Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lesson: Railroading

Railroading is a term used to describe the imposition of a predefined set of resolutions onto the choices and conflicts that occur in play by a storyteller or game master. Essentially, it's what happens when a person tries to make themselves the sole author of the story.

The metaphor is obvious: just as a train can only operate on a preset rail structure that determines where it can go, and can only deviate from that path at special switching stations, a railroaded game can only function if contingent outcomes resolve in the anticipated way. A train that's forced off its rails crashes, which is essentially what happens to railroaded games forced out of their narrow plot.

Most games have some predefined narrative structure, and there's often an agreement among players that games will contain particular plot types or elements. Railroading only takes place when player actions are prevented from having any effect on the flow of events. It's possible that a game can be railroaded without its participants noticing, but unlikely, due to the fragility of plots and the ease with which they can be derailed. Any choices made by players that aren't compatible with the storyteller's plans either break the game or result in the storyteller crafting events in such a way to force a return to the intended outcome. Therefore, the term is virtually always used pejoratively, and the technique considered to be inherently pathological, as it represents a failure to be properly flexible and adaptive to players' input. Unlike Illusionism, there's really no way Railroading can be used responsibly.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't see how illusionism can be used responsibly. In both cases (railroading and illusionism), you're taking input from the players and disregarding it.

Railroading uses force to take away options, or crafts the rail ahead of time so there are no choices. Illusionism offers a choice, but any selection results in the same outcome.

Matthew George said...

The simple truth is that no matter how immersive the play experience is, or how detailed a GM's creations are, the greater part of any roleplaying game is trompe-l'oeil: from the perspective of the players, the world might seem realistic enough, but on closer inspection it's obviously not genuine.

When used properly, the techniques of Illusionism assist the GM by permitting choices to be made that don't have cosmic import and by obviating the need to work out crushing levels of detail. If the group decides to head north, and you make the same random encounter roll that you would have made if they'd gone south, that's a healthy form of Illusionism. If there are several taverns in town, and the GM places a specific set of encounters and adventure hooks in whichever the group chooses, that's a healthy form of Illusionism.

Railroading is extended, inflexible, and has a tendency to be unimaginative, given that it's difficult to anticipate what a group of gamers will decide to attempt in any detail. Illusionism, used properly, restricts itself to specific situations and choices.

WJ MacGuffin said...

I think some level of railroading is necessary in every rpg that includes a GM, even if it's only, "Play nice and have fun." That statement limits player input, yet most would agree that sentence is proper, if not necessary.

Also, I don't think there's anything wrong with a theme or end point to a RPG if the players and GM agree to it beforehand. "No evil characters" is a good example, as is, "We will fight to free the land and its people." While there's nothing wrong with a completely free-form, trackless game, there's a lot to be said for a plot and purpose.

I think railroading becomes a bad thing when people haven't agreed to it beforehand or when it's so controlling that I feel powerless to affect change in the game universe. Stop me from killing an important NPC? Fine, if it leads to a great game next week. Stop me from killing a bad guy because YOU don't think my character should do that? No thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think, WJ, that you are in agreement with Mendel. That is, there is always an effect of the GM's interactions on play to be sure. The key to "railroading" is that it is GM control of those decisions which you would would prefer to have under your control. Yes, that's a somewhat tautological definition, and it will be local in ever case, but that is the nature of railroading. One man's careful GM guidance in some matter is another man's unacceptable interference.

In practice most people are closer on what they would construe as railroading than you might think. But there is no one precise level of control that you can define that will describe it for all players.

Mike Holmes