Every Monday night I play a tabletop role-playing game of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a game where a game master (GM) controls the world and the players control characters in the world. The GM creates a world that the players then are free to do what they want within. There are two insults in the world of tabletop role-playing games that are flung out when a person disagrees with how a GM or a player is doing things. For GMs, the most common accusation is that they are “railroading” their players, while players are charged with “meta-gaming.” Rarely do these actually apply but they’re used because they’re seen as cardinal sins for GMs and players to commit.
ultimate freedomRole-players like to compare role-playing games to computer games and, with a certain smugness, say that in role-playing games you have ultimate freedom. In computer games you’re limited to whatever conversation options have been pre-programmed or whatever paths through the city are open to you. Solutions to puzzles are always things that the programmers have thought about before. Let’s compare this to some players that have (through various means) acquired some super strong acid and have used it to burn through a whole series of locked doors much to their GM’s chagrin. They then come upon a magically acid resistant door that thwarts this particular vector of attack. Cue one of the players asking. “What is the wall next to the door made of?” The GM replies: “…stone.” “I pour the acid over the wall next to the door,” the player says.
ideologyThis sort of freedom is highly prized in role-playing communities and so whenever a GM describes something they’ve done or are planning to do that is seen by others as impinging this freedom, cries of railroading ring out. It’s the ultimate insult. It’s saying you aren’t a good GM because you force your players on specific paths rather than letting them be free. The thing is it’s just not that simple.
realityI’ve given players complete freedom before and it’s left them feeling a bit lost with no clue how to progress. Newer players especially like to have a bit of direction of where they’re going. Over time they do pick up on the freedom but a completely open world with no direction at all just doesn’t work very well. On the other hand, I once had a very intricate necromancy plot unfolding when one of my players took a dislike to my in-disguise necromancer and felled him in one sweep from his axe. If I’d decided that the necromancer just won’t die because they need to go through the rest of the plot, then it’s very railroad-y. It just comes to a continuum between a railroad and a complete open world and you have to find the point that your players are most comfortable with.
I know more about battle than my battled hardened fighter characterMeta-gaming is using knowledge that you as a player have but your character doesn’t to make a decision for your character. Players most often use it when another player does something they don’t like. It’s also used by players to feel superior to other players: when they’ve made their character make a stupid decisions, often implying that those that make the best tactical decisions for their characters are bad players. The implication that a battle-hardened character won’t be able to make good tactical decisions. It’s an interesting question where often your character probably knows better than you the player what to do in a specific situation.
your fun is wrongI’ve seen these insults used a lot and rarely have they been applicable. People often forget that the most important question is are the players having fun? If they are, then these are all theoretical points, because the whole point of role-playing is to have fun.
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