Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Underground Railroad (rant-ish)

Several disparate influences coalesced in my head this evening, as I was on my way home from work, and I came to realize how to express verbally my distaste for "indie story games" of the Forge variety. Sure, I've talked about it before, and I always assumed it was the people I played with rather than the games. Now, I think it actually is the games. But, as Dav Pilkey says in his Captain Underpants stories, before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story...

Years ago, so long ago I can't remember if it was on an RPG forum, a blog, or where, I remember reading someone expressing the opinion that any player that wants to play a Paladin is tacitly giving permission to the DM to make them fall from grace. This esteemed sir or madam espoused this as an absolute. Any player who chooses a Paladin is asking for a fall, and any DM with a Paladin in their campaign is duty bound to make them fall at least once during their career.

Now, that's literally ridiculous. Literally, as in I shall now ridicule this idea.

Every player who plays a Magic-User (Wizard in newer editions) is asking the DM to take away their spellbook at least once during their career, and any DM worth his salt must take away the spellbook of any Magic-User that survives past the goblin warrens and giant rat tunnels of low level.

Every player who plays a Cleric is just begging the DM to take away their spellcasting ability due to an alignment issue. Often. DMs need to be on the watch for any potential slip by the Cleric's player to take away their spells and make them atone.

Every player who plays a Dwarf is fully expecting to be cast out of their clan-hold, beard shaven off, and exiled on pain of death. DMs will make sure every dwarven clan is a bunch of judgmental assholes in order to make sure that any adventurous upstart gets taken down a peg in this way.

Ridiculous, no? It shows such a lack of imagination, such a lack of narrative principle, to assume that just because some player wanted to play such a class/race wants to play out that tired, cliche story line every time they play the game. Sure, there may be rules in the books for what to do if it does happen, but that doesn't mean it's the only way a Paladin's (or MU, Cleric, Dwarf, whatever) story can play out. It's not how every character X's story should play out. To force this on the players and to assume it's with their consent just because they chose option X at character generation instead of option Y is a form of railroading.

Now, there should always be the risk of these things happening, but whether it does come to pass should depend on the player's choices in the game, rather than through a no-win situation engineered by the DM.

And that brings us back to indie story games.

You all know Ron Edwards's pet game theory, the Three-Fold Model (and his later Big Model, which was as far as I remember the same thing with more jargon to keep the newbs from acting like they understood it) of Gamist/Simulationist/Narrativist games. Said theory posited a triangle of three things that games can be, and the closer a game came to one of the vertices, the more pure it was, the better that game was. A good "gamist" game focused ONLY on gaming the system. A good "simulationist" game focused ONLY on recreating a "realistic" fantasy setting. A good "narrativist" game focused ONLY on providing a coherent story for the players. A game like D&D, despite its vast popularity, sits somewhere in the middle of the triangle of competing forces, so obviously must be a craptastically designed game, no matter how many people have years and years worth of fun playing it. If only they'd move to a game a the point of the triangle that best matches their interest, says the theory, they'll be having ever so much more fun.

Now, Edwards and the Forge heavily biased their community towards "narrativist" play. Edwards was always political about saying that gamists and simulationists could have their fun playing games their way, but in his opinion the narrativist way was the best way.

But you know what? Those story games have a BIG problem. The "best" of them are nothing more than railroads, similar to the type described above. No one's making you do X instead of Y, no one's pulling a quantum ogre on you in these games. You're free do do whatever you want!

...as long as whatever you want is what the game is "designed to be about."

You can't just do anything you want in these games. If you play, for example, Dogs in the Vinyard (full disclosure, never had a chance to play it, but heard/read plenty), you can't escape the game's theme of dispatching justice to a small town in the Old West. Sooner or later, the game is going to force you to do just that. It's designed to bring these situations to a head so that your Mormon gunslinger can settle things the Mormon gunslinger way.

You're not playing these games to make up your own story. The game designer has already predetermined the story for you. It's a railroad, but it's subtle. Hence the title of this post.

And the funny thing? Now that I've come to this realization, I get the feeling that I now "get" story games, and might actually be able to have fun playing one now. But for the time being, I'll stick to D&D and play-testing Chanbara.


  1. Yeah, that's my hangup with a lot of those types of games... the experience they are designed to produce is so specific. The Mountain Witch is a cool game, but the game is literally designed to play just that one scenario, etc.

  2. Touchy subject, and I don't want to get into the hoop and holler of it, but I will say this...

    While I don't agree with a lot of the absolutes put forth (as I tend to have adverse reactions to absolutes in general), one must as ones self why they are playing certain games in the first place.

    For example, if you were hoping to sit down to a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, fully aware of the game's premise, and NOT be a Mormon Gunslinger doling out justice...well...why? Why did you bother? Are you just being a jerk? Do you not understand the premise even though you think you do? What's up with that?

    I was very excited to run a campaign of Pendragon a couple of years back, and my group seemed excited to play it. When I got character ideas back I had two Knights of Briton...out of five player characters.

    What I am saying is that many 'indie story games' are designed to give the group a very specific experience. With the best of them, they do that job well and the experience can be awesome.

    If on the other hand you have no interest in that particular experience than it's not the games fault. It's like complaining how hard it is to dribble a softball. That's not what a softball is for. But try playing softball with a basketball and you'll find the first thing you had was the best thing for it.

  3. As a fan of D&D and Story Games, I can only say that someone has to decide what the game is about, and the problems only happen when someone disagrees.

    The designer of Dogs in the Vineyard decided what that game was about. The Dungeon Master of a typical D&D game decides what that game is about. The only difference is who, not that it happened.

    Now, D&D is designed to allow a wider variety of play experience than Dogs in the Vineyard, but that doesn't always mean it is a better play experience.

  4. @ Dennis:

    I would echo what some of these folks (mainly BA) have said, and add that what you perceive as a railroad is a rather pointed way of addressing a premise (the point of narrative play). The situation of My Life With Master or DitV don't vary much from game to game, but how players address the situation answers the premise of the game. That is the crux of play.

    To use a stupid analogy: there are genre films that one can attend knowing pretty much how they'll turn out, but we watch them to see what particular twists the filmmaker used to "get there." And of course in RPGs you also get to PLAY a character, not just watch/write the show...

  5. Yep, I get all that. Hence my final paragraph. Now that I realize the constraints, I think I can probably enjoy that sort of game. Before, I was coming at it from a writer's perspective. "I can use this game to tell my story." Now I know I can only tell my version of the designer's story with story games.
    I still prefer more traditional play, but I think I now get "story now".