Monday, January 10, 2022

Railroading the DM - Is it a thing? And if so, what about it?

Railroading is generally understood as the process of one actor leading other actors towards a certain goal without allowing diversion from what is "planned". In gaming we usually see that as something a DM does to the players. I want to challenge your perception in that regard a little bit. Is it possible to "railroad" a DM? What would that look like? And is it as bad a thing as it is considered to be for players*? Lets find out (it's a long one, you are warned).

Time is not linear, that's why!

[Disclaimer: all of the following will lead to some game-theory thinking. Just stay with me here. It's also "only" how I interpret these things. All will be somewhat less obscure in the end, however, as I aim to talk about gaming sooner or later here. Turns out I needed to take a big swing here ...]
I'll start the year post with claiming that there is, broadly speaking, no free will since the presumption that time is linear may be quite faulty. We experience it that way, yes, but even in hindsight alone we realize that things couldn't have happened any other way as they did. There's even a causality to it, at least one we can negotiate individually (and I'd argue a very complex one playing out from that point in time we call the Big Bang).

The past of this timeline is solidified (not "history", as a concept, but that'd be another argument I'll make later), which means that the future will be solidified, too. Or from a more general, non-linear perspective, all of it is already solidified**. A symphony that will play out as it plays out. Like seeing Beethoven's Ninth engraved into a vinyl record instead of playing the record ...

So there is no free will, you may ask, and I answer to that: well, we (in western culture, mainly) need the idea of free will to help people seeing that the history of things we experience in life is not the whole picture. There is an out and you can find it yourself. It is, if you will, a key that opens a door to an autonomy away from, say, the shackles a culture may present. Or a personal history. The list goes on ...

Anyway, I'd go as far as wagering that the idea of free will is incompatible-but-comparable with, say, the classic Daoist way of thinking in that the shamanist culture creating the conditions for the Daoist movement found an alternative way to show the outline of that same door (or one of those doors?).

The Doors got a kick out of that quote ... [source]

In that sense, or at least as I came to understand it, "free will" is a hallmark of critical thinking and has an immense psychological value. It is a necessary tool to free minds in our society, but the general (maybe naive?) understanding that we are free agents able to make "unimpeded" decisions is, in a very physical sense, false. That Big Bang has its course, down to the smallest subatomic particle, and we are along for that ride. Knowing what that ride exactly is, is an entirely different issue.

An excersize in critical thinking?

So free will is more like a cultural neon sign (blinking, of course) to point the way to the insight that there is more to the universe than what we know and are able to communicate or fully grasp. There is, to describe it by ways of daoist thinking, an unknown pattern underlying everything, and we can somehow tap into that.

All of this alligns nicely here: free will denounces the limitations of an individual's past and makes social "suggestions" out of social "norms", Daoism denounces the Ego and cultural norms to form a deeper understanding, and all of the above can be described as "critical thinking" as that needs an individual capable of autonomous thought and all the necessary steps to become "autonomous" fullfil several criteria we can see mirrored in cultures all over space and time to have something akin to "free will" or (much more developed) spiritual "enlightenment".

Not all the same, but HUGE overlap.

In short, autonomy from the forces limiting our growth is the key signifier. We see this evident and very well researched in psychology as well. Having "agency" (another buzzword that fits here), as in "being able to chose independently", is a healthy condition for us humans. To achieve autonomy is tricky, though, and maybe starts with the vague notion that we have to find out what we actually decided for "ourselves" and where we are manipulated into acting without questioning.

Each step in that process needs to be taken, owned and understood ...

The Limits of Control

There are limits to the things we can control physically and mentally, there are limits to the forces controlling us and there is something beyond what we define as control. Autonomy, then, is first of all "knowing the territory".

It is the kind of birds-eye-view on ourselves that helps us realizing our shortcomings, limits and potentials, and with that we can work. Freedom is, then, operating within those limits to develop our potential.

Many of us carry, for instance, trauma, one way or another (especially given the times we live in) and it manifests to our surroundings through acting out in pathological ways. It varies between individuals, but it's always what C. G. Jung would describe as the "Shadow" and it takes, according to Jung, "considerable moral effort" (Aion: Phenomenology of the Self) to face and overcome that shadow.

Naturally, there is obvious value in overcoming those limitations imposed through trauma. What's more, it seems to be a function of cultural development to implant the seeds for that throughout a society so that most (if not all) get a chance to find their way out of misery. It's why I think there is truth in the saying "Psychoanalysts are the shamans of the 21st century". We find ways to track down and map those doors within the cultures we create.

It really seems to be an universal constant. Shamans, holy men or women, psychoanalysts, priests, all seem to be functions of societies to connect us to ... ourselves, more or less. As we are lost. Allan Watts wrote in his book "The Book" that god plays hide and seek in us and it is our quest in life to find him. I think that's a beautiful way to describe it.

My point being, as soon as you go looking for those doors, you will start questioning the world surrounding you. And if you take this upon you long enough and with vigor and discipline, you will grow, you will become a "better" person in the best possible way. It is a process and not all people will go it all the way, but the journey is the goal, as they say.

And while you are at it, you will develop the skills necessary for critical thinking almost instinctively. Over time you will gain autonomy and "free will", maybe even enlightenment.

I'm aware that I've glossed over some aspects here, like what "the unknown" is or could be and how it limits or frees us. Or what the difference between free will and enlightenment might be. It'd be too esoteric to dive into all of that at this point (I might in another post).

In passing I want to mention that there are rather profane ways to, for instance, "manipulate" time, for one by interpreting our past differently or even just by starting to act differently so that our acting today will change our "future past". Exploring even more obscure ideas in that direction (maybe like how words form reality, and so on) might further help illustrating my train of thought here.

However, it'll lead too far away from the point I'm aiming for (as this will be about gaming eventually), so we'll leave it at that for now.

Not an elephant, but the outline of it ...

There is a famous analogy that describes how we can see the outline of a thing by looking at the other pieces (which are usually the pieces we can know). One huge outline-inducing piece regarding "critical thinking" is what happens if a society decides it doesn't need that kind of personal growth. Or how "interested parties" manufacture consent by attacking, side-lining or undermining critical thinking.

The main word to describe that would be propaganda, which basically is about using psychological tools to wage war against a populace. Those tricks are as old as the need for those in power to keep the populace down, but the earliest 20th century saw some of its ugliest manifestations of it and the early 21st is doing its best to top that, it seems.

As far as methods go, the simple version seems to be to keep a populace in fear, which means they can't negotiate their way out of a problem as it seems either to be too complex, too contradictory or too intimidating. A populace primed like that is easily open to suggestions how to solve a given problem without questioning it much. Which will be abused, of course. Always.


Advertisement has discovered this for profit decades ago, which is why we don't teach in schools today how to recognize and counter those methods.

Another term helping with the outlining seems to be the postmodern idea of deconstruction, which seems to have lead to the idea that there are no basic truths other than what can be decided individually. I'm making shortcuts here, of course, but when people say they can't have an idea of, for instance, certain scientific fields because they didn't promote in it, then we see the result of deconstructive thinking as interpreted by the mainstream.

Sneakily forcing people into submission through lies and intimidation or helping them thinking their way out of coming to their own conclusions are both counter-intuitive to what critical thinking is about. Both perfectly line out their opposite, if you will.

And this relates to gaming how?

Well, what kind of gaming experience are you looking for? If you are prone to critical thinking, gaming can challenge you to explore ideas and grow. If you are happily subservient, gaming can offer you mindless entertainment with opportunities to show your thought-fealty.

Is there an in-between? Don't know. You tell me. But gaming can offer a door to critical thinking, and that's where gamedesign can come in. This is where the Gamemaster can make a difference. It is where players have a choice (not necessarily where they get a choice ... there's a difference). All it takes is taking on that considerable moral effort Jung talked about.

An idea like that will have, of course, detractors. People will say "but it's only a game" or "why so serious, I play to relax!", and to all of those I'll say: have it your way. It's all right to just let go and consume. No harm, no foul. People will take your money, for sure, and you will be entertained.

As for the statements themselves, they are just patently wrong. We play to learn. Not only that, we thrive when we play to learn. It's not work, it's not serious. IT'S WHAT WE DO. You don't have to, of course, but it is well established that gaming is among the only things that get us forward in life. It just can also be used to keep us in a lull, but that's NOT it's original purpose.


People telling you otherwise are either trying to sell you something or believe what they are being told. I'm not saying this to insult, but merely to point out facts. Those distinctions are important.

How to (properly) railroad a DM, then?

The greatest benefit of training in Judo is not that you learn to fight. It is a Zen discipline, and as such going that path is about engaging with yourself through discipline and training in specific, say, rituals. The fighting part is almost a fringe benefit, if you will. In a way, it offers an individual expression of the philosophy not only through combat, but in life. I've met people who've trained Judo their whole life and it is quite obvious that it informed their behaviour and way of thinking.

You see where I'm going with this?

Role-playing games CAN offer guidance towards critical thinking by providing the tools by which a gamemaster will find that damn door through mastering the game (what the name actually implies, you know?). That's a gameDESIGNERS gold standard, actually, to offer a design that allows some form of insight into reality through playing in addition to being entertaining. You will find no long-term successful game that doesn't fullfil that criteria (really, try me).

GMing a role-playing game won't lead to enlightenment, as it is. But with proper design, it'll take a gamemaster's hand and show them how to master the craft and that can show a way to enlightenment (if we accept this as a spectrum). I think that we should aspire to achieve something like that as designers. Every craft deserves that kind of excellency, why shouldn't role-playing?

Doesn't need to be every game, but it'd be nice to see it given a shot (I'll try that anyway, but I'm not really what you'd call an influencer ...).

If nothing else, gamemasters being successfully able to form narratives through conveying a resemblance of reality that translates to a participating audience needs an understanding of many, many facets related to critical thinking. The question is: is a DM railroaded for following the recipe in order to make their own game or is a DM railroaded for being neglected that growth and just being told what to do (making them some sort of medium for a designer's vision)?

If you read up to that point, you know the answer: both can be considered railroading, although the intentions in the necessary designs are very, very different and that will be obvious in the games.

I've said this before: a first person shooter is mostly bound to be a railroad. Sure, there are those with huge sandboxes, but the stories are linear, with very simple decision trees and character development to go with at best. The point of playing them, however, is to express yourself within those rails***. How to move, how to kill, which weapons ... the rest is noise, and as a player, if you came for a shooting, you appreciate the fast-forward for the rest (if it's a well done addition, all for the better).

Same can be true about a DM expressing themselves within the rules they are provided with. It mostly remains true regardless of the intentions the designers had, btw, if the DM is already "on the path", because they got their informtion from another game (even from another activity!), for instance.

Either way, railroading the gamemaster is a rail real possibility. As with players, it just isn't inherently a bad thing. Like I said, the intentions are making the difference here. Are you supposed to be compliant sheep, dancing on the marked spots? Are you just reduced to be an author's mouth piece, with the weak promise to shine in their supposedly superior light, as long as you keep it on track? Or is there a chance of growth in keeping within the rails?

Situations to avoid, Part 1 [source]

Opportunities to take responsibility?

Be it the gamedesigner who aims to manifest great ideas through complex designs in their games or gamemasters aiming to convey some very specific and demanding story in their games or players testing the boundaries of their limits, nothing of that is per se necessary to play games. But all of them are opportunities, and as such, one should not dismiss the good it can do to explore the possibilities here.

I keep saying that our hobby is still in its infancy, but we still have seen some high marks. From the beginning, actually, as everybody and their grandmother will tell you how playing the early games changed their lifes, or how they learned this and that.

To connect the dots her a little bit, the whole DIY attitude of the first editions of D&D, the idea to let DMs roam free in their campaign development but giving them the tools to get it done properly (which had to be mastered, of course), all of that was one of the main reasons for the success of those games. Incidentally, it's that encouragement to create and, implicitly, the idea of some form of autonomy (and all that might entail) that made the early OSR movement so lively and eclectic.

To keep something like this alive it needs voices in the community realizing that there comes a responsibility with writing, publishing and even playing games. Again, that considerable moral effort Jung is talking about. The effort not to make it about profit. The effort not to reduce something to brainless entertainment. The effort to strive for some kind of excellency in our endeavors.

"Build it and they will come", right? And we know how to do all of this properly. We know what's possible and where there's still room for exploration. We are able to recognize intentions in designs ... Nothing of this is news. The beauty of culture is that we can stand on the shoulders of giants to get a chance to see maybe just an inch further than they did.

We don't have to start from the beginning, we already have a headstart, IF we take the responsibility that comes with it. If we put in the work.

It needed saying, now I stop ...

Just one last thing, to bring that last argument home: the Tao Te Ching, that original first text about Daoism, is roughly 2500 years old, based on ideas that are even older than that. Shoulders of giants ...

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.” (Laozi, Tao Te Ching)

See? They already knew.

Role-playing games can be a journey for all willing to engage in this hobby to find growth. And not just individually, but as a group. How cool is that?! I hope we don't lose the values needed for that growth out of sight and instead manage to inspire others to start that journey as well.

I also hope people don't take issue with the broad strokes and shortcuts I had to make in this post. I know the devil is in the detail and one generally shouldn't lump in all those different ideas into one concept, especially if some of those ideas are highly debatable themselves. However, I believe my shotgun-approach here holds true and I'm willing to discuss particulars, if someone would be so inclined. Just keep it casual :)

Have a good start into 2022, friends and neighbors. And remember, no matter how dark the world is, there's always a journey inwards waiting for us to make the next step. Ranger out ...



If you are interested in finding out if I actually try to do what I'm talking about above, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3|| (that science fiction role-playing game I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm still doing a sale on it ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


*With which I disagree, btw, for the simple reason that there are different modes of play and "railroading" is one of them. Like you'd see, for instance, in the heavily scripted Call of Duty series. You don't have to like scripted games like that, but that's no reason to disregard them as valid, right? So if people want to get a ride through something a DM planned, and all are on the same page, then that should be totally fine. Just saying.

** That's not even all, of course, since a non-linear approach might also mean that all points in time are readily accessible at all times, so to say. And Merlin lived backwards in time, as we all know ... The point I'm making is that it just might not be only linear and that ONE cnclusion of that is that the whole thing is fixed. I'm aware of the idea that changing the past might introduce parallel timelines and that might be happening all the time. Our consciousnesses might even travel in between or visit them in dreams or ... whatever. All interesting sidetracks, just not what I'm aiming for. 

*** Even if the rails are wider, you are still lead somehwere. Sometimes that is a good thing, but I'd offer it's always a good thing to make it a conscious decision to be lead, even "only" for entertainment.


  1. THIS post made me a fan. so much good info here. I am now going back and reading everything.

    1. Thanks! I really appreciate it. Sorry for the late publication. Blogger was acting up and I just didn't see the notice for it (happened several times now, actually, and I'm not sure how to rectify that). Either way, I hope you'll enjoy my other content :)


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