Monday, May 6, 2024

Game books, railroading and what’s okay

 As I've mentioned, I have been poking at some gamebook-style RPGs. Which opens up the question: "Do these even count as RPGs?"

I think, given the fact they have been a part of the industry since the 1970s, the answer is yes. But, even with that yes, I think you also add a 'but' because there are clearly obvious limitations to the format.

You already know them. With the exception of character builds (which can make a big difference in some cases), you can only make the decisions that the book offers you. Your agency is very limited.

Which, in some respects, is how many video game RPGs work. The difference is that a computer can handle a much, much broader decision tree. With enough decisions to pick from, you get that agency back.

Computers have gotten much more complex over the years while physical books haven't.  Computers keep discovering new limitations while books hang on to their old ones. (I am aware that the Fabled Lands series was designed to be a sandbox game book system. I have sadly never read/played any so I have no idea how well it worked. And it is clearly an exception to the rule)

But... if you pick up a gamebook, you are agreeing to those limitations. You know the deal and if you still play a gamebook, you are saying you are okay with the restrictions. So if you choose to have a gamebook RPG experience, you go.

But here's the thing I always come back to. I have had face-to-face, tabletop RPG experiences that have also lacked agency. Railroading is real. Some of the best GMs I've known have even resorted to it, because they had a story they really wanted to tell or because they were burnt out or because they didn't want the party to commit suicide.

I’ve said that before and I still think it’s true. For whatever reason, sometimes, an experience with limited control is what you are going to get when you sit down at the table. But I’ve changed my condemnation of it.

Because , frankly, it’s not always a bad experience. I mean, if you're at a con or a game store, this is what might be reasonable to get run. You still get to play your characters and interact with other human beings. You get to react to the story.

And a lot of OG adventures were really just maps with monsters on them. Your decisions were which way to room to walk into and how to fight the monsters you found in them. That's functionally the same as the original Buffalo Castle. (I understand the reprint does add a goal beyond experience and treasure)

And if that’s fun, who am I to play gatekeeper?

The first goal is to experience a story. To have some kind of fun. After that, we sort out the details.

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