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Author Topic: Anatomy of a Railroad  (Read 24956 times)
Luke
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« on: September 26, 2005, 08:25:59 PM »

While moving some stuff around tonight, I uncovered a couple of dusty old notebooks. They appeared to be from my last year of highschool and first year of college. One of them contained the outline for my AD&D uber-adventure: SACENAD (Super Awesome Cool Excellent Nasty Adventure of Death).

I remember this all quite clearly. SACENAD was created because I was sick of the ultrapowerful oneupsmanship going on in our AD&D game. Every problem was met with a magic item solution -- Vampires? Staff of Light. Giants? Sword of Giant Slaying. Green Slime? Keoghtum's Ointment. I hated it! There was nothing I could throw at them -- so I felt -- that would challenge my friend's uberpowerful characters.

I wrote up SACENAD. The idea? My friends would have to navigate a challenging high level dungeon without benefit of any of their magic items. But how to accomplish such a task? They certainly weren't going to simply agree to it! We were a covetous bunch, and to be caught without your trusty Rod of Resurrection meant a character might actually die!

I'll let me of 17 years speak. This is my dialogue intro, to be read to the players:

Quote from: 17 year old Luke
Remember! War of attrition.

Ah...back again -- in nasty, fun, dirty, lawful (w/ decent guards), good ol' Skarg! And soon after your excursion to the Isle of the Ape that was so successful. But, alas, you get only a short repreive from action. You hear that you are being looked for by a merchant/cleric of Odin, Jim, that works for Odin in the richer district.

(Wait for the players to say, "let's go look for him.")

That last parenthetical is an instruction to me! I actually wrote instructions to myself in case I forgot. I was my own imp instructing me to railroad! But it gets better.

Quote from: 17 year old Luke then]
You find Jim working in a small but elaborate building. He is selling small holy household trinkets, mugs with Odin on them, salt shakers in the shape of a hammer. Upon entering, Jim addresses you, "Greetings (list names), I see you heard that I needed assistance. It is not just I who needs assistance, but the Almighty One also. (Act holy!) It seems that the same person that has been looting the temples has also been assassinating our clerics. We have limited information on this !evil! but we know that he has fled Skarg to here (point out on map). I request that you go find this scoundrel and return the stolen items. (Do they accepts?) (If not, just sit there and stare.)
[/quote]

Wow! No bones about it. I actually wrote clear instructions to railroad the players into doing what I wanted. No asking, no consulting, no wondering. Just the simply assurity, "I wrote this adventure, so you're going to play it, like it or not."

Wouldn't be so bad, if I wasn't planning on turning the screw tighter.

Quote
(The next portion of the adventure is getting there. Use outdoor encounters! Convince them not to teleport! (too easy))

So no matter how they get there:
"You are on a broad (10') mountain path. The path is winding up into a very rocky area (encounters). After walking along the mountain path, you notice the sides of the path are hewn straight and the sides seems to continue like this. When you turn around you see there is no path behind you!

Wow. I might as well have written: You're all in a train on a long straight track, the train is slowly picking up speed...

Quote
After walking for about 20' you notice a scroll on the ground ahead of you. (give them the scroll).

Yep. I had a prop scroll ready. I can vividly remember tossing in nonchantantly over the screen, "Oh, you find this."

[quote="The First Scroll
Greetings adventures / you seek me / for crimes i've done / but now let's have a bit of fun / your power i now take / to prove you're no fake / you know not what you seek / for what it is, I'll give you a peek  (a character's shoes become tied together and he trips) / now have fun in my jolly maze / then find me or not / you will be ... amazed

::groan::

What follows is a 33-entry, percentile, custom wandering monster list for the maze. I'm not retyping it!  But one encounter that stands out is with a 1st level Illusionist done up like a Terrasque. No respect for Illusionists in our group. But the notes in the margin are gold.

Quote from: notes next to the wandering monster list
Remember, war of attrition / Keep your sanity / Do not blow them away if they piss you off

If they try to Wind Walk [over the maze] have them find another curse scroll: "Your Wind Walk doesn't seem to work."

Spells cannot be memorized after being used on any level.

It was clear that we were at war. Player vs GM. They were gunning for me as much as I for them. We both wanted to prove who was the better player -- by ruining each others' fun.

Oh, and a penny to the brilliant mind who can tell who the villain is...

Quote from: The Second Scroll
Hello Adventurers,
Did we have fun in the maze? I hope so, but I unfortunately must be elsewhere, so I lef this dungeon to detain you. So have fun and find the end. But will I be there? You don't know and maybe you never will. But if you shall, you must remember, 3 is a rule, the rule of 3. Touch 3 and just maybe you'll see me! But remember, I'm father of two things. One's really long and skinny and goes round something round and the other is lots of fun. (Another character trips.)

The dungeon segment consists of 14 finished rooms (and probably many more unfinished) and two lists of random traps. One for wandering traps with 20 entries, one for door traps with 11 entries.

The absolute best room is room 14
[quote="Room 14]
14) A sign on this door reads "closet." When you open it, that's what it is, a closet. It's empty.

When the PCs open the door and look around, an exact replica of the first character appears before him/her. The replica smiles, raises its hands as all of its flesh and innards are ripped from it (INSANE CHECK!) until it is just a skeleton. The skeleton has the same abilities/weapons as the character. It attacks! Only the replicated character may combat it.

Skeleton: "What are in closets?"
PC: ...
Skeleton: "Skeletons!" Smack, "Skeletons are in closets!"
[/quote]

I know for a fact we never played that room. But keerist, why would we ever? It's the biggest screw hound railroad around!

The last bits include another scroll and a wilderness/desert encounter list with notes about exhaustion.

But we did play this. I remember giving out the scrolls. I remember running through the maze and dungeon. But we never finished it. I think it was put out of its misery by college.

What I really want to know is where this came from? I played in a group of 5 boys. Four of us were roughly the same age. One, Jon, was older by a few years. Chris, Jason and I had our own worlds that we GMed in. Characters would rotate through worlds, sometimes getting stripped of treasure and power because one of use didn't like what happened in the other adventures.  I played AD&D and a variety of other games for four or five years with these friends.

But SACENAD is a paean to frustration. I wanted a challenging adventure for my friends. I wanted desperately to cut out the bullshit and force them to survive on their wits. Of course, my methods for such involved no wits. The adventure is pure random death. It's not possible to play it cleverly -- marching order and door-opening tactics notwithstanding.

Competitive play like this was par for the course for our games. It was a battle of wills between Jon, Jason, Chris and myself to see whose aesthetic would rein. The fifth player, Tony, was the perennial player. And because he played the most, he was the most powergaming of us all. His characters were just ridiculous and SACENAD was an attack on him -- and an affront. I think he refused to play it.

Took years to move past this adversarial style of play.

-Luke
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droog
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Posts: 263


« Reply #1 on: September 26, 2005, 09:09:14 PM »

Gotta say, though, you were one thorough feller as a 17-year-old. Seriously, though, if I had written notes anywhere near as...complete...I'm sure they would have looked much the same. I carried all that railroading technique in my head, always ready to be deployed.
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AKA Jeff Zahari
Luke
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« Reply #2 on: September 26, 2005, 09:41:34 PM »

Gotta say, though, you were one thorough feller as a 17-year-old.

Well, this document is unique. It was my magnum opus. All of my bad habits and frustrations writ large for the world to see.

There definitely isn't anything else like this in those notebooks.

-L
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TonyLB
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« Reply #3 on: September 27, 2005, 03:53:04 AM »

That was awesome.  If I happened upon something that far into my younger-self-style (and I'm sure I've done stuff as embarrassing, we all have, I've just blocked it from long term memory) I don't think that I would have the sheer guts to post it that way.  That's inspirational.  Good on you!
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Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum
Frank T
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« Reply #4 on: September 27, 2005, 04:42:39 AM »

I must thank the great and unforgotten Greg Costykian for writing, in Star Wars d6, 1987, a complete instruction on how to railroad in a (more or less) functional way. I do clearly remember writing instructions to myself, though.

- Frank
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droog
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« Reply #5 on: September 27, 2005, 05:25:53 AM »

Maybe you should use it for Elfs, Luke?
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AKA Jeff Zahari
Luke
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« Reply #6 on: September 27, 2005, 10:27:09 AM »

Maybe you should use it for Elfs, Luke?

That was my first thought, actually. But it's too painful, too close to the heart. Part of me still cherishes this little part of myself.

You're all welcome to it if you want it. I'm sure I have the maps for it around here somewhere.


Anyway, I was talking to Thor at lunch. We were trying to discern where the ultra-competitive nature comes from. There's a little bit of it built into the very structure of AD&D -- trying to get the magic and kill the monsters and get all the experience. And my friends and I were competitive with each other. Tony and Chris were geniuses. Jon was older. Jason was cooler (as he still is!).

By the time I wrote this, I'd played Marvel Superheroes, Paranoia, Timelords and probably Rifts. No where in those texts are explicit instructions for this kind of railroad. In fact, Paranoia has a great essay on dramatic roleplay that even hints at collaboration between player and GM to make things "cool."  Further still, my group produced two homebrews by this point: Warped Reality and Anarchy. Both games featured "us" as characters. As such, the social contract of those games was "we are the stars." Even though we tried to humiliate each other, we were supposed to win in the end. Beneath the surface, adversity between player and GM had to stop at a point.

But there is such a formality to this adventure. And it's so utterly typical of the medium. Ultra conservative, a nose-dive into the problem, rather than trying to address it on a higher plane. Thor mentioned to me that my notes to myself showed that I could identify problem areas in the game, but my "fixes" just made them worse.

-Luke
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Valamir
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« Reply #7 on: September 27, 2005, 10:32:32 AM »

Amatuer ;-)

MY D&D Magnum Opus was a scenario that was over 100 pages (typed) long.
Every room in a 3 story castle with 3 levels of crypts had at least two pages of description.  Every entry was broken down by
Approach:  what they see when the near the room
Quick Glance:  what they see when they reach the room (before the monsters attack)
Good Look:  what they see when they have time to look around (after they kill the monsters)
Quick Search:  what they find if the roll the room quickly (including a table for how long it takes based on who searches)
Thorough Search:  what happens if they look for every last possible thing (ditto table).

Then each room had the DM's section where I had elaborate notes for what nasty screw jobs the army of kobolds and hobgoblins would do complete with if/then strategy trees and responses to my players favorite spells.  Nothing quite like providing a tribe of kobolds with a shaman who was an alchemist and could churn out potions of fire immunity and free action like nothing.  Of course they're kobold potions which means any PC who tries to drink the nauseating mixture has to make a Con check or fall into helpless retching for 1d6 rounds.

Of course once the kobolds were cleared out they had to tackle the crypts...and we all know what lives down in crypts...yup...my players learned to hate being attacked by skeletons and giant spiders at the same time.  Even high level clerics run out of cure poisons eventually...

I was a master at taking low level monsters and fucking over high level parties...and then having low level town officials take all their hard won treasure away...after making them figure out exactly how they were going to cart away 100,000 gold pieces worth of copper and silver pieces.  Heh...adventurers by day, accountants and teamsters by night...
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Thor Olavsrud
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« Reply #8 on: September 27, 2005, 11:08:46 AM »

As I mentioned at lunch, the part that really struck me about your initial post was how good you were at spotting areas that would lead to dysfunction. Your solutions were problematic, but even then you (and I imagine this is true of most GMs) were able to predict the areas of your own scenario that would cause problems for the players.
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Luke
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« Reply #9 on: September 27, 2005, 11:32:46 AM »

Ok Ralph, I've been in that applecart before. Why would you do it? And why would the players come back for more?

-L
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xenopulse
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« Reply #10 on: September 27, 2005, 11:41:09 AM »

I do wonder if it has something to do with the game, or the group. Because my grand self-written adventure was total "Look at how cool this is" Pseudo-Sim play. Railroading as well, at least how they got there (shipwrecked on an island; no escape from my game!) and what they'd encounter. But the idea was not to beat them, but to show them all these nifty creatures, items, and NPCs. Just like your game was Pseudo-Gamist (as you said, there was little room for Stepping On Up against your monsters and traps), mine clearly was off the path of Sim but really wanted to be there.

We played Das Schwarze Auge, which puts a lot of emphasis on setting exploration, bringing about this complete world, etc. I think that was a big influence. Especially because we played lots of modules. Did you use modules as well? I think there's a whole lot of analysis we could do on how those pre-made adventures influence and determine what we think of as proper play styles.
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JasperN.
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« Reply #11 on: September 28, 2005, 03:53:15 AM »

Reading Valamir's response made me think immediately of how the old Das Schwarze Auge modules used to structure information in a similar way: a) What's plain to see b) What takes some time to discover and c) what only the GM is supposed to know. It was widely considered a fatal blunder, if you accidentally slipped into b) or (gasp!) c), while reading out loud a) - there were vague suggestions of paraphrasing a), but we didn't know what that meant, anyway. Getting to b) invariably required a spot or social interaction roll of some kind, and if all players failed, tough luck. c) ist interesting, because the modules swayed between advising you to hand out these informations only to particularly shrewd players as a kind of reward or just keeping them for yourself to get a better grasp of the "atmosphere". My understanding at the time was that this information must. not. be . found. out. by. the. players. ever. So in what is probably one of the most detailed gaming worlds evah with  flavor texts highlighting setting exploration as a main goal of the game, you had "hide the backstory" entrenched right there. I'm so glad these days are over for me. 
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #12 on: September 29, 2005, 02:46:00 PM »

What I really want to know is where this came from? I played in a group of 5 boys. Four of us were roughly the same age. One, Jon, was older by a few years.

I think you rather neatly answer your own question, there.

Someday, I will make a documentary by videotaping a gaming session, and putting that in half the screen opposite a group of male monkeys in their native habitat.  Watch the dominance games play out on both sides parallel to each other.
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Valamir
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« Reply #13 on: September 29, 2005, 04:33:20 PM »

Ok Ralph, I've been in that applecart before. Why would you do it? And why would the players come back for more?

-L

Good questions.  At the time we were hard core into "realism"...which for us meant "as if you were really there and this was really happening"  So even though we weren't really "immersed" in our characters (lots of 3rd person "my character does X" stuff) we were all about being immersed in the setting.  This was about the time that Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneers Survival Guide was released and for much of my past history I concidered those books to be the single greatest RPG supplements ever.  Yes, my group did think it was essential to differentiate damage from a straight fall vs. from rolling down a hill and to know exactly what effect heavy armor has on fatigue in hot weather.  Those things were for us (at the time) the primary purpose of playing at all.  Killing stuff was easy.  Making the decision to take off the full plate while crossing a desert full of scorpions or else risk the heat stroke rolls was where the fun was.

So even though we frequently treated our characters in pure Pawn Stance mode, we wanted the environment and setting to be described to us as if we were reading a novel.  If you were reading a novel where the character was traveling down a corridor the text would be all about what the corridor looked and smelled like...what kind of lighting it had...the sound of dripping water on the flagstones...the dim shape of a heavy door looming out of the darkness at the far end.  So...our adventures had to be like that. 

Unlike those OTHER munchkiny gamers who were satisfied with "its a 20 foot corridor and the door opens into a 15x20 room" (who ONLY cared about the monsters and treasure), our group of superior roleplayers ;-) wanted the full effect of the dungeon ambience.  We wanted the GM describing the musty odors, the distant scrape of claws from some as yet unknown wandering monster, the vague impression of lavish furnishings before being jumped by orcs.

Combat was all about immediate decision making...there was no taking time to think about it and no studying spell lists.  If you took more than a second to announce your action the DM said "fine you stand there and drool, next" and as a rule...there was no going back.  Often the DM would have the next player announcing their action before the current player had finished making his roll so there'd be one guy shouting out "I hit for 6 damage" at the same time as another player was saying "I slip into the shadows and move around to the right for a backstab".  The intent was to engender a kind of anxious chaos effect; because that's what REAL fighting is like -- unlike what those nasty min maxer types did ;-).  So we rarely had the ability to optimize a response for any encounter.  That required the GM not providing all of the details of what's exactly in the room so it was important to distinguish between what a hurried glance would tell you vs. a careful study.

So to get all that you needed either to improvise rapidly or have it all written down in advance.  Since our group also had a healthy sense of "Us vs. the DM" (being able to kill off more characters than the last guy to DM was a source of pride) clearly improvising was right out. 

The above module was actually one of the best campaigns we'd ever run (with that group in that style of play) and it solidified my reputation as GM par excellance.  I clearly remember going to the library to do research on how long it would take metal to rust and cloth to rot so I could get my descriptions of the castle's original furnishings "correct"...I can remember being upset because I couldn't find any information on how far away you could smell a decomposing corse from...damn...if the internet had been around back then I would have been god...

Now, of course, I'd slit my wrists before GMing that adventure...but at the time...I was the man.

If anyone knows how to read old Bankstreet Writer files from the Apple II days I could probably still find the 5 1/4" floppies.
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Arturo G.
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« Reply #14 on: September 30, 2005, 01:52:13 AM »

Wow!
Ralph, this is exactly the mood and motivation of my group's play for more that ten years. I was famous as a GM for these kind of tricks (colorful descriptions, ease "immersion", fast paced combats in the climax). My abilities as "ilusionist" were improving constantly, and everyone was happy.

However, I begun to get tired. The stories where always the same lamb with a different skin. It was a real pitty that we didn't discover other kind of games on those times.

Then, I tried to create a nice "realistic" (low-fantasy) world with more interesting stories about human behaviour and decissions which implied real conflicts. And we played it with our beloved Basic/Expert D&D set, to recover the old "flavor". Amazingly, it was working at the beginning. But as the characters improved level by level, the system was pressing me to transform the campaing to a more "highly-epic" mood, and I didn't know how to deal with it. Moreover, on those times we were not able to play more than some sessions during summer and some sessions on Christmas holydays. I had so much time to "prepare" the world inbetween that it become an incredible collection of cartography, ecology, colorfull descriptions, myths, tales, main characters who were not PCs (a lot of stuff that players were not involved with, and that they were forgeting from session to session). And the worst, I prepared marvellous perfectly nailed stories to be played by them (or may I say "be told to them"). Without noticing, I moved from "trailblazing" to much more boring "railroading", full of color details that only me was enjoying. The black curtain finally felt. We tried to talk about it, but all the stuff I had generated was pressing me a lot to appear in the games and I made the same mistakes a couple of times more. The interest of my players dissapeared, my interest (which always was to create fun) dissapeared, and we stoped to play. Without any pain.

We had some more tries, from time to time, with small stories and other not so different games. But the high excitement was not there again, except ocassionaly. Tabletop and card games substituted RPGs for a long time (many years). But now... I'm coming back again. I hope that wiser and provided with better tools for what I want to do.

Cheers,
Arturo
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