The Alexandrian

As the 16th century came to a close, Shakespeare began to experiment with tragedy.

On the Elizabethan stage, there were two dominant forms of tragedy: First, the classical tragedy. Derived from the Aristotelian theatrical principles of Ancient Greece, a classical tragedy features a protagonist possessed of a “tragic flaw” which creates a catastrophe in which their fortunes are reversed and their lives are destroyed.

Second, the revenge tragedy. Derived from the Roman plays of the playwright Seneca, revenge tragedies featured secret murders, a ghostly visitation in which the victim demands that their death be avenged, a period of intrigue and deception, and ultimately a bloody finale which would typically decimate the dramatis personae.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are usually viewed primarily through the lens of classical tragedy. This is partly due to early Shakespearean scholarship coinciding with a resurgence of interest in Aristotle’s theatrical philosophy, but it is also an overly simplistic understanding of Shakespeare’s approach to tragedy that often warps and distorts our understanding of the plays.

For example, consider The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. The play long confounded critics because, when they went looking for its tragic hero, they failed to find it in Caesar and were instead forced to find it in the character of Brutus. For example, Charles Gildon wrote in 1710: “This play is called Julius Caesar, though it ought to be called Marcus Brutus; Caesar is the shortest and most inconsiderable part in it, and he is killed in the beginning of the Third Act. But Brutus is plainly the shining and darling character of the Poet; and is to the end of the play the most considerable person.” Tragic heroes aren’t allowed to die halfway through the play; ergo the play wasn’t about Julius Caesar.

But I would argue that the desire to cram the play into a pregurgitated outline is distorting Gildon’s interpretation. As I wrote in the program for our reading of Julius Caesar, the assassination of Caesar is the pivot on which the entire drama turns. And also the seam at which two different plays are welded into a greater whole. The first half of Julius Caesar is structured as classical tragedy: A great man suffers from the tragic flaw of Pride, and this flaw results in his destruction. The second half of Julius Caesar, on the other hand, is a revenge tragedy: Antony seeks revenge for the death of Caesar.

But this isn’t quite true, either: While the latter half may be a revenge tragedy for Antony, it’s also a classical tragedy for Brutus. And while the conspirators may see in the assassination a simple punishment for Caesar’s Pride, there is much in the play to cast doubt on this black-and-white interpretation. Caesar’s destruction comes from a nexus of outward agency rather than from pure self-destruction, creating an interesting variation upon the simplistic classical forms.

And in Hamlet we see Shakespeare continue to experiment with these forms. Here, I would argue, we see a play in which every character is the star of their own classical tragedy… except for Hamlet, who instead stars in a revenge tragedy. But Hamlet also completely subverts the revenge tragedy by insisting on the pursuit of justice instead of unbridled revenge. In the process he emerges as an unflawed hero… who is nevertheless caught in the inescapable web of tragedy woven by the interlocking tragedies of everyone around him.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

Claudius’ flaw is his ambition for the crown. The character clearly cries out for comparison to Macbeth, and like Macbeth his flaw brings about his death at the hands of revenge. Claudius identifies the flaw himself when he says, “Forgive me my foul murder? That cannot be since I am still possess’d of those effects for which I did the murder: My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.” His murder of Old King Hamlet, of course, sets in motion the entire sequence of tragic events.

Polonius‘ flaw is that of eavesdropping and meddling — a compulsive need to control those around him. Hamlet offers it as a fortune to his corpse (“Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.”) and we see it manifest not only in the occulted schemes which cause hardship throughout the play, but also in his compulsive need to spy upon and control his own children. This, of course, brings about his own death in a quite literal fashion, and it is his death which irrevocably sets Hamlet on a path to his destiny from which he cannot escape.

Laertes‘ flaw is his lust for revenge. Although he has often been held up as the ideal of “what Hamlet should have been”, one can’t help noticing that Laertes is (a) repeatedly wrong; (b) has his over-zealousness endorsed by the villain; and (c) ends up getting everybody killed (including himself).

Ophelia’s flaw is that she shows more obedience to her father than to the man she expects to marry. The importance of Ophelia’s failure is demonstrated through what I refer to as the “Desdemona archetype”: Desdemona in Othello, Cordelia in Lear, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a half dozen other Shakespearean heroines are faced with the choice between loyalty to their fathers and loyalty to their future husbands. And every one of them transfers that loyalty without question (and are lauded for it). Ophelia is confronted with the same choice… and stays loyal to her father. In a figurative sense, therefore, she allows Polonius to murder the love she had for Hamlet; and then Hamlet quite literally murders the love she had for Polonius. In the end, she is broken into madness.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, are destroyed as the result of betraying their friends.

Gertrude, on the other hand, presents an interesting enigma throughout the play. But I suspect that we are meant to view her as unfaithful to her husbands (or, at least, their memories). Note that her unfaithfulness to Claudius at the end of the play (“Gertrude, do not drink.” “I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me.”) directly causes her death.

A HERO WITHOUT FLAW

“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Oh, Olivier.

That’s the tagline he pasted onto the prologue of his 1948 film of the play and it has utterly defined the character for at least three generations.

Of course, Olivier isn’t alone. The search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw has been hot and heavy for a couple centuries how: He’s mad in truth and not in craft. He has an Oedipal love for his mother. He’s secretly a woman dressed in boys’ clothes. All kinds of crazy stuff.

But the indecisiveness seems to have stuck for the most part. The logic goes that he should be like Laertes: Take the Ghost at his word, rush into the throne room, and stab Claudius right through the heart. Since he doesn’t do that, the play is really just a long sequence of adolescent excuses that Hamlet makes up so that he doesn’t have to do his chores.

As I mentioned before, though, I think there’s some real problems with identifying Laertes as the paragon of the play.

And there’s also the effect that “Hamlet the Waffler” has on the performance of the play: It means, quite literally, that nothing happens for more than 80% of the play. This isn’t necessarily a problem. (I’m fairly certain Samuel Beckett made an entire career out of it.) But combined with the Hamlet‘s length, it’s usually disastrous: It takes a long play and turns it into an interminable one.

But if you take Hamlet at his word, then the play becomes a fast-paced battle of wits: Can Hamlet figure out a way to prove Claudius’ guilt before Claudius realizes what Hamlet’s doing? There are feints and ploys; suspicions and proxies; mistakes and missed opportunities.

Viewed in this light, Hamlet becomes a thrilling adventure story wrapped in the philosophy of life and built upon an incredibly complex scaffolding of interwoven tragedies.

That sounds like fun. Let’s see what happens.

Originally posted on November 22nd, 2010.

Tagline: Best German Game of 1995. Best U.S. Board Game of 1996.

Settlers of Catan - Mayfair GamesGood board games are hard to find.

This is a truism which comes about because, the plain and simple truth is, board games are expensive to produce and hard to distribute. As a result, it is extremely difficult to introduce truly experiment in a meaningful way with board game mechanics (because it’s expensive to do so), and this inevitably leads to stagnation. (Cheapass Games, as I (and many others) have said before, has escaped these limitations by pioneering an entirely different marketing strategy. But Cheapass Games is special.)

To make matters worse, where a roleplaying game can be considered successful if you use it for one or two campaigns, for a board game to be successful (at least in my opinion) it needs to have lasting replay value. Or, to put it another way, even though Citizen Kane is a better movie than Die Hard, I don’t regret watching Die Hard. On the other hand, why would I play a substandard board game with my friends when I could be playing a better board game? To put it a third way: There’s a narrower potential for variety within any niche of the board game market than there is within the roleplaying markets or movies.

So, like I said, good board games are hard to find.

Which is why it’s always a joy to find a game like The Settlers of Catan. Sure, the cynic can claim that we’ve seen everything here before (hex-based maps from every wargame you’ve ever seen; combinations of resource cards are basically a mechanic from Risk; maintaining diplomatic relations from Diplomacy; variable board set-up from Chess variants; and trading resources from many variants of Monopoly), but the true aficionado will recognize a whole which is greater than the parts.

LEARNING THE GAME

The first thing to like about this game – and something so cool it deserves its own little section in this review (although largely because I’ve been a proponent of this type of lay-out for roleplaying games for a long time now) – are the dual manuals which come with it.

The first manual, Game Rules, is used – in combination with a large, full-color Game Overview sheet – to learn the games. It reads like a fairly standard game manual – taking you step-by-step through the game, with examples of play, repetition of concepts, etc.

But the game you learn is only a beginner’s version of the rules – most noticeably, the variable board rules (see below) are excluded in favor of a “standard board”. After playing your first game, you can proceed to the Settler’s Almanac to spice things up.

What makes this so cool, though, is that the Almanac is a reference for all the rules in the game. In the Almanac, however the rules are grouped by topicality, and are presented in a very technical format.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I’ve always disliked the fact that – with most games – you have to go wading through a manual designed to teach you the rules in order to reference the rules. The rules themselves are often spread out and buried behind the explanatory text. No such problem here. Because the Almanac is nothing except rules, reference is easy. And because the system starts simple and then lets you add in the more complex elements, its very easy to learn. The Game Overview sheet also contains a handy turn sequence reference, and every player gets a Building Costs card which summarizes the resource cost of building (see below).

Make no mistake about it, The Settlers of Catan is a moderately complex game (some would argue that it is a very complex game, but then some have never played Advanced Squad Leader). But the system they’ve implemented for new players to learn makes it seem as simple as Monopoly.

THE RULES

So what is this game all about?

The game is played by three or four players. Each player represents a group of colonists who have come to the largish island of Catan. By building settlements and roads you control various resources on the map, and by possessing resources you can build settlements, cities, roads, or development cards (see below).

GOAL: The goal of the game is to collect 10 victory points – which you do by building settlements (each worth one point) and upgrading those settlements to cities (making them worth two points). You can also achieve victory points through certain combinations of development cards, or by achieving certain meta-goals (such as the “Longest Road”, which gives you two victory points).

BOARD SET-UP: This is probably the most commented upon feature of the game: The board for The Settlers of Catan is variable, meaning you set it up differently each time you play. (Imagine, if you will, that Park Place and Boardwalk were in different places every time you played Monopoly.)

Basically the board comes in the form of seven types of hexagons: Mountains, Hills, Forests, Pastures, Fields, Harbors, Ocean, and Desert. Using a specific set of guidelines you randomly place these hexagons out onto the table, ending up with the island (composed of the five types of land the single desert card) in the middle, encircled by the ocean and harbor hexes. In addition, there are chits which bear little numbers on them – following a specific pattern these are placed one to each land hex (except the desert).

Finally, each player places two cities and two roads onto the board (there is a specific mechanism to figure out who gets to place their cities first and so forth). Cities are placed on the intersections between hexes (and thus always border three hexes) and must be at least two intersections away from any other city. Roads run along the edges of the hexes, and must be connected to one of the player’s cities. (Each road piece is one hex is long.)

GAME PLAY: Play proceeds in turns. First, you roll two six-sided dice. Compare the number you roll to the numbered chits on each hex – any hex which contains a chit which matches the number you rolled produces resources on that turn, based on the type of hex it is. (Mountains produce Ore, Hills produce Brick, Pastures produce Wool, Fields produce Grain, and Forests produce Wood.) Any settlement (yours or other players) which borders one of these hexes collects a resource card.

TRADE AND NEGOTIATION: There are two types of trade in the game: You can trade with other players (only the player whose turn it is can engage in trading); or you can trade overseas. Trade with other players is based entirely on negotiation and is, in my mind, the core of the game’s effectiveness and replay value – because it adds the complexity of human interaction into the outcome.

Trade overseas is mechanical. Anyone can trade four resources cards of one type for a resource card of any other type. However, if you control a harbor (by having a settlement on the intersection with a harbor hex) you will get better trade ratios – sometimes on all resources, sometimes on only one type of resource. (It depends on the harbor.)

BUILDING: Finally, resource cards are spent in specific combinations to build new settlements and roads, updating settlements to cities, or purchasing development cards. Development cards can do a variety of things (from giving you additional victory points to garnering you resource cards).

THE ROBBER: Finally, there is the “Robber” – who wanders around the board stealing resources from one player and giving them to another. There’s a specific set of mechanics governing the use of the Robber, but I won’t go into them here.

SOME NOTES ON EDITIONS, AWARDS, AND EXPANSIONS

The Settlers of Catan was originally released in Germany in 1995, where it promptly won the Spiel des Jahres. When it was released by Mayfair in the United States in 1996 it followed up its performance by winning the Origins Award for Board Game of the Year. With the third edition (the one you’ll buy if you buy Mayfair’s version), the rules were internationally standardized (they had not been before).

There are also a number of expansions for Catan – notably an expansion allowing play for five or six players (instead of three or four). The most major supplement to be released in the States to date is Seafarers of Catan, which develops the overseas elements of the game to a larger extent (there is also a 5/6-player expansion for Seafarers). For some reason the 5/6-player expansions are not compatible with the German edition (and the German expansions are not compatible with the United States edition). I don’t know why (although, obviously the artwork on the cards wouldn’t match).

Later this year we’ll also be seeing Settlers of Catan: Cities and Knights which will expand the city rules and add warfare to the game.

In addition to all this there is a Settlers of Catan card game (non-collectible), which can be played by two players. Personally, I am very excited by the forthcoming United States release of Spacefarers of Catan, which is a stand-alone game involving colonizing space in a variable universe.

CONCLUSION

This is an elegantly designed game, and deserves every bit of praise it has earned over the past few years. The Diplomacy-like elements of the trade and negotiation which are at the heart of the game make the game a joy to play with friends and strangers alike. But Klaus Teuber has not failed to back this up with some strong strategic and tactical considerations. For example, the resources you need at various stages in the game shift gradually over time – thus you need to carefully plan how you’re going to get the resources you need to expand now, but also what resources you’re going to need to finish the game. (On more than one occasion a rising juggernaut which seemed incapable of being defeated ground to a halt because the player failed to get the proper access to the right resources to finish the game.)

Basically I’ve got only two, small complaints to level against Settlers of Catan: First, the price is a little steep. It’s well worth it, but it made the game a tough buy to get into. The prices on the expansion packs, though, really leave me wondering in some cases. (Particularly the $35 sticker on Seafarers of Catan, when the blurb says that “certain scenarios” will require the purchase of two of them!)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there have been a significant fraction of sessions with this game where the random factor played – in my opinion – too large a roll (no pun intended). Although dice rolling is built into the system, it seems to me that the emphasis of the game is on strategy, tactics, and negotiation. But a handful of lucky rolls can really alter the whole course of the game. This was not a major problem, but it was a troubling one.

Style: 5
Substance: 4

Author: Klaus Teuber
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games
Cost: $35.00
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-56905-091-0

Originally Posted: 2000/04/06

This is a fascinating review to read in hindsight. First, because it’s kind of weird looking back at a time when Settlers of Catan was not completely secure in its position as a juggernaut of the board game industry.

Second, because my opinion of Settlers of Catan has soured considerably. (And it soured fairly quickly after this review was written. I don’t think I’ve played the game in at least a decade.) My primary problem with the game is that it masquerades as an extremely strategic game, but the outcome of any given game is heavily dependent on luck while featuring a very limited palette of experiences. It tends to attract the worst kind of casual player: The ones who think they’re Grandmasters of Chess because they have a basic grasp of probability.

One point I now firmly disagree with my former self about: Games featuring a division of their rulebooks into a beginner’s tutorial and an alphabetized rules reference generally suck. The entire methodology appears to be designed to achieve no other end than to guarantee that you’ll end up playing the game incorrectly while burying rules under arbitrarily arranged titles.

(This complaint does not necessarily apply to all games featuring introductory rulebooks. For example, Space Alert features an incredibly clever tutorial system that iteratively introduces new players to the complexities of the game. The key difference, however, is that Space Alert also features a complete rulebook which is organized procedurally for easy and intuitive reference.)

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Go to Part 1

Most of the problems that arise from railroading are the direct result of negating the primary strength of the RPG as a medium: Player choice.

Exploring the full scope of how player choice acts as the elemental ingredient of the RPG is beyond the scope of this manifesto, but the short version looks like this: For narratives with predetermined outcomes, literally every other medium is better than the RPG. For interactive narratives that tightly constrain player choice, computer games are clearly superior (including graphics and soundtracks and smoother implementation of more complicated mechanical structures). Non-interactive mediums, on the other hand, benefit from the polish of tight creative control.

What tabletop RPGs have going for them is the alchemy of player agency. Of presenting a situation and seeing what happens when a unique set of players make a unique set of decisions and produce a unique set of outcomes. When you railroad your players, you specifically set yourself at odds with the very thing that makes playing an RPG worthwhile in the first place.

When they’re confronted with a railroad, players will often exclaim, “Gimme a ring when you finish writing your novel! I’ll enjoy it more!” And they’re not wrong.

But that’s not the only problem with railroading. Railroading creates a whole penumbra of problems.

When a GM predetermines what’s going to happen in the game, they become solely responsible for the entire experience. And that’s a ridiculously heavy burden to bear. Are your encounters balanced? Did you include enough “cool stuff” for every player to participate in? Did you incorporate enough elements from each PC’s back story? The list goes on and on.

This is how you end up with GMs stringing together precariously balanced My Precious Encounters™ in a desperate juggling act as they try to keep all of their players happy.

When you allow the players to make their own decisions, all of the pressure and responsibility melts away: They’ll choose the fights they can win. They’ll approach situations in ways that let them do cool stuff. If there’s not enough stuff from their back story seeking them out, then they’ll go looking for it.

There are a couple of potential speed bumps here:

First, the players might choose to do something you, as the GM, don’t enjoy doing. I generally haven’t found this to be a problem. Partly because, even without railroading, I still wield a lot of control over what activities are available in the campaign. Mostly because any RPG campaign inherently includes parameters that everybody explicitly or implicitly agrees to before playing: “Let’s all play starfighter pilots!” simply doesn’t result in the players saying, “Okay. Let’s all buy a moisture farm on Tatooine.”

(If this implausible hypothetical were to occur, I would talk to my players about the mismatch of expectations and try to figure out what sort of game they’re looking for in their new careers as moisture farmers. If that’s a game I want to run, then we’ll go for it. If not, then we’ll play something else. Railroading, you’ll notice, wouldn’t actually solve the problem of them wanting to do one thing and me wanting to do something completely different.)

Second, the players might choose to do something that they don’t enjoy doing. This seems outrageous, but it’s also something that happens frequently with groups who are used to being railroaded. (It’s one the problems living in the railroad’s penumbra.) They’ve been “trained” to see a plot hook and bite it (because otherwise the plot hook will bite them), so when they see a plot hook rich environment they start biting at everything.

If you let them roam free for a bit, however, they’ll work it out of their system. And then you’re liberated, too: You don’t have to try to read their minds. You can just let them do whatever they want with the expectation that they’ll do what they want to.

RAILROADING AS GAME STRUCTURE

Another problem in the penumbra of railroading is the effect that it has on game design

I’ve talked in the past about the way in which the RPG industry and hobby generally doesn’t appreciate the importance of game structures. RPGs are often designed with the assumption that they’re some kind of pure and unadulterated experience. You’ll hear people say things like, “The players tell me what their characters are doing and then we resolve it! They can do anything!”

Except, of course, that’s nonsense. And, as a result, the RPG hobby has mostly rolled along on the basis of the four major structures that were developed in the first half decade or so of the industry: Railroading, dungeoncrawling, mystery scenarios, and combat. (Recently hexcrawling, as a fifth structure, has been making a resurgence.)

And at most tables things are even more constrained. Many ostensible mystery scenarios are poorly designed and actually fall back into railroading structures. D&D’s communication of dungeoncrawling procedures became anorexic in 1989 and literally disappeared entirely from the 4th Edition rulebooks.

I suspect that the result is that the vast majority of RPG sessions are built around a core structure of railroading and combat.

And this is why I think so many players like jumping into combat. Most combat systems feature robust mechanical systems with clear-cut win/loss conditions, which means that it’s the one place where most railroad GMs finally give their players the freedom to make meaningful choices.

This, in turn, is why the vast majority of RPGs are predominantly based around combat. And that will probably remain true until the industry collectively realizes that a universal mechanic doesn’t meaningfully equate to “You can do anything!” – particularly on the macro-level of scenario design.

THE OPPOSITE OF THE RAILROAD

… is not a sandbox.

That’s a common mistake, though, so let me unpack it a bit.

An RPG sandbox exists when the players can either choose or define what the next scenario is going to be. In other words, you get sandbox play when the entire world is designed as a situation, allowing the players to decide what their next adventure will be.

The opposite of a sandbox is saying, “I brought Keep on the Borderlands tonight, so that’s what we’re doing.” It’s the prototypical campaign where the GM comes prepared with a specific scenario for the game session and the players are expected to play through that scenario.

And this is where we run into the problem with treating “sandbox” as the opposite of “railroad”: Most people would consider “the GM has a scenario and the players are expected to play it” to be extremely light railroading (if they consider it railroading at all). In other words, I think the severity of a railroad is perceived to increase from the outside in: Predetermining that a particular scenario is going to be played is very light railroading. Predetermining the sequence of encounters is heavier railroading, but not as severe as predetermining the exact outcomes of those encounters ahead of time.

So when we cast “sandbox” and “railroad” as antonyms, we actually end up treating the lightest form of railroading as if it were the most extreme form of railroading. And, in response, the meaning of “sandbox” gets warped towards meaning “anything that isn’t linear”. Neither distortion is useful, with the former radicalizing our understanding of railroads and the latter eradicating the unique utility of the term “sandbox” by turning it into a synonym of “non-linear design”.

The opposite of the railroad is actually “default to yes”, which is a concept I’ll be discussing at more length in the Art of Rulings. Instead of defaulting to a rejection of everything proposed by the players, it’s the state in which players are free to make any choice and for the consequences of those choices to be fully explored.

Go to Part 4: Chokers

Go to Part 1

Railroading can take a myriad of forms, but it tends to boil down into a few major methods.

ENFORCING FAILURE: The PCs cast a teleport spell to bypass the frost giants guarding the Necromancer’s inner sanctum (that’s the player choice), but you want them to meet the Frost Giant King (that’s the preconceived outcome), so you decide to add a teleport interdiction field to the inner sanctum (that’s enforcing failure). The wizard casts a finger of death on the Frost Giant King (that’s the player choice), but you need the king to escape so that he can wage war against the human kingdoms in Act III (that’s the preconceived outcome), so you fudge his saving throw to keep him alive (that’s the enforced failure).

In its extreme form, enforcing failure becomes pixelbitching: Absolutely nothing works except for the precise preconceived path that the GM envisioned for the adventure, so the PCs are left to fail and fail and fail again until they finally guess what the GM wants them to do. (The term comes from poorly designed computer adventure games where players had to guess which specific portion King's Quest V - Sierra Gamesof the screen the designer wanted them to click on.)

Enforcing failure can also crop up in adventure design, but it’s a gray area: Bank vaults are supposed to be difficult to steal from. It’s not railroading if you design a bank vault with a big heavy door and a really difficult lock. It’s not even enough to look at the intention behind those design decisions (because, of course, your intention with the big heavy door and the really difficult lock is, in fact, to prevent the PCs from accessing the vault in certain ways). You have to look at the totality of the design here: If your scenario is designed in such a way that the predesigned world is constantly funneling the PCs into a single course of action, you’ve probably got a problem.

Generally speaking, designing your scenario from the perspective of the game world (instead of from the perspective of how to control your PCs and guarantee specific outcomes) generally solves the problem.

Another gray area arises when failure is enforced on a macro-scale: If the PCs successfully take an action that should prevent a specific event from happening, but then the event happens anyway, that’s a form of enforcing failure. For example, let’s say that the PCs are serving as bodyguards for Lord Harrow. Lady Karna sends a squad of orcs to kidnap Lord Harrow and the PCs defeat them. But you really need Lord Harrow kidnapped, so you decide to add another squad of orcs who pop out and grab him. That’s railroading.

But if you’re dealing with smart, active opposition that are trying to make a specific event happen, the fact that they keep trying to make it happen even after you’ve stopped them once isn’t railroading. For example, if Lady Karna responds to the PCs defeating her orcs by sending a different kidnapping team the next day that’s not railroading.

FALSE CHOICE: “We take the corridor on the right.” “You find the Altar of Despair.” [REWIND] “We take the corridor on the left.” “You find the Altar of Despair.”

This is similar to the magician’s choice: The PCs appear to have a free choice between multiple options, but no matter which choice they make the GM forces the outcome he wanted the PCs to choose. (For example, the magician asks the spectator to choose between two cards. If the spectator chooses card A he says, “Flip that card over!” If the spectator chooses card B he says, “Okay, we put that card back in the deck. Flip the other card over.”)

Location-based false choices are quite common: No matter where you go, you end up in the same place.

Event-based false choices are also quite prevalent, although they can run into the gray area of smart opposition. (Lady Karna’s kidnapping teams finding Lord Harrow a second time is railroading if you’ve simply negated whatever security precautions the PCs have made to prevent that from happening. But Lady Karna really wants to find Lord Harrow, so it’s reasonable for her to have invested the cash in a scrying spell if the PCs have exhausted all of her mundane efforts to locate him.)

Another variant of the false choice is the timeline that doesn’t matter. In published scenarios, this seems to often show up in the form of, “No matter how long it takes the PCs to reach the Lost City of Bakkanar, the bad guys have gotten there just before them.” Here, though, you can see the gray area between enforcing failures and false choices: Is this a false choice because it doesn’t matter whether they travel by ship or horse or teleport spell? Or are you enforcing failure by claiming that their effort to use a teleport spell to outpace the bad guys automatically doesn’t work? It doesn’t really matter, of course. It’s railroading either way.

PROMPTING: Prompting is not, strictly speaking, a method of railroading, but it’s a related technique. It basically boils down to the GM making suggestions about what the PCs should be doing, either directly or indirectly. A common variant is the GM NPC who tags along with the group and either tells the PCs what to do or hints at it. GMs can also prompt in the metagame by simply telling the players what their characters are supposed to be doing.

A more complicated form of prompting is simply having negative consequences from failing to take a particular action: Something horrible happens, informing the PCs that they should have taken action to prevent it. If they still have the opportunity to undo it (or stop it from becoming worse), then that’s serving the same function as a nudge. For example, they hear a rumor that there’s a Necromancer in the forest that’s using a bane bone to create skeletons. They ignore it and a week later a group of skeletons attacks the village. They continue to ignore it and the skeletal attacks become larger and more frequent until, finally, they return from the dungeon one day to discover that the Necromancer has taken over the whole village and reared a tower of bone in the town square.

Some prompting has a generally negative effect on the game (because it tends to influence or corrupt the players’ decision-making process). Other prompting has a generally positive effect on the game. But prompting, by itself, isn’t railroading.

Where it intersects railroading, however, is when the GM is using the prompt to tell the players what the GM’s preconceived course of action is. The GM is basically saying, “You should be doing this. If you try anything else, it’s going to fail because this is the thing that you should be doing.”

MIND CONTROL: Mind control is a special case. When a PC has their mind controlled, the GM isn’t negating the outcome of a choice. Instead, they are removing the player’s agency entirely. It’s a complicated issue that deserves a dedicated discussion of its own.

As far as railroading is concerned, my opinion is that mind control is not necessarily railroading in much the same way that failing to hit an ogre with your sword isn’t. Where it becomes railroading is if the GM uses mind control in order to create a preconceived outcome. (Although here, again, there’s a legitimate gray area: It’s not unreasonable for Lady Karna to use a dominate person spell on a PC in order to have them lead her kidnapping squad to Lord Harrow’s hiding place.)

If I was looking for a litmus test here, it would be the GM’s willingness to fudge the PC’s saving throw in order to make sure the mind control happened. That’s a dead giveaway that they’re committed to their preconception.

GUARANTEEING SUCCESS: Is it railroading to guarantee that the PCs succeed at what they want to succeed at?

I don’t necessarily have a satisfactory answer to that question. For the sake of argument, let’s lay aside the issue of game mechanics that guarantee success for the moment (whether that’s universal mechanics like GUMSHOE’s automatic clue-finding or specific instances like a character who’s skill is so high that they’ll automatically succeed on a particular task) and simplify the discussion by simply talking about a GM fudging a die roll to make a PC succeed where they should have failed.

Is that railroading?

My gut says that it isn’t. There is a fundamental difference in kind between negating a player’s choice and enabling that choice.

With that being said, however, the guaranteeing of success does share a number of negative traits in common with railroading: It flattens the gaming experience by making it more predictable. It removes complexity and interest from the scenario. And it can significantly warp the decision-making process of the players.

This becomes particularly true if the GM shows favoritism towards enabling only certain types of decisions. (Which should become really obvious if you consider that one type of decision that can be selectively enabled is “decisions which lead to my preconceived outcome”.)

INVISIBLE RAILROADS vs. VISIBLE RAILROADS

A categorical distinction is often drawn between visible railroads (where the players can see the tracks) and invisible railroads (where the mechanisms are hidden from them). Invisible railroads are sometimes referred to as illusionism (referring to the fact that the players only have the illusion of free choice), and the simplest example would be fudging a die roll behind the GM’s screen. In any case, the difference between a visible railroad and invisible railroad is more of a spectrum.

Invisible railroads are often invoked as another excuse for railroading:

It doesn’t matter if the players don’t know they’re being railroaded!

In practice, however, I would note a couple of things.

First, GMs tend to overestimate the degree to which their players don’t notice their railroads. Lots of players are polite enough not to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t see his feet poking out from behind the curtain.

Second, the majority of negative effects created by a railroad exist whether the players are aware of the railroad or not.

Go to Part 3: Penumbra of Problems

Mini-Adventure 1: Complex of Zombies - Justin AlexanderPheasants are really stupid birds. They’ll go into a potato patch, dig up a potato, and start eating it. But if anything distracts them enough to make them look away from the potato, they’ll drop the potato. “Ugh!” they say. “Someone’s been eating this potato!” And they’ll move along to the next potato until… “Oh! Gross! Someone’s been eating this potato!”

You end up with a whole line of potatoes with one or two bites out of them.

In my personal little headcanon I like to imagine zombies do the same thing: “RAWWWGGHHH!! DELICIOUS FLESH!!!! MUAAARGHHH… Oh. Gross. This one’s dead. Let’s get another one.”

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