By train, for a change

Posted on January 7, 2008

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It’s not something I usually write about*, but I read a few (older) posts by Thanuir about railroading, and I thought about commenting those posts.

I’m basically going to claim that 1) railroading is not (entirely) bad, 2) it happens in all games, and 3) it is not even a very good way of talking about the phenomenon, instead one should use the terms Montola uses. This is a warning, so that if you already agree and (or) know what I’m talking about, you can skip the rest.

First, I would tie railroading as generally understood to uses of power (whether ‘power’ is understood in Parsonsian, Foucaultian or general terms), basically persons restricting the choices of others. Because most games assume that there is a single person with more (diegetic, narrative and in most cases, social as well) power than the rest, he can restrict the choices of the others more than the others. Nobody sees this as a problem (or, if they do, they change the rules), and more importantly, see this as necessary for a successful game. (Notice that this is not a universal claim, but an observation on how most games work.)

Now, I would like to show how this use of power happens in all games, and how it is basically (like) railroading. Say you decide to play a game of fantasy, with orcs, elves and all that. Whether you decide this as a GM or through a consensus between all players, it does restrict the choices the players can make. One cannot choose to play a killer-cyborg from the future (and this is a good thing!), or at least, not if all players don’t agree that this is a that sort of a game. This is not usually seen as railroading, but as a normal restriction on game-style so that the game can begin at all.

What I am trying to do here is to point that games contain restrictive elements both before and after the game has begun. It is only after the game has begun (understood as the point when the actual role-playing has started) that these elements are seen as harmful and as an infringement on player autonomy – and called “railroading”. I see no reason why this is the case. Other players (usually, but not always, the GM) will restrict the choices that can be made all the time, within the limits set by their diegetic power. This is seen as “wrong” simply because the GM has more diegetic power than the players.

Now, if I were to think that railroading is always and universally wrong, I would now object, saying that it isn’t fun if the GM makes all the choices for the players. That’s true. But that is seeing the situation as simpler as it is. Usually, games are seen as either railroading or not railroading. Rather, I would claim that this is a four-dimensional continuum with no ends. All games have restrictive (or “integrative”, to use Montola’s terms) elements in varying amounts. Neither of the extremes are very fun to play. The other is something akin to a novel with several simultaneous readers, and the other seems like a surrealistic poem with colours eating time within three, with nobody knowing what is happening.

I understand how Thanuir would conclude that railroading is a bad thing, starting from the standpoint that role-play is about choices. I think choices are an important aspect in role-play, but choices aren’t interesting alone. The choices have to be meaningful, and that means that role-play is also about things, meanings, and (possibly) morals that those choices teach. Role-play is about things. I think the Jeepers have it right: you should always ask “What is this game about?”, and it should be about something interesting.

Now, what does this all mean? Well, first of all, if all games indeed contain restrictive elements in varying amounts, it can’t be all bad – although the games which contain too much of these aren’t necessarily very fun. But that is because they are not very good games, not because they are railroaded. I personally don’t mind travelling by train, if the scenery is good.

Second, if this is true, “railroading” isn’t a very useful term in describing this phenomenon. (Again, see what Montola writes.) I don’t see any trouble as using it as a shorthand for a known phenomenon (“That game was all railroads!”), but within role-play theory there could be better ways of analysing and writing about it.

* I simply don’t find the (post-)Forgean theory of role-play that interesting, although I acknowledge its usefulness.

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