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CRPGs and the trap of the railroad

November 22, 2021

The heroes stand together, gazing out on the final gate… they ready themselves. Someone puts a hand on their friend’s shoulder, and nods. It’s now or never.

This kind of stuff is pretty awesome in movies. In books. And videogames. It’s the last boss, and the climax of a story. You, the audience, are invested. You CARE.

Tabletop RPGs, have a harder time doing these, and it mostly boils down to missing a key difference in these media vs. a tabletop RPG.

The thing is, in all those other media, the protagonists are mostly already spoken for. Every good trick in classic storytelling to get an audience invested in terms of pacing, character dialogue and response, all of that is already decided, and you, the audience, just have to absorb it. It seems like it should work for tabletop RPGs, after all, you’re making fiction, right? It also seems like it should work because you play videogames, and these are interactive media, right, and they work there.

But again, even ones where there’s more options, the characters are spoken for. Even if you have the silent protagonist, the NPCs get personality, and that becomes the things you get attached to. There’s a limited number of ways this will play out – and these are set up in ways to build your investment using tricks from the long standing traditions of storytelling.

When you play a tabletop RPG, you’re playing with a group, and improvising as a group. It’s much harder to lean on those tools of storytelling because 1) you don’t know what story it will actually be, and 2) you can’t simply edit it over time, like traditional storytelling does. Those characters aren’t spoken for – you play and find out in the moment. The railroading will not work here, the way it does in other media.

What this also means, is that presenting a hard situation or challenge doesn’t necessarily mean the players will be emotionally invested. The game has to follow what the players are into, not try to present the situations and assume the players will be there. (Which is why games that require a lot of planning for the challenges, such as heavy planned map grid fighting RPGs, don’t do so well at getting investment based on story, as much as investment based on gamism and challenge.)

Based on all the other types of medium, it SEEMS like railroading should work. But it doesn’t, and that has everything to do with the game being a fiction of multiple creators improvising in the moment, and not anything else where you have the option of planning and revisions.

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