Schrodinger’s Railroad

There is a recurring sentiment in gaming culture I find fascinating, since it seems an utter paradox. Here’s a recent and clear assertion of it:

Railroading is forcing players down a narrative route . If the players think it’s their decision, they’re not being forced. Agency is in the mind of the player; they can feel they have it when they don’t and they’ll be happy. But if they don’t feel they have any, even when they do, they’ll become disenfranchised.

A DM’s job is to make it so the players always feel like they have agency, to make them feel their characters are in danger. D&D is a game of illusions, and the DM is the man behind the curtain.

Original Comment

It is so odd. For example, how could players ever get disenfranchised? Consider the chronology of disenfranchisement

  1. The DM makes the players follow his decision
  2. The players feel it is their decision
  3. The players somehow begin to realise it is not their decision
  4. The players are disenfranchised

Okay, so if it is not railroading when the players feel it is their decision, how could players ever get to step 3 when by the logic of the quote in step 3 there is no railroading to detect?? Like Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead, somehow it is both railroading and not railroading at the same time?

Ultimately it’s probably pretty simple – the whole notion likely comes from the idea that the agency described is the best agency you can get. The idea being the best agency you can get is one where the GM is making the decisions – the only thing to consider is if the players have their nose rubbed in it that the GM makes the decisions or they are relatively witless that he makes the decisions.

The idea of an agency where the players actually make the decisions – it’d probably sound ludicrous to anyone who has advocated the quote for a long time.

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Nearly completed ‘The Blasting Diamond’

It’s been interesting to convert GM advice into an actual adventure – instead of arguing against, for example, ‘you have to do the adventure’ thinking by GMs, actually writing an adventure area that supports PCs that don’t get ‘hooked’ but actually do what their character wants to do.

And calling it an ‘Adventure area’ rather than just ‘an adventure’ is even a result of turning GM advice into material. You don’t ‘have adventures’, you engage with an area of an imaginary world. What is an adventure is something that is seen in retrospect, like a story generated at the table. You don’t decide to have an adventure, you just engage in things that in retrospect was an adventure. And areas of imaginary world can be seeded to more likely trigger an actual adventure to occur.

Quantum Ogre: Redemption

Man, I thought I could find the original of this with a quick google, but it seems only refutations abound!

Okay, in short, the original problem was that you’re at a fork in the road. If you go left, the GM makes an ogre pop out. If you go right, the GM makes an ogre pop out.

The problem – well, it’s curious – I think the problem should be obvious. And I’m tempted to link a controversial forge post as a suggestion as to why some/many(?) don’t see it as a problem (or so google makes it seem).

Anyway, at that point you’re being played for a fool by the person who is GM, who probably has a Gordian knot of control issues about story, his own artistic agency and his perceived responsibilities and with that responsibility, sense of his own scope of control (yeah, I know I mentioned control already – I said it was a Gordian knot!). Of course peeps refute that it’s a problem because when you think when option A is having quantum ogres and option B is having a game that doesn’t work at all, of course you refute that A is a problem. Of course it seems like B is the only alternative, because the GMs in question perceive that anything else gets in the way of them telling a good story – ie, gets in the way of their creative agency. Yeah, again, I know, I mentioned GM agency already! I said it was a Gordian knot – it’s like the idea of ‘elephants all the way down’, but here it’s like there’s a responsibility to the players, which rests on top of the GM getting to tell a good story, which rests on top of B: not having a game at all, and you know why we can’t have that game…well, it’s because of the responsibility to the players, so B sits on top of responsibility, and responsibility sits on top of the GM telling a good story, which sits on top of ‘B’…and haven’t we been here before? How can everything be resting on everything else?? Elephants. All the way down!

What makes it more curious is that I think it doesn’t take much to redeem it – for example, if you went right and there’s an ogre there and if you went left there’s an ogre there, but he has no armour (or has more armour – I can’t remember if they wear any now, TBH!). Now ideally there would be a hint as to what you’ll get either way – if the left has a sign pointing to the ogre baths, maybe that’s a hint an ogre is there and has taken his Armour off to have a mud bath.

But even if there is no hint and it’s a blind choice, at least the choice is a randomiser and the results of either direction will be different from each other. Player input actually decides (part of) the story generated at the table on game night! Who’d a thunk it?

I guess though that such a difference could very well get in the way of ‘GM creative agency for telling a good story’. And then it’s sucked back into the knot from above.

Stories in Novels Vs Difficulty curves in games (and idiot RPG authors who say you can do the former)

I wrote this recently as a comment on reddit and it warrants it’s own place rather than being buried amidst a pile of comments.

The situation was the GM had a group of ‘bandits’ (actually a political faction causing trouble under the guise of bandits) . The players run right into the group and get defeated, one captured the others escaping. The players weren’t happy. And here is my reply to this:

The problem is in Venn diagram terms, what the players find fun is one circle and what you presented is another circle – they really didn’t overlap.

Imagine you’d done this instead – they ran into outlier camps of the bandits, who are in small groups that are more balanced to the PCs and wont be calling the main group. The players would win the battle – which they were looking for at least once otherwise they feel their new PCs are chumps.

Further imagine you make larger and larger groups, with an increasing chance of calling the next group along.

The players would encounter tougher and tougher resistance until they question whether they can take the next group. Maybe they should see if anyone in town can help – sellswords, for example? Exactly as it turned out, but with players being happy about it.

This is a smooth difficulty curve, rising from low to challenging. What you had was a difficulty spike – nobody can really handle that and enjoy it, precisely because it’s too realistic – if realism was fun, why are we playing fantasy rather than being out in the real world?

That said, the author of the books give the impression you could run the game exactly as you did (or so I guess – most RPGs do). And the authors are idiots for it. You were told what you did would work but you were told something that does not work because it’s not actually compatible with human psychology.

So many new gamer’s try to use the aspiring novel writer method of designing games – but it doesn’t work, because as a novel writer you can screw your characters over royally and no one bitches about it. What you did would work as a novel. As a game it doesn’t work. But you were given bad advice, so it’s not your fault.

 

Have a plot but you hate having passive players?

I’m posted this recently: I’d like to explain that having plots makes players passive lumps. Why is that? Because if a player ever goes to do something that would screw the plot up, the GM does one or both of the following A: Subtley or obviously chastises the player or B: Makes events stop the player from doing the action.

The thing is, the player is never sure what action will cause the plot to break. So what’s the best solution for the player if they don’t want the plot to break and to suffer A or B? Well….do nothing. Be a passive lump. That way you can’t break the GMs precious plot.

GMs who use plot but loathe passive players are their own worst enemy.

Let Slip the GMs of War!

So the thought exercise is this: each player would take a slip of paper from a container without looking. Then they can look at the slip and hide it under something in front of them.

One of the slips says they are also a GM at the table! Lets say the number of slips of paper are equal to three times the number of players – so there’s about a one in three chance of a player being a secret GM – because they do not declare they are a GM. They sit quietly, as if just a regular player.

The point is, though, that the GM cannot try to just ‘run a story’, because if the ‘player’ who is actually their co-GM decides to reveal themselves, they can act like a GM just as much. And if the second GM tried to ‘run a story’, how would that work when it’s not the same story??

It wouldn’t. And that’s the point of this thought exercise – to show how each player is already like a mini GM, because they control one ‘NPC’ each. And you can change a lot of setting with one (N)PC – and more to the point, the player can attempt to run a story.

How will that work out? Well players already play their characters with the expectation that like in real life things don’t always go your way, it wont always go their way for what they do with their character/what they do with the story they run. This leaves players fairly flexible in regards to all of them running their own stories around each other.

Again, that’s the point of the exercise – it shows up whether a GM could handle there being another GM/is flexible like a player. The randomness of the slips would mean you can’t be sure there is another GM but you also can’t be sure there isn’t. You would have to bring together game world elements, but you couldn’t be sure you could just try and run ‘your story’.

What if the Main Quest became a Side Quest?

What if? Here we’re talking about the idea of playing in a sandbox or something like that. But maybe you’ve brought a Main Quest in…anyway?

But say in video games like the elder scrolls series, some people play them and never engage the ‘Main Quest’. They play, do the things they want to do – and those things they do are, by dint of the player just wanting to do those things, the Main Quest! Then they stop playing or they stop playing that character and start the game again with a new character, happy either way. And whatever was the Main Quest as intended by the designers becomes a side quest. And more than that – a side quest never done!

Could players take over the steering wheel on what is important?

But you made it about saving the world, didn’t you? So they can’t just ignore your Main Quest, for if they do, the world blows up and destroys everything they did – ie, it destroys everything they found important. So it’s just a waiting game – the players can mess around with their Side Quests for ages – but they have to get to your Main Quest eventually, or doom all their side quest accomplishments to destruction. The steering wheel is firmly in your hands. It’ll just be awhile before you can turn it.

Or what if we avoided ‘save the world’? And a campaign finishes on what the players found it important for their PC’s to have completed or attempted to have completed?

But what do players find important for their PCs to complete? Do the PCs have any goals the player has made up for them?