Sunday, April 1, 2012

Avoiding the RPG Railroad

Going off the rails on a crazy train

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
--Inigo Montoya

Earlier this week, Drance asked the question, "Can one merge the techniques behind railroading and the sandbox style of roleplaying?"  I quipped off an answer, something like "there is no style of railroad campaign, railroading is a technique, not a campaign style".  I've often observed the term bandied about to describe Paizo's adventure paths, or any investigative scenario, as if an entire class or style of gaming is railroad after railroad.  "We don't do adventure paths, because we don't do railroads".

The problem is one person's "railroad" is the other guy's great night of adventuring.  Lots of people buy and play those Paizo adventure paths and seem to enjoy them, so something seems fishy denigrating the whole lot of them.  I had some guy telling me recently the AD&D Ravenloft module was the worst railroad ever written.  I don't know which Ravenloft he read; the one we played was a 6 month guerilla war waged against Strahd and his coven of vampires, where every session tested the player's planning and resource management.  It was an amazing sandbox game.

This goes beyond nomenclature and definitions -  the whole issue is ridiculously subjective.  There is a sliding scale around constraining player choice, with varying shades of grey, and no clear demarcation point where diminished choices become an actual railroad.  Back when a few of us were discussing quantum ogres and whether the DM could fudge dice like Al Pacino, my concern with Illusionism was that if it was well done, the players wouldn't know the difference - so where do you draw the line?

Sidebar:  Illusionism is the technique of giving the players the appearance of choice, but the DM foists his or her own plan on the situation regardless.  The idea behind the quantum ogre involved moving the DM's precious ogre encounter into whatever woods the players entered first.  If you're Al Pacino, you can get away with it, and the players are none the wiser.  But Illusionism is the Railroad's cousin.  If I had to settle on a simple definition for Railroad, it'd be something like this, "imposing a predetermined outcome on the game's events" - at least to get past the semantics.

To give you an idea of the problems with subjectivity, consider these scenarios:  Is a trap with only one solution, a railroad?  How about if the town guard is after the party, and there's only one safe way out of town?  Does your answer change if they robbed someone, precipitating the man hunt?  How about when one NPC after another keeps giving them the same, tired plot hook, leading towards the DM's prepared adventure site? Is a linear dungeon a railroad?

My own solution to the problem of subjectivity was to look at things from the game master's side of the table, and to apply the objective test based on my definition of railroad:  Is the DM predetermining the game's outcomes?  Looking at the situations above, each one of them can be construed as a railroad if the DM has predetermined a singular solution or a particular outcome - if there's truly only one way to beat the trap, to get out of town, where to adventure, or how to proceed.

The interesting thing about blogging, you get exposed to new ideas, you get the chance to reflect and mature your own thinking.  These days I don't believe the objective test goes far enough - the opposite of the railroad is agency and choice, which means the players have explicit influence on the actual events.  The test of whether player choice matters is subjective from the player's perspective.  It's not enough for the DM to do the right thing from the DM's side of the screen, but he or she needs to let the players know they're playing it straight, too.

Consider this pair of railroad examples to illustrate the concern around influence and choice:

  • No matter what the players do, the villain is going to escape - invisibility, fly spell, teleport - the villain will pull something out of the hat and escape to return later in the adventure.
  • No matter what the players say to the duke, they're not going to change the duke's mind.

We've all seen adventures from the 80's that required a villain to make an appearance, do some bad things, and then escape to return later.  (Poor Dragonlance, always taken to the wood shed).  When the players slap a Silence 15' spell on the evil wizard, and he uses a teleport spell to escape anyway, that kind of apparent cheating seems to cross the line - it's like the classic dice fudging problem, not letting the players win when they've played well and should have won.

But consider how the answer changes if the players subsequently learn the big bad guy wasn't actually a wizard at all, but a demon in human guise using spell-like abilities to teleport (thus circumventing the Silence spell).  Likewise, the duke has been mind controlled by his wicked vizier and the players have no chance of convincing him of their innocence because of the enchantment.  It's only when they're surreptitiously visited by the previous adviser to the Duke that knowledge about the charm comes to light and they understand why things unfolded poorly for them.  In both cases, the player's lack of influence can be mitigated when they get the rest of the information - which is why I'm putting an emphasis now on going the extra mile in terms of player-facing information.

Here’s the summation.  The appearance of being railroaded is going to come up in any game - it's subjective, because there's a sliding scale of constrained choice.  The scale starts with resource constraints and mild nudging on the one end of the spectrum, and goes all the way to the DM's heavy hand forcing the action with Mary Sue NPCs, pixelbitching traps,  and undefeatable villains on the other side of the spectrum.  It's important for the DM to avoid predetermined outcomes, but it's just as important to allow the players to influence events through their choices, and ensure that they see that they have influence, too.  The TL;DR answer to the railroad comes back to the simple principle of "saying Yes" during gaming and ensuring that choices matter.

Getting back to Drance's question, my answer stands - there's nothing inherent about a sandbox game that makes it immune to the railroad, because the railroad is a bad technique that pops up whenever the DM starts reducing choice and influence; it's not a campaign style.  There are plenty of opportunities for the DM to introduce antagonist reactions and chokepoints in a sandbox that force the direction of the game, even if the sandbox started fairly wide open and player-driven.  I tend to think what he's really asking is whether the DM can introduce events, antagonists, plot hooks, and other elements of story-driven games into the sandbox, and still give the players a full range of agency.  The answer is YES, but use these things judiciously.

There are campaign styles that are more susceptible to the railroad technique than traditional site-based locations, which is how the adventure paths and story games get implicated.  I'm doing a lot of prep for our upcoming Cthulhu games, and the investigative genre is fraught with peril.  Impactful horror games rely on the big reveal, and if you're not careful, you can find yourself taking shortcuts through nudging and leading and railroading to ensure the players get to the payoff moment.  That's a big enough topic - avoiding the railroad during horror gaming - to make it a separate, upcoming post.

*The picture is Blaine the Mono, from the cover of Stephen King's The Wastelands