Once upon a time I wrote about railroading: https://thanuir.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/defining-railroading/ and https://thanuir.wordpress.com/2007/12/05/24/ and even https://thanuir.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/to-not-railroad/ . Jonne Arjoranta responded http://users.jyu.fi/~joolarjo/forge/role-playing/theory/by-train-for-a-change/ , but I learned of it only recently. Jonne did not link to any of my posts and so there was no pingback or other notification.
Jonne states the definition of railroading as someone restricting the diegetic (fictional) contributions of others, and concludes that this is too broad, since it is necessary for choices to have consequences, or for any roleplaying to coherence. Jonne would rather use the language of Markus Montola http://ropecon.fi/brap/ch14.pdf (in Beyond role play http://ropecon.fi/brap/practice.html ), involving integrative and dissipative actions in play.
My definition of railroading had three conditions: That someone restricted choices of others, that the others assumed they could make the removed choices, and that the action had no fictional (diegetic) reason. As such, the criticism of Jonne does not apply to the definition I stated, since my definition is much more specific than the one Jonne criticises, and the criticism is based on the large scope of the definition.
I should mention that my definition is meaningful when one consider making decisions and observing the consequences to be the central to play. If one think of something else as central to play – for example, causing a particular experience to the players as in Fastaval games http://alexandria.dk/english I read in Unelma keltaisesta kuninkaasta http://pelilauta.fi/index.php/topic,2184.0.html (forum thread in Finnish), then this definition might not be as meaningful.
This is also the reason why Will Hindmarch’s recent texts have not had much of an effect on me ( https://medium.com/gameplaywright-presents/sword-fighting-on-a-roller-coaster-railroading-for-the-best-in-rpg-play-547333c80359 , https://medium.com/gameplaywright-presents/the-illusionists-lament-dramaturgy-and-illusion-for-the-best-in-rpg-play-97d348bcb16 ). Based on a quick read (please correct me if I have interpreted them inaccurately) Will consider the game master as an artist or entertainer more than the facilitator of play who lets other participants make decisions and enforces their consequences.
What follows is three broad ways of preparing for play. They are basically refined and slightly more narrow versions of a post I made before this blog at Theory decides. The versions written here have slightly different naming schema and extensively use Montola’s theory.
Disclaimer: I find scripted play generally distasteful, pointless or alien. That might influence something.
When game master and the group builds a setting and the players characters (with varying amounts of input from players and GM on the different aspects) and then the characters are placed in the setting, do stuff, and the setting responds, game is sandbox play. A setting generated by improvisation in play based on “what would really be there” can also be sandbox play.
In terms of the model discussed, a sandbox has accidental attractors in that a given group of characters might or might not care about them. Maybe the want to slay the slumbering dragon, maybe awaken it, maybe take its stuff, maybe they ignore it completely. There are things happening in the setting, but they go on independently of the player characters, who are free to go and do as they will.
Sandbox play is hit-and-miss: If the characters don’t have agendas of their own or happen to bump into something that engages the players, the gaming will be dull. There usually is a slow start where players get used to their characters and the setting and have little time to start doing something interesting. On the other hand, given characters with strong principles and goals, sandbox play can create wonderful organic stories and experiences. If characters are of the sort who always get offended by something or always are scheming to the over the world, at least something will happen.
There is a strong starting cost, or need to be good at impro, to run a sandbox game well.
There are strong attractors the player characters are expected to follow. The expection may be tacit (that is what roleplaying is) or explicit. It may be part of the game rules (Rune). There usually is a setting where things that don’t directly touch the player characters happens, but they are on the background. Often there is a particular story that is being told. It may have been designed by all participants (the crazy Swedes are up to no good with that kind of stuff, I’m certain) or by the GM in solitude. There certainly are other methods.
Strong attractors are the key here. If all the player characters are united in purpose (save the world), share similar values (alignment and interpretation of it) and have well-defined solution to most problems (fighting), the game should go along just fine. GM knows what kind of hooks and rewards to use, players know what they are supposed to do. GM can plan excellent events while the players have fun dealing with those.
The great strength of scripted play is that preparation is both useful and efficient. What is prepared is often also used. If not, it can be recycled to some later situation. The great flaw is the tendency to stick with what one has prepared. Some games make this near mandatory. The myth of impro being somehow difficult (more difficult than using prepared material, at least) is a result of relying on preparation. Railroading happens when GM creates more and more attractors that actually lead to the same place when players diverge.
Scripted game (as in a series of sessions) is built so that attractors draw the PCs together. Avoiding bifurcation points is important. An alternative is to place them so that one has time to prepare, whichever attractor is followed after the brief chaos.
Players create characters. Game master builds or tweaks everything else so that characters are engaged, but the direction they move to is unknown. Essentially, volatile play means that GM constructs bifurcation points the players will bump into. The Forge people call a specific sort of bifurcation point a bang. More generally, there are two sorts (not dichotomous) of volatile situations that can be prepared: Those which rely on player making a decision and those which rely on dice making a decision. Generally speaking, the first are more enjoyable, at least in my opinion. Combinations, such as the player deciding which dice get to make the decision, are possibly. See for example many combat systems.
There is room for using attractors, too. They should be used to keep the player characters interacting and the game as a whole coherent. Otherwise all the characters might end up doing their own thing separate from the other PCs, which is generally not as fun as players interacting. It is also more work for the game master.
Good rules are things that don’t require much preparation, or at least much preparation for specific occasions. Improvisation is practically necessary technique, so rules that make it possible or easier are always nice. Rules which make resolution unexpected but not overtly random are another good tool: Stuff like action points that give a significant bonus to rolls, for example, allow success at unexpected situations that the player finds important.
Problems include the aforementioned bubble play, where PCs don’t significantly interact, and inconsistencies. When much detail is generated on fly to drive PCs towards a given bifurcation point, there is significant risk of an inconsistency or three appearing. Usually they don’t matter because they are not noticed. Sometimes things do go messy.
And the lesson is…
Play the way you do, but know that there are alternatives which can look totally alien. Experimentation is a good thing; some techniques transfer well between gaming styles.
For me, roleplaying is about making choices. I hear there exist alien entitites called other people who disagree. Whatever.
Large heaps of rpg theory are also about choices. More probably, I remember those ones better, but again, whatever. I’ll go through a few from this point of view.
GNS is about the kinds of choices people (in groups) want to make. I am not an authority on the subject, but am fairly likely to get G and N approximately correct. I think these are useful not because they are a tool for putting people in boxes (which they technically speaking are not, but which is a very easy extension of the theory, but instead because you find out that there actually are people who enjoy these kinds of choices, and including them in games to see if people enjoy them might be useful. That’s my opinion.
In a group with a gamist agenda, people appreciate most the kinds of choices that show off your sense of tactics or guts or something like that. These are usually related to winning or beating an obstacle.
A group playing in narrativist way people most appreciate choices that reveal interesting parts about the characters’ inner life. Such decision points often manifest as moral dilemmas and sometimes may involve playing suboptimally from fiction or rules POV (note the qualifiers; they matter).
A group where simulationist play happens most appreciates, well, uh.., I’m not actually quite certain. I’m trying to do a positive definition here. Maybe choices which reveal interesting about the way the fictional reality functions? I guess that is good enough.
GDS aka Threefold
John H. Kim has done a great summary of the threefold model, as has Silvered Glass of rpg.net. From my perspective, threefold talks about the heuristics game masters use when making choices. I will blatantly extend this to players, too. Note that the categories are not mutually exclusive; rather, an overt focus on one will limit the others, because usually there are situations where following a different heuristic would lead to different consequences. I think it is useful to analyse one’s gaming based on these categories. I also think it is useful to check out systems based on thse categories, especially to see if some of the GDS styles will conflict or are congruent in a particular game.
GM with gamist tendencies is someone who tries to make choices so that the game is challenging to the players. My extension is that a player with gamist tendencies wants to make choices which overcome the challenges. Note: Rules and fiction can both be used as the method of presenting the challenges. A courtly intrigue can be as good a gamist challenge as a series of bloody skirmishes even in a game with few to no social rules.
Dramatist GM or player makes decisions that result in the best story (or tries to, anyway). This can be a railroad or a more collaborative exercise (I certainly prefer the latter).
Simulation as a preference means that the participant will make decisions based on “what would really happen”, given the diegetic (in-game) reality.
The AGE model by Kuma takes a look at roleplaying from ecological POV, in that the environments that play takes place in are emphasised. This post will not make much sense unless one is somewhat familiar with the model. The six forces are essentially created by players with given decision-making heuristics. Choices are constrained by the different spaces (em, a, game, play) and also affect those spaces by setting precedents and opening new potential interactions.
Rules can align some priorities. If, for example, the rules are designed to help in creating a story through challenges, they can be enjoyed by people whose styles of play might normally conflict. Setting likewise; if all characters have a drive to prove themselves by doing the impossible and also want to become as powerful as possible, realistic behaviour in that setting corresponds to facing and triumphing over challenges.
Both of the above effects are achieved by constraining some choices and creating new ones. Rules and setting do both.
In traditional play (huge sweeping generalisation incoming) GM is the one who thinks about the good of the game as a primary filter that removes choices, or such is ideally the case, at least. Personally I don’t see the point of not assuming that players also want the good of the game. I do, as a player, to some degree. Many people who both run and play in games probably think more holistically and act in the best interest of the game.
njharman asked how to avoid railroading. For the purpose of this post, I assume reader does not want to railroad and has a good reason for it, such as not enjoying railroading or wanting to try new things. (Bad reason would be because some internet person told that railroading is inherently evil.) Any examples will be drawn from D&D because njharman used DM as a phrase, which kinda implies D&D or similar. I further a prep-heavy game (that is, not Wushu or similar).
Railroading can be avoided, and can happen, on several levels. The easiest and lest painful change is to change the macro level. The simplest method is to always prepare at least two adventures and let players essentially select which they pick. After one has been finished, the other should be altered as appropriate due to PCs ignoring it. The undead gains more minions or the orcish horde sacks more towns or the rakshasa infiltrates a position of power. Even if the adventures are on rails, players still have some choices: To engage this adventure or the other one, with the neglected situation often growing worse. Or maybe some other adventurers solve the other case. Something concrete that the players will notice.
Slightly less simple method is to ask players what their characters will next pursue and to build the next adventure around this. Pacing is important: The direction that PCs take should be clear at the start of each adventure, otherwise boring play and all symptons of that may start manifesting. Big twists and reveals should happen near the end of the session and the next adventure at the very end, preferably roleplayed to not make it boring, if people are in the mood for that. Email or simple face-to-face meetings between games may be an option based on the social environment of participants.
The key in both of the above methods is to clearly communicate with players that their choice matters. This may be out-of-game or in-game, whichever works more smoothly and reliable. Another important factor is to always start each game on the run. Either the plot hooks hit them on the head (more or less literally) by someone asking for help, some PC hearing rumours, the party being attacked, et cetera or the preselected adventure gets rolling right away, e.g. “You are in the sewers and have discovered the body. Who has the light source?”.
One way to get rid of the rails is sandbox gaming. It takes a heavy up-fron investment, though, and is not trivial to get correct. Do this only if you like building or memorising settings and have the time for it.
Not surprisingly, the method is to create a dynamic setting and then let players create characters and do as they will within the confines of the setting. The tricky part is “dynamic”. The setting must have interesting things going on on the scope that players can concretely affect. If they start with power and prestige, politics and wars are good default solutions. If they start as random farmboys, which is probably the better way to introduce elaborate settings for long-term play, slowly giving them power and prestige opens up many possibilities. The “slowly” part is to avoid player freesing at the terror of having the negotiate politics or an unknown setting with a fairly unfamiliar character.
There are some common pitfalls hidden sandboxes. First is players who don’t get interested. It is probably a good idea to start with a bang to avoid this. Burning farms is a long-time tradition among orcs and evil empires. Second is falling in love with the setting. Good gaming is the point. Setting is at best secondary. Players probably are not that interested in random setting bits (but if someone is, let him build parts of it or get involved in other ways). Also: Player characters are the most unreliable portion of the setting. They will blow it to pieces and reassemble them. Or not. Allow this to happen. Maybe they dethroned the emperor. Good for them. Play on. The setting is not sacred. Third is to make a totally impenetrable or alien setting. Resist the temptation. Players will start interacting with the setting only after they understand how it works, generally speaking. As clash bowley did when designing Book of Jalan, steal liberally from real world cultures, but feel free to mix and match cultural tropes, religion, environment, etc. Monotheistic roman dwarves living in jungle or something. It will look and feel exotic but also familiar, which is exactly the point.
The method of gamemastering in a sandbox is to have the aforementioned dynamic forces, player characters who are involved with them, and the rest of the setting for context and ideas. When preparing, think about the motivation and goals of the dynamic parts. What will they do to accomplish them? What do they want player characters to do? What will they do to PCs? How will they be involved? There’s the adventure. Some fairly static but interesting locations and events are good to keep the game changing. A dragon sleeping in the cavern, some random ruins there, an enchanted island here. Just don’t assume that players will go after them. Restricting PC travel is useful, because one can always spring random encounters (that hopefully do have a point or serve a purpose besides depleting hit points) on hapless travelers.
More on the next post. These are the easiest to adopt from railroading background, I’d say. Also: remember to inform the players that you won’t railroad as much anymore. You can’t change a group’s style by yourself.
In my previous post, I defined railroading. Before that, I listed some heuristics for choosing to use or not use the game’s resolution mechanics. Adaen of Bridgewater asked if there is a connection between these two. I think there is.
Most railroading happens because the GM has something in mind and an action initiatiated by players is threatening it. Maybe it is an entire script. Maybe a single scene, like the death of a villain, has been planned. Maybe the player characters should simply be somewhere or meet someone. Maybe the pitiful goblins should really not have been a threat, only a simple diversion.
Generally speaking, players can ruin something in three ways:
- Ridiculing it out-of-character. “Wouldn’t it be a huge surprise if the tavern-keeper died right after we left the place?” If the plan was that someone assassinates the tavern-keeper, they have guessed it. Chances are that players know of the railroading if this happens with any frequency. They may or may not be okay with it. One should talk to the players in this situation.
- Making the “wrong” decision. Having discovered the big bad’s true identity, they choose to ally with him instead of the assumed blood spilling. Or maybe the clues are interpreted in a totally wrong way and party investigates the wrong rumour. This can be a sign of rebellion, not caring about the existence of prepared material, or simple mistake.
- Failing or succeeding where they should not have. This is a matter of rolling the wrong result or not figuring out the riddle or whatever.
Dice, in games where railroading can happen, generally are tied to the third option. So, that first.
The maxim “roll dice only when both failure and success are acceptable” is a relevant one. It deals with many unwanted effects of the third kind. If PCs need to find something (a clue, a secret door, whatever) simply letting them do so without rolling is a solution that makes any rails explicit, and, generally speaking, accepted. It also makes all relevant skills useless or at the very least less useful. Some other benefit should be given for them. For example, the better the skill check, the faster the research. The maxim essentially makes railroading easier and makes it more explicit.
One trigger for rolling that absolutely kills railroading is to roll the dice whenever two participants disagree about what should happen next, assuming the roll’s result is lived by. Including this statement in game text is a very strong anti-railroading message.
Rolling only when nobody particularly cares about the result, which is somewhat common among the people who think that it is a virtue to not use the rules of the game, makes railroading pretty easy if the default is that GM decides what happens otherwise. The opposite, rolling when the situation is dramatic, will encourage fudging when combined with preparation that tends to cause railroading, otherwise it is not special in any way.
Rolling when something might go wrong is pretty standard. Just thinking hard about what will go wrong before rolling allows on to avert many an undramatic death or failure and put something entertaining as the consequences. Failing the jump roll doesn’t mean a 50 metre fall into rapids for the character, but all his foodstuff does go down and he is now clinging to a steep cliff. Situation potentially becomes more dramatic in the short term (gotta climb up; especially cool if there are enemies there) and long term (gotta find food; especially effective if in hurry) and the game can go on.
I’ll be writing a bit more about railroading sometime soon. Specifically on how to avoid it, if one is willing.
Disclaimer: I think railroading is distasteful. My definition portrays it as negative.
Game master’s decisions are railroading when
- Players assume they can have an effect on a particular aspect of the game.
- There is no credible diegetic (fictional, in-game) reason for players to not be able to affect that aspect.
- GM’s decision negates or marginalises player input with regards to that aspect.
I think the first part makes railroading inherently bad and feel railroady to the players.
- A band of merry PCs must decide to go either south or west because they are at crossroads. Wherever they go, they shall encounter the same group of bandits. They have no reason to assume that there would or would not be bandits at either direction. Not railroading.
- As above, but reliable sources tell that there is only one group of bandits and they prey on the south road. The group of PCs take pains to make it seem like they are going south, but actually go west. They spread rumours, check out that they are not bieng spied, etc. Still they face the bandits. This I would call a minor instance of railroading, unless the bandits had a good reason to go west and it is revealed to the players.
There are many ways to GM, but this one is mine.
It is pretty much like this, as opposed to the one defended in past on Twenty Sided (here, here, and here) and many other styles discussed in many other places. I won’t quite fuck the story as Merten did, for example.
My goal as a GM can be summed up into a short format: Force players to make choices as/for their characters, and impose the consequences of these choices on the characters.
This sounds heavy-handed, and, in a way, is. The key is in making the choices relevant to the characters (players tend to be interested in the fate of their characters).
For example, assuming typical D&D and good-inclined player characters: A medium-to-high level party rushes to save a village, only to find it swarming with hobgoblins who have takes the former residents hostage. A reasonably powerful (as in, defeatable, ut not a push-over) devil offers a deal to the party: Party gives the Powerful and Magical Artifact of Utter Evil to the devil and he will let the villagers go, and doing whatever the PCs want to the hobgoblins. If not, well, the hobgoblins are kinda hungry after the forced marching they endured to get here. Unless this is the very start of the campaign, previous choices of players, of perhaps failed skill rolls (ride to hurry there) are the reason for this event happening. What will the players make the characters do?
Maybe they decide to screw it and slay the foul beasts, probably resulting in heavy casualties on villagers and hobgoblins alike, possibly killing the devil, and maybe even one of them dying. Maybe they hand over the artifact and the devil lets the people go (with some potential surprises hidden in them, like some sired half-devils or such, in all likelihood). Maybe they come up with a cunning plan that saves the villagers and even slays the devil. Whatever they do, the players made the call. If they fail miserably, that was due to their own actions (and possible hubris or greed or trustfulness or soft hearts or whatever). If they manage to pull off a heroic rescue, it is truly a meaningful one, because the chance of failure was real. Maybe the devil gets the artifact and gets away, which means that the next adventure is pretty clear and the players will be eager to pursue it. Maybe the village is slaughtered, but the world as a whole is safe from the threat the devil and the artifact would have been, if they had managed to get together. The next bad guy will take a city hostage. The next one a kingdom. How long will the characters keep the artifact when the world around them is crumbling into darkness because they have it? When will they start using it? And what will the price for that be?
Many players would not enjoy that kind of game, because they will suffer wherever they go. That is the problem of those players. A game without trouble is a boring one. Piling complications atop each other is the way to go. At some point the characters will perish or solve their problems. This signifies an end to the story arc. There are characters, they face adversity, and either die in the process (resulting in tragedy) or triumph in the end, having revealed something about themselves in the process. This is what stories are about.
The way I use to get this sort of gameplay is: First make a starting situation and enough setting to get players started with character generation. Restrictions add to creativity and help focus the game. Make sure all the player characters are entwined in the situation and with each other. Make some bad guys or conflicting NPCs or whatever and make sure they are entwined in the situation and player characters, too. Ideally they want something from the PCs.
Once players engage with the starting situation, simply play the NPCs according to their motivations. Let player decisions and dice rolls dictate the outcome of the game. A well-built starting situation is robust and will not crash due to player choices or luck. Further, it will provide opportunities for further conflicts and such.
If/When the initial explosions end but game continues, the key is in throwing ard decisions at player characters and having them interact with each other as much as possible. To my knowledge, pure sandbox play, where an entire setting is built ahead of time, is not ideal for this, though a well-built sandbox certainly works. Goal is in making situations where the choices of players will form more similar situations.
When/If the flood of interesting consequences dies down, game ends. A new one can be started with same characters when the next interesting situation happens in their lives. An entirely new chars can be made. Or maybe some of the old characters continue, but some new ones appear, too. The ideal timing for this is when a new book full of shiny new prestige classes appears. Players can change characters at will without screwing anything up.
There are some aspects of the style which are far from trivial. A list of topics I hope to handle in the future (adding new one is encouraged), in no particular order:
- Building a good starting situation.
- Building good NPCs.
- Building good PCs.
- Using the dice in the open and not fudging.
- Using the NPCs in the open.
- Splitting parties, play based on PvP.
- Improvisation and preparation (they are the same thing), including using heavy rulesets.
- Diceless and freeform gaming, if I manage to master those.
- Secrets or lack thereof.