Railroads and Polestars

Anyone who has ever had to run a project of any size knows that a plan is both incredibly useful, but also a bit of fiction. Anything that has a large number of moving parts and deep dependencies is pretty much guaranteed to go off the rails almost immediately. You can build giant gantt charts and hold many meetings to try to pretend that this isn’t the case, but the reality is that every time something comes up, you need to redo the entire plan from that point forward, and that’s a giant pain in the ass.

Some people take this as an argument to not plan at all, but a more successful strategy is to change the approach. This takes a lot of different forms with a lot of different names from “mission statement” to “commander’s intent” to “polestar” but they share a key idea; have a plan, but make sure that part of a plan is a clearly stated (and understood) outcome, then orient on that outcome rather than the plan.

I like the “polestar” nomenclature because navigation provides one of the clearest illustrations of this principle. If you’re flying a plane or sailing a ship towards some destination, 90% of the time you’re off course. Maybe not by a lot, but if you were to continue on your current heading, you’d miss your ultimate destination. But because you know where you’re going, you can easily introduce a course correction, even if things have gone drastically off course. Whatever route you take, you still get where you’re going in the end.

As useful as this is in business, it’s somewhat interesting to look at it through the lens of RPGs. Yesterday, Doyce Testerman put up an interesting post about Mass Effect 2[1] and Railroads which got me thinking.

Railroading[2] gets a bad rap for a good reason – it turns the players into passive observers of play rather than active participants, and that’s pretty crappy. However, it has a second bad rap that is for a totally different reason, and that is that most railroad adventures, especially published ones, are stinkers. And yes, I include many classics in that regard. Some groups make them work, but the reality is that railroading is a writer’s trick to allow you to ignore the composition and characteristics of the characters who are actually playing in the adventure. Making the characters irrelevant means you can use it with any group of players! Score!

Except, of course, that’s pretty lame. I am aware that the desire to have adventures that engage the specific characters the players have made is not universal, but I think it penetrates pretty deep. Even GMs who would never consider changing the story of their world or adventure to reflect their table may still be comfortable using the character’s specific hooks to try to draw them into the generic adventure.

Anyway, one way or another, Railroading is strongly associated with the GM having a story to tell, and that story being the driving force of the game.

The thing is, as much as I get (and make) the arguments against that approach, there is a hard slap of reality to consider – some magnificent games have come from this. Not from the techniques (because squashing player choice is crap, however you cut it) but from that idea of the GM having a vision and making it real through the game. Ideally the GM shares this idea with his players, folds their ideas into it, and makes it something that everyone has a stake in, but the heart of it is born from the GM’s inspiration and talent.

The idea of the GM’s vision has taken a lot of hits over the years, in large part because it allows for a lot of bad things. Abusive play. Blocking players. Railroading. Entire generations of games have been born out of frustrations with past GM abuses and try to bake limitations into the rules system.[3] What’s more, it’s one of the earliest models, and as such was treated as the default for a long time. That meant that there were times when it was an uphill struggle to suggest that it wasn’t the only way. Now, I feel this has been a pretty successful struggle, and for evidence I point to the changes in D&D over the years, but not everyone agrees. But even so, I am not comfortable with the idea of framing a position solely based on its position in a very fringey social conflict.

That’s where I find myself pondering the GM’s authority (and vision) as technique rather than philosophy. I have too much evidence that good, even great, games can come out of a traditional GM arrangement to discard the model as inherently toxic. To do so in the face of real fun would be dogmatic. So I open the door and wonder, if it’s a technique, how can it be well done versus poorly done.

And this is where I come back to railroading and polestars. Railroading is, to my mind, a bad implementation of technique. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to keep events moving towards something interesting, and it’s most useful educational role is as a cautionary example. This is where the polestar model is perhaps a little more useful. The GM may have some things in mind, with varying levels of concreteness but if he concentrates on the points he’s navigating towards rather than the route being taken, then suddenly there is leeway for players to make meaningful choices. They may change things drastically while still allowing the GM to draw things back towards the goal. Obviously, the GM needs to be flexible and responsive, and sometimes he might have to discard or change stars if his players take things too far off course, but a good GM will recognize that change of direction as a signal that perhaps he should consider a set of stars the players want to navigate towards.

The reality is, this is a technique that GMs have used for decades under a variety of names.[4] For every dofus who insists on sticking to the rails there are dozens of GMs who roll with the punches, engage the players, but also keep their own agenda in mind. They are the GMs who treat their job as more than a purely technical one, and who would not be comfortable serving as a mere smart rendering engine nor as a glorified referee.

With all that said, I want to highlight the utility of treating this as a technique, not an article of faith. Techniques are not universally applicable. As a technique, this is something that would be terribly received at many tables, and those tables would be best served by not doing it. This should be no more of a value judgment than one might get for rolling perception checks in advance, doing initiative by seating order or enforcing strict inventory tracking. It’s simply another way of doing things.

There is, I admit, a bit of a danger in looking at techniques for an empowered GMs. By its nature, the role means that the GM can choose to ignore good techniques and best practices, and in the abstract, I agree that’s a problem, but I think the reality is more nuanced. Discussing these techniques, treating them with respect rather than disdain, and working to make them better should hopefully have the effect of making the whole community more aware of what is acceptable or not in a GM. If all GM authority is treated as equally bad, players who are comfortable with the model but suffering under bad techniques have been robbed of useful ways to talk about it.

I also kind of savor the challenge of this because the acknowledgment of the GM’s role as a creative one makes it much harder to simply come up with a few canned rules to make for a great game. Much like writing or other creative acts, there are rules to learn and things you can do to improve, but if you try to do things purely by the rules, the product is going to be flat. There’s a necessary element of human inspiration. I think, in ignoring that, we’ve been grabbing for the low-hanging fruit of RPG design, and that’s part of the reason that rules have thrived, but more explicitly creative elements (like setting and adventure design) have received far less attention.

I don’t know that this will change, but for now, I will hope.

1 – Yes, this hinges on the idea that the story in mass effect 2 was compelling. The reality is that, like any example, there are people for whom it doesn’t hold true, and that’s fine. Just accept that there is an audience out there who really enjoyed it, or Dragon Age or whatever other game comes to mind.

2 – Which I’ll define here as a game where the player’s choice have no meaningful impact on events. There are lots of associated definitions, like watching the action and reading boxed text, but that’s the heart of it for me.

3- This is a generally unspoken reason why the idea of Rule Zero (the GM owns the rules) is anathema in some quarters. If the rules are there to curtail the GM, then giving (or acknowledging, depending how you see it) the GM the right to change them undercuts that entirely.

4 – At which point I mention that the I-word is not a welcome addition to this conversation. It is toxic jargon, and there are better ways to say what you intend to say. If you don’t know what I mean, then be glad.

10 thoughts on “Railroads and Polestars

  1. Reverance Pavane

    …you need to redo the entire plan from that point forward…

    Although a couple of consulting gigs I’ve been on the project managers insisted that the plan also be redone backwards as well, so that the current phase was “as always intended.”

    I thanked Gods, Demigods, and Heroes for enabling me to call this Project Epimethus. Although one manager asked me why I had named it after a moon of Saturn…

  2. Reverance Pavane

    I think the major problem with railroading as a descriptor of a bad game is that it is often a result of poor communication between the gamemaster and players. Both sides have different expectations of what they want from the game. Especially when the players feel helpless to alter what is happening (when this happens the situation gets worse as players try to break from the script).

    Players like the illusion of free will, even if there is actually no reality to it. When they don’t get that illusion (just like in real life), sparks begin to fly.

    But most groups need some measure of direction. Otherwise they often find themselves immersed on a flat white featureless plain and suffer immediate writer’s block. Even if you allow them to pencil in bits of the world (and own them) it still requires someone outside the ensemble to meld those disparate elements and provide the scene and direction. Which is why I find a theatrical metaphor of director much more appropriate for gamemastering than that of being an author. Or possibly a choirmaster trying to get everyone singing in harmony (and to get those ones who hide up the back of the choir a chance to be heard).

    Of course, it helps a lot if you have good actors/players that can improvise on the spot.

    [For me personally, I find the traditional idea of a party of adventurers to be a weird and unnatural thing. It’s often a forced association, and as the power levels increase, the reasons for the association often break down. And things keep going because they have either discovered (or been forced to discover) new ties or simply, and far more likely, they continue to do so because this is what they have always done. And when the carriage is unnatural, even before you consider the rest of the railroad…]

    [Of course, the exception to this is single-shot adventures which implicitly have a reason for the players to be trapped together, but nothing to keep them together, after the problem is solved.]

    [And now you have me wondering what the I-word is.]

  3. Sean

    The plot point campaign structure used in Savage Worlds resolves some of these issues. There is a throughline of interconnected adventures that advance the story with an assortment of various other Savage Tales (side adventures) that can be dropped in appropriately to flesh out and individualize a campaign. Admittedly, it’s a tricky proposition to design an adventure/campaign setting that has a storyline, but does not feel forcedm yet has player buy in. It’s essential that each player feels a real connection to what is going on, that the stakes matter, and that they (for good or ill) can affect real change in the story/campaign/plot point, etcetera.

    I’ve never heard anyone use the polestar analogy, but it’s an apt one. Typically, I try to present a sandbox approach to settings akin to what’s seen in a number of video games (such as some of the older Final Fantasy games) that have a progressive storyline, but variances that occur within. ME2, as you’ve pointed out, is a good example, as is Fallout 3. At their root, they both have very simple goals (Save the Universe and Find Your Father) respectively, but (you as) the player gets to create their own own unique adventures wholly contingent upon individual choice. The end result of the story is nearly the same (as it’s impossible to account for all permutations of branch logic choices), but the journey shapes the story and makes it your own.

  4. Eddie

    I think it is basically important to expect the unexpected and to plan for this. If you plan for unexpected events then your plan will be flexible but with deadlines and outcomes to be met.

  5. Paul

    On the subject of rules for a GM that make a great game…

    Obviously NO one rule or even small set of rules makes a great game. You can have a crumby time with a killer rippin’ good system. I think that speaks to your comment on the GM’s job (and gaming in general) as a creative endeavor.

    That seems to me to be the impetus for rules that control the GM’s mechanical power level instead of the GM’s narrative freedom. A distinct, predictable system for setting difficulties or building encounters instead of the GM’s whim, for example.

    The intersection of mechanical budgets for GM power and creativity is an interesting thing to me. Even in ways that might be subtle, how often do such restrictions end up impacting the GM’s creativity anyway?

  6. Steve


    Interesting post. One observation I have is that the term “railroad” is so often used by a certain kind of player for anything with an overarching goal; they simply want to sandbox every game they are in because to them the game is a series of loot-heavy dungeon dives with linking scenes in an inevitable inn.

    I run mostly Call of Cthulhu, a game which I always referred to as “highly goal oriented” until I became acquainted with the term “railroad” (while reading The DM of the Rings as it happens).

    Now, I’ve been called all kind of things by Angry Young Players when I say that just about every game of CofC is by their definition a railroad, but that in thirty years of gaming I’ve rarely been short of players and they rarely report having a bad time. By the AYP lights I should be reviled by one and all. I think most of them just assume I’m lying.

    Indeed, I ran a Savage Worlds;Realms of Cthulhu scenario at a local con recently, *and* a D20 Delta Green game, both of which were blatant railroads even by my loose definition of the term – there’s only so much you can do in a four hour slot with an investigative game like this – and each game (6 players in each) ended with all but one person professing extreme satisfaction over four hours well spent.

    Said person was annoyed because her character had gone catatonic right at the start of the Boss Fight, not because she was being herded towards a goal by yours truly.

    All I did to allay the feeling of parallel steel was let the group move between the scenes as they liked in the SW game. In the D20 thing is it was even worse. I gave them a goal and a time limit, then had them progress through pre-written stand-alone vignettes that I had crafted with a high horror and/or weird factor. At the end of that one, three of the players begged to be allowed to see the notes so they could see what they’d missed while rattling along the tracks.

    Go figure.

    I think the perception that a goal/quest whatever is by its nature a railroad is one of the more toxic memes in the RPG world.

    Having said that I know exactly what a railroad is to me. It’s the scene in a Conan game where I am standing with small fortune in spendable silver coins looking at an eight week road journey on foot as opposed to a leisurely trip down river, only to be confronted by a list of increasingly unbelievable reasons why a river trip cannot be had in a river port town from the GM. And no, I didn’t like it one little bit.

  7. Steve

    Sorry about that.

    Seems the Blogspot “Post Too Big” code yells at you but publishes anyway. The deleted comments were successive edits.

  8. Anonymous

    And yet… and yet… something like convention game structure seems to leaves you very little room to not push and pull the levers towards the ideas you have. Putting someone in a world and then saying, “Go explore,” pushes the inverse of creativity when you’ve got the constraints of time breathing down your neck.

    Where is the line between that and the ugly side of the rails?

  9. Rob Donoghue

    Con games are a whole other beast, probably meriting their own post sometime, but that kind of underscores the idea that it’s a technique. In some games and situations (like a convention) it’s going to be a far better tool than it might be at a home campaign.


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