Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Criminal RPG Activity Chapbook: Railroading

Pictured: A Criminal
 Naturally, we all hate railroading, as all good people do. Railroading is the act of a criminal...a scofflaw...a bandit...a Vampire player! But what exactly are the elements of railroading? Consider this helpful casebook as a place to begin discussion on this important subject.

I.  The Tourists of Innsmouth

The group is playing an occult adventure game. Clues point the group towards Uncle Steve's haunted mansion full of ghosts and trickery.  The group has stated that they will go to Uncle Steve's haunted mansion but they get sidetracked trying to track down every last piece of information in the quiet seaside town where Uncle Steve lives.  They're not just going to the library and looking up old books, they're interviewing people about the architect, visiting the grave of the former housekeeper, questioning the gardener's brother-in-law, getting bogged down and turned around with every new piece of information.  

Although nobody says "we now go to the mansion", during a lull, when everyone is frustrated and exhausted from running around town and chasing down essentially worthless leads, the GM says, "Great. You are all now at the gates of Uncle Steve's haunted mansion of ghosts and trickery."

A. What degree of railroading has the GM committed?

        1.  Felony railroading.  The whole point of an occult adventure is to conduct an investigation; indeed, traditionally, charging in without investigating is disfavored.  Having invited the group to do an investigation the GM cannot step in if it goes a different length of time than the players propose. They may advance threats if there is time pressure (the Boss Ghost completes their ritual and becomes a Super Boss Ghost, for example.) But they may not determine the group's next step.  Punishment: being subtweeted by an account with 100K+ followers.

        2. Misdemeanor railroading.  While the GM's actions are improper, they're excusable since the players expressed the desire to go to Uncle Steve's house before.  Arguably the GM is just moving them to a place they already determined they want to go, assisting them since they were getting bogged down. Punishment: Three minute at-table argument the first time there's a surprise in the house. "But before we came to the house, I would have..."

        3. It isn't railroading.  The GM is just getting the players past a part that is unnecessary and visibly frustrating.  They're helping the game, not hurting it.  Since the players are happy, no railroading has occurred.

B.  Questions for discussion:

        1.  Does it matter that the players said they wanted to go to Uncle Steve's haunted mansion?  Would your answer change if the players said "We need to chase down every lead in town before we go up there!"  Would your answer change if the players never announced their future plans, only their immediate actions?

        2. Does it matter what's printed in the rulebook?  If the rulebook says that the GM should do this, in a section easily accessible to the players and described as good play of the game, does that make the GM's crime more or less severe?

        3.  Does it matter that the players were getting visibly frustrated and stuck?  If they were enjoying themselves roaming all over the creepy seaside town questioning the milkman and Steve's ex-boyfriend, does that make the GM's crime more severe?  If the players seemed to be getting visibly frustrated and stuck but were actually just roleplaying and were secretly enjoying themselves greatly, does that make the GM's crime more severe or less?

II.  Superhero Showdown

The group is playing a superhero game, taking on a powerful supervillain.  In their initial confrontation with the villain, they stop his evil plan and are closing in.  But then....

A. Which of these situations is railroading and, for those that are railroading, would you classify them as felony or misdemeanor railroading?

        1.,  The game is Champions.  It's a module.  The GM consults the module, which says "the villain must escape the heroes here in Act I, so that he may be defeated in Act III.  Introduce new threats or distractions to make this happen."  The GM follows the instructions in the module and introduces new goons into the situation. In the crossfire the villain escapes.

                    1A.  The players know about the text in the module.

                    1B.  The players do not know about the text in the module.

                    1C.  There is actually no such text in the module but the GM feels, correctly, that it will make for a better final confrontation for the desires of this group.

                    1D.  As in 1C, but the GM's belief is incorrect.

        2.  The game is Mutants & Masterminds.  The GM consults the rules, which say "you may spend a Villain Point to have the villain reveal a sudden escape route or distraction that allows them to disappear."  The GM spends the villain point and introduces a distraction that allows the villain to escape.  The rule is knowable by the players although there's no reason for them to know it since player characters can't have Villain Points

                    2A.  While doing so, the GM smirks in a superior fashion and brags that their villain has a Villain Point which allows them to escape.

                    2B.  While doing so, the GM loudly curses that she's being forced to use a Villain Point to let the villain escape, shaking her head and scribbling furious notes.

        3. The game is Masks.  The GM consults the villain's Moves, which include (among many other options) "teleport away while taunting the players".  The next time a player misses a roll, they choose that Move even though other options exist.

                    3A. The players know this is a move.

                    3B.  The players don't know this is a move.

                    3C.  The players don't know this is a move for this particular villain but know that moves like this exist.

B.  Removing the system momentarily from the picture, imagine that the GM advice suggests having powerful villains enter scenarios with escape plans and gives advice on how to make that happen, and the GM, within the systemic confines of that system, constructs villains to do exactly that.  Contrast the GM advice to the approach of the Villain Points or the module text in 1 and 2 above.  Are any of these more or less legitimate?  Why?

III.  The Inverse Chandler Move

The game is a pulp adventure game.  The players are trying to solve a mystery. They can't, they missed or misinterpreted a clue.  The book says "under these circumstances, have a NPC show up and just tell them the next part of what's going on."  The GM decides not to do that.

A.  Is this railroading? 

            1. Yes. The players have the right to expect that the GM will help them over this bump because the designer says that's how it's supposed to go.  The GM is improperly exerting force over the game world, to the negative of the enjoyment of the players.  That's railroading.

            2. No.  Railroading can only happen by action, not through inaction.  It's the players that have messed up their game.  The GM isn't there to rescue them from the consequences of their own actions.

IV.  The Collapse of the Quantum Ogre

Of course we are all familiar with the heinous quantum ogre crime.  In this scenario, a group of players have the choice to leave town in a fantasy adventure game by the east road or the west road. The GM has an encounter with an ogre prepared for the west road.  But when the players choose to leave town by the east road the GM has the ogre attack occur anyway. Whichever direction the players choose, the GM puts the ogre there.  Now we all know this is a serious railroading crime for which the GM must be punished by no fewer than 10,000 words being written about them on OSR blogs over no fewer than three months.  However....

A.  Do any of the following circumstances make the crime more serious, less serious, or even fully justify the crime?

            1.  A statement from the accused: "Just because the players don't immediately see the reason for something doesn't mean the reason doesn't exist.  And consequently, I have great leeway over events that may seem inexplicable or even suspicious.  Perhaps a wizard sent the ogre to ambush them after seeing them from afar.  The whole inquiry into why the ogre was where it was should only be conducted in the fiction. The game even says I'm not supposed to let the players look at my notes!  Nor is it proper for you, an investigator from the State Commission on GMing, to look at them.  The reason the game says to keep my notes confidential is to preserve my freedom to act in just these types of circumstances. My prep is not the authority of what happens in the game.  The words spoken at the table by me and the other players are the authority.  Why do you elevate what I wrote last week over what I decided at the table when I myself won't accord it that level of power?  If the characters investigate the ambush they will find why the ogre attach took place on the east road.  If they don't they won't. The whole inquiry is improper!"

             2.  A statement from the accused: "Among my many roles in a fantasy story is that of Fate. Fate exists in this game world!  If the player characters become powerful enough they can go and meet her.  The skeins and threads of fate coil tightly around player characters.  You are acting like my job is to be a computer running a program. A highly modernistic kind of thinking.  Scientific, you might even call it.  But this is a fantasy world.  The gods exist in this world!  You can even look them up, they're in the player's guide and in the GM's guide.  Oedipus could not avoid his fate by taking the east road instead of the west road.  It's wrong to treat a fantasy game like the gods don't exist, or that they're as hands-off as the Christian God seems to be in modern America.  Yet that's the kind of world you're imposing on my table with this judgment! Yes, certain events are fated to occur to the player characters. That's what being fantasy heroes is all about!"

            3.  A statement from the players: "We jointly suggest that we bear some responsibility for this ogre being on the east road when we chose to leave the city to the east.  During our break we had emphasized that our overland travel had been far too safe and implored the GM to increase the difficulty of it.  And that ogre ambush was the highlight of the night!  We thoroughly enjoyed it.  If it wasn't for the State Commission's audit of the GM's notes we never even would have known that she had previously written that the ogre ambush was on the west road.  She moved it to the east road for us to have a good time, and we did.  Surely that can't be railroading, right?  We might not have asked for it by name but we certainly wanted something like it!  If we hadn't had the ogre ambush - or something like it - we would have had a bad time."

            4.  A statement from the accused: "Before the game, I told the players I would improvise encounters based on what I thought would be the most fun.  I was devastated to see the looks of frustration and dissatisfaction on their faces when I described the ogre attack. However, you can't say this is a railroad! This is nothing more than a simple miscalculation on my part of what would be the most fun in that moment. I suggest that at most this might be an act of negligence or even simple innocent mistake on my part, not an intentional crime.  They knew I might do something like this - the fact that they didn't like when I actually did it is not an indictment of the exercise of power itself, but the specific decisions I made with it."

B.   If a particular table treats a proposed decision-making process for the placement of monsters as legitimate, is there an artistic basis to object to particular processes even independent of the enjoyment or assent of the players participating?  In other words, even if you concede that a table might be fine with the quantum ogre appearing, is there a basis for urging that it's improper anyway?  Answer first from the standpoint of  a designer attempting to impose their own processes on the table, and then from the standpoint of a non-designer.