Tuesday, 26 February 2013

On Theory (Re)Defined, Railroad (Part I)

On Theory Defined, Railroad (Part I)

In this blog post (http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.ca/2013/02/on-theory-defined-railroad.html), I am accused of, among other things, inappropriate behaviour, not taking the time to read what people have written, continually constructing strawmen and misusing “railroading” by applying a definition other than the one in the article. 

Obviously, I disagree with all of these claims.  But, out of respect for –C and his private blog space, I will attempt to elucidate the problems I see with his argument here, rather than there.  As I said in the comments on the initial blog post, I do find much of what –C writes to be worthwhile. 

His attempt to redefine “railroad” and “railroading” are, IMHO, not actually useful.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that they confuse the issue that these terms are normally used to convey.  Long ago, on EnWorld, I also attempted to come up with a consensus definition of railroading, and I agree with –C that some definition is necessary for clear communication; I disagree with him as to what that definition is. 

In the EnWorld poll, the clear winner for definition (and not the one I championed) was “A removal of player choice which the player finds objectionable or inappropriate.”  (I argued that there had to be a clear context wherein player choice is removed, and still do, but the general consensus there was against me.)  If you are interested in that thread, you can find it here:  http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?169243-What-best-describes-railroading-as-you-understand-it

Also, obviously, read the comments in the original post.

It is difficult to discuss why a given definition is not useful to describe the thing defined, if you are accused of equivocation, or of misusing the term when you point out why it is inadequate!  There is a sort of circular logic that goes

A) Fish means cake.
B) Fish does not mean not-cake.
C) Therefore, any argument that attempts to show that fish does not mean cake, or means not-cake must be wrong. 
Anyway, I am going to try to parse the argument from the original blog post and comments.  There is some difficulty in this, as the number of comments seems to be growing and diminishing; I assume some are being removed while others are being added.  But my understanding of the base argument is as follows.  The interested reader is strongly encouraged to follow the link at the beginning of this post to the original article to ensure that they understand not only my paraphrasing, but to ensure that my paraphrasing hasn’t diminished the original intent.

I have tried to keep to the original author’s words as much as possible, keeping the statements made and the conclusions drawn while removing extraneous verbiage.  I have assigned each statement a numerical value for ease of discussion.

Please, please, please read through the original article and compare (side-by-side, if possible) the original text and the extracted points.  There is no attempt whatsoever being made to misconstrue the argument presented.

(1) Games are very specific, very quantifiable things.

(2) Whatever the game, there are very specific rules.   

(3) Even for those situations where the rules don't clearly cover a corner case, the house rule, resolution, or consensus-based solution is also a quantifiable action.  (I assume this to mean that they are equivalent to rules.)

The author then concludes, “This is why in game theory and design the definitions of the terms must be clear and succinct”, although that does not follow from the above statements.  The author does follow this up with an actual reason for terminology to be clearly and correctly defined:  It allows “designers to communicate clearly about the structure of a game.”

The author then states that (4) the existence of clear and succinct terminology 

“is often not true of role playing game design. What is common is that every person has a personal definition of a word that they use. This has two immediate effects. It makes the person look like an idiot to anyone who actually knows what the definition of the word is and it inhibits communication about design. 
Communication is about shared meaning. So lets share some meaning and clear up some terms and how they are frequently misused.”
Hidden in here are two other unstated assertions:  (5) How the author is going to define these terms is correct definition, and (6) You will look like an idiot and inhibit communication if you disagree.  This is reinforced by a note (“Edit: Added the definitions of Player Agency, since I guess some people don't know it”), the general tone of the article, and the author’s follow-up to reader comments….going so far as to suggest that not accepting the definitions given amounts to a logical fallacy.  The illustration of Goofy next to this section also seems indicative of the statement (6).

The definitions that the author suggests are as follows:

Railroading (v.): The act of removing agency from a player in a game.
Railroad (n.): A game or situation in a game where the agency of the player within the structure of the game has been actively removed.
Player Agency (n.): “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” -Mateas, 2001
The other clear statements in the initial argument are:

(7) If JRPG's like Final Fantasy or situations where a player says "Let's run this module or adventure path" are railroads, then the fact that you have to pay mana to play spells in magic would be a railroad because it limits your choices.

(8) The actions you can take are proscribed by the rules of the game.

(9)  Games are designed.

(10) That means there are places where the player has agency by design and places where they do not.

(11) Final Fantasy games aren't railroads, because there is agency is in how you level up your party and fight the battles.

(12) If you are not making choices, you are not playing a game.

(13) Railroading happens within a role playing game when player choice or ability is invalidated.

(14) Because this most often happens in situations that are important, it is especially galling for players.  (e.g. Do we kill the bad guy or does he escape? Can we bypass this encounter? Can we ambush and kill this dangerous encounter without having to fight it?)

(15) Railroading is an active process.

(16) There are many examples of older Dungeons & Dragons modules where the Dungeon Master is encouraged to railroad her players in specific situations.

(17)  “This means that if you like knowing where the story is going or you enjoy playing in role playing adventure paths, this does not mean you are a fan of railroading. It just means you like your agency to be in other areas.”

(18) The insight that the agency is not always in deciding the direction of the story was noted by Jason Alexander.

(19) If you were being railroaded, you wouldn't be playing a game, because by definition your agency is being invalidated.

(20) No one likes their agency being invalidated.

Now, while this is a slew of claims, luckily they are not all controversial.  Even so, it will take several posts to examine and parse the arguments about the remainder.  Along the way, we will take a closer look at the specific claims made by the author related to the “fallacies” he mentions in my own replies. 

I am going to suggest, in particular, that when someone tries to sell you something – be it an insurance policy, a political agenda, a used car, or a redefinition of common terminology – that it is not an ad hominem attack to attempt to parse out that person’s motives.  If the goal is, as stated “clear communication”, then a discussion of where the suggested definition works and does not work would be welcomed, because it would work toward that goal.  I think that I can clearly show that this expected reaction is not what is occurring in the original article, and that, therefore, examining the possible evidence of potential secondary motivations is appropriate.

I will not be considering statements (9), (12), (16), or (18), because they are not controversial (IMHO) and they are not incorrect (or only partially correct) in a way that would lead one to erroneous conclusions. 

I will pause here after this post to give –C (or others) a chance to comment, and then plunge on in a day or two to examining the argument a bit more closely.


  1. I think an important distinction that is occurring is the premise presented by various games.

    In the many other game examples, one is sitting down to play "a game". In tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, the level of abstraction is a layer closer. The person is, in fact, playing "a character". The understanding is that they are playing as a character...not playing "a game".

    It sounds like a semantic difference but, really, it is a difference in mind-set. If I play Magic The Gathering the GAME casts me as a planeswalker-wizard dueling another planeswalker. I am not, however, playing that character...there is merely the framework of the game itself. Instead, I am playing the game of Magic The Gathering just as even if I am cast as a general in Risk that is something projected by the game. I am still just playing Risk.

    D&D, however, explicitly casts the player into the role of a character they choose to play with the understanding that they are free to play that character as if they were a sapient being in a world presented by the DM (who takes the role of an unbiased referee/narrator).

    Again, this is explicit. One is playing a character IN a game/game-world. In fact, this is the very thing that defines "ROLE PLAYING" games. Can one roleplay as a character in Risk? Absolutely. I have the Metal Gear version of Risk and I have definitely roleplayed Liquid Ocelot when given the chance. However, that is not the expectation of the game. It is not the premise of the game. Why? Because it is not a role playing game.

    Therefore, if railroading is the removal of agency and agency is “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” then NECESSARILY any action in a role playing game that undermines the ability of a player to enjoy the effects of their [real] choices in playing that role, then it is railroading.

    To rephrase for simplicity's sake, the premise of a role playing game is that the player will be playing a role. A character. A being. If the game, through rules or GM fiat, removes or invalidates or blocks the ability of the player to play that role (again, the explicit point of RPGS) then that is railroading.

    The problem becomes when one continues to overlap things like modules that have explicit, expected arcs and full-form tabletop rpg that takes place in a game-world. They are two separate things. A module does not and cannot create the expectation of a world for the players. In that way, it fails IMMEDIATELY as a role playing game because BY DESIGN it restricts the players ability to play a character/role in the game by it's very nature. This makes the two things apples and oranges. One cannot discuss a non-railroad game while discussing playing a module. They are incompatible concepts and that is where the break-down of discussion occurs.

  2. Of course, those that DO play modules may very well take offense at that because they still enjoy modules. Fortunately, that is their own problem as this is NOT a judgment statement. It is merely a statement of fact. If one cannot do as they please with their character in a game then there is some kind of railroading going on. Can players have buy-in and go along with railroading? yes of course and it is the primary concept of a module...or of most video games for that matter. There is nothing wrong with that. It is just a different thing all-together from what one can accomplish in tabletop.

    For a great video game example, I will point to Metal Gear Solid 2. Maybe the most insightful or at least thoughtful game ever made, MGS2 is basically built on the concept, as the game progresses, that human beings often NEED to have their agency removed as living breathing beings and that, if expectations are met, often they can enjoy that restriction...in fact, towards the end of the game the ONLY (REPEAT ONLY) way to "beat" the game and counter its argument is to stop playing the game. Continuing to play makes the game win.

    Things like modules are no different...the only way to get off the railroad is to not play that game.

  3. You can certainly role-play while only playing modules, although I would agree that the decision to only play modules is a limitation on what you can role-play. And the use of modules within a larger campaign framework in no way impedes role-playing.

    If, for example, I include Keep on the Borderlands on my area map, that in no way implies a railroad, and is no different than if I had written the location descriptions myself. In fact, where KotB is concerned, I would have to write many of the areas of the Keep myself, name all the NPCs, and provide a great deal of detail.

  4. Hi.

    This is an extremely accurate presentation of my points.

    2 notes.
    "I am going to suggest, in particular, that when someone tries to sell you something – be it an insurance policy, a political agenda, a used car, or a redefinition of common terminology – that it is not an ad hominem attack to attempt to parse out that person’s motives."


    The issue comes because the way you start parsing out the motives of the person is that you ask them. When you construct a motive out of thin air it is at best rude. That doesn't mean that they won't lie or you shouldn't be critical.

    The 'motive' is I was having a discussion with people who were claiming that they 'loved railroading'. They then said they really liked games where they didn't have narrative control. As a designer this is nonsense. There was no reduction in their agency. So how were they getting railroaded?

    Secondly, some of your issues you mention is that the blog is a place where I write about technical issues of design in a way that is very engaging for non-designers. I'm not writing about technical issues in a technical way, because there are already other spaces online where discussion like that takes place. My blog is a resource for the lay-DM, AEB the large collection of distilled resources I provide.

    1. Thank you for your comments.

      I will certainly be addressing the first of your two points; I am unsure if or how the second is relevant to the argument I am making.

      I am glad that my understanding of your points is extremely accurate. It makes me wonder, though, why you would suggest that I didn't understand what you were saying earlier.