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Author Topic: Is 'Railroading' A Useful Term  (Read 12458 times)
jburneko
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« on: February 01, 2002, 02:16:50 PM »

Hello All,

So, I was having a discussion with one of my players about various play styles and we seem to be constantly bumping heads about the meaning of the word 'railroad.'  It took me a while but I finally figured out why he continues to insist that Narrativism BY DEFINITION must involve railroading.  I finally figured out he was refering to scene framing AS railroading.

He is of the opinion that railroading is what happens when the GM assumes ANY decision AT ALL about a given character.  The example we banter around is starting a fight scene while a character is in the shower.  An example I believe Ron used a while back.  The thread Ron used the example in was also about railroading.  His claim and my claim as well is that this is not necessarily railroading because no IMPORTANT (as in story, theme, premise, etc) decisions have been taken out of the player's hands.

My friend says exactly the oposite.  His claim is the example assumes too many things about the character.  He says, the first asumption is that the character even went home the night before.  The second assumption is that the character takes showers and not baths.   The third assumption is that character takes showers in the morning.  The fourth assumption is that the character even does his dailly hygene at HOME.  Maybe he goes to the gym first thing in the morning and takes his shower there and so on.  All this to him is railroading.

Basically my definition of railroading involves removing the ability for a player to make plot directing decisions and moral statements.

His definition of railroading involves breaking the causal player instigated chain of events AT ALL.

Obviously there is a spectrum here.  Has anyone given any thought to this spectrum and analysing it either in terms of GNS or as a seperate set of vocabularly like the Stances?  Can we say something useful about 'railroading'?

Jesse
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J B Bell
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« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2002, 03:07:12 PM »

Jesse,

Well, if you want new terminology, before my old gaming group was exposed to fancy technical ideas like GNS, we had something we called "fuckable-withable".  It was a player stat--how much could you fuck with this player and not have them be offended?

As it turns out, in our case, that tended to correspond fairly strongly with a Narrativist outlook.  But it doesn't have to.

I'd say the real issue is about what kind of risks a player is willing to deal with, and your social contract.  It sounds like your friend you have your "shower scene" argument with is coming from a background where high-risk stuff, like combat, needs to be preceded by as much player input as possible.  So, people playing D&D don't mind going through a dangerous module, because it's been rated as "dangerous" for them and they have an idea of the risks.

Another exercise to go through is to try to de-construct "my character wouldn't do that."  I don't mean you should psychoanalyze the guy you argue with, but you could ask around the issue and find out whether he means:

a)  I really do have an idea of my PC's routine and know he wouldn't behave this way; or
b) Putting my PC at mortal risk without prior input from me is not OK because you're endangering my ability to play further; or
c) The shower scene contributes to a story that's inappropriate for my PC, e.g., my PC's story is that he's totally alert and paranoid.

This isn't neatly a GNS issue, as I hope the above illustrates.  But you can tease those out of this crisis-point with some questions:

* Is the shower scene unacceptable for any PC for this player?
* Is it acceptable if the PC's Effectiveness is balanced out somehow, or if there's a strong Resource reward if the PC "succeeds"?

And so on.  Not to be discounted, too, is that the player may have simple issues with feeling subjected to helplessness.  Being attacked in your shower is a pretty heavy thing.

Hrm.  Well, not a neat package, but maybe those are some tools to use to get closer to figuring it out.  Hope this helps, as they say.

--TQuid
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2002, 03:45:46 PM »

Hi there,

I think one aspect of this topic that most people miss is the difference between "to propose" and "to decree."

I've talked about this a bit before, but I'll recapitulate it briefly: Historically, the player may propose, but not decree; the GM, on the other hand, usually decrees. To change both of these is often possible, on a limited-negotiatory basis, but even then, again, historically, there remains a severe power-imbalance as the GM's "fall-back" is always the decree and the player's is always the proposal.

First, a definition: Railroading is the removal of character decision-making from the player. My point is that the traditional assumptions about decree/proposal are rife with the potential for railroading.

This feeds into a couple of things - at the micro-level, IIEE negotiations (in which the player's proposal may be upgraded to a decree when they don't want it to be!); and at the macro-level, scene-framing.

We know this can occur within a scene ("You wouldn't betray him, he's your sworn liege," "You feel love for her," "His blow shatters your resolve," or less emotion-based, "He escapes before you can react"). The question is, can it occur as a function of the set-up of scenes?

The answer, of course, is yes. If a character is put into a position that makes no sense to the player, and if the player is not consulted about this and given some degree of authority about it, then the player has been railroaded. (Important point: characters are not railroaded, players are.)

The solution is to establish some mechanism for agreement about scene initiation. I suggest that Jesse's friend is proposing a very dysfunctional solution, simply by transferring "total GM authority" re: scene-initiation over to "total player authority." It's a solution that may testify perhaps to that person's conviction that a role-playing game must include a power-struggle between GM and player, and seizing what appears to be an opportunity to gain some ground in that struggle.

I do not share that conviction. I agree with Vincent, that "how things are" in the imaginary situation, and how they turn out, are always an agreement between people at the table, GM and players alike. Thus functional methods to arrive at that agreement are what role-playing mechanics and techniques are all about. This is why I do not think rules are "the physics of the game-world," but "the mechanisms of agreement."

I suggest that no one standard is possible for "who gets to say" when or how a scene starts. I also suggest that it is a universal issue, and a functional solution for that group and (possibly) for that game are absolute necessities. Sorcerer & Sword represents a radical set of ideas about it for that particular mode and topic of play.

Here's my default. Everyone, GM and players, may propose scenes as they see fit, although the GM does most of it. Everyone gets to comment or consider whether the proposed venue is OK. If a scene applies to a particular character having made a particular between-scenes decision, then that player gets the almost-bottom-line authority. If the GM and the other players consider that player merely to be trying to dodge (ie "I can't be attacked in the shower if I make the GM feel guilty about railroading, hence I'll say 'my guy feels like being stinky today,' nyaaa") then they have the bottom-line authority. I should point out that the same applies if all the players oppose the GM - they, collectively, have the authority.

I specifically play out of that default if rules or other context of a particular game call for it - e.g. in The Questing Beast, I made it very clear to players that they could initiate scenes with full authority, no matter what. Or in Extreme Vengeance, I as GM propose all scenes, but the players may insert themselves if they desire, with BS or Coincidence rolls.

My default may not be yours, but I suggest that everyone and every game needs to have this kind of organization occurring. My rewrite for the big essay already has a huge section about this, and I think that either player or GM having full authority to decree scene-initiation including who's in it and what they're doing is a very, very big problem.

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
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« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2002, 03:48:51 PM »

I agree with TQuid that it probably isn't a GNS issue and is probably a lot more like Stances in that it's a frame of mind thing.  In the case of Railroading we seem to be looking at levels of tollerance.  The question is are there identifyable levels of tollerance.  Even more interesting are there AXIS of tollerance regarding railroading.  For example is possible for someone to not care if really big plot issues are railroaded but hates when the GM assumes that the character remembered to tie his shoes that morning.

As for the ACTUAL psychological motivations behind my specific friend I'd really rather not get into them.

Edited Note: This was written before seeing Ron's big and very interesting reply.

Jesse
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #4 on: February 01, 2002, 04:49:34 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I do not share that conviction. I agree with Vincent, that "how things are" in the imaginary situation, and how they turn out, are always an agreement between people at the table, GM and players alike. Thus functional methods to arrive at that agreement are what role-playing mechanics and techniques are all about. This is why I do not think rules are "the physics of the game-world," but "the mechanisms of agreement."

I suggest that no one standard is possible for "who gets to say" when or how a scene starts. I also suggest that it is a universal issue, and a functional solution for that group and (possibly) for that game are absolute necessities. Sorcerer & Sword represents a radical set of ideas about it for that particular mode and topic of play.

Here's my default. Everyone, GM and players, may propose scenes as they see fit, although the GM does most of it. Everyone gets to comment or consider whether the proposed venue is OK. If a scene applies to a particular character having made a particular between-scenes decision, then that player gets the almost-bottom-line authority. If the GM and the other players consider that player merely to be trying to dodge (ie "I can't be attacked in the shower if I make the GM feel guilty about railroading, hence I'll say 'my guy feels like being stinky today,' nyaaa") then they have the bottom-line authority. I should point out that the same applies if all the players oppose the GM - they, collectively, have the authority.

My default may not be yours, but I suggest that everyone and every game needs to have this kind of organization occurring. My rewrite for the big essay already has a huge section about this, and I think that either player or GM having full authority to decree scene-initiation including who's in it and what they're doing is a very, very big problem.

Hey, that's exactly what I have in Scattershot when I address issues over who is the 'proprietor' of the various elements of a game.  (And I am already thinking about rewriting it a bit to expand the vocabulary.)

In Scattershot's General play, it doesn't get differentiated into gamemaster and player, it's only about the speaker.  What they say is what happens, all decrees if you will.  If someone disagrees, they pull the game into Specific play, where the narrative (my definition) becomes affected by the incursion of mechanics.

Scattershot also talks (even in just the mechanics) about being careful with things others are the proprietor of.  Everything introduced by the speaker is considered his property unless it is specifically connected to another player's property or is 'handed off' to someone else.  Many times locations that ought to be the gamemaster's domain (because they belong to 'named' non-player characters) can at least start out as player property, at least until it contradicts what the gamemaster expects from his character's (the non-player characters) property.

Making propriety explicit solved a lot of shared gaming issues with the demotion of the gamemaster from traditional position (decreeing et cetera).

Whoops, gotta run.  Why don't you check out Scattershot's propriety mechanics and get me some feedback so I can make them make sense.

See ya.

Fang Langford
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furashgf
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« Reply #5 on: February 01, 2002, 08:56:44 PM »

The concept of "scene framing" and everyone participating is the 2nd thing that makes Narritivism very different from what I'm (and traditional RPG'ers are useful.  The first being the whole kicker/scenario background/character development thing.

Are there any good threads about scene framing and some examples of how it works in RPG terms (like that long thread in Sorcerer that made it idiot-clear how Narrativist game setup would work).  I have some vauge idea: I've got some kind of relationship map, my character has some things he wants to do, and I (the player) have cool things I want to happen to explore the premise (which might be BAD for the character - neat new concept).

What does this end up looking like practically.  Let's take as an assumption that we're not talking about the super-extreme (not meant negatively) version of Narritivism, where there are no rules and everyone's a GM 24/7.

Thanks!
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Marco
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« Reply #6 on: February 02, 2002, 09:47:37 AM »

In practice Railroading, despite Ron's definition, gets used to mean dysfunctional railroading. As such, it's circularly defined.

Look at the Bobby G. Thread:

1. Bobby G is bad
2. Bobby G. is bad because it's a railroaded scenario.
3. If Bobby G. *weren't* railroaded it wouldn't be Bobby G.

Therefore: railroading is bad.

If you run Assault on Everest (the plot literally goes up and down) but everyone's bought into that--it isn't railroading.

So I don't think it's a useful term except as a type of dysfunction ("I.e. I objected to it because I felt railroaded.")
-MArco
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xiombarg
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« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2002, 01:59:45 PM »

Well, outside of the rarified realms of the Forge, railroading is used to indicate a disfunction. It's a pejorative term used to describe a bad situation. People don't say: "I was railroaded and I loved it!" If you loved it, that usually means you consented in some way to what was going on, so it isn't railroading.

It's like rape. If I ask you to tie me up and tongue-bathe me, or in some way it's done with my consent, then it's not rape, it's B&D. Perhaps then "good railroading" should be called something else, like "kinky". It's only railroading when it's bad.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: February 05, 2002, 03:32:25 PM »

Hello,

I cannot see what kind of distinction Marco is drawing between a Forge-definition of railroading and any other. My definition above is, itself, a "bad thing" in role-playing. Under no conditions should a player's decision-making power be co-opted by anyone else at the table without their consent. There are very few instances or techniques of role-playing that I'll make a value-statement about, but that is one of them.

To repeat, in case anyone else is confused: railroading is a bad thing.

Best,
Ron

P.S. The up-and-down Everest example is not railroading because the story in question, in the example Marco is referring to, does not concern "whether to climb Everest." It concerns relationships among members of the group, and those decisions are what might or might be railroaded.

The Bobby G issue has been so badly misunderstood by some Forge members that I am not going to address it here.
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amiel
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« Reply #9 on: February 05, 2002, 04:28:28 PM »

Quote
I cannot see what kind of distinction Marco is drawing between a Forge-definition of railroading and any other. My definition above is, itself, a "bad thing" in role-playing. Under no conditions should a player's decision-making power be co-opted by anyone else at the table without their consent. There are very few instances or techniques of role-playing that I'll make a value-statement about, but that is one of them.

To repeat, in case anyone else is confused: railroading is a bad thing.

The next question, though, is what would you call it when the consent is given to co-opt power?
Example: The GM sits down and explains quickly that what he wants to do involves him making some decisions arbitrarily that are normally die resolved. The players agree.
What do we call that exchange of power. I agree that if the GM takes that power without asking, that's railroading (and bad). But, with a specific purpose, what if the GM derives a social contract to exchange that power for something else? We need a name for that, I think.
                                                                    -amiel
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: February 05, 2002, 07:46:46 PM »

Amiel,

Generally, Forge lingo calls that "shared power," or rather, what you describe falls into the "shared power" category along with any other negotiated divvying up of determining what-happens in the imagined situation.

Vincent and I have recently got on the kick of saying, all role-playing is a matter of shared power over "what happens" in-game, and dysfunction is a matter of (1) not knowing about what, ie, GNS incompatibility; and (2) not sharing power nicely, ie, railroading and related stuff (it happens from the player end too).

Best,
Ron
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Marco
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« Reply #11 on: February 06, 2002, 06:20:54 AM »

Ron,

I think I agree with everything you've said--the distinction was that you described railroading as "the removal of player decision making power." That's ambiguous--it doesn't necessiarily imply dysfunction (what is framing), is subject to interpertation (the player can "decide" to kill Bobby G.--the GM just won't let him--maybe for very logical-sounding reasons like Bobby turns out to be a Vampire against which their weapons are useless), and assumes that any group that runs Bobby G. (with full denial of choice) *is* dysfunctional--even if they're all having fun.

Basically the definition you used above made too many assumptions about what dysfunction is--which is what was discussed at length in the Bobby G. Thread. *Nothing* in the description of the Bobby G. scenario implies violation of the GM-player social contract. All the dysfunction is implied by the observer (not even, necessiarily, the player).

I'd suggest:
Railroading: the GM dysfunctionally enforcing game events, situations, or outcomes on the player(s) in violation of the social contract under which the game is played.

-Marco
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: February 06, 2002, 08:26:52 AM »

Hey Marco,

I'll buy that!

I don't know if we'll ever see eye-to-eye on Bobby G, but I think we are saying the same things about the real issue at hand.

Another tricky part of discussing this is that, as I see it, railroading may be applied at many different stages of the role-playing process, ranging from scene-setting, to IIEE organization, to interpreting Fortune-based outcomes, and to a more general "how it all turns out" stage.

Different groups are going to have different standards of "power-sharing" for different stages, so dialogue can get pretty messy.

Best,
Ron
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Marco
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« Reply #13 on: February 06, 2002, 08:33:01 AM »

:)
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TrizzlWizzl
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« Reply #14 on: March 08, 2002, 11:58:40 AM »

Before I begin to even address this subject, I want to make a few things clear:

1. I play with Jesse (jburneko), the guy who introduced me to this community and the ideas bantered about within.

2. I have no personal beef with Jesse.  We have had a running debate on the subject of GNS for about a year or so; obviously we wouldn't have carried the dialogue on for so long if we ('we' including me) weren't simply interested in the various academic intricacies and complexities inherent in the confrontation of the philosophical implications of RPG design.

3. I don't like narrativism.  I've never actually played a strictly narrativist game, but I plan to.  From what I know of narrativism, participating in discussions on this board will increase the likelihood that I'll enjoy the game once I actually start playing it, but from a strictly philosophical standpoint I must admit I find the core principles of narrativism to conflict with the stated goals.  This, however, is only my personal feeling and shouldn't invalidate what I have to say in general discussions.

Okay.  Now, having said that, I'd like to pose a few questions about how railroading relates to narrativism.

Question to Jesse: is the 'friend' you mentioned in the opening post me?  If it is, I'll need to clarify a few things; if not I'll leave well enough alone.

If 'railroading is the removal of character decision-making from the player', how does that relate to the Shower Example?  It would seem that this definition would have to be mutable, as narrativist mechanics (as far as I can tell) are somewhat predicated on dictating character decision making to the player (Whuthering Heights and Jesse's Isolation game spring to mind).  Correct me if I'm wrong (correct, not reprimand), but wouldn't mechanics that enforce the dictum of 'story now' necessitate some sort automatic character decision making mechanism?  Without such a method players might stall, chill out, plan their attack, take actor stance a lot, avoid emotional conflicts... which wouldn't seem to work very well in a narrativist system.

That's the core of what I'm talking about I guess.  There's no way I'm going to refer to emotional/moral/ethical/interpersonal conflicts as 'relevant' for the simple reason that one player's 'relevant' might be another's 'irrelevant'.  I'm aware that this issue would more than likely be addressed in the 'social contract' and that the term is used within narrativim to refer to a mutually understood concept, but merely stating within the system which conflicts are to be 'relevant' seems to me to be inherently railroad-ish.

If the labeling of certain conflicts as 'relevant' to his character is not within the player's decision-making power, how then is the player not being railroaded?  My opinion (this is my opinion now, formed after months and months of debate and conversation with one of the most steadfast narrativists in this community) is that narrativism is predicated on railroading players into addressing conflicts that have been pre-designated as 'relevant' (i.e. the emotional/moral/ethical) by the system.  Hence the character decision making process has been taken out of the hands of the player and put into the hands of the system... which has been defined by Mr. Edwards as 'railroading'.

So the big question, of course, is: how do mechanics that define 'relevant' conflicts for the player not deprive him/her of the character decision making process?

one,
Triz

P.S. I'd like to reiterate that this is in no way some kind of personally motivated knuckle scraping mud flinging attack on all narrativists.  My intellectual motivations are pure and I would appreciate it if my personal relationship with Jesse be left out of the debate.  I would rather my ideas were addressed on their own merit.  Thank you.
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