Saturday, 2 March 2013

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

Okay, let’s see if we can’t finish this off by looking at one more part of –C’s article:  namely, statement (15) Railroading is an active process.  –C proposes that one must actively remove agency in order to railroad, whereas I propose that agency must be actively added in order to prevent a railroad.

In a response to Jason Packer, -C says:
Right.  That is something that must be done actively.  Either by a programmer or the person you are playing with.  They must decide to remove or negate your ability to play and make choices.
I responded:
In the case of a programmer, a decisions [sic] must be made to add agency, and the only agency that exists will be that which the programmer preplans, or which comes about by happy accident.
 -C responds:

Like the design of any game.
And if you went to the Hack & Slash blog today, you would think that this is where the discussion ended, with an agreement between myself and –C as to whether or not railroading must be the result of an active decision.  Because the “rude” post he deleted (while leaving the impression of agreement), read as follows:

Not like the design of any game.
The beauty of a role-playing game, and I believe its core strength, is that the adjudication of a GM (or other method) allows agency to exist which is not pre-planned, but which arises from the fiction of the milieu.
In a computer game, the programmer must decide that you can pick up a salt shaker, well before you play, and barring your hacking into the system, if the programmer didn’t think of it ahead of time, you cannot do it.  In a role-playing game, the human adjudicator can make a decision in real time, allowing you to do things that were never considered before.
Likewise, a “happy accident” in terms of the computer game is an error in programming that allows you to do something that the programmer did not consider or intend….but the accident occurred long ago, when the program was written.
The freedom of action, based not on a program or a set of rules, but rather upon the metafiction of the game milieu, is the primary determinant of agency in a role-playing game.
I would go so far as to say that it is possession of this quality that makes a game a roleplaying game.
I think that it should be clear that the above is relevant.  It should also be clear that it is not rude.  However, equally clear, the removal of this post, while leaving the previous post by –C (which suggests agreement if that is the “last word”) is indicative of the secondary motive suggested by Part III of this blog series.

Some might even imagine that there is a bit of intentional bad faith involved.

Here is another post that was deleted:

Following –C’s post of Feb 25 at 4:42, ending in “If you aren’t going to take the time to read the words I’m writing then I don’t know how I am going to be able to communicate with you.”, -C deletes:
I understand that you are attempting to be very clear and specific in your claims.  However, I think the term “railroad” as it is traditionally used does NOT mean “any specific ruleset that doesn’t give you the type of agency you wish to have.”  It refers to lack of a specific kind of agency; namely, the agency to make choices which have real impact on the game milieu in a way that meets expectation for that milieu and the role undertaken.
I agree that using “railroad” to refer to “any specific ruleset that doesn’t give you the type of agency you wish to have” is not a useful way to use the word.
I strongly disagree with any definition of “railroad” that disallows the term because a game allows ANY type of agency, or that whether it is the ruleset of [sic] the GM who removes agency is relevant to determining whether or not a particular game is a railroad.  Or even that removal of agency need be intentional.
I suggest that your definition is as useless as the one you decry.  ALL games have agency, and ALL games have limitations to that agency.  It is the TYPE of agency that players have, within the context of the game milieu, and the DEGREE to which it is limited, that determines whether a game is a railroad or not.
Again, I leave it to the reader to determine whether the post above was removed due to rudeness, lack of coherence, or some other possible motivation.

For those who are interested, here is a scan of my printout of the blog and comments at 506,011 total pageviews, which will allow you to read many of the missing responses, and see how removing those comments changes the nature of the discussion....and implies resolutions or agreements in the same way that -C attempted to imply that Jason Alexander was in agreement with him about agency.

Every game has rules and one or more scenarios.  The rules can be examined independent of the scenario, but they make little sense without reference to a real or imagined scenario.  In some games, there is only one scenario.  For example, all games of chess and checkers start in the same way, and follow the same rough scenario.  Other games, such as Settlers of Catan (especially using expansions), allow for variations on the starting scenario due to tile placement, adjustments to rules, and/or other factors.  Each hand of poker, based on the shuffle of the deck and the cards dealt, effectively offers the players a slightly different scenario.

It is nonsensical to talk about a checker moving one square without the scenario (in this case, the game board) being made clear (because otherwise “square” has no meaning).  In games where there is only one scenario, such as checkers, that scenario can also be codified into the rules.

In more complex games, such as a computer game, there may still be only one scenario, but it becomes more difficult for some to see that the limitations on the scenario relate to the limitations of the rules.  It is not only theoretically possible to write the scenario and the rules together as one entity, but this is a practical necessity to program the game.

In a very complex game, such as a role-playing game, there may be an infinite number of scenarios, and it is therefore impossible to codify everything that might occur in within the game into a single set of rules.  The human adjudication allows the game to evolve in situ so as to allow for actions that make sense within the context of the milieu and the roles undertaken, whether or not they are pre-codified, and whether or not a given adjudication will apply to all similar circumstances.

You do not need to actively railroad in order to engage in it.  Instead, a GM needs to be actively involved in the adjudication of outcomes based on the logic of the game milieu (both the immediate and the overarching scenario) in order to prevent railroading.  Railroading can easily be active, but it can also easily be passive. 

Not railroading, on the other hand, is always an active choice, because it requires the GM to actively consider the possibilities offered by his or her players.

And therein lies the danger, to the GM, of accepting -C's statements at face value.

Please note, by “the immediate and the overarching scenario”, above, I do not mean “plot”; I mean everything that makes up the game milieu in both the immediate area (such as a dungeon, forest, or village) and everything that makes up the whole game milieu and gives the immediate area context.

When I suggested that role-playing games emulate a structure (for example, D&D emulates the choices of a group of adventurers within a fantastic milieu; see Gary Gygax’s quote from Role-Playing Mastery for confirmation of this idea), -C’s response included, “Megadungeons don’t emulate archaeological expectation”.  Just to be clear, claiming that A does not emulate X in no way evidences that A does not emulate Z.  This response is a classic example of a straw man.

In conclusion:

(1) We have seen that –C’s statements in his attempts to redefine railroading cannot logically all be true.
(2) We have seen that –C’s definition of railroad and railroading do not follow common usage, and that he knows this to be the case.
(3) We have seen that –C’s sources either do not support, or flatly contradict the statements he means them to support.
(4) We have seen that there is strong evidence that –C’s motives in this redefinition have little to do with more effective communication, and a lot to do with controlling what can be communicated.
(5) We have seen –C’s ad hominem attacks against myself for what they are, and we have shown that his stated reasons for his removal of certain of my responses to his article are at best suspect.


(6) Taking all of the above into account, it is difficult to believe that -C is completely unaware of what he is doing.

Barring the need to reopen this topic, I am going to call this horse dead.

On the other hand, I would like to know what you, Gentle Readers, think about the arguments presented.  I would also like to read –C’s rebuttal, if any.  I am interested in open discussion of topics, and I am eager to increase my own knowledge from any source that makes sense!  Because of this, I promise that I will not delete him! 

And I certainly will not do so in some misguided attempt to make it seem like he agrees with me.


  1. I absolutely agree with you—and I have noticed some similar tomfoolery on –C's behalf before. Not that he's a villain or a fool, but he does seem to have some issues with argumentation.

    1. Thank you. The real danger here is that some well-meaning individual, starting out a GMing career, is going to take -C's argument at face value. Then, when players are complaining about railroading, he's going to believe that it is THEIR problem, because either (1) he is playing with a ruleset that needs modification to enhance player agency (because he falls for that "rules can't railroad" BS), or (2) while not giving players agency, neither is he actively taking it away.

      Trying to make it sound like Jason Alexander agrees with him, when Mr. Alexander is a real heavyweight in terms of considering rpg design and the ramifications of the same, extends this risk to others who are more experienced with GMing, but perhaps less experienced with parsing out the actual evidenciary value of the arguments presented.

  2. My opinion on the thread:

    1. -C is wrong about railroading, and handled the argument poorly.
    2. You've spent more effort responding to him than is worthwhile; somebody's always wrong somewhere on the Internet.
    3. In trying to be absolutely clear in your responses, you've instead ended up casting "Impenetrable Wall of Text".

    1. "Impenetrable Wall of Text" has my best Mercurial Magic result (98 - Natural Born Talent), so I try to use it as often as possible. Once in a while, though, I suffer corruption or patron taint.

  3. Ouch, this is a pretty long text... So long that it's quite hard to find your distilled definition of railroading...

    1. A demonstration that X is wrong is not dependent upon proving that Y is right.

      If I claim that aliens have taken over the US government, you need not supply proof that something else has done so to disprove me; you need only show that what I am claiming is wrong.

      This series is not about supplying a definition of railroading, it is about demonstrating the problems associated with accepting -C's definition of the same.

      If there is call for it, I can (of course) do a post (or series of posts) about what railroading is and how to avoid it. However, any successful definition of the term is going to have a subjective component, because railroading refers to the removal of expected agency, and a useful definition would require that expectation to meet a standard of reasonableness.

      (We should note that, although "reasonable expectation" causes a subjective element to enter the definition, we use "reasonable expectation" in many other fields with success, including law. It also has the benefit of allowing for a subjective understanding that is more accurate than -C's proposed "objective" standard.)

  4. I am aware of how disproving claims; I only figured if you put so much energy into these posts you, by now, must have come up with a definition of yours. I suppose it is a reasonable expectation :P

    To speak seriously, I am rather amateurish concerning law issues (especially because I am more into Hungarian laws), but I strongly in favour of not using any subjectivity regarding scientific matters. Albeit game design is not a science (well, it's debatable, but let me continue), certain aspects of it can be analysed and debated scientifically, hence my concerns about objectivity vs. subjectivity.

    From what "reasonable expectations" follow?

    1. If you are familiar with the philosophy of science, you will know that it is impossible to eliminate all subjectivity. And I am leery of "certain aspects of it can be analysed and debated scientifically" without qualifying what those aspects are.

      That aside, determining if railroading is occurring requires three questions to be asked and answered:

      (1) Given the role assumed, and the logic of the game milieu (which is certainly influenced by, but is not limited to, the game rules), is it rational to assume that a character can make choice X?

      (2) Can the player have the character make choice X?

      (3) Do the limitations of choices within the milieu make sense within the context of the milieu itself?

      If the answers to the first two questions are, respectively, Yes and No, then some railroading is occurring. The degree of railroading, naturally, depends upon the significance of being able to make/not make choice X (and Y, and Z, etc.) within the context of the game. The point at which "too much" railroading is going on is subjective, because "too much" is a subjective valuation.

      There is also subjectivity in answering (1) and (2).

      If the answer to (3) is No, then there is some railroading going on. Determining how much depends upon understanding how choices are being limited by the milieu in a way that does not make sense within the milieu's framework. Obviously, because the GM has more information than the players, what appears to make no sense from the players' perspective may in fact make perfect sense from the GM's.

      Perspective is important, though. There may be a good reason why Rick, in The Walking Dead, doesn't know about a prison less than a day's drive from the town where he is sheriff, but if we aren't let in on the reason, the writing appears implausible.

      And note that "rail shooter" is not the milieu; the fictional environment wherein the shooting takes place is the milieu. The game is not "about" fundamental choices to interact with the milieu, but removal of those choices do put it on rails. Hence "rail shooter". It might still be a great game. You might still have a lot of options about what you do on the tracks. It is still a railroad.

      A player interacts with the fictional milieu through his character. Making choices for that character are how the player affects the milieu. Being able to do so is the core strength, IMHO, and the defining attribute of role-playing games.

    2. Interesting reading here:

      Note especially the comment of James Wintergreen (5 March 2013 20:03). Smart guy.

    3. I've only just come in on this, having been lurking on your excellent blog. If I'm understanding the issue correctly, the question concerns whether DMs (or GMs if you prefer) ought to forcibly manipulate players into the scenarios that they have designed. The analogy this person -C is drawing is to the programming of a computer game. There are several things that come to mind:

      1. If a given scenario is interesting enough and has enough options, players will not have to be "railroaded." They'll be engaged on their own.

      2. The mark of a good scenario is one that works within the rules to create a situation which the players have to their creative knowledge of the game rules in order to resolve--NOT a riddle that has a single solution (or even a set of multiple predetermined solutions). Gaming sessions that are satisfying for DM and players alike are those in which players devise solutions to problems that the DM didn't anticipate but which work nonetheless.

      3. The purpose of the rules in an rpg session (as opposed to a computer game) is to adjudicate the actions that players freely choose, not to decide which actions they can undertake and which they cannot. RPG judges should not try to simulate the action of a computer game--rather computer games will improve insofar as they simulate live roleplaying.

      4. The clear difference between live roleplaying and computer simulated "rpg" is the focus on genuine interaction in live roleplaying. Because the DM, as a "programmer" is actually present at the gaming situation, whatever "rules" he or she draws on are in a constant state of evolution due to the interaction with his or her players. In other words, most sophisticated DMs will pass the Turing Test, while computer simulations will not. This last point is so self-evident as to hardly bear emphasis, but it's difficult not to at least mention it when there are so many people out there who seem determined to turn their games into exercises in conformity.

      I am reminded of Tolkien's oft-quoted preference for "history real or feigned" over allegory. But as he pointed out, the experience of one resides in the freedom of the reader, the other "in the purposed domination of the writer."

      John Henry hasn't been beaten by the machine quite yet.

    4. Very well put. #3, in particular, seems to be something -C is either unaware of or chooses to ignore. A lot of people coming into gaming after rpgs spawned their computer simulations seem to think that the two are equivalent....including game designers!

      They are not.