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Ars Arcana Blog: 2.8 - In Search of a Railroad

In Search of a Railroad (1 of 2 on Railroading)
Travis Joseph Rodgers

Evidently, one of the worst things that can happen in an RPG is railroading. It sounds terrible, at least, to hear from many who discuss the topic on Twitter’s #rpg or #ttrpg tags. So, consider this brief essay an exercise in conceptual analysis. I’m simply attempting to understand what railroading is, such that it is objectionable.

The RPG Theory Review blog has the following to say: Railroading only takes place when player actions are prevented from having any effect on the flow of events.

Stack Exchange diagnoses the central wrong of Railroading:
It's generally frowned upon, because it disrupts the free-will oriented nature of roleplaying.

The Angry GM agrees:
Railroading used to refer to the GM forcing the players on a predetermined path through a story.

Even TV Tropes.Org chimes in:
In short, the GM takes any measure necessary to ensure there is only one direction the campaign may proceed — his planned direction.

There are two major sorts of characteristic that seem to occur in Railroading, and perhaps neither is objectionable in and of themselves. When coupled, however, these two characteristics seem to generate a very awful thing. I’ll call these two things reduced agency and forced plot.

On one hand, characters (and players, by extension) experience a decrease in agency. Agency is the exercise or manifestation of the ability to act (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Notice that agency without effect is possible – one can act despite those actions’ having no real world effect. Some actions, in other words, fail, in all ways. That in itself cannot be the problem with Railroading. After all, xD&D is not diminished much by the fact that 1 in 20 attempts fails, nor by the fact that some actions are literally impossible within the context of the game – and within the context of reality. Moreover, it seems sort of the point of Call of Cthulhu that one ultimately fails; this fact does not stop enjoyment of the game. So, reduced agency does not in and of itself amount to Railroading.*

On the other hand, a forced plot means not only that characters’ actions cannot affect the world around them. They are also dragged (and their players along with them) along a conveyer belt – or a railroad – interacting with only what the GM wants them to, as part of the narrative. Note that a GM could drag players around and allow them agency – they could do what they wanted in those scenes and then be whisked away to the next scene, sort of like in A Christmas Tale or Quantum Leap. In ACT, the changes possible are only internal; in QL, Sam undergoes internal changes and affects world history. So neither is especially Railroady, though both are forced plots.

*Brief aside; skip if you don’t care to read contemporary philosophy, but it will explain further why reduced agency and forced plot are not a problem on their own: there is a massive debate within philosophy regarding the nature of free will and moral responsibility. One might be a compatibilist or incompatibilist about either of these things with a third thing – determinism. Determinism is roughly the view that a list of all the facts in the world coupled with the laws of nature would describe a unique course of the history of the world. Incompatibilists about free will say that free will in such a world is impossible. Incompatibilists about moral responsibility say that no one is morally responsible for anything they do in such a world. Compatibilist positions, by contrast, open up greater nuance. Even “at” a determined world, free will is possible. And even if some versions of free will are unavailable at a determined world, worthwhile versions of moral responsibility are available nonetheless.

Closing Thoughts
Railroading seems incredibly uncommon to me, but my experiences as a GM and player are unique to me and the parties I’ve played with. I rarely play in games with strangers, I almost never play online, and I GM more than I play. Railroading also sounds very bad – leading to a terrible subjective experience for players. So, it should be avoided. But it should also be clear that the following are not Railroading.

  • .     Boxed Text. If your characters don’t encounter the trigger, the boxed text means nothing. The boxed text is often there to set a mood. It’s for GMs rather than players.
  • .       Pre-planned Events. Again, these have triggers. If you miss the trigger, you miss the events. But pre-planned events do not, in and of themselves, mean reduced agency, so they do not mean Railroading, even if they are forced plot. Even. If. They needn’t be. Again, they can be conditional.
  • .       Plot Points. If plot points are in and of themselves Railroading, then Milestone Experience is in trouble (this will be part 2 of this blog series). Plot points can come about or not, they can come about in a variety of ways when they do occur. Not forced plot. Not reduced agency.
  • .       The Sequence of Events. This is an old school notion for RPG scenario design. In order to beat the BBEG, you must first have the weapon. In order to have the weapon, you must first befriend the locals. This threatens to be forced plot, but it’s not. You might kill all of the locals or steal the item. You might just rush in and fight the BBEG without the weapon and die. The GM’s job is make it clear to you what outcomes threaten and how likely they are – or how likely they would seem to your characters.

 Tune in next time for the Milestone/Experience Railroad.


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