Friday, September 4, 2009

Is investigative roleplaying railroading by default? A CoC case study

Some of you might have followed along in the discussion on Grognardia's retrospective on Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. The question arose if it has to be the case that investigative roleplaying with a "trail of breadcrumbs" leads the players along a railroad. Since I have just posted about my experiences of Beyond the Mountain of Madness, and accused that campaign of being a railroad, I felt it could be an interesting theme to continue and comment on. I decided to take out some of the CoC greats from my shelves and do some case studies.

First out is a golden oldie, Trail of Tsathogghua by Keith Herber. It was published in 1984, roughly the same era as Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. It's a collection of two loosely tied scenarios and one unrelated. The first one. The Trail of Tsathogghua is an expedition to icy lands, where an artifact has been found. It looks a lot like Mountains with the expedition leaders being NPCs and there is a timeline with things that will happen regardless of player actions. Also, at certain points interactions with authorities will happen, and they all happen "off stage". Roll some dice and the Keeper reads you the next clue your expedition member have uncovered. Should you fail, then there are NPCs around to tell you what you need. While the list of NPCs looks like it could be great fun to interact with some of them, it's still a good example of a very railroaded adventure. The second part The Curse of Tsathogghua is tied to some of the facts that became unearthed in the first part, and that one survivor from that expedition acted upon those facts and now the investigators follow his, incidentally, tracks. The idea of having a NPC with this special role who must survive, is just bad adventure writing. Having an adventure hinge upon something to happen is bad. The last and final part is totally detached from the first two. Interestingly enough, this last adventure The Haunted House is very different in style. It describes the background of a big mansion and why it is haunted. The the adventure is just a description of the adventure site, with appropriate hauntings described in different rooms. Go where you like, experience what you like. A good example of an investigative adventure that's wide open.

The second piece I wanted to look closer at is another adventure written by Keith Herber. This time it's his The Sanatorium in the Chaosium volume Mansions of Madness. It happen to be considered his best adventure, so it's extra interesting as a comparison. In this adventure there is a site (a closed environment), and a bunch of NPCs. There's also a menace. Compared to Trail this is very different. Something have happened, and you will have to get the information from the NPCs at the site before the menace kills you. Both adventures present a situation and a "story" that you will piece together. That's the common thread in both, as investigative roleplaying. But, while what happens in one is only at the players initiative, in the other it's always at the instigation of an NPC. There are no things that will happen, only factions with intentions and private goals. If the players wont interact with the NPCs, they wont find the clues to stop the menace, but they have all the power in the world to decide what happens. No NPC will push the story forward without you as a player pushing him or her first.

Worth noting is that one of these adventures is site based, and the other is based on a journey. The Haunted House is also site based, and is more open in style. The campaign that started the discussion Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, is also based on a lot of travelling. The other classic I have on my shelf, The Fungi from Yoggoth, is also a campaign where you travel a lot. I guess there's a strong temptation to hide one clue at each location and make them depend upon each other in a linear fashion. The sin here is, in my view, to make that the "story" that's supposed to happen. Do it have to be that way, though? Thinking on the format, you would imagine that it would be possible to avoid the worst sin by removing the linear dependencies to some degree and write the campaign so that visiting a site is not dependant on a string of former events. I know DGP worked on that kind of "plotting", with their nugget system for the Traveller material they published.

To make a parallel to T&T and D&D, where the dungeon is the backbone of the "story", we have many good pieces of analysis written in the OSR about multiple entrances, and interconnectivity between levels. I think this is a way of thinking that could be used while designing for investigative roleplaying as well.

So, in order to wrap this up I think the golden oldies tend to fall into a tendency of railroading when a lot of travel is involved. My hypothesis is that it makes it too easy to confuse all that travelling with "story" and thus needlessly limiting the players. Investigative roleplaying is not this by default, but it sure has happened more than once. Should I win the lottery I will take a closer look at the other classic as well, since it's supposed to do it just right.

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