Where is the gameplay? A question for designers and GMs

I found myself asking this question in an rpg I played not too long ago. I was a member of a party that was up against a big external threat. However, both that threat’s progression and how we approached it appeared to me to be pretty predetermined. It didn’t appear to matter whether we failed or succeeded to overcome the obstacles we faced, they progressed as they were supposed to. What that left me with was my character and their relationships with the other PCs, however because the session was about the big external threat, the relationships between the PCs didn’t feel like they made any difference. I could have my character love another or hate another, it didn’t matter because we always moved together to the next obstacle.

I don’t know if it was or not, but it felt like a railroad. In rpg parlance, a railroad is almost synonymous with a bad game. Yet my one of my favourite and most-oft played games (Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne) is a complete, unabashed railroad. How can this be?

Well, I feel railroads get a bad name not from their use, but from their misuse. Specifically, I think that railroads are misused when they remove gameplay without replacing it with anything else.

Sid Meier talks about games being a series of interesting decisions. In a railroaded game, the interesting decisions are not in relation to where the PCs will travel next. That’s absolutely fine so long as they have interesting decisions to make somewhere else.

Witch is an explicit railroad; we always start in one place, go through the same series of other places and then end up at the same place. For all the general poor opinion of railroading, this has never been a problem in any game I’ve played. Quite the reverse, it’s been a blessing because it frees us up to get stuck into the real interesting decisions within the rpg; Witch is about faith and loyalty and my purpose of playing it is to explore how my character feels about those topics. I don’t choose where we go, but I do know that – when we get there – my character will have to make a choice about whether they will take part in the punishment of the central character, Elouise. Even though this is a railroad, I still have (and I know I have) an interesting decision to make.

Knowing this, both in-character and as a player, gives me purpose and frames all the preceding encounters. My character’s experience there will help guide as to what decision they will make.

It is not enough to give the players a chance to make any decision – even if it is one so significant that it might shatter the world – Sid Meier referred specifically to interesting decisions. Jon Shafer writes that what makes a decision ‘interesting’, and what makes a decision ‘uninteresting’ is:

  • when one option is clearly better than all others, and
  • when the consequences of the options are unclear,

Interesting decisions should be where rpgs sing; when I encounter a problem or an obstacle in a session then I can put forward any solution I can imagine. I’m not restricted either by a crpg’s inputs nor by the limitations of a board game. Yet I find myself playing rpgs in which it’s not clear that there are any significant consequences to choosing one option over another or where I don’t have enough information to make an informed choice between them.

In my title I state that this is a question to both designers (game and scenario) and GMs because both can control the gameplay on offer. I am all for them removing uninteresting choices, the choice of route in Witch is uninteresting so take it away! Take them all away even if they things that a player might ordinarily expect to have. If there’s clearly a best option or if there’s little difference as to the consequences then don’t waste the players’ time with them. And doing so may help boil the game or scenario or session down to those decisions that are interesting, or perhaps expose that there are none after all.

What rpgs or scenarios do you love? What do you feel are the most interesting decisions you make in them?

Epistolary Richard

Epistolary Richard is one of the co-ordinators of the London Indie RPG meetup. He’s a frequent game-runner at the meet and a variety of conventions and he hosts an annual year in review seminar for indie games at Dragonmeet.

One Comment

  1. I’m definitely enjoying more constrained railroady games at the moment and I think it’s a great word to describe them.

    Posted some spin-off thoughts here:

    But to answer your questions, I’ve gotta say Damwain’s A Family Affair is effectively a loosely scripted drama, and I was extremely sceptical going into it, despite already loving Montsegur etc. I mean really, I decide practically nothing about the plot at all? But it still has such interesting decisions about emotion and how things are said that I love it.

    There’s another factor that I love about these games (which may or may not be just correlation), the scenes seem more electric and interesting to watch. I think this is a factor of having more mental energy available for performing, but also I think it’s the audience participation. When you have such a tightly constrained story where the bulk of the ‘action’ is interpersonal drama, I’m not spending my ‘downtime’ stressing about coming up with something cool for my next scene, instead I’m focusing on the scene in front of me and how this’ll change character relationships.

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