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Author Topic: Questioning Deprotagonization and Railroading  (Read 2355 times)
Jasper
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« on: April 07, 2004, 06:18:32 PM »

In the Railroading Fun thread,

Quote from: Allen
One of the commonly accepted rules in roleplaying is that what a PC thinks, feels, and decides to do is completely up to the player. If the GM tells a player what his character decides, that's railroading.


Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is mostly about deprotagonization.  Now, the concept of deprotanization was definitely a small epiphany for me when I first reached the Forge, and allowed me to articulate what I dislike about "railroading" behavior from GMs -- so I've certainly believed in the rule Allen describes.

However, I just had a thought: why must this be so?  Nevermind whether railroading = bad; why is a GM making statements about a player's character necessarily deprotagonizing?  It seems to come down to equation of the player with the character: that the player owns the character on an intellectual level, and that the character is the player's main--perhaps only--conduit for affecting the game.

But this kind of equation is something that more "avante guard" and indie games are increasingly questioning, and in fact many people here seem to question strongly (frex, responses in the Mystery Essay thread).  I guess I'm mostly intrigued how two Forge-ish ideas seem to be coming together to question one another: deprotagonization has led us to a good explanation for why we don't like certain behaviors, but then the rejection of illusionism and pawns stance as the only way to play make us question whether deprotagonization is necessarily the result of the behavior we always said we disliked.

I'm probably being vague with the above.  Here's an example that may help:

A player says "I'm going to look into the beast's eyes."  The GM says "You feel horror."  This is most likely going to be labeled as deprotagonizing, and it may very well be for the player -- which is all that matters of course.  However, consider:

A player says "Gustav looks into the beast's eyes."  The GM says "Gustav is horrified."  At least I no longer get a knee jerk response against this (as I do indeed have in the first case) witht he word deprotagonization jumping into my head.  Instead I can easily see it as co-authorship.  The "player" makes some choices having to do with the characters, the GM some others.   Now maybe you could argue that this kind of split is bad since the player will have a lot less influence on the world than the GM -- but I don't think that's an intrinsic property of this kind of play, since it doesn't say anything about what other power players might have.  

I'm I saying something totally obvious?  Am I barking up the wrong tree?  These are mostly just musings, but I thought they might be significant (though I'm exhausted, so what is and isn't significant may be beyond my ability to differentiate).
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Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press
Shreyas Sampat
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« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2004, 06:27:03 PM »

I have a strong impression that this "dictating the character's inner world = deprotagonization = bad" equation is a historical accident, like pinky toes. In the world where wargamers started telling stories about their units, (I'm not sure whether this is the real world; I'm telling a fairytale) it was okay for the referee to say, "your unit slips and falls off the cliff", but not, "your unit is too dumb to come up with that brilliant ambush plan."
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CPXB
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« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2004, 06:38:09 PM »

As a board newbie, I'm still on the learning curve with some of these terms.  I do understand deprotagonization -- tho' I think its an ugly word, aesthetically, hehe -- and for me and my group this is a contentious issue.

I don't think that it is necessarily deprotagonization for the GM to demand certain sorts of RP from the player.  I think it is an extension of the directorial authority that the GM already possesses -- the GM is, traditionally, "in charge".  If I say that the character falls from a great height and shatters a leg, its within my right to demand that the character RP having a shattered leg.  For instance, the character can't run.

Likewise, particularly in games where psychology is handled through a variety of mechanisms, I think its fair for me to say, "You look into the hell beast's eyes and are horrified."

I even go so far as to allow NPCs social skills to be used against PCs to the extent that PCs use their social skills.  (And generally only to that extent -- for stuff like in game manipulation, poison and other contentious issues I hesitate to bring it into a game, but if the *players* do I feel justified in countering in kind.)  So if PCs want to use their skills and powers to seduce NPCs I think it is only fair if the same mechanic runs both ways.  My logic, here, is that if it doesn't run both ways it would be like using the game systems to hit people with weapons, perhaps killing them, but then complaining when the NPCs hit back and do damage in return.

One of my players in particular feels this is bad, though she cannot articulate precisely way (she knows even less about deprotagonization than I do, hehe).  It bothers her intensely that NPCs can emotionally manipulate characters as the characters emotionally manipulate NPCs.

So, I'm on your side.  As a player and GM I think the GM should occasionally tell characters what they are actually thinking and, rarely, what they are doing -- or at least have veto powers over player decisions (which is how it generally works in my games; I don't tell them what they can do, just what they *can't* do).  While I understand it is easy to go too far and deprotagonize a character, I think in just moderation it works fine.
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-- Chris!
montag
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« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2004, 07:26:46 PM »

Quote from: Jasper
However, I just had a thought: why must this be so?  Nevermind whether railroading = bad; why is a GM making statements about a player's character necessarily deprotagonizing?  It seems to come down to equation of the player with the character: that the player owns the character on an intellectual level, and that the character is the player's main--perhaps only--conduit for affecting the game.
But this kind of equation is something that more "avante guard" and indie games are increasingly questioning, and in fact many people here seem to question strongly (frex, responses in the Mystery Essay thread).  I guess I'm mostly intrigued how two Forge-ish ideas seem to be coming together to question one another: deprotagonization has led us to a good explanation for why we don't like certain behaviors, but then the rejection of illusionism and pawns stance as the only way to play make us question whether deprotagonization is necessarily the result of the behavior we always said we disliked.
AFAIK, deprotagonisation refers to the making _player_ input irrelevant.
So, it might be said to be a misnomer, but then again, the term arose in the context of play where the player can only affect the world through the PC. You might call the term though not the concept a historical artefact, which no longer accurately describes its meaning. Then again, games which are all about having everybody contribute to the story are rather unlikely to deprotagonise player or PC, so you might say it's simply not an issue in these games and hence the term is fine, since the problem mostly arises in the context of traditional distributions of credibility.
IMHO it boils down to this: it isn't deprotagonisation, when the GM takes control over the PCs feelings etc. if the player either has veto power or is compensated by other means of influencing the game (stance etc.).
So there isn't really a clash here IMHO, you just linked deprotagonisation too closely to PC-control.
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markus
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"The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do."
--B. F. Skinner, Contingencies of Reinforcement (1969)
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2004, 08:20:08 PM »

Hi there,

The current definition for railroading, as far as I can tell from multiple discussions here, goes something like this:

Control of a player-character's decisions, or opportunities for decisions, by another person (not the player of the character) in any way which breaks the Social Contract for that group, in the eyes of the character's player.

The bolded section is the important part. Railroading is a "crime" at the level of Social Contract, as it pertains to Creative Agenda. Taking the jargon out, that means, "people hate getting their 'rights' of input taken away, although those 'rights' are wholly internal on their part."

So Jasper, Allen was presenting a fairly customized version of railroading - it only makes sense given the Social Contracts he's willing to play within.

Best,
Ron
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Jasper
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« Reply #5 on: April 08, 2004, 05:46:16 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
So Jasper, Allen was presenting a fairly customized version of railroading - it only makes sense given the Social Contracts he's willing to play within.


Oh, I absoultely understand that.  But I don't think the view of railroading/deprotaognization that he describes is at all uncommon.  I guess the whole point of my initial post was just to point out that there is a common knee-jerk response against a GM "dictating" the feelings or thoughts of a player's character.  But this knee-jerk response is unwarranted without having more information about the game in terms of what the players expect, what other power they have, and so on.

Many people now recognize that the historically prevalent close linkage between player and character (in terms of power, actor stance, and intellectual property) is not necessary.  Many people also are also now capable of articulating why deprotagonization is bad.  But it seems like the connection between these ideas hasn't fully caught on yet, and that any GM "interference" with characters is automatically seen as bad.

It's also noteworthy to me that while the concept of shared player power, meaning giving non-GM (sticking with the standard definition of GM for simplicity, Ron) players more power has seemed to have won some acceptance, a lot of people are still much more wed to the rule that each non-GM player still owns (at least) one character who is his sole domain and property.  Let's liberate the GMs a little too, huh?  ;)
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Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press
clehrich
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« Reply #6 on: April 08, 2004, 06:00:09 AM »

Ron's response is I think very useful for making some distinctions here.

In MLwM, for example, the structure of the game requires that the minions feel Fear about the Master and Love for some Townspeople.  If a minion approaches the Master in a way that seems excessively nonchalant, it may be appropriate to say, "Remember, you feel afraid here."  This isn't deprotagonizing, because it's part of the game's structure.  Similarly, it's not railroading, because it's entirely necessary to the whole thing that the minions feel fear.

The difference, however, is that the minions can react to that fear in lots of different ways, and that the GM cannot control.  So if the Master says, "Get me that lovely girl's left arm; I need it for my experiment," the minion can say, "Yes, Massster," or he can say, "No, Master!  I, I, I can't do it!  I can't kill that beautiful girl!"  And then there's a resistance roll made.  If the minion loses, he has to go try to get the arm, but that doesn't mean he has to feel good about it, just that he is more afraid of the Master than of trying to get the arm.

So I think we can't be simplistic about this.  Forcing certain emotional responses is perfectly appropriate if that's implicit or explicit in the game structure and thus the Social Contract.  I think, for example, that it's perfectly reasonable in CoC to tell someone he feels fear when he initially spots a Byakhee.  But once the player rolls SAN, the player can decide how he responds to that fear on the basis of the roll and whatever other factors he thinks are appropriate.  If he goes totally bonkers, for example, he can decide that his fear is liberated into worship and awe.

In short, you can dictate emotion under certain pre-accepted circumstances.  You can't dictate emotion and response except by deprotagonizing the character.
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Chris Lehrich
Mike Holmes
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« Reply #7 on: April 08, 2004, 01:13:34 PM »

I was with you right up until the end, there Chris. I think we need to chuck "Deprotagonization." It's never been a serious term, despite the fact that I think some people assume that it is.

Even Protagonism in terms of RPGs simply means that a player uses some power to make his character an interesting instrument of play. Not the normal definition. The point is that taking away your power to make a character a protagonist, is precisely the definition of railroading that Ron gave above.

So, the definition of these things is always local in terms of what the Social Contract is meant to allow, it seems to me, and railroading is preventing a player from making a character a protagonist. Note that the character might still be made a protagonist by railroading. It's just that the person doing it isn't the one assigned the right by the Social Contract.

I had a more nuanced version of the term Railroading in a previous thread, but I think that this one works as well.

Mike
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #8 on: April 08, 2004, 04:43:29 PM »

I think we need to chuck "Deprotagonization." It's never been a serious term....taking away your power to make a character a protagonist, is precisely the definition of railroading that Ron gave above.

A character can be deprotagonized by game mechanics.

Paul
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #9 on: April 09, 2004, 09:40:34 AM »

Uh, yeah, I spose they can...why do you mention it?

Mike
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #10 on: April 09, 2004, 09:50:04 AM »

You can't discard "deprotagonization" as a term for being redundant with "railroading," because railroading does not encompass mechanics-based deprotagonization.

Paul
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Andrew Norris
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« Reply #11 on: April 09, 2004, 10:41:52 AM »

I have to agree with Paul here.

If my character is conceived in my head as a fierce, skilled warrior, and in a battle against some relatively unskilled opponents I roll a fumble and drop my sword, I've definately been deprotagonized, but I wasn't railroaded by anyone.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #12 on: April 09, 2004, 11:44:23 AM »

Ah, OK, so railroading is a subset of the things that can deprotagonize. Yes.

BTW, I wasn't saying that deprotagonize should be thrown out becase the two terms are equal. I was saying that it should be throw out because it's not a word (or even close to one). I mean, if we want to make it "official" jargon that means a shortcut to saying, "fails to allow the character to be a protagonist," that's fine I suppose. It's just a strange term.

Mike
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Seth L. Blumberg
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« Reply #13 on: April 09, 2004, 11:47:15 AM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
I mean, if we want to make it "official" jargon that means a shortcut to saying, "fails to allow the character to be a protagonist," that's fine I suppose.

That's what I've always understood it to mean, and how Ron defines it in the glossaries of his latest essays.
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #14 on: April 09, 2004, 12:13:29 PM »

I think the negativity of deprotagonization is appropriate and practical. It implies that protagonism is "inalienable," a property that all role playing characters are created with, and that only becomes an issue when it's taken away.

Of course, that implication might be dead wrong. I believe that all player-characters have protagonism unless deprotagonized, but I can see why others might regard player-characters as only achieving protagonism through some sort of positive effort. In that case there might be a useful distinction between deprotagonization (was protagonized, ain't no more; or player attempted to protagonize but was thwarted) and nonprotagonism (never got played as a protagonist in the first place).

- Walt
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