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I play Dungeons and Dragons 5e.

I have a habit of highlighting certain choices, without realizing I'm doing it, because what I feel like I'm doing, is telling not showing. I have a problem with my descriptions if you want to call them that. Whenever I describe something, my players feel that I'm railroading them into three different paths. I have told them, they can do something else.

They feel like they have too much choice, vs not having enough descriptions that let them choose what they want to do.

My description, if you want to call it that is as follows:

"You have chased the orcs into the pit of the cave. You are at the cave's entrance. There are a pile of bones which seem to have some teeth marks, possibly from a wolf. You hear orc drums coming from the village you just came from in Coldharbor."

Or:

"Heaven's roar drums through the Sky Sea. Your hawk-like eyes catch sight of a druid dancer waltzing by the pyre, a ritual to ignite Gimble and Gamble's Zipping Zeppelins."

Not only is this description loaded with too many railroading choices, but I'm not describing anything. You know that saying of show not tell? Well, I'm telling, I'm not showing and I just don't get it. I'm just telling information that is only important to me, vs. what description is important for my players. I don't understand the process of how to describe something (Showing not telling) and giving the players tools to interact with their environment and doing their own thing. I want to give my players the total agency of choice, not me force feeding it to them with descriptions that feel like I'm letting my players do stuff when I'm not.

For the longest time, I thought I wasn't railroading, but I am. I'm giving my players to much choice, and using choppy bland descriptions. I noticed whenever I describe something, I sound choppy. I'm probably doing that right now. Okay, I am. I'll admit it. I'm choppy as Hades right now, but I want to improve. No, I need to improve in order for my game to survive.

How do I narrate in a way that draws my players' attention in, and has them at the edge of their seats while giving them freedom of choice?

I haven't been able to find an article on the subject, a book or video of what I'm talking about. If anyone has any sources that they can recommend, that would be great. (Please elaborate on such recommendations by explaining how they're relevant to solving my problem.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don’t understand this question at all, especially what it’s considering railroading vs freedom attributes of description. “I feel like my descriptions are choppy and lame” I get. The rest of this seems weirdly unrelated. "I am railroading them by giving them too much choice" is an oxymoron. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 13 at 0:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think what he means is that by highlighting certain choices, he is engaging in railroading; and that by highlighting more choices he is just railroading more. If that is the meaning, I see the internal logic, but dispute it strongly. Paul, if you could confirm that interpretation, it would be helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Feb 13 at 1:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Novak OK, I can get that but the quoted descriptions don't seem to be offering explicit options. They seem pretty straightforward "Here's what you see" descriptions. Although I am curious as to what an "ignight" is - an ignorant night? a night laid down by a volcano? a misspelling of ignite? I hope its not the last one because the others are way cooler :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Feb 13 at 3:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify, you've gotten feedback from your players specifically along the lines of "when you describe the scene, you seem to present multiple specific options but not enough general information for us to create our own options"? Or can you give a little more detail on the feedback you are getting? \$\endgroup\$ – Kamil Drakari Feb 13 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ That would be correct Jamil Drakari. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul White Feb 13 at 17:41
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A railroad can make a slot of stops along the way... at sandboxes

I agree with Timothy A Wiseman's answer about railroading and sandboxes being opposite ends of a spectrum. Turns out, I have players with strong preferences in both of those opposite directions, so to serve them as a group, I need a mix of both.

The basic pattern: intersperse sandbox and railroad segments

Every quest starts and ends with a railroaded event. We will start with event A and end with event Z. But in between there are several sandboxes - places to just play around for awhile. This takes more up-front work on the part of the GM. You essentially need to plant several nuggets in each sandbox for them to find, such that by spending enough time in that sandbox, and going down variant pathways, they will inevitably get to the next "railroad" stop.

An example

For example, at one mid-point in a quest, I have them needing to rescue a kidnappee but they have no idea where. They find out someone else is already tracking the kidnappers, so they could track the trackers. But around the same time, an NPC reports the kidnappers were last seen in a certain locale -- so now there are two ways to go. Meanwhile, questioning villagers reveals a problem with orcs that could be a sidequest. But one conversation reveals the place that the kidnappers have made into their home base -- so the PCs could try to go straight there, gambling that this would work. And so on.

The key is knowing when to "weave fate" together

Eventually they will cross trails with the kidnappers or ambush them or get ambushed by them. It might take one session or four. If it gets bogged down or really off track, I'll have an NPC or strong clue fall in their lap. By this time, they've had enough "play time" in the sandbox that they are really ready to board the train again.

Likewise, when I sense that the railroad plot-train has been going non-stop, then I let them off the train into a different sandbox of options.

For my group at least, this seems to please everybody.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ After clarifying more with the OP, your "An example" section seems to be intended as a good example, but it reads to me as being exactly the sort of thing which the players are complaining about, i.e. "you present us a finite list of specific options". Can you clarify or adjust to address that complaint? \$\endgroup\$ – Kamil Drakari Feb 14 at 16:31
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I have tried to answer this question twice now, and twice it's gotten away from me, turned into a multi-thousand word rambling nightmare, and been scrapped. This is me trying to err on the side of brevity.

First, I Don't Think Your Descriptions Are Railroading

I just don't. Based on the back and forth in the comments, I think I understand the thrust of your question-- I think I understand the problem you think you have with respect to railroading-- but honestly I don't think you have that problem.

Both your Orc Cave and your Dancing Druid examples seem fine to me. They may be terse and minimally descriptive (more on that later) but they do not strike me as railroading. To give an example, if your Orc Cave example were something like:

"You have chased the orcs into the pit of the cave. You are at the cave's entrance. There are a pile of bones which seem to have some teeth marks, possibly from a wolf. You hear orc drums coming from the village you just came from in Coldharbor. Do you want to enter the cave, look for the wolf, or go back to Coldharbor?"

That would be railroading, or at least heavily leading. But giving the salient details of a scene isn't railroading, even if they are highlighting some of the obvious choices the characters might make.

I would argue that it's almost unavoidable to highlight the obvious choices like that. One common dictum of GM narration is, "Narrate to the decision point," i.e., describe what happens up until the point where the PCs have some meaningful or necessary decision to make. This requires you to make constant educated guesses about what your players will find meaningful and decision-worthy, and then describe the scene in a way which makes those possible decisions clear, but also in a way which allows them to break out of your educated guess framework without undo difficulty.

If you stop and think about that, that is an immensely complex social task to perform, and as a GM, you are doing this for hours on end. Don't be too tough on yourself, here.

What About This 'Show, Don't Tell' Stuff?

Glazius' answer is extremely insightful when he talks about the interpretation of the Orc Drums. It nagged at me with the Druid (how do the characters know what that rite is?) but snuck past me with the Orc Drums to where I just assumed that the characters had some past experience with those Orcs, or had a ranger who was expert in them or something like that.

You also gave a link with very similar advice buried toward the end under the section, "Tell players what they perceive, not how they feel about it." This is really the key to the "Show, Don't Tell," dictum. You want to:

  1. Build up overall mood, impressions, experiences, etc out of smaller, individually neutral, non-interpretive (or less interpretive) details, so that...
  2. ...The characters are the ones doing the interpretation, i.e., the players are deciding how their characters feel or what they can infer based on your lower level descriptions.

Note the emphasis on interpretation and decision. This is what you want the players to do, not what you want to do for them. This is where I do think your descriptions can use some work, but I'm not as negative as you are. I think there is room for improvement, but I don't think you're ruining your game with this.

Also, we do need to remember that this is an RPG, not a novel or a short story. Sometimes, your characters will know things, like the proprietary drumbeats of various Orc tribes. And when they do, it's simpler, more direct, and arguably better to just tell them. Or sometimes there will be a mechanic that gives your PCs direct insight as to, say, a particular NPC's trustworthiness or the presence of a trap. You generally don't hold yourself to the "Show, Don't Tell," advice when the mechanics say a PC should know something.

So What Should You Do?

In the case of railroady descriptions, if your players are really pressing you on this, start asking for advice or examples from them. They may or may not have unrealistic expectations, and they may or may not discover they're asking for something harder than they realize.

In the case of showing more, it just takes practice and self-attention. But it takes a lot of both. Depending on how much effort you want to put in to this, trying writing down a few descriptions outside the game. Then put them aside for a few days, and when you go back, try to see which parts of the description are raw sense data ("the soles of the shoes are thin and worn, and the trousers are patched several times") and which are filtered through interpretation ("He wears the boots and clothes of a poor man.") Then re-write the interpretive segments.

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Railroading vs. sandbox is a spectrum, not either or

First, note that railroading and sandbox exist on a spectrum rather than really being a one or the other type of thing. Also, note that one is not strictly better than the others.

It is my personal impression that games that lean towards the sandbox side of things are far more popular right now, and it sounds like your players prefer things more on the sandbox side in particular. But remember that as long as everyone agrees games that are very heavily railroaded are equally valid and seemed to be more popular in the past. Some people really just want to focus on the combat and they want just enough story and world building to let them trade in gold for weapons and to explain why they are the good guys in the fight.

Even on the sandbox side, trying too hard to avoid railroading entirely can create challenges such as players having no idea of what to do next or discouraging the GM from preparing enough since they have no idea which direction their characters will go in.

This of course does not mean that you should add heavy railroading when your players don't want it (and it seems they don't), but it does mean you shouldn't be too hard on yourself about railroading improperly by dropping hints about things the characters may want to explore.

Provide more options in your descriptions and tell the players they can explore even other things.

It sounds like your players are concerned that your hints about what they should explore are so obvious and so limited that it feels like railroading. The first thing to alleviate this is to provide more things so they clearly see choices in which direction to go.

Instead of "Heaven's roar drums through the Sky Sea. Your hawk like eyes catch sight of a druid dancer waltzing by the pyre, a ritual to ignight Gimble and Gamble's Zipping Zeplins."

Add to it with something like "Heaven's roar...[rest of original description]...To the west lies the city of Zethering. You see a wanted poster for Garnack the Slayer nailed to a tree."

Now you've given them a clear thing to explore with the ritual...if they want to. If not, they can go to the city to trade or look for work, and there is a bounty they can start pursuing, or at least remember for later, if they want. This gives them three clear options instead of one.

Of course, for a sandbox the players need to meet you halfway and be ready to suggest yet more things they may wish to explore, and you can encourage that out of character. But the simple presentation of several immediate options moves it further towards sandbox on the spectrum.

Also, directly encourage your players to ask questions. That will help with your description without necessarily resulting in you giving very long soliloquies.

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The camera shows. The narrator tells.

It's an easy enough guideline, I think. When nobody's talking over the movie, all it is is a bunch of sense impressions, from which you form your own understanding. When the narrator starts talking, that projects an understanding, because the purpose of language is to make other people think the things you want them to.

Of course, language is all you've got when you're doing place descriptions, but there's still a difference between language that conveys sense impressions and language that projects understanding. Here, let me highlight everything that's not immediately obvious:

You have chased the orcs into the pit of the cave. You are at the cave's enterance. There are a pile of bones which seem to have some teethmarks, possibly from a wolf. You hear orc drums comming from the village you just came from in Coldharbor.

Heaven's roar drums through the Sky Sea. Your hawk like eyes catch sight of a druid dancer waltzing by the pyre, a ritual to ignight Gimble and Gamble's Zipping Zeplins.

It is possible there are some things the PCs will know "just by looking". If they broke out of the siege of Coldharbor, chasing the peace cleric's kidnappers, they'll recognize that the drums that are pounding are orc drums, and expect that they will continue to pound from the rough direction of Coldharbor.

But when you provide people with understanding, especially unearned understanding, in some parts and not in others, you're tilting the "understood" parts very far forward - obviously those are the important ones, or why would you want to make sure they know? If you limit your descriptions to what the PCs would know, you give them a freer-seeming choice of what to focus on, even if there are only one or two ways they're thinking of going.

It's only "railroading" if they don't like the ride.

So, picture this: it's the end of the campaign, the party kicks down the door and commences a six-way duel to the death against Count Longardeaux, on the cusp of immortality, and his marilith bodyguard, and everybody's super into it, multiple chandeliers get swung on, and when you're picking up papers at the end of the night one of the players says: "Wow, what a horrible railroad that session was. I never once felt like I could hop a carriage to West Dobravia and try to corner the mustard market." Is that a thing that's really going to happen, or did I just make you imagine something wrong as a joke?

If people are satisfied with what they're doing they won't recognize they're on rails. If they're going one way and the plot is jumping another way they'll get rattled around in the train car and absolutely be aware of the rails. The key is to find out what your players are expecting to get out of the game and then put it out there for them to chase. Even if they have total freedom of action, if they try to get something out of the game and never even see it, they'll act like you were taking it away.

If you want an overview of what players might expect out of a game, here's Matt Colville on the topic - at about 4 minutes in he runs down Robin Laws' player types, also found here. But if you want to find out what your players want? Ask them.

It doesn't have to be an intense interrogation or anything. Just: why did you pick this class? Why this background, why this archetype? Why are you adventuring? What are you looking forward to? And every session: what did you like? What do you want to see next time?

If they're seeing and engaging with what they want, it won't matter if it was the only choice. Unless they want to, say, stop being bossed around by the mayor of Coldharbor and make choices, then you kind of have to put some stuff on offer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, good point about giving less anderstanding. I never GM'ed, but if I would have to one day, I guess this tip is going be really usefull to me. And also very usefull link to player types division, I can now notice which one I am and which one my co-players are, very nice to help anderstand each others \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Feb 14 at 9:22

protected by V2Blast Feb 19 at 2:51

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