Railroading

edited October 2006 in Story Games
In a previous thread about jargon people hate (http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=1579), I mentioned that Railroading was a problematic term, because, despite the fact that there's are some good potential definitions for what Railroading means, the term is used so commonly that it usually has a very local definition to the user. I also said that most of these definitions are actually subsets of the good definition.

The universal definition would be something like:
The GM uses authority in such a way as the player is prevented from engaging in his preferred creative agenda.

Immediately somebody said that railroading should include in the definition that it's control of plot or scenes or something. But that's agenda specific, and a local definition. Basically the person in question is saying, "I like to have control of elements XYZ, and when I don't have control, that's railroading." Well, it is railroading, but what it misses is that railroading can be control of other things for other players.

For instance, for certain gamism CAs, some players want the GM to control the "plot" and such, and just want a level playing field. For such a player, railroading can be things like lowering the HP total of the monsters in order to allow the players to win. Or raising them if the GM wants to engineer a defeat for some purpose (no, not neccessarily plot, the GM could be punishing the players for something, or setting up a harder challenge for later or whatever).

So the player in the example rightly says he was railroaded into a defeat. The problem is not that he's wrong, but that he'll say that a player complaining about scene outcome control isn't talking about railroading. That is, they'll disagree as to what the definition is, because they have different creative agendas, each contending that it's the GM controling the elements they're concerned about that defines railroading.

Thus you see debates about railroading go on endlessly, because what's really going on is that the player in question is just trying to reinforce what he thinks is important about playing. So, as a jargon term used all over gaming without a consistent definition, the term is often more trouble than it's worth.

Mike

Comments

  • Railroading also shares a problem that "deprotagonization" is starting to pick up -- its used as a generic complaint term, including by people who are griefing or needing to vent without wanting to actually analyze the problems happening in play.

    When there is something the GM is doing that you don't like, or when you can't get your way, or when you just feel like you're not getting what you want out of the game it's a common response to cry "railroading" because it's the most evil of evil things and everyone agrees its bad. It's sort of the rhetotical opposite of "my guyism" -- putting the dysfunction onto the other foot.

    As such it gets used a lot of times when it clearly isn't applicable, and that adds to the general level of noise around it.
  • Yeah, Railroading is the "Nazism" of RPGs. :-)

    Mike
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesThe universal definition would be something like:
    The GM uses authority in such a way as the player is prevented from engaging in his preferred creative agenda.
    Mike, that sounds a whole lot like Ron's definition of Force, which was "the GM uses authority to prevent the players from making significant decisions."
  • Hmm, that was me. So you want railroading to be universally bad? I was actually trying for a definition that was more neutral on whether it was good or bad or not.

    I have to say that I would never have called your other examples 'railroading'. And I still don't like that your proposed definition includes player desire, because that muddies the waters. If the same GM does the same thing for two different groups, and in the second group one guy doesn't like it, why is it 'railroading' in the second case and not in the first? And if four players are fine with it and one player is not, is it railroading?

    It seems like a more helpful term for this sort of thing would be something like 'player abuse'.
  • And I still don't like that your proposed definition includes player desire, because that muddies the waters.

    Well, er.

    I'm a big fan of common language, and trying to adhere to it.

    In common language, "railroading" is universally bad, and I think Mike is correct in saying that it's universally bad because it universally means, 'person X is using his authority to block my fun'. I think it's pretty much dumb to look for a formal definition of a term in common use that isn't based closely on its usage, and it's dramatically more troubling than making the term contingent on the people involved. That's pretty common, really; take for instance the way that "polite" is locally defined, or the difference between "sex" and "rape".

  • I agree with Lucian that there should be a new term for the broad concept of interfering with player's agenda. I do think that "railroading" at this point has enormous negative baggage associated with it. However, it does have a meaning besides just general badness. The term "railroad" is based on the metaphor of only being able to go forwards on the tracks, and applies to linear pre-plotting.

    Mike, your definition is more broad, but being broad doesn't make it better or more "universal". It's just one more definition in an already conflict pile of different usages -- and it includes many behaviors which no one previously called railroading.
  • I guess I'd need to hang out on the Forge more or something, but as a single data point, I don't personally associate railroading as something universally negative (I can enjoy what I would consider a railroaded game in the right context), and when I have seen others say things like 'I dislike railroading', I took it as a personal preference.

    (Actually, I was once told that 'plot' means 'a bad railroaded plot' to many Forgistas, which, if true, seems like a fantastic waste of a good term.)
  • edited October 2006
    Er, I should have noted that, in the original thread, that I was saying that I think we need another term that's not so emotionally loaded, etc. I couldn't come up with one myself, so I asked for help. But the ensuing debate was banned in that thread (rightfully), so I brought it here.

    So, by all means, fire away with suggestions. I have no illusions that I'm ever going to get the world to agree to my definition. So let's have a different term for the phenomenon.

    I'd say that railroading behaviors border on player abuse, but would be a subset. Certainly there are ways to abuse a player that don't involve taking away their ability to create. Starting with social level stuff (berating the player for "bad play" for instance). Also, because of CA differences, in most cases railroading comes about by accident. So it's more like neglect or unintentional abuse in many cases.

    This is, in fact, the most common places you'll see debates about what is or is not railroading. A player feels that he doesn't have the control he wants, so he calls railroading. The GM points out that according to the rules or some other agenda, that he's playing quite within his purview, so it's not railroading to him. So the term, in this case, obscures the facts (and often leads to a semantic debate).

    Then, because as Brand points out it's often used as a griefer thing, the GM gets away with not addressing the problem, because he can claim that the accuser is just bandying about a term that's meaningless in the current context. Without checking to see if it is, or if the player has a real gripe.

    Mike
  • Personally, I never associated "railroading" with creative agendas. And, yeah, it's never been wholly negative in my mind either. Hell, Dev railroaded some Wushu last week and it was hella fun, even if player choices were Color for his sketchy plot. It was still awesome being Color.
  • Some recent practical experience on this topic: In a D&D game I'm in, I was complaining to another player that the DM was taking all plot choices out of our hands, directing us from scene to scene by ubiquitous NPC allies--in the latest instance, he even interrupted an IC conversation about where we should go next with an NPC bursting on the scene with a "Hey guys! :Look what I found." I called this railroading. The other player (who by no means is happy with the way the game's run) said, "no, it's just. . .linear."

    This made my brain leap several feet to the right in accordance with the Laws of Finite Probability Fields. I kind of felt like "that's what I said, isn't it?" Like John said, the term evokes a straight track that must be followed. (Interestingly, when this concern was expressed to the DM he insisted, "hey, you can go anywhere you want.") Your broader concept, Mike, may serve to explain the cognitive disconnect between me and my fellow player. I'm pretty sure he was saying that the DMing approach in question wasn't railroading for this game, which is intended to be a kind of one-off campaign for when no one else is up for running theirs. He would not be happy with such an approach for other games. In fact he and I have been in another game with another GM which was run similarly, and it was a frustration for both of us.

    Anyway, not sure if I have any great insights, but perhaps the record of my experience will bear fruit.

    Peace,
    -Joel
  • Datapoint: in my experience, "railroading" has always only meant predefined plot and psuedo-illusionist steering to keep play on the rails.
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesThis is, in fact, the most common places you'll see debates about what is or is not railroading. A player feels that he doesn't have the control he wants, so he calls railroading. The GM points out that according to the rules or some other agenda, that he's playing quite within his purview, so it's not railroading to him. So the term, in this case, obscures the facts (and often leads to a semantic debate).
    Well, leaving aside whether 'railroading' as a term can be used helpfully any more on a non-local scale, I would say that what we need are not more terms that define general dysfunctional play, but rather terms for (or just general discussion of) specific techniques that are ripe for abuse, so that a player could say, "I don't like this" and "I don't mind that." So then when a GM pre-plots the adventure, a player could say, "I don't like that the climax was pre-planned," or, "I don't mind pre-planned scenes, but I would like PC actions rather than NPC actions to move us from one to the next." As you say, semantic debates are usually not very helpful.

    However, I'll go ahead and propose 'blocking' as a general term for what Mike wants to define. 'Blocking is the use of authority (intentionally or no) in a way that blocks satisfactory play by another player'.

    (Man, I am all over the use of 'satisfaction' instead of 'fun'.)
  • Posted By: lpsmithI would say that what we need are not more terms that define general dysfunctional play
    Amen

    I'm okay with terms for techniques with the propensity for abuse. Or with particular aesthetics, which we contrast as being served or not without there being an intrinsic judgment made about that service (but almost certainly and extrinsic judgment.) But we already have too many ways to say "that's dysfunctional."
  • I also question 1) our ability to redefine terms that already exist in the wider world of roleplaying (because that turns them into jargon terms that only we understand "properly," inhibiting functional communication with others) and 2) our ability to invent new terms, agree upon them (the clincher), and have them widely accepted based on fairly casual internet discussions on sites like this one.

    The best way to introduce new terms, I suspect, is to write an piece where you introduce them, define them, and explain why they are useful. And, even then, they'll only enter common discussions if people agree with your findings and like your terms. Otherwise, the inventer may end up being the only one who uses them. This is the way things work in all other fields that I'm aware of.

    Sure, terms can be invented specifically for short-term discussions to clarify things, but even fairly significant ones (Vanilla vs. Pervy, Push vs. Pull) tend to disappear after their window has passed.
  • Railroading has always meant (to me) that there are certain waypoints or end-states that the GM has decided need to be met ahead of the play of the game. The villain *will* escape and cackle so he can come back later in the campaign; Bill & Kate *will* have an explosive fight that ends their relationship; war *will* break out between Kingdoms A & B.

    The GM then throws up obstacles to player choices that endanger or lead away from these waypoints. If the players don't take the first story hook about ensuring peace between Kingdoms A & B, they'll find any other endeavours are fruitless, no matter how artificial the obstacles become. I've always drawn the comparison between railroading and the level in most FPS games, like Call of Duty. You're cattle-prodded towards the next trigger-point on the level because if you just fuck around it gets boring.

    Now as with FPSs, a good level design (or awesome level design, as in Rainbow Six or HL2), where there are multiple ways of solving a level, you may not even realize that you're being railroaded by a GM if there's enough fine-grain true choice to keep the players occupied. And, of course, there are modes of play where a level-design approach is perfectly acceptable, even desirable.

    So if you want a different, less antagonistic word, try 'linear play'. But there are usually unspoken power issues involved with heavy-duty railroading - it's usually not implemented thoughtfully or consciously. I had a GM once who based her campaigns on novels (the novels of Jeanette Winterson, to be exact). Holy crap was that railroaded. We were walking through the events of the book, but of course we weren't allowed to read it. So it was basically just we poor players trying to figure out what the 'real' choice that was going to let us out of this fresh hell was going to be.

    That was the GM that proved to me that all good players (she was an awesome player, very into her characters) do NOT make good GMs.
  • Kuma:
    That strikes me as very close to my own understanding of the term.

    Is the source of this, though, a misunderstanding between the players ( they thought they were in for a "sandbox" type game) and the GM ( who was shooting for a Mission-style or linear/branched-tree style game)?

    Thinking back to many old D&D ( or similar) games, I could see that as a source issue that's just sort of been handed down. I mean, isn't the flipside of railroading "adventure avoidance"?
  • I think that everybody who is giving datapoints on what Railroading means to them, including the ones who say it's not always negative, are just reinforcing my point. Which is that, even when there are similarities in the local definitions, there are also differences. Enough to be problematic in discussion.

    Anyhow, I think that it's ironic that Judson would say we don't need a new term, and then goes ahead and proposes one. A very good one, I'd say. I'll probably use blocking in the future.

    I don't want this thread to become yet another debate on whether or not Jargon is good, or what's the best way to introduce it. If you don't want to create jargon, and have a better way to discuss the subject, then fine, just show us. I mean, if people think that it's better to say things like, "Using magician's force can be problematic in play," go for it.

    Generally speaking (and trying to avoid Jargon as much as possible here), part of what's interesting about this subject is the question of when GM use of the rules that give him the ability to create things in play is problematic. What I've discovered is that what counts as problematic for one group is not for another. All GMs enforce control of the events of the game to some extent. I suppose one could theorize some sort of game where it was all pre-set, and the GM did nothing but mechanical interpretation, but that would make him just like a CPU in a CRPG. It's considered a feature of RPG play, generally, that the GM makes some judgment calls on what should enter play.

    So one could even theoretically call having an NPC show up where the characters are as railroading, even if the NPC then proceeded to do nothing. After all, the GM has arbitrarily decided that the NPC in question was available to show up, didn't have something else he needed to be doing, and his presence has some effect on play, even if only very minor as color. If some player decides that he wants to play in a game where the GM isn't making such arbitrary decisions about the events, he could call that Railroading.

    Now this is the absurd case - nobody actually does this. But the point is that there's simply no one criteria for GM control that you can say is automatically the point at which it will annoy players. In fact, most times GMs have far, far more control of events than this, including the ability to manipulate the PCs. For instance, consider the following exchange we've all seen a hundred times:

    GM: "Where are you going?"
    Player: "The tavern."
    GM: "OK, you arrive at the tavern after a stroll across town to get there."

    Now, in this case the player could theoretically complain, "Wait, my character would have ridden there." In fact this sort of thing is common. But then the GM is free to say something like, "There are no horses in this town."

    The point is that there's some balance of this sort of power to move action forward between players and GMs. We cede some power over our characters in order to move play forward when it would be uninteresting to go through every step. Indeed it would be tedious if the GM said:

    GM: "Where do you get the horse?"
    Player: "From the stables."
    GM: "OK, so you walk to the stables, and meet the stablemaster. What now?"
    Player: "I ask him for a horse."
    GM: "What sort of horse?"
    Player: "My character isn't sure. Whatever."
    GM: "OK, he brings one out. What about a saddle and harness?"
    Player: "It doesn't have one?"
    GM: "Not at the moment."
    Player: "Well, I ask the master for this stuff."
    GM: "OK, he gets that for you. Do you put it on the horse?"

    You get my meaning. We assume that the GM will instead say something like:

    GM: "OK, you get a steed from the stables, and ride on over."

    There are a large number of small actions involved in this statement that are all taken for granted. Few players will complain about the GM control of all of these events for a very simple reason. They're just not all that interesting a bunch of decisions to make about the character's actions. The player obviously just wants to get to the tavern quickly. So the GM accomodates.

    So, in practice, all GM's have some control over supposedly player controlled characters. And the players want it this way to some extent. So, very much, RPGs assume that the GM has the rights to do these things in play. The question of when a GM steps over a line and makes play uninteresting to the player, is when he takes away the decisions that the particular player wants to make, instead making them on his own.

    Which decisions a player wants to make is very much up to the player. Groups have standards for these things (creative agendas), but no two sets of players is precisely alike. Thus you can't talk about the GM using the abilities given to him by the group - whether due to the rules, or by group custom - as being the problematic phenomenon in question.

    That is, with Railroading, I always see people like Jonathan saying that there's "good railroading" and "bad railroading." What he's saying, it seems to me, is that the GM has rights that the group gives him. When he uses them to move things along in a gross way, people notice. But it's not always bad. This GM activity is just part of RPGs. The question as to whether or not it's problematic has nothing to do at all with how gross the control is, but simply whether or not it's taking player decisions away.


    Now, with Jargon we've created previously, what I've said above is that GM Authority and Force are not synonymous. Authority is what the group gives the GM. Force, in the specific jargony definiton that it's used in when discussing this topic, means precisely taking away decisions that the player wants.

    Blocking may be an even better term for this.

    Anyhow, whatever you want to call it, what I think is important about the discussion is to realize that there are two distinct pheomena: GM using abilities that the group gives to him, and GM using these abilities in away that takes away the choices that some players find fun to make.

    Any clearer?

    Hmm, given that the term Authority seems relatively non-problematic, could we simply call it Authority Abuse? Or am I stamping my hegemony on all-y'all by trying to create a shortcut to having to write the above every time I talk about this subject? ;-)

    Mike
  • edited October 2006
    Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyDatapoint: in my experience, "railroading" has always only meant predefined plot and psuedo-illusionist steering to keep play on the rails.
    That's how I've always seen it used, and I think that's generally how it is used.

    By all means create new terms, but I think the above is fairly widely understood.

    Edit: And it's not universally seen as always negative, I was posting the other day about a con experience which was much fun in which I was utterly railroaded. A common sentiment I see is that railroading only matters when the players aren't enjoying themselves, which seems true on its face.

    I don't personally railroad, it seems too much work apart from anything else, but I don't think it's an especially problematic term.
  • If we're groping around for a term to mean something like 'good railroading', I'll suggest 'rollercoastering.' Which reflects my experiences with functional railroading, anyway.

    Thinking it over, I guess there can also be some level of Authority Abuse on the part of the players:

    GM: The highwayman says, "Halt! The toll on this road is two copper pennies."
    Player A: I say, "But sir, we are merely pilgrims on our way to the holy city of..."
    Player B: I waste the guy with my crossbow.

    I'm not entirely sure this is the same thing, but it kinda feels like it's in the same family of things.
  • Posted By: RogerIf we're groping around for a term to mean something like 'good railroading', I'll suggest 'rollercoastering.' Which reflects my experiences with functional railroading, anyway.

    Thinking it over, I guess there can also be some level of Authority Abuse on the part of the players:

    GM: The highwayman says, "Halt! The toll on this road is two copper pennies."
    Player A: I say, "But sir, we are merely pilgrims on our way to the holy city of..."
    Player B: I waste the guy with my crossbow.

    I'm not entirely sure this is the same thing, but it kinda feels like it's in the same family of things.
    Why do we need a term at all? Would it not be simpler to say good railroading? Or railroading that the players enjoy?

    Given that most people won't know what the created term means, and given too how simple the concept is, why would creating a term help communication? I suspect it would simply cause further confusion.
  • Max,

    Let's say, for argument's sake, that your definition of Railroading is universally accepted. Well, then what I'm talking about is some larger phenomenon of which Railroading is a part. In which case this thread is discussing that phenomenon, and not the one you call Railroading.

    I'm not looking to rename railroading. I'm looking for a name for the phenomenon that I'm describing. Still against that?

    Mike
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesAnyhow, I think that it's ironic that Judson would say we don't need a new term, and then goes ahead and proposes one. A very good one, I'd say. I'll probably use blocking in the future.
    Hey, that was me, not Judson! ;-) And, yeah, I had written out my nice diatribe about how we didn't really need a new term and then my brain went, "Hey, what about this one?" Hoist on my own petard.

    FWIW, I probably got 'blocking' from ComedySportz, an improv comedy troupe I was in in Houston. The ref could call a 'Blocking Foul' if someone denied someone else or otherwise stopped the action of the scene. "Hey Bob, what's that penguin doing on your head?" "There's no penguin on my head." *tweet!* Blocking foul!

    It didn't actually get called much because if you're on your toes, you can usually turn a block into a challenge instead, or at least some sort of offer. But they're usually pretty weak offers. Similarly in RPGs, the techniques a GM uses to challenge the players can be used to block the players, too, and sometimes there's a fine line between the two.
  • Yeah, that's actually a problem with the term Blocking - it makes sense in it's improv meaning as it is (just saying no). Since Theatricks, the whole "Yes, but" and all of that has been with us. So perhaps it's best not to steal one of those terms.

    Mike
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesI'm not looking to rename railroading. I'm looking for a name for the phenomenon that I'm describing. Still against that?

    Mike
    No, blocking if I understand it correctly looks like a potentially useful term, subject to the improv problem.

    Anyhow, whatever you want to call it, what I think is important about the discussion is to realize that there are two distinct pheomena: GM using abilities that the group gives to him, and GM using these abilities in away that takes away the choices that some players find fun to make.
    Posted By: Mike HolmesI don't think this is railroading, but I think it does exist and as such a new term for it seems unproblematic. I would simply keep the discussion away from railroading as otherwise the term will get tangled with that which would not I think help it.
    Two actual play examples from cons. Superficially similar, but with a critical difference.

    Game one, a supers game, sometimes when we try to take actions that seem to us to both be credible in the game world and in genre they fail for reasons that in game make little sense. Eventually, we realised that the con scenario was part of a larger campaign and that the GM was intervening to make sure certain things happened so that the next scenario would work, even though we would not in fact be playing that. The result was that at seemingly random intervals from our perspective we were blocked from our fun, we wanted to do in-genre heroic things but sometimes they just were declared as failing for reasons that we had not consented to (formally or otherwise) and that had not formed part of our expectations. The game, to put it bluntly, sucked like a hoover attached to a black hole. Most uncool.

    In terms of CA, to the extent I get that, this was a sim game. We were supposed to be in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen setting and the GM described it to us on the basis that whatever we did in genre would work, it was all about the emulation. That turned out to be untrue, in genre things that went with his unspoken plot expectations worked. We tried to express our in genre fun, but were prevented from doing so.

    Game 2. A con game using the puddle set in Bilbao in which we were angels and demons working together to prevent a premature apocalypse. I played through three scenarios in the setting at three cons, and I had a great time in each.

    Because I was curious, the GM emailed me his notes. Everything was there, every step we took was written up in advance. The fact is, the choices in the scenario were illusory. The difference is firstly that he was just better at it, so we didn't notice much, but more saliently we had signed on for a horror game based on certain themes and he delivered that. The key difference to the first game, besides skill, was that when we acted in accordance with the game we had signed up for our fun happened, it was not sometimes blocked for extraneous reasons.

    So, both technically were railroading, but the first was a complete pain that ruined my day, the second was so fun I sought the guy out at future cons to play his new scenarios. Part of that was skill, part I think was what you are trying to get at here.

    Or am I misreading? Please let me know, I prefer to tie these things to actual play otherwise it all gets a bit abstract.
  • edited October 2006
    Posted By: lpsmithI don't personally associate railroading as something universally negative ...
    I'm fully with you on this. To railroad the action of a game may leave the players with a different focus if done right. I've done it myself to great effect.

    Example: The characters were given the task of bringing a goat to a mountain top far away, to sacrifice it for the good of the village. Each and every encounter on their way was predetermined, and the players were told that there would be no playing out of alternative routes. Their characters would all follow the natural route to the top, and experience whatever lay in wait for them. The long string of encounters made for a very strong scenario, using one NPC in particular to set the drama. The drama focused on how the characters related to him. He was mentally retarded, big and kind and childish, and very enthusiastic about being allowed to go on the mountain trip. The GM is instructed to use him as much as possible, and to play him very directly; touching players, hugging, talking to them with naive confidence, etc. It made for a beautiful and strong endscene, when the goat was lost and the retard told the characters he was to be sacrificed for the village!

    That's an example of GOOD railroading!

    I've seen it used to great effect in other scenarios too, so I believe "railroading" has to be defined as a way of playing the game to enhance certain elements of it, and to downplay others. In my view it is a very effective tool if used the right way. :-)
  • Railroading: a period of game time when the players' use of the Components of exploration is reduced to Colour, with or without their knowledge and with or without their permission, explicit or implicit, as enabled by Authority given to the GM.

    Now, as I only read the Big Model glossary 3 days ago and I haven't finished the essays yet, thats as complete a definition as I can make it whilst still including as much 'jargon' as I can. Now, try this:

    Railroading: a period of time when the players' decisions can have only a superficial effect on the progression of the game, because the GM has set it up that way with PC-specific plot and/or is currently enforcing their role as absolute final arbiter of all things within the game.

    I like that too. Importantly, neither definition states good or bad, and neither tries to determine what, if anything, the players get out of it. Truly, railroading can be a fantastic tool for setting the feeling of the situation, for instance helplessness; last session of my Mage game was railroaded all to hell simply because I wanted to show them the effects of power correctly applied, and my players loved it. If I do say so myself. On the other hand, I still roll my eyes at the first part of the Giovanni chronicles which I ran some years ago, because the railroading went on for the whole adventure. Bad railroading is one or more of 3 things: Obvious, prolonged, inconsistent or unlikely within the setting.

    In fact, I'd say it has to be at least 2 of those things to be truly bad; otherwise it may just be a touchy player.
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesNow this is the absurd case - nobody actually does this. But the point is that there's simply no one criteria for GM control that you can say is automatically the point at which it will annoy players. In fact, most times GMs have far, far more control of events than this, including the ability to manipulate the PCs. For instance, consider the following exchange we've all seen a hundred times:

    GM: "Where are you going?"
    Player: "The tavern."
    GM: "OK, you arrive at the tavern after a stroll across town to get there."

    Now, in this case the player could theoretically complain, "Wait, my character would have ridden there." In fact this sort of thing is common. But then the GM is free to say something like, "There are no horses in this town."
    I see this as two distinct phenomena. The first exchange is simply poor GMing (it's a bit too short of an exchange to be absolutely sure about context) - he's envisioning the travel through town and assuming action on behalf of the characters, instead of simply describing the environment and leaving the character-specific details up to the players to envision.

    The second exchange is a gut-reaction form of railroading - since the GM messed up, he covers it with a new obstacle instead of a 'Yes, and ...' answer.
    The point is that there's some balance of this sort of power to move action forward between players and GMs. We cede some power over our characters in order to move play forward when it would be uninteresting to go through every step. Indeed it would be tedious if the GM said:

    GM: "Where do you get the horse?"
    Player: "From the stables."
    GM: "OK, so you walk to the stables, and meet the stablemaster. What now?"
    Player: "I ask him for a horse."
    GM: "What sort of horse?"
    Player: "My character isn't sure. Whatever."
    GM: "OK, he brings one out. What about a saddle and harness?"
    Player: "It doesn't have one?"
    GM: "Not at the moment."
    Player: "Well, I ask the master for this stuff."
    GM: "OK, he gets that for you. Do you put it on the horse?"

    You get my meaning. We assume that the GM will instead say something like:

    GM: "OK, you get a steed from the stables, and ride on over."

    There are a large number of small actions involved in this statement that are all taken for granted. Few players will complain about the GM control of all of these events for a very simple reason. They're just not all that interesting a bunch of decisions to make about the character's actions. The player obviously just wants to get to the tavern quickly. So the GM accomodates.
    Even better is 'You go to the stables to get horses ... is there anything specific you'd like to address?' Part of the problem in this sort of railroading is, again, the assumption of action (or inaction) on the part of the GM, instead of ascertaining any needs or desires on the part of the players.

    I don't think that these discourse-level control issues are the crux of people's problems with railroading - it's usually much higher up the food-chain than that ... choices in overall arc of the narrative, or the choice of the next adventure, or in the resolution of the current adventure in a novel fashion.
  • edited October 2006
    If you are to succeed with railroading as a tool in your game, it is essential to prime the players in the right way. With the correct priming the players will often "railroad" themselves, and leave it to you, the GM, to focus on and give them the crunchy bits of the real drama.

    One way to support an initial priming of the players, is for the GM to give no sustained descriptions of transport. Jump from encounter to encounter, and keep the encounters as brief as possible. Leave the players to fill out the gaps on their own. When the encounters is cut very short, and dropped on the players with rapid efficiency, you create an unforgiving environment/gameplay that will demand attention from the players.

    Example of the technique:
    GM: You arrive at the tavern after a stroll across town. A drunkard makes your jug of ale spill on his leg, and gets angry with you for doing it. What do you say?
    Player: Hey! That's your own fault!
    GM: He swings at you, misses and topples! He is too drunk to fight! What do you ?
    Player: I get another beer, and tell the bartender to get payment from the drunkard.
    GM: OK. Later that evening, on your way home, you notice two shadows in the alley behind you. What do you do?
    Player: I run for it.
    GM: OK. The next morning, when you should have been up early with the caravan leaving for Westshire, you are found in a drunken stupor in your bed, dragged out, placed on a horse and herded after the caravan. What do you say to your comrades and companions at lunch? (the GM indicates the other players, thus inviting them into active gameplay again)

    etc.

    In this example the railroading is used to make player characters a bit less in control of their actions, a bit more human, and a bit more challenging to play in relation to other characters. The choices made by the player are still important to the action, but only within the framework of the situation at hand, and with regard to how this situation impact the mentality and/or selfesteem of the character.

    A sidenote: this example must be viewed in light of what happens next: the discussion between the character and his companions. The GM has taken liberties with one character to initiate a possible conflict between them all.

    A sidenote: The GM has introduced a drinking theme in the example, on behalf of the character. It is still up to the player how to take it from there. The GM will not develop the theme further if the player ain't supporting it in his play of the character.

    On COLOUR: when people talk about "colour" in regard to railroading I get the impression it is used in a derivative way, like this: the players' use of the Components of exploration is reduced to Colour. The term "colour" may actually hide the possibilities of social and mental drama given by effective railroading techniques.
  • edited October 2006
    Posted By: jhkimterfering with player's agenda. I do think that "railroading" at this point has enormous negative baggage associated with it. However, it does have a meaning besides just general badness. The term "railroad" is based on the metaphor of only being able to go forwards on the tracks, and applies to linear pre-plotting.
    I just got through with a conversation on this on the RPGsite. My first introduction to railroading was referenced to its common English usage (i.e. one you'll find in a dictionary) concerning the use of coercion to force something through (like railroading a bill through congress) or the kind of manipulation that goes on with a mock trial (which seemed relevant to the way a GM might profess to be arbitrary and yet enforce a predetermined position).

    I'm not suggesting the rail metaphor is wrong (it certainly works)--but I think taking it too literally has problems.

    In the other thread (no link atm, the site is down) the guy said that any game with GM-described missions was a railroad (i.e. any James Bond game where the characters do missions for MI-5 is, defacto, railroaded). His rational? If it isn't a Keep on the Boarderlands style map and set up, there are rails of some sort.

    I like the implications of coersion and force (small 'f' meaning the GM is forcing people in some way--not the GNS way).

    -Marco
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