better if you did this, so let's say you do that. Now roll...".

      Anything that's published is a set of ideas that can be used, modified, edited, folded, spindled and borrowed-from, as seen fit. They might not tell you this in print, up front; it's part of a secret cabal with unlimited membership, however.

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    2. Some adventures do indeed flat-out recommend railroading, but in my experience the more common problem is that they don't do a good enough job helping the referee deal with the unexpected twists-and-turns that result from the players' and characters' choices.

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  2. I am not sure that I agree with the distinction you are making here.

    Linear adventures can occur within the context of a sandbox because the nature of the adventure, and the consequences of just scarpering off, arise naturally from the choices made by the players. I.e., they are not imposed so much by the GM but by the nature of the world. This includes the result of getting shanghaied on the docks where you went to get drunk.

    However, I do not believe your assertion that you can railroad within a sandbox. When you say a railroad "doesn't allow the adventurers to bypass the encounters the referee or adventure sets in front of them; attempting to do so results in the players being forced into facing the encounter, as when players' characters attempt to take the west road instead of the east road with the bandit ambush the referee has planned, and a massive lightning storm springs up that keeps the adventurers from going west." I say, "Then it is not a sandbox, but the illusion of a sandbox."

    A sandbox requires meaningful choice as to direction of the action. A railroad specifically prohibits this meaningful choice. The degree to which any setting is a railroad is the degree to which it is not a sandbox.

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    1. Sandbox is useful as a descriptor of the setting or campaign style. A sandbox setting or campaign is one in which the PCs are allowed to select their goals or missions - even if that selection is only in the negative sense of following the orders of a superior of an organization they have chosen to join. But in a sandbox, the PCs still are choosing to follow those orders since they still have the alternate choice of mutiny or desertion.

      Railroad is useful as a descriptor of the session or adventure style where the choices of the PC within the session or adventure don't matter and they are forced to proceed from one preplanned scene or confrontation to the next.

      I can envision a sandbox setting where the PCs choose to rescue the princess, look for gold in California, or go to Milan to ransom a vicomte and then the action within that adventure or session is scripted and immutable - unless the PCs essentially mutiny against the mission itself. It would be an odd thing to happen in a sandbox setting, but I don't see it as an impossible thing.

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    2. I disagree. I think that the descriptor refers not only to an overarching ability to choose goals and actions, but far more importantly to an ability to do so in situ.

      Moreover, if "the action within that adventure or session is scripted and immutable", why even bother to play through it? Narrate it and then get on to the parts where you make meaningful choices.

      For a game to be a sandbox, I need to not only be able to choose to go to the Caves of Chaos, but to choose which cave entrance when I get there, and how I deal with the minotaur I discover. Simply because trying to be friends isn't going to work out for me, it should not be scripted an immutable that I cannot try.

      Likewise, once conscripted into the army, I have a choice of following orders or not following orders and taking the consequences.

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    3. I think we are just arguing semantics. Using sandbox to describe not only the campaign or setting but also the adventure itself as you are doing here is less useful IMO as it makes the meaning of sandbox context dependent which risks ambiguity.

      I don't see any value in trying to make sandbox and railroad contradictory definitions.

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    4. Of course we're discussing semantics. We are discussing the meaning of words in language.

      However, all language is context-dependent. As railroad potentially applies to both setting and adventure, so too must any term which is going to oppose it.

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    5. Railroad is meaningless when applied to setting/campaign. Many settings/campaigns are players agreeing to run on a preselected adventure whether published or GM created. For example, every one of the several dozen CoC adventures I've ever played on (with multiple GMs) or run (as the GM) give the player no choice of what adventure they are playing in. But within the adventure the PCs have many choices about what they choose to explore or ignore. The adventure is not a railroad. The campaign is not a sandbox.

      Unless you envision players being kidnapped by their GM, railroad does not apply to the setting/campaign and that is such a corner case, we don't really need the term "railroad" to apply.

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    6. Railroad is NOT meaningless when applied to setting/campaign. Agreeing to be bound does not make one less bound. Having freedom within walls does not make one outdoors.

      It is obviously quite possible to have something that is neither railroad nor sandbox - in fact, their being in opposition almost demands a grey area between - but trying to use that grey area to claim that the poles don't exist is simply wishful thinking.

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    7. You seem to be confuting what occurs in a session and what occurs in a setting. Your terminology doesn't seem to be aiding discussion.

      Perhaps you would explain how railroad is meaningfully applied to a setting/campaign as opposed to an adventure or session.

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    8. Not at all. In the most obvious form, a setting can consist of nothing more than rails.

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    9. Or, make that, the rails needed for the adventure, if that was too unclear for you.

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    10. Well let's examine that concept.

      According to you the setting would consist of nothing other than the PCs going on one adventure after another in a linear fashion surrounded by a gray mist of nothingness outside of the particular adventure they are on (and possibly the previous adventures and any foreshadowing of the next adventures). All there are to the setting are the rails. That seems like a too narrow definition to meaningfully apply to any campaign setting, but perhaps a slightly less narrow definition might fit a setting that could really occur.

      Since these adventures themselves proceed in a linear fashion, we could just consider all the adventures in this setting to be one long linear adventure. We’ve already established that linear adventures are not a problem per se, it is the inability of the players and their PCs to make meaningful choices within the adventure that is the problem.

      Now either this linear adventure string consists of a bunch of railroady sessions or it doesn't.

      If the sessions are railroads then we have a problem, but it is the problem of a railroaded linear adventure session, not a problem of the setting per se.

      If the sessions are not railroads, then just as we have said that a linear adventure is not a problem as long as the PCs can make meaningful choices during the session, we don't have a problem with a linear string of non-railroaded linear adventures.

      Therefore a railroad setting problem is not a separate problem, but is in fact a subset of the railroaded session or adventure problem.

      Examples of this type of setting include any setting where the PCs are given assignments by a higher authority that they are expected to carry out e.g. PCs as members of the Star Wars Rebel Alliance. The fact that many players are fine playing in a campaign setting that is not a sandbox so long as within the adventures and sessions their characters are allowed to make meaningful decisions merely supports the notion that describing campaigns as railroads is not a useful or correct use of the term.

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    11. "However, I do not believe your assertion that you can railroad within a sandbox."

      Sure they can. Railroading is abrogating player choice. In the case of a sandbox, I could say, 'A rockslide blocks the only pass through the mountains and winter snows make other routes impassible, so you can't go there.'

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    12. Pass? What pass?

      Lampshaded by the "Underconstruction" signs that I've heard some DMs put up while creating a new level in their megadungeon.

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    13. I believe you gentlemen proceed from false assumptions.

      In the case of SiM, "that linear adventures are not a problem per se, it is the inability of the players and their PCs to make meaningful choices within the adventure that is the problem" has not, in fact, been conceded.

      I agree that linear adventures can occur in a sandbox environment because the nature of the adventure, and the consequences of just scarpering off, arise naturally from the choices made by the players, but that does not imply that the players need to stay on the rails. I can choose the consequences, or choose to fight the consequences. I can run rather than go the the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief.

      "a linear adventure is not a problem as long as the PCs can make meaningful choices during the session" takes this idea far out of context if you then conclude that "we don't have a problem with a linear string of non-railroaded linear adventures" or that we even believe that "a linear string of linear adventures" exists while at the same time being not a railroad.

      In the case of BV, I disagree strongly that "Railroading is abrogating player choice." Railroading abrogates player choice, but not all abrogation of player choice is railroading. Otherwise, not having the powers of superman as a 1st level fighter would be railroading, if the player chose to have them.

      This is similar to the idea that Socrates is mortal, but not all mortals are Socrates.




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    14. RCK

      You seem to be sayiing that linear adventures occur in a sandbox setting and that is not a problem if the players can engage or run away. If that's not what you are saying you really need to clarify.

      You then state:
      "a linear adventure is not a problem as long as the PCs can make meaningful choices during the session" takes this idea far out of context if you then conclude that "we don't have a problem with a linear string of non-railroaded linear adventures"

      If one linear advanture is not a problem as long as the PCs can scarper off and otherwise make meaningful choices then two linear adventures are also not a problem. As are three, four, etc. This follows logically from one linear adventure is not a problem. You may not be happy with the conclusion but it logically follows from the premises which you seem to have accepted.

      Your 1st Level Superman character is a flawed counter example for two reasons. First the assignment of superman powers is something that occurs out of character at a metagame level. Railroading doesn't and shouldn't apply to decisions about what the game is that is being played.

      Second, except with regards to what I would call the narrow case of Narrativist/Dramatist rules and bennies, Railroading should be defined with regard to Player Character choices, not player choices. Players can't reasonably be upset if their PCs cannot choose actions in the game world that are obviously impossible or contrary to the rules. To claim otherwise just puts one back in the "Bang! Your dead." "No I'm not, ya missed me." dialectic that RPG rules were invented to avoid.


      If you don't agree that a railroad is abrogating player choice, then you'll have to explain what you think a railroad is if it is not that. Since semantically we don't have any terms in agreement with which to have a conversation.

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    15. "Railroading abrogates player choice, but not all abrogation of player choice is railroading."

      As noted in the blogpost, railroading is abrogating player choice for the purpose of forcing the player characters in the direction the referee demands they go. That's not the same as setting conditions over which the players and their characters have no control.

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    16. "Railroading doesn't and shouldn't apply to decisions about what the game is that is being played."

      Sure it does.

      "In this game, you are a North-Going Zax. You can go north, until you encounter a South-Going Zax. Then you can either stand there or fight."

      or

      "Game X is not a railroad because, while all other decisions are taken from you, you can choose your fighting stance." Sorry, but no, Game X is a railroad.

      Likewise, consider setting:

      "The setting is an infinitely long corridor which allows movement only in one direction."

      If these really, really simple examples do not make it clear that a game or a setting can railroad, then nothing ever will.

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    17. "If one linear advanture is not a problem as long as the PCs can scarper off and otherwise make meaningful choices then two linear adventures are also not a problem. As are three, four, etc. This follows logically from one linear adventure is not a problem. You may not be happy with the conclusion but it logically follows from the premises which you seem to have accepted."

      Actually, it does not.

      Saying that an incidence of X is acceptable does not in any way imply that a series of incidents X is acceptable. For example, if one accepted your logic, if you were willing to accept a friend giving you a friendly punch in the arm, you would have to be equally willing to accept 250 or an infinite number of punches in the arm.

      Tell your raw, bleeding arm that you are only being logical, but I suspect that your arm, like myself, understand fallacious reasoning somewhat better than that.

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    18. "In this game you are NOrth-Going Zax..."

      This "examples" aren't actually examples of a game or setting, because, unless the GM is forcing you to play at gun point, no one is going to be willing to play them as opposed to just getting up and walking away. As BV says, these are setting conditions not railroading. Or to put it another way, there is no problem with either of your three examples if you can find anyone who wants to play them. Even though I kind of doubt that you can find anyone who wants to play those games.

      It's not acceptable to get hit in the arm once. I may tolerate it once. That doesn't mean it is acceptable. However, though your counter example is flawed what you are pointing to is the fallacy of the beard. So at one number greater than 1 does the number of linear adventures become a problem?

      Hint: there is no number. It's going to depend on when the player gets tired of playing the game. But that is true of any adventure regardless of whether or not the adventure is a railroad. While being a railroad may tell me that an adventure is not fun. An adventure not being a railroad tells me nothing about whether playing the adventure is fun.

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    19. You play at semantics, sir. When Plato was writing the Socratic Dialogues that sort of thing worked because no one apparently (as least as Plato depicted them) was educated enough to call Socrates on his BS.

      "It's not acceptable to get hit in the arm once. I may tolerate it once. That doesn't mean it is acceptable."

      What do you think "acceptable" means? "capable of being endured; tolerable; bearable:"

      "So at one number greater than 1 does the number of linear adventures become a problem?"

      So let me understand this: You understand what the continuum fallacy is, yet you continue to engage in it? Hint: Your audience understands the continuum fallacy as well.

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    20. Another hint: This worked for Socrates in Plato because Plato had everyone else in the dialogues willing to engage with Socrates without pointing out the flaws in Socrates' reasoning. If this was written by Plato, I would now become utterly flummoxed by your identifying why your logic is fallacious, and then your continuation of the same fallacy. I would be forced to go along with your line of questioning, even after pointing out that the question is irrelevant due to the continuum fallacy.

      Sadly for you, Plato is not writing either of our dialogues, and you are not Socrates.

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  3. I really don't care as long as I don't feel "railroaded" and the adventure is fun. I only care when I feel my PC is being forces to do something I wouldn't have him ordinarily do. I think all the terminology discussions are meaningless in the grand scheme of playing a game for fun.

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    1. Terminology is only interesting in that it aids discussion. Or when it is used, as is true in some cases (definitely not this one!!!) to obfuscate discussion.

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  4. Good post, and I pretty much agree. It's the effect of your choices that determine if something is a railroad or not. If you either get no choice or your choices are an illusion, it's railroading. If your choices matter, and effect the path you are on (even if it's linear due to matters your choice can't affect), it's not a railroad.

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  5. To be honest, this sounds to me like a slightly confused version of Justin Alexander's dictum, "prep situations, not plots." Note that one of his sections, "Don't plan specific contingencies," cautions against attempting to "prepare a slew of NPC options."

    That said, I'm going to argue that your thinking is slightly askew. Your opening example is a goal and a situation, not a "linear adventure" -- there is no straight line or set of scenes that a party faced with that scenario would necessarily face. They might try to assassinate the guy, free his hostage, or negotiate or cajole him into an agreement. They might just start out by investigating why he refuses to ransom his hostage. If you try to set up a scene, say a formal dance or whatever, in advance, then either you have to ensure the PCs attend (railroading) or your work is wasted.

    The only thing you can do (without making it into a railroad plot) is to prepare a set of tools -- a timeline of events that would happen without PC intervention, and notes about the NPCs that will guide their actions in play -- and roll with what the party decides to try.

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    1. I'm familiar with JA's essay, and for the most part I agree, though not with all of it. Planning specific contingencies - if the prisoner dies, then the governor will immediately bury the vicomte in the fortress cemetery and post guards to make sure the body remains undisturbed until the envoys leave town - is fine; it doesn't remove player agenct, nor is it wasted effort to consider a plan in which the adventurers could attempt to fake the vicomte's death by some means.

      In the example of the rescue of the vicomte, there were indeed some 'set-piece' encounters, such as arriving for an audience with the governor with his translator, a Papal soldier named Mazarini, in attendance. If they never sought an audience, then that encounter wouldn't take place - they could bypass it or ignore it, but once they triggered it, it was on.

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  6. Hey BV! Regardless of some disagreement, good topic & good discussion.

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    1. Disagreement's good and not to feared.

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