To Ratcon or to Railroad? — words we wish we understood and plots we wish we knew
A: I have an awkward question/confession—you know how we use the term ratcon?
C: You...you mean retcon, yeah...?
A: Well, I have zero idea what it stands for. Also, I say it ratcon because that’s what I originally heard it as, like a heist pulled off by rats: the long con, the short con, the rat con. I’m not sure what I thought it was relating to.
C: Now that you mention it, I don’t have any idea what it means either. It’s a word that entered my vernacular because of George Lucas’ machinations re: Star Wars, and I don’t actually know if it’s short for anything. But it must be short for something.
A: Reconnaissance? Although that’s not really what one’s doing. And we definitely put a ‘T’ in it.
C: Maybe it’s like retracted continued, or something? I’m very curious about this now. Let’s look it up.
C: Retroactive Continuity!
A: I’m slightly sad that it’s not ratcon.
C: Well, I mean, if you want it to be ratcon…
A: I’m glad to know what it means though because I use that word a lot. I’m bad at planning so there’s a lot of ratconning in my plot when I later think of cool connections to introduce.
C: I mean, everyone does it a little bit. There’s probably more zealous DMs than you or I who don’t, but most DMs do it sometimes. I've been retconning--or, uh, ratconning I guess--a little more often than I used to just because the scope of our story has expanded. But I think as long as it’s a minor change that helps further things down the line and not an overarching thing, sure, I usually roll with it.
A: Yeah, and I guess because the party only has between 30-60% understanding of what’s happening, ratconning doesn’t spoil things as often as I worry it does.
C: I wonder if that’s true of all campaigns—the players knowing less than half the plot.
A: It has to be, right?
C: Well, how much of my campaign do you feel that you understand as a player?
A: [telling pause] That’s hard to answer—I feel like there’s a big overarching plot which we only hear whispers about: ‘The elves are leading an uprising’, ‘There’s intrigue in the Shadow Thicket’, et cetera.
C: At a percentage level, to keep with that, where’d you put yourself? Because I may be overconfident, but I’d put myself at—hmm—at least 50% in yours.
A: I mean, I’d say in each individual session the party probably knows 50-80% of what’s going on. It’s not like that film with the magicians where they’re told, ‘you’re going to magic this area’ and they just go and do it.
C: What movie is this?
A: Um… Now You See Me?
C: Oh, okay, I’m sorry. I was thinking about Gob in Arrested Development. Please continue.
A: What I mean is, it’s not like we receive a mysterious note pushed under our door and we’re instantly like, ‘I guess we do this now’; we ask questions and make decisions accordingly. I feel…roughly in control.
A: But in terms of who’s good and who’s bad, I don’t know.
C: No clue. Wow. I guess it’s a fine balance; you obviously don’t want your players to not understand the plot, but you don’t necessarily want them to know everything. In many games, I think, a lot of playing is about slowly figuring out a mystery. I think the worst case scenario is someone feeling confused and uninvolved with what’s happening—you want the players to feel invested in what’s going on.
A: I also think both of us have players who are good about going along with the story.
C: What do you mean?
A: I think we have players in our parties who are suspicious of other characters, but they haven’t gone to their rooms and been like, ‘confess your secrets or I’ll kill you’. They know that existing in the narrative means that one good Sense Motive check doesn’t let you attack someone with impunity—you need to progress in the plot, find concrete proof, and then beat them up.
C: True. I haven’t thought much about player actions in that respect before, but I have worried about the risk of railroading as a DM—that is to say, the idea that you keep the party on a linear track and don’t let them deviate from it. Lots of popular campaigns broadcast online are accused of railroading a lot, with people saying ‘oh, you just want to tell this story. Oh, you’re not letting them have enough agency’.
A: Time for another Angela-confession. I straight up have not been using that word correctly. I thought it meant pushing them off the road.
C: Oh God, maybe it does. We’ll have to check.
A: No, now you’ve said it, that sounds right. I feel like I may have squandered my English degree.
C: Rushed or coerced into doing something. So in a sense we're both right? I think?
A: I think I was thinking of the word ‘ram’—like the idea that the party has picked a route to go down, and then the DM rams them off the road because it’s not what they want the party to be doing. But back to railroading, which is sort of the same idea and also the exact opposite.
C: In terms of following the plot, people don’t like being told what to do and how to think and how to approach these things, so you want them to feel in some way motivated to further the adventure. You need to promote involvement without enforcing a line of enquiry.
A: I feel like letting the party always choose what to do would be great, but you have to do a little railroading. We both have full-time jobs and trying to do enough prep to cover every eventuality is difficult. There are some sessions where it’s like, ‘it really doesn’t matter what you choose right now, certain things will happen because that’s what I prepped’. Though I like to maintain the illusion of choice.
C: I used to think of it as a dichotomy of open-world narrative versus linear narrative. Open worlds require a ton more prep because you need to be prepared for any sort of circumstances. But I wonder sometimes if that dichotomy oversimplifies things; I think you can do both. You can put your players on a linear journey but let them move towards fixed goals in the ways they want. They can still have agency in the story.
A: Yeah, it’s definitely doesn’t have to be an either/or—it’s choices within a rigid framework. I think giving your players two or three options works. Though there are some things I won’t give people choices about—like using the word ratcon; they just have to accept that and not criticise the DM.
C: I’m excited for ratcon this year. I’m going to do a cosplay.