Random RPG Thoughts #17: Railroading and Capture Scenes

Recently my first OSR-experiment was reviewed, a story-telling dungeon adventure based on the original Haunted Keep dungeon. The reviewer, Bryce, frankly did not know what to make of it, loving some parts and hating others. More specifically he hated “the railroady bits”.

At first I had to have a hard look, because I also “hate railroady bits”. So I was kind of baffled to be accused of inserting railroading in one of my own adventures. I even moved toward story-based gaming because I hated the lack of choice some GM's gave me. But Bryce was right, my first scene did look like railroading – the way he read it, and possibly also the way I wrote it. So what happened? I'm not sure, but it sure got me thinking about the railroad thing.

Being on the Losing End
During the scenario there are at least three occasions where the idea is that the heroes will (have to) be on the losing end of a confrontation. First their relatives are kidnapped before their eyes, secondly they may be locked in and have to consider help by a noble family dwelling underground, and thirdly they might be captured in true comic book style, to be gloated over by the arch-villain.

Now being on the losing end of a confrontation is not being railroaded per se. You might think so with the talk about play balance, and some players may seem to think so when they start to balk about not being able to win. In my view, “bad” railroading only starts to occur when the players feel they have lost control over where they want to go. Or not to go. Not just their characters have lost control, but the players have. Basically the players then feel nothing they do right will help to change the situation.

Notice that I'm not saying much about story, or keeping things on track. Players rarely balk about winning too easily. Although the better ones do. Instead, what I think bothers most of us, is the “losing” bit in losing control.

But Losing – and then getting back on top – can be Very Exciting
Regular movies, tv shows, comics and books are full of heroes losing out. In the starting scenes they may be overwhelmed, later on they may be captured, beaten, knocked down, and so on. In most shows, the upbeat ones, they win again later on.

Yet, in D&D this may prove to be harder to do. Typical heroes will be stacked with spells, armour and weapons, and may burn down any enemy before they can speak. So, capture attempts tend to evolve into all out, life or death fights. This is partly because the average player may expect a GM to punish signs of weakness severely. Shame if that's true (and it surely has been in my own games), because this way you miss out on a range of potential nail-biting moments.

So, what if you knew you could trust your GM?
Yeah right. To an extent I should trust my GM, to be fair. But I should also trust him to make trouble for me. Yet, suppose that you could also trust the GM to never bring you into an unfair situation, even if you were captured (or *&% forbid “railroaded”?)

Suppose you're overwhelmed, but you also know you can run away to live another day, then a no win confrontation is less bad. Most GM's will actually handle this well enough. Or, if you know you'll have the chance to later rescue the ones you saw being kidnapped, it's probably less bad. Or, more extreme, if you know that the villain captures you, but that the game master promises to help create a chance to let you escape, it's probably also less bad. It might even be fun, because you get a new kind of challenge.

No Direct or Indirect Harm shall be done through Forced In-Game Capture
There's no hard rule for this in OSR, maybe it's more of a story gaming thing, but you could make it one: THE GAME MASTER MAY LET NPC's CAPTURE ONE OR MORE PC's (under gunpoint, by knocking them out, lulling them to sleep, etc.), BUT SHOULD THEN LATER PROVIDE AT LEAST ONE (OBVIOUS) SERIOUS ESCAPE OPPORTUNITY BEFORE ANY REAL HARM IS DONE TO THE CAPTURED PC's. Naturally, pc's may still try to escape before capture, against all odds, but if they get hurt during this attempt, that's their own risk. The GM should carefully signal what kind of situation this is, of course.

Now, would this work? What do you think, out there? I'm sure going to give it a try.

Meanwhile, I'll also do a little rewrite of the scenes that looked too much like railroading, and update the module.

UPDATE: Shadow of the Haunted Keep was updated. It now should no longer contain "railroady bits". Or at least fewer of them :-)

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