The Beautifully Railroaded Game: Did you do it?

edited October 2012 in Story Games
About a year ago, there was a series of threads about heavily plotted games/scenarios, with the first thread entitled "4 out of 7 cried".

The threads talked about carefully prepared, heavily guided (or, to some, railroaded) scenarios which created a particular emotional impact on the player by delivering a very specific experience. These games often removed a lot of player choice in order to focus in on a specific game experience, like a thrilling roller coaster ride.

Many people in this community (myself included) were quite shocked by these stories, since the general trend in "Story Games" has been moving towards player agency and unpredictable outcomes. Pre-planning outcomes and scenes, leading the game to a specific finale... all these things are often seen as "trad gamer" tools, and anathema to "new school" play. Surely that's "railroading", and an evil, dysfunctional road to a terrible time?

And yet it seems that some people are creating these really controlled experiences and they really deliver. A lot of people engaged the gamers who wrote about this style of play with detailed questions and fascination. How is this done, and how is it done well?

Here's my question to you:

It's been a year.

If you were one of those people--shocked at this style of play, shocked by the content of those threads, reading along with fascination--how has your gaming changed since those discussions?

* Have you tried something new or something different in your own gaming, inspired by these stories of "successful railroading"?

* Have you participated in a game like this yourself?

* Have you run a game like this?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, how did it go? What was it like? What were the challenges, what were the successes?

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Comments

  • To reiterate from 2011:

    The GM in question was Todd Furler, whose games ought to be scripts for taut Hollywood thrillers and/or Twilight Zone episodes. Todd even introduces the players to his games as "playing a movie" in which they are expected to be good actors.

    His Unknown Armies games are consistently magnificent in that he has designed your characters to feel like they have all this agency over their fate, but actually the scenario credibly denies them this agency as the plot progresses. Mind-swapping, time travel, creepy rituals – these are all major sci-fi/horror conceits that Todd uses as a way to maneuver the players into a labile and very human psychological space... almost like you can feel your own character feel trapped inside his/her mind and body, which is a bizarre but certainly moving feeling.

    Todd's railroads work because he's an excellent listener and is transparently leading you on.
  • Thanks, Evan. That's a useful description!

    Todd wasn't the only one, by the way: Tomas (TomasVHM here on Story Games) is another example of a GM who plans and delivers on tightly plotted, emotionally intense experiences, and some of those were described in that thread (or those threads, I can't remember exactly). And probably all of us have *tried* at some point, just usually without the same level of success.

    What kind of experience do you have with this style of roleplaying, Evan? Have you participated in it? Run it yourself?
  • My experience?
    I consistently have some of the most focused and intense RP experiences in my gaming life at Todd's table.
    But I also know that, behind the GM's screen (which he uses), he's got a checklist basically ticking off the events in the order that they're supposed to occur. Once or twice, I've tried to substantially deviate from his path, only to find myself elegantly shunted into an interesting piece of fiction that either A) leads me back to the group and the railroad or B) causes the character a memorable downfall.
    But because everyone at the table is genuinely working hard to make it "movie-like," the role-playing has little B.S., and the psychological bond you form with your characters is strong, because your backstory usually has some kind of core trauma that's easy for one to access.

    I have come up with two different games that also use a similar checklist to Todd's, but then I usually deviate from it as what the players' say interests me more. The lesson I should maybe have learned from Todd is: maybe I shouldn't deviate from it?
  • How do you think the games would have been better if you had not deviated from your checklist? How do you think the games were better BECAUSE you deviated from your checklist?
  • edited October 2012
    I wasn't involved in the original discussion, but for Con games I run what would be termed "beautiful railroad games" with some considerable success both in terms of player feedback and on a scenario design level. I find that though the PC action is limited on a broad level, the key is to free up the player to choose how their PC reacts and feels about the events they experience. My aim is to make certain key PC decisions feel like they are the players own through a careful and complex presentation of information. The focus is on heightening the emotional side, which is why I think it resonates with some players. It also provides a reliably strong experience which is good for Cons.

    Perhaps the best example of my beautiful railroad style is 'Tears of Vykyris', which won the local scenario design contest and can be found here:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/14355510/ToV Final.pdf (warning: 14MB)
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/14355510/Dragon_Master.ttf (this font is needed to make the titles display properly)

    The scenario is meticulously woven to tell a very specific story, even keeping secrets from the players about heir own PCs so they can hit the emotional beats at the right time.

    FWIW in terms of non-Con games, my approach is much more open as I think the format is better suited for that :) The lack of player agency can't be sustained easily over time.
  • Cool! Thank you for sharing that.

    Have your views about this kind of game changed over time? As GM? As player?

    How do players in your scenarios respond to this style of play? What do you do if they "resist"?

    I'm particularly interested in people's feelings about this style of gaming (as many have rather strong reactions.)
  • Over time, the division between the beautiful railroad for one-off gaming and open field for long-term gaming has become more entrenched. Also, I have found that with skill you can push the beautiful railroad a lot farther than you might think for good effect. Vykyris is a good example of this with the PC secrets being kept from the players.

    My games are generally well received as far as I can tell. However, I do advertise the style and content of my games pretty transparently, so I rarely get any player surprised by what they are getting into.

    I have never had a player "resist" in a way that causes problems. A GM has so many tools at their disposal to influence play that they don't need to push against player choices directly if the players are being reaosnable. Ultimately, on the surface, the game needs to give into those player's choices. Otherwise, the suspension of disbelief ends and you lose what you are trying to acheive.

    A skilled GM will accomodate all player actions by listening to what the players are doing in game and adjusting. Also, a lot of detail goes into setting up the play in subtle ways. This is another reason why I think this style works well in a one-off format. If you writing a scenario for 3 to 4 hours of play along with pregenerated PCs, the GM has no excuse for a player feeling a need to resist. That would likely only arise if the GM had failed at a scenario design level.

    Personally, I love this style of gaming for the one-off format. It creates highly emotional experiences that you would get in reading a book or watching a movie, with the added bonus of being a part of it. It is effortless for the player as they simply need to be in character and play that character hard, enjoying what they experience. They can relax and trust the GM that things will work out.
  • I hope I'm on topic with Paul's question "What were the challenges" -- Skywalker, I'd love to hear how you go about these two things:

    1. Free up the player to choose how their PC reacts and feels about the events they experience. How do you reward and encourage this? What do you do when a player gets really into portraying a character emotion? What do you do when a player just sits there at a moment when you hoped they'd get really into portraying a character emotion? And what expectations do you set along these lines before play?

    2. Make certain key PC decisions feel like they are the players own through a careful and complex presentation of information. Could you describe what this looks like at the table? Is it the sort of thing where the players find out that the NPC they like has just been kidnapped by the NPC they hate, and so they obviously decide to go on a rescue mission? I'm wondering if what you're going for is mostly a sense of ownership, or mostly an avoidance of intrusive manhandling, or some mix of the two, or what.

    I ask about these because I've had some success with them as well, but not reliable, consistent, well-understood success.

    What I should really do is read 'Tears of Vykyris', but computer issues are preventing that for the moment.

    Thanks!
    -David
  • edited October 2012
    I guess the way to look it is that the aim of a beuatiful railroad game is not really any different from an open game. Its the method of getting there that's different. Neither is inherently capable of getting there, so you need to look at the virtues and hindrances of each approach. The open approach has the benefit of allowing everyone to provide direct input to reach the goal but can be hindered by the need to coordinate this input to reach a satisfactory outcome. The beautiful railroad has a stronger input from just one person to reach the goal but can be hindered if that input feels restricting or removing player agency. This is also at the core why I think that a one-off Con experience, potentially with players who are strangers, tends to benefit from the later but why a longer term experience, with players who will have time to become familiar with each other, tends to benefit from the former.

    In terms of your two questions:

    1. A beautiful railroad is about taking a player to a moment of high emotion but it shouldn't direct what that emotion is or how it develops and impacts on the PC. The key to success is knowing when to have a strong handle on things and when to let go, similar to how kickers are open ended yet directed event to get a game moving. FWIW as a GM, I also don't hold any expectation as how strong that emotion is, so nothing hangs on that moment reaching a certain quantum of emotion. It is also not a simple black and white experience of getting it or not - its more of a scale. The only question is how far up that scale can you go.

    2. Its hard to describe this one in isolation. If a scenario is well designed then a player will not see the beautiful railroad at all. Even more than that, ideally the player should feel like they are making those choices naturally and they are responsible for the consequences of them. This requires some skill on the GM part in presenting information and understanding how this will be interpretted by a player. The GM again needs to know their limits and where something cannot be predicted, the scenario needs to be designed to accomodate for it. If this sense of ownership is acheived, this makes the moments of high emotion even stronger (or "beautiful"). I think on some level the player has an understanding that things are being orchestrated by the GM to some extent, but this knowledge doesn't intrude on the players experience unless something untoward happens.

    In terms of Vykyris, be aware that its 60% of the story. The skill of GMing is a large part of the end result too :)
  • edited October 2012
    I think this topic is blurring the notion of people consenting to a railroaded game Vs people who have no interest in and do not consent to a railroaded game, as being one and the same.

    The fact that consented to railroaded games can go off a treat is not evidence that railroading people have not consented is functional.

    Feel free to have your notions on consenting railroading to be turned around, though. That's valid and can work out well.
  • I am not sure I understand the nuance here, but all RPing is a consensual activity. So what you say is true of railroaded games, but its also true of any style of game.
  • RPGs are games we play by consent, yes. We consent to play a game, and all participants are responsible for doing the best out of it, with the tools and techniques which are part of the game. Callan makes it sound like he will suffer horribly if he is consenting to something that may surprise him in a beautiful way.
  • edited October 2012
    Thanks for pointing that thread out, Paul, I missed it last year and it was a really interesting read. Incidentally, last year I played in a game where 3 out of 5 players including the GM cried and the other 2 were also getting choked up. It was nominally FATE but more or less freeform. A lot of character interaction and character development evolved in play, but the GM certainly had a number of scenes planned, with a point to make, very similar to Todd’s preparation. These were tailored to every character and worked very well.

    Scenes where players cried: One character finding out his wife gave birth to a daughter when he was in Vietnam, but gave the child away because it was mentally disabled, and never told him about it, and him finally meeting and talking to his daughter. My character dying and being welcomed to the afterlife by his parents, whom he had never thanked for all they had done for him, which was his greatest regret. I guess the GM had scripted that scene before we started but she could never have guessed how unbelievably fitting it would turn out to be. I was one of the players who cried and I think it is sort of contagious. One player started, he was very open and unashamed about it, and that sort of opened the door for me.

    There was another highly intense game I played in, also FATE, where the GM had an extremely carefully built-up scene in which our characters, in a very grim post-apocalyptic world (think “The Road”), finally met some other survivors and then gradually realized that these people were killers, rapists and cannibals. He had carefully prepared it, with polaroid-style pictures for each NPC which he handed out to us, and with background music, too. He had prepared a virtual soundtrack for the game, which he used very selectively and to great effect (when he turned the music on, you knew something important and usually bad was about to happen).

    This mode of play has a lot to do with honesty, empathy, and player skill. It’s a mode of play where players make judgments, and decisions, and take responsibility for the fiction. They cannot defer to some rule or dice roll, they have to answer for their contributions personally. Immersion is not the point. It’s investment. I’ve rarely seen this kind of deep investment in indie games. Maybe that’s because I’ve mostly played indie games with people who were so excited about all the funky rules and distributed authorities they forgot to really care about the fiction. There were exceptions, notably Sorcerer, Polaris, and The Shadow of Yesterday, with some very intense moments (not to the point of crying, though).

    I think “beautiful railroading” is a bit misleading. It is a very interactive play style but there is a person who, at some point, takes charge and responsibility and does it well. Respecting the other players, not letting them down, not going on some sort of ego trip, but delivering. This requires you as GM to read the players well, and understand how they see their characters. They may need you to take them someplace they cannot go on their own. Ron Edwards once compared it to a tandem, where the GM rides in the front and the player in the back, the GM is steering but he cannot really pick up speed unless the player is kicking, too.

    I really love to play like that with good players. Contrary to what many “GM guides” would want to make you believe, I find that it requires absolutely no “Illusionism”, but rather works best when being absolutely transparent about who has authority over what, at what time.
  • Thanks for the input, everyone. I think Callan's point is fairly important! How do you find that line between one and the other? Does it ever get blurry for you?

    Skywalker, you mention: "The GM again needs to know their limits and where something cannot be predicted, the scenario needs to be designed to accomodate for it." I haven't had time to read your scenario yet (it's sitting on my desktop, waiting...), but can you maybe bring in a couple of examples of situations, and how they can be designed so as to be predictable, and then how they can be re-designed to accomodate unpredictability? What kinds of moments/scenes/decisions do you find to be reliably predictable?
  • edited October 2012
    I think the key to the approach is work out what's essentially in getting you from A to B but leave the other details of the journey and what happens at B open. I keep thinking kickers are the good way to describe this approach in that they are a heavy handed GM tool but they don't dictate the players' reaction and subsequent action. The most obvious example is where you don't know how a player is going to react to a specific emotional cue. In that case, don't design the scenario that hangs on any specific emotion happening. Same goes for a player's reactions to and NPC.

    The biggest issue here is that the longer the session gets the more you start getting events that are influenced by previous events. This will increase the chance of the railroad derailing as the GM will need to start making more difficult predictions. For this to work, the GM must adjust at each point along the way accordingly, such as between seesions. I often compare it to a tree diagram. Beautifully railroad the first branch, have strong ideas at what might happen after the first junction, but adjust at each junction. In a one-off Con scenario, this process shouldn't be necessary due to the limited length of the scenario.

    It swings the other way too. Where you absolutely need something to happen, such as moving on to location X, be up front and honest about it. My scenarios tend to be heavily structured around three Acts and I scene frame heavily between those Acts to move the story in broad terms in the direction I want it to go. In Vykyris the two big Act shifts are: "the PCs return to the Capital with Wren" and "the PCs undertake the quest to confront Carnun". This are predetermined story movements. To assist these jumps, I heavily seeded the scenario with motivation, so that it would difficult to see how a player might take issue with them. Less reasonable jumps may well cause issues.

    Unless I am prepared to accept whatever they answer, I don't ask the players what they want to do next. This become a quid pro quo type interaction with the players accepting certain decisions by me as a GM provided I am respectful and attentive at other times to the decisions they make.
  • Can you give some examples of "edge cases"?
  • I don't think I ever used that term, so I am unsure what you mean.
  • I'm looking for examples of situations which were borderline "predictable". Something that could have gone either way. That's what I mean by "edge case". Does that help?
  • I really love to play like that with good players. Contrary to what many “GM guides” would want to make you believe, I find that it requires absolutely no “Illusionism”, but rather works best when being absolutely transparent about who has authority over what, at what time.
    This is also an important point!

    Hey, so here's a thing I've experienced, in re: railroading. It's a con game or one-shot, that is clearly about something specific, like a particular villain we need to confront or whatever. As a player, I've never had a problem going along with that sort of thing, since it's what the GM prepared and, if the scenario is at all decent, our characters would naturally want to do this thing (much as Skywalker describes). But the other players often fuck it up. They hesitate, they hem and haw, they find reasons not to go on the journey, and in all other ways they resist the obvious and perfectly well-intentioned railroad. And it slows down the game, and then when it finally gets moving they passive-aggressively resist the whole time, either with jokes or counterproductive actions or whatever.

    Now, there are certainly techniques (hard scene framing / in media res type stuff comes to mind) that can be used to address this issue. But 1) it always feels like the players are much more at fault than the GM in these instances and 2) I suspect these players a) don't have a good handle on their own preferences b) didn't read the scenario description and c) have experienced so much ill-intentioned railroading (fudging the rules so the villain gets away or whatever) that they can't distinguish when the railroad is a perfectly reasonable one ("go to castle X to confront demon Y").

    Matt
  • I agree: going along with the premise of an adventure does not at all feel like "railroading" to me.

    It IS interesting how many players have developed a culture of "anti-railroading" even in the absence of a railroad. (c.f. The various comments of gamers who think it's their *job* to screw up the GM's plans, as though the process of gaming--and the fun in games--is all about a power struggle between the players and the GM over who can direct the game. I've seen players congratulate themselves after a game, saying, "Wow! That was awesome. The GM tried to get us to kill the villain and rescue the princess, but we totally surprised her and destroyed her plan. We almost made her cry!" I also played in a few games where players would make contingency plans and write them down and then keep them secret from the GM, so that the GM couldn't modify them and thereby change the outcome of a scene. For instance, the player might say, "I'm setting up a booby trap, and I'm writing the location here on this piece of paper," so that later in the scene, the player could say, "Ah-ha! Your favourite NPC just got stuck in my trap! See, my paper says so. So they take 3d6 damage!" That's a type of gamer culture I've seen many times, and many people seem to revel in it.)
  • It is true IME that a player is feeling contrary or acting unreasonable then it will derail any game, even one "without rails" where all players have equal contribution. For example, I found that Primetime Adventures was often derailed by one player insistent on a specific vision for the game and refusing to listen to the other players. :)
  • edited October 2012
    Railroading is generally a term applied to a GM making a bad decisions that disregard or disenfranchise players in some way. It should not be applied to where the GM is making active story choices in a sensible and constructive manner.

    My guess is that those players who object to GM direction as a matter of course have been burnt by the former. In all fairness, given the power of a GM compared to the players historically, it is not surprising that it has been abused. However, I know plenty of people who play in that style and their GM has never abused that power and so no one got burnt. They all seem pretty happy.
  • @Paul_T: the type of gamer-culture you describe in your post seems absurd to me. It's like having a clumsy GM, and responding by being a dick.

    @Skywalker; railroading as a term is overused in a negative way, to put stigma on a lot of healthy GM-tools. We need to reestablish the term as a positive, to put some RPG-tools and -techniques in their right place; as valuable and viable options in interactive praxis.

    @Deliverator: the challenge of bad players is a hard nut to crack for an inexperienced GM. I feel sorry for the young guy who sits down to GM a group, and meet players who makes a point of resisting the scenario-leads, just to get their "I'm free"-kick. It happens on the expense of other players, and leaves many GMs feeling bad, as if they were to blame. Why on earth would anyone want to be such jerks?
  • Here, we call a beautiful railroad Con game a "tunnel of fun" :)

    Personally, I think "railroading" as a term is fine as a negative term for certain GM tools when they are badly applied. The problem is that it is being used for those GM tools regardless of application.
  • @TomasHVM: It is not my experience that many gamers are "jerks," but instead that often, especially with campaign-style play, I've seen players punished, in-game, for resisting plot hooks that their characters would have no business biting onto.

    I for one would be happy to play in a game where the GM states beforehand that we should all make somewhat altruistic characters, or suchlike, in order to facilitate the type of story he or she has in mind (the GM is here to have fun, too, after all). It is quite a different story when the GM makes no such mention but still tries to force all the PCs to latch onto something they didn't buy into. I have no interest in being trapped in someone else's masturbatory power fantasy.

    The real issue here is a lack of transparent communication pre-game between the gm and players. If a game is going to be a sandbox, great! Don't try to force a particular path then as the GM. If the game is meant to follow a specific plot, great! Make characters that are interested in the type of hooks provided by that plot. The problem isn't that "players are jerks," it's that there is a dissonance between player and GM expectations of control and agency.
  • edited October 2012
    I am not sure I understand the nuance here, but all RPing is a consensual activity. So what you say is true of railroaded games, but its also true of any style of game.

    I'd argue the 'all RPing is a consensual activity', as picking up a book with RPG written on the cover does not mean you have someones consent, but instead moving onto the main subject: If no one has agreed to follow the GM's prewritten script - more particularly if they have been given the impression they decide what they do, but then there's a fork in the road but no matter how much they try to go left there's something blocking them (I'm drawing from an actual play account), what we have is something not consented to. And that's putting it charitably.

    TomasHVM,
    We consent to play a game, and all participants are responsible for doing the best out of it, with the tools and techniques which are part of the game.

    If you mean 'techniques which we agreed are part of the game', then you're talking about a different subject to me. If you mean 'techniques which are part of the game as the GM decides, even if he gives the impression the game involves certain techniques but he does not use one or more of them', then your refering to an undermined consent.
  • ...If no one has agreed to follow the GM's prewritten script - more particularly if they have been given the impression they decide what they do, but then there's a fork in the road but no matter how much they try to go left there's something blocking them (I'm drawing from an actual play account), what we have is something not consented to. And that's putting it charitably.
    This is true. But again its true of any RPG, whether it involves a strong GM presence/authority or not. If a player does not consent to the way the game is being played, but it is carried on regardless by one or more other players, then it is something that needs to be addressed.

  • Frank, I've had similar experiences to what you described. "Playing to find out" is awesome, but playing to experience something really cool that someone else cooked up in advance is awesome too. I fondly remember revealing that my NPCs were diabolical and getting that "Oh shit!" reaction. Investment? Hell yeah.

    I suspect that the key for pre-plotted games, the make-or-break that divides them into Evil Railroads vs Tunnels of Fun, is the player role. What's the player there to do, and do they know that, and are they empowered and inspired to actually do it?

    Skywalker, that's what I was getting at with my questions, but alas, I didn't get there from your answers. "Know when to take the reins and when to back off" and "take them to a moment of high emotion but then don't direct where it goes" sound like great orientation if you know your toolkit and your options with it. But I don't know what your toolkit is.

    I started a bunch of Forge threads about this and drummed up a nice pile of ideas and data points, but I think the next step is to actually pick a direction and try to make a game out of it. Anyone who's into that is welcome to check 'em out here, here, and here.
  • edited October 2012
    I’m with Skywalker, it’s better to leave Railroading as a derogatory term for dysfunctional applications of GM Force, and use some other term for functional techniques where certain things are plotted / scripted / determined in advance by the GM.

    I think the thread Paul linked above is great because Todd describes very succinctly how he communicates his intentions and expectations, so that players know what he is up to and can roll along with it. It’s important for GMs to understand that the players’ trust is not their God given right as GMs, but something they have to earn. And transparency is a very important tool for that. It doesn’t mean that you cannot keep some stuff about your back story secret for the “grand revelation”. But it means you should be up-front about when you are giving the players a real choice and when you are not.

    I would like to address a couple of misconceptions I often see in people who have never experienced the functional way of playing this.

    “The Script sucks”

    Yeah, when the Script sucks, it sucks. Implausible, uninspired stories, pet NPCs, GMs making PCs look like fools, etc. The intarwebs are full of stories about sucky Scripts from sucky GMs. But even if the Script does not particularly suck, the assumption often seems to be that a collaboratively improvised plot would be more interesting and fun. Conversely, my experience with collaboratively improvised plots has been mixed, often there were so many inconsistencies that character choices seemed disconnected and empty. But that’s not the point. Take the example from my earlier post. The carefully planned gradual revelation, backed up with hand-outs and music and elaborate NPC portrayal. This was a fantastic moment and I didn’t mind telling the GM right at the table that it was. It could never have been pulled off without preparation.

    “The events are forced on the players”

    Technically, it is correct that the players are not in control of fictional events. Depending on the particular techniques applied, they might not even have full ownership of their characters and the characters’ background. But in a functional, mature group, this does not imply that anything happens against the players’ will. The GM does not actually hold any power to force anything on the players against their will, no more than he can force them to sit down at his table. As I see it, the GM takes on a responsibility. The players are putting something in your hands and you are required to handle it with care. Describing that as “forcing something on the players” is just inadequate.

    “Inequality sucks”

    In these kinds of games, the GM has much more control over fictional events and even play style than the players. The players still make meaningful contributions (see below), but the leverage is pretty high. The game will pretty much be “the GM’s game”, he gets to say what’s what. Again, see the thread linked by Paul, where Todd explains how he introduces his “dictated social contract”. Sure, if the GM isn’t consistent in his rulings, if he shows poor judgment or just turns out to be an immature griefer, this sort of inequality makes things worse. But the problem, in that case, is the GM being a dumbass, not the GM’s role per se. On the other hand, a GM with the proper leadership qualities, common sense and good intentions will do a great job at getting the game on track, establishing tone and pace etc. (especially useful in a convention game). This is a real advantage if you ask me. It’s also absolutely reasonable to ask players who sit down at such a GM’s table that they play that GM’s game. This is not materially different than asking players who sit down to play some GM-less indie game that they play the game as written and intended by the designer.

    “The players cannot contribute meaningfully”

    So let’s say I’m running a game of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have a bog-standard monster of the week scenario. I have scripted the monster’s first appearance, the clue that leads to the monster’s weakness, the showdown where the heroes defeat the monster, and for some soap opera on the side I have hooked one player character’s love interest into the plot. I run the adventure and guess what, the monster’s first appearance goes down as intended, the heroes find the clue as intended, the love interest gets involved as intended and there is a kiss, and in the end the monster is defeated as intended. All of this is no surprise to anyone at the table. And all of this tells you nothing about whether the players have contributed meaningfully. Did they play their characters in the scenes? Did they make witty comments, express the nature of their characters, maybe even progress their relationships with other characters? Did they come up with inventive and fun moves in combat? Did one of them save the day while another suffered some embarrassment? Were there memorable one-liners? Events that players reflected upon in-character? That kiss, what was it to the player character? Could that scene have gone differently? All of this can mean a great deal. And hey, you know, it’s not God given either that I always have to follow the Script to the last letter. If the players make some really unexpected choices, the day just might come where something unexpected happens, the monster wins, or a PC dies. And when that happens, absolute transparency will also be key to the players enjoying it rather than being disappointed because they thought they had the a safety net when they hadn’t.
  • My concern in railroaded games is that choices are meaningless. And railroad GMs love to throw choices at players, and then find some sneaky GM Force to use to make the result of the choice turn out exactly the way they planned it in the first place. That drives me crazy as a player.
  • If you feel your choices are meaningless as a player, then this is getting into railroading territory. However, the fact that a GM can have a lot of direction over play is not exclusive with players feeling their choices have meaning. In fact, I often find a GM directing play can make my choices as a player have more meaning as they can convey the impact out much farther than the immediate.
  • Skywalker,

    I agree with pretty much everything you're saying! But agreeing with it in the theoretical sense is not as illuminating as understanding the specifics. I asked earlier if you could provide some examples of "borderline" situations (where you might have felt that you could slip from a happily predictable outcome - "The adventuring party agrees to go on the adventure" - to an unpredictable, railroad-able outcome - "The party agrees to let the guy who's secretly a villain into their plans").

    If you'd like to keep contributing to this thread (and I hope you will!), my humble request is for some examples. What are some particular difficult situations that come up in your games which feel like they could easily slide from "coherent, GM-led game" to "bad railroading", and how did you deal with them?
  • TBH I find dissecting the matter down into specific examples to be difficult. The examples are one of two types. The first are those that are picked up during scenario creation, and are usually dealt with through the design. However, scenario design involves so much context and layers that isolating individual points beyond pointing at the scenario is hard.

    The second are those that crop up in play. The game goes in a direction that is unexpected making the orignal plan of the GM problematic or even invalid, so adjustment is needed These only happen once and on the fly. Again, they require context to explain the personalities involved and how the game got to that point. Again, it is difficult to isolate specific examples.

    On saying that, I have given some specific example above, such as dealing with broader story development through scene framing. The scenario linked to is also probably the best example I can give of the first type. I will have a think about examples that might be more easily isolated for the purposes of this thread and post any that come to mind.
  • edited October 2012
    Adam, I'd guess that what you're reporting, unless the GM's simply a dick, might be a combo of GM desire to control plot + GM desire to give choices + choice-giving habits that don't work here. When "So where do you want to go next?" is not actually a choice, the GM needs to not say it, and instead posit something that is actually open.

    I think the solution here is not to ditch the "GM plot + players" model, but just to involve the right kind of player choices. But maybe "your job is to act and emote" is a tough sell that some GMs don't have the guts to pitch?

    How do you think you'd feel about a pitch where the GM says, "Your job is to show us all how your characters feel about the events. The events themselves are my plot, which I hope you'll enjoy. How they come alive and matter depends on how the protagonists react; which parts they greet with rage or resignation, humor or horror"? Do those sorts of choices seem meaningful, or not?
  • edited October 2012
    This is true. But again its true of any RPG, whether it involves a strong GM presence/authority or not. If a player does not consent to the way the game is being played, but it is carried on regardless by one or more other players, then it is something that needs to be addressed.
    The issue is when something is occuring that they have not consented to, but they are unaware that is occuring.

    You're description 'If a player does not consent to the way the game is being played, but it is carried on regardless by one or more other players, then it is something that needs to be addressed.' really doesn't deal with the issue I describe.

    A player who is unaware that something they have not consented to is occuring will sit there AS IF they consent to whats happening.

    This isn't solved by thinking "Hmmm, is he objecting to what I'm doing outside his immediate perception? No objection? Okay, everything's fine!"
  • I’m with Skywalker, it’s better to leave Railroading as a derogatory term for dysfunctional applications of GM Force, and use some other term for functional techniques where certain things are plotted / scripted / determined in advance by the GM.
    I've actually heard people say "It's only railroading if you get caught". I fear that 'dysfunctional' here is code for 'got caught'.

    To lay it out explicitly, the players can feel their choices are meaningful (ie, influence heavily the outcome of play) and will even talk about play as if they had such meaningful influence, when their choices actually had no such meaning/influence. This doesn't mean it's something other than railroading because nothing obviously dysfunctional happened. It's still old fashioned railroading.

  • edited October 2012
    Ah, I see the point you are making. I think the ultimate issue is as I have raised above but you raise an interesting point as to the fact that you can't assume absolute awareness to the people in the game. I guess there are two aspects of this. One is whether the player is aware that the GM is doing something they wouldn't consent to and the whether the GM is aware that the thing being done lacks the players consent.

    In either case, both are immediately alleviated by better communication around the table as it raises awareness. However, I also suspect that many RPGers rely on trust and respect in dealing with those situations where awareness is lacking. Though this does open up the potential for an abuse of trust and disrespect, which covers what you appear to be getting at in regard to a railroading GM and also the disruptive player scenario given above.

    But yeah, if a GM knows that a player would not consent to certain actions but does them regardless and obfuscates them, then its a breach of trust and you have a problem.
  • Skywalker,

    That makes sense to me. I'll take some time to read through your scenario, and then I can get back to you with some examples. Thanks!
  • edited October 2012
    I've actually heard people say "It's only railroading if you get caught". I fear that 'dysfunctional' here is code for 'got caught'.
    I agree that a GM saying that is wrong.

    I think a more valid comment related to that one though would be to say "its only railroading if the player actually feels unfairly restricted or disenfranchised by the actions of the GM". The reason that I think this comment is more valid is that all RPGing involves direction from the other players that will restrict and influence you. In a conventional game, a lot of this direction is going to come from the GM given the way the game is designed. As such, the mere fact that a GM/player has this influence or restricts you in some way is in and of itself not an issue. The problem arises where the influence and restrict is unfair in some way, especially if it reduces your expected ability to contribute to the game. This is when "railroading" occurs.
  • Ok. So it’s about the “meaningful choices” that people get hung up. Let’s first check the assumptions here. If the assumption is that players can only contribute meaningfully at all if their choices, as Callan put it, “heavily influence the outcome of play”, then the assumption is wrong. If you insist on that as a premise, we can stop talking, because that is not how it works for people who enjoy this mode of play. See my above example.

    On the other hand, what Adam is describing as “throw choices at players, and then find some sneaky GM Force to use to make the result of the choice turn out exactly the way they planned it in the first place” is indeed a bullshit technique enforced by bullshit conventions and bullshit advice in RPG books. I must admit I have seen players who did not seem to notice this at the table, which has always bewildered me because usually it was painfully obvious if you only looked for it. That’s why I emphasize transparency so much.

    On the risk of sounding patronizing, in discussions like these, I often feel that people who have suffered badly from crappy dishonest railroad-y GMs in the past find it hard to overcome their frustration and accept that there is a different way to do it. Please read the thread linked in the first post, if you haven’t. It’s really a very illuminating actual play account.
  • edited October 2012
    Some elements to consider, in relation to what we get from a role-playing game:
    1 - Social content; sharing experiences, the empowerment of interaction, group dynamics
    2 - Narrative content; the story-arc, plot and intellectual challenge, narrative logics and beauty
    3 - Ethical content; dilemmas we face, choice and consequence, the moral impact of fictional conflicts
    4 - Emotional content; how we feel during and after a game, the emotional impact of interaction and fiction
    5 - Magic content; ritualistic form and effect, fictional flow, trans-personal experiences, immersion

    In my view, all these elements are present in all role-playing games, in various degrees. There are a million ways to bring the different elements in a game to the foreground. A million different ways to balance them, and to make them shift in a game. Most designers know little about the scope of elements present in their role-playing games, and that is true for most leaders and players of these games too.

    But if we are to discuss "the outcome of play", this is a necessary point of view. We need to know that the outcome is diverse, and changeable, and that it may be wrought in a million different ways. The different types of content are present in various degrees, and players have various degrees of influence upon them in different games.

    To break it down;
    - The social content is always part of it, whatever game you play, but some games are better in supporting positive dynamics.
    - The magic content is always part of it too. The "magic" of role-playing games takes place when we meet, sit down, and goes into a shared frame of mind that is conductive to effective game-play. In a normal rpg it does not lead to trans-personal experiences, nor flow and immersion, but it may do so, occasionally. Most players have some experience with flow or immersion.
    - In addition, in a classical rpg, with a leader and players, the players often gets a "certificate" to influence the narrative content; through the choices of their characters they have a direct impact on the story-arc.
    - The players will often influence the ethical content too, in a standard classical game of some quality. But not always; the ethical content may be downplayed to the extent that it is totally missing (Toon is a great game with next to no ethical content).

    The above is how I would describe an ordinary classical rpg (leader + players).

    But there are different ways of doing this. If you lift the ethical content of play, and make use of more effective magics, you get another game altogether. If you hunt for strong relations and emotional buy-in, rather than action, you get a totally different game, of course. This may be done in classical games, and it is very often done in modern games.

    The use of railroading is one way of tilting the balance of content. You take away the players "certificate" to influence the story-arc, and make sure that other sides of play takes precedence; ethical content, emotional, magical ...
    - there are right ways to do all kinds of game-play, and bad ways to do it.
    Railroading has stood out as a bad way of doing it due to the simple fact that traditional classical games comes with a player "certificate" for influencing the story-arc; railroading is anathema to that kind of game-play. But it is, really, only a tool that may be used to good effect, in the right type of role-playing game.
  • edited October 2012
    Skywalker,
    "its only railroading if the player actually feels unfairly restricted or disenfranchised by the actions of the GM"
    Again that testing method suffers from potential lack of perception on the players part. The player can feel perfectly fine and unrestricted, yet they are actually being restricted and would be disenfranchised if they knew. But they are unaware, and so they feel fine.

    However, I also suspect that many RPGers rely on trust and respect in dealing with those situations where awareness is lacking.
    As I observe it, alot of roleplay slows down at certain points, particularly in establishing fictional events. The slow down in how the GM talks and how he makes statements while looking over the players, to me, seems to be a way of asking for consent for the fictional events he's just described. The pause is one of seeing if anyone argues, or if there is silent consent/silent approval. If you contrast this against something like rolling damage after scoring a hit, that goes really fast - no one pauses to check if you get to roll damage or what damage die is the right size - everyones consented to the rules of that already. So it goes really fast.

    Seems to be how the process goes to me, with much consent asking, even if it's simply the GM scanning the group for a moment, and whether people look back as if to say 'of course' or whether they verbally argue something. Just outlining the process as I see it.

    Frank,
    If the assumption is that players can only contribute meaningfully at all if their choices, as Callan put it, “heavily influence the outcome of play”, then the assumption is wrong.
    If what the player thinks the GM has said the game involves/how the game works, then the assumption is not wrong.

    If the player thinks the GM has said or implied the game will be about them making up witty lines for their PC's and choreographing cool moves and that is indeed the players role in play, then that assumption is missplaced, I do agree.

    (and just to note the tragic middle ground; where a player is so used to making witty lines and moves and that's it, they just have no motivation to actually make any choices that heavily influencing the outcome. They keep looking for the quest, or the plot. I've played with these guys. Not to knock either mode, but when someone is stuck in one of them...that's an issue)
  • Just wanted to ask this open question, if "Railroad" is a negative term, what is the positive term for this?

    Thanks,
    :) Snake_Eyes
  • edited October 2012
    Hey Callan, I don't think we disagree but I kind of think you are derailing the thread.

    Edited to add: I would like to somehow convey to you and others to whom this mode of play is alien how utterly fulfilling it can be to play in it, to contribute a consitent and captivating character protrayal, to experience and be invested in an intricate fiction, to shape and color the minute-by-minute details, if not the overall outcome of fictional events, to add a personal note to each and every scene in a very, very interactive way, to pick up your fellow players' contributions and build on them. And as a GM, to hold it all together, to subtly, elegantly steer it in a direction, to carefully listen to the players, adapt to what they are doing, to find the right spot to insert your scripted material (or sometimes be willing and able to drop it), to be the conductor of this magnificent concert when everyone is just really in tune and you create something beautiful and meaningful together.
  • edited October 2012
    Again that testing method suffers from potential lack of perception on the players part. The player can feel perfectly fine and unrestricted, yet they are actually being restricted and would be disenfranchised if they knew. But they are unaware, and so they feel fine.
    Did you read the rest of my post about perception and how a lack of perception may be dealt with? I agreed with your point that if the GM is aware of a problem but continues regardless then this is a breach of trust. But this point needs to be developed beyond simply pointing a finger at the GM. If you raise the player's perception or lack of it as an issue, surely the GM's perception is also a matter requiring examination too, as does how the group communicates. The crux of the matter is at the point that the player or GM become aware that that there is a problem and what they do about it.

    As above, I think you are identifying much wider issues that need to be addressed in any RPG. But by unnecessarily limiting your comments to just a single point all you acheive is unaddressed recrimination.
  • edited October 2012
    Frank, did you mean 'in terms of railroading, the assumption is that players can only contribute meaningfully by...etc'? I just read it another way. My mistake.
    Skywalker, well, with no recrimination, no change occurs, surely? I'm just leery of any maxim which uses players feelings as it's measure, when they don't feel everything involved. I'll leave it at that.
  • edited October 2012
    Recrimination can bring around change, sure, but so can others things, such agreement, understanding, evolution, experience, improvement, innovation etc.

    Also, change itself doesn't justify unfair or inaccurate recrimination. In fact, change built on unfair or inaccurate recrimination is surely questionable.
  • Fine, now that that's settled, can we please talk about the topic? Pretty please?
  • edited October 2012
    Frank said:
    “The players cannot contribute meaningfully”

    I run the adventure and guess what, the monster’s first appearance goes down as intended, the heroes find the clue as intended, the love interest gets involved as intended and there is a kiss, and in the end the monster is defeated as intended . . . this tells you nothing about whether the players have contributed meaningfully.

    Did they play their characters in the scenes? Did they make witty comments, express the nature of their characters, maybe even progress their relationships with other characters? Did they come up with inventive and fun moves in combat? Did one of them save the day while another suffered some embarrassment? Were there memorable one-liners? Events that players reflected upon in-character? That kiss, what was it to the player character? Could that scene have gone differently? All of this can mean a great deal.
    I think this would be good to expand upon. When does all of that, in fact, mean a great deal? And when doesn't it?
  • Happy to oblige, Frank. Sorry I'm late to the party. That'll be my excuse for the long post.

    I'm Todd, the GM whose game was mentioned in the thread "4 Out of 7 Cried,” which was linked to at the top of this thread.

    It makes me very happy to see that others have gotten positive feedback from their players about having highly structured games. As others have noted, railroading is a tool which can be wielded for good or ill.

    I'd like to offer a few observations that might make it easier to understand what's going on under the hood for my Unknown Armies games. (I'm not talking about my pulp games here, because I shamelessly railroad in those. UA is more nuanced.) You can then decide whether that's "railroady,” for any given definition of railroady that works for you. Skywalker and others, I'd like to hear if what I'm describing below applies to your games as well.

    First Thing: I create all the characters for my convention games. I know what makes them tick, I know what they want, and I know how desperate (or not) they are to get it. That makes it fairly easy to anticipate how the characters are likely to respond, in very general terms, to any given stimulus. If you think about it, when most reasonable people -- or characters -- are presented with a challenge, they only consider two or three options for dealing with it.

    The fact that I've considered those options and prepared for them can be mistaken for the idea that the players' choices have been foreordained. I assure you that's not the case.

    Second Thing: I run each game session as a movie. I explain to my players that I pay for the film by the inch, so every second that a character -- PC or NPC -- is on camera has to have a point. We don't make the audience sit through mundane stuff, unless there's a really good reason.

    This means that, as Evan observed above, I have a list of scenes that I plan to go through. Each scene has a purpose. Sometimes it's to reveal a clue, sometimes to lead to a conflict, sometimes just to showcase the interactions between two or more PCs. When you cut out all of the scenes that have no point, the result feels very structured.

    The player characters are not puppets on strings, so I have no idea how any of the scenes will end. I strongly frame all of my scenes -- even the scenes that I have to improvise because the PCs made substantial changes to the plot. That may make it sound as if I planned for the PCs to get to this particular scene, come hell or high water.

    Third Thing: I don't roll dice when I'm the GM, even for games where I'm supposed to. I determine outcomes based on either what seems reasonable, or on the players' die rolls.

    I suspect that when you put these three Things together, a player could conclude that no matter what he does, I'm putting him back on "the right track.” The only times I do that are to keep my movie from fragmenting into six separate movies. I think the appearance of being herded comes from the fact that players tend to restrict themselves to reasonable choices. There are a finite number of those, so I've been able to plan for them.

    Evan, does all of this sound like a possible explanation for what you've experienced at my table? Let me know if I've done something that doesn't fit with this explanation.

    To illustrate with a simple example, if the PCs are teenagers and Scene 8 starts in the high school (because I anticipate this is where they'll get the first taste of the villain's power and potentially find a clue), what would have to happen for Scene 8 to not be in the high school?

    Well, they could burn down the high school in Scene 7. But reasonable people don't generally do that sort of thing. Or all the PCs could decide not to go to school the next day. But since I created the PCs, I can guarantee that at least one of them won't be comfortable with that decision. So Scene 8 is probably going to be at the school, as I planned.

    But if the PCs have come up with some believable reason that Scene 8 shouldn't be at the school, then it's somewhere else.

    So my convention adventures are structured, but the scenes are open-ended.

    On those rare occasions when I do need outcomes to be foreordained, I'll tell my players that. But I'll also tell them how to have fun within those constraints.

    - Todd
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