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Author Topic: Is railroading a symptom of design?  (Read 1887 times)
Michael Pfaff
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« on: February 08, 2010, 06:44:10 AM »

I'm considering the various types of games out there and how I would like to design my game. It seems as if many narrative games put you in a situation, and gamist games have a series of challenges you must overcome (I'm lost on simulationist, so I'm not sure where it falls in), but this screams to me as if gamist games rely on railroading - in fact, you often see articles for games like D&D that define methods for "good railroading".

Yet, looking at say, Dogs in the Vineyard or Sorcerer, it seems the design strictly forbids railroading.

Is railroading a useful tool for Gamist RPGs? Could it be useful in a Story Game?

And, in my first thoughts for game design, how should I look at my mechanics preventing or assisting the GM in railroading?

Thanks.

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2010, 07:14:01 AM »

Hi Mike,

One of the first issues we worked out, here at the Forge, was to distinguish between (1) railroading and (2) plain old situational setup. The fact is that if at least one character is not fictionally present in a fictional location, with the location's immediate features described to everyone, then play can't happen. Somebody, or in some games several somebodies, has to establish all of that.

Your question is knotted up in the idea that if anyone ever says, "You wake up in a locked box," or "All right, skipping ahead to next Tuesday," or even, "When you open a door, a hydra strikes at you," then it's railroading. That is, that any kind of scene-situation or even description would be railroading. That's absurd. Without such material being established as the fiction in action, play cannot proceed. The only alternative would be to have every character's actions be laboriously described minute to minute, every damn day of his or her life, in the hopes that somehow, through no actual human agency, their situation would evolve into something fun to play. (Groups that pretend they do this do exist; I call this sort of play "Ouija boarding.")

In order to describe what railroading is, we arrived at a term I called Force. Force is when any person at the table 'grabs' the actions (or immediate situational details that rely on actions) of a character who belongs to someone else. If it's part of the group's understanding that I am responsible for stating the actions of my Warrior Elf Hottie, and if we're playing, and you (the GM) tell me that she is fearful and cannot get her arrow strung in time during combat - hey, you just stole my gal. You said something about her that I thought only I could say about her.

(To be clear: this is presuming that we are not playing a game with either formal Fear check mechanics or even any informal understanding that the GM can dictate character emotional states.)

Force can be applied obviously or subtly, but that's the key point: transferring power over a character between two actual people. So is it by definition railroading? No. The definition of railroading is that Force is being applied against a person's wishes or more importantly, against his or her understanding of how this particular game was being conducted. It's a social and creative transgression.

Is there a way to play in which power over a character does in fact trade across people? Sure. If the GM is delivering a planned story to the players, and certain steps require that player-characters do or feel certain things, or experience (for instance) a defeat in an early battle ... and if the players know this and are happy to abide by it, then Force is indeed present but no railroading is going on. We decided to call this "participationist" play.

So let's go to your particular issue with scene framing (the term for stating where, when, and in what particular positions characters are). In many ways, framing a scene sometimes requires presumptions about the characters' actions. If I am the GM and I say, "All right, skipping ahead to next Tuesday," or, "Later, while you're taking a shower," then I obviously tacitly played the characters between the last moments played and the moments I'm describing. You did not, after all, laboriously describe your character going into the bathroom, taking off his clothes, turning on the shower, and getting in. You may well not even have said, "I'm going to take a shower" at all.

So is that railroading? It's a matter of three things. First, did you genuinely have something in mind that you wanted your character to do instead, or related, did you genuinely want your character not to take a shower for some reason? (And the GM didn't even ask.) Second, does the GM typically extend this kind of 'takeover' later in the scenes over consequential decisions for your character, in which case this is sort of the thin end of the wedge? And third, if you object, does your voice at the table matter, or does the GM shut you down and say, "My way, you're in the shower, I said so." If some combination of those three things is going on, then yeah, it's probably railroading.

But that doesn't mean it had to be. If the GM's statement, "Later, when you're taking a shower" is understood by everyone at the table to be a provisional opening statement of what can become a dialogue about the next scene, then by definition, it cannot be railroading. The GM is perfectly politely saying he's ready to cut to a new situation, the old one's done. The players are perfectly capable of modifying the suggested situation ("I'm in the shower with him," or "I'd rather have gone to the neighborhood bar first," or "No way I'm taking a shower! I like the smell of the nasty slime," et cetera) without it being considered a challenge, because the original statement wasn't a decree in the first place.

That kind of provisionality is very useful, especially when my #2 above (the thin end of the wedge) is not ever present. In practice, I've found that it turns into a negotiated dialogue only very rarely because no one is uptight about that mild transfer of who says what the character did. And if the player retains the ultimate authority, that means not even Force is present.

You probably know the problem with not having that understanding (either no-Force or participationist, the two functional solutions): the players become paranoid and argumentative because they are tired of having their characters played for them, and they "turtle up," insisting that their characters do nothing and react to nothing all the time.

Final point: none of this has anything to do with Gamism vs. Narrativism vs. Simulationism. All role-playing requires scenes, and therefore all role-playing requires scene framing; also, Force is a key issue and possible problem in all role-playing.

Best, Ron
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Michael Pfaff
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« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2010, 07:51:04 AM »

Ron,

Thanks for your hasty, yet lengthy response.

I wanted to see if you could further clarify your definition of railroading, or Force as you call it, before I tried to soak up your words in a meaningful way.

The two, Force and Railroading, seem to have different, yet related, definitions in the Provisional Glossary. Those are:

Railroading- 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.

Force - The Technique of control over characters' thematically-significant decisions by anyone who is not the character's player. When Force is applied in a manner which disrupts the Social Contract, the result is Railroading.

Force, as has been defined in the PG and in your post is quite specific, as you use words like "actions" "immediate" and "thematically-significant", to clarify it. However, Railroading seems to be ambiguous and somewhat vague. Sure, Force can lead to Railroading, and might even be more important to a game and the social contract, but what does decision and more importantly, opportunity for decision, mean in the definition of Railroading?

You said that saying things like, "When you open a door, the hydra strikes at you" shouldn't necessarily be considered railroading, because the GM is framing a scene, but what if my character never opened the door? Can we skip straight to that and consider it a situation, or must my character make some decision prior to the situation?

As a GM, can I simply say, "You are doing this when this happens" or must I first state as a player that my character is doing this, and then the GM can say, "Well, when you do that, this happens"? Are there assumptions then that some things are just going to happen and those things should be used by the GM freely (like taking a shower)? Or, should the GM frame the scene with no action in mind, "Your character is just there. What do you do?"

Mike
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Ar Kayon
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« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2010, 08:27:01 AM »

Mike,

Railroading can be particularly useful for a games or sessions that emphasize dungeon crawls.  This is because the GM probably doesn't want the players circumventing the cool challenges, and the play might get dull if they do.  However, any railroading needs to be done with finesse, otherwise the GM is going to piss the players off with his obvious tampering.  Therefore, if your structure is based on a gamist design philosophy, it would be a good idea to include a section for ways to railroad without breaking the illusion.
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Warrior Monk
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« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2010, 09:10:48 AM »

By how Ron wrote it, I see no further clarification is possible, since the actual limit between "applying force for the sake of narrative" and "imposing my will over yours" is totally blurry. It all depends on players perception and GM self-criticism. The actual limit would depend on the group, some would feel that "as you are bathing" is railroading and it would be reasonable if they are a party of orcs in a setting where bathed orcs are considered cowards. On the other hand a GM would consider "as you are bathing" a good way to make the same group of orc players react, instead of staying frozen still under a waterfall because a monster is out there.

Anyway, I'd say it isn't railroading if the players and GM can discuss on the matter and agreed on it or some reasonable variation, fashioned after the GM original idea.

On top of that there's an opposite situation of railroading that I've seen a GM use to annoy the players. In this case the GM states something like "you are in a radioactive plant. What do you do?" If the player response doesn't go like "I first look for a anti-radiactive suit and get into it" he states his character is killed by radiation. That's it, this GM gives no further information unless he's properly asked and takes absolutely no assumptions about reasonable things the characters should be doing by default. And then he blames it on the players for "not thinking" so far this has made his players a bit more argumentative and though he frames scene after scene, the actual story doesn't develop. It's just the players reacting to the situations and recreating in betraying each other like a Paranoia game, which wasn't exactly the original intention.

So, on second thought, either if you implement railroading mechanics or not, players will find a way to make them fun. Best luck with your game.
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Michael Pfaff
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« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2010, 09:26:20 AM »

So, in Ron's original post, he does say that it's up to the group to determine whether we can skip straight to "opening the door," and if a player has a problem with it, they can say, "Hold on a sec! I don't want to open the door yet!"

It's only railroading if the GM says, "Sorry! The door is open!"? If the GM instead says, "Ok. Very well. You are standing at the closed door."

Fair enough.

So, Railroading itself is completely subjective and depends completely on the parameters set by the group. One group may be doing something that another group considers complete and utter railroading. But, so long as the players accept these techniques for GMing, it's not railroading?

If I say, as a player, "I want to avoid this encounter entirely and go do something else." And, the GM says, "No! You can't, this is the encounter where you find out about X clue! The bad guy's scuffle goes into the alley you took to avoid the encounter and suddenly, one of them attacks you!"

I can, as a player, either A) accept this or B) deny this. If A happens, it's not railroading. If B happens, it is railroading.

Am I getting this correctly? 
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2010, 09:32:48 AM »

Well .... saying it's specific to the group when playing a particular game, is not the same thing as saying "it's all relative" in a fluffy way. I'm saying that for a specific group playing a specific game at a particular time, that is, a real-life play event, there will be an identifiable line between when Force is OK, and when Force is not OK, and about what. There's also the issue of what I called the Black Curtain, which is to say, the GM using Force but trying to keep it secret - Illusionist play. And that too is a matter of what people in the group genuinely want to do, and in terms of a real group in real action, isn't vague or relative at all.

So I consider these issues extremely concrete and non-iffy, as long as we're talking about real play and not saying "the GM" or "the players" or whatever as if they applied the same way for everyone.

Does that help a bit?

Best, Ron

P.S. One clarification: the bit about "thematic" in the definition of Force is an artifact; we'd been talking about the techniques specifically regarding Narrativist play. Substitute "strategic" for Gamist play, for example. Better, just say "important" and let that be a local Agenda thing for any group at any time, and then the Glossary definition will make the most sense.

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: February 08, 2010, 09:42:13 AM »

Wait, a bit more, because I think you're asking a good question:

Quote
If I say, as a player, "I want to avoid this encounter entirely and go do something else." And, the GM says, "No! You can't, this is the encounter where you find out about X clue! The bad guy's scuffle goes into the alley you took to avoid the encounter and suddenly, one of them attacks you!"

I can, as a player, either A) accept this or B) deny this. If A happens, it's not railroading. If B happens, it is railroading.


Not quite, but close. I'd break out the responses differently.

A) You say, "Oh well then, if this is where I get the clue, then fine! I was going to go look for the clue anyway. Cool." (Granted, if this were the case, the whole dialogue would look different, and most likely the player wouldn't even say 'no I don't,' but it's easy to go back and rewrite it in this context.) In this case, there is Force, but not railroading - the player is fine with the Force and the group is being Participationist.

B) You say, "Damn it, I hate this. But OK, since you pitch the hissy fit about how we aren't 'story enough' whenever we complain, I guess I gotta do it." This is Force used to railroad, and notice that you accept it because otherwise there's no game - the GM has the social lockdown. I should also point out that in these situations, the players' stated actions or attempts not to be drawn into the action are often well past the fun point anyway, because play itself has turned into an outright power struggle.

Does that make sense? In both my A and B, the player accepts the Force, but the issue is why they have to accept - something they were already buying into as "how we play," or something that they really don't want to play, but are socially blackmailed into doing.

Best, Ron
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Michael Pfaff
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« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2010, 09:59:40 AM »

I'm saying that for a specific group playing a specific game at a particular time, that is, a real-life play event, there will be an identifiable line between when Force is OK, and when Force is not OK, and about what.

I think I understand. You're saying Force is a viable, and sometimes necessary, GM tactic, so long as it's applied when the group playing a specific game at a particular time says, "Ok. Let's go along with this because it makes sense for this game at this time." And, that is not going to lead to Railroading.

Does this fall into line with "The Lumpley Principle" and our system for roleplaying? Are we agreeing that certain imagined events need to be brought into play via Force? And, others should not be Forced?

There's also the issue of what I called the Black Curtain, which is to say, the GM using Force but trying to keep it secret - Illusionist play. And that too is a matter of what people in the group genuinely want to do, and in terms of a real group in real action, isn't vague or relative at all.

And, if the illusionist play is deemed appropriate to our system at this particular time in this particular game, that would not be Railroading either. Does the opportunity for decision, when speaking of Railroading, fall in line with illusionist play? Or, am I reading that wrong? Can you give me an example of how one might negate an "opportunity" for decision?

P.S. One clarification: the bit about "thematic" in the definition of Force is an artifact; we'd been talking about the techniques specifically regarding Narrativist play. Substitute "strategic" for Gamist play, for example. Better, just say "important" and let that be a local Agenda thing for any group at any time, and then the Glossary definition will make the most sense.

That makes more sense. Important decisions.

Mike
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Michael Pfaff
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« Reply #9 on: February 08, 2010, 10:19:03 AM »

Does that make sense? In both my A and B, the player accepts the Force, but the issue is why they have to accept - something they were already buying into as "how we play," or something that they really don't want to play, but are socially blackmailed into doing.

This makes a lot of sense actually. In fact, this very situation happened in my game last night, where as a player I decided to "go along with it" just to keep the game moving, despite my complete lack of acceptance in the situation in terms of why I was playing.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: February 08, 2010, 12:30:22 PM »

Cool, it looks like we're getting somewhere. Couple of things.

1. The Lumpley Principle is a universal point, and yeah, what we're talking about is related - how we agree on what happens in the fiction may include Force for some groups, and the way that the Force is communicated and managed is definitely going to be a matter of raw-and-hard System for them. All those terms I threw around, like Participationism and Illusionism and the Black Curtain, and Force itself, are Techniqes in Big Model terms which relate to this issue.

2. I think I should specify, though, that Force is not itself a universal technique. I tried to show earlier that scene framing, for instance, doesn't even have to have any Force at all. If I say, "Later, when you're in the shower," and if we all know that this is a provisional statement open to discussion, then no Force is present there, even if you choose not to discuss it and go with it as stated. Force means the character is being appropriated, which is why your example was a good one - the GM saying "No!" (or meaning it, and knowing it's understood, even if unsaid) established that Force was involved.

A lot of my own game designs are deliberately anti-Force. I recently tried to explain this for Sorcerer, in [Sorcerer] How do you play it?, and Elfs, Trollbabe, It Was a Mutual Decision, and S/Lay w/Me all take it further by formalizing how and when different people can get their hands into the pot regarding a particular character. It's fair to say that a big priority for me, as a player who designs games, is to make the issue of Force a non-issue via rules that solve the problem before it arises.

Best, Ron
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Michael Pfaff
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« Reply #11 on: February 08, 2010, 01:51:43 PM »

1. The Lumpley Principle is a universal point, and yeah, what we're talking about is related - how we agree on what happens in the fiction may include Force for some groups, and the way that the Force is communicated and managed is definitely going to be a matter of raw-and-hard System for them. All those terms I threw around, like Participationism and Illusionism and the Black Curtain, and Force itself, are Techniqes in Big Model terms which relate to this issue.

Awesome. I'm still green when it comes to the whole Big Model, but I'm trying to understand it and apply it to the game I'm designing and games I play.

2. I think I should specify, though, that Force is not itself a universal technique. I tried to show earlier that scene framing, for instance, doesn't even have to have any Force at all. If I say, "Later, when you're in the shower," and if we all know that this is a provisional statement open to discussion, then no Force is present there, even if you choose not to discuss it and go with it as stated. Force means the character is being appropriated, which is why your example was a good one - the GM saying "No!" (or meaning it, and knowing it's understood, even if unsaid) established that Force was involved.

So, Force is simply when the GM is framing a scene and the other players resist (whether they agree to continue once said Force is applied and why they agree determines whether Force = Railroading). If the players don't resist, no Force. Makes sense.

A lot of my own game designs are deliberately anti-Force. I recently tried to explain this for Sorcerer, in [Sorcerer] How do you play it?, and Elfs, Trollbabe, It Was a Mutual Decision, and S/Lay w/Me all take it further by formalizing how and when different people can get their hands into the pot regarding a particular character. It's fair to say that a big priority for me, as a player who designs games, is to make the issue of Force a non-issue via rules that solve the problem before it arises.

This kind of brings me back to my original question. Is railroading a symptom of design?

And, I guess the answer is, "No".

However, the design can attempt to mitigate railroading through rules which specify when and how to use (or not use) Force (whether it's the GM or player using Force). Does this sound about right?

As an aside, would you consider rules such as D&D's 'Rule 0' or 'it's ultimately the DM's call', and DitV's rule for GM's to 'push for smaller stakes' to be rules that encourage the use of Force (whether it results in railroading or it doesn't)?

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2010, 02:11:04 PM »

Hi Mike,

I'm breaking one of my moderating rules by isolating little bits and pieces of your post to respond to. But it seems to me as if we are communicating very well so far, and at this stage, we're sanding away at the details, so maybe getting picky about specific phrasing is not so bad. All that said, let me know if you think I've twisted your post by responding to parts of it in isolation.

Quote
So, Force is simply when the GM is framing a scene and the other players resist (whether they agree to continue once said Force is applied and why they agree determines whether Force = Railroading). If the players don't resist, no Force. Makes sense.

I don't think you quite nailed it with this one. First, Force is about characters and what they do. Scene framing is only involved if and when it taps into that issue of what the character is doing or has been doing. And also, Force is necessarily about one person reaching out and taking another's character, directing his or her actions or words or feelings or position. There's nothing if/response based about it; it's an observable action during play itself and either does or does not happen.

Second, presuming the standard GM model for purposes of simplicity, the players may accept or not accept Force, and either way, it's still Force. And if it's railroading, they can still accept or not accept it. And to make things a little more complicated, both acceptance or rejection may themselves be nonverbal in practice. So saying, "Hey, Bob spoke up, and I guess if he didn't then X wouldn't be X." No, X is X whether Bob takes it and likes it, takes it and bitches, takes it and hates it in silence, doesn't take it by rebelling openly, or doesn't take it by appearing to take it but finding a way to punish the GM in retaliation.

Quote
However, the design can attempt to mitigate railroading through rules which specify when and how to use (or not use) Force (whether it's the GM or player using Force). Does this sound about right?

Yeah. One solution is to have no Force at all in a relatively traditional GM/player design (Sorcerer, My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard). Another is to have Force and say so, and have it out on the table with a certain positive emphasis that lets the players know it's worth it (a good example from a few years ago: Arrowflight; also, kill puppies for satan). Yet another is to put multiple-person input into a given character in a managed way which gives no one full control, but creates an organized composite (other games of mine, Spione and It Was a Mutual Decision), which is another way to obviate Force entirely. Or less extremely, have "spots" in play where one person gets some narrational input that by-and-large means a fun way to share and appreciate one another's characters and to let one's own character experience something that's not all you all the time (The Pool, InSpectres, Dust Devils, Trollbabe, Primetime Adventures).

Quote
As an aside, would you consider rules such as D&D's 'Rule 0' or 'it's ultimately the DM's call', and DitV's rule for GM's to 'push for smaller stakes' to be rules that encourage the use of Force (whether it results in railroading or it doesn't)?

The first one is. So is the infamous Golden Rule. The second one isn't; it is all about matching the fiction-in-crisis to a scale which the dice are best suited to handle it. Note as well it says "push for," not "decree and establish" or (as is common in Force-heavy texts) "ensure without letting them know."

Best, Ron

P.S. - Hey, I'd like to get this focused a bit more on working on a game design. Let me know what you were tinkering with.
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Warrior Monk
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« Reply #13 on: February 10, 2010, 08:00:56 AM »

Instead of making a question out of this topic, please take these as questions to push this topic foward into the actual game design: What make GMs apply Force in the first place? What makes them get to the point of railroading? I mean, besides players with interests in the game different from the ones the GM has. Is there a particularity on any systems that could take a GM to the point of applying force so solve a situation?
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Michael Pfaff
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« Reply #14 on: February 11, 2010, 11:43:16 AM »

P.S. - Hey, I'd like to get this focused a bit more on working on a game design. Let me know what you were tinkering with.

Hey Ron, just wanted to pop in and let you know I'm not abandoning this thread, just been super busy with work and gaming the last few days. I'll get to this ASAP!

Mike
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