On "Illusionism" (+)

Starfox

Adventurer
One question I have for the group is: What are people's thought on the interaction between buying into a premise and railroading/illusionism?

A: If I start a one-shot with the premise "you are all adventurers sworn to protect the Duke", and the players accept the premise, then is it railroading to expect them to protect the Duke? Specifically if I start a scene with "You meet the next morning with the captain to discuss how to protect the Duke from the assassination", would you consider that railroading?
In general I support and like all your ideas here. But here comes an anecdote of the opposite.

In a Vampire game where you are supposed to play elders (there was a book for this in Vampire ed 2 whose name I now forget) we played a group of vampires specifically created to fight a specific threat. I was playing a Toreador, and in what I feel is typical Toreador fashion, conscientiousness was my weakest trait - my character was basically a telepathic voyeur that wanted to use telepathy to experience the creative process in humans. I read the plot as something we were supposed to fight, and our creators as naughty words that handed of a burden they could much better have handled themselves on to us out of cowardice and laziness. As role models, they encouraged me to be cowardly and lazy. Basically like when Calvin of Calvin and Hobbs clones himself, and the clone also refuses to do the homework and creates another clone to do it. So, when my character was expected to accept some danger in order to further the plot, she refused. The campaign promptly crashed and crashed hard, even to the point of breaking friendships.

The problem as I see it now was a lack of communication. The GM never told us we were supposed to take this plot seriously, and I never told the GM how my character viewed our creators and the plot. If you set up a game with a premise, you have to communicate that this is a true premise and not just a background for a sandbox.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
Agreement to ride the rails doesn't mean that it isn't a railroad. Likewise, if the PC's enjoyed the game that was on rails, it doesn't meant that it isn't a railroad. They could say "Best game ever!" and it doesn't mean that it isn't a railroad. Likewise, if the PC's never realized they were on rails the whole time, it doesn't mean that it isn't a railroad. It's still a railroad, the PC's just never got off and never realized they couldn't get off.

Railroad either as a noun or a verb is often an ill-defined term. Most people sort of have an idea what the word means, but if you start polling people for a definition you'll find that there are a half a dozen slightly different conflicting ideas about what the term means. That's why I wrote an essay many years ago to try to define exactly what it was, and why I focused on techniques that are used and not the more difficult to define product of using those techniques. It's easy to define when you are taking away player agency in order to achieve a desired result. It's much harder to define when it is acceptable to do that and how much of that is acceptable to do, and often that becomes an argument over player preference and aesthetics.

Very often I find the real underlying premise of many arguments about "railroading" is simply, "Railroading is bad. I'm not a bad GM. Therefore what I do isn't railroading." That's very much the sort of underlying understanding (conscious or unconscious) that I was trying to break down. I was trying to point out that not only is a certain amount of railroading inevitable especially when improvising, but that quite often a little dash of railroading artfully used in a game made a better game, despite the howls of the players who had PTSD from GMs that overused the technique, used the techniques selfishly, and weren't prioritizing their players enjoyment over their own tightly held ideas of what ought to happen.

I understand why some people want to define railroading as "Taking away a players agency without their consent". This puts the focus of the term on the social contract. The implication is that if you put into the social contract player agreement to stay on the rails then it's not railroading. The idea being that if you have player consent, then it can't be "bad", and if it isn't bad it isn't railroading.

But I don't personally like adding that clause to the definition for a couple of reasons.

First, because IMO, the crudest and most potentially problematic way to railroad is Metagame Direction where the GM is telling players what to do and how to play. There are Story Games where you do have as part of the process of play assigning roles to players and telling them how to play out a scene. But in those games, at least IMO the most functional varieties, you have shared narrative control where you have some mechanism of rotating who has authority over how a scene is supposed to play out. In most traditional styles of tabletop RPGs, you just don't have any or much shared narrative control. I don't want to ever suggest, "Your character wouldn't do that because the premise of the game that you agreed to is that you were loyal followers of the Duke." is a solution to the GM not getting what they want from the story. "The premise of this game is that you agreed to do what I wanted you to do." is still railroading.

And the second reason is that I want to be able to classify adventures by how much they are on rails as a way of judging which sort of players with which particular aesthetics or play are likely to enjoy the adventure, even before any element of the adventure is presented to them. I don't want to put the focus on whether the GM gets away with it either by getting player consent to get on rails or by arranging it so that the players don't realize they are on rails. I don't know when I was first exposed to the term back in that pre-internet era, but my opinions on it were formed by reading published adventures and asking myself whether or not the players had enough agency or capacity to make choices. This focus on "enough agency" is where my definition actually comes from.

I can remember a particular published adventure for CoC where the premise is something like the Great Race of Yith decides to use the players as guinea pigs in a time travel experiment and the adventure features lots of Endurium Walls and Omnipotent NPCs to ensure that the PCs are just along for the ride, being shown various scene but given no real way to interact or alter the outcome. I think it's fair to say that's a railroad whether or not the players consent to playing a game when they are going to be on rails. Maybe managing player expectations in that case is a good idea, but the adventure is on rails regardless.
 
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Starfox

Adventurer
Agreement to ride the rails doesn't mean that it isn't a railroad.
So, why do we discuss railroads so much? If it is not derogatory, just a choice of game style, why does it need to be analyzed and weighted so closely?

This post might be a bit impertinent, as I have only browsed the discussion here. But railroading comes up as a subject again and again, so there must be something that is highly engaging about it. Sandboxing [I at first mede the freudian slip "sadboxes" :D], is potentially as interesting and can potentially work just as poorly, is discussed much less and nowhere as condescendingly.
 

Committed Hero

Adventurer
One question I have for the group is: What are people's thought on the interaction between buying into a premise and railroading/illusionism?

A: If I start a one-shot with the premise "you are all adventurers sworn to protect the Duke", and the players accept the premise, then is it railroading to expect them to protect the Duke? Specifically if I start a scene with "You meet the next morning with the captain to discuss how to protect the Duke from the assassination", would you consider that railroading?

B: If I started a one-shot with an intro scene that has an assassin attacking the duke and you defending him and then jumped back a week, is that railroading because we're going to get that scene no matter what, or is it the players accepting the premise that we're playing to see how we get to that point?

C: If I run a campaign where I say "The Duke is a key character and will survive as the Duke no matter what", and the players like that idea, buy into it and in play support the premise; is that railroading?

Now if I do not set up the premise, then for (A) forcing the players to turn up to protect him does feel like railroading (assuming the players made non-guard characters). For (B) Without the intro scene you could well argue that it is illusionism if I ensure that we get to that final scene no matter what, and for (C) an invulnerable Duke, over years of play, certainly will seem like illusionism.

So, as a summary question: Given that players buying into a premise is explicitly giving up some agency, does the fact that they have done so essentially make railroading (which is the GM forcing players down a route) not applicable?

A - For me railroading would be the players were given/accepted the task to protect the duke, and decide to walk the other way when they hear there is an attack ongoing. Then you say the path out of town is suddenly blocked. The technique later in the paragraph is a perfect way to cut through the boring parts of a session.

B - it's a strange setup but cool. I'd make sure OOC that everyone is on board (which is frankly my advice for 99% of issues).

C - why would you say that? You might have that in your notes, but saying it to players is just asking them to bump him off. :) I would probably consider some ways to keep him alive if something unusual happens.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
So, why do we discuss railroads so much? If it is not derogatory, just a choice of game style, why does it need to be analyzed and weighted so closely?

This post might be a bit impertinent, as I have only browsed the discussion here. But railroading comes up as a subject again and again, so there must be something that is highly engaging about it. Sandboxing [I at first mede the freudian slip "sadboxes" :D], is potentially as interesting and can potentially work just as poorly, is discussed much less and nowhere as condescendingly.

"Railroading" first showed up as a term to attempt to describe poor GMing styles where the players were given little agency. "PTSD" from players being on the receiving end of bad GMs tends to lead to the players having very firm opinions about what would make a good GM and a high degree of sensitivity to anything that might offend their preferences.

It's hard to get a better take on this IMO than is provided by 'Knights of the Dinner Table'. Artistic GMs are all the time trying to obtain what for them will be a more emotionally satisfying narrative experience than what typically prevails at the table. Narcistic GMs are all the time trying to get validation from the players by doing things that they think are cool and would impress them. Either tends to end up employing various railroading techniques to get what they want, leading to frustrating play experiences for the players (who to be fair, often have their own hangups and limits). BA for example wants to play a game that ends up having what he thinks will be an amazing literary transcript of play. His players on the other hand keep thwarting his intentions by being dysfunctional, and the more he tries to railroad them into what he thinks is the fun the more rebellious they become. Ironically, the stories that work best for both sides often end up starting from something spontaneous and unplanned that BA riffs on without employing his normal railroading tactics.

Dysfunctional sandboxes ("Rowboat Worlds" as I call them) do exist and they are probably even less fun than dysfunctional adventure paths ("Railroads"), and as such tables with dysfunctional sandboxes tend to just fizzle. I can think of three of them in my time as a player, and I absolutely hated them, but two only lasted like 1.5 sessions each and then no one ever wanted to play them again, and the only multi-session one I didn't realize was a sandbox until quite long into it and when I realized what the problem was I did in fact get super irritated (but mainly because by this point I had theories on why games worked or didn't and diagnosed the reason the game had not been fun as it being a dysfunctional sandbox). The thing about a Railroad is that you can enjoy it for quite some time before the limitations on your agency start to wear on you, and then typically you get angry and there is a period of animosity between the player and the GM. By this time you are already invested in the character and the game, and well, trauma happens not just boredom. Or else you go along with for a long time, and then you look back on it and remember all the DM pet NPCs and the fact that you were often observers while the DM pet NPCs did the cool stuff and rescued your pathetic characters from other DM pet NPCs and how so many of your choices were negated and you get upset about the game in hindsight (I have this trauma with 1e AD&D thieves).

With dysfunctional sandboxes I suspect the problem is people can't often put a finger on what is wrong with the game.

However, the mere fact that I have given a name to dysfunctional sandbox play just shows that there are people out there just as annoyed by it, and I think my strong distaste for highly extemporaneous GMing with low prep is also well known by this point. "Sadboxes" might even be a better name for them than "Rowboat Worlds", at least in the sense of being catchy and easy to explain.
 
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Committed Hero

Adventurer
This is my textbook example of railroading. I think it requires GM antagonism [perhaps the better word is proactivity?]
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Celebrim

Legend
This is my textbook example of railroading. I think it requires GM antagonism.

First, you'll have to define GM antagonism. As I understand the term, GM antagonism is orthogonal to railroading. You can have either one without the other. If you have both, well that is indeed a really nasty situation ("I'm trying to beat you! AND, I'm willing to fudge and break the rules to do it!"), but at least in the example the GM isn't really trying to beat the party just hit a set of preplanned story beats in his novel.

It's definitely railroading in the example but it is artless railroading. If no matter what the party does, the Ringwraiths find the party's campsite, attack the ringbearer and wound him, and then retreat, it's still railroading. An artful railroader just always finds some excuse why the Ringwraiths find the party. Afterall, the PC's have no idea what the limits of NPC abilities are or what they are doing off screen. That's the whole concept behind illusionism: that you can exploit the PC's limited knowledge of the situation to get what you want.
 

It's definitely railroading in the example but it is artless railroading. If no matter what the party does, the Ringwraiths find the party's campsite, attack the ringbearer and wound him, and then retreat, it's still railroading. An artful railroader just always finds some excuse why the Ringwraiths find the party. Afterall, the PC's have no idea what the limits of NPC abilities are or what they are doing off screen. That's the whole concept behind illusionism: that you can exploit the PC's limited knowledge of the situation to get what you want.
This is the problem with calling everything Railroading. It meets both the "Railroading is if the GM does anything the players don't like" and "Railroading is anything the GM does without express permission of the players". Even goes as far as "anything the GM does".

Using the "example", the players are only vaguely aware "others" are looking for the Ring. And they don't know where they are and what abilities they have. But even if the players knew for a fact that the characters are being hunted: there is nothing they can do. There characters have no powers or abilities to hide, and the world is full of just rocks and trees.

In a good game, there is no way for a player to just say "Oh, my second level hobbot casts the uber epic 15th level spell "hide from all foes!". And a player can't just "make a situation" and say "we hide and are never found".

So how is it Railroading if the players are found? And there are no illusions here, not even your illusion definition.
 

Committed Hero

Adventurer
First, you'll have to define GM antagonism. As I understand the term, GM antagonism is orthogonal to railroading. You can have either one without the other. If you have both, well that is indeed a really nasty situation ("I'm trying to beat you! AND, I'm willing to fudge and break the rules to do it!"), but at least in the example the GM isn't really trying to beat the party just hit a set of preplanned story beats in his novel.
I see "antagonism" as some sort of active push back against a decision the party is making. Perhaps it's not the best word to use. In the case of the quantum ogre, however, the GM has already decided that it will be lurking where the party goes - so it's not a response to their decision making as much as an attempt to address contingencies.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not sure I agree with this.
1) For my recent time-loop adventure, whenever the characters were doing the opposite of what the BBEG desired, they would receive "new" flashback dialogue scenes with x or y that would provide hints that when applied now would suggest they make a different choice to the one they were making. These flashback scenes were clues that someone was messing with either their mind or with the past.
Interesting concept but as presented here it seems to be a long-form railroad gently funnelling the players/PCs into a pre-set script...unless the players/PCs are free (and know it) to ignore the suggested "different choices" as and when they arise, in which case this could be quite engaging.
2) One may roleplay historical fiction of a setting or RL history where the outcome is known. You're suggesting an entire genre of roleplaying is neither cool nor fun.
Perhaps I am, as RPing to a pre-set outcome IMO kinda defeats a lot of the purpose. If I'm RPing in the Star Wars universe the last thing I want to do is play through a story we already know via setting canon. If I'm RPing a character in the court of Henry VIII I'm not there to play out history as it happened (I can watch a TV show or read a book for that), I'm there to play it out as an emergent story without regard for what happened in reality, and see what transpires.
3) The rpg Summerland deals with characters suffering from some sort of Trauma and they begin with a short descriptor about that Trauma such as It was a dark Friday evening
In the course of the roleplaying game the player is allowed to add to that tying it to the current narrative in order to get a benefit mechanically. Essentially there is a link between the current fiction and the character's trauma and the character leans into that in an effort to overcome some portion of their trauma. For instance,
It was a dark Friday evening, bitterly cold and pouring with rain.
After gaining the mechanical benefit to some action they were performing, the character makes a Trauma check and either recovers some portion of their Trauma (making them more vulnerable to the Call of the forest which has its own challenges) or does not recover any Trauma. So the game continues with these "flashback" scenes adding to the above descriptor until the character deals with their Trauma and become as vulnerable as normal folk to the Call.
I have the first edition of the game - I can confirm it is both fun and cool.
So the PCs start out with, in effect, total amnesia, and build their past lives as play goes along? Or am I missing something here?
 

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