On Theory, Defined: Railroad

Games are very specific, very quantifiable things.

Name any game!

Whatever the game, there are very specific rules. And 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!

This is why in game theory and design the definitions of the terms must be clear and succinct.

In many games with broad design space, this is very true. Mana cost, tempo, psychographic profiles, color pie; each of these is very specific jargon that allows Magic: the gathering designers to communicate clearly about the structure of a game.

This 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.

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

[Edit: Added the definitions of Player Agency, since I guess some people don't know it]

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. If they were railroads, then the fact that you have to pay mana to play spells in magic would be a railroad because it limits your choices.

Please please note that the actions you can take are proscribed by the rules of the game.

Games are designed. That means there are places where the player has agency by design and places where they do not. 

Final Fantasy games aren't railroads, because the agency is in how you level up your party and fight the battles*. The agency in checkers is which diagonal you select for your piece. If you were given a list of where you had to move each piece in order, you would no longer be playing a game. Why? Because you would no longer be making choices.

When does railroading happen within a role playing game? That's right! When player choice or ability is invalidated! 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?)

Note that railroading is an active process. Generalizations are often inaccurate, because cases where this occurs are specific. i.e. There are many examples of older Dungeons & Dragons modules where the Dungeon Master is encouraged to railroad her players in specific situations.

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

If you were being railroaded, you wouldn't be playing a game, because by definition your agency is being invalidated. No one likes that.

Updates from the comments:
Brendan: "In other games, there is no such expectation. PCs can go wherever they want and do whatever they want and the setting will respond appropriately. This is not extreme improv either (a setting can be designed to handle this)."There should be terminology for this difference as well, because it is important."
Yes, but this terminology exists without needing to overload the word railroad.
Module. Sandbox. Adventure Path. Series:Episode:Scene. Campaign.

Telecanter:
"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. . . "I think railroad is an important descriptive term and shouldn't be discarded because people have become familiar with railroads or enjoy them."
According to the example given, every game ever is a railroad, because by following the rules of the game, you are stuck on the train. Every game must have some sort of agency. Otherwise it would be a movie or book - a passively consumed experience.

*Since XIII actually removed part of this agency, having basic stances that determined how you fight battles, it is one of the most reviled of the series.

49 comments:

  1. Your definition is too narrow, IMHO, to be useful. By your definition, only if the player has no agency whatsoever is it a railroad, because otherwise you can say "Here is where your agency exists" as you did with Final Fantasy.

    May I suggest:

    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 does not meet reasonable expectation.

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    1. Then you would have to define what "reasonable expectation" is. As -C put it, each game "comes with the expectation of structure", and only that is railroading which takes away agency [i]within[/i] the scope of the game structure (i.e. within reasonable expectation). That is why the original wording is more convenient.

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  2. But by that narrow definition, wouldn't even an 'on-rails' shooter not qualify as a railroad, because the player agency is concenrated in the target selection decision?

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    1. That's sort of what I mean. Given a particular genre and scenario, players have a reasonable expectation that they can make certain choices. If they are unable to make those choices, regardless of whether it is the GM or the designer who prevents it, the result is railroading.

      If a game requires that you cannot be suspicious of an obvious villain, not because of a player choice (such as taking a "naive" disadvantage), then it doesn't really matter whether or not the game rules or the GM make that choice.

      Likewise, if the game requires that you turn left at an intersection, it makes no difference whether the rules or the GM force you to turn left - there is only the appearance of choice where a reasonable expectation of choice exists.

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    2. I think we are saying the same thing here.

      When I say actively removed, I mean either the game or the DM oversteps that reasonable expectation. Like when Final Fantasy removes some party members for 'story' reasons, or the DM hits you with a quantum ogre. That is agency being 'actively removed'.

      Simply constructing a game, even an on rails shooter, isn't really railroading. It's when it actively removes the agency it claims to give you that it becomes annoying.

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    3. I suggest that the difference is what we mean be reasonable expectation.

      If I can't turn left, unless there is some reason I cannot that makes sense within the context of the game, I do not think that is reasonable. If the shooter doesn't allow you to make those sorts of reasonable choices, then it is railroading.

      The idea of an "on rails" game that is not railroading makes no sense, to me.

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    4. If you walk up to an arcade machine to play a "rail shooter", is it not reasonable to assume that you're playing a game about accuracy and target selection?

      If you're playing ski-ball, is it unreasonable to assume that you won't get points for putting the ball in a trash can?

      You pick the game, which itself comes with the expectation of structure. When the game, or the people you are playing with break those rules, you are being railroaded.

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    5. If, in a 'rail shooter', you were presented with the Big Bad near the beginning - let's say it's some scrawny dude in a suit with a gun and twirly mustache - and you've been blasting through guys with power armor this whole time, it would be reasonable to try to shoot him, yes?
      Let's say the designers didn't want you to be able to shoot him because they need to set him up as the Big Bad, so he starts shooting civilians or something... You have a gun, right? So you try to shoot him.
      Oh, wait, he can't die/the bullets don't damage him/your gun won't fire. THAT'S railroading.

      Railroading occurs when the game has established a system where you can reasonably expect a certain outcome when you perform a certain action (giving the player agency, albeit limited in this case) and then denies you that outcome for whatever reason (removing that same agency).

      Pokemon Snap is a rail shooter with TONS of player agency. That's an example of a rail shooter that doesn't railroad the player at all.

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  3. Restrictions 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.

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    1. 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.

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    2. In the case of a programmer, a decisions 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.

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    3. Exactly.
      Like the design of any game.

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  4. The English language is so imprecise, but then so are human beings. Even by the definition you provide, there are going to be different interpretations of the meaning.
    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?"
    Neither hold supremacy over the other.

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    1. I think the boundries of the game you are playing should be clearly communicated. "Where is the agency of the players?" is a question that must be asked and answered.

      I believe what you are talking about is just deciding what game everyone wants to play. Any option in this selection is valid.

      I am discussing what this term means, because it is a useful specific term used to describe what happens after those initial choices and questions have been asked and answered, and then those answers have been ignored, denying the ability of the players to play the game.

      I am specifically making this post to address the idea that misusing this word to refer to "any specific ruleset that doesn't give you the type of agency you wish to have." is a not useful way to use this word.

      "Oh, Dungeon world is a railroad because you have to wait for your GM to give you an option to act."
      "Oh, D&D is a railroad because you have to pick a place to go in the dungeon."
      "Oh, Final Fantasy is a railroad because you can't affect the outcome of the story."
      "Oh, Skyrim is a railroad because there are a bunch of NPC's you can't kill, and nothing really changes unless you follow their pre-arranged story."

      What you're talking about isn't useful as a gaming term, because it's used as shorthand to refer to anything you might not like. However, it's original meaning, of "Agency as players the game grants us is being removed" it is useful as a design term.

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    2. I don't like warforged, yet neither I nor anyone else I am aware of, calls inclusion of warforged "railroading".

      In each of the examples you give, you are talking specifically about one thing - being able or unable to act in a meaningful way. This is a far cry from the term being vague or being shorthand for anything you might not like. And, AFAICT and IMHO, it is not only a useful design term, but a critical one.

      Whether meaningful action/agency is being restricted in your examples may be, of course, open to discussion. But that doesn't damage the value of the term.

      What is the structure? What does the structure emulate? What reasonable expectations of player agency does one expect when taking on the role implied by the structure? How does the structure allow for, or remove, this agency, and to what degree?

      These questions, IMHO, are critical to good design.

      Sorry, but if your reasoning here is predicated by a belief that railroading means "any specific ruleset that doesn't give you the type of agency you wish to have" I believe that this premise is flawed.

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    3. I am being very clear and specific in my claims.

      Ravenking
      "Sorry, but if your reasoning here is predicated by a belief that railroading means "any specific ruleset that doesn't give you the type of agency you wish to have" I believe that this premise is flawed. "

      Me
      "I am specifically making this post to address the idea that misusing this word to refer to "any specific ruleset that doesn't give you the type of agency you wish to have." is a not useful way to use this word."

      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.


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  5. 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.

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    1. I think this is post-rationalization.

      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.

      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

      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.

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  6. I don't like your defition, since it depends of the previous definition of Agency. Also, you are thinking in "GM vs Players", like the GM is some kind of non-player that don't needs to have agency.
    But the main problem is that any "obstacle" that the players meet is a agency restriction. Even the ones that the GM wants to be bypasses. The work of the GM, in fact, is REMOVE AGENCY in way that it could be used to tell a story. ¿What is a dungeon? A way to remove walking-based agency. Of course, a dungeon also creates new uses for the remaining agency. I think that, in some ways, restriction breeds creativity: remove some part of the agency, and players will found new uses for the remaining. Agency is a wonderful resource, but so much is mind-stalling and troublesome.
    I take it as a contiuum scale between absolute sandbox (mostly a rule-designed impro exercise) and predeterminated story railroad (a mario bros-like computer game). Inbetween, there are a lot of intermediate degrees that can be choosen for a determinate players group and game.

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    1. No. Having an obstacle in the game that must be surmounted does not rob the players of their ability to make choices and have natural results of those choice occur. Obstacles are not agency restriction.

      If the GM removes agency for any reason, that is railroading players. These are not abstract terms, they mean very specific things.

      If a player has his character take an action, and the GM either tells the player he can't take that action or takes some action within the game world that wasn't already part of the pre-existing game environment to prevent or nullify that action (There is an anti-magic field here. He casts time stop. . . from a ring so you can't interrupt it. He had a contingency spell. These bolts go through walls of force ) then that is railroading.

      I am having serious trouble parsing your statement. For instance "The ability of the player to move his chess pieces around the board is a wonderful resource, but so much is mind-stalling and troublesome" makes no sense.

      Agency is literally the ability of the player to freely play the game and experience the consequences for his choices. If that is removed, then players are being railroaded. They cannot be railroaded by the structure of the game because that defines what agency they have.

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    2. I'm sorry; I didn't express it clearly (since english is not my first language, I'm in trouble sometimes with convoluted sentences).
      C: If you had to extend your definitions with examples and restrictions, maybe you need to return to the original definition and rework it, including the new elements. In fact, since railroad is simply non-agency, the main definition here is agency.
      Could you please expand why an obstacle is not a agency restriction? Or how to tell when something is railroad or an obstacle? I think that an obstacle is clearly a way to restrict player's options. The only difference I can tell is that obstacles are meant to be defeated, but railroad don't; but this difference is tricky.

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    3. No, your English is fine.

      I didn't have to extend my definition at all. I did extend it, because I was under the impression some of the english speakers didn't take the time to read the actual words I wrote, and instead they responded to what they thought I was saying, instead of what I actually said.

      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. I find the division requires a fair bit of information about the situation, but that with access to that information it is fairly trivial to make that distinction. This clarity is what makes it useful as a design tool.

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    4. It may not be clear, but the distinction between "player" and "character" in the above explanation is very important.

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  7. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

    This is not complicated. Yet I cannot communicate clearly.

    CHeckers is played on a board with sixty four squares.

    You can only love your pieces along the diagonals. This is how the game is designed, it is the rules.

    This is not a railroad.

    In the middle of the game, you are no longer allowed to choose which moves you make. You must make the ones you are told to make.

    This is railroading.

    You decide to run Rappun Athuk for your group. You say, "hey everyone, do you want to run this with me?"

    Your players go into Rappun Athuk. One player goes "I want to leave Rappun Athuk and go somewhere where we can run Agianst the Giants." the DM goes, "Naw, man, we'll do that next in a few weeks. Everyone wants to do this now"

    That is not railroading.

    Your group agrees to do Rappun Athuk. You say, "I want to go down to the Second floor and kill that NPC that went there."

    Your DM uses quantum ogres, wizard switches, and flat out walls to limit where you can go. (the expectation in a mega dungeon environment is that you can choose your level of risk, it is part of the structure of play.)

    That is railroading.

    When someone says a game is a "railroad" because of the structure of the game, that is a meaningless statement. Beer pong is not a railroad because you don't use dice. Dice don't have anything to do with it.

    You say, "I'm going to make a game that is a rail shooter." the structure of the game is that what the player does is test accuracy and select targets. That is the gameplay and the location of agency. If that agency is removed, then the game has become a railroad.

    Why is this the case? Because used any other way, the term is essentially useless, meaning just "something I don't like."

    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.

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    1. The problem with your reasoning here is that a game like checkers is abstracted so far as to meaningless in real-world terms, whereas no role-playing game is so abstracted.

      If you are playing the role of a normal human, you should be able to make whatever choices a normal human is able to make. Any time that this is not the case, whether do to the rules or the GM's decision, agency is removed.

      This means that, if you are part of a group exploring Rappun Athak, agency is removed if you cannot choose NOT to explore Rappun Athak any more (either for a single session or longer) because that is clearly something the character should be able to do.

      This does not mean that the character being unable to go into Against the Giants makes it a railroad. Unless that option exists in the campaign milieu, it is not something that the character should be assumed to be able to do. However, "Head east and see what's there" generally IS something a character is able to do.

      Within the metagame, it is perfectly valid for the GM to then require time to prep that area, ending the game for now. It is perfectly valid for the GM to simply end the campaign at this point, as the characters head off into the Blue. The GM is not beholden to run a game he does not wish to run.

      If one character heads into the Blue, and the others explore Rappun Athuk, it is likewise perfectly justifiable for the GM to "follow the action" of the PCs who explore RA this session. If the GM vetoes the character action, though, that removes agency.

      The structure of a game like checkers or chess relates directly to nothing outside the game itself. This is untrue of any role-playing game, or even of any game that would like to claim a role-playing-like experience, such as your on-rails shooter.

      The expectations for agency are based upon how what is allowed within the game relates to the expected agency of the structure it seeks to emulate.

      If I cannot choose to have my character lift his left arm, within the context of a role-playing game, it impedes my agency to play a normal human with two working arms under any sort of normal circumstance. It matters not a whit if that is because of a decision of the game designer or a decision of the GM at the table. The same loss of reasonable agency is lost either way.

      Both are railroading to the same degree.

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    2. And, no, this does not make the term essentially useless, or somehow limit its meaning to "something I don't like." It says nothing whatsoever about whether you like it or not, and speaks only of the structure itself.

      What is the structure? What does the structure emulate? What reasonable expectations of player agency does one expect when taking on the role implied by the structure? How does the structure allow for, or remove, this agency, and to what degree?

      The term applies to rules structures for any role-playing or pseudo role-playing game, whether rules created by a professional designer or ad hoc rulings at the table, without distinction between the two.

      Claiming that a game designer cannot design limitations within the context of a role-playing (or pseudo role-playing) game which limit agency and promote (or cause) railroading not only flies in the face of common sense, but also of common experience.

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    3. "If you are playing the role of a normal human, you should be able to make whatever choices a normal human is able to make. Any time that this is not the case, whether do to the rules or the GM's decision, agency is removed."

      Only not. In 4e I can 'move an opponent 1 square'. In B/X I 'make a save versus Death Magic'. all games are abstracted into rules that govern play. When you agree to play a certain type of game, you are defining what limits and abstractions their are.

      You seem to have a very narrow view of what you've defined as a role-playing game. 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.

      In the same sense that 'chess' is disassociated to any reality, so is 4e combat, vampire humanity, and B/X movement rates.

      The expectations for agency are based upon how what is allowed within the game relates to the expected agency of the structure it seeks to emulate.

      I dunno man. I've been playing games for 30 years. I game multiple times a week. I can't think of any game that I sit down that is about 'emulating a structure' besides one that is expected to produce an entertaining game.

      Here are 10 examples
      Chess doesn't emulate war
      Risk doesn't emulate global conflict
      Megadungeons don't emulate archaeological expectation
      Small world doesn't emulate global fantasy war
      Poker doesn't emulate royal conflict
      Dominion doesn't emulate ruling a demesne
      Swords and Sorcery doesn't emulate fantasy politics
      Axis and Allies doesn't emulate global war (though I can see someone say this is a 'simulation', but in fact it is an actual game based on actual real world situations, not descriptive)
      Monopoly doesn't emulate real estate moguls
      Candyland doesn't emulate the exploration of a fantasy land made of candy
      Rifts doesn't emulate inter-dimensional conflict

      Now because some games allow design of your own scenarios instead of giving you a pre-set scenario (as in Holmes/B/X) doesn't mean that you aren't playing a game. I get that some people enjoy creating a game around immersion in verisimilitude, but this to is a pre-agreed gaming structure that is discussed before you sit down to play.

      I assure you, I'm role-playing more than once weekly, and in no game I play or run in, is this a priority, desirable, or anything that anyone I play with is interested in. It's totally valid, it's just not my cup of tea.

      That said, you agree ahead of time what these limitations are, what choices you as a player can make that will affect the game. If this is actively subverted during play, you are talking about railroading.

      I am having no success at parsing your last two paragraphs.

      A game designer can design whatever rules to whatever game he wants. If once you play that game, someone at the table or a scenario removes your ability to make choices within the context of those rules you are being railroaded.

      The rules themselves define 'what choices the players can make and what the consequences and effects of those choices are' which is the definition of agency. The rules define what choices you can make that matter.

      That is to say, it is impossible to say my agency is limited in chess because a pawn can't move like a rook, or that my 1st level fighter can't cast spells. Those rules don't limit my agency, because they are part of the structure of the game which defines where my agency is.

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  8. 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.

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    1. 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.

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    2. Yeah, same thing in FFIX; the combats, however, required real choices, as not only the randomly determined damage outputs were needed to defeat enemies, but tactics and good prepping (potions, weapons, etc.).

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  9. I made a similar point about dungeons. RPGs finally came into existence when Dave Arneson decided to send his players into a dungeon. The limits of the dungeon environment allows the players to act as a person in that situation because the choices were limited enough that the DM could handle almost any player action in real time. The outdoor hexcrawl was also sufficiently limited in choice as to remain playable. Even the first non-fantasy games, such as Traveller, had limited movement options to allow DMs to handle all the player options or had a genre limitation which restricted player options. For example, your superhero may be able to fly through space but he doesn't just go flying around because he's restricted by his membership in a superhero team (which is, in essence entirely passive).

    However, by the 1980s, RPGs had grown to expand all sorts of genre's and situations which would be impossible for a GM to properly run without the restrictions of the dungeon being replaced with the player's agreement that they will "play the adventure" by sticking to the preplanned plot the DM had created (games like Call of Cthulhu or Star Wars as well as things like Dragonlance demonstrate this). If the players decided to play a Star Wars game where they just wandered around the galaxy, it would be impossible for a GM to have adventure opportunities on the thousands of thousand of worlds the players might encounter. The players must all agree to "follow the railroad" for the game to work.

    I still thing there is a difference between railroads the players voluntarily get on and those that are thrust upon them without their consent.

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    1. Right.

      I don't consider a group sitting down and deciding to run a specific module or have a specific adventure 'railroading' because the agency of the players isn't being removed, any more then it is if they decide to play munchkin or chess.

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  10. I see what you are saying and agree with the meaningfulness of the definition.

    However, in your Rappan Athuk/Against the Giants example above, there is a difference between the two. In some games, you show up and are expected to play the main scenario. I suspect many megadungeon campaigns are like this. In other games, there is no such expectation. PCs can go wherever they want and do whatever they want and the setting will respond appropriately. This is not extreme improv either (a setting can be designed to handle this).

    There should be terminology for this difference as well, because it is important.

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    1. There is terminology for the difference, although it is terminology that deals with the extremes: Linear campaign model (aka railroad) vs. sandbox.

      Most games have elements of both, and fall somewhere toward the middle, IMHO and IME.

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    2. Right.

      I believe that Paizo named it. So you have modules. . . which are like modular. . . modules. You can run them alone or drop them in a sandbox. Then there are sandboxes. And then there are more linear models such as adventure paths. Or for indy games, episodes made of scenes.

      In each, none objectively superior to another, all providing different things, the limitations and expectations are agreed to ahead of time.

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    3. If it counts as railroad or not is determined by whether Rappan Athuk happens to be the dungeon the group is currently exploring or it is The Rappan Athuk Campaign "where players explore Rappan Athuk".

      Obviously, the GM may decide to let the characters adventure somewhere else even in the latter case; however, denying such attempts ("There's nothing interesting out there") would not be considered railroading as the premise of the campaign is that the players explore the dungeon.

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  11. If a party enters a dungeon, the iron door clangs shut and seals them in, and they have to fight their way through ten rooms arranged in a line to get to a surface stair, is that railroading?

    In current usage, most probably not, although it can be critiqued in its own right as linear dungeon design.

    From which I gather that "railroading" is a subjective and emotive term. It refers to a situation where verisimilitude demands that choices be open - an intrigue plot, a wilderness adventure - but various unsubtle and at worst implausible mechanisms are used to force a prepared set of choices - the characters are overpowered and imprisoned without any actual combat happening! an old man appears to direly threaten you if you do not go to the obelisk at midnight!

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    1. That case you mentioned doesn't have enough information for us to tell.

      Is the player's ability to take action that have effects related to their intention within the game environment actively removed?

      That isn't a subjective or an emotional question. It is a quantifiable one that is answerable in every case given enough information.

      The degree to which verisimilitude enters into to the actions available to the players is covered in rules systems for games. If the scenario, video game, or Dungeon Master takes steps to prevent the players from taking actions that have effects related to their intention of their action within the game environment, railroading is occurring.

      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.

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  12. I've been on the internet for a little while now - about 15 years or so - and this is probably one of the most frustrating comment threads I have ever read.

    It's super easy to break down, actually:

    All games have rules.
    Rules cannot railroad.
    Player Agency is when you can do what the rules allow you to do.
    Railroading is when you can't to what the rules allow you to do.
    If your game doesn't have rules, IT'S NOT A GAME - it's play.

    Play is fine, but doesn't belong in a discussion about games!

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    1. I disagree, strongly, with assertions, (2), (3), and (4).

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    2. As to assertion (2), your own example of railroading, above, with the Big Bad that cannot be shot at the start of a rail shooter scenario, uses "rules" to prevent the Big Bad from being shot.

      If he can't die/the bullets don't damage him/your gun won't fire, that is because the "rules" of the scenario, as created by the designer, say so.

      If the DM running Keep on the Borderlands doesn't let you explore the early caves, and funnels you toward the owlbear, he can also claim (and correctly!) that the "rules" allow him to do so.

      In the discrepancy between what one would expect the rules to allow, and what is actually allowed, railroading can and does occur.

      Understand this, and you will also understand the source of my disagreement with assertions (3) and (4).

      (deleted and reposted to edit for clarity)

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    3. Likewise, were I to accept that "Final Fantasy games aren't railroads, because the agency is in how you level up your party and fight the battles" and that assertions, (2), (3), and (4) are correct, it would be strange to note also that "Since XIII actually removed part of this agency, having basic stances that determined how you fight battles, it is one of the most reviled of the series."

      If FF XIII has less agency than other FF games, that should not make it more of a railroad, because no agency is being removed from FF XIII itself, and rules cannot railroad.

      No.

      Answer instead why "XIII...is one of the most reviled of the series" and you will have a clearer understanding of railroading: "Since XIII actually removed part of this agency, having basic stances that determined how you fight battles". The rules of XIII remove expected agency from game play, and that removal of expected agency is reviled as a real loss of agency, and as real railroading.

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    4. /If your game doesn't have rules, IT'S NOT A GAME - it's play./

      Every role-playing game, from the first to the most current, to some which will be written 100 years hence, has codified or implied the rule that the GM (or some other body of arbitration) makes decisions that take precedence over the rules.

      Is D&D 4e not a game? Does Rule 0 make D&D 3e not a game? I think not.

      Indeed, it is important to remember that a role-playing game includes both the codified rules of the rulebooks, and the non-codified rules determined on the spot (or in scenario design) by the GM. These second rules, in all rpgs, explicitly in many cases, and implicitly in others, are more important than the codified rules.

      And it is notable that, if one examines a plethora of rpgs, the function of these non-codified rules is largely twofold: (1) to adjudicate things the authors did not expect, so that the action within the game conforms to the expectations of the game milieu, and (2) to adjudicate things where the codified rules, if followed, would cause dissonance between actual occurrence and the expectations of the game milieu.

      IOW, in an rpg, agreement between actual occurrence and the expectations of the game milieu is more desirable, and is very often explicitly more desirable, than adherence to the codified rules.

      This, my friend, is the most important "rule" of rpgs....and its importance to the form is the reason why railroading in rpgs is reviled.

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    5. There are some good points in here, so I will use this opportunity to clarify my own points.

      I can see the dichotomy between between my #2 and the example I gave above. I suppose in my head I clearly see the unkillable opponent as not being a rule, but being an exception to the rules that have so far been constant.

      I believe that exceptions and obfuscation can railroad, but rules are set guidelines within broader play that define the 'game' structure. In Half-Life 2, If I see a wooden board blocking my path, I can break it, but wooden doors I can't break. If I'm suddenly unable to break a board blocking a path (that the rules established until that point is breakable) THAT is railroading that involves an exception. If it were a wooden door, that would NOT be railroading since it still follows the set rules of the game world.

      I have never played any D&D modules so I am unfamiliar with the structure of Keep on the Borderlands. Funneling, itself, is not railroading, but each individual obstacle the DM places in the path of the PCs could be railroading depending on what it is.

      I'm not sure why you are using FFXIII in your argument. -C never claimed it was railroading and I do not claim that either. It's just that, in comparison to the others in the series, XIII has less player agency and THAT is the reason why people don't like it as much.
      In every other FF, you have been allowed the option to choose the individual actions of all of your primary characters in battle (auto-battling has existed for a while, but is still managed directly outside of combat). FFXIII changes two series-wide rules:
      1) It only allows you to directly control the actions of the party leader.
      2) If the lead character dies at any time during battle, even when other characters would be able to revive them, a 'game over' occurs.
      The game allows less player agency than the others in the series, but yes, these ARE rules and no, they are NOT railroading.

      As for that last post, you seem to be trying to make my argument an invalid one.
      'All games have rules' is easy to understand, but rules don't define PLAY, they define the GAME. They don't have to be printed, they don't have to be understood by everyone fully, but they have to be there in some form. Rules, by their nature, are laid out ahead of time. The word itself comes from a straight stick or guideline for planning.

      You can clearly see the need for rules by watching kids playing "games" like Cops and Robbers. Inevitably, there is an argument: "'Bang! You're dead!' 'No I'm not, you missed me!' 'No, you're dead!'". This can happen at the table if the GM starts creating a scenario in which there are NO RULES because the scenario is not a GAME it's PLAY. It's the same as RP in a schoolyard where you're all playing super heroes or fantasy characters. This is not a bad thing! It's essential in narrative RP! This kind of loose RP can be fulfilling and fun and THAT is the most important 'rule' of RP. Not consistency, not guidelines, not making sense, it's HAVING FUN. The 'game' part comes when you have impartial moderation in order to predict results and maintain fairness.
      But this is a discussion about the mechanical form of railroading in GAMES (which HAVE to reside in some kind of rule system) and not the loose form of railroading in PLAY which is a completely different can of worms.

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  13. Ravenking, your behavior on this thread 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 bymaking broad, easily disprovable claims such as "disassociated mechanics rarely satisfy" and by misrepresenting the very clear points you are arguing against.

    Worst of all, there are actually people trying to discuss the topic here, and your insistence that by ignoring the text of the article, redefining terms and logorrhea that you are going to prove your point. Every comment has a reply from you.

    This is not a public space and you do not have the right to dominate it with rude behavior. I am going to remove the argumentative and inappropriate comments from this comment stream. This is only the third time in the history of this blog I have had to do this.

    If you wish to make a further comment on the text of the article, please make one comment at the bottom of the post and confine all your argumentation to that comment thread.

    In that comment, A) you should explicitly define your claims, B) make argumentation to support those claims, and C) ask questions of the claims other people are making.

    You should not engage in debate which contains logical fallacies. These include, but are not limited to:

    argumentum ad nauseam,(responding to every comment in the thread)
    onus probandi, (Making claims without proof, and then claiming that it is my burden to disprove your claims. My sources are in the article.)
    Equivocation (misusing 'railroading' by applying your own definition rather than the one in the article)
    Ad hominem (proscribing derisive personal motivation to commenters)
    and Strawmen, (arguments that misrepresent the argumentation of those people you are commenting against.)

    These are not the only logical fallacies you've used, so please avoid them all and follow the rules posted above when commenting.

    I believe that there is something important to discuss about this issue, and I am willing to discuss it civilly.

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  14. It will take me some time to parse the argument; when I do so, I will place my reply on my own blog. With your kind permission, I will include a link here if anyone is interested.

    I do note, and hope your readers do likewise, that your charge of "Equivocation (misusing 'railroading' by applying your own definition rather than the one in the article)" at the very least requires that one first accept your definition, and therefore buy into the premise of your post.

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    1. http://ravencrowking.blogspot.ca/2013/02/on-theory-redefined-railroad-part-i.html

      Per -C's request, I am done here; I will be happy to respond to comments there.

      Delete
  15. Two additional examples: Let's imagine there is a rules loophole that allow a character to, let's say, teleport to any part of the world. The GM "designs" a home rule that closes that loophole. Is it railroaling? The player experiments a feeling of "depowering" an action in a virtual world regarding their intention, so, under your definition it is a Railroad.
    Let's take another example: the characters founds a forcewall in a dungeon. The GM can think a lot of doable ways to bypass the wall; the players are not so rules-savvy, and can't think of any way to bypass it. The GM feels like an obstacle, a stage of a narrative pathos. The players feels it like a railroad, an obtrusive detail in the story that triggers a feeling of depowerment. Since your definition of agency are player-biased, they are right: it is a railroad, and not an obstacle.
    I apologize for my faulty English.

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  16. Again, your English is fine.

    These are both excellent examples.

    I do not have enough information about the first to address it. Did the DM announce this house rule before the players began? Did he implement it secretly without telling anyone, letting the player believe the spell worked as the rules said it does?

    As to the second, you are correct. Because agency is a Player-biased one they feel the depowerment in a situation where thy have actually not been depowered.

    The definition of agency was developed from the study of players in virtual computer worlds where the computer acted as DM. Because you are specifically discussing tabletop play, that role falls to a human being.

    There are numerous techniques the human running the game can use to insure that the players feel that they have agency when they really do (as well as avoiding situations to make them feel as if they have agency when they really don't (e.g. The Quantum Ogre). Those techniques are outside the scope of this disscussion, but I talk about them frequently on my blog.

    For instance, if an adventure has a special restriction (anti-magic field, etc.) I would explicitly say, "this wizard uses anti-magic fields as a defense, but they are legitimate elements within the world itself and work via these defined rules." and then I would do things like explain how to detect them, what produces them, and how they work. Then the players always feel like they can take action with reasonable intent.

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