Of Tabletop RPGs, Railroading, and Video Games

So I’ve recently stumbled over this meme.

Of course, this was captioned with ‘TTRPGs > Video games’
 

It’s very hard to resist rising up to the challenge in hopes of earning that delta — especially given how everything about that meme is wrong. The long story short is that this meme incorrectly assumes two things:

  • video games railroad players
  • this isn’t an assumption per se, but something tells me that whoever made this meme fundamentally misunderstands the problem people take with being railroaded

And we’ll handle those two problems in this order.

Side note: Am I getting too triggered over a meme? Possibly, but there’s some potential discussion to be had about this issue ~~and I’ll probably get to recycle these arguments on reddit within the next 2 months~~.

Of video games and railroads

The first thing in the picture that’ll trigger most nerds like me is the hidden implication that video games are more or less the same. Truth is: they aren’t — if anything, they’re the most diverse form of media to date — and all “railroad” to varying degrees.

  • You have Sandbox games and simulators. Think Sim City, Cities: Skylines, Minecraft, Terraria, Factorio … are there rails? Yes, for you to place them. Are you being railroaded? No. Can Tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) do any of that? Not really. Yes in case of Sim City, actually — reddit and forum threads by DMs saying their players want to play a city builder who ask for advice are surprisingly common   but your DM will have silver hair by the end of the month if he doesn’t already.

This is probably not the kind of railroad(ing) you’re thinking about.
 
  • Stealth games like Stxy and Thief, or “optionally-stealth games” like Deus Ex and Assassin’s Creed (especially the early ones) tend to have fairly linear stories, but levels tend to offer multiple paths and multiple ways to solve a problem. And even in the story department, you sometimes don’t get railroaded as much as you think — original Deus Ex would be a decent example of that.

    While we’re talking of stealth: stealth in TTRPGs is hard to pull off well, and any stealth system you cook up in a tabletop setting can’t hold the candle to the video game thing due to the inherent limitations of tabletop RPGs.

  • Non-turnbased competitive games like CSGO, DotA2, League of Legends, Rocket League … there’s not much rails there either (except if you play Train or Overpass). There’s about as much railroading going on here as in your average sport. And it goes like this: you get a map (the game equivalent of a dungeon) and then you get to outsmart the other team the way you want. There’s nobody that will prevent you from rushing mid on Dust 2 the same way a bad DM would prevent you from checking out a random room in the dungeon for no reason. That’s the kind of experience TTRPGs can’t offer, at all.


AVOID RAILS IN YOUR GLOBAL OFFENSIVE MATCH WITH THIS ONE TRICK! VALVE HATES HIM!
(Note that Office and Canals aren’t excluded because of rails, they’re excluded because they’re trash.)

 
  • Then you also have various kinds of strategy games. Say, Command & Conquer in general, Civilization series, things like that. They’re all pretty open-ended with nobody telling you what to do. These kinds of games are generally impossible to railroad as well.

  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes? Okay, you can have that in a TTRPG pretty much verbatim. I know because I sneaked that into my last session, and it was great. 11/10 would recommend.

  • Next up on the list are open world RPGs. Things like The Witcher 3, which – again – doesn’t really railroad you all that much, judging by the first 18 or so hours.

    MMOs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 should also get a honorable mention here. In general, they are not really that heavily railroaded (at least not until the end game stuff, for which I can’t speak). Neither of the two games will prevent you from going to zones way above your level (or way under your level). You can pick and choose what quests you’ll be doing – especially in WoW, bit less so in GW2 cos story missions. Most quests tend to be very simple in both games, though.

And then there’s everything else. There’s a bit more linear games that don’t give you choice, there’s linear games where your decisions end up having an effects. There’s games that switch between A and B plots, with decisions that tend to have an effect on the outcome of the story (The Banner Saga). There’s tons of racing games which cover everything from hyper-realistic simulation to stuff that’s about as unrealistic as it can get, there’s sports games   and I’m not sure term ‘railroading’ is even applicable to any of those.

The problem with railroading

At the end of the day, not liking railroading boils down to one thing:

People don’t like it when their choices in games don’t matter.

Yes, even in The Witcher the game will give you about three predetermined options to pick from when making a decision; and yes, some may consider that railroading. But the fact is: the game won’t borderline make that decision for you. Furthermore, that decision may or may not have consequences later down the line, and at the end of the day nobody will consider that the game is railroading them.

Meanwhile, when you’re being railroaded by your DM, none of that holds true: you’re often being borderline forced to solve the issue in one particular way, and you know that your choices matter about fuck all.

But what about linear, single player games like Half Life and Portal and Spec Ops: The Line, you ask, what’s with them? You don’t get to choose in those games.

True. You don’t. Since people don’t get to choose, they can’t feel like their decisions don’t matter. Okay, that last statement isn’t completely true, but it’s close to the truth. This is not inherently a problem with railroading, but it helps explain why people who complain about being railroaded in D&D might go and outright praise games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Expectations vs reality play a massive role in whether you’ll consider linearity a railroad

How a game is advertised has a massive effect on how railroading is perceived. Portal games, says on the tin: “Linear puzzle solver.” Play the game, you get linear puzzle solver. Expectations == reality, things check out. Spec Ops, The Line. Tin can says “linear shooter with generic gameplay, but story is strong and the game is outright nasty towards you.” You play the game and that’s what you get: It’s a shooter alright, but the story is worth the praise and the game does make nasty jabs directly at you during the loading screens. Expectations are fulfilled once again. Then you ~~open up the Player’s Handbook which tells you repeatedly that D&D is a game of player choice in the first three pages~~ I’m just kidding, what kind of player would read the PHB even if they could read it for free? Mine certainly didn’t. Instead you listen to your DM, or reddit, or internet in general try to sell you the game by stating that you, the player, gets to decide what to happens in that D&D game. So you’re like, cool, let’s play. And you play the game, only to discover that you don’t actually get to call the choices. Being salty is more than understandable in that scenario. (Worth pointing out, because one of my groups didn’t get the memo: shit decisions you make having shit outcomes isn’t railroading).


I never would have thought I could replace my entire D&D group with a single robot.
 

Overly obvious railroading is also frowned upon in video games as well

The Mass Effect 3 thing might not be a typical railroad, but it goes to show that even people who otherwise like video games don’t like when they don’t get the choice they were promised, or when their choices don’t have the impact they were promised. Mass Effect 3 promised the choices you made in the first three games would matter in the end, and they did somewhat … right up until the last 30 or so minutes of the game, where everything pretty much boiled down to the color of the ending cutscene. The internet was up in arms about that for at least a few months.

And that’s just one example: people will complain about railroaded missions in video games pretty much regularly. If the game does this thing where you can see enemies from far off and could kill them from afar without having to engage in a massive close quarters combat, but you ultimately can’t because the game pretty much makes them invulnerable until you trigger a cutscene which triggers a fight … Do that too much, and players will complain. Guaranteed. With Skyrim, people got uber-butthurt because the game wouldn’t allow you to kill the people who told you to kill Pathrunaax. In fact, they didn’t like it so much there’s a mod that fixes that.

So what have we learned today?

The image that caused all of this is mostly wrong.

Also, I want my delta.