A bit of railroading theory

The other threads about railroading inspired me to do a little write-up on my own theory of how to play railroading games. I didn't want to just go and hijack Sandra's thread, so here we are.

I've been thinking about how to execute traditional railroad gaming effectively since say 2006 or so. I've a couple of friends here in Finland with whom we occasionally play various traditional games with leanings towards railroads, trying out different things. My theoretical background on this is Forgite, so I'm pretty much trying to figure out how to do "effective participationist simulationism".

The sort of railroad gaming that I'm discussing here applies equally to atmospheric horror games like Call of Cthulhu as well as fantasy adventure games like Dragonlance. I've been running a participationist wuxia drama game this winter myself, informed by our findings. The defining technical feature of "railroading" for my purposes is that the game includes significant amounts of pre-prepped content, arranged into a plot framework, to be delivered by the GM to the other players during play itself.

Most of the following points are probably familiar to old hands from here and there; I'm just doing a quick article to put them all into one place, to form the big picture on railroading.

The creative payoff of railroading

Looking at that definition, I think it's pretty obvious that we are talking about a form of storytelling as much as a form of game. For railroading to make any sense to an experienced roleplayer, the GM must be able to deliver a better storytelling experience with prep than he could off-the-cuff. If the prep does nothing, you're better off with some other type of game structure altogether. It's just wasted work if it doesn't enable you to deliver better.

This is why I interpret railroading as a fundamentally Simulationist activity, in GNS terms: there is only ever a reason to railroad if your assumption is that the players want to enjoy delivered content for its own sake.

Considering your creative strategy, it's good to notice that even if your creative goals are simulationistic, railroading does not directly follow; it's just one possible strategy for delivering a powerful sense of the fictional moment. There are other ways to go about that, too.

Distribution of tasks in railroad play

Your usual dialogue on how railroading works concerns itself heavily with players who don't want to be railroaded. So let's just put that aside and assume that the players don't have any hang-ups with the basic premise of playing characters stuck in a plot not of their own design. What, then, is the role of the railroaded player in a railroaded game?

My central realization in this regard is that treating railroading as a problem and a bad habit to be divested, while justifiable for historical reasons, does tend to obscure the reality of the types of interaction that railroaded games favour. Specifically, we tend to focus on the worst of it, assuming that a fixed plot specifically means that the players have nothing of significance to do in the game - they're just there to listen to the GM's story.

However, after thinking about it for a bit, I came to conclude that there are several important artistic contributions that are clearly possible for character players in a railroaded game's framework. These are, I imagine, what actually successful railroad games focus on:
* The character players have control of the pace of play: you can choose whether to skim a given scene/topic, or to stop and delve deeper. Just declare your intent to move on, or your intent to stay, and the GM will adapt.
* The character players have control of the focus of play at any given time: by asking direct questions and paying active attention to certain facets of the on-going play situation, you can direct the GM to change their delivery.
* The character players have control of their own acting, insofar as the expressive actions and reactions of their own characters go. This is explicitly not control over the events in a true railroad game, but rather control over the Color of how those events come to pass.

You know what is the perfect simile for this kind of roleplaying game? Old-fashioned point-and-click computer adventure games like Monkey Island and such deliver a very, very similar artistic experience: some light (or not so light) hoop-jumping to prove that you're paying attention, pretty audiovisuals and plot directly delivered to you, an opportunity to explore dialogue trees and scenery, and an unique first-person perspective on the narrative: unlike a movie or a novel, which do not allow you any control over the aforementioned aspects of the narrative, both adventure video games and railroaded roleplaying games allow you to pro-actively choose where your character looks and are we ready to move on to the next scene. These may seem mean details for a different type of roleplaying game, but compare to other narrative artforms, and you may start to see the significance.

A side-note about princess play and doll-housing

There's been some talk over the years about different creative forms of roleplaying. Forms that I like to call "princess play" and "doll-house play" have occasionally been discussed on this forum as well.

I'll just note here, for the theory-heads, that while both of those are specifically simulationistic activities, and they're both compatible with railroading, the three concepts are technically independent of each other - not all railroad play is necessarily princess play as well, and vice versa. Call of Cthulhu is usually not a princessing game, for example, while Pathfinder very much is, yet both are clearly railroad games in their default execution.
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  • Practical theory

    Given the above concepts, my current theory on how to conduct a powerful, meaningful railroading game:

    First, the GM needs to be up-front about the concept. It's just so much easier if the players understand that the game relies on prepared content, the GM wants to use what they prep, and therefore the most sensible way for the game progress is for the players to follow the plot. Just get that concept down, don't confuse the issue with vague promises of freedom that you're not genuinely willing to support.

    Second, well-prepped railroad material has tactile value: by this I mean that the scenes and characters and situations you prep need to have that same quality that a well-made adventure video game has, which is to say, the players do not get bored when they experience your content, and they are rewarded by exploring it further. A railroaded game experience is essentially a series of one-scene micro-sandboxes where the players have options like "you could peek into the countess' closet, or not", and "you could talk to the countess, or not". Set your material up with this type of interaction in mind.

    Third, give the character players everything on my list of competencies, no subtle or overt power plays over any of that. A railroad game already gives the GM extreme amounts of work and influence over the game, so it would be outright petty to demand even more. You have the luxury of allowing the players free rein with the pace, focus and character acting in exchange for them playing along with your plot and other prep.

    Fourth, use a non-broken rules system. Part of the historical problem is that railroading is executed with the wrong rules-systems. Just look at Dragonlance: does it really make sense to anybody to use a skirmish commando wargame rules system for a long high fantasy campaign with character continuity? It's a pit of fudging and freeforming and depravity, rather than a straight, clean and overt game. As a rule of thumb, just discard any rules system that leaves the possibility of your next scene getting to happen up to the dice. Just say no to that shit, it's deprecated in this day and age. And yes, this does imply rewriting Call of Cthulhu from the ground up, which fortunately has already been done like three or four times that I know of.

    The creative outcome

    My experience is that I still need to do a lot of sim play in general, and railroad play in particular, to really master the form. However, encouraging players to explicitly entertain their competencies regarding story pace, focus and character acting, has immeasurably improved the fun. Part of that is an improvement in story-telling quality: imagining myself as the computer that delivers Monkey Island to the players seems to have a laudable effect on my prep, as it becomes less focused on the strict enforcement of plot logic (as in, "does this story make sense, or will the players see the rails?"), and more focused on delivering emotionally relevant story elements like setting, NPCs, places and events.

    Players in turn prosper as an audience enjoying a storytelling performance when they are explicitly released from the tyranny of the adventure game: particular games differ on how much "hoop-jumping" they involve, but once we understand that it's just that, the players get to relax a bit; they're not responsible for the story reaching the correct conclusion by ensuring that their characters succeed against all odds. Instead, the players are free to make character-expressive moves powered by curiousity and desire to play-act: push the buttons you want to see what happens, trusting that the GM has the plot in hand anyway, so anything you do to experience the story your own way is just as fine as anything else. No judgements.
  • Other than Trail of Cthulhu, what systems do you know of that work well for what you're describing here?
  • This is very, very good stuff, Eero.

    I'm interested in where you take this next.
  • Games like Fate would obviously work well (although a given fan of the game might dislike using it for railroad play).

    Many fantasy adventure games work reasonably well with only moderate hacking. Like, WFRPG practically works out of the box already thanks to the existence of fate points in that one game - and it's not difficult to drop similar conceits into other titles.

    Dragon Union is explicitly designed for playing D&D in basically this way.

    Dead of Night and Dread are two horror story railroading games, designed for that.

    Paranoia, if one chooses to interpret it in this way, provides no difficulty.

    A bunch of superhero games work more or less well, but it's been a while since I reviewed the rules in minute detail. That Marvel superheroes game where you move stones around (is it third edition - there's a newer one out already, I think?) should work basically out of the box, I'd say.

    There are probably some others, but it's certainly not a very well-dredged field. It would be justified to see a call to action in the way traditional games fail to provide for this enormously popular, yet divisive, style of play. That is to say, there's room on the market for games that do this thing. I wouldn't be surprised if much of the popularity of Fate and Dungeon World and whatnot derives from the fact that they provide a reasonably traditional chassis for character play without the constant mortal threat implied by traditional rules-systems in the way the combat interactions work.
  • Second, well-prepped railroad material has tactile value: by this I mean that the scenes and characters and situations you prep need to have that same quality that a well-made adventure video game has, which is to say, the players do not get bored when they experience your content, and they are rewarded by exploring it further. A railroaded game experience is essentially a series of one-scene micro-sandboxes where the players have options like "you could peek into the countess' closet, or not", and "you could talk to the countess, or not". Set your material up with this type of interaction in mind.hat happens, trusting that the GM has the plot in hand anyway, so anything you do to experience the story your own way is just as fine as anything else. No judgements.

    Yes, this was also one of the things I realized when I watched more games that were railroaded, that I had underestimated this quality.
  • This is very, very good stuff, Eero.

    I'm interested in where you take this next.

    Thanks.

    As for what's next, I'll probably close down our wuxia campaign after the current arc and revise it to make it explicitly dollhousing+princessing instead of railroading+princessing that it is right now. While the railroading has been no trouble at all for us at the game table, I've found that I rather hate prepping for this game - the type of prep that a wuxia drama game with a big princessing component and high character mortality requires is not at all interesting and natural for me as a person. I'll either need some prep tools that make it more fun, or I'll need to turn the game into a dollhouse where I just make the NPCs and the players then set the scenes with them.

    The other Sim thing on my list is expanding my railroading from horror to fantasy and superheroes. I've been running highly successful, carefully pre-plotted Dead of Night for years now, and I think I could do superheroes or high fantasy (Earthsea, to be specific) as well, just as soon as I pick/create the proper rules-set for it and find the time on the play schedule to try it out.

    But yeah, I continue messing with simmy things on occasion. It's a wild field; I feel like the state of the art is not yet nearly as polished as it is for some other types of tabletop roleplaying.
  • edited April 2018
    Have you looked at the old FASERIP Marvel modules over at classicmarvelforever.com ?

    www.classicmarvelforever.com/cms/basic-game-and-modules.html

    Those were very much designed in the vein you're talking about, and they're mid 1980s, about contemporary with the Dragonlance modules.

    Also, WRT to constant mortal threats, yeah, I very much think you're on the right track.
  • I should read up on FASERIP - it's one of those games I've never studied. It's an interesting game by all accounts, and clearly much more popular in the US than here - I've never seen a copy or even heard of somebody owning it here in Finland.
  • (In case there's some confusion, FASERIP is the short-hand for the chart-based resolution system in the Marvel Superheroes RPG by Jeff Grubb, and a nickname for MSH. Grubb or someone else might have released a FASERIP ruleset recently, though.)
  • edited April 2018
    Hi Eero,

    I agree with the broad strokes you describe (particularly the honest communication), but I disagree with a lot of the details. In my experience, the character acting and control over momentary color and small-scale outcomes is vastly more important and rewarding than control over "when do we look where". Controlling pace and focus is great at times, but at other times it's trivial and can waste time that'd be better spent with the plot-master moving things along as per their knowledge of where the interesting stuff lies.

    The one-room mini-sandbox is probably the least inspiring thing I can think to do with a scripted plot. No wonder you haven't loved your prep!

    Although I think your account is right to focus on what's in it for the railroaded players, as that's poorly served in RPG history, I don't think you've clearly articulated what's in it for the GM. "Let them wander around my prepared room and poke it at their own pace," is, in my mind, one of the worst answers to this question. Sandbox and challenge procedure make for horrible plot-delivery.

    The GM driving events forward with developments that the players must react to now is a much easier way to provide an interactive tableau that is interesting rather than boring, at least in my experience.

    You mention that railroaded play is very much a type of storytelling, but then it sounds to me like your starting point is a Call of Cthulhu module rather than a good story. I say we should start with a good story instead! Drama, revelations, betrayals, twists and turns, and characters built to care about it all.

    I'm happy to elaborate on any or all of this (or not :) ), depending on what you're looking for in this thread.

    Ps,
    -David
  • I'm not really looking for anything - I just felt like putting down my current state of the art on the topic.

    As for the sandbox thing, I'd rather you didn't take that so literally - it's just a simile, attempting to illustrate the idea that there is an interactivity to a roleplaying game that is not present in most other narrative artforms, even if the game is fully railroaded. Just like adventure video games (that part isn't a simile, it's a comparison), the players have a limited amount of freedom within a given scene or situation to influence the way the story gets delivered.

    A trivial example, to clarify what I mean: a player often has a lot of control over the dialogue tree with NPCs. They can ask questions, they can signal attitudes that the NPCs respond to, and so on. If you talk about elephants with the NPC, that becomes a part of the experienced story, even if the GM did not expect the topic to come up. Presumably the GM won't let anything happen to actually influence the plot (wouldn't be a pure railroad then), but the player experience of the content is nevertheless affected. It is very similar to the way the player's experience of a video game is affected by their own reaction to the game, and the choices they make in examining the essentially static content the game provides them. You can explore the NPC, but you cannot really make them do or not do anything important that they weren't going to do anyway.

    In my experience, the character acting and control over momentary color and small-scale outcomes is vastly more important and rewarding than control over "when do we look where".

    I think this has to be a semantic issue, as the things you list as contrasting seem to be like examples of the things you're contrasting with.

    This is actually a good topic to address in a bit more depth. What are momentary color and small-scale outcomes (to borrow David's words) in a railroaded roleplaying game? I would argue that in terms of storytelling they are the precise things I listed: pace, focus and character acting.

    Consider a truly railroaded fantasy adventure game, for instance. Something like Dragonlance, except with rules that don't get in the way. The heroes encounter some draconian soldiers intent on killing or capturing them, so a fight occurs. Many attack rolls are made on both sides to figure out how the combat goes. What is going on here?

    The way I understand it, that entire process of executing a combat scene is there in a railroaded game precisely to allow the players the opportunity to appreciate the fleeting, colorful details that are involved in the idea of combat. The dice are certainly not being rolled to find out the outcome of the affair: the GM already knows that the heroes win/lose and then are captured/escape, and then meet the enemy boss or a sudden ally, or however the plot's supposed to go here. That's all already fixed, so we're not rolling the dice to figure that out.

    Rather, that whole process is an example of a pacing ("this is a suitable place to stop, plot-wise, and have an action scene") and a focus ("let's delve into minute detail about who hits whom with a sword"), and an opportunity for character depiction ("now I have a chance to show how my character acts under fire"). Those small-scale outcomes of attack and defense rolls are a tool of expression that the players use to develop their tapestry of ephemeral storytelling color. It's paint-by-numbers, essentially: the GM provides the scene and the topic, but everybody gets to participate in the painting, staying within the established frame.

    The point of the model I suggested above is that while traditionally the distribution of tasks between the GM and the character players is very vague and often confused, I think that it can be fixed pretty well by making it explicit that the character players should have a clear voice in the play process: playing a railroad game does not need to mean player passivity, it just means that you don't have choices related to the plot so much as choices related to depiction. Making the game engaging for the players means letting them have genuine control over certain things, which I named the way I did for the lack of better terminology.

    Considering the Dragonlance game from above, I think it's a rather imperfect example of how one might go about empowering the players in a railroad game. It does have clear GM prep and clear scene framing in that everybody knows that this is a combat scene and why it's in the story and perhaps the GM even tells the other players how it's going to end in advance, so they can play towards that. The players also have a lot of space for character expression as they choose and describe individual combat maneuvers turn by turn, as one does in a roleplaying game. However, we could do so much more to empower the players here! Why doesn't the GM ask the other players whether they want to have a long and detailed combat scene right here, right now? He could have an itty-bitty voting subgame or something like that, for example. His prep shouldn't really care, he shouldn't need to force the other players to engage in a potentially boring combat exercise any further than it takes to introduce his plot events. To not even consider the theoretical maximum participation that the character players can have in a game like this smacks to me of a theoretical failure. At least, the GM who opts to keep control of pace and focus for himself deserves what he gets when the players grow detached and bored by the sheer lack of meaningful participation in the game.
  • This is a pretty interesting overview, Eero! I like the idea of interrogating a somewhat under-explored field (or, at least, a stagnating one) for novel techniques. How else can we empower the players in this style of play, if they can't have their hands on the plot?

    A few ideas come to mind:

    * Taking inspiration from video games, include bounded elements of Challenge and Meaning.

    A bounded Challenge is a fight scene with two possible outcomes (or more fine gradations, if necessary). Your skills matter, because losing or winning the fight are equally on the table, and it matters which outcome is arrived at in the end.

    A bounded point of Meaning is basically a short-term Narrativist dilemma or choice. For instance, once I've played out the planned arc for character X, I offer the players a choice: will you accept her, or turn her in to the authorities? What do you do with her know? How does her story end, in other words? It's up to you.

    * Taking inspiration from story games:

    When prepping further events for the plot, continually build on elements of character design, plot choices, and moments in play. Try to reincorporate and bring in character elements constantly. Maybe, if you campaign has a big villain, you ask the players to create a character who has a reason to hate someone in their past, for example.

    What I'm most curious about, though, is the social negotiation of a railroaded game. What can we talk about, when do we talk about it, and how do we let each other know that, for instance, a certain action is "out of bounds" in a clear way without ruining the game experience? There are probably methods that work better than others here.

  • I'm leaving these links here for people like me who might not have the same game-design theory and game-design history chops like Euro.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey_Island_(series)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventure_game

    From the wikipedia article, "Many adventure games (text and graphic) are designed for a single player, since this emphasis on story and character makes multi-player design difficult." Perhaps the attractions/advantages of railroad play is that the human GM makes multi-player design of this form of media possible. I can see where and why this might be desirable for players who like this form. Eero's comment about each scene being a mini-sandbox really makes this stand out in my mind.

    For text-based games, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interactive_fiction
  • Sorry, the first link is broken, and I can't fix it.
  • edited April 2018
    Eero, okay, I think I understand -- your first examples were meant more to distinguish railroaded play from complete passivity, rather than to show it at its most fun.

    I think your example of the combat has some potential. Delving into minute detail about who hits whom with a sword can provide all sorts of opportunities for memorable player-authored moments -- a striking visual, a witty quip, presenting who the character is in general or in this particular moment. Not to mention synergy between players, working together in various ways, such as tactical color ("You go low, I'll go high!"), comedic color ("As you chop off his head, I wind up and punt it out the window!") and more.

    I rather dislike the idea of telling the players how the combat's going to end in advance, because the uncertainty of not knowing is extremely useful for energizing the color-contributing process.

    I also think that, despite the fact that the next scene may already be scripted, the combat actually contains undecided outcomes which are highly relevant to the players, outcomes which their choices have a tangible impact on.

    I think this is a feature that gets glossed over whenever anyone says "the plot isn't up to the players". If "plot" is just the scaffolding of how scenes follow each other, then that's true, but I think people generally mean more than that. "The important developments aren't up to the players," is what it seems to mean, often enough. In my eyes, though, this is not true. There are stakes that are independent of GM plots, which can be extremely important developments in terms of the group's experience of the story.

    What might be at stake in a combat scene? What might actually be determined by the players and the dice, and not at all by the GM? Some examples:
    - Whether you come off looking like a hero, coward, or incompetent.
    - Whether the impression you leave will circulate.
    - Whether you go from being attractive to being hideously scarred.
    - Whether you lose a limb or organ.
    - Whether your favorite NPC dies.
    - Whether your stuff is stolen.
    Basically, whether you arrive at the next planned scene in a state of glorious triumph or in a state of mental, physical, or emotional ruin.

    Often enough, this is the stuff that we remember. Like, if my GM plot is that the PCs all die tragically saving the world at the end... well, who exactly was it who died tragically, and why do we care?

    It was Longbeard One-Eye, who dove into the water during that pirate raid in order to save the cabin boy from being eaten by a shark (and lost his eye in the process)!

    This is not only empowering for the players, it's great fun for the GM. Any storyteller would be happy to have their scripted tragic death bestowed on such a beloved character who's made such bold sacrifices. :)

    Anyway, I didn't get any sense of that level of meaningful input from your initial "pace" and "focus" examples, and I don't think "paint by numbers" suggests it either. But perhaps that's all semantics and you're already on board with what I'm talking about here?

    Voting subgames and calling out the railroad bits... these don't sound appealing to me, but I will readily admit that minimizing confusion is often worth it. And when a game includes both meaningful player input and non-negotiable GM control, the place where those things meet can get a little troublesome:

    "Interesting choices, player! You got NPC 2 killed! I wasn't expecting that! Some unexpected tragedy at this point in the story! Lovely. Wait, wait, and now you're doing what? No, you can't get NPC 3 killed too! I need him for later!"

    Much as I despise trying to inhabit a scene where NPC 3 is walking around in a big bright "plot immunity" metagame bubble, there does need to be some way to keep NPC 3 alive without pulling the rug out from under the players at the last second.
  • Paul_T said:

    * Taking inspiration from video games, include bounded elements of Challenge and Meaning.

    A bounded Challenge is a fight scene with two possible outcomes (or more fine gradations, if necessary). Your skills matter, because losing or winning the fight are equally on the table, and it matters which outcome is arrived at in the end.

    A bounded point of Meaning is basically a short-term Narrativist dilemma or choice. For instance, once I've played out the planned arc for character X, I offer the players a choice: will you accept her, or turn her in to the authorities? What do you do with her know? How does her story end, in other words? It's up to you.

    I think these are great examples of highly relevant uncertainty within a larger context of certainty.
    Paul_T said:

    Maybe, if you campaign has a big villain, you ask the players to create a character who has a reason to hate someone in their past, for example.

    Yeah, that's been one thing I've focused on when I play with Story Before design. You shouldn't run a railroad for just any old characters. You should run a railroad for characters who are specifically engineered for that specific railroad.
    Paul_T said:

    When prepping further events for the plot, continually build on elements of character design, plot choices, and moments in play. Try to reincorporate and bring in character elements constantly.

    I'm not sure if someone who wants to railroad will also want to do all that stuff. But if they do, great! The players can absolutely inspire you with how to flesh out the story you've written.
    Paul_T said:

    What I'm most curious about, though, is the social negotiation of a railroaded game. What can we talk about, when do we talk about it, and how do we let each other know that, for instance, a certain action is "out of bounds" in a clear way without ruining the game experience? There are probably methods that work better than others here.

    I would love to hear folks' takes on this. Do you think it deserves a new thread?
  • I should read up on FASERIP - it's one of those games I've never studied. It's an interesting game by all accounts, and clearly much more popular in the US than here - I've never seen a copy or even heard of somebody owning it here in Finland.

    Try following that link and then looking at any of the early adventure modules. They're very participationist. While things can go a bit off the main course of the intended action, well, it's a bit more like a river than a railroad, and it tends to right itself fairly quickly.

    OTOH, it's often really more about playing your favorite superheroes of the era in a sort of "classic" adventure and have superhero bash ups along the way with villains. You kind of know what you're volunteering for inherently.
  • Ron Gilbert designes his games with a big dependency chart. Some of them, like Thimbleweed Park, end up feeling very non-linear -- if it weren't for the fact that you have to do everything. (To me, doing or finding everything in a game takes away my choice of doing/finding whatever I want.)

    I want to try creating some scenarios using his chart method. This is OT for railroading but since Monkey Island was brought up, I wanted to mention it.
  • This is very, very interesting thread.

    To me it sounds that you need quite a bit of tinkering in terms of game system to make the system support this kind of play. Most rpgs, for example, have an option for the combat system to result to a character death. In addition, the system could help to prep such a game, and generate the different ways to empower player participation in the places that it is suitable (where it does not break the railroad).

    One way of solving the player character mortality would be to go even deeper to the video game -vibe: Just introduce a save game/load game -option where a partywipe would result in resuming play before the event occurred.
  • This is very, very interesting thread.

    To me it sounds that you need quite a bit of tinkering in terms of game system to make the system support this kind of play. Most rpgs, for example, have an option for the combat system to result to a character death. In addition, the system could help to prep such a game, and generate the different ways to empower player participation in the places that it is suitable (where it does not break the railroad).

    One way of solving the player character mortality would be to go even deeper to the video game -vibe: Just introduce a save game/load game -option where a partywipe would result in resuming play before the event occurred.

    When my group and I used to play games that had the option for combat to result in character death without the player directly choosing it, we removed the death mechanics completely so that we wouldn't run into problems of characters dying and that messing up the story we were trying to tell. When a character hit 0 HP, they were just unconscious, and then stood up at 1 HP after the fight finishes (assuming they weren't healed back into the fight before it ends) and then they could use whatever normal methods they wanted to gain HP back (we primarily did this in DnD 4e, so generally they would just spend healing surges to get back up to full HP).

    And then in the theoretical case of a TPK (which actually never happened because we always balanced pretty well, to the point where we very rarely even had a single character fall down), the person/people or monster/monsters that they were fighting would just run away and accomplish whatever goal the PCs were trying to stop them from accomplishing, and then the PCs would wake up a little while later and deal with that.

    For us, combat was just about making the characters look really cool and stylish and badass, and for situations where fighting was narratively relevant.

    We didn't have a whole lot of combat in our games though, and typically it was pretty routine stuff for the characters, because we ran pastoral slice-of-life in DnD, where one of the aspects of the lives of the characters was that they were fantasy mercenaries, but the fantasy mercenaries bit wasn't the focus; the focus was the relationships and emotional arcs of the characters.
  • That's how I did it when we played Chronicles of Prydain in 4th edition D&D. I ignored dying (itself a clear error in the 4th edition rules, if I've ever seen one as a game designer), and every single combat encounter had a prepped GM plan for how we'd "get out of the loss" if the party actually managed to lose the fight. These exit plans included stuff I'd adapted from the novels (the genre is full of losing combat, after all), mainly - being captured and taken to a different part of the story universe, or being saved at the last minute by this or that NPC, were prominent.

    Works just fine, and as I intimated above, this sort of thing isn't that difficult to establish in any traditional adventure game. The trickiest issues relate to prep technique and thematic issues rather than prep technique. Some games are simply broken by a combination of a highly lethal genre and highly boring character creation; I can't help it if the game forces me to undermine its theme to keep characters alive, so as to avoid repeating the boring character creation routine regularly. 4th edition fortunately doesn't suffer from this, as the sort of heroic fantasy it is intended for is extremely death-averse as a literary genre - the game works massively better without death than it does with it.

    One way of solving the player character mortality would be to go even deeper to the video game -vibe: Just introduce a save game/load game -option where a partywipe would result in resuming play before the event occurred.

    I've played with this idea a bit, and my experience is that it's tricky to introduce. Specifically, it's never felt right for 4th edition D&D: the TPK (which for us has been a very regular thing when we've tried to play 4th edition, as I've described before) makes everybody angry and exhausted, so the idea of playing the same combat encounter a second time is usually far from appealing.

    Then again, we've lately played some Gloomhaven around here, and for some reason the "try again until you get it right" thing works just fine in that. For those who don't know, Gloomhaven is one of these rpg-simulation boardgames in the vein of Heroquest and Warhammer Quest and such; basically 4th edition D&D as a GM-less boardgame.

    The main reason for why repeating the same fight seems to work psychologically in Gloomhaven is that the game's tactical activity is interactive enough for the players to learn something in the first playthrough, and the balancing is so fine-tuned that generally a second try will succeed, simply because the tactical foreknowledge of the scenario will tip the scales in the players' advantage. The game's not really any lighter than 4th edition, so that doesn't come into it. We're probably more accepting of defeat in a boardgame than in 4th edition D&D, too, which makes it less psychologically exhausting when the team fails.

    I think this is a feature that gets glossed over whenever anyone says "the plot isn't up to the players". If "plot" is just the scaffolding of how scenes follow each other, then that's true, but I think people generally mean more than that. "The important developments aren't up to the players," is what it seems to mean, often enough. In my eyes, though, this is not true. There are stakes that are independent of GM plots, which can be extremely important developments in terms of the group's experience of the story.

    This conceptual morass is why I tried to give a definition in the first post: when I'm discussing "railroading", I mean nothing more or less than a game where the prep procedure organizes content with dramaturgical logic - or "plot", as we generally say. I am not really invested in whether one wants to call it plot or call it important or whatever; the only issue is the question of whether it is possible to make a fun roleplaying game where the GM pre-designs major game elements and arranges them in order of plot.

    My preliminary suggestion on the creative interaction in a railroad game is that the state to shoot for seems to be one where the players are moderately intrigued by the GM's prepped material because it is good as literature. The players only get truly excited as they engage this material by a combination of tools, some of which are common to traditional storytelling audience (asking questions and making demands of the storyteller), while others are unique to the rpg format (play-acting). The players are entertained by their opportunity to experience the material in a deep and intricate way as they interact with it.

    Anyway, I didn't get any sense of that level of meaningful input from your initial "pace" and "focus" examples, and I don't think "paint by numbers" suggests it either. But perhaps that's all semantics and you're already on board with what I'm talking about here?

    I think I am, myself. You described the nature of player engagement in a railroaded game well. As you say, the players put their own spin on the story without influencing the plot. Their creative contribution is not dissimilar to what the audience of a storyteller or a museum do: they breathe life into the static structure on display by viewing it from multiple perspectives, even touching and shaking it, asking questions about it and so on. The idea of "dangerous draconians" only comes to life when you let the players loose on it.
  • edited April 2018

    the only issue is the question of whether it is possible to make a fun roleplaying game where the GM pre-designs major game elements and arranges them in order of plot.

    Whittled down thus, I think the answer is a pretty obvious "yes", right? Very few of the things RPG players enjoy are inherently ruled out by this formulation.

    I bother to make this point mainly because your comparisons and examples sound much narrower to me. "Being a museum audience", it seems to me, is much more similar to (a) the often-not-fun railroaded game where the players have very little authorial agency, than to (b) the railroaded game where the players are making choices and rolling dice to resolve outcomes which are important to them (if not to the plot).

    I think we can just as easily compare the GM-and-players creative dynamic in a relatively open railroad to those of lead writer and episode writers on a TV show. The lead writer is often a producer and showrunner, and they retain a tight control over the series-defining plot beats. The episode writers can't decide which beloved character dies when, but they can absolutely author the needs of the moment -- character development, momentary twists and turns, etc. Just because they're not all-powerful as authors doesn't make them audience (i.e. not authors).

    My take is that this version of railroading, "constrained authorship", is more likely to meet the goal of "fun roleplaying game" than the version which more easily compares to "being an involved audience".

    Don't get me wrong, I like being an involved audience too! But I think that's a narrower niche in RPGs, both in terms of player taste and in terms of demands on the GM.
  • edited April 2018
    As for character death, here's my take:

    Some railroads can survive PC deaths just fine; others can't. If yours can't, don't use rules which put PC death on the table.

    Similarly, if your game can't survive PC death, you should also have some options ready for if a player makes choices which should result in character death. (Divine intervention, come back as a ghost or undead, etc.)

    I suppose a good published railroad game would have specific takes on these issues.

    As for the "save game" option, I think it works well if using it impacts positioning. Maybe "saves" are a limited resource, for example. As something you can do at will, on the other hand, I really dislike "save game", as it renders death a pure nuisance, and why would you include a pure nuisance in your game?
  • Whittled down thus, I think the answer is a pretty obvious "yes", right? Very few of the things RPG players enjoy are inherently ruled out by this formulation.

    Well, yes - but the big creative successes for me personally in my roleplaying history, and for others on similar trajectories, have all been extremely anti-railroading. I imagine that everything I've said in this thread must seem extremely basic to somebody with a different history, but I personally have benefited from starting with such basic observations.

    I mean, consider the kinds of games that I have actually mastered over the years to a level where I am not ashamed to speak of mastery. They fall into two general categories:
    * Drama games of the sort we used to call "narrativism": no plot in the sense of pre-designed events that carry thematic significance. Railroading actively conflicts with the conceit of allowing player characters to make the important thematic choices about story direction.
    * Challengeful games of the sort we used to call "gamism": no plot because the scenario outcome is necessarily wide open and dependent on player performance. Railroading actively conflicts with the notion of real player performance.

    Meanwhile, my history with railroaded games, trad games, Sim games - whatever word one wishes to use: ~7 years of fumbling around, followed to ~5 years of ignoring their existence, followed by ~10 years at this writing of careful testing and reconsideration. It's just evidently not a form that fits me creatively by nature. If it was, I probably couldn't understand either what all those crazy Forgites complain about - Cyberpunk 2020 is clearly just fine the way it is, no need to change anything [grin].

    In that context, the main thrust of railroading theory for me is really about conceptualizing what even could be a human-worthy creative accord that includes strong railroading. Why are the players even there watching the the GM's (often rather poor) attempts at verbal storytelling? That's what I'm trying to latch onto with my discussion of analytical storytelling concepts like narrative focus and pacing and character portrayal - those are all important and worthwhile aspects of narrative experience, and interestingly they're ones that roleplaying games don't need to retain as the storyteller's monopoly, the way other narrative arts do. That's something important to consider, I think.
  • edited April 2018
    Yeah, if you've mastered other forms and are struggling more with this one, I get where you're coming from! Your attempts in this thread to describe the appeal, though, strike me as underwhelming -- if not inherently in concept, then certainly in examples of execution.

    I mean, if noting that players have agency over focus and pace and portrayal gets you all fired up to go run/play a great railroad, then mission accomplished, and ignore me! But if you're still pondering where the worthy creative activity lies, allow me to present my take:

    The GM may bring in some scripted content to present, and the players may bring in some character traits to act out, but neither of these arrive at the table as meaningfully formed creative works. It is only in their interaction that they are developed through collaboration into a worthy whole.

    The GM is looking to the players to bring the plot to life, and hoping to inspire them to do just that, with gusto. The players are looking for plot events that resonate with their characters and vision, to which they can react with passion and imbue the GM's mere facts with meaning.

    As a team, we strive to build a mutually satisfying piece of fiction, using everyone's skill and inspiration toward that end, constrained by their game roles.

    I think this is the upside of pre-plotted RPG play. I find it an extremely fulfilling group creative endeavor, for reasons which I hope I've made obvious (if not, though, I can try again).

    The version where the GM just plops down some finished thing for the players to stare at, and where the players' acting and selective attention doesn't really change anything, strikes me as a common failure state.

    If you want better railroaded play, I'd suggest focusing on ways to make the player-GM interaction as dynamic as possible. Everyone should be invested in turning the GM's prepped content into good literature, and the GM's method for pursuing that should run through the players.

    I don't have any experience making this happen via written rules. My early RPG history was one of continually refining this process, though, with increasing success over the years. I couldn't articulate it then, but in retrospect, this is how my groups' best games unfolded:
    • I made up some cool factions and evil plots and a rough idea of a climactic setpiece.
    • As I fed the players my various hooks, they looked to latch on with enthusiasm.
    • The scenes as played inspired me to focus my subsequent prep and scripting on emerging matters of group interest.
    • Sometimes the players would take the story in an unanticipated direction; I used such developments as temporary diversions and as opportunities to tie "whatever they were looking into" back into my plot. Often such digressions inspired me to expand the scope of my plots, or at least embellish the environment in which they existed.
    • When I hit the players with a planned dramatic reversal, such as the betrayal of a trusted NPC, the players dove directly into character reactions.
    • As we traversed the landscape between GM-planned plot points (including player-led digressions), we allowed emerging conflicts to invoke the game's fortune resolution system, which helped us introduce some unexpected swings in the characters' fortunes.
    • The game's system for character change also made certain developments concrete and mechanically meaningful going into future conflicts.
    • I prepped the final showdown, but not all the relevant details of its outcome.
    • Throughout, we maintained equal respect and appreciation for each other's contributions. I was every bit as excited when Ben's character decided to turn traitor (I hadn't seen that coming!) as Ben was when I revealed his new allies as frauds (he hadn't seen that coming!).
    As an informal system (without a clear procedure for what should happen when prep and freedom suddenly meet), this was not remotely free of hitches. Overall, though, it was immensely fun.

    My plan to have an invading army mask their true intentions, use the player characters as a tool to nullify the guardians of magic, and attempt world conquest using a lost artifact, was turned into a wildly colorful story by the player characters' ambitions and inspirations, successes and failures. Rafaenn became a vampire, Garek started a crime network, and Rial became a magical badass.

    They defeated the invading army in the end, based a little bit on dice luck, but mostly by employing enough tactical cleverness to convince each other that victory was plausible, which in turn convinced me. For this they relied on their vampiric powers, magical badassery, and criminal connections, none of which I had planned.
  • I appreciate your take, David - it's a good one, and it's interesting to read about how others see these things.

    I mean, if noting that players have agency over focus and pace and portrayal gets you all fired up to go run/play a great railroad, then mission accomplished, and ignore me! But if you're still pondering where the worthy creative activity lies, allow me to present my take:

    That's actually exactly how it's worked for me: when I gave some names to the conceptual space that the railroad players could control without contradiction, and connected that to traditional narratology (I mean, all of those concepts are real and pre-existing), this whole railroad thing started to make much more sense to me. Of course the actual practical process in play is very interactive, but I'm a top-down, structural thinker; I can often only make sense of what happens in practice if I have a rather stark and even simplistic theoretical framework for the practice.

    For example, a big idea that I feel has improved my railroad play immeasurably is the notion that I should not be in control of the length and depth of narrative exposure to particular topics in play. I cannot control what the other players find meaningful; I can, and must, control what kinds of content I bring, but I should not force the other players to engage that content on my terms. The names I give to this insight are "pace" and "focus".

    I think this is the upside of pre-plotted RPG play. I find it an extremely fulfilling group creative endeavor, for reasons which I hope I've made obvious (if not, though, I can try again).

    I think you've done well, no worse than me - and probably better. I don't think that our vision of what and why railroading is differs that much, though; we're just comparing theoretical frames here.

    The version where the GM just plops down some finished thing for the players to stare at, and where the players' acting and selective attention doesn't really change anything, strikes me as a common failure state.

    I think that this is just a communication issue. I say that the players experience and explore GM content and you hear this as a passive and one-sided process when I mean something that is very interactive.

    Talking to NPCs and forming opinions about them is a perfect example of what I mean by the players having the right to "choose their focus in the scene". It is a fully interactive experience, and the GM will presumably be inspired to add all sorts of color simply by the way the other players approach this interaction. It is also an interaction that should, I think, be understood in terms of engaging a GM-prepared experience. That's the whole point of railroading, that you're preparing content and thus able to provide a more interesting experience.

    If we understood this event entirely in interactive terms, such that all value in the scene arises from the dynamic process of play, then that's not genuine railroad play. It's just the same thing we're all doing all the time in forgite drama games - jot down some basic imagery, prep a bandolier of Bangs and go improvise dramatic scenes. Railroading, to be interesting and worthwhile, should feature something more, a more elaborate understanding of the GM's role as a storyteller. It should be more than just "I'm too stupid to use Bangs and thus need to arrange my twists into a static plot instead".

    This is the creative basis of my success with Dead of Night, by the way: a serious commitment to using my skills as a literary author to craft or steal a very good horror story, which I then present to the players not as a static linear story like a novel or a movie, but rather as an interactive experience that resembles an adventure video game more than anything else (except, of course, other railroaded roleplaying games). The players (and the game's rules) have major input into how my story gets told, but they're not going to change anything significant about it - there's nothing to change in a horror story, truly. The ghost is tragically dead and has been all along, the mentally ill person is mentally ill, I don't really care if your viewpoint character lives or dies... there is nothing in this game except me telling you about these things, and you enjoying the story.

    I think much of your concern over this stems from our different understanding of what it means for the players to "affect things". You embrace the viewpoint that everything the players do in their play-acting in a railroad game has the potential to affect the atmosphere and understanding that we have of the events, and you are of course correct: the same plot will show up in a very different light depending on how it gets told. Meanwhile, I emphasize the essential sameness of that plot: the GM decided in advance that this is going to be a story where the plucky rebels triumph over the authoritarian Empire (that is literally the skeletal structure on which the game procedurally hangs, that plot), so that's what we're going to see in terms of plot. That's what the GM preps for, to bring interesting content in relation to that plot. The other players might cause us to hate the rebels so that we actually view all this as a tragedy, thanks to their play-acting, but they won't and they should not change the outcome. In that sense, and that sense only, the players of a railroaded game do not affect things - they don't affect the plot.
  • Good stuff Eero! The Monkey Island analogy really helps me see this clearly.
    2097 said:

    Yes, this was also one of the things I realized when I watched more games that were railroaded, that I had underestimated this quality.

    On the other hand, it's interesting that 2097 is calling THIS out, because the whole "tactile value" thing seems like the part of the game that is the LEAST different from a non-railroad experience, because in an RPG you are always expected to be able to poke around and talk to people and stuff. It's crucial to call it out specifically for Railroaded games because if you DON'T include it (which, basically, is something that I only see potentially happening in Railroaded games) then the game loses a LOT of its interactivity, but I don't see it as a specific benefit of these sorts of games. So you really need to make sure you don't exclude it, but the way 2097 talks about it makes it sound like a 'feature', which I don't think it is?
  • edited April 2018
    Tactile value thinking can be relatively different to certain other types of game prep, though.

    For example, it is not atypical for me to think in heavily dramaturgical terms while prepping for a drama game (anything from Sorcerer on, basically). I might jot down a thought like "have a scene where a close family member complains about character's new lifestyle". Very bare-bones, and direct to the theme: my prep-self doesn't really care which family member it is or what they're like or where it happens, he just cares that the thematic premise gets brought up. The actual coloring for the scene will often get created at the last minute, improvised at the game table.

    (Not all drama games prep like this. For example, The Shadow of Yesterday has a specific procedure that combines phantasmagoric color with dramatic theming.)

    Meanwhile, tactile value prep is the very opposite of that: when you prep a NPC you give them a specific visual description, perhaps some ticks or habits that you make sure to portray at the game table, an accent and whatever else you can. You give them interests and hobbies they can talk about (carefully coordinated to showcase your setting and scenario, of course) when the PCs query them. You should never waste time on a boring and generic character: you create princess and they're just delightful, you create a warlord and they're a massively overbearing presence on the scene, you create a Gollum-equivalent and there's never been a more pitiable wretch with a funkier accent.

    Notably, I'm prepping my on-going wuxia campaign primarily by expanding the NPC social map with new characters. The process is clearly character-first: I first create some new characters with a vague connection to the current subject matter of play, and then I only decide after creating the character about the kind of scene that character will feature in. My goal is, first and foremost, to manage a campaign with several dozen NPCs in a way that makes every named NPC somebody who the players will remember on the second meeting. (For instance, I use paper stands with character portraits to train the players visually.)

    Note that the way playtime gets distributed varies a lot between drama games and railroad games. This may be a historical artefact in part, but I believe that it's also due to the techniques and focus of the different types of games. The railroad game will generally speaking be able to afford a more meandering pace, with the players spending more time either play-acting or talking with the GM about a NPC or setting feature or whatnot. This is actually something that players used to traditional games will occasionally complain about, how fast-paced and "shallow" in storytelling terms your typical drama game is. I can see how that would be the case if you're used to the GM doing a two-page write-up on every single NPC, with full intent to bring that stuff into play as chance warrants!
  • edited April 2018

    I don't think that our vision of what and why railroading is differs that much, though; we're just comparing theoretical frames here.

    Fair enough; different theoretical frames it is.

    When you and I chat about RPGs, I usually find your wording pretty easy to relate to. Since that didn't happen here, and still isn't, I am left with a vague suspicion that maybe we are in fact talking about different things. But perhaps we've explored that as much as we productively can, at this point.

    If we understood this event entirely in interactive terms, such that all value in the scene arises from the dynamic process of play, then that's not genuine railroad play. It's just the same thing we're all doing all the time in forgite drama games - jot down some basic imagery, prep a bandolier of Bangs and go improvise dramatic scenes. Railroading, to be interesting and worthwhile, should feature something more, a more elaborate understanding of the GM's role as a storyteller. It should be more than just "I'm too stupid to use Bangs and thus need to arrange my twists into a static plot instead".

    I guess I agree with this, but I do think we can get a lot of value out of scenes through dynamic play process without abandoning all worthwhile railroading.

    It seems to me that railroad play contains a spectrum of play styles, with different types of fun to be had at different points along that spectrum.
    • At the one end, we might have an expert performer GM leading the players on a thrill ride that's just barely interactive.
    • On the other end, we might have something that looks like a forgite drama game until the occasional moment when the GM needs to make a planned plot moment happen.
    The campaign I described above, where the players saved the world from an invading army, was the last in a series of similar campaigns. In each case, I went in with my favorite NPCs and factions I wanted to show off, and moments I wanted to make happen (the badguys got one over on the PCs here, the PCs found some innocuous thing there that would later be revealed as the McGuffin, etc.). And I had my grand finales. Exactly what the literary quality of all this planned plot was, I really can't say, but I do think it contributed significantly.

    Anyway, over the course of these campaigns, I slowly gravitated from trying to control everything toward controlling only a few important things. Perhaps one could say I moved from being a classic railroady GM to using a more Bangs-like process? What I discovered was that this transition really didn't cost me any of my authorial fun. Whatever I got out of planning my plots -- and I loved it, in fact I still miss it! -- was fully compatible with following the players at times and letting a lot of our favorite content emerge organically.

    Whether the planned content I was able to inject into play was best delivered in the manner I did, I don't know. Perhaps my vision really was flexible enough that Bangs would have been superior? Or perhaps by leading play with a design like Chuubo's, I could have gotten our group similar results? I really don't know. All I know is that the various play styles I've tried since haven't scratched that same itch.
  • edited April 2018

    Or perhaps by leading play with a design like Chuubo's, I could have gotten our group similar results?

    @EmmatheExcrucian , I'd love to hear your take on this!

    I got the impression from your descriptions that Chuubo's uses a plot outline designed by the group, but do you think play could still be functional and fun if one participant did the outlining?
  • Or perhaps by leading play with a design like Chuubo's, I could have gotten our group similar results?

    @EmmatheExcrucian , I'd love to hear your take on this!

    I got the impression from your descriptions that Chuubo's uses a plot outline designed by the group, but do you think play could still be functional and fun if one participant did the outlining?
    Chuubo's is a plot outline designed by the group, yeah. It wouldn't be functional and fun at all if one participant did the outlining by themselves, because all of those structuring mechanics are playerside, and the quests and stuff are all playerside, so even if someone did all the structuring, everyone would still need to know everything was going to go down, because the players would have to be aiming to hit the moments on the quest cards and stuff.
    Chuubo's is also built on maximizing player agency through removing things like making things super deterministic playerside, having play be designed around proactive players/reactive GM, giving the players all kinds of tools to affect the narrative, etc.

    Basically, Chuubo's would collapse in upon itself if one person did all the outlining, because of how strongly that goes against every design principle of what Chuubo's is about.

    The thing with the way that Chuubo's is designed, it's not that it's a railroad in the way you're thinking of; it's that when you choose what you want to do, what you want to play out, the choice of quests is about refining into more specific terms what you want that to look like, and what that means to you, because the biggest goal of Chuubo's as a system is everyone at the table getting to tell the story they want in exactly the way they want to, in a way that fits perfectly to their vision of how it should be.
    The outlining stuff is a lot focused on getting everyone on the same page about what that should generally look like, and that you also have things like the Wound system to veto things that happen in play that you don't want to happen, or to adjust them into a shape that better fits the core concept of what you're going for.
    The outlining stuff in general is all about the players deciding what they want to see in play, what best fits what they want to play out. It just reshuffles the order in which some of those decisions are traditionally made, if that makes sense.
  • Airk said:

    So you really need to make sure you don’t exclude it, but the way 2097 talks about it makes it sound like a ‘feature’, which I don’t think it is?

    It’s a feature that’s very prominent in non-railroaded play and I underestimated the extent to which that feature also existed in railroaded play. And here is why I discounted the extent of that feature’s presence: Like, the mirror story. Since you can’t trust the things you mess around with… video games do this too. You open chests and it’s the third chest you open. Etc etc. Like I love Photopia but…

  • edited April 2018
    Airk said:

    So you really need to make sure you don’t exclude it, but the way 2097 talks about it makes it sound like a ‘feature’, which I don’t think it is?

    It’s a feature that’s very prominent in non-railroaded play and I underestimated the extent to which that feature also existed in railroaded play. And here is why I discounted the extent of that feature’s presence: Like, the mirror story. Since you can’t trust the things you mess around with… video games do this too. You open chests and it’s the third chest you open, regardless of what order you choose to open them in. Etc etc. Like I love Photopia but…

    And when I railroaded I was extreme in doing this. Nothing was real.
    Some published linear modules have pockets, air bubbles of real things, real drawers to open, real people to talk to. Not all of them do. And the real things are mixed in with things that are there to further plot progress rather than to be played around with for their own sake.
  • So, we need to talk about betrayal. In addition to combat / lethality, it seems to me that one of the areas where most traditional systems would, by RAW, be most antithetical to railroaded play is in lie detection. What do you do if one of your players invests heavily in Sense Motive or the equivalent, such that it's basically impossible for your friend-who-later-turns-traitor NPC to pull one over on them?

    But this problem goes deeper than rules system. What if the player is simply good at reading facial expressions, and simply guesses that a particular NPC is intending to turn traitor?
  • So, we need to talk about betrayal. In addition to combat / lethality, it seems to me that one of the areas where most traditional systems would, by RAW, be most antithetical to railroaded play is in lie detection. What do you do if one of your players invests heavily in Sense Motive or the equivalent, such that it's basically impossible for your friend-who-later-turns-traitor NPC to pull one over on them?

    But this problem goes deeper than rules system. What if the player is simply good at reading facial expressions, and simply guesses that a particular NPC is intending to turn traitor?

    I feel like that's a level where tbh railroading needs to be combined with transparency about the plot instead of the traditional secrecy thing. So that then those scenarios don't happen because the player knows the NPC is going to turn traitor, but they know that now isn't the time for it to be revealed and that they need to wait until the time is right, so they choose for the good of the story not to roll the Sense Motive or whatever.
  • I've removed Insight from my game but generally I've seen railroad GMs want players to pick up on those breadcrumbs early, to get all the info beats they can. Hence Gumshoe.

    When I first removed Insight (5e's "are they lying"-skill -- and, it's telling that after stripping the skill list down so much for 5e, they kept Insight in there, even after the two-year playtest), at first I tried to be really transparent about when a character was lying, by trying to act the part of a bad liar. This is GM advice I see so often. It's the school of "give the players all the info they can so they can follow the trail" line of thinking. Watching a lot of recorded roleplay, I often see railroad GM:s being very happy whenever insight is being rolled. And, Pathfinder even has tools to turn it off selectively with special powers and items, and uses it rarely.

    (In my own game, I've stopped being so transparent about lies. The game can survive some mystery.)
  • My dabbling at railroading has generally been on the side of extreme dramatic irony. For example, that Chronicles of Prydain stuff - the novels have several characters who "betray the party" (either by having moral failures at key moments, or by being on the side of the enemy all along, or by having their own secret third-party motivations), and this is in no way a secret. We're playing something based on some novels that the players might or might not have read, but every time I introduce a new character I encourage the players to read up on the character in the setting wiki, so it's not exactly a secret that at some point down the line this or that NPC is going to bite the feeding hand.

    So that's one extreme strategy on the matter, just discard the entire idea of the plot's surprise quality as a literary priority. That particular campaign is about experiencing the epic, and just like if we were playing Dragonlance or Lord of the Rings, there's no expectation that you wouldn't already know how it goes. In practice most of the players, unread peasants that they are, don't know how it goes, and many turns and twists will come as a surprise, but that doesn't need to affect the GM in any way - you can present the same exact material the same exact way whether the players know or they don't.

    (Note that a railroad game does not need to worry about the players reacting somehow to their foreknowledge - it's a railroad, remember? Oh, you want to fire the party member who's going to turn traitor in the next chapter? "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that." If you're routinely controlling the plot by whatever means, surely you can stop the PCs from doing stuff based on meta knowledge.)

    The other extreme would be an immersive game like one of those horror games or such. In those it's better if you simply don't have rules that enable characters to notice things. The heritage of Call of Cthulhu is a heavy weight on horror roleplaying in general, as sometimes the characters need to notice something and sometimes they need to not notice something or the storytelling won't work; better to just not use CoC for this sort of thing. There are alternatives.
  • Basically, Chuubo's would collapse in upon itself if one person did all the outlining, because of how strongly that goes against every design principle of what Chuubo's is about.

    Gotcha. Thanks for filling me in! I still haven't played this game, but every time I hear about it I get more and more interested.

    Sounds like injecting railroading into Chuubo's would be terrible. But using a Chuubo's-like structure for a railroad that everyone buys into upfront... I think I see some potential there.
  • edited April 2018
    Hey Eero, what do you feel are the ties between a Genre Emulationist urge and Railroading?

    I see RRing as an early stab at Genre Emulation (Sim) as gaming was trying to move away from its Gamist and Physics Engine ( Sim) roots, but procedurally rather than rules-mechanically.
  • 2097 said:


    (In my own game, I've stopped being so transparent about lies. The game can survive some mystery.)

    Survive is not the same as "benefit from" however.

    I think it's worth digging in on WHY the GMs you have seen are excited when people "roll insight" (Personally I hate it when my PCs roll "insight", because they're usually wasting their time - heck, the only game I even play where betrayal/lying is a meaningful thing is Blades in the Dark, which is pretty explicit that you're just supposed to tell people.) My suspicion is that the GMs you are seeing like it when PCs roll Insight because it means they get to deliver some cool information, but... if you're just delivering the cool information regardless, this incentive goes away.

    Or to put it another way: Maybe GMs are excited when PCs roll Insight because they haven't thought about the idea of just giving out the information. This seems closely related to the old problem of "I wrote a binder full of world lore that no one except me knows, so I get super excited when I get to exposit some of it."
  • I sometimes see people who have taken strictures against railroading and/or metagaming so far that just outright saying what you want is seen as taboo, and things can often devolve into this ambiguous "Guess what I'm thinking" dance of insinuation. When players actively choose to engage with something, it's a feedback mechanism that you're doing a good job at that dance (however arguably dysfunctional it might be).
  • Hey Eero, what do you feel are the ties between a Genre Emulationist urge and Railroading?

    I see RRing as an early stab at Genre Emulation (Sim) as gaming was trying to move away from its Gamist and Physics Engine ( Sim) roots, but procedurally rather than rules-mechanically.

    Agreed, that's clearly a big deal in early railroading: you want to have a similar situation to some cool story you read, but that requires you to exercise long-term control over several scenes to manage the introduction, build-up and climax. That's where railroading comes in: you need to ensure that those scenes happen, or that climax won't have the artistic impact you hoped for.

    It's a very familiar motivation to me, even if I wasn't a very good railroader in my teenage years. Many of my rpg endeavours started with a climax scene that captured some literary inspiration, a genre image of some sort, that I wanted to use in play. To get there with '¨90s tech I would've needed sophisticated railroading; quite often my "and then a dragon flies out of the waterfall and surprises everybody" scenes never got a chance to occur because the game never got nearly far enough for that.

    That being said, though, genre emulation and railroading don't need to go hand in hand - you can do either without the other.
  • Re: betrayals:

    sometimes the characters need to notice something and sometimes they need to not notice something or the storytelling won't work; better to just not use CoC for this sort of thing.

    Agreed.

    What if the player is simply good at reading facial expressions, and simply guesses that a particular NPC is intending to turn traitor?

    I guess it depends on whether the group is using a "reveal twists in advance so we can play toward them" approach or a "be surprised" approach.

    If you want to know stuff in advance, then I don't think we have a problem regardless of who figures out what. (Though it could be interesting to factor into considerations of how far advance the GM reveals what.)

    If you want to be surprised, then I don't think it's possible for the GM to be 100% infallible at hiding all their cards and still providing an entertaining narrative, so that leaves us two options:

    1) The players actively try to not know, notice, dwell on, or communicate things which might ruin surprises. A suspicion of betrayal willfully stops at, "Guys, I'm starting to wonder if we can trust this person..."

    2) Rules for noticing and concluding things, which can be used to effectively prohibit such when necessary. Examples:
    • Nerfing the heck out of Sense Motive-type abilities with extreme math (roll well against the lowest difficulty or fail)
    • Having an explicit "no one can read anyone" rule
    • Having a "test a theory" or "gather evidence" system which is useful in many situations but relies on circumstances the GM won't provide for their key plot characters
    • Having an "ask the GM questions" system, to which the GM can always answer "you're not sure" when they wish to sustain uncertainty

    That last one might actually be a pretty decent approach for railroad play in general...
  • What if the player is simply good at reading facial expressions, and simply guesses that a particular NPC is intending to turn traitor?

    The way I've always seen this go (and I've done the same, back when I ran games this way), is that the GM must back-pedal furiously. Either they start to work extra hard to overturn this guess, by showing you how loyal and wonderful the NPC actually is, or they change the surprise in some way to salvage it, by making the actual traitor whichever NPC the PCs seem to trust the most.

    Neither is terribly great as a technique, in my opinion. (For instance, if you use it more than once, eventually all the players start to suspect *everyone*, regardless of evidence to the contrary, in a sort of justified wild paranoia which infects every game from then on. Just consider how often GMs moan and complain that their players aren't willing to trust or get attached to any of their NPCs... can't they just play their characters like real people? Ha!)

    If you're a good "railroading with surprises" GM, what do you do in this instance?

  • Well, I think there's a difference between the Joss Whedon "shocking but inevitable betrayal" when the shifty henchman who's saved your life finally turns on you once the treasure is in hand, and the "It was you all along!" shocker where the deeply trusted retrainer turns out to be your worst enemy. The second one is harder to make work.

    Note that in some games, Chuubo especially, will give the players rewards for story-appropriate things happening. So if your XP quest says you get 15 points for being betrayed by a trusted friend, the player (not the PC) is going to be excited to see a double-cross being telegraphed. Oh boy! This will be the best betrayal ever!
  • That's an excellent point! A functional technique, getting people to buy into outcomes ahead of time via clear design.
  • Basically, Chuubo's would collapse in upon itself if one person did all the outlining, because of how strongly that goes against every design principle of what Chuubo's is about.

    Gotcha. Thanks for filling me in! I still haven't played this game, but every time I hear about it I get more and more interested.

    Sounds like injecting railroading into Chuubo's would be terrible. But using a Chuubo's-like structure for a railroad that everyone buys into upfront... I think I see some potential there.
    You should definitely try Chuubo's; it's so much fun!
    And yeah, I could totally see a Chuubo's-like structure for a railroad everyone buys into upfront, with different mechanics. The narrative structuring tools Chuubo's gives you are all around just a really good model of how to do planned narratives.
  • I guess, for me, the reason this is such a relatively urgent issue is because it really gets at the heart of the way RR'd games often ask players not just to give up agency, but to actually have their characters behave in unrealistically stupid ways. Like, okay, your big bad has an invincibility shield for right now so that we can't kill him till the end. Annoying, but understandable, and only takes away player agency in the sense of outcomes. Telling someone they're simply not allowed to act on a reasonable suspicion penetrates much deeper into the core of the usual GM / PC divide.
  • Regarding that, a big element that I'd like to see taken seriously in railroaded roleplaying is serious commitment to artistic excellence. I know that this goes against the general hobby strategy of "everybody should try to GM!", but I think that it's a pretty fundamental stumbling block that cannot be gotten around with anything except improving yourself: to be a good railroad GM you have to be a good storyteller.

    All your basic trad game bullshit, plot armored villains and such... like 80% of that is just people being their mediocre selves. Folks trying to run genres they don't know, trying to tell stories that are too complex for them, trying to be expressively interesting without knowing how to be authentic and put their person on the line.

    I guess that what I'm trying to say is that you do not need to be a reasonably accomplished hobby author to play many different kinds of roleplaying games, including many that explicitly call themselves "story games", but that's simply not true for a railroaded GM show. If you take the task of entertaining others, then you better not be an ignorant 15-year old trying to do cyberpunk after reading one novel and misunderstanding it because you don't even know what "capitalism" means as a political concept.

    (How good do you need to be for this creative conceit to make any sense? We don't have a rating system for storytelling skill, but I would compare it to chamber music: the guy who plays an instrument at your saloon is good enough to be considered entertainment by your friends. You need to be that good if you want to entertain your friends with word art. If you're boring when you open your mouth, what are you trying to do being the GM of a railroad game?)

    Can this be made easier while still keeping the railroad element? I don't know, but I suspect that it's a pointless endeavour: the entire reason to do railroad is that you have this shining, interesting person in your gaming group, who has all these stories inside waiting to get out. If you don't have that situation, why would you want to play a railroad? The historical tragedy of our hobby seems to be that railroading has been understood as the hiding place of the mediocre and the starter set of the newbie when precisely the opposite is the case: you should only do railroad play if you, alone, actually are capable of being an entertaining storyteller. If that's not the case, the railroad bit is just an incidental detail, and the real issue with your game is that you're putting a mediocre and boring thing in front instead of trying to hide it in the back, as a sensible person would [grin].

    Therefore: the task of the railroad game designer is to facilitate the storyteller and the audience in their roles, not to somehow compensate for the lack of GM skill. If you want a game that doesn't require storytelling skill, play something without that railroad structure. It's insane to simultaneously go "I wanna hold all the balls!" and "But I can't hold more than two, the rest will drop!"

    This is not, by the way, a call to freeform: I am convinced that there is plenty of game design to do regarding that facilitation, and then there's of course the wondrous world of mechanical storytelling to consider: roleplayers have an unique symbolic language in game mechanics, one that they can use to tell stories to each other, so why not do that, then, as part of your art.
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