Railroading

(My brain is a little fried from working a long day today, so bear with me…)

One of the major differences I’ve seen between Japanese and Western role-playing games and gamers are the attitudes each take towards “railroading.”  That is, having a story laid out from beginning to end, with the GM typically ensuring that the players don’t stray too far (or at all) from the carefully laid plans.

In the West, this is typically seen as a very negative thing: it is often one of the signs of a bad GM when they’re unable to cope with creative players and end up restricting their options in order to stay within the pre-defined plot.  Or they don’t let players leave the town, instead having something keep them within the walls like it were a console RPG.  Good GMs are said to be those who can roll with whatever the players come up with–they end up killing the plot-centric NPC? Fine, they have a short adventure where they elude the law and the GM comes up with a different way for the characters to find out that the princess is in a different castle.  Open-ended playstyles such as the Western Marches and GTA-style do-anything-you-want have become popular lately.  But oftentimes these become TOO loose.  Sometimes players dick around the tavern, doing exactly what they want–drinking ale and hitting on wenches for hours at a time, with no real aim, no goal to fight for, and no push towards a conclusion.

This may not be a problem for some gaming groups, but I’ve personally participated in sessions where 4 hours were spent trying to figure out what we were supposed to do next, with nary a peep from the good GM.  Many groups in the West meet weekly, so a single session lost to anarchy can easily be remedied the next week when the players tire of their shenanigans.  However, now that I’m older, I don’t have much free time, so 4 hours of “free-form” role-playing that has no real point is somewhat off-putting.  And that, I think, is where the Japanese find the appeal of railroading.

From my experiences of gaming in Japan, groups meet monthly, often in a club/convention setting (more on these in a later post).  A group may decide beforehand, but a club or convention will almost invariably have a number of GMs ready games for the day, allowing players in a sort of first-come-first-serve fashion.  The groups will usually be somewhat impromptu, and even within a campaign players may come and go.  The group will usually have between 4-6 hours to do everything from character creation to the end of the session.  With this limited time, these groups can’t afford to sit around a table in a tavern waiting for someone to talk to the right person to find some information about the town’s mayor’s daughter’s missing cousin.  Instead, it is assumed that the GM will have an adventure planned out for the party, often involving detailed hand-outs for each player.  This streamlines the experience, makes sure that the game runs smoothly and on time, and makes sure that everyone is on the same page.

This leads to very episodic play, in which each session encapsulates a single scenario that is wrapped up by the end of the day.  Because players may enter and leave at any time, characters are often “complete,” that is, there is little difference between a character with 0 experience and a character that has seen play for a few or more sessions.  More on this topic, too, at a later time.

Shinobigami, in particular, is based on a very “railroading” structure of rules.  But because of it, characters are almost guaranteed to be interested: as characters are given a secret, a mission, and a short faction write-up, it should be easy to come up with an interesting character by the time the Introduction Phase is complete.  And, I think, the very structure that may seem constraining at first–the characters are trapped within the scenario and can’t ignore the events that are happening–are actually contributing to a more rewarding experience.  Each character is going to contribute to the story that is unravelling.  And I think that this applies to the other contemporary Japanese games that “force” stories onto players, like Tenra Bansho/War, Yuuyake Koyake, Satasupe, Double Cross 3, etc.

I think that it’s really interesting that the needs of the Japanese role-playing community have led to “railroading” being incorporated into the structure of their games.  I wonder how open-minded Western gamers are willing to be towards it.

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~ by mattgsanchez on November 16, 2010.

3 Responses to “Railroading”

  1. This is a very good point. I think it might explain some of the changes in western games towards “railroading” in later versions – as gamers grew up and got lives they no longer had schoolboy time on their hands, and wanted games that were more about the adventure and less about freeforming. Hence the complaint of some old schoolers that modern games are too “story-focused.”

    This also explains why the two Japanese RPGs I played (meikyuu kingdom and double cross) have such heavy rules for PC interrelationships. You can establish the effects of a long-lived campaign at the start of play, without having any actual history at all.

    Very good points!

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I think that a lot of indie RPGs like Dogs in the Vineyard are sort of developing in parallel to JRPGs, at least as far as a focus on heavy characterization and minimal “sandboxing”. I’d be really interested in trying out Fiasco; the more I read about it, the more it makes me think about Shinobigami…

    I’m really interested to see how this is all going to play out in the end. I mean, how JRPGs are going to continue to evolve to meet the needs of today’s otaku. Will things finally start spilling over into the digital realm? Will we ever see PDFs or competent web pages? ONLY TIME WILL TELL. dum dum dummmmmm (I don’t forsee these things happening anytime soon)

  3. […] that these differences are based on both play style and inspiration.  Like my badly written post here, about railroading, I think that we can learn a lot about the “soul” of JRPGs by […]

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