I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, May 14, 2021

Improvisation and randomness may lead to railroading; a pre-written story will save you

NOTE: Blogger deleted this (for bogus reasons) the first time I've posted, so I posted again with small changes. I managed to recover the comments (see below) and draft, but decided to keep this one.

This counter-intuitive, I know, but hear me out. 

We usually say that's having a prewritten story is bad form, and that you should play to find out what happens next, with input from your players and improvisation from the GM. I have advised this very thing. 

However, THE OPPOSITE is also true in one sense: a prewritten story (with beginning and end) of what happens if the PCs don't intervene is very useful.

To understand this, we have to define railroading. I wrote a post about that, but you could say that the railroad is defined by the lack of relevant choices on the part of the players. I've said:
So the railroad can happen, basically, in two cases:
Because there is no choice (for example, there is only one door) or;2) Because the choice does not matter (there are several doors to choose from, but the result is the same; or: the antagonist confronts the PCs on act three no matter what they do).
Now, if you read that post, you've seem a couple of examples where randomness takes away from player choice. If they have three doors to choose from (say, one made of wood, other iron, and other paper), but they lead to three randomly defined different rooms, the choice doesn't matter.

Well, if the players have NO CLUE and NO WAY OF FINDING ONE, their choice is random anyway, so the distinction doesn't really matter. But if they can choose to look for clues, it is better to have a these things written in advance than making them random. 

This sounds simple enough; let's talk about improvisation. 

Of course you need improvisation to run a game. After all you never know what the players will choose next.

However, relying only on improvisation is dangerous: in such circumstances, it is hard to be sure that you're not making the choices void. 

Let me give you one example. Let's say you have a cool monster (a green troll) that you want to introduce to your game. Instead of putting him in the sewers, the swamp, or under the bridge, you keep him in your pocket (or the back of your head) to use when necessary. Now, the players go to the swamp and - bam! Here is the opportunity to use your troll! But what if they go to explore the sewers instead? Well, another opportunity! The troll is the sewers!

(I think this is what Courtney Campbell calls "the quantum ogre". This link will lead to other links and eventually I find out that all this stuff has been thoroughly discussed a decade ago. Sigh. But read on).

Posted by u/MrHarakiri - source.

Now, compare this with a pre-written story or script.
There is a troll hiding under a nearby bridge. He kills the elderly witch that lives near the village. Villagers become suspicious but no one really cares about her. A week later, some sheep disappear, but the owner is a rich merchant that no one likes, so no one helps. In the following week, the troll kidnaps som children. Some brave villagers go to the rescue. Many people die, but the troll is wounded and runs away, leaving the children behind, and the village completely ruined. The end.
When the PCs enter the scene (say, looking for the witch), the story is already written (or at least outlined); as they find things out, they will create their own competing story. Or don't - they may just leave, and the story will play out as written. As you can see, the important part is that the outcome is not written in stone. Unless, maybe, if the players decide to do nothing; in that case, it might be BETTER to have the outcome written in stone so the PCs can suffer the consequences of their choice (of avoiding the problem).

BTW, I added a few prewritten endings to my own module, the Wretched Hive, before thinking about all this stuff. So here is another example from my book:
If both the Queen and Malavor are still alive, the hive expands. In 2d4 weeks, the number of demons and bee-soldiers is doubled, and the hive’s defenses are reinforced. In another 1d6 weeks, Malavor manages to mutate himself into a bee-demon, half-insane, but with full control of the bee-people. The bloated and sick avatar dies after a while, but this no longer affects the bee-soldiers, that can now be cloned in the underground. Three months after the characters left, Malavor unleashes his army against the nearest village.
In short: 

Again, we go back to Justin Alexander's definition: "Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome".

A preconceived story is USEFUL, but a preconceived OUTCOME is bad, UNLESS it happens precisely because of the player's choices. In fact, I would say that having a preconceived story is very useful for any adventure. Just remember that the story relies on the fact that the PCs do nothing; if they do something about it, the outcome will probably change.

The term "story" has become some kind of curse word in OSR circles, and for good reason - a  story with a preconceived, unchangeable outcome is anathema to role-playing. However, once you learn this, you can safely write a story for your players to contend with - with the certainty that, most of the times, they will derail the whole thing to create an unexpected outcome.


  1. [NOTE: Either blogger deleted this the first time I've posted, or I deleted it myself by accident. I managed to recover the comments].
    Venger Satanis commented on "Improvisation and randomness may lead to railroading; a pre-written story will save you"

    5 hours ago
    I enjoyed this post. You're right, nothing written ahead of time at all will usually negate player choices. For me, it's a matter of scale. If I'm running an off-the-cuff one-shot, I'll probably put that ogre whenever it feels suitable. In a campaign, the lack of choice grows exponentially... resulting in an inferior game.
    Venger Satanis replied to a comment on "Improvisation and randomness may lead to railroading; a pre-written story will save you"

    5 hours ago

  2. [NOTE: Either blogger deleted this the first time I've posted, or I deleted it myself by accident. I managed to recover the comments].

    Timeshadows commented on "Improvisation and randomness may lead to railroading; a pre-written story will save you"

    2 hours ago
    I think the notion that there is a correct door to go through in a three-way split, like Monty Haul's 'Let's Make a Deal' style, is only true if the GM is like the producer of the TV show. They decide which prizes to award (based on reasons not germane to this discussion), and we hope that they don't change it mid-game (and we know that they could as it takes place behind a curtain). We also know from statistical analysis that going from three options to two options fouls folks decision-making process more often than not. So, if the GM knows that one door leads to a dead-end, another is a long-way around, and the third is the direct route, does it matter if the doors are marked in her notes before, or that the die-roll is fail/partial success/success? Hear me out. The player making the decision is favoured in many cases in TTRPGs, but we make exceptions for things that the character would know that the player may not (likely does not), such as choosing a sword, etc. If the player's roll for their character's action is good enough for combat, rather than the player actually swinging a sword (even a foam one) to determine a hit, why does it matter if the character is choosing wisely (or not), rather than the Player? Military and Sci-Fi games are far more susceptible to this conundrum than fantasy genre, as the need for specialist knowledge is commonplace and critical. No one regularly goes into space by puzzling-out controls, calculations, and so forth. I think that FRP spoils a lot of RPGamers into thinking that Player Smarts always trumps PC smarts, and I think blanket statements proscribing PC/Player-play does more to limit who feels worthy to play, much in the way that OSR anti-'Charisma checks' methodology favours clever assholes over socially awkward players with PCs with good Cha scores. Does Throngor Rageblood really stand a chance to know how to fly a helicopter because he once dominated a dragon? I think not.

    1. This is an interesting point; if the players have no hint, the choice of doors doesn't matter either way. It is something I should have included. Just amended the post. Thank you!

  3. What differs a troll under bridge and associated events from a regular worldbuilding?
    And is every room with just one door forward in a dungeon a railroading?

    To me such examples are not really story (it is setting development) and not really railroad in story sense (some things in the world are limited or have no other options by the logic of the world rather than DM's desire to push the events in one specific way).

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Well, a story is a series of events; in short, I'm saying that having pre-planned events is good, but, like you say, "pushing" these events in one specific way is bad (railroading).

      The misconception I'm trying to address is that you cannot have a pre-planned story or, that if you do, you will not change it. I think an opposite approach works better: have a prewritten story, but realize that the players will change it when they touch it.

  4. Apocalypse World deals with this problem with the concepts of “Fronts”, “Threats”, and “Clocks”: each threat in the campaign world essentially has a progress tracker with a series of developments. If the PCs do nothing to address the threat, then “things get worse” as a further development happens, advancing the progress tracker for that threat.

    I think there’s a lot of overlooked synergy between OSR and story game principles. Both design movements are a reaction against “GM as frustrated author” and “look at my character sheet to see what I can do” RPG designs. Both focus on “fiction first, not mechanics first” and both prioritize player agency.

    1. Completely agree - this is a great example of having a prepared story "if the PCs do nothing". I haven't played AW but Dungeon World has plenty of good ideas for old school games.