Thursday 28 February 2013

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

Other Objections & Responses

Now, obviously, some people agree with –C.

Jason Packer, for instance, writes, 
Restriction on action by the player based on the codified rules would never, in my opinion, constitute railroading.   Railroading is much more the province of the story itself, where players are given "freedom to choose" but only one choice will actually advance the plot, and all other choices are rebuffed.
This, of course, assumes that the game and the story are separate things, as with a role-playing game with many scenarios, and that the decisions that comprise the scenario are something different than “the game”.  We discussed this last post, when we noted that statements (2), (3), (8), and (21) from the original proposition cannot all be true.

As came up in the comments from the last post, it is easy to imagine a game in which everything is narrated by the rules, except your choice at a single point, which determines how you reach the next section, but does not otherwise affect the following sections, which then reach a pre-scripted conclusion.

If it is true that you are playing a game so long as you have any agency, then this is a game. If it is true that the rules cannot railroad, then this is not a railroad.  But if you make these claims, you will be attempting to redefine the term in a way that precludes the common meaning.  And this is not an irrelevant point, because –C proposes that being able to choose fighting stances in a game is sufficient to prevent it from being a railroad.  There is not a great deal of difference, to my mind, between the game just imagined, and the game in which all you get to do are pick what stance you follow the predetermined course in.

Random Wizard says 
I am in agreement with your general underlying idea (if I interpreted correctly). I am of the opinion that railroading and sandbox both refer to the same thing. They are markers on a spectrum that conveys to the players to the DM about "Where does the game that we are playing start and end?"
On the other hand, Telecanter said,
If you think about the original metaphor-- a train that starts at one place and goes to another-- expectations have little to do with it. If we both play a video game and the game makes us meet the same people, watch the same cutscenes, fight the same bosses, we are essentially trains on the same rails.
Your expectations come into play in whether you can still enjoy sitting on a train or would rather take a car and stop and different places and at different times. But whether you enjoy an adventure path or not or are surprised by it doesn't make it any less a railroad if everyone that plays it is expected to to the same things, in the same order, and end up the same place.
I think railroad is an important descriptive term and shouldn't be discarded because people have become familiar with railroads or enjoy them.
We may find –C’s response to Telecanter instructive.
I think this is post-rationalization.
In case it is not clear, “post-rationalization of an action is the act of giving meaning and purpose to actions after they have been conducted”, (, and it is unclear why –C would think this to be so.  Again, we can look toward others to see how the term is generally used:,,  When we do so, we see that Telecanter’s usage follows common usage.

(As an aside, I wonder how this gibes with "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."?  Is -C claiming that he is, at best, rude here?  Or is he claiming that there is a substantive difference between his questioning of Telecanter's motives, and my questioning of his?)
The term originated because it was about misread expectations. Players believed they were driving a car. Illusionism told them, they were actually 'on rails'. They tried to drive the car off the tracks and found out that their vehicle was actually a train.
 The term arose from conflicts of expectations of agency.
It is actually pretty clear where the metaphor came from, and one can peruse various meanings of the term in various contexts (not simply limited to rpg contexts), in order to gain a better understanding of how the term arose. might help:

"To railroad" means to rig a situation such that events can only play out in a particular manner, or to a particular end. When applied to a trial, it means to manipulate the judicial system such that a defendant is virtually guaranteed a conviction. The metaphor derives from the nature of a railroad track, which does not offer a train the ability to choose its path of travel.
"The lead prosecutor railroaded Eddy into a first-degree murder conviction: she relied heavily on the testimony of unqualified experts."
 "If you are hosting a murder-mystery party, avoid railroading your guests into quickly solving the case. Give them freedom to pursue tangents in the storyline they find interesting."
We will note that, within the general context, Telecanter is far closer to accuracy than –C.

We will also note, I hope, that with all of this material, we are still talking about a specific problem.  We are not talking about simply loss of agency, but loss of agency to influence how a game unfolds.  We are talking about all forms of agency – a game can be a railroad and still allow for other types of agency, and a game can not be a railroad and still restrict other types of agency.   (More on this below.)
The reason why the expectation is important to the metaphor, is that according to the example you've given, every game ever is a railroad, because by following the rules of the game, you are stuck on the train
Again, this conclusion is only valid if all forms of agency, and all levels of inclusion or exclusion, are co-equal in relation to role-playing games.  The value of a term like “railroading” is derived from its relationship to a particular subset of player agency; removing this makes the term less specific and removes its communicative force.
You can't say "Final fantasy is a railroad" because you have agency in a (most, at any rate) final fantasy game (the ability as a player to make choices that affect outcomes). Every game has agency, otherwise it wouldn't be a game.
Railroading is only useful as a definition if it quantifies a specific design issue. And it does, the remove of agency from players within the context of the game.
I could go on, and I do urge you to read through the comments section of the original article. 

I will point out, though, that –C’s statements should lead one to believe that he is aware that he is not using the term as it is commonly used.

One more point about whether or not rules can railroad.  –C writes:
An obstacle (like a door or a trap or a monster) is not agency restriction because it does not affect the ability of the player to take action.
A giant rock may be blocking a door. This rock is indeed blocking the character's path.
It does not block the ability of the player to take action and have a result that matches the intent of their action. They may get dynamite and blow up the rock. They can break it apart with a pickaxe. They can cast passwall or stone shape to bypass the rock. They may ignore it and go find a secret entrance.
A railroad is when the agency of the player is actively removed. They use the dynamite and are told the rock is 'too hard to blow up' or 'there is no dynamite for sale anywhere'. Or their pickaxe keeps breaking. Or their spells don't work in the cavern because of an anti-magic field.
The difference is, an obstacle is affected by player actions, and a railroad nullifies player actions.
 Are we actually to believe that a rock being too hard to blow up, dynamite not appearing on equipment lists, or pickaxes breaking when used in caves cannot be a rules artefact?  Are we seriously to believe that spells not working in the cavern because of an anti-magic field cannot be part of a game, such as a computer game, where the game is, in and of itself, a single scenario?

This is, of course, also true in a game like the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where there was intent that a portion of the rules be hidden from players, to increase their specific agency to make decisions as characters in the fantasy milieu.

I hope that the problem here is as obvious to you as to me.

In fact, it is even obvious to –C.  When Rev. Dane Black says
This dates me, but the classic example of Railroading within a RPG is the original Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior.
After slaying a dragon within a forgotten cave you happen upon the missing Princess. She asks if you will escort her back to her home. If you refuse, she responds, "But thou must!" and asks again. They only way forward is through the agreeing. It also happens at the end of the game, she asks if you will take you with her in your travels following the resolution of the major plot. Again, insisting that "You must!" if you refuse. 
The Dragon Quest games are filled with these seeming decisions that only allow for one choice that advances the plot.
He replies
Right.Why give you a choice? 
The game acts like it gives you a choice, and then removes the result of your choice. It was a decision made by a programmer, where you were given the expectation of agency and then that agency was removed.
So, it is clear that even –C agrees that a possibility exists where the game itself can remove agency, at least where there is no clear distinction between the game and the scenario.  If we accept propositions (3) and (8), though, the distinction becomes extremely blurry.

Especially if you consider statement (19) If you were being railroaded, you wouldn't be playing a game, because by definition your agency is being invalidated.  That's a pretty black and white statement that doesn't require distinctions between who or what is removing agency.  It states that you simply cannot be railroaded in a game.  IOW, the term "railroad" might as well have no meaning, because a railroad can never happen.

Consider the Sources

-C notes that he includes his sources as evidence [onus probandi, (Making claims without proof, and then claiming that it is my burden to disprove your claims. My sources are in the article.)], so let’s see what they are.

(1) Mateas, 2001.  This is of limited use as a source, because no information is given to follow it up.  But a bit more research ( makes one doubt the relevancy of this source.

(2) Hmm.  This source is himself.  You can and should, of course, point out other things you’ve written that your readers might also be interested in.  But you saying something repeatedly is not proof.

(3) (-C says: The insight that the agency is not always in deciding the direction of the story was noted by Jason Alexander).  But Jason Alexander is not saying that inclusion of any agency prevents railroading.  Far from it, in fact:
I just got done running the most heavily railroaded session in probably my last 15 years of gaming, including heavily forced scene transitions and huge dollops of illusionism. 
(Context: It was a dream sequence being experienced by a comatose PC. They were taken through a highlight reel of their memories — both the ones they’ve experienced and the ones their amnesiac character has forgotten — with the other players jumping in to play current and former versions of themselves in a kaleidoscopic dreamscape.) 
I bring this up because I think it’s given me a fresh appreciation for why combat encounters — particularly those in “delve format” adventures — have become so overwrought in the past 10 years: It’s because, in a culture of “storytelling” GMs with railroaded plots, the combat encounters are the only place where players can actually experience freedom; where their choices actually matter. 
So you get a large class of players who are primarily focused on the combat encounters because that’s where they’re actually allowed to experience the true joy of roleplaying games (and, therefore, that’s where they have fun). And to cater to those desires, adventure design (and then game design) focuses more and more on making those encounters really exciting. 
But then, as that cycle degrades into itself, we end up with a situation where the tail is wagging the dog: Where the railroaded plot that strings together the combat encounters becomes thinner and thinner as more and more effort is put into propping up the combat encounter tent poles.
So, the sources used to prop up the argument either do not do so, or directly contradict the argument –C is making.

A Question of Motive

Contrary to –C’s accusation, I’ve read the article.  I’ve followed the links.  I understand what is being said.  But it doesn’t make logical sense, it flies in the face of common usage and experience, and the links supplied offer nothing supportive of the argument.  I’ve pointed out some of the problems in what I think are fairly gentle ways, and I am getting an increasingly hostile response.

So here is the point where my spidey sense starts to tingle, the same way it does when confronted by a used car salesman/politician/corporate wank.  And I cannot help but notice that –C has given us clues to a possible motive other than clarity of language:

  • I have often seen these terms applied to JRPG's like Final Fantasy or to situations where a player says "Let's run this module or adventure path." These are not railroads.
  • Final Fantasy games aren't railroads, because the agency is in how you level up your party and fight the battles.
  • 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.
  • [T]his terminology exists without needing to overload the word railroad.  Module. Sandbox. Adventure Path. Series:Episode:Scene. Campaign.
  • We don't have to worry about reasonableness, because no matter what game we are playing the choices the players are making, I.e. their agency within the game, is explicit and quantifiable, because games are designed.
  • What you say is not true of my megadungeon campaign, for example. They can't 'do whatever a human can do'. They pick from a menu in town, and move according to the rules in the dungeon.
  • I assure you, I'm role-playing more than once weekly, and in no game I play or run in, is this [creating a game around immersion in verisimilitude] a priority, desirable, or anything that anyone I play with is interested in. 
  • That isn't a subjective or an emotional question. It is a quantifiable one that is answerable in every case given enough information.
  • The term is not subjective. It refers to a specific quantifiable action that can be taken. If people misuse the term, that is certainly something that occurs often, but it doesn't change or remove the actual meaning of the word, or its usefulness in discussing design.

 (If I need to, I will discuss in another post that the subjectivity of all language is extremely well known, with many papers being written on the subject.)

These things made me suspect that –C was trying to “prove” that the games he was interested in were not railroads, because the term “railroad” has a pejorative context.  If you simultaneously believe that what you enjoy are railroads, and railroads are bad, then something’s gotta give.

This is an extremely common circumstance, and is called cognitive dissonance

Hence the 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.  The goal is not to discuss what the terms mean, but to tell you what they mean and reinforce your acceptance of these definitions.

To my mind, -C’s comment to Part I of this series reinforces this conclusion: 
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?
It is interesting to me that -C accused me of fallacies he was engaged in, while accusing Telecanter of post-rationalization.
In psychology and logic, rationalization (also known as making excuses) is an unconscious defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are logically justified and explained in a rational or logical manner in order to avoid any true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable – or even admirable and superior – by plausible means. 
Now, it is obvious that one could easily claim that what I am also doing is rationalization of my "rude behaviour" in strenuously objecting to the redefinition of these terms on -C's blog.  Okay, that would be fair. I have tried to demonstrate, on a surface level, some of the problems with -C's construction, and I hope that what I have done will stand up to rational scrutiny.

I know, from -C, that I have parsed his argument extremely well (his words were, "This is an extremely accurate presentation of my points.")  I know that I understand the argument, and that understanding the argument does nothing to fill in the gaping holes in the argument.  This is a non-starter.

Why It Matters….Or, the Value of Definitions

Does it matter how we define terms like “railroading” or “player agency”?

-C suggests that it does, and I agree with him.  Having a clear working definition allows “designers to communicate clearly about the structure of a game.”  It also allows players (or potential players) to communicate with designers, and with each other.  –C says that “Communication is about shared meaning”, and this is true to an extent.  But communication is about shared meaning that arises from some sort of consensus; it is not imposed from above.

For example, the dictionary does not define words in the way that they should be used.  Rather, the dictionary defines words based upon their actual use by actual people.  This means that languages drift and evolve over time.  Common words become less common, or die, and sometimes words change meaning.  Words have both a connotative and a denotative meaning, and both of these can and do change over time.  Attempting to conflate one meaning with another, in order to transfer the properties of one meaning with the other, is the equivocation fallacy we talked about in the last part.

It should be clear that where terminology is concerned, we can attempt to add terms, and we can attempt to define terms.  If we are attempting to add terms, we do not want to use an existing term, unless the new term is a clear expansion of, or has a clear relationship to the old term, so that the new term does not increase confusion.  If we are attempting to define a term, we want to get at an understanding of how the term is actually used, so that we are not accidentally (or purposefully) actually creating a new term which we are then conflating with the old.

Because if we are attempting to redefine a term, and then equate the new definition with the original meaning, we are clearly and knowingly engaged in the equivocation fallacy.  We have experience with politicians, corporate mouthpieces, and others who are involved in this type of equivocation on a daily basis.  The purpose is to control a conversation, by redefining terms in such a way as to prevent an opposing view from being clearly articulated.

And we do not want that.

Noting that many players seem to dislike railroading, we do not want to inhibit their ability to discuss what they dislike.  Rather, we want to expand the discussion so that we can better understand what is meant.  Knowing the above, we are very careful to avoid suggesting that common usage is instead mis-usage.  We are very careful not to suggest that those who are not satisfied by our attempt to get at a working definition look like idiots.  We are, instead, open to their criticism.

We believe that definitions matter.


Now, there are a host of other spurious claims in the statements I listed, such as the idea that no one likes their agency removed.  And I could scour psychological journals and web sites to find links that demonstrate that, no, some people do like their agency removed.

Or I could leave you with this excellent post, which is as well (or better) thought-out than anything I could write anyway:

Or I could post once more, talking about what railroading is, and how to avoid it.  But I’ve already done that in this series of posts:,, and

Unless you really, really, really want me to keep beating this dead horse, I’ll do one more post, and then call it a done.  I thought that I made a record of the posts on Hack & Slash prior to their deletion, but the file was overwritten by a later version in which the comments were already deleted.  So, just some concluding thoughts and on to more interesting things.

(We hope.)

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

Let’s talk logical fallacies for a minute. 

Argumentum ad nauseam does not mean “responding to every comment in the thread”, but rather repeating the same argument until one wears down opposition.  I.e., argument to the point of nausea.  Now, of course, recurrent claims that make no attempt to clarify or respond to other posts may indeed be argumentum ad nauseam, as may simply asserting repeatedly that one must abide with a given position, regardless of the reasons stated that one does not. 

Onus probandi is not simply “Making claims without proof, and then claiming that it is my burden to disprove your claims.”  It is making a claim, and then attempting to shift the burden of proof away from your claim, and onto the sceptics of your claim.  When debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting a claim. "If this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of appealing to ignorance is committed"  In other words, if I make a claim, such as that the definition of railroading is X, and I then attempt to shift the burden of proof to critics of that claim (say, possibly people commenting on my blog), then I am guilty of a fallacy of onus probandi – the burden of proof lies with the original claimant, not the critic.

Equivocation is not “misusing 'railroading' by applying your own definition rather than the one in the article”, but rather “the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)”.  If I am clear about the term that I am using, I am not engaged in equivocation.  If, on the other hand, you make a claim that X is equivalent to Y, and that therefore quality Z must belong to both, when X is not equivalent to Y, then you are engaged in equivocation.  For example, the claim that if railroading applies meaningfully to one subset of games, it must apply to all games, and any definition or railroading which does not therefore apply equally to Dungeon Crawl Classics and chess is a wrong definition is a case of fallacious equivocation.

Argumentum ad hominem, is an argument made personally against an opponent instead of against their argument” (, or more specifically, Ad hominem circumstantial, which “points out that someone is in circumstances such that they are disposed to take a particular position….The circumstantial fallacy applies only where the source taking a position is only making a logical argument from premises that are generally accepted. Where the source seeks to convince an audience of the truth of a premise by a claim of authority or by personal observation, observation of their circumstances may reduce the evidentiary weight of the claims, sometimes to zero.”

In other words, ad hominem circumstantial only applies as a fallacy when applied to an argument from premises that are generally accepted; it does not apply in this case.

On the other hand, the attempt to claim that “your behaviour…is becoming inappropriate….You have repeated instances of not taking the time to read what people have written, not only in the original post, but in the comment threads….You continually construct strawmen; both by making broad, easily disprovable claims….and by misrepresenting the very clear points you are arguing against.…..You should not engage in debate which contains logical fallacies”constitutes abusive ad hominem, which is, indeed, fallacious.

You are correct in noting that a straw man misrepresents “the argumentation of those people you are commenting against” (although not “making broad, easily disprovable claims”, which is sort of ironic, considering…), however it is an easily disprovable claim that I misrepresented anyone’s argument in the comments to the article.

The interesting thing about logical fallacies is that you have to do more than simply throw the terms around; you have to use them correctly, in situations where they apply.

So, let’s take a look at the opening claims.

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

This may be true of some games; it is not true of all games.  Unless one means that each individual instance of a game is very specific and very quantifiable, my Dungeon Crawl Classics game is likely to look different from Harley’s Dungeon Crawl Classics game.  After all, it is printed very clearly, at the beginning of the Judges Rules, and in a way to bring attention to it:  The judge is always right. Let the rules bend to you, not the other way around.

Let us look at the introduction of the Holmes Basic set for Dungeons & Dragons, on page 2, where it discusses the need for a Dungeon Master:
“This is absolutely necessary because the game is completely open-ended, is subject to modification, expansion, and interpretation according to the desires of the group participating, and is in general not bounded by the conventional limitations of other types of games.”
How about Tom Moldvay, in his Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1981) intro?
“In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions.  No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.  The important thing is to enjoy the adventure.”
People meant so many different things by “Dungeons & Dragons” that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons made, in part, an attempt to make the game into something more specific and quantifiable.  But Gary Gygax did not expect every AD&D game to look the same; he expected there to be similarities between games, even though what the similarities were between any two games may be different.

This is explicitly spelled out in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.  I would rather not have to type out Gary Gygax's paragraphs of material on the subject, but will do so if anyone doubts this and does not have a DMG of their own to read it from.  "Dungeons & Beavers", anyone?

In Role-Playing Mastery, Gygax wrote:
The spirit of a game cannot be expressly defined in a sentence or a paragraph, and any game designer who attempts to do so is defeating his own purpose.  The spirit of an RPG pervades all the statistics, mechanics, and descriptions that make up the actual rules; it is everywhere and nowhere in particular at the same time.
A game master or player who simply absorbs all the rules and uses them to play out a game adventure may be able to achieve expertise in the play of the game, but in the final analysis, he is doing no more than going through the motions-unless he also perceives, understands, and appreciates the spirit that underlies all those rules.
This is not true of games such as checkers or chess, although the structure of all games includes unspoken assumptions or rules, so that a poker player need not be told that he shouldn't reveal his cards if he understands the game.

Again, Gary Gygax in Role-Playing Mastery:
Because the game seeks to reflect actual life, the campaign world has a scope equal to that of the universe, that is, most probably infinite. Fortunately, the GM needs only to create and develop details according to the rate the player group progresses and demands such details.
So we note that role-playing games are different in form, purpose, and function from other games.  Just as it is nonsensical to discuss card marking outside of the subset of games that use cards, or weighted dice in the context of chess, role-playing games have developed a lexicon of terms that relate to the specific form, purpose, and function of these games (or games that do, or purport to, have the same or similar form, purpose, or function, such as “computer role-playing games”. 

One of these terms is “railroading”.

It is nonsensical to talk of railroading in terms of chess, checkers, Parcheesi, or Monopoly.  No player acts as a judge, or Game Master (and, in a computer-based “role-playing” game, the programmer does so).  If the banker in Monopoly doesn't give you the $200 for passing Go, he isn't “railroading”; he is cheating.

Therefore, any conclusion that relies upon a relationship between railroading and a non-role-playing (or pseudo role-playing) game is built upon a false assumption.

(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. 

Taken together, these seem to mean that whatever happens within a game happens according to its rules (including, one would assume, “Rule 0” type rules that define the codified rules as mere guidelines.)  This would seem to gibe with

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

so I will take that as my working understanding of what is being said here.

In a reply to Mandramas, on February 25, 2013 at 1:43 pm, though, the author states that “They [the players] cannot be railroaded by the structure of the game because that defines what agency they have.”  We shall call this claim (21) Players cannot be railroaded by the structure of the game because that defines what agency they have.

If the statements given in (2), (3), and (8) are correct, it would seem to imply that anything which happens within a game, be it codified rule or uncodified ruling, is part of the structure of the game.  If players cannot be railroaded by the structure of the game, and everything that happens within the game is a product of that structure, we now see that railroading cannot exist.

Personally, I think that the claim structure in statements (2), (3), and (8) are largely correct, but that the claim made by (21) is false.  Either there is no railroading, or railroading must be able to exist within the game structure.  Or perhaps we can claim that (3) is false, and that there exists agency within a game that is not provided by the game structure.

In any event, it should be crystal clear that statements (2), (3), (8), and (21) cannot all be true. 

Next time, we will look at sources; other objections to the definition –C supplies for railroad, railroading, and player agency; and what these terms actually mean in general usage.  If the goal really is to allow “designers to communicate clearly about the structure of a game,” it follows that terminology to be clearly and correctly defined.  And that correct definition must be usable in a meaningful way.

Assuming, of course, that one is not simply trying to equivocate (in the fallacious sense) the term you are using with the term as it is generally used.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

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

On Theory Defined, Railroad (Part I)

In this blog post (, 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:

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.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Excellent Post Alert

And another blog post that is well worth reading:

Monday 11 February 2013

Excellent Post Alert

Well, I thought it was excellent.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Excellent Post Alert

Trying to explain the attraction of Dungeon Crawl Classics to your friends?  You could do a lot worse than sending them to read Jobe Bittman's latest blog post, which can be found here: