Things that are fun in "railroading" games

edited June 2011 in Story Games
I spent the better part of an hour typing up a really big and neat post but then I realized too late that I was not signed in and the interwebs ate everything I wrote. I'm really quite pissed now and I can't muster the time and concentration to repeat everything I wrote...so here's a shorter version of something that used to longer (and possibly better).
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Over inthat other thread I attacked Railroading quire mercilessly. I disagree with JDCorley (and that quote by Kenneth Hite) not because I think there aren't fun things that get called "railroading", but because Railroading is bad by definition. I see no value in trying to say railroading "isn't all bad", because yes it is, that's what it means. It's a name for something that sucks. There are however "railroady" things that aren't necessarily Railroading - I think we already have other names for them (or need new names) - and this thread is about those.

Instrad of focusing on the negatives and debating the semantics of "railroading", I think we'd better look at the features of "railroady" games and figure out what's fun or cool about them (or rather, why other people find it fun).

I'll be looking at videogames instead of roleplaying games, for two reasons. One, I'm more familiar with the format in that medium and two, I think it puts some distance between the subject and RPGs, minimizing the chance of emotional kneejerks (pretense to objectivity).

A. Point & Click Adventures
For the most part these feature a linear narrative, usually with one conclusion, and pre-defined sequence of events. There's always only one solution and it's the one that the creators prepared. If you don't click in the right spot ("pixelbitching") or combine the right two objects, the story won't continue, because it's all pre-scripted.

What's fun here is
(1) Out of the box thinking - funny, meta-game solution to situations. There is no immediate or possible in-game solution to a given problem so you need to think around it. These are specifically aimed at the player. There's an (in)famous moment in one of the Monkey Island games where some bad guys tie a heavy thing around your ankle and throw you off the pier.
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There's a number of sharp objects around you that you could use to set yourself free, but the rope is too short. And you don't seem to be able of untying the knot. What's the solution? You pick up the heavy object you're tied to and put it in your inventory (adventure characters are know for their Pockes of Holding where they carry everything from phonebooks to 10ft ladders). It's absurd! It's funny! Because there's clearly no solution, you must think laterally and it pays off.
(2) Logical & Skill Puzzles
Maybe you have to pull some levers in the correct order or push some crates around to open your way or quickly repeat some sequence you saw earlier. Again, there's only one goal and only one solution, but it's a clear goal and a clear solution. It's a challenge!

[These both fail when the goal is unclear or the solution is unclear or there is an in-world possible solution but the game doesn't allow it because it wasn't anticipated. Let's say I need to get into a locked house. If the game doesn't highlight the window as an obvious point of entry then I can waste a lot of time trying perfectly viable approaches (climb the ivy, break down the door, enter through the garage) only to have them all shut down because they aren't "right". This can be part of the challenge however! Even more frustrating, and actually bad is another situation that came up in these games a lot. Let's say I have a clear goal (enter the house) and clear solution (break the window). I have a rock in my inventory, but the game doesn't allow me to break the window. Later, I find a hammer, and after applying the hammer to the window, it breaks. Why didn't the rock work? Bad!]

B. Interactive Movies
There used to be a whole bunch of these with actual live-action footage, usually crammed up on a whole stack of CDs. There were lengthy video clips that would advance the story-line and in between you'd play a bit, probably just clicking a few things so you'd get the next video. These games disappeared for a while but now they're back with computer graphics. Titles like Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire are reasonably well received and there are lots of other big title games that consist of heavily scripted sequences and the player only has to press the right button at the right time to initiate the next scripted sequence (aka Quick Time Events).
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What's cool about this is that most character actions turn out exceptionally cool and cinematic, because all actions are pre-defined, and so are consequences, nothing "off" can happen, because the only consequences are the ones that were prepared to fit. In a new gameplay trailer for the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara falls down a very deep hole and gets a sharp piece of wood (or bone or something) stuck beneath her ribs. She pulls it out and keeps applying pressure on the bleeding wound with her palm afterwards. It looks cool! But there's practically no chance of that happening in a videogame with that level of detail and drama without having been scripted. Prepared events are powerful because they can fit parameters.

C. Grand Destinies
From the Avatar to Gordon Freeman, we rarely get the chance to fully create our characters in videogames. I'm not talking just about characterization (how they look and sound) but also character. Gordon is notoriously "mute" so the player can fill in for his words and thoughts, but the way NPCs react to Gordon specifically and not the player's choices or actions, profoundly defines him as a character. But going beyond defining just origins (Vault Dweller, Bhaalspawn), this also gives videogames the power to define endings (kill the bad guy, save the world etc.). This ensures that the hero gets the story he deserves! If we screw up there's always the Save/Load option and lots of games are trying to incorporate that into the gameplay itself (resurrection chambers, clone vats), some games are narrated from a relative future, so when something goes wrong, the narrator can say "no, no, that's not what really happened", giving us the chance to do it right next time. In Prince of Persia, when you fall off a ledge to your death, your companion Elika extends her arm and catches you at the last moment.
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This secures the hero's position as a hero, because who ever heard of a hero that died before completing his destiny. It's cool because we know he'll triumph. We know Gordon will defeat the Combine. We know the Avatar will defeat the Guardian. That's their whole deal. A game must deliver on that and help us get there.

Comments

  • The game Assassin's Creed masterfully incorporates "railroading" AND various video game tropes into the fiction itself.
    For example, achievements are framed as a matter of correctly re-creating your ancestor's memories. "But [your ancestor] managed to complete his mission without killing civilians! No achievement for you!"
    The whole game is basically an attempt to live up to the impressive reputation of your character's ancestor - any time you fail to do this, you have to repeat a section of the game. That's basically how most video games work - very few of them (none spring to mind) actually make your failures stick.

    It'd be interesting to experiment with the save game/load game concept in a tabletop RPG. Anybody know of such a game that's already done this?
  • Here's some things that those "railroady techniques" help:

    * They move the fucking game along. Whether you give a damn about story or not, sometimes the group is screwing around and everyone is bored but nobody sees a clear way out of the situation or how to move forward, people forgot a clue or what their goal was or why they're here and everyone is disconnected and uncertain. Someone to kick the group in the ass and yell "OH SHIT IT LOOKS LIKE THE HOUSE IS HAUNTED" or "WELP LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE READY TO GO BATTLIN THE NAZI DRAGON DUDES" in such a situation is beneficial to everyone.

    * They create a consistent world. Not everything all players say are attempts to express the drives and desires of their characters, if they decide they want to explore/mess around with a situation, item or setting element (magic is a big one here), they may be trying to do things just to see if they can be blocked. If you don't block them, the world loses consistency and they feel nothing is pushing back at them, there are no rules to how the world works. Blocking is good for consistency.

    * They fix problems that you didn't see in pre-planning or which the game designer made and you didn't notice. Some Call of Cthulhu modules can more or less shut down if people fail a skill roll. Saying "WHOOPS, uh, you get this information anyway" in such a situation is 100 percent good and not bad. People make mistakes, fixing them to keep people satisfied is a good thing.
  • Posted By: Zac in VirginiaIt'd be interesting to experiment with the save game/load game concept in a tabletop RPG. Anybody know of such a game that's already done this?
    I can't think of any off the top of my head, but in our current Pathfinder game each character is carrying around a strange crystal with them. They don't know what they are or where they got them, but if a character dies (getting to -10 HP), they are sucked into the crystal and can latter be "reset" to their former state.

    It's contrived but it works for the game because it encourages you to play hard instead of turtling, while still discouraging reckless play because you're still useless and thus gimping the party if you die too easy.

    I guess that instead of having these mystery crystals the DM could just say "you fall unconscious" or "after the battle, when they roll your corpse over they find out you're still breathing!" which would have the same overall effect but the crystals definitely give it a very "Save Game" feel.

    (kinda offtopic)
  • The kids in my D&D afterschool class used our spell research rules to try to create a "save game" spell. The idea of getting things the way they wanted them but then screwing it up with no way to reload from save is clearly unsettling to 8-11 year olds. I responded with (cuss)ery the way I do when a kid-DM has given them wishes, because I think consequences is some of what RPGs are there to let you explore & don't want that invalidated, but maybe I'm just encouraging turtling and "losing your work" is problem enough?
  • Posted By: TavisThe kids in my D&D afterschool class used our spell research rules to try to create a "save game" spell. The idea of getting things the way they wanted them but then screwing it up with no way to reload from save is clearly unsettling to 8-11 year olds. I responded with (cuss)ery the way I do when a kid-DM has given them wishes, because I think consequences is some of what RPGs are there to let you explore & don't want that invalidated, but maybe I'm just encouraging turtling and "losing your work" is problem enough?
    That's pretty awesome creativity! I'd totally let them invent the spell ... and then have it fall in the hands of evil ... is it a time travel deal? They kill their nemesis and time goes hazy and they wake up two days before (because that's when the nemesis first cast the spell) wondering what the hell. "You kind of remember killing your nemesis, but now it seems like a dream..."
    I'm imagining that episode of Star Trek where the enterprise kept blowing up over and over.
  • edited June 2011
    Posted By: JDCorley... Some Call of Cthulhu modules can more or less shut down if people fail a skill roll. Saying "WHOOPS, uh, you get this information anyway" in such a situation is 100 percent good and not bad. People make mistakes, fixing them to keep people satisfied is a good thing.
    Yeah, my standard gimmick for those 'can not fail' rolls is to turn the skill check into a quality of success roll. Did the characters find the clue with the cunning of Sherlock Holmes or the finesse of Inspecter Clouseau.
    --
    TAZ
  • More benefits:

    * Inoculates against one-more-thing-itis. There are two risky times in your games when one-more-thing-itis may strike: the planning session and the end of the game. In both situations, players have a strong incentive to insist on doing just one-more-thing that nevertheless doesn't change anything in the game going forward. At some point you say "all right, here goes!" or "the end!" and suddenly everyone is having fun doing things instead of talking, or is able to reach some kind of closure.

    * Accomplishes things. This is Ken Hite's thing. Not all games are about accomplishing things, but that doesn't mean game goals aren't valid. Sometimes this is handled in character creation/campaign pitches. But sometimes you accomplish or decisively fail at that goal and the game is sputtering along because it doesn't have that same sense of urgency - the characters were made with an urgent thing happening and there just isn't a new one yet. In that case, a powerful villain to come along and blow up someone's car and laser beam their girlfriend and wear a giant target on their chest and fly away to the end of the next big part of the campaign to set up his boss fight can be a good thing.
  • I had a great conversation on this topic in person last night with Dave Berg. It really helped me understand some things.

    I'm going to try to paraphrase what he/we said, but I may fuck it up!

    So, if the campaign has a predetermined-by-the-GM set of plot points, like A to B to C, what the players can contribute is how we get from A to B to C—do we do it by stealth or by brute force? For myself or for others? (See what I did there?) And I like that explanation, because it means that while player actions may not change the outcome of the "plot," their actions and choices do have serious thematic impact. It's actually not all that far from Jeepform, in some ways!

    I think the expectation that the players will be in actor stance, with the GM having a lot of hidden information (high-myth in Forgespeak, I believe), can often be a source of problems for this type of play, however. If I, sincerely playing my character as I understand him, do something that would veer us off the pre-plotted course and that should work (in terms of the games fiction and mechanics), then we have an issue. The example I gave was not killing the bad guy at the end of the adventure, even though we're "supposed" to, deciding that we didn't want to sink to his level by committing murder, and instead putting him in prison and guarding him closely 24-7 ourselves, using our superpowers and spells.

    (Incidentally, I like this example because it's the kind of thing that could happen even when the players are being very cooperative and obeying the social contract to follow the GM's adventure hooks.)

    Dave clearly got where I was coming from, and basically acknowledged that a) some improvisation may be called for, and b) the GM should probably zoom out and think about the point for his original pre-planned plot event. He said (again, paraphrasing here), well, if I wanted the players to find a tattoo on the body of the Big Bad, but they didn't because he didn't become a corpse, I could still introduce the tattoo in some other way that respects the fiction and mechanics. His idea was to send an assassin with the same tattoo to try to kill the bad guy in prison. Respect that the assassination may fail, by the rules, but it's another vector for the information, which was the original idea anyway.

    Matt
  • Posted By: DeliveratorI think the expectation that the players will be in actor stance, with the GM having a lot of hidden information (high-myth in Forgespeak, I believe), can often be a source of problems for this type of play, however. If I, sincerely playing my character as I understand him, do something that would veer us off the pre-plotted courseand that should work(in terms of the games fiction and mechanics), then we have an issue. The example I gave was not killing the bad guy at the end of the adventure, even though we're "supposed" to, deciding that we didn't want to sink to his level by committing murder, and instead putting him in prison and guarding him closely 24-7 ourselves, using our superpowers and spells.
    Exactly this happened to me in the Famous Robotech Dread game. The government had us summarily execute our prisoners on the battlefield. I had my character tape it, because she found it dishonorable and disgusting. The GM got upset, made up bullshit reasons for me to fail at it, but my Jenga skills were up to it. After that, he kept on resisting my attempts to get it out in the media, and I kept pulling blocks and succeeding. At the end, I knocked the tower over myself to shut him up.
  • edited June 2011
    Posted By: Robert BohlExactly this happened to me in the Famous Robotech Dread game. The government had us summarily execute our prisoners on the battlefield. I had my character tape it, because she found it dishonorable and disgusting. The GM got upset, made up bullshit reasons for me to fail at it, but my Jenga skills were up to it. After that, he kept on resisting my attempts to get it out in the media, and I kept pulling blocks and succeeding. At the end, I knocked the tower over myself to shut him up.
    This reminded me of another Robotech session, where a player went bananas for no apparent reason and gunned a whole town before other players/npcs could stop him. They decided not to kill him inmediatly but turn him to their boss, an ex-drug king turned merc. The PC (a human pilot) tried to escape again on foot and the boss sent his full sized zentraedi personal guard after him. I remember I told the player: "roll up to 10 on the d20... 20 times, and your character escapes."

    The PC died, but the player told me it was within his expectations, since he was testing the system and my reaction. After that he went for a collaborative style of play, which turned more fun in the long term.

    Now, I don't support railroading. However if a player is testing the setting, it's the duty of the GM to make it react accordingly, and make consequences that matter.


    Unless it doesn't breake the social pact. On another example, I GMed a campaing of Anima where the players decided all to work for the bad guy. In the end they stood victorious and defeated the good guys, though I gave them a taste of how the NPCs react to such characters. It was also good when in the next campaing they created new characters and had their old characters turned against them as NPCs or with another mechanic we went with, called "villain of the day": on each session, one of the players got to play ther old character and got to plot against the players, making the sessions quite interesting.
  • One of the main reasons videogames railroad is to make sure their players consume all the content that we laboriously and expensively created...so what's fun about that is you get all x hours of awesomeness. If it's a good game (portal 2...) that's a win...
  • I was in a campaign that was completely railroaded, and I found parts of it quite fun. I played a scary-looking mage type who could bend shadows and make them solid. I didn't really care much about the plot, it just functioned as a way to get my character into more and more situations where he could bend shadows in impressive ways. The "game" was within each encounter, and no one cared that the plot justifying the encounters was railroaded.
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