Railroading

As I have referenced several times in the last few posts, I am a great lover of the Tabletop Role Playing Game.  In the traditional RPG, you have a set of players, usually three to sixish, who play individuals within the game, while a separate person called the Game Master of Dungeon Master controls the world around them, along with every other person in the world that is not the players.  Fundamentally, the DM has almost total control of the game, with rule zero being that the Dungeon Master is always right.  Since the DM has to put so much more work into the world and often also has to do the task of finding out when people can play, and getting the group together in the first place, and fundamentally his job is to make the game fun for everyone else, it is reasonable that he has a great deal of authority.  Even aside from all of these reasons, the DM also is the one who is making the monsters you are fighting and such, so if one ticks off a less than kind DM, they might find themselves suffering from the dreaded, “rocks fall, everyone dies” syndrome.  It is thus through both respect and fear that most DM’s lead their group. 

One of the greatest things about Tabletop games, over their computerized counterparts, is that since the DM can respond to any sort of situation, the players can do anything in the game that their character could do.  They are not restricted by what the designer of the game thought up, instead they are able to be genuinely creative in both the execution of actions, along with what their goals are.  On the other hand, while being able to do anything is something that is rarely possible in anything except real life, just like in real life, the random actions of people just doing what they want is rarely story-worthy and often uninteresting.  Hence, it is often up to the Dungeon Master to use a mixture of bribery and threats to get the players to head on a course that is more likely to lead to more interesting storytelling.  On a more practical level, the DM has only a finite amount of time to spend working on the worlds that they make, and most only plan for a small set of things compared to all of the possibilities of what could happen.  As such, if a DM were to have spent several hours constructing a small city with rival gangs and such and the first thing the players do when starting the game is hit the road and start camping out in the wilderness it is understandable that the DM would want to turn the story back toward his gangs. 

Traditionally then, players are taught that the DM should take initiative in making adventures and quests for the players.  While they could theoretically just skip town or stab random folks or whatever, they tend to sticking to listening for anything that the gm is using as a plot hook.  ie, if the barkeeper talks of the mysterious happenings in the mansion to the south, it is likely that the DM has something interesting planned if you head to the mysterious mansion to the south.  As such, while theoretically players can do anything, it tends to get restricted to specific situations instead of driving the plot.  Luckier players will have the gm read their back story and make some of the adventures be specifically focused on things that that character is interested in, but for the most part, the players are expected to all work together as a team to solve whatever sort of problem they are being payed to solve at the moment. 

For many years, this formula largely went unchallenged.  Some rare groups however changed the formula around a bit, and actually had choice.  These groups were of course excited about it and the idea of railroading was born.  The traditional structure, in which the party simply walked from point a to point b to point c and onward, besting each challenge before moving on to the next, was called railroading, as the players were like drivers of a train, they could only follow along the tracks that the gm laid down before them.  Suddenly the basic structure of the railroad was considered a sign of a bad game, and players didn’t want to play in a game in which they were being railroaded.  While one might think that this would create a Renascence of roleplaying, in which every character was an independent agent acting upon there own while the gm acted a master manipulator, moving things around in the background so that the individual threads of story that the players created with their actions wove together into a great tapestry of Story, unfortunately that was not the case. 

Rather, gms still created railroad like plots, but were expected to either hide the railroad through fake choices, or allow a limited subset of choices that made the game a railroad with a few branching paths.  For those of you wondering about the first method, fake choice means that in a situation where the players got to choose where to look for the wizard, with several likely places, the place they chose to look always ended up having the secret trap door, the creepy cat outside, and the same multi-layered dungeon underneath the location.  The gm would create one dungeon, and then put that dungeon down wherever it was the players decided to go. 

As can likely be inferred by this point, I am not a fan of the railroad.  I understand why it exists, but there are better ways.  In a later post I will talk about the better options, but for now I simply inform you of the problem.

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