Railroading Theory - A Functional Analysis

edited August 2014 in Story Games
I think there's a lot to say about "railroading" from the GM's standpoint, from the designer's standpoint, and from a sheer definitional standpoint, before we can consider the matter to be understood, and our understanding to be robust. I don't want to hijack the existing threads which focus more on player experience, so I'm starting this one for GMs to post and discuss definitions, techniques, applications, theories and examples of what some call "railroading" - as a literary and game-epistemological device used by both designers and GMs.

All aboard.

Important: Please note that when I say "GM" here I am speaking strictly of single-GM-run worlds and game systems. I am NOT speaking of "the loose set of functions which can be divided amongst the group". I do not need education on the fact that those functions can be distributed in some games. When I say "GM" in this thread I am speaking about one person: the only person at the table who (on my view) is not playing a game, but providing a service. Don't argue with that sentence; you know who I mean.
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  • edited August 2014
    Reposting stuff I said earlier in Paul's thread and WarriorMonk's thread...

    Sometimes the rails are in the design. Would you say that's a bad thing, or does it simply let the GM "off the hook"? For example, the DayTrippers module I posted is both railroady and sandboxy, but on different levels. You really need to consider different narrative levels when you think about questions like this.

    (Without giving away any spoilers... In that DT module it's totally possible to break out of the small railroad (the one that goes NPC to NPC to NPC) and you can sandbox around randomly for as long as you want, but ultimately the whole thing is moving along an even bigger railroad with basically two possible endings.)

    So what I'm saying is: (1) sometimes the designer does the railroading, is there [in your mind] something wrong with that?, and (2) consider different levels of freedom and operational grainsize when looking for tracks, because while you have freedom on one level you are probably still being railroaded on another. ("The Quiet Year" comes to mind, but it's just one very clear example.)

    And...
    Try looking at "railroading" as a literary device or technique. I think you can get a lot more mileage out of the word that way, rather than using it to characterize/stereotype whole people or entire campaigns. To generalize, I'd say "railroading" happens:
    • In tiny segments - setups and action resolutions for instance - it happens in many or possibly most RPGs;
    • In scene-sized segments it happens in many RPGs; it is a game mechanic in some, and a practical or literary GM technique in others;
    • In session-sized segments it may also be used for either practical or literary purposes but depending on the style of play, if not used sparingly then it might indicate/be a potential problem with/for some players;
    • In campaign-sized segments ... well, you are still "playing a role" but you're not making decisions that strongly affect anybody else's world. To avoid inevitable arguments I might concede that we should call this kind of game something else, like a "descriptive writing exercise from a fictional POV". Whatever. Art. It's a different kind of ride in the amusement park. It's like sitting on the train that goes around the park and looking at the tableaus, rather than getting in one of the bumper cars and choosing who to hit. (Note that riding on a train does not preclude all sorts of interesting interactivity - the conductor might give you a hand-job, for instance. Tiny little human comedies and dramas show up as "photographs" or "vignettes" and move by. The scenery outside the window changes. Ever ride a train? It's awesome.)
    The "story" (whatever that means) can arise on more than just one level. So. All that said, I still contend that there are things to be learned from the study and application of all narrative techniques - even so-called "dysfunctional" ones - that will only enhance the size of your toolkit and repertoire.
  • edited August 2014
    Some more thoughts based on that post...

    I think it's not possible to have a truly robust definition of the word "railroading" unless we consider differences between narrative tiers and what I earlier called "operational grainsize" (by which I mean the "size" of actions that are within the scope of a single character in a particular gameworld).

    For example (give me a little slack here, lots of things work like this, geopolitics, ecology, etc):
    If you're in a sandbox world and the GM lets you know there's a big war that just started a few hundred miles away, if the GM does their job right you will begin to witness the effects of that war, even if you never go near the front line yourself. And eventually, someone will win that war, whether or not you even care who wins. And when that happens, some things in the game world will change forever, totally beyond your control. In fact, even if you were active in the war, that's far from a guarantee that little ol' you could have singlehandedly changed the outcome of the entire war.

    Kinda feels like it would be the player doing the "railroading" if they insisted epistemologically on their "right" to affect the outcome of that war, or to stop the war. Maybe they're not even close enough to get involved; after all, the world is a big place. But they can still be affected: tariffs, embargoes, shortages, deaths of friends & relatives, etc.

    Some questions...

    - If the GM gives them a story in which they take part in a major battle but it's not the pivotal battle that literally decides the outcome of the war, has the GM committed "railroading"?

    - If it comes down to a question of "Who has the right to say they can definitely determine the outcome of that distant-but-significant war: the Player or the GM or both" - what would you say?
  • edited August 2014
    Tod (AsIf),

    It probably won't come as a surprise to you that I disagree with your premise here, and therefore can't easily answer your questions. It seems to me that you use the word "railroading" to mean something like "predetermine something about the outcome of fictional events in the story", or "a game which includes events or circumstances which certain players cannot influence".

    My personal understanding of "railroading" as a useful term (which I do not claim to be universal, of course) was described in that other thread. It involves blocking player intentions on a social level as well as taking away their right to certain valid game moves/options. If we were playing Checkers, it would be me saying, "No, don't move that piece there. I don't accept. Make another move instead!", and refusing to play along until you did.

    As I said before, this makes it impossible for me to engage with your concept of "grainsize" when it has to do with railroading - I don't see the connection.

    (If you want to collect opinions and such in this thread, I could go find some of the things I said earlier and paste them here. Let me know. I think I was fairly clear in that thread, and I don't have time to re-type all that.)

    Because of this, you may just want me to stay out of this thread. If you do, let me know, no hard feelings!

    That said, I'll answer your questions (with numbers added for clarity):

    [1] Kinda feels like it would be the player doing the "railroading" if they insisted epistemologically on their "right" to affect the outcome of that war, or to stop the war.

    Some questions...

    [2] - If the GM gives them a story in which they take part in a major battle but it's not the pivotal battle that literally decides the outcome of the war, has the GM committed "railroading"?

    [3] - If it comes down to a question of "Who has the right to say they can definitely determine the outcome of that distant-but-significant war: the Player or the GM or both" - what would you say?
    1. Yes, quite right. If the System in use does not normally give the players the ability to affect the outcome of that war, then this player is trying to move someone else's game pieces. (As opposed to, say, Microscope or some similar game - perhaps an AW game where they have a move which allows them to "Hold 1. Spend your hold to say how a major war turns out", where they would be quite right to say that.)

    2. No. Why would it be?

    3. I would say it depends on the game being played and the group, but whichever way it falls, it should be negotiated and agreed-upon. In most traditional RPGs, I think everyone accepts that the GM decides the outcome of something like a large-scale war. Sometimes there is an understanding that the PCs' actions (carrying out an assassination during a key battle) are effectively the turning point upon which the war will resolve. In other games, I could see the table as a whole taking a vote or rolling a die (or deferring to a third party) to figure out which way the war goes.

    But none of those seem to me to have anything to do with railroading. In each case the group has an agreed-upon method for resolving the outcome of the war, and they use that method when they play the game. It's no different than, for example, the expectation that when I join a D&D game and make a character, I can choose her class freely. That's usually the standard, I think, but if a group agrees to do things another way, why not?

    It only gets weird when no one knows which is the rule, and it's applied differently in case A and case B. If I joined that game and was told that Lucy would choose my character's class instead of me (and with no regard to my wishes as a player), while half of the players got to choose freely, and Lucy herself was always forced to play a Magic-User by the GM, and I would be kicked out of the game if I didn't agree with this... that's when I'd start asking questions.

    I'm a firm believer in the Lumpley Principle as a basic building-block of RPG theory (and RPG play), in case that helps you understand my answer.
  • I wouldn't think of shutting you out of a thread, Paul, but I do plan to use this thread to talk about the technique in ways which are broader than your definition. I want to elicit opinions from others as long as it avoids becoming a boring tennis match. Personally I hope to show how, on my view at least, the difference is one of degree, not of kind.
  • edited August 2014
    Ok!

    (As an aside, the reason I'm going to stay out of this for now is because, under your definition, I'm not at all sure how you can differentiate between "railroading" - whatever that may be - and "players making determinations about future events". If writing a specific ending into a game is "railroading" [e.g. Montsegur 1244, or My Life with Master], then I'm not sure we can really describe as much of gaming at all as "not railroading" - it's all just matters of degree. Is a player who tries to survive a dungeon fight, and saved three Hero points, which he knows should let him win the fight, "railroading" his way to victory? I suppose that's your point here, but I don't really see how that definition - everything is railroading! - is useful to us.)



    I'll also quote myself from an older thread. This little breakdown I made while back might help people connect through the use of (hypothetical) examples:
    'Railroading' (using your authority over the game or over the other players to push the game towards a pre-planned outcome) is certainly a technique, and a nuanced one. Its appropriateness depends on the game and the attitude of the players. These are all quite different:

    * You are playing a traditional game (GM + players) with a pre-set "plot" structure (Scene A, then Scene B, etc.).

    A range of possible ways it plays out:

    A. The players know the sequence of Scenes, and have assented to follow them.

    B. The players know that there EXISTS a sequence of scenes, and have assented to follow it, but do not know the scenes themselves, and are looking forward to finding out what those are.

    C. The players know that there EXISTS a sequence of scenes, but are interested in pushing the story in other directions (towards their particular characters' pursuits -- in other words, are not assenting to follow the sequence), while the GM tries to keep the game "on the rails". This is known to the players, in other words, but not explicit.

    D. The players do not know that there is a sequence of scenes, and the GM tries to keep the game "on the rails". The GM doesn't mind if the players discover this fact, however.

    E. The GM and game system/rules claim that the game is completely open to player initiative, but the GM is trying to "railroad" the players into a specific sequence of events without letting them know that's what he or she is doing.

    F. The GM and game system/rules claim that the game is completely open to player initiative, but the GM denies this and is trying to "railroad" the players into a specific sequence of events, while the players stubbornly try to break free of the secret "road".

    I don't know if I've covered everything (and railroaded/non-railroaded elements can cover different parts of the game, like a scenario which is open-ended until the very last scene, which happens no matter what). But there's definitely a spectrum, and different ways the players of the game can interact with the element of potential "railroading". Some of these will be functional (conducive to the goals of the game), others will be utterly toxic.

    I'm guessing the toxic types happen when either:

    a) the players (including the GM) feel that they are being lied to or otherwise deceived, so their trust in each other is undermined, or

    b) the elements being railroaded are the same elements that the players care about most. (For example, in a game where a player cares most about testing his or her character's ability to survive various combat encounters, that player will be very frustrated to discover that the outcome of combat encounters is rigged, whether in their favour or not.)
    A through F line up with Forge-definition Participationism, functional Illusionism, and dysfunctional Illusionism, just with a more thorough breakdown.
  • edited August 2014
    Here's a really interesting "game" - it's autobiographical and completely "railroaded", in order to portray a certain experience to the player.

    It's obviously not an RPG, but we can easily imagine an RPG like this. Some food for thought! It's a pretty cool way of telling a story.

    http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/591565

    I think this "game" (it arguably isn't actually a game, but an imitation or simulation of a game-playing experience) is a pretty good similacrum for a heavily-railroaded RPG module.
  • What seems to be confusing the pot in Tod's overview of railroading is that he's treating railroading as what might be called No Myth narration rights issue in old Forge terms: you're "railroading" if you ever claim the right to decide anything about the fiction. However, what people usually mean by the word has much more to do with the purpose of play: you're railroading when you obviate choices that the other player views as legitimately theirs.

    For this reason Tod's war example likely does not involve railroading in most games, but it might in some: for most games a far-away war is just background activity that does not impinge upon the specific role and purpose of a given player, and thus its outcome may be safely ignored. In some few games all facts are important and everybody has a say on them all, and in a game like that it would indeed be "railroading" of a sort for a player to claim illegitimate authority. Universalis, for example, is such a game: any player who cares about that war's outcome has equal means to influence it, no matter what other characters or setting pieces they might also be managing at a given time.

    That subjective nature of railroading means that we can't discuss railroading separate from the specific game - there needs to be at least a creative agenda and defined player roles before we can know which specific choices by specific players count as railroading.

    In practice "railroading" is only ever discussed in the context of a traditional adventure roleplaying game set-up where each player controls an individual character to either solve a mission, explore a setting or depict that character, while there's also a GM who is responsible for providing adversity, revelations or simple interaction. It's important to understand that even when we limit ourselves to such a specific type of set-up, the specific acts that are problematic "railroading" instead of ordinary GMing moves differ based on the nature of the given game. To be specific: players formulate their own understanding of the social contract of playing the given game, on the basis of their understanding of what the game is about, and this understanding then defines their expectation of how others will play. When other players over-reach their boundaries, that may be called "railroading", particularly when it's about the GM imposing predetermined plot outcomes in a game where the other players weren't expecting or desiring such.

    A simple example of why the far-away war and its resolution might not be railroading can be found in how D&D is set up: the players of D&D are concerned about overcoming interesting challenges (for the argument's sake - in practice there are other reasons for why people play that particular game), which they expect the GM to provide. Unless their characters are established in a position to influence the outcome of that far-away war, they never interpret the war as an established challenge; a player who would arbitrarily take it as such would be considered a fool due to how arbitrarily they're avoiding the ordinary challenge negotiation process (they're not waiting for the GM to offer the opportunity to influence the war, but rather demanding it as if it was their unilateral right). Therefore, from the viewpoint of the players, the far-away war is merely a matter of GM background narration: its outcome is setting flavour, not a plot railroad, because it is not a plot, and it does not concern their characters. If the GM were to use the war to justify utterly fucking over the PCs later on, that would still not be railroading - it would just be bad GMing, no different from the GM declaring a meteor shower that destroys everything the PCs held dear. (That's not to say that foreshadowing future challenges with e.g. a distant war is not a good practice - it is, because it makes the setting more flavourful, but that does not magically take away the necessity of making adventures interesting! A well-foreshadowed foreign war or not, either the knock-on effects of that war need to be constructive regarding exciting adventuring, or the campaign needs to end for being unbearably shitty now that the GM "ruined it" with his stupid war.)
  • edited August 2014
    Thanks, Eero. We're clearly on the same page. (Can you post earlier, next time, to save me the effort of typing? :D )

    I was wondering whether to draw Creative Agenda into this discussion - I think it's pretty crucial to any discussion of railroading - but had decided not to for now. You're absolutely right that it is key to the issue, however.

    I touch on it a little in the last line of my long quote (above).
  • I think there's a lot to say about "railroading" from the GM's standpoint, from the designer's standpoint, and from a sheer definitional standpoint
    My two cents: it's a vague and messy term. Retire it forever from actual analysis. "Railroading" is for describing constrained player choice only when it doesn't matter to anyone why the choice was constrained, whether it was worth it, who was how much on board, etc.

    If that stuff does matter to you, don't talk about railroading, talk instead about:
    1) what it is that players cannot control, and
    2) the methods used to achieve that

    As far as I can tell, that's always a productive starting point into any discussion of the myriad issues associated with railroading.

    Example: "I wasn't allowed any control over the characters' path forward, and the GM usually acted as if we were controlling that." Now we can talk about the pros and cons of player plot control, or the breadth of taste on that front, or why the GM did that, or better ways fro the GM to have gone about it, etc. Most discussions that start by including "railroading" or "illusionism" take a while just to get to that point, and by the time they do they've often sprouted distracting tangents. Blagh.

    I do wish I could have come up with a clearer phrase that "characters' path forward", though. Some terms for types of player agency would be sweet. The Forge's 4 types of Authority* are okay, but doesn't cover everything re: railroading, I don't think.

    *Ron defined them as Content Authority (back-story), Narrational Authority (what happens, how it happens), Plot Authority (revealing Content, mostly) and Situational Authority (scene framing, mostly), but never bothered to publish my glossary update which included them.
  • edited August 2014
    Excellent suggestion, @David_Berg. Part of what started this discussion (back in the other thread) was that the word seemed nebulous to some of us (but highly charged nonetheless). Stepping back conceptually, I think that what we call "railroading" in various circumstances could reasonably be seen as a special case of (whatever word we decide means "seizing of narrative control" or "absence of narrative control"). Ethical considerations are potential factors in these situations, but not necessarily definitional or causative ones. Furthermore, depending on the game/adventure, that absence can be either ontological or epistemological (relative to the viewpoint of a character in the game world).

    ETA: Eero, I placed the war hundreds but not thousands of miles away to imply that players actually could reach it if they wanted to, as well as to guarantee that they would be affected by it beyond their control. I was not clear enough on that point. But my real focus was - as I think you noted - whether or not the players would consider it their "right" to affect it since it definitely affects them, and it's on a track of some kind, and it will continue until it ends, which is when the GM decides it ends. I do note the observation of relativity and context in your post, and I appreciate that. However I also acknowledge these aspects (relativity and context-sensitivity) only further complicate the possibility of coming to an objective technical definition of the word.
  • edited November 2014
    More thoughts on the above... A big shortcoming of the word "railroading" is that unless its definition is expanded (as I have done but others don't), it really only serves a pejorative purpose, and it only applies subjectively, from the player's point of view. When it works gracefully, players neither know nor care, and generally don't use it to describe their experience. But whether it works or not, GMs on the whole don't use the word to describe what they're doing either, because they don't think of it that way. (And this is totally aside from any question of the individual GM's ethics or ego.)

    It's not only possible to be "railroaded" in that sense and not know it, it's also possible to be certain that railroading is occurring when in fact it isn't. I've had things happen in games that looked SO MUCH like railroading it's astounding. You probably have, too. Here's an example...

    14 January 4437: En route to the city of Sanctuary, Blandisford Barter (PC) encounters an Elven minstrel on the Bridge at Three Roads Crossing. The RunePlayer introduces himself as Rimsel (NPC), and informs Barter that he has been sent by the Council of Deneldor to oversee the halfling's progress. Unfortunately, some evil priest's spell bound him to this bridge several days ago, and he is unable to overcome the magick. Blandisford uses the Codex of Truth to call upon the power of the deity and free his Elven ally, who repays him with a much-needed clue...

    11 January 4437: Bearing west from Sanctuary, Rakasha (PC) is stopped by a party of Deneldoran WayGuards, sent by the Council to secure the Bridge at Three Roads Crossing. Their leader, Rimsel the RunePlayer, is disgusted by the Evil One's presence in the land, and the group engages Rakasha in a duel. Quickly dispatching the lesser foes, Rakasha turns upon Rimsel, whose eerie fluting begins to weave a potent spell in the air. "You shall not cross this Bridge!", Rimsel sings through his flute. Rakasha shouts a quick obeisance to his evil deity, resisting the spell so mightily as to reflect it back upon the Elf, who is rooted helplessly to the spot. Rakasha leaves Rimsel behind as a symbol of his superiority, and continues west...


    Note that the second encounter described above occurred after the first in realtime, but prior to the first in game time. When Rakasha came to the bridge the Blandisford encounter was still fresh on my mind, and I "tempted fate" by putting Rimsel in the WayGuard party. It was a total whim. What if he got killed? I have no idea what I would have said if Rakasha's resistance roll hadn't handed me the perfect result. Not only did Rimsel survive the encounter, but the reflected spell totally explained why he was stuck there in the other encounter! When the die hit the table and that 20 showed up, I felt like I had just shot a perfect basket from halfcourt with one hand, backwards, blindfolded.

    Anyway. The vagueries and baggage of the word "railroading" seem to make it unsuitable as a technical term, or as the name of a GM technique, or as a type of pacing dynamic... Even though functionally and objectively speaking, something almost exactly like it is consciously applied in all of these situations and many more, on many levels of the narrative, all the time.

    Either we need a word that speaks to that, OR we need to expand the word "railroading".

    I originally sided with the latter prescription. @David_Berg is causing me to consider the former.
  • edited August 2014
    It probably won't come as a surprise to you that I disagree with your premise here, and therefore can't easily answer your questions. It seems to me that you use the word "railroading" to mean something like "predetermine something about the outcome of fictional events in the story", or "a game which includes events or circumstances which certain players cannot influence".
    This is part of good railroading.
    My personal understanding of "railroading" as a useful term (which I do not claim to be universal, of course) was described in that other thread. It involves blocking player intentions on a social level as well as taking away their right to certain valid game moves/options. If we were playing Checkers, it would be me saying, "No, don't move that piece there. I don't accept. Make another move instead!", and refusing to play along until you did.
    This is part of bad railroading.

    If we ever going to learn from any techniques, it's the good parts we need to focus on.
  • edited August 2014
    I agree, @Rickard. But I may be fighting a losing semantic battle here.

    Something else occurs to me that might partly explain why the word sounds different to me than it does to Paul: Because of my years as a strongly "Simulationist" GM, and because of my approach to interactive fiction in general (which reaches beyond TTRPGs and into other mediums), my definition of "railroading" is both good and bad, because it extends to all direct applications of narrative intentionality to fictional events without any challenge or justification by pre-established action. Which means pretty much anything short of a 100% dice-driven sandbox includes some kind of railroading, which of course means GMs are railroading all the time. And that's why I come down so hard on the question of artistic merit and egoless GMing. On my view, that's how we determine the good railroading from the bad.

    Fudging the dice is an example of railroading, because it is denying the system its own voice and substituting your own; but that doesn't tell us whether you did it for the players or against them, it doesn't tell us whether you were creating a more dramatic experience or detracting from one. Another example: Creating a massive storm to prevent your players from moving in a certain direction until something else happens is railroading, but again, that doesn't tell us whether you were doing it to save your little pre-planned plot from being broken, or whether you were heightening the dramatic tension so your CoC game would feel more like CoC should feel.
  • I think there's a lot to say about "railroading" from the GM's standpoint, from the designer's standpoint, and from a sheer definitional standpoint
    My two cents: it's a vague and messy term. Retire it forever from actual analysis. "Railroading" is for describing constrained player choice only when it doesn't matter to anyone why the choice was constrained, whether it was worth it, who was how much on board, etc.
    I agree with this one. Make up a new term instead because "railroading" is so infested. "Linear play" is probably a term that suits the purpose. But when does it become linear?
  • If the GM gives them a story [...] has the GM committed "railroading"?
    Yes, according to some perspectives, any “story” except just a setup is railroading.
  • edited August 2014
    So what I'm saying is: (1) sometimes the designer does the railroading, is there something wrong with that as well, and (2) consider different levels of freedom and operational grainsize when looking for tracks, because while you have freedom on one level you are probably still being railroaded on another. ("The Quiet Year" comes to mind, but it's just one very clear example.)
    I've come upon at least three different reasons of why a gaming session becomes linear.

    The Designer. John Wick wanted to show that he didn't design for linear play so he created The Dirty Dungeon. The funny thing is, it's still linear. It doesn't matter if it's the players or the game master that comes up with the scenes, if they must be played out they will be linear. (Should say that Dirty Dungeon got twists. These are not part of the linear play.)

    I've been analyzing 10-15 roleplaying games in how they suggest that the game masters should create adventures. Sandbox, linear play, fish tanks and collaborative storytelling (Swedish: samberättande - a better suited word for it) were the main categories that I found. I also had Flags and Bangs as one category, but I wonder if it's not part of the fish tank or collaborative storytelling. Some games has several suggestions, like The Spirit of the Century and the Swedish Hammarn och trollspöt. Trail of Cthulhu got a case of multiple personality disorder, because it mashed together the fish tank (creating a skeleton with possible outcomes) and linear play (one clue leads to another scene).

    The Game Master. When I first started out playing the fish tank, a model to create open-ended scenarios, I discovered the it had a lot of similarities to the linear play. Imagine the story as a line.

    ——————————————

    Both linear play and the fish tank uses this line to set the background (set in yellow below). You could turn the whole line yellow and then play from there where you have no idea where it would lead, or you could have no background at all and the whole story ahead. The game master could dump the characters anywhere on this line, which means that anything to the left will become the background.

    ——————————————

    The difference is that in linear play, the story will continue as the line shows, but where the line is just a possible outcome in the fish tank—a status quo that will create consequences when the players breaks it ... because they will, and it's expected of them. Something I noticed is when I got feedback from the fish tank, game masters that were used to playing in a linear matter played the fish tank in the same way. So it's possible to play a fish tank in a linear way, and play a linear story in a fish tanky way. I guess the same thing goes with Bangs, but I haven't game mastered using that technique.

    The Players. But why does linear play happen? I believe, like 2097, it's part of who controls the story. A case I think is typical for linear play is when a game master usually creates a story on beforehand, and the players are afraid stepping over their boundaries and making things difficult for the game master. This is apparent if you play an open-ended game with a bunch of players that are used to railroading. They wont take any initiative and instead waiting for something to happen, or they wont describe an area that the traditional game master controls (like environment or characters) in fear of destroying the game master's plans.

    [edit] I also had players that acted in a way that they thought were expected of them. I had players that said, when I played a fish tank, that they didn't like the how they were railed, when all they did was doing what they thought I expected of them. All I did was changing the open-ended scenario after their plans, so they sort of railroaded themselves?

    I think linear play usually have a higher success rate in creating successful stories, because the designer of the story has more control. I'm not saying you can't create great stories in collaborative storytelling but I haven't cracked why it becomes successful in those manners, where I do have done that with linear play.

    So now you've read through all of this, and you have probably just replaced "linear play" with "railroad". So what do I mean with "linear play"?
    I think it's not possible to have a truly robust definition of the word "railroading" unless we consider differences between narrative tiers and what I earlier called "operational grainsize" (by which I mean the "size" of actions that are within the scope of a single character in a particular gameworld).
    I agree with this, and over at the Swedish community, I tried to establish weak rails versus hard rails. When I talk about linear play, I do think of how I play Feng Shui, as an example:

    - A fight in the beginning, and a fight at the end. I'm giving the players a goal in the first fight, and it's up to them how they will take themselves to the last fight. They can do whatever they want but, in the end, there will be a fight. They can't avoid it. This is to me a weak rail.

    A hard rail would be to have established scenes that everyone need to follow. It could also control which characters that the players should control, to be able to control the story even more. Montsegur 1244 comes into mind.

    Linear play is both. It's when scenes are prepared and needs to be executed. Not in any particular order, but in some cases, they do. It's also when any decision along the way will lead to the same end scene. You know the the antagonist will die in the end of American Beauty, but you don't know the road that will lead up to that. Don't you agree with this definition? Then you probably understood everything I previously wrote in this post wrong. Reread it with the new thinking in mind.

    Neither the fish tank, collaborative storytelling, or bang play got the end scene that is typical for the linear play. Computer games do, and they are all(?) a medium for linear play.

    So I guess here is a fourth reason of why linear play occurs: The Medium. It can be more suited for it, or it's a limitation that forces linear play upon the designer.
  • Linear play is both. It's when scenes are prepared and needs to be executed. Not in any particular order, but in some cases, they do. It's also when any decision along the way will lead to the same end scene.
    I am enjoying reading what you've written here, and I'm going to read it again a few times to let it sink in. But I wanted to interject that I would not call this last type "linear". I am thinking more like "ballistic".
  • edited August 2014
    AsIf: I've been doing a lot of editing since your post. :)
    Linear play is both. It's when scenes are prepared and needs to be executed. Not in any particular order, but in some cases, they do. It's also when any decision along the way will lead to the same end scene.
    I am enjoying reading what you've written here, and I'm going to read it again a few times to let it sink in. But I wanted to interject that I would not call this last type "linear". I am thinking more like "ballistic".
    Cool. Lets use that term. Linear play was just a suggestion that I started to use. I should probably change the post to fit the new term, if we can come to an agreement that "ballistic" is the term we should use.
  • edited August 2014
    - - - - -
    1 2 3 4 5 = linear play

    - - - - -
    3 5 2 1 4 = assembly play

    - - - - -
    \
    - - - - - 5 = ballistic play
    /
    - - - - -
    But bear in mind that we are not necessarily talking about Scenes in a Plot. Story structure has a fractal nature (as Ben Robbins will agree I am sure). So we could equally well be talking about Beats in a Scene, Scenes in a Plot, Adventures in a Campaign, Episodes in a Season, Clues in a Mystery...
  • edited August 2014
    [edit] Major changes.

    Nice. I agree with almost everything. Is this assembly play: "Here is a couple of scenes. Execute them in any order"? I wonder what a structure like that would end in. I can't imagine how the result of playing 3, 5, 2, 1, 4 would be compared to 2, 5, 1, 4, 3. I need an example, because I think assembly play also ends in 5, but I will keep an open mind.

    I would also show ballistic play as:
        - - - - -
    / \ / \ / \
    1 - - - - - - - 5 = ballistic play
    \ / \ / \ /
    - - - - -
    (It took me a while to understand that the minuses are scenes, and the numbers just shows the order in comparison to the other models.)
  • edited August 2014
    Yes you figured it out.
    I can't imagine how the result of playing 3, 5, 2, 1, 4 would be compared to 2, 5, 1, 4, 3. I need an example, because I think assembly play also ends in 5
    I'll give you two. (1) A mystery that takes 5 clues to solve. It doesn't matter what order you get them in. (2) A common fantasy trope is the "item that has been broken into X parts and scattered". Again, it doesn't matter what order you get them in.

    ETA: You're gonna say that needs a 6 now, right? :-) For a resolution of the superobjective? Well... Perhaps that's true for most modern western dramatic & comedic forms. But (3) another example would be a postmodern story structure that jumps around the same event from POV to POV, or (4) a "Slaughterhouse 5" kinda thing that moves forward and backward in time. Once you've got all the data, you're effectively done. They have no climax; they simply end.

    ETAA: And again, remember we've got a fractal set of scales to work with. Not just "Scenes". So you really have to map the structure of the whole campaign, and then that of each session, and that of each scene, maybe even down to each beat. And I expect when you do that, you'll typically find a variety of different play types nested within each other.
  • edited August 2014
    You're gonna say that needs a 6 now, right? :-) For a resolution of the superobjective? Well... Perhaps that's true for most modern western dramatic & comedic forms.
    Yeah, you nailed my point of assembly play needed a resolution scene in the end.
    ETAA: And again, remember we've got a fractal set of scales to work with. Not just "Scenes". So you really have to map the structure of the whole campaign, and then that of each session, and that of each scene, maybe even down to each beat. And I expect when you do that, you'll typically find a variety of different play types nested within each other.
    Good that you explained "fractal set of scales", because I had problem understanding it (as well as with ETA not meaning Estimated Time of Arrival).

    And I totally agree with the last sentence. That's probably one reason why it's hard to talk about this way of playing a roleplaying game.
    ETA: But (3) another example would be a postmodern story structure that jumps around the same event from POV to POV, or (4) a "Slaughterhouse 5" kinda thing that moves forward and backward in time. Once you've got all the data, you're effectively done. They have no climax; they simply end.
    I don't know what Slaughterhouse 5 is, but I get your point.

    I do wonder if the examples in the quote above are part of these playing types we're discussing. Judging from your examples, it seems like it's more of an exploratory game play in the style of sandboxes.
    - if it's fixed order of scenes, but jumping in time, it's still linear play. "Scattered chronological order", if I crudely translate the Swedish term from literature. The movie Memento has a reversed chronological order, with the ending scene first, but it's still linear (because it's a movie).
    - if you can take any scene in any order, and letting any scene become the last one, it seems to me the same thing as visiting any place in a sandbox in any order. The important thing is what you find in each scene (or "place", in the sandbox). If you don't wrap it up, I'm having a hard time saying it's has anything to do with linear, assembly, or ballistic play because it's not steered. A true sandbox doesn't have an ending, in my opinion. It can however run out of things to explore.
  • edited August 2014
    I wasn't aware that there were limits on the types of games we were discussing! :-)

    I lean toward insisting on the difference between lines and assemblies. Partly because for the sake of completeness we will need to consider them both in their planned forms and in their emergent forms, and also in interrupted or moribund forms. I think assemblies will become more important when we begin speaking of multi-tiered narratives and massive multidimensional structures (like worlds or campaigns) with numbers of free-floating structures within them. You may see assemblies as an edge case at this moment in the conversation, but I think the concept is important because it will eventually take us to "object-oriented" designs with stochastic aggregations leading to varying emergent plots. In such a system it is possible for the GM to modify the railroad on the fly by moving whole sections around; and that is not possible with a linear sequence,

    Memento is linear. Don't be fooled by the fact that it runs backward chronologically. The scenes written by Chris Nolan are handed to us forward for us - i.e., the information he wants us to know first, he gives us first.
  • edited August 2014
    I lean toward insisting on the difference between lines and assemblies.
    Then go for it. :) It's possible that I'm not seeing it the right way.
  • edited August 2014
    I think you're focusing on the "scenes<adventure" level. I'm trying to keep in our minds the fractal nature of the superstructure and its other levels too. It's important because no one railroads on all levels all of the time. Railroading is not like a character class of GMs who can only run railroads. A railroad (or a GM's perceived need for one) can emerge at any point within a previously-existing structure, and it may serve an end which is on the scene level or on a higher level.
  • A fight in the beginning, and a fight at the end. I'm giving the players a goal in the first fight, and it's up to them how they will take themselves to the last fight. They can do whatever they want but, in the end, there will be a fight. They can't avoid it. This is to me a weak rail.
    I’ve taken to calling this “the big reveal” because of many Call/Trail/Dark Cthulhu scenarios, I don’t like them. Even though the big “Are Cthulhu scenarios railroaded” thread here on S-G called them not railroaded, some of them lead to a “big reveal”. In your Feng Shui style, it’s less a “big reveal” and more a “big fight”. So maybe I have to come up with a more generic term. But not too generic because then that might be a good name that I would rather use for something good.
  • I also had players that acted in a way that they thought were expected of them. I had players that said, when I played a fish tank, that they didn't like the how they were railed, when all they did was doing what they thought I expected of them. All I did was changing the open-ended scenario after their plans, so they sort of railroaded themselves?
    Play where the players control their characters normally and the GM improvises can often feel very railroaded. This was my Big Problem as GM throughout the 00's. I played super rules light and super prep light but players had few meaningful choices.
    I think linear play usually have a higher success rate in creating successful stories, because the designer of the story has more control. I'm not saying you can't create great stories in collaborative storytelling but I haven't cracked why it becomes successful in those manners, where I do have done that with linear play.
    My best game experiences have been collaborative or OSR-style sandbox (pre-generated location and items in the location, not pre-generated events). Just as an aside, don't mean to derail.
  • edited August 2014
    Cool. Glad to see the discussion is ongoing, and developing.

    The missing bit from my perspective is the Creative Agenda angle, which is a different way of distinguishing "good" railroading from "bad" railroading, and which I find entirely sufficient for this purpose.

    ETA ("edited to add"): for a simple example, consider the hypothetical Feng Shui game which ends with a confrontation with the Big Bad. These are all *completely* different games, and if you're not all on the same page as to which game you're playing, you're probably screwed:

    1. The last scene is the PCs meeting the Big Bad. What do they choose to do when they meet him?
    2. The last scene is the PCs meeting the Big Bad, and a big fight with him. Will they win the fight?
    3. The last scene is the PCs meeting the Big Bad, and a big fight with him, which ends with the Good Guys winning.

    What you guys are discussing now sounds to me simply like "creative constraints", particularly on a story/plot level (for example, when we play Fiasco, we know that most characters' stories are likely to end badly, and that we only get four scenes per character - I find it very bizarre to refer to this as "railroading", or any other term we want to use in its place). But this is an interesting discussion of their use and role in games. I dig.

    It also makes me realize that I might never have played in a good railroaded game (at least not since I was a young teenager). The closest I can think of is a Monsterhearts game, in which the GM pushed very forcefully towards a climactic ending in the time-slot provided (it was a one-shot). However, I hesitate to call that "linear" or "railroaded", because we always had the freedom to act, and the GM always accepted and built on all our contributions. In other words, the GM was working to build *some kind of* climax, and carefully timed to line up with the length of the time slot for the game, but I don't think anyone (including the GM) knew what it would look like.

    How would you describe or categorize that in this way of looking at GMing/scenario design?

    (And, just for curiosity's sake, I really really enjoyed that game. It was fantastic! However, I do think I would have enjoyed it a tiny bit more had the GM been less pushy about the ending. A less explosive climax, but put together with more freedom, would have been more interesting and satisfactory for me, I think.)
  • I don't like this idea of micro-railroading either. This seems to claim every instance of force or authority constitute railroading, which I don't think is helpful.

    Fundamentally, I just don't see any need to rehabilitate railraoding as a term. I, for one, am perfectly content with using it to mean non-consensual, anti-contractual force, as long as it is further understood that I don't think that's inherently related to healty Illusionism.

    Perhaps the thread should be asking about the succesful uses of force and authority in Illusionist games, if that's what it wants to talk about. It might also be wrothwhile asking what the GM was trying to do, when we see examples of of bad play that constitute railroading, and how they could have been better achieved without being so heavy-handed.

  • Perhaps the thread should be asking about the succesful uses of force and authority in Illusionist games, if that's what it wants to talk about. It might also be wrothwhile asking what the GM was trying to do, when we see examples of of bad play that constitute railroading, and how they could have been better achieved without being so heavy-handed.
    +1!

  • edited August 2014
    To avoid restating a bunch of stuff. I'll just post a link. My favourite description and discussion of "railroading" was early in this thread, particularly the posts near the beginning by Eero and Christopher Kubasik (for whom character, plot, and similar concerns are his profession, I am pretty sure).

    Hey, contracycle! Railroading? Illusionism?
  • edited August 2014
    I don't like this idea of micro-railroading either. This seems to claim every instance of force or authority constitute railroading, which I don't think is helpful.

    Fundamentally, I just don't see any need to rehabilitate railraoding as a term. I, for one, am perfectly content with using it to mean non-consensual, anti-contractual force, as long as it is further understood that I don't think that's inherently related to healty Illusionism.
    Then why are you even in this thread? If you don't like any kind of railroading, then stay the fuck away. It's a rhetorical question so don't even bother answering. I'm not even interested to hear your answer.
  • Actually I was looking forward to hearing @contracycle's thoughts, because of some things he said in the other thread. I think he agrees functionally but not semantically. @contracycle - take that ball you found and run with it!

    Note: Here at SG we are pretty bad at sticking within the domain of any OP with a stated objective for gathering answers of a certain type. Actually I think the only times we succeed are when we're competing against each other in a "top that" thread and candidate answers are pithy. But amidst the drift, the semantic squabbles and the nudges toward dogma and homogeneity, between the links to allegedly greater authorities who have already answered a kinda similar question to someone else's satisfaction, we still occasionally get moments of new insight worth waiting for. I am learning to live with that. So show us yours, by all means!
  • AsIf,

    While I agree about a general tendency to drift and get off-track on this forum (probably a characteristic of the internet at large, to be fair!), posts like contracycle's seem to me to be perfectly in line with what you originally posted: "Railroading theory", "post and discuss definitions and theories", etc.

    Would you to restate your OP, perhaps? It might help.

    Are you looking for discussion of specific techniques we use as GMs, with examples? (That's where Rickard is heading, I feel, and it's certainly interesting.) That could be a helpful point of focus, I think, but I'm not sure if that's what you're after.
  • (I can say that, for me, the interesting aspect here is the hypothetical plotted game, which allows a GM to craft a "perfect" experience before the game, complete with foreshadowing, a climax, and a twist - or whatever other features - and how that can be pulled off. I've never felt satisfied myself in that kind of game, either as a player or as a GM, but I'll keep an open mind to it being potentially a fun experience, and artistically it does have a certain appeal.)
  • edited August 2014
    posts like contracycle's seem to me to be perfectly in line with what you originally posted
    I agree! I would like to see him continue posting his thoughts on the subject.
    Would you to restate your OP, perhaps? It might help.
    "for GMs to post and discuss definitions, techniques, applications, theories and examples of what some call "railroading" - as a literary and game-epistemological device used by both designers and GMs." ... I think I'm good with that.
    Are you looking for discussion of specific techniques we use as GMs, with examples? (That's where Rickard is heading, I feel, and it's certainly interesting.) That could be a helpful point of focus, I think, but I'm not sure if that's what you're after.
    I love what Rickard is posting, and I'm not after any particular viewpoint, except that I want this thread to be a "safe place" for GMs and designers to discuss the subject in terms of both theory and technique, without worrying about having to defend ourselves against folks who simply repeat the mantra that it's categorically evil. @contracycle is not one of those people.

    Your last post describes a holy grail, and indeed some of us are moving toward it in a variety of ways... some of which might not be clearly recognizable as either "trad" or "fiction-first", or anything Ron Edwards once defined. New artforms tend to arise from those ideas which shatter a previous generation's beliefs and dogmas. I assume that some of our ideas might make us targets for dogmatic assertions or pedantic recapitulations of old definitions. That's really all I wish to avoid. Been there done that!
  • That's cool, Tod. I dig.

    (Although the "holy grail" just sounds like straight-up "trad gaming" to me, like 90's Vampire or whatever.)
  • There are greater things, Mercutio....
  • Ok, tell me about that!
  • Eventually I will, but in another thread. This one is for aggregating existing data, theory and techniques from a variety of experienced sources.
  • edited August 2014
    Yeah, y'all are way overthinking this. Everything, and I mean everything, totally depends on what my understanding is of my role as a player (particularly as a non-GM player) in a particular RPG. I've taken to saying, "Expectations Matter," rather than "System Matters" because I think the former phrase actually boils down the major issues with the hobby to an even more fundamental level.

    If my role as a player—what kind of choices I'm expected to make, in other words—isn't clearly explained to me, I'm going to be upset. That's really pretty much it.

    ETA: I'm not saying this from the point of view of someone who is *entirely* "anti-railroading" particularly given the broad definitions in use here of the term. And I even think AsIf is correct that it is possible to railroad/predetermine things on one level of the narrative without predetermining all of them. But note that my proposal, to frame everything in terms of how the game's instructions are communicated to the player, deal with any possible issues surrounding those techniques.
  • edited August 2014
    Expectations Matter. I agree with that. But different artforms have different expectations, and some of the games already residing under the ever-stretching aegis of "RPG" are so different from each other as to be effectively different artforms. (Fuckin' Yay!, I am all for ludological diversity. I just don't give a shit about the state lexicon. It doesn't change fast enough.)

    But that's not to say it's impossible to model one artform within another, or to build a third thing which has aspects of both. I'm not very interested in classifying today's or yesterday's games. I'm more interested in tomorrow's games.

    If a system's primary priorities are to be plot-based, then other considerations will have to be descended in priority, at least to the degree that they must be safeguarded from undermining the primary priorities. And therefore, subsystems for guidance of those secondary priorities will need to be established. This is a structural issue that impacts not only player immersion, but the very flow of functionality. It is important.

    Imagine a modern branching drama game where the expectation is that the system provides a dramatic arc, a consistent world, a coherent plot, a cathartic climax, and a karmically-fitting denoument, like a well-made movie. I don't necessarily need to explain all the kinds of choices you might make before playing because (for example) I could prompt/query you as you go along, whenever you hit a node (i.e. a branchpoint requiring resolution). Or something equally wow.

    Ok, now imagine another game with the same plot-based expectations but where I don't build paths between the nodes at all, I just scatter proactive NPCs, reactive objects and linking clues all over the place, and I make all your choices communicable literally through actions you perform with items in the game (like MYST perhaps?). But it's a modern world. It's basically a modern sandbox; there's no way I could relate all the possible kinds of choices available to you because they are as broad as the real world.

    Those two games are different not so much in expectations, but (more importantly from a design standpoint) in infrastructure. Still, for both games, since "railroading" typically functions as plot-insurance, an important design question is to what degree "railroading" as an artistic technique can be subsumed into the system and gracefully employed. The solutions will differ very much between these two games. Now. Questions of narrative control can be divided up into different levels, as we have discussed above. In addition, stories are fractal in nature and the good ones are multi-tiered. All these levels can be written so as to affect each other. And the mechanics for all this stuff can be taken up in the design of the system itself, or it can be addressed in an ad-hoc fashion by the performance of individual GMs. Or both. So that's a design question too.

    I assure you we are not overthinking this. We're barely beginning to think about this.

  • Of course I'm not arguing that you should tell people ahead of time *what* choices they will face in the game. What I *am* saying is that people need to approach games with the proper orientation, including reasonable honesty about how much we can expect our decisions to impact big-picture outcomes.

    This sort of framing doesn't *have* to be 100% explicit, but it should be close. If you pitch a game about a war as, "You are soldiers on the front lines. You won't have much say in your missions; the game is about whether or not you survive and how you process the horrors of war, losing friends, perhaps doing horrible things in the name of your country, etc," then it's pretty clear that my choices as a player should impact surviving missions and the moral impact of my character's experiences, but not whether we win the war or anything relating to big-picture strategy. Whereas if you make our characters generals and kings, it'd be pretty unreasonable for us *not* to be able to have an impact on the big-picture outcomes, without specific warnings to that effect: "this game is a tragedy and no matter what you do, your nation will lose the war."

    So I guess what I'm saying is, make sure your *implicit* framing matches up with anything you tell the players *explicitly* about how the game's rules work or what *sorts* of choices they should expect to face.
  • edited August 2014
    I'm 100% on board with what Deliverator says above. Indeed, I think a huge chunk of the bad experiences people have had with this sort of play originate in setup.

    One of the commonly held presumptions about RPGing is that you the player are entitled to make any kind of character you want. What this often produces is a batch of characters designed with no relationship between each other, often in total ignorance of each other. For the GM who is hoping to direct play through any kind of preplanned structure, however that is intended to be done, this presents a huge problem. Because all these characters come with different backstories, all of them with inherent, implicit trajectories of their own. None of them are designed to "interface", if you like, with the direction the GM is intending to go. Often, their inherent trajectories are mutually exclusive.

    Right there the GM is provided with a motivation to do some of the things we saw in WM's thread, such as hand-wavingly transporting the characters to some alien world where none of their backstories have any relevance. That immediately trashes a lot of the players investment in their characters, but it usefully obviates much of the problem of their unrelatedness; now they are all in the same boat, cut off from their expected contexts, and ideally, "forced to work together". That, at least, is the GM's hope.

    Of course it also leaves the players feeling like the GM has pissed on them from a great height, and not unreasonably so. A much better idea would be to do as Deliverator suggests, to be quite open about how restricted the context is really going to be, for the GM to work directly with the players in constructing characters that will fit. It's also, IME, a really really good idea to ban players from designing characters on their own, and instead to design them as a group, establishing explicit, even formal, relationships between them.

    This requires slaughtering two sacred cows: namely, that the player has total freedom to design their characer, and that the PC's are going to be a bunch of disparate misfits brought together by circumstance.

    This even has some implications for system. Although I'm not familiar with the current state of D&D, this type of character design is not going to be best served by a system that makes all "fighters" or whatever much the same. If for example, all your characters are going to be members of the City Watch of Waterdeep, or something like that, you will need a system that would allow for at least five or six different "builds" of what might very well be the same "class" so that the players have sufficient means of personalising and variegating their characters such that they can have individual prominence, and make individual contributions.
  • /nodding. Thank you both. Good points.
    System definitely matters here. Some chargen systems are very keenly focused and that makes the above problems less likely to arise. Others are so broad they can exacerbate the above problems. And we haven't even talked about Principles yet, but obviously they come into play as well.
  • Yeah, I've been running an all-Wizards Pathfinder hack for awhile now and it's nice the way all the characters have at least one major thing in common! While the different schools of magic / elemental specialties, as well as the wide variety of races in play, and some personality mechanics I've tacked on, keep everyone feeling like distinct entities in the gameworld.

    I mean, if someone showed up to Advanced Wizards and Wizards with a Fighter build, it'd be pretty clear who the asshole is. :-) Whereas if you show up to Advanced GM-likes-Wizards-the-best with a Fighter, and expect to have fun...
  • edited August 2014
    I see. It sounds like we're not really talking about *railroading*, but talking about story structure in RPG design. Is that on the ball, or a total misreading on my part?

    (As a sidenote, and not entirely relevant, I suppose, is that my personal experience - and, I suspect, this is not at all uncommon among posters here - is one of great fatigue when it comes to pre-plotted gaming. Simply enough, if you are the GM in a game which runs on some kind of "rails", you don't get to enjoy playing in the same way that the players do. You limit your own enjoyment which comes from "turning the page", like in a good book. I think that, for a lot of people, this was the big revelation in "story gaming" - that you could have these same great stories without codifying them ahead of time, by focusing on good character design, relationships in tension, and conflicts. Finally the GM could actually *play* the game, and enjoy it as an audience member, reveling in the plot twists, instead of being a cat-herder who, in the very best scenario, simply gets to tell the story as he'd planned it. So that's another reason why GMs might not be too keen on pre-plotted, linear story: it dilutes the game experience, changes your role from someone who is playing a game and interacting with a story into a sort of frustrated director/manager. I'm always open to new surprises, however!)

    This reminds of another kind of middle ground, which I see sometimes in games. It is, essentially, "Here is a thing you must/should/might include in the upcoming game." Good examples include Key Scenes in The Shadow of Yesterday, the Tilt elements in Fiasco, and Spotlights in Death School.

    All the players know that these things are up for grabs, and should appear at some point. They give a sort of common focus or common direction to play: "Okay, we know that at some point the Hulk is going to be crushed under a ton of rubble, and then later burst out of there at a dramatic moment." Later: "You see a huge stone pyramid over there." "The assassin you're chasing runs inside." "The Hulk follows him inside the pyramid!"

    Everyone knows what's going to happen, and we can collaborate to make it happen. But we don't know when or where it will happen, and there's always room for surprises (maybe the pyramid won't collapse on him this time, after all).

    These "things" are kind of like signposts, in a sense. Or beacons in the dark. They give the players (GM included) something to aim for together in the murk of roleplaying, some focus for where the story will go.

    Every game has lots of implicit beacons, as well. Character Flags were once a big thing; we don't talk about them much anymore, because I think most of the people who like them have internalized the concept and "forgotten" it. If you buy your character an ability to survive an unlikely situation by escaping from his or her bonds, you can bet someone else at the table is going to try to get them tied up at some point. Key Buyoffs in TSoY are another good example: that character with the Key of the Coward will a) have scary stuff thrown at them (or pursue it herself), and b) very likely, at a suitably dramatic moment, have a change of heart and overcome her fear.

    They can even be written into the fictional content, like Uriah Flint in Lady Blackbird. There's no rule that says you must meet him, but in most games we will be curious to meet him, and to see what happens when Lady Blackbird faces him.

    All these seem to have little to do with railroading, to me (which I see as a social phenomenon, as Matt and contracycle describe it above - broken expecations). But if I think of this as story structure in RPGs, there are a million things to explore, I agree with that.
  • edited August 2014
    I wish I could go with that, Paul, because it would make this conversation a lot smoother between you and I, but it leaves out a lot. For one thing, "story structure" can be emergent. Hey, it happens. I think we should be a bit more specific since we're trying to build an approximation you can work with. I was thinking a good interpretation for you might be more along the lines of "enforced story structure" and maybe even "sometimes with an element of misdirection, illusion, deliberate predestination and/or no choice".

    But that's still not complete. Because sometimes (most often, in my experience) it's not the whole structure (the "story") that one might be trying to preserve. You might have no idea where the story is going, but you still want to "railroad" something in order to preserve something else. Sure, sometimes it's plot. But sometimes it's mood or tone. Sometimes it's an NPC, or even a map. Or your labor in general. Sometimes it's time. Sometimes it's a crutch for newbies. Sometimes it's the game experience of a player who couldn't make it tonight. So now I have to amend the interpretation to say "enforced elements". You can see how it's getting rather broad now, which makes me think "aw fuck, just use the old word - which we seem to agree doesn't really work anyway - and reclaim it".

    Yeah, that's just me.

    Oh but also this: It sounds like you're still thinking of the entire session or campaign as the thing that gets "railroaded". Remember that I'm not necessarily speaking of entire campaigns or whole sessions, and I'm not categorizing GMs as "railroaders" and "non-railroaders". Enforced elements can be injected on many levels, in large or small pieces, they are more often used tactically than generally, and are often found in the designs themselves.

    Ultimately, what I'm trying to get to is an understanding of the word in which the old definition is seen as just a particularly nasty subset of the new definition. Because all of these things are examples of enforced elements, and all of these things may be done for good or bad reasons.
  • edited August 2014
    Well, that certainly clarifies what you're looking for. I still can't think of it as "railroading", but I'm on board with exploring it!

    (And, no, I don't see what it has to do with scope. Sure, as you say, the "enforced elements" can be minor/tactical or larger in scale. I don't see a difference in terms of the theory of the thing.)

    ETA: I'm also going to get over my fear of spoilers and read your DayTrippers adventure to see if an example helps clarify things.
  • edited August 2014
    Right on. I think we can talk now!

    Here's a case somewhere in the middle, as I see it. This is not a "typical" case, but there's no such thing as a typical case by my definition, unless the GM is neurotic about it. So just for one example:

    If I throw storms and minor foes at the party all night long and force you to slow your movement to the point where it will be impossible to reach the next town before the end of tonight's session, even though it should have been simple, and if I did this all because Rickard couldn't be here tonight but I knew he would be here next week and I wanted him to be there when you entered the town's gates, simply because I believe he will want to be there... that's not about story, but I'd still call it railroading.

    If that example doesn't fit under the word we already have, then it implies that we're gonna need a whole slew of new words to describe all the various possible methods and reasons for enforced elements.
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