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RPG» Forums » General Discussion » Game Masters

Subject: Behind the Screen #43: To the Untrained Eye, this looks like Railroading! rss

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Jamie Hardy
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StormKnight wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:

The argument between you and aramis is not a semantic one. That is what I am trying to illustrate. That point is illustrated exactly by you saying that if you did not discover the door was locked, that it would not make a difference.

It is entirely semantics. We are trying to discuss "railroading", but that is not a precisely defined term. And I define "railroading" as a term with a negative connotation used to describe a very specific GM action. Aramis does not have the same definition, and I gather you have yet a different definition.

Which makes it all very difficult to discuss "railroading" - we just aren't all talking about the same thing!

Perhaps a conversation can be more constructive by narrowing in on specific points and details?


Actually we are the ones having a semantic dispute, specifically over what it means to have a semantic dispute.

1. People often say they have a semantic dispute to mean that they are in conceptual agreement, but are arguing over terminology, i.e. what to call something.

2. Other people use semantic dispute to mean that they are disagreeing over the concept. They are arguing over what the word does mean, e.g. what does railroading mean.

In the majority of cases I encounter, people usually use 1. It is a quibble over what word should be used. Given that you interjected a different word and said semantic dispute, I went to the conclusion that you were using 1.

I was trying to illustrate that it was actually a conceptual dispute. Something you were actually in agreement with because you were using something closer to 2.

So, my claim that there was not a semantic dispute between you two was prefaced on an equivocation over semantic dispute. Or perhaps a semantic dispute over semantic dispute.
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M. B. Downey
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I’m just going to railroad this discussion away from the semantics of semantics and back to railroading.
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Hans Messersmith
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SteamCraft wrote:
Fundamentally the issue is whether the possibility of making a difference or not matters for railroading or not. Aramis is making the point that because there is no possibility of deviating on a single path dungeon that it counts as a railroad. The reason being that the PCs/players are not in a position to deviate. You are saying the situation does not constitute railroading. Presumably because being able to deviate from the path is not necessary for something to not be a railroad.
I feel like this comment misses something.

Consider a linear dungeon:

O-O-O-O-O

Five rooms in a row. Some features of this dungeon:

* The moment you walk in the front door, it locks with impenetrable locks of unbreakable, unfathomable power. There is no way to leave the way you came in.
* The only way out is through the big bad monster on the far side.
* Each room is a rich tactical environment, with interesting terrain that requires careful thought, interesting oppponents that require careful and considered tactics, and may be amenable to conversation, trickery, and other kinds of stealth and flim-flam tactics. There is no clear "right" solution for each room to get through it.
* the means you pass through a room have a direct effect on what happens in the next room. These five rooms have rich interactions with each other.

My question is this: do the players have any meaningful choices to make in this scenario?

I really think this is the key element in all of these conversations that go round and round about railroading.

I would answer yes, and I think Brian and M.B. Downey and Michael would as well. There are all kinds of meaningful choices to be made in that scenario. It is not, by definition, a railroad. It would only be a railroad if, within the given scope of those five rooms connected by corridors, the GM then arbitrarily kept the players from pursuing a course of action. For example, the players come up with a very clever way to sneak through one of the rooms without any fight happening, and steal the treasure along the way! The GM thinks "can't let that happen" and contrives some obvious excuse to prevent it. By obvious, I mean nearly every player at the table groans and says "good lord, what a railroad."

However, I suspect that William, and maybe Jamie, would answer no. There are no meaningful choices in that scenario. The fact that the players cannot leave the dungeon the way they came in and have no choice to push through to the other side precludes any possibility of meaningful choice, because they cannot affect the plot of the game. The plot being "this is a story about some people who get trapped in dungeon and have no choice but to figure out a way through it to be free." Jamie talked about it as "deviating from the path"; the very fact that there is a path (the five rooms) and one cannot but follow the path means the choices are not meaningful. To take that a step further, its a railroad because the players were deprived of their meaningful choice the moment they sat down to play, whether they knew it or not.

William pretty much gave his answer, I think, to my question up above when he said:
aramis wrote:
A cage, no matter how comfy, is still a cage.

To tie this back in to Jamie's locked room example, I think it matters...

* how big the room is
* how much incredibly interesting stuff there is in the room
* and how many interesting people are in the room with me.

That is, there is a point where the cage is big enough and interesting enough and wonderful enough to stop counting as a cage and to start counting as a world. In real life, I accept that threshold involves a lot of physical space, maybe the size of a world. The Earth could be considered a very large cage that none of us asked to be in and none of us can leave.

But in RPGs, the world could be pretty small and still be an interesting world. It could even just be five rooms in a row.
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Yes the players have meaningful choices. Excellent scenario and presentation.
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Roger Hobden
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skalchemist wrote:


all of these conversations that go round and round about railroading.







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skalchemist wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
Fundamentally the issue is whether the possibility of making a difference or not matters for railroading or not. Aramis is making the point that because there is no possibility of deviating on a single path dungeon that it counts as a railroad. The reason being that the PCs/players are not in a position to deviate. You are saying the situation does not constitute railroading. Presumably because being able to deviate from the path is not necessary for something to not be a railroad.
I feel like this comment misses something.

Consider a linear dungeon:

O-O-O-O-O

Five rooms in a row. Some features of this dungeon:

* The moment you walk in the front door, it locks with impenetrable locks of unbreakable, unfathomable power. There is no way to leave the way you came in.
* The only way out is through the big bad monster on the far side.
* Each room is a rich tactical environment, with interesting terrain that requires careful thought, interesting oppponents that require careful and considered tactics, and may be amenable to conversation, trickery, and other kinds of stealth and flim-flam tactics. There is no clear "right" solution for each room to get through it.
* the means you pass through a room have a direct effect on what happens in the next room. These five rooms have rich interactions with each other.

My question is this: do the players have any meaningful choices to make in this scenario?

I really think this is the key element in all of these conversations that go round and round about railroading.

I would answer yes, and I think Brian and M.B. Downey and Michael would as well. There are all kinds of meaningful choices to be made in that scenario. It is not, by definition, a railroad. It would only be a railroad if, within the given scope of those five rooms connected by corridors, the GM then arbitrarily kept the players from pursuing a course of action. For example, the players come up with a very clever way to sneak through one of the rooms without any fight happening, and steal the treasure along the way! The GM thinks "can't let that happen" and contrives some obvious excuse to prevent it. By obvious, I mean nearly every player at the table groans and says "good lord, what a railroad."

However, I suspect that William, and maybe Jamie, would answer no. There are no meaningful choices in that scenario. The fact that the players cannot leave the dungeon the way they came in and have no choice to push through to the other side precludes any possibility of meaningful choice, because they cannot affect the plot of the game. The plot being "this is a story about some people who get trapped in dungeon and have no choice but to figure out a way through it to be free." Jamie talked about it as "deviating from the path"; the very fact that there is a path (the five rooms) and one cannot but follow the path means the choices are not meaningful. To take that a step further, its a railroad because the players were deprived of their meaningful choice the moment they sat down to play, whether they knew it or not.
Actually, Hans, the example dungeon is a railroad not due to lack of meaningful choice in the combat... but because no matter the character state, the next encounter is unchanged and predetermined.

Railroads are about player agency and the plot. The more player agency to affect the plot, the less railroad.

Combats are not the plot. They're parts of it.

Noting that characters in, say, D&D have only two major meaningful state elements unless they're casters: Damage per round, and hit points. Casters add slots.

In that linear dungeon, they don't affect the plot by their choices, but do affect the character state(s) somewhat, so the choices in combat are meaningful to a degree.

But if we switch to vanilla T&T, instead, unless the GM allows stupid PC tricks, only spellcasters and ranged fighters have meaningful choices to make.

I think an example may be helpful. Fred and George are our PC's... Each does 1 hit per round, and each can take 10 hits. THey face goblins A, B, C, and D. Goblins do 1 each, and can take 2. Lets also assume simultaneous attacks (for simplicity).
If they pick separate targets, F's is meaningless, and G's almost so. To 'splain...
R1: F&G decide to hit the same target, A; AB hit F, cd hit G. A dies. Both PC's down to 8
R2: B is their next target. B hits F, CD hit G. B drops; F is down to 7, G to 6
R3: C targets F, D targets G; F&G hit C. C dies, F is down to 6, G to 5
R4: D targets G; the boys target D. D dies, G is down to 5.

Running it again, but with the boys picking separate targets
R1:F vs A, G vs C, C&D vs G, A&B vs F
a=1 b=2 c=1 d=2, f=8, g=8
R2: F vs A, G vs C, C&D vs G, A&B vs F
a=0 b=2 c=0 d=2, f=6, g=6
R3: F vs B, G vs D, b vs F, D vs G
a=0 b=1 c=0 d=1, f=5, g=5
R4: F vs B, D vs G, G vs D, B vs F
a=0 b=0 c=0 d=0, f=4, g=4.

So which target they start with is not meaningful. Whether they gang up or not is.

If they get ot heal before room 2, only combat expendables matter.

Either way, whatever is behind the door is the same, either way.

The choices in the room are meaningless to the plot unless they deprive the party of some resource needed later.


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Michael Daumen
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Maybe the issue is not the definition of "railroad" but of "plot" - which I call whatever the players decide their characters are doing. I understand William's point that in a linear dungeon, it makes a lot of narrative sense to assume that the players will simply move forward. However, this fails to take into account a lot of things:

Why is the party in the dungeon? They could be hexcrawling, or questing for an object they believe is inside. Maybe they are pursuing a villain, or trying to escape from one, or trying to beat rivals somewhere. There may be few choices ahead of them simply because the previous choices they have made brought them to this bottleneck.

What's preventing the DM from noting how loud a combat is, to the extent that the inhabitants of the next room are now ready for what comes through the door? Your objection seems to rely on the fact that a GM is constrained to whatever is in the dungeon's description.

Finally, if your answer to what is railroading depends on the game system, I think that's a more mechanical problem than a narrative one.
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SteamCraft wrote:

I was trying to illustrate that it was actually a conceptual dispute. Something you were actually in agreement with because you were using something closer to 2.

I think so. I was saying "we are using the same term, but with such wildly different meanings we can't actually discuss it". Since the term isn't defined, it's not like either of us is right or wrong about it either.

downeymb wrote:
I’m just going to railroad this discussion away from the semantics of semantics and back to railroading.

Well, I think then you have to drop an immovable boulder behind us or send in level 500 capture bots or something.

skaalchemist wrote:
My question is this: do the players have any meaningful choices to make in this scenario?

I would say yes, absolutely.

I would say that in some systems, even in a series of straightforward combats the players would have meaningful choices; D&D 4e for example makes a lot of tactical positioning, when to use powers, how to combine abilities with teammates, which foe to go after, etc. Of course, those are meaningful choices on a purely gameplay level. But then, if we're playing something like D&D, that's exactly what I'd want anyway.

But what about the other stuff that's going on independent of the "adventure"? Sure, we're plowing through a linear set of encounters, but...

Grog has been trying futiley to flirt with Alan, to no avail so far. We he will finally manage to make his affections known in this dangerous time? How will Alan respond?

Avona the elf is already infuriated that their leader is a hot-headed human half her age. Now this leadership has gotten them trapped in a series of deadly trials. Does this push her over the edge to try to seize leadership herself?

When things get really bad, will Vaughn reveal his supernatural powers that mark him as a clan thought wiped out by the empire?

And you can have all that stuff no matter linear the scenario is.
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aramis wrote:
Actually, Hans, the example dungeon is a railroad not due to lack of meaningful choice in the combat... but because no matter the character state, the next encounter is unchanged and predetermined.


That is not what the premise said whatsoever:

skalchemist wrote:
* the means you pass through a room have a direct effect on what happens in the next room. These five rooms have rich interactions with each other.
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aramis wrote:
Actually, Hans, the example dungeon is a railroad not due to lack of meaningful choice in the combat... but because no matter the character state, the next encounter is unchanged and predetermined.

Railroads are about player agency and the plot. The more player agency to affect the plot, the less railroad.

Combats are not the plot. They're parts of it.

*snip*

Either way, whatever is behind the door is the same, either way.

The choices in the room are meaningless to the plot unless they deprive the party of some resource needed later.
I tried to make clear in my example that in fact the encounters in the follow-on rooms were not fixed, but contingent on what happens in previous rooms, but I don't think that would have changed your response much.

I find your response very helpful, William. I think it clarifies the exact difference in our thinking...

William - Railroad = players can make no meaningful choices with respect to the plot, and combat (or, I hypothesize other types of interaction such as how a trap is solved, or how a particular negotiation is resolved) is never deterministic of plot. A linear scenario is, by this definition, a railroad.

Hans - Railroad = players can't make a meaningful choice within the scope of things they have agreed are meaningful choices. In a highly linear scenario, this means that plot is "off the table", but that's ok, still no railroad as long as they can make meaningful choices within that scope.

This is the core definition difference. It needs no resolution, its just a difference, and neither of us are the authorities that get to decide such things, nor are we required to accept the other's definition. I'm fine to live with it, and happy to have understood the difference clearly.

In future, when I'm talking about something and you say "X is a railroad", I will remember this conversation, and remember that you mean something different than I would when you say that, and we can skip over all this definition discussion.
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committed hero wrote:
Maybe the issue is not the definition of "railroad" but of "plot" - which I call whatever the players decide their characters are doing. I understand William's point that in a linear dungeon, it makes a lot of narrative sense to assume that the players will simply move forward. However, this fails to take into account a lot of things:

Why is the party in the dungeon? They could be hexcrawling, or questing for an object they believe is inside. Maybe they are pursuing a villain, or trying to escape from one, or trying to beat rivals somewhere. There may be few choices ahead of them simply because the previous choices they have made brought them to this bottleneck.

What's preventing the DM from noting how loud a combat is, to the extent that the inhabitants of the next room are now ready for what comes through the door? Your objection seems to rely on the fact that a GM is constrained to whatever is in the dungeon's description.

Finally, if your answer to what is railroading depends on the game system, I think that's a more mechanical problem than a narrative one.


Yes to all of that. Why they are there and what abilities they have is completely relevant.

If they are just trapped there and all they want to do is get out, then any sufficiently high level party can just teleport/tunnel their way out. If the GM heard that and said "uhhhhhhhh....teleport magic doesn't work, because of the, uh, magic nature of the rock? Yeah! And it also prevents the rock walls from being damaged in any way, so no tunneling!" then everyone would say RAILROAD.

I think Michael is right: I guess we need a definition of "plot" now.
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skalchemist wrote:
Hans - Railroad = players can't make a meaningful choice within the scope of things they have agreed are meaningful choices.


I mostly agree with this, but I don't know if we've settled the "you are railroaded but don't realize it" argument, aka the quantum ogre or the GM accurately predicting and anticipating all of the players' responses - obviously this is a theoretical exercise, because we all know that last one is impossible!
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downeymb wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
Hans - Railroad = players can't make a meaningful choice within the scope of things they have agreed are meaningful choices.


I mostly agree with this, but I don't know if we've settled the "you are railroaded but don't realize it" argument, aka the quantum ogre or the GM accurately predicting and anticipating all of the players' responses - obviously this is a theoretical exercise, because we all know that last one is impossible!


Well, aside from it being completely irrelevant since the players never actually know about it, I think you've got a couple of different variants of this:

1) The GM present something as a choice, but the choice is meaningless; ie, the PCs decide which road to go but meet the same encounter on both (and the encounter is NOT, say, something pursuing them that makes sense to meet them either way). I'd consider this harmless but mostly pointless. It also may not apply if there are other differences to the route. Might break down into two sub-categories:
a) The event/encounter is logical and reasonable in both cases - well, then, what does it matter?
b) The event/encounter does not make sense in both cases, and you hit the one where it does not - this sounds problematic.

2) The GM only plans the most likely route, but is willing to wing it if the PCs go off course. I don't see how this is a problem, unless the GM is really bad at winging it.

3) The GM only plans the most likely route, and will have a problem if the PCs go off course. However, since this is the 'quantum ogre' problem, it doesn't matter since the PCs DIDN'T go off course. I think if the GM isn't prepared to handle a reasonable off-course, there's a potential problem. But I don't think the GM is under any sort of obligation to run a game for every situation either.

If the GM was prepared for Batman and Robin PCs to go fight Riddler when he tries to rob the Acme museum, and they try to track him down before the robbery and the GM can't handle that, that's a big potential railroading problem.

If the GM was prepared for Batman and Robin PCs to go fight Riddler when he tries to rob the Acme museum, and they say "Meh, who cares about stopping villains? Let's find something different to do", you don't have a railroading problem - you have mismatched expectations that you need to work out out-of-game.
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downeymb wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
Hans - Railroad = players can't make a meaningful choice within the scope of things they have agreed are meaningful choices.


I mostly agree with this, but I don't know if we've settled the "you are railroaded but don't realize it" argument, aka the quantum ogre or the GM accurately predicting and anticipating all of the players' responses - obviously this is a theoretical exercise, because we all know that last one is impossible!
I think I agree with everything Brian just said in the post immediately above this one.

In addition, the way I view the "railroad and don't realize it issue" is this. If a GM makes a player's choice that should be meaningful (per what has been agreed or could be considered appropriate) in the game meaningless but the player's have no idea it happened, I wouldn't call it railroading yet, because to my mind railroading always involves the negative reaction. That being said, I think it is problematic and potentially down a bad path. However, what that means is highly context dependent on the play style, the agreements (formal, informal, and unspoken) about what counts as meaningful choice that have been made, and the moment it happens in the game.

Take the example of which road a group takes, and the GM puts the same encounter in front of the players regardless what they choose...

* If you are playing in a kind of hex-crawl playstyle, where the point of play is to explore the environment, find cool stuff, make decisions about which stuff to interact and which not to interact with, etc., then this is problematic. This type of play style needs choices about which road you take to meaningful, and the GM is violating the agreement by trivializing the choice.

* If you are playing in an action packed cinematic game of fantasy excitement, then this might not be problematic, and in fact might be exactly what the GM should do. In such a game, the choice of which road to take is a trivial bit of color to the overall scenario and point of play. The players might even EXPECT the GM to do such things, and be disappointed if they choose one road and nothing of any interest happened. You can argue that maybe the GM shouldn't have put the road in at all; I think that's a separate conversation about how to run such games.

Obviously there is a lot of space in, around and between those two examples. The key point is that the exact same action by a GM in identical fictional circumstances can be a bad idea and headed to railroad town OR exactly the right thing to do and not an issue at all depending on the type of game, the play style, and the group.
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downeymb wrote:
I think Michael is right: I guess we need a definition of "plot" now.


Quote:
Plot [plät] noun
A small piece of ground marked out for a purpose such as building or gardening.


Hmm. This just gets more and more confusing.
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skalchemist wrote:
Take the example of which road a group takes, and the GM puts the same encounter in front of the players regardless what they choose...

* If you are playing in a kind of hex-crawl playstyle, where the point of play is to explore the environment, find cool stuff, make decisions about which stuff to interact and which not to interact with, etc., then this is problematic. This type of play style needs choices about which road you take to meaningful, and the GM is violating the agreement by trivializing the choice.

* If you are playing in an action packed cinematic game of fantasy excitement, then this might not be problematic, and in fact might be exactly what the GM should do. In such a game, the choice of which road to take is a trivial bit of color to the overall scenario and point of play. The players might even EXPECT the GM to do such things, and be disappointed if they choose one road and nothing of any interest happened. You can argue that maybe the GM shouldn't have put the road in at all; I think that's a separate conversation about how to run such games.

Obviously there is a lot of space in, around and between those two examples. The key point is that the exact same action by a GM in identical fictional circumstances can be a bad idea and headed to railroad town OR exactly the right thing to do and not an issue at all depending on the type of game, the play style, and the group.


Here are some of my additional thoughts to supplement this excellent analysis:

1. How would the players exactly find out that their meeting was predestined? Either one finds a note written like an evil mastermind, or the GM gloats like an evil mastermind.

2. Presumably the GM thinks the encounter will be an interesting one.

3. The chance of meeting the ogre can be essentially random - which is the likely case for a hexcrawl. If the ogre is pursuing the party, than it might have made a skill roll to find them. Depending on what the players said they were doing to avoid just such an encounter, however, I can see the risk in the players think the meeting was inescapable.

4. What made the players pick one route over the other? Are they bound somewhere in particular - or have to get there by a certain time? Did one path have a sign saying "Danger: Ogre Infestation?"
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committed hero wrote:
Here are some of my additional thoughts to supplement this excellent analysis:

1. How would the players exactly find out that their meeting was predestined? Either one finds a note written like an evil mastermind, or the GM gloats like an evil mastermind.

2. Presumably the GM thinks the encounter will be an interesting one.

3. The chance of meeting the ogre can be essentially random - which is the likely case for a hexcrawl. If the ogre is pursuing the party, than it might have made a skill roll to find them. Depending on what the players said they were doing to avoid just such an encounter, however, I can see the risk in the players think the meeting was inescapable.

4. What made the players pick one route over the other? Are they bound somewhere in particular - or have to get there by a certain time? Did one path have a sign saying "Danger: Ogre Infestation?"


Some thoughts to your thoughts...

* I think its more common that people "piece it together" over time. You don't see the illusion the first time it happens, or even the fifth, its the regular pattern that begins to become apparent, and you think to yourself "wait a second...does anything i do even matter?!". OR, the GM gloats like an evil mastermind.

* Or, alternatively, a reasonable one. That is not contradictory to interesting, but as has been seen from Jamie's earlier comments, not every GM seeks "interesting" as the primary feature of their encounters, and people still enjoy themselves tremendously because in fact most of the reasonable encounters end up being interesting as well.

* I think random encounter generation is a mechanic that sidesteps this whole railroading conversation. Random encounter generation is a way to ensure that neither the GM nor the player has any idea what will happen. Its a scaling up of the uncertainty around to hit rolls and skill checks to the plot level. Random encounter generation doesn't guarantee "interesting", but used with fidelity it guarantees "no railroading" of the type that either William or I would consider railroading, I think.

* I think this might be related to the "distance" down the road to where the choice matters. If you put a road intersection into the game, and that road intersection says "Danger: Ogres, 3 miles" down one path, and down the other path it says "Casino and Liquor, three miles", then if the players opt for the gambling and booze and you still give them the ogres with no booze and gambling 3 miles down the road, you better have a very, very good explanation for it. That looks very much like denying them a meaningful choice.

On the other hand, if the two roads are identical in nearly every way, and the players have no way to differentiate them at all except that one way leads to the big city 100 miles away and the other leads to the beach 100 miles away, then I don't think it matters that much if you put the same ogre 3 miles down the road in either direction. The meaningful choice in this case is whether to go to the city or the beach, the ogre is just an obstacle on the way.

EDIT: As an aside, I think game designers and GM's that use random encounters a lot generally go out of their way to make sure any potential encounter is interesting and/or reasonable. That is why the GM and the players trust the random encounter mechanic. As soon as the random encounter mechanic starts delivering unreasonable and/or uninteresting results the GM will start finessing those results. That is NOT a problem! That's just a way to do prep on the fly; not sure what comes next, check the table, let that inspire you. That is cool! But it does mean the "railroading is impossible" feature of the mechanic goes away.
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skalchemist wrote:
* I think random encounter generation is a mechanic that sidesteps this whole railroading conversation. Random encounter generation is a way to ensure that neither the GM nor the player has any idea what will happen. Its a scaling up of the uncertainty around to hit rolls and skill checks to the plot level. Random encounter generation doesn't guarantee "interesting", but used with fidelity it guarantees "no railroading" of the type that either William or I would consider railroading, I think.

Does it avoid these definitions of railroading? If railroading is being defined as the players not having meaningful choices, if the players make a choice and what they meet is random, wasn't there choice meaningless?

On another level, a GM can have the players meet random stuff, but still railroad them with how the meetings work out. I had a GM for a while that was very fond of having us meet random stuff, but then railroading us into a fight no matter what we tried to do to avoid it. Can't flee. Can't talk. Can't fly over it. Always have to fight. (This GM lasted until he specifically criticized us for needing to learn to not always fight after trying multiple times to avoid that fight. That was just too much).
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StormKnight wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
* I think random encounter generation is a mechanic that sidesteps this whole railroading conversation. Random encounter generation is a way to ensure that neither the GM nor the player has any idea what will happen. Its a scaling up of the uncertainty around to hit rolls and skill checks to the plot level. Random encounter generation doesn't guarantee "interesting", but used with fidelity it guarantees "no railroading" of the type that either William or I would consider railroading, I think.

Does it avoid these definitions of railroading? If railroading is being defined as the players not having meaningful choices, if the players make a choice and what they meet is random, wasn't there choice meaningless?
This is a good question. First, I will say that Michael's original definition did not say railroad = no meaningful choice. His original definition was railroad = meaningful choice is intentionally denied. A game can be utterly meaningless and not be a railroad. For example:

Game 1) Players make some decision about where their characters will go and what they will do. Regardless of what the players choose, the GM rolls on Random Encounter Table 1. The encounter plays out. Players make another decision. Rinse and repeat.

Game 2) Players make some decision. GM goes through the several hundred random encounter tables divided by terrain, time of day, weather patterns, zodiacal sign, whether the players are going north or south, how many horses the players have, whatever and picks the correct table for the choice the players have made and the circumstances they are in. GM rolls on that specific table. The encounter plays out. Players make new decision. Rinse and repeat.

Most games that make heavy use of random tables are going to be somewhere between those two extremes, setting aside the role of GM judgement and prep.

The first example is essentially a meaningless game. But I would argue it cannot be a railroad, because nobody's choices are being intentionally denied. No one has any choices at all (at least at the plot level).

In the 2nd case, the GM is honoring the choices of the players in a way that ensures they will not be railroaded. There is no guarantee they will have fun, either, but who knows? Could be a riot. That is pretty much the essence of a lot of hex-crawl type games.

But you are very right to point out that railroading can still take place in a game that uses a lot random tables. Specifically it can happen with respect to things that aren't in the tables. As in your example, the GM makes you always fight everything. If there were some kind of "enemy disposition" table that determined randomly things like how aggressive the opponents were, how attentive they were, how distant they are from you when you encounter them, AND the GM used those tables with fidelity, then the kind of railroading you describe would also be impossible.
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skalchemist wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
* I think random encounter generation is a mechanic that sidesteps this whole railroading conversation. Random encounter generation is a way to ensure that neither the GM nor the player has any idea what will happen. Its a scaling up of the uncertainty around to hit rolls and skill checks to the plot level. Random encounter generation doesn't guarantee "interesting", but used with fidelity it guarantees "no railroading" of the type that either William or I would consider railroading, I think.

Does it avoid these definitions of railroading? If railroading is being defined as the players not having meaningful choices, if the players make a choice and what they meet is random, wasn't there choice meaningless?
This is a good question. First, I will say that Michael's original definition did not say railroad = no meaningful choice. His original definition was railroad = meaningful choice is intentionally denied.

See, too many definitions, since I was still discussing based on William's "no meaningful choice". I agree, intentionally denying a meaningful choice is different. Though I don't see much difference in practice between intentionally or randomly denying meaningful choice, especially if the players don't even know which it is.

Note that "what you meet" is almost NEVER going to be railroading by my definition, unless the PCs have a good reasonable expectation of being able to control what they meet.

Quote:
But you are very right to point out that railroading can still take place in a game that uses a lot random tables. Specifically it can happen with respect to things that aren't in the tables. As in your example, the GM makes you always fight everything. If there were some kind of "enemy disposition" table that determined randomly things like how aggressive the opponents were, how attentive they were, how distant they are from you when you encounter them, AND the GM used those tables with fidelity, then the kind of railroading you describe would also be impossible.

Well, a table can tell you that the enemy is far away, but the GM can declare that you still fail to escape from them. I mean, one of the railroading experiences I mentioned was: Player: "I carry her and we fly over them" GM: "No, your wings stop working and you land right in front and have to fight".
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StormKnight wrote:
I mean, one of the railroading experiences I mentioned was: Player: "I carry her and we fly over them" GM: "No, your wings stop working and you land right in front and have to fight".


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StormKnight wrote:

See, too many definitions, since I was still discussing based on William's "no meaningful choice". I agree, intentionally denying a meaningful choice is different. Though I don't see much difference in practice between intentionally or randomly denying meaningful choice, especially if the players don't even know which it is.


For the most part, I agree. Thing is, random encounters themselves may be meaningless plot-wise, the risk by route is a meaningful choice, if the players have (or can obtain) a reasonable assessment of the chances.

StormKnight wrote:
Note that "what you meet" is almost NEVER going to be railroading by my definition, unless the PCs have a good reasonable expectation of being able to control what they meet.


Control over what you meet is present in several games; most of these are more narrativist.

Burning Wheel and its relatives allow players to "circle up" encounters.

It is a very different thing when players can control the expected encounters.
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