Hey, contracycle! Railroading? Illusionism?

edited November 2013 in Play Advice
So I really want to know what's good about these things! I know there have been some discussions here, and there were a bunch at the forge, and if anyone wants to link to them that would be great. I get a lot out of threads like this on SG that I wouldn't think of or would poorly articulate. Clearly loads of people have played using these techniques and enjoyed doing so. I've certainly done a bang-up job using them in the past, but now I have techniques that work way better for me - any game that seems to really require lots of either I'd rather simply not run, and I never really enjoyed being on the playing end of them.

Let me throw out a couple caveats - obviously these techniques are going to be spectrums, and honestly on a 1-to-10 rating I'm probably a 3 or 4 most of the time, where I used to often be a 7 or 8. I've had fun with them and used them pretty well, well enough to have a small set of anecdotes to that effect if I need to employ them. So, I want to try to avoid coming off like people shouldn't be doing this.

That said, most of the frustration I've experienced as a player has come from playing traditional games where railroading and illusionism were prominent; many of the somewhat-bitter jokes people I know share about gming are essentially variations on characters going off the rails or aiming for goals we didn't want to accommodate. I just got the Tome of Adventure Design from the recent Bundle of Holding; the first principle of adventure design Finch espouses is maximizing meaningful player decisions, which looks great to me but would seem to be the opposite of railroading and badly undermine illusionism. Then reading Eero's Doyle/Watson breakdown (in this thread) made me think - if the players don't have serious buy-in on the railroad or illusions then massive resentments build whenever the techniques aren't used perfectly, and games subsequently seem to have come out with more and more player entitlements to try to 'protect' against the gm's 'power,' while continuing to loudly proclaim Rule Zero as primarily the gm's prerogative.

So. Assuming there's a lot I don't understand (a safe bet), what is the good thing about railroading and illusionism? What is the killer app? Loads of people had play sufficiently functional to really enjoy - what facilitated that?

And - sorry if it looks like I'm calling you out, contracycle. You've been particularly vocal about these techniques in recent threads and I'd like to know more of your perspective, specifically, as well as anyone else that would like to weigh in.
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Comments

  • First of all, plenty of people say railroading is 100% negative - if you do something and it's positive at all, it can't be railroading by their definitions. I dunno, maybe.

    But by my lights, here are things railroading is good for:

    * The game goes somewhere and doesn't just go around and around in circles when people forget what they're doing or what their characters want or we haven't gotten together in 2 months and people forgot all kinds of stuff about the game. Sometimes you just need to yell "WELP IT LOOKS LIKE ITS TIME TO GO ON UP TO THE SPOOKY OLE HAUNTED HOUSE AND SEE IF YOU CAN FIND YOUR UNCLE EDGAR, YOU ARE STANDING AT THE SPOOKY ENTRANCE GATE WHAT NOW"

    * You can skip over inconsequential decisions that don't actually mean anything and get to what people want or came for. Why not skip to the dungeon entrance if they're here for the dang dungeon?

    * You can begin in media res! That's pretty cool, right? 100% railroading.

    * probably a lot more stuff, idk
  • Yeah, but: "Skipping inconsequential decisions" = good; "All decisions are inconsequential" = bad — they're very different gaming styles.

    Anyway, I think there are two important branches to consider here, Case 1 and Case 2. Both have what I call a Point of No Return, where once you know enough/too much about RPGs on a structural level, they become unacceptable.

    Case 1 is what the Forge referred to as Participationism, which JDCorley references in his post, the "it's ok railroading/illusionism because everyone is at least tacitly on board with it." This happens in a lot of ongoing campaigns in their middle and later stages, where everyone knows that eventually there's going to be a confrontation with the Big Bad and the heroes will triumph and yay.

    The Point of No Return for this style of play is that, well, if you're going to do genre emulation, why aren't we doing it in a system that gives us some real input into the fiction? SotC/FATE, for example, is much better at doing stories in a particular genre without deprotagonizing the PCs than D&D or Exalted (and Monsterhearts is better than Vampire, Dread is better than CoC, etc.).

    Case 2 is where there's actual Illusionism going on. The GM is genuinely succeeding at hiding from the players the true (lack of) consequences of their actions.

    I think the Point of No Return here is simpler: if you GM a lot, have played a lot of games, are good at math, or any combination thereof, you'll eventually notice. At which point you can either vote with your feet, or become a Participationist. But either way, True Illusionism is always fleeting.

    Matt
  • Is what Jason is talking about railroading at all? I mean, simply starting in medias res or pre-selecting the subject matter of the session doesn't seem to me like the core property of this thing called railroading. That's just distributing the tasks and authorities of playing the game in a particular manner. For example, I write in the Solar System rules that a central Story Guide responsibility in TSoY is to do "dramatic coordination", which means skipping over inconsequential matters and making constructive choices that lead towards opportunities for the players to make choices instead of away from them. I would not choose to call this "railroading", despite it being about the GM making some choices.

    Rather, if I had to explain why railroading is felt as problematic, I would point at the kind of play where the the GM controls the plot of events that the players are supposedly influencing by their actions. Illusionism is very close to this concept, although there are other kinds of illusionism as well. My understanding is that the concept of railroading has emerged not as a theory term like "illusionism", but rather as a very frank observation about what it feels like to play a traditional adventure roleplaying game when the GM is not playing honesty: you're supposedly enmeshed in this scenario and engaging with it, but in actual fact the GM is pulling the string to ensure that his pre-planned outcomes occur. Play is "on rails" in the sense that your choices are illusionary.

    I should note that we did a pretty thorough investigation of participationist play in 06-09 or so around here, with the intent to see how enjoyable it might be for a post-Forgean crew, when played with intent. The conclusion was pretty much that once the players are on board the railroad and know that their choices and input on the big decisions don't matter, the enjoyment of play will largely rest on the GM being an entertaining storyteller; the players will still participate, but their participation is reduced to providing audience reactions (often via their characters), and controlling the pacing (how quickly we continue on to the next scene) and focus (how much we ask the GM to tell as about detail X) of the storytelling. It's potentially a very functional style of play, although if you're doing it participationist-style, with the players acknowledging that they're just along for the ride, you'll need to make sure that everybody takes their responsibility of "basic roleplaying" seriously despite that: some types of players (myself included, I have to actively restrain myself) will start fooling around once they realize that they're on rails and therefore not responsible for what happens.

    Personally I only find railroading a problem when it is not explicit, and in general it is rarely explicit - I think that many trad roleplayers would feel vaguely foolish if they truly dragged GMing practices into broad daylight and explicitly affirmed with the whole group that yes, this is the extent of preplanning and subtle control that we accept from the GM. I was just reading some Only War adventure material a couple days back, and I felt that it captured the actual attitudes involved pretty well: the GM is egging the players on to immerse and engage in an adventurous military conundrum, planning carefully how they'll accomplish a mission, but on the other hand he's "ensuring that this NPC gets away" and "increasing resistance here if the PCs decide to choose this route" and so on. That's what I understand by railroading, and I personally can't stomach it, I find it a reprehensible and lazy way to construe the possibilities of a roleplaying game. We can be better than just puppets in the GM's play. I can understand the rpg history that brings us to Only War, which so very much wants to be old school D&D from the player viewpoint (I mean, the sort of play that it attempts to offer, we do that every week extremely well in our OSR campaign) while accomplishing it all with control-freak GM micromanagement of setpieces, quantum ogres and other supposedly invisible strings. I can understand the history and psychology that has brought us to this point, I just can't accept it as a roadmap for my own play.
  • Some more good things about railroading:

    * You never get to the end of the campaign and feel like nothing happened or you didn't accomplish anything. You will get somewhere and do something. (Ken Hite says "railroading is a term applied to campaigns in which something is accomplished.")

    * If you don't know what exactly to do, it's cool, just relax and wait a bit, the next thing will come along.
    Is what Jason is talking about railroading at all? I mean, simply starting in medias res or pre-selecting the subject matter of the session doesn't seem to me like the core property of this thing called railroading. That's just distributing the tasks and authorities of playing the game in a particular manner. For example, I write in the Solar System rules that a central Story Guide responsibility in TSoY is to do "dramatic coordination", which means skipping over inconsequential matters and making constructive choices that lead towards opportunities for the players to make choices instead of away from them. I would not choose to call this "railroading", despite it being about the GM making some choices.
    I mean, if we say all railroading is by definition bad, then yeah, okay, nothing I say above counts because those things are good and railroading is bad. But what-people-call-railroading often includes techniques that are totally normal and not objectionable at all in other contexts and groups.

    I once had someone tell me that if we sat down to play a GURPS or FATE game, and I said "this is a game about superspy secret agents in 1987, make a swashbuckling secret agent in 1987" and they made a flying psychic caveman from an alternate world and I said they couldn't play them, that was railroading. Why not? It's certainly taking major consequential decisions out of the hands of a player and gripping it desperately in my tyrannical GM grasp, after all.
  • Yeah, that seem strange - I wouldn't call it "railroading" if one of the players has simply chosen the subject matter in advance. I guess if your conception of GURPS fundamentally involves a "subjective right to play any character conceivable", then it'd make sense to call the GM on it, but as far as I know neither GURPS nor FATE has any provisions whatsoever for that sort of arrangement - it's clearly some weird hack to claim such a subjective player right in a game that very much relies on somebody choosing a topic and planning a campaign in advance.

    I get the difficulties of terminology in this type of discussion, of course - everything depends on what we mean by the words we choose. It is entirely possible that there is no grounds for disagreement on this topic, simply because on closer analysis we find that everybody substantially agrees on what's fun and functional, and the only difference is that for some reason some people have adopted the label of "railroading" in different ways. For me it's pretty natural to use it the way I described, and it seems unnatural to use it in the way Jason is using it (apparently for any possible choices the GM might make regarding the direction of play?), but that's probably because we've learned the word itself in entirely different contexts.

    In any case, my intent was in no way to imply that railroading is bad "by definition". I hopefully explained in broad terms what I understand by the word, and why I find it less than optimal for my own play. As far as I can see there's no reason to accuse anybody of engaging in a logical fallacy here. If anybody wants to demonstrate how railroading as I outlined it above (invasive techniques for preempting the significance of player-made choices in the game) is actually good, then we might have some grounds for debate. Lacking that, we'll just have to agree to agree, and perhaps list some more good things that somebody somewhere might call railroading :D
  • edited November 2013
    I was at IndieCon a few weeks ago and a friend of mine shared an anecdote of this time he ran a really good improvised traditional scenario. The Anecdote: The players all had a really good time and were talking about it in the bar afterwards. One person approached my friend and asked if he could have the scenario for running it for his group. When he found out the scenario was improvised in its entirety his attitude changed and suddenly he hated the session and felt that it didn't really count. My friend was surprised by the player's ability to rewrite his memory of the experience.

    I thought about my own experiences. I wanted to agree with the message of my friend's story. But if you switch out "improvised" and add in "illusionism" or "railroading" I find that my memories of games I've experienced get rewritten too to some extent. Maybe not in exactly that way. But if I go into a game carrying doubt then future games just don't work. And for a while I was convinced that these practices were so widespread that I couldn't put my doubts away.
  • A couple of things that might be of interest. (They might not be!)

    Nine years ago (good lord!) I started a thread on RPG.net called, When People Say "Railroading"... because it occurred to me that conversations about railroading go all over the map as what people are the specifics of railroading is seems to behave like a blob of mercury being attacked by a nail. (Witness Jason dragging in any sort of setting strictures as "Railroading" above!)

    What I learned in that long, 16 page thread is -- as far as I could tell from the anecdotal sample -- "railroading" as a term actually has no specific principles. It is a term that refers to a spectrum of techniques and it becomes railroading when it pisses someone off. I really mean that. The definition game can continue down this thread for five more pages, and I don't think it will ever be found. Because it's only when someone's personal sense of "creative honor" (or something) is triggered that the term is dragged in.

    ***

    A side point, touching on TotallyGuy's story:

    There is, in gaming/nerd/geek/whatever culture, a true lack of trust/enjoyment of spontaneity and creativity.

    There, I said it.

    There is a desire and fetishization for things to be pre-planned and intellectualized. It's "smart" when things are done that way. It's "real."

    Witness, for example, the absolute need to believe in some circles that George Lucas knew exactly where Star Wars was going before the first movie came out. A greater appreciation for the movies is granted because Lucas had some sort of master plot between Luke and Darth and so on. But, pro tip: Lucas was making it up as he was going. But the Grail for lots of smart folks who value being smart (being knowing, being intellectually in control, in knowing more than others, having information others don't have and revealing it to others at the most appropriate times) is exactly this: I knew everything ahead of time.

    I remember discussing Sorcerer on the Internet back in 2001-2002 -- specifically it's lack of location and plot based pre-plotting and prep -- people resounding with real rage at the notion the game could work at all. Now, for the people of this community, raised as we are on all sort of "make it up as you go play" it might be really hard to believe this. But it was true. Over at RPG.net, in once discussion, I was told by people to take my discussions on the matter out of the Tabletop Roleplaying Open forum and move it over to the Game Design & Development forum, because it was not only considered so radical a notion but was pissing people off.

    Now, keep in mind, for years people could say to you with a straight face "I never force my players to do anything," while still talking about their "GM Plot." What I was doing then (not to piss people off, but to talk about my excitement that made no-plot play explicit) was calling people out on their bullshit. As Eero says, if you've going to have a plot, say it out loud so everyone can know it. That way everyone is a) onboard and b) decide if they want to do it. But to be the puppeteer is kind of weird.

    Over at the Play Sorcerer blog, I quote Shawn Ryan as part of this post:
    The Interviewer asked, “What did you learn while working on Angel with Joss Wheadon?”

    And Shawn Ryan replied:

    The main thing I learned from him is to approach stories from a character point of view, as opposed to a plot point of view. Forget about the plot in the beginning, because if you know what emotional journey you want to take your character on, the rest will follow. We break our crime stories [on The Shield] not in terms of who did this and what’s the clue; it’s what do we want our cops to go through on this particular story. Once we know that, the plot will come later.
    I'll posit that lots of gamer's really, really love plot. They want to know it was thought out to make sense. To get the characters from here to there. That it is "smart." That it doesn't have "plot holes." When the fact is, there are plenty of ways of creating that moves forward through the narrative in completely different ways. Stephen King, for example, finds a situation and just writes. Ray Bradbury advised, "Find out what your character wants and follow him." (That's the Sorcerer way.)

    But that isn't, in my view, what many of the people in the RPG community value. Or want to value.

    I'll add that one doesn't have to go back to 2003 to see such reactions of course. I had a discussion with someone on this site about Sorcerer Bangs just a few years ago where he insisted that the entire notion that the GM could introduce new points of narrative pressure on the Player Characters could only lead to utterly random and entirely preposterous events one time after another. Why this had to be the case I have no idea. But the notion of not having all "assets" already built out by the GM seems produce a kind of panic in lots and lots of people in this hobby. Such play, the thinking goes, can only lead to all sorts of illogical craziness. That there is no reason to do things that are either illogical or crazy seems off the table as an argument. To not have all the assets and details of the world already planned out, in this person's logic, will make crazy, illogical things happen.

    When I saw TotallyGuy's I though of all this stuff.

    ***

    I don't think a discussion about railroading can slip past the two above points easily:

    a) people mean different things by it, but have personal tripwires for when it is railroading
    b) the very complex relationship many RPGers have to the value of pre-planning and everything being smart and making sense or it doesn't have value

  • Railroading is a difficult topic for exactly the reasons Eero laid out above. If we want to still consider the things JD mention it's easy to see those as the low hanging fruit of railroading where player choice is restricted but it's done to make play functional and/or not completely insane as in the case of the psychic alternate world caveman spy. What those instances of railroading don't necessarily lead to is a play style where player input is virtually not required to tell us how the situation is going to resolve. They set up the situation or maybe move it forward when things get off track but they dont determine the outcomes.

    The most functional form of railroading I've seen is usually one where the GM sets up the situation, knows the approximate likely outcomes and leaves a little wiggle room for player impact. It's typically a situation where the players have to investigate to figure out what is going on. Since the GM knows the whole story he can rule out any attempts by the players to address the situation in a manner that doesnt fit the pre planned scenario, it may even make sense to do so since this is his conception of how the world actually is. No need of using force on his part beyond the initial creation of the idea. Play is locked in to revealing the secrets and then resolving them and how it's resolved can be slightly different. A typical situation would have the characters take part in an investigation that leads them to a result where they need to acquire some sort of Macguffin. The players can decide to steal it back, kill the guards for it or negotiate and buy the item, the end result is the same they end up with the item and there was little to no chance of it happening any other way. The game is on rails and we dont have to worry about it going another way. The players don't question whether acquiring the item is the right thing to do they simply learn it needs to be done and then we set about seeing how they do it.

    The usefulness of this type of play is it limits the amount of improv the GM needs to do. He needs to know what mystery needs to be solved and possible ways to solve it, he can even leave it open and accept what ever reasonable solution the players come up with but we know that eventually their will be a solution.

  • Great story, Guy. Absolutely great illustration. (And, excellent exegesis, Christopher!)

    I would add that I think there's a reasonable middle ground here: Some things should be develop-in-play and others should be pre-planned. I have a Burning Wheel scenario that I've run three times, The Dwarven Frontier. (You were in it at Burning Con, Guy.) There are a number of elements that are pre-set: the asshole older brother of the Prince PC; the goblins, who are slaves of the spiders, the latter of whom are the *real* threat in the story; the existence of a few other Relationship NPCs. I wouldn't violate any of those things. But there are tons of details to be filled in. The first time I ran it, it turned out that the spiders worshipped an ancient demon god sleeping beneath the mountain (I used the Behema stats from the Monster Burner; the PCs blew it up with dynamite, it was pretty great). That didn't come up the other two times, and I didn't force it.

    I should mention that I deliberately tried to encourage the players to add setting elements, by, for example, giving the Adventurer PC Loot-wise and Tomb-wise. But no matter what, I wouldn't allow anyone, myself included, to violate the basic premises of the adventure.

    And that's what I think a lot of the scaredy cats are missing: the principle that there are *some* things that are inviolate, and that even in a completely improvised game, no one is allowed to introduce elements that contradict previously established material.

    Additionally, in certain kinds of games, I think it's entirely reasonable to want certain things to be known ahead of time by the GM. The obvious example is a murder mystery. Unless it's explicitly develop-in-play like Serial Homicide Unit or Dirty Secrets, I'd be pretty pissed if the GM acted like he knew who-dun-it all along only to find out later he was just improvising.

    I think it's sort of the flip-side of the idea that, if we're going to railroad, we should be upfront about it: if the plot is going to be improvised, you need to warn people of that.

    Matt
  • Oh, also, I think the disappointing endings to certain TV shows point to the need to pre-plot *some* things. If you introduce a huge, overarching mystery in Season 1 or as the premise of the whole show, you'd better fucking have an answer. I'm thinking of X-Files, BSG, and Lost.
  • There is a difference between TV where we are an audience and RPG's where we are partaking in the creation of the story. I'm not sure you can equate the two but then again I'm not all that fond of "mystery" in RPG's. I think you can get the amazing plot twists just as reliably out of many other kinds of stories and the big mystery constantly set up in Lost was really unlikely to ever be resolved in a satisfying manner, what answer could they give to the mystical magical things that were going on other than it was mystical and magical and all happening for mystical magical reasons? This is getting off topic but compare two shows Vince Gilligan worked on X-files and Breaking Bad, I'll take the twists and turns of Breaking Bad any day over the mystery developed in X-files. Not that X-files didnt have it's own classic episodes like Jose Chung's From outer space.
  • I'm going to sidetrack a little bit.
    One person approached my friend and asked if he could have the scenario for running it for his group. When he found out the scenario was improvised in its entirety his attitude changed and suddenly he hated the session and felt that it didn't really count.
    "Didn't really count" is revealing for me here. Things "count" when there are points to be had and a goal to be won.

    Some people enjoy the player-versus-environment aspect of RPGs and if the game ends the way they wanted to, they feel that they personally did well: they as players were clever enough to best the GM's traps. If they discover that the GM's traps were adjusted on the fly to fit the available characters and players, obviously this player's "win" doesn't "count", and therefore they'll feel bitter and cheated.

    This is a bit similar to illusionism. The player had the illusion that their skill and/or choices "counted", that if they chose badly they could get nowhere or fail at the task.

    Other people enjoy discovery/exploration/investigation and are disappointed when they find out there was nothing to discover. Again, it's like illusionism: it doesn't matter whether you go left or right because the GM didn't figure out what'll be there in advance. Wherever you go, that's where the plot will be. Some people like it, others don't.
  • I tend to defend the last season of Lost exactly on those grounds, Vernon - given the themes and mythology of the show developed scrupulously up until that point, the ending was fine. The finale was not a great episode of Lost, but it wasn't the worst episode of Lost either. Okay, enough TV-chat.

    And I fully agree with everything CK said above. (And if you look in the rpgnet railroading thread from 9 years ago, I'm in there saying the same things I just said above. Many people there even straight out tell me that railroading only happens when someone in the group hates the technique the GM is using.)
  • edited November 2013
    Also, more on topic, I would agree that "railroading" is generally used for "you introduced a creative constraint I don't like", and is more of an indication of incompatible personal preferences and/or communication problems rather than a set of specific techniques. Even in games where it's not possible for one person to influence the contribution of others (like Microscope) the group has to "gel" for the story to work.

    (I have a theory that Microscope ends up going gonzo when one person introduces something others aren't comfortable with or inspired by, but they can't veto it whether for reasons of social pressure or game structure - however I haven't been able to thoroughly test it, have you ever observed something similar?).

    (That said, I have been railroaded myself, in the "no preparation for the final fight you come up with is possible, and then because you're so unprepared and too weak, extremely powerful GM-NPCs step in and solve everything, yay!" way, so I know the feeling. I never figured out what the GM was expecting from the players, but it was clear that he WAS expecting something. It's almost like there's an expectation that magically both the GM and the players will be on the same page with regards to the story, and the players will come up with the solution the GM wants, but sometimes this fails, and for some reason asking about the expectations is impolite or something... almost feels like an extension of geek social fallacies :) )
  • I remember getting railroaded once so badly I almost quit the game:

    The GM threw our characters through some sort of portal into a new world. We land (literally) and are immediately set upon by these half-man half-scorpion things. We're fighting and fighting and slowly losing. Some fort in the distance sends out some cavalry and we're trying to hold out until they arrive. But we're getting cut down man by man. However, the a Larry finally arrives, the scorpion-things turn and flee and, miracle of miracles, my PC was still alive (last man standing).

    Man, I was so pumped up. It felt like a real achievement to have survived that assault. Guess what happens? In the midst of fleeing, one of the scorpion-things turns around, comes back, knocks me out, and then runs away again.

    Clearly, the GM meant us all to start this new campaign a certain way and that way did not include us not getting KO'd at the start. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, he made it happen, logic be damned. I got so mad I almost quit the whole thing.

    This happened in college (long ago and far away) and yet I remember it vividly, way more vividly than anything else from that GM's gaming sessions,

    Long story short (too late!), I think railroading gets such a visceral response because we tend to remember the worst of it and those worst responses stay with us longer and stronger than many other experiences in the game.
  • Haven't read anything in this thread, because I'm mostly jumping in to give some more reading. I made a thread a year ago called Being open with railroading your players, where there were examples of some positive reasons of to why to do it.
  • Thanks for the link, Rickard.

    I should have expected that leaving the terms undefined would be the central issue, but I didn't. It is funny that those first couple examples that JDCorley used are precisely what I think of as scene framing and establishing situation - they seem well down on the spectrum even in games where they are entirely the gm prerogative (most trad games- funnily enough it is this distibution of authority that is the foremost signifier to me that I am playing a trad game).

    It looks like consent, explicit or implicit, is the dividing line that makes functional railroading and illusionism. I'll be honest, I don't see how that distinguishes them from any other gaming technique! The terms seem to overlap completely with "who has authority over what happens next" when used in a nuetral tone, which makes me want to know how they are so commonly conflated with abuse of that authority.

    With that in mind, I still am really interested in advocacy for the upper end of the scale where the gm has a strict policy of preventing deviation from their plan, and/or maintaining the appearance of player autonomy when their characters are not able to have significant influence on events or outcomes. That's a lot of framing the question, sorry, I'm trying to point to an approach I've seen people enjoy that I don't relate to well. Please answer charitably.
  • edited November 2013
    Since I lack all human feeling, Todd, it's no surprise that I don't remember railroading experiences like that. You are probably right that humans with human feelings hate railroading so much because they remember the awfullest moments.

    d.a, how about With Great Power, a superhero game in which the mechanics are such that the characters must suffer at least five losses before they can defeat the villain's plan? Is that railroading because you can't cleverly beat the villain after only 1 or 0 losses?
  • It's funny, yeah I wouldn't think of that as railroading, it's hard-baked into the rules and serves as an above-board strict pacing mechanism, not a decision by the gm or an inherited process of play. But I recognize it's all slippery slope here. We recently have had a couple great games of Psi*Run, which I would say is way low on the railroading and illusionism spectrums, at least as expressed and supported by the system, but there is a closely analogous pacing mechanism to trigger endgame. The sophisticated back-and-forth between the person running the game and the other players parameterized by the die rolls really leaves little wiggle room for the person running the game to force their authority over the players, but the case could be made.
  • edited November 2013
    Remember, it's not *only* an authority issue. It's also what the players want. What you might think isn't cricket might be exactly what someone else wants. And they probably won't think of it is "railroading" or "illusionism." They'll think of it as "Playing an RPG." And they're having a grand time doing it.
  • Sure. Terminology is a bitch. Authority, for me, is a moral-value neutral term; when you're playing a rpg, someone has the conch at any given time, and your group has a social contract that more-or-less establishes the baseline, which is adjusted as necessary for the system of play you are using. And the current play environment, and so on, down to whatever level of influence is relevant to this conversation.

    The point of this thread, for me, was to try to get a perspective from the other side of the line, preferably one with more depth than "people like different things" and "these things are a spectrum." Especially since I can often get useful insights here about exactly these kind of subjects, and, generally, avoid entrenched terminology warfare and "everything is everything, definition is useless" arguments. It looks like railroading and illusionism are just loaded terms, and don't have enough of a consistent signifier that identifies them strongly enough to break free of "people like different things" and "these things are a spectrum," except that they are often used pejoratively.

    I'll see if I can come up with a better, more evocative phrasing. I'm loaded from dinner. Despite the tone of this post, the thread is certainly making me think carefully and I appreciate the effort everyone has made.
  • It's funny, yeah I wouldn't think of that as railroading, it's hard-baked into the rules and serves as an above-board strict pacing mechanism, not a decision by the gm or an inherited process of play. But I recognize it's all slippery slope here.
    I think at this point it's worth splitting railroading from illusionism. Illusionism inherently includes the idea of *deception*. No deception, no illusionism. But sure, you can be upfront about railroading.

    Now, to be sure, games like WGP, that have explicit rules about pacing, are not to the tastes of many gamers. But it's hardly fair to say that the games themselves are being dishonest.

    Also, I thought of an easier way to say what I was trying to get at earlier: GMing a lot and/or playing a wide variety of games will simply kill dead successful illusionist techniques, for that player.
  • Is the GM of a WGP game being dishonest when he lets someone beat the villain's plan after only 4 losses?
  • ...yes?

    I mean I'm not sure that's the actual rule, I thought it was just harder to beat the villains earlier on in the narrative arc, not impossible.

    But sure, yes. It's cheating just as much as any other example.

    And, if people truly find the narrative constraints imposed by the game's mechanics to be intolerable, it's likely they would be better off playing a different game.
  • Can the GM let you win in WGP? I seem to be remembering that it's an objective mechanical criterion that tells you when the villain's plan is permanently beaten, having to do with filling the card tracks. The GM has many tasks in that game as well, but one of them is not to decide when the story ends.

    Still, I get Jason's point: yes, you can be dishonest for the player characters or against them, this doesn't make any difference to me. Being a "fan of the PCs" is not a carte blanche towards anything else, really. That is, I can't really name any moves that would become more acceptable at the game table just because you did them with helping the player characters in mind. I mean, what sort of games are you people playing if making life easier for the PCs is somehow a desirable and noble endeavour that justifies anything that would otherwise be suspect? I don't understand that, as I seem to spend as much time trying to get PCs into trouble as trying to get them out of the same, myself :D
  • d.a, how about With Great Power, a superhero game in which the mechanics are such that the characters must suffer at least five losses before they can defeat the villain's plan? Is that railroading because you can't cleverly beat the villain after only 1 or 0 losses?
    I think you're comparing apples and oranges here. With Great Power is, specifically, a story game, and it gives you guidelines as to how to write that story. You can't play it to win, because the result is known in advance. (In more traditional RPGs, the heroes are usually supposed to win as well, but there's usually at least a fig leaf of deniability). (I played WGP by the way).

    I guess it may be the result of marketing? Traditional games used to be advertised - and I'm speaking from the perspective of the Polish RPG market which may be quite different from UK and US - as "you can be whoever you want and do whatever you want". Which is, of course, wrong, since it's not a single player game and therefore you play with other people, including the GM. And then playing WITH requires some negotiation over where you all want to go, like, I don't know, on a trip to the country where you have only one car so you can't go sightseeing everywhere at once.
  • ...yes?

    I mean I'm not sure that's the actual rule, I thought it was just harder to beat the villains earlier on in the narrative arc, not impossible.
    You can take out or even kill the villains themselves, but you can't beat the plan until you've filled the whole card track.
    But sure, yes. It's cheating just as much as any other example.
    But is it railroading?

    Or, is it objectionable?
    And, if people truly find the narrative constraints imposed by the game's mechanics to be intolerable, it's likely they would be better off playing a different game.
    Okay, but we're playing this game, we don't have some other different game, that would be a different example, right? Right.
  • edited November 2013
    I'd vote for yes its railroading (With Great Power, I mean). To the extent that the PCs can't break the mechanics by deciding that they want to join the Dark Side or skip town or something instead of continuing the adventure.
    However...some of the worst bits of railroading I've seen (from my perspective) are the ones in published modules where the GM is encouraged to fudge or ignore the rules to keep the PCs on the straight and narrow. To me that's some degree of social contract violation, whereas if the railroad is hardcoded into the rules it wouldn't be.
  • If it's hardcoded into the rules of the module, how is that different? If they shifted the rules about dragons appear on the left fork in the road until the player characters go down the right fork in the road from the module into the main rulebook, would that make it better? What if the module was published as part of the main rulebook?
  • I've always considered railroading to be a total lack of meaningful player choices.

    The End

    Even if the players can't beat the Big Bad in the first moments of WGP, there are still meaningful decisions to be made.

    JD, if you want to play what-if games, could you link them to game experiences, taking them out of the hypothetical realm?
  • edited November 2013
    I think "meaningful" swallows the whole rest of the definition though. Meaningful by whose lights? Mightn't different people at the same table have different valid ideas of what the meaningful decisions are?

    Take a Dragonlance module of my experience. In the introductory text it says "the player characters will go left. If they go right, increasingly dangerous monsters attack them until they go left". Clearly the module designer felt that the decision to go right or left was not meaningful and forcing the players to go left was not railroading. But young JD felt that it was railroading, and objectionable, because exploration was part of his D&D play and which way you go is a big part of exploration. And would it have been less railroading to "scene frame" past that decision with "you go right down the path and arrive at the evil cave" and just completely skip the choice?

    And would it have mattered if it was in the main AD&D rulebook instead of in a module?

    PS I had someone tell me once that Dragonlance module wasn't railroading because you could still go right and fight against ultra-dangerous monsters until TPK, high five everyone and call the campaign awesome.
  • edited November 2013
    I think (i.e. my suggestion is that) railroading is where:
    1. Someone in power goes against the social contract
    2. +
    3. they do it by removing decision-making from someone not in power
    4. +
    5. and that person either feels disempowered by the action, or would do if they knew about it.
    I think all three are needed. So, according to this theory:
    • It is railroading if we've all sat down expecting to play WGP according to the rules and the GM stops at four losses.
      It isn't if we've agreed to stop at four losses.
      It isn't if we've agreed the GM can adjust that number according to their judgement to give us all a fun game.
    • It is railroading if we turn up to play exploration mode dragonlance, and the dungeon only let us go left.
      It isn't if we've already agreed that each week we'll face the GM's big monster and that the GM will provide in-game hints to it.
    • It is railroading if someone ignores damage rolls to keep their monster alive.
      It isn't if we've all agreed beforehand that such power is allowed.
    I think the thing that trips people up is the social contract. If this is fuzzy, we can easily get the position where the GM thinks something isn't railroading but one or more of the players does. Essentially, they were expecting to be playing a different game to each other.

    Finally, and maybe controversially, via this theory, I believe the following:
    • It is railroading if the GM fudges the results to move the story down a particular path and the players never find out - providing they would be unhappy if they did know.
    So to answer the first question: what's good about railroading? Nothing, because generally the word is used to mean something universally bad. However, there's nothing bad in itself about the GM taking players in the direction of prepared work, or using fiat to adjust outcomes. It's simply a question of how much they are in harmony with the game everyone sat down thinking they were playing.


  • edited November 2013
    Regarding the potential appeals of railroading:

    Dave: Hey, I miss the way I used to GM. Can I railroad the hell out of you?

    Joey: That doesn't sound very appealing. What am I there for?

    Dave: To inhabit my story as it unfolds, reacting to the twists and turns! Kind of like an audience, but also it'll be the reactions of your character that make events resonate and mean anything.

    Joey: So, basically an acting challenge?

    Dave: I hadn't thought of it that way, but yeah! Improv decisions plus gripping portrayal.

    Joey: Well I might be up for that. Just don't pitch it the way you did.

    We had this conversation a while ago, and I haven't made much progress on a GM plot since, but I'm still hoping to do this eventually.
  • If it's hardcoded into the rules of the module, how is that different? If they shifted the rules about dragons appear on the left fork in the road until the player characters go down the right fork in the road from the module into the main rulebook, would that make it better? What if the module was published as part of the main rulebook?
    In this particular example, the module doesn't contain railroading via rules manipulation, just via content which isn't quite as objectionable. I meant things like "this NPC can't die until the final confrontation" or "your DC to save against their spells is whatever you rolled +1", etc.

  • David Berg, that's hilarious. I've been reflecting on what I get out of the game when I've put up with being railroaded. Basically that. I put on a show, because I know I can't accomplish any other goal than whatever the gm needs us to do next, and for some reason the type of railroading I'm talking about also pretty much means I can't move things along quicker than the gm wants either, so I have to sit around and wait for the next time I can do something that looks like an action (invariably, getting in a fight). In that time, I sure as hell don't want to think about what my character actually wants, so to stay out of mischief (another almost inevitable outcome) I try to be entertaining.

    Usually it ends up in mischief. Or reading gamebooks, or the like. As far as I can tell, many of the folks I've railroaded have felt the same way.
  • edited November 2013
    I've seen that too -- "Put on a show, try to be entertaining, and that's it" is usually insufficient when players get their hopes up for, like, agency. So one of my top 2 ingredients for fun railroads is to make the lack of agency explicit up front.

    My other main ingredient is for the GM to invest in earning entertaining reactions, rather than just spewing any old content and demanding that the players love it. If you want a player's character to break down in horror at your Big Reveal, then build up to it the way a good movie would! Tease them, hook their curiosity, evoke menace, throw a red herring or two, ratchet up the tension, back them into a corner, kill their favorite NPC -- now they'll care when the bad guy reveals his true identity!

    I've had decent success with this, though never in a pure railroad (when I GMed this way my players always had agency in other phases of the game).

    Depending how interested you are in this topic, I'd be happy to pull up 1 or 2 Story Games links and 3 or 4 Forge links for you. Pre-plotted GMing is something I've pondered at length.

    Edited to add: here's one I bet you'll enjoy: The Beautifully Railroaded Game: Did you do it?
  • I think (i.e. my suggestion is that) railroading is where:
    1. Someone in power goes against the social contract
    2. +
    3. they do it by removing decision-making from someone not in power
    4. +
    5. and that person either feels disempowered by the action, or would do if they knew about it.
    I think all three are needed. So, according to this theory:
    • It is railroading if we've all sat down expecting to play WGP according to the rules and the GM stops at four losses.
      It isn't if we've agreed to stop at four losses.
      It isn't if we've agreed the GM can adjust that number according to their judgement to give us all a fun game.
    • It is railroading if we turn up to play exploration mode dragonlance, and the dungeon only let us go left.
      It isn't if we've already agreed that each week we'll face the GM's big monster and that the GM will provide in-game hints to it.
    • It is railroading if someone ignores damage rolls to keep their monster alive.
      It isn't if we've all agreed beforehand that such power is allowed.
    I think the thing that trips people up is the social contract. If this is fuzzy, we can easily get the position where the GM thinks something isn't railroading but one or more of the players does. Essentially, they were expecting to be playing a different game to each other.

    Finally, and maybe controversially, via this theory, I believe the following:
    • It is railroading if the GM fudges the results to move the story down a particular path and the players never find out - providing they would be unhappy if they did know.
    So to answer the first question: what's good about railroading? Nothing, because generally the word is used to mean something universally bad. However, there's nothing bad in itself about the GM taking players in the direction of prepared work, or using fiat to adjust outcomes. It's simply a question of how much they are in harmony with the game everyone sat down thinking they were playing.


    Importantly, according to this schema, WGP can be railroading if some of the players didn't understand (because it wasn't fully explained) how the mechanics work, and expected them to work in a more traditional manner.

    But, assuming the game's rules were explained upfront, then anyone who bitches about them partway through just has sour grapes.
  • edited November 2013
    If it's hardcoded into the rules of the module, how is that different?
    I think you raise a good question. A questions that challenges the basics of how we perceive our hobby. If I may do an analogue to give a sense of how I think. When you play a game, the game sets up a goal. You do follow the rules, and by doing that you're challenged.

    You must follow the rules in Ludo or Monopoly, but you still have the choice of which piece to move in Ludo or which estate to buy in Monopoly. I would say that railroading is override the player's choice by replacing it with one of your own.

    Some games, like Snake and Ladders, don't have that choice and they will quickly become boring for an adult.

    What I think is interesting is the question of why someone wants to override another participant's choice in Monopoly or Ludo. Sure, it could be easy to understand because it's a competition and everybody wants to win over one another. But in roleplaying games, it's more of a collaboration. So what do we get from removing that kind of choice? I feel roleplaying games has more to offer than the happenings in the game mechanics, i.e. what happens on the game board.

    I'm leaving a lot unsaid, so you have to read between the lines, but to answer your question: to follow the goals within the structures of the game (which includes the rules) is not railroading. Removing another participant's choice is. IMHO.
  • Hah. Yep, that thread links to bunch of other great ones too, thanks. This subject has been done to death.
  • edited December 2013
    I'm often defending railroading if it's done like participationism, because at least it's a lot better than illusionism. I understand players wanting to go though a classic adventure path "the right way through". I understand players, of games with detailed and gamey fighting systems, wanting to experienced designed encounters.

    As long as everyone around the table buys into that. I don't, so much, so that's why even the existence of illusionism at someone else's table drives me crazy, and its prevalence in published game books, modules and GM guides, even worse.

    JDCorley, you asked if it changed if it was explicitly encouraged in published material, and if it mattered if it was in the module or in the main book. I think the biggest difference is whether or not it is in a "GM-only" section. As long as the players know and accept how the game really works, it can be participationism.

    As for the psychic caveman: having a mutually respectful dialog about setting expectations isn't railroading. In this case, the player was either deliberately pushing the GMs buttons (perhaps because they don't dig the genre exactly as presented) or, more likely, genuinely thinking that the psychic caveman would create and experience awesome stories in the spy setting.

    It's like Scooby-Doo. The GM pitched a game about investigating teens and one of the players showed up with a giant, gluttonous talking dog with DID.

    I think many people have a tendency to go too gonzo when creating fictional entities. I can sympathize... But that's perhaps a separate conversation from railroading.
  • (One of my writing voices is very tautological. Strunk would have a field day with my post... Sorry.)
  • To me, "railroading" just means following a predetermined plot or series of scenes (à la Robin's Laws). It's not inherently good or bad, though I don't like it. The bad part is illusionism. But... This is semantics. While I think some of the usages of the word "railroading" in this thread sharply deviates from the definitions I work from, that's semantics and I must try to honor my vow of not arguing semantics.
  • Predetermined plot and scenes aren't a problem, per se, until predetermination starts trumping player input. When you have a ton of hidden GM Force ("Force" is another Forge term that basically means using game tools to make things happen), it can invalidate player choices and player actions.

    For example, when a player says, "My guy kills the shopkeeper!" you'd expect that to have some impact on "the plot," whatever that is. If there's a predetermined plot, and murdering an innocent shopkeeper has no impact on further events in the fiction, a player starts to wonder why he makes any decisions in the first place.

    When a player says, "I'm gonna take a big risk here and try to climb this doorless tower. I, uh, make a climb roll and get... hey! natural 20! plus 8 is 28!" and then the GM decides that the door on top the tower won't open no matter what (so as not to derail "the plot," a player has to wonder why she takes any risks or rolls any dice in the first place.


    Here's an anecdote from actual play. I was a pretty experienced AD&D 2E player in my mid-20's. The DM was some 17 year-old kid who'd played a bit but was new to GMing. He invited us to build 10th level characters and show up for his one-shot adventure at the game store. I built some kind of spellcaster with tons of weird earth-related spells, like Stone to Mud and some elemental summoning stuff and whatnot.

    Well, I lucked out and this combo let our party walk over most of the monsters pretty easily. After a while, we chase the Big Bad Guy (a high level mage) to his pyramid lair and I start using spells to just walk straight through the walls to the center instead of dealing with the rest of the monsters and traps. We're beelining right for him. The DM is clearly upset by this, and starts fudging. Suddenly this NPC wizard has special magic items that create antimagic shields and such, and we can't reach him. We say we'll camp out and wait for his spell to end. DM says it never will. We say we'll starve him to death. The game ends in a stalemate.

    Now, I give the DM credit for at least letting the party's creative use of character abilities to short-circuit the adventure to some extent, and that was very satisfying as a player. If the DM had told us we couldn't do that, or if he'd said, "No, these walls have, uh, magic protection against Stone to Mud..." (and hadn't made that a feature of the dungeon before we'd tried it), then I'd feel stymied and shut down. But that ending was very unsatisfying, because the DM just didn't want us to kill the NPC wizard and get the treasure, so he made some stuff up to prevent it from happening. We were clearly in a Step On Up / Gamist situation -- or at least the players seemed to think so -- and the DM cheated.

  • Great story! I'm deliberately forcing myself to welcome that sort of thing by running my Advanced Wizards and Wizards campaign. There are some encounters the PCs will simply curbstomp and *that's ok*.
  • edited December 2013
    I agree, that's a great story. Adam, would it have changed your experience if before, during or after the game the GM had shown you a spot in the module where it said to do exactly what the GM was doing?

    I tend to lean towards "not" - I think GM or designer decisionmaking can remove choices that people want (including flying cavemen apparently) but I think it does matter to some people whether a person at the table did it or whether a far distant game designer did it.

    Edit: Here's another example/question. If the mechanics of the game are set up so that important NPCs are harder to kill (FATE, Cortex+, etc.), is that railroading? We've established that we hate GMs that throw some extra hit points onto a NPC to make them really hard to kill if they think that NPC is important to "the story", right? Right, we glare at them and frown, maybe even spit on the sidewalk if a cop isn't looking. So when a designer does the same thing isn't it just as bad - isn't it a thousand times as bad since the designer isn't even at the table to see if people are excited or frustrated?
  • - isn't it a thousand times as bad since the designer isn't even at the table to see if people are excited or frustrated?
    It's 1000X more pointless to get mad, however. After all, designer man isn't there to see your reaction.

    With the GM doing it, it's that jerkwad straight across the table from you

    Also...this is mostly a thing limited to certain forms of Gamist agenda isn't it?

    ( I know, I know., never use jargon...)

    Also, maybe someone ( and here, I mean JDCorley) should start a thread about restrictions/constraints that aren't railroading.

  • Jason, are you really not able to see the difference between baseline settings that establish how the game works and the GM changing those baselines on a whim?

    I can't imagine you can't see the difference, but maybe you're trying to steer the conversation slowly toward some greater point? If so, what is the point? (The GM/Designer distinction isn't doing it for me, if that's the point.)
  • edited December 2013
    I feel a difference but I can't see a difference. In other words, pointing to the Dragonlance module text saying "throw lots of monsters at the characters if they go right" doesn't make me less mad at the play that resulted so why does seeing FATE's (or 7th Sea's, or whatever) minion rules not make me mad at the play that resulted? When I believe things and don't have a good reason for them I'm normally wrong, so maybe I'm wrong here.

    (Although "on a whim" is not how I would describe most of these decisisons that I've experienced - normally it's "for what I think, with my limited mortal senses and fallible human reasoning, will make the most player enjoyment")

  • It's 1000X more pointless to get mad, however. After all, designer man isn't there to see your reaction.
    Well, that's why we have the internet. *puts on sunglasses, rides away on segway*
  • I was referring specifically to you dragging limitations on character creation back into this. You seem to be conflating all sorts of things into one point. (Your Segway is simply not fast enough.)

    As to the point you think you're making: for me, a crappily designed module (designed to railroad players) is the same as the GM making up railroading decisions on the fly as an experience.

    I'm not particularly interested in being angry at anyone.

    I pointed out that story based modules are a fools game in White Wolf magazine almost 20 years ago. Should we be mad at the guy who wrote the thing that almost by definition cannot work? Our ourselves for buying and useing a thing that says "Pound the players with monsters till they do the thing this module requires." (I'm big into claiming responsibility for our own actions.)
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