A game on Rails…excellent

Oh wow, its been a while; but good fortune and a barbaric desire for reckless entertainment have me pondering playing in an RPG once again. Excellent.

I have a hope, backed by the GM’s plan to relight the fire under a DeathWatch game that my gaming circle was playing. We’re once again going to become a squad of twelve foot tall armored tech-noir Paladins, who’s single purpose is to being the Emperor’s light to the screaming hordes. The Emperor Protects. Yes, I’ll be there!

Heh, DeathWatch – the RPG game where you use RPGs (rocket propelled grenades, amongst other nasty toys).

We’re also pondering either a Warhammer Fantasy or Pathfinder game to play in the midst of the DeathWatch game, and with the group we have the theme needs to be similar. You see our team plays well on rails.

train rail

You have three choices... Well one; but it feels like three.

The story flows around the team, and we tend to love combat heavy games, where the direct approach is not only viable but mandatory. For most of us (including my humble self) the subtle approach takes too much time and uses way too much of the forward lobe.

We’ve tried games with deep and wide lore, where both the good guys and bad guys are shooting at us, and it got really hard to not try to just kill everyone.

Our motto almost became “Kill them all and let God sort them out”, except we knew we were the bottom of the talent food chain. And that meant we could only kill lightly armored hamsters. While they were asleep. And tied down.

All sarcasm aside, I don’t think it is a bad thing to want simple stories. Based upon the DeathWatch game I summarise our style/need as:

  • lore of being a marine in the WH40k setting, as who doesn’t like being the universal badass,
  • the fact that the mechanics reflect that lore (us being darn tough),
  • we tend to like the brute force approach for confrontations,
  • the game mandates that we’re a kill team who works together – so no real internal conflict is allowed from day one. No hidden vampires, no mind control, no group of 5 angry selfish bastards.
  • we have an RP ethic in-built too.
  • the stories are basically on rails, and the rails tend to be logical and can be followed.

All in all there are good reasons too:

  • Every player is darn busy (has children, full time work, partners, and/or plenty to do).
  • We gather to enjoy catching up as much as the game.
  • Thematic stories with subtle twists are hard to retain unless you play very regularly; which all of us can’t do.
  • We tend to not be strong roleplayers, meaning as in-character actors, not the mechanical side of the game.

So here we are. A set of gamers who know all too well that time is a critically limited resource, but wish to play something regardless. I’ve accepted my somewhat thug-ish nature, and am looking forward to roleplaying again.

So how do you run a good Rails game? I’m not sure. The two GMs are probably pondering this now. My unsolicited 2c has me thinking that our team needs to make some concessions on time and play style. The games should allow for:

  • short punchy sessions.
  • allowance for characters to leave and join the gaming table as needed between sessions, so that means either NPC’ing a character, or legit lore ways to get them into and out of the action (Clone Insertion Round from Paranoia is not an option).
  • a story akin to a good action film, with clearly defined goals. Rescue the npc, defeat the demon, and collect the 8 artefacts of doom – perfect.
  • as the team is 5-7 males, getting heavy on the slaughter is never bad (you can’t have slaughter without laughter).
  • The players need to accept the nature of a “on-rails” game.

The last point is critical to a game surviving. Well critical for me to remember anyway.

In the last Warhammer Fantasy game I lost my patience with the disparity of choices and the lack of influence I perceived, and basically encouraged the party to get slaughtered. My fed up character charged angrily into a few heavily armed solider types and their 5-15 archer buddies waiting on the road side.

Needless to say it was a blood bath, and a plot-rending action. I’d still argue to this day that the module should have allowed for the PCs doing something that stupid, with some sort of recover stance; but once the event was played it was all but impossible to recover. It also pissed more than a few of the players off. WHFRP is brutal, and even if that had been D&D 2nd Edition, we’d be murdered, so in Warhammer it was just a walk over.

The thing that I’ll need to keep in mind for next time is the flavor of the game. The illusion of choice is important to define; either I have it or I don’t – but if you’re juxtaposing giving an open story but no real choice, then it will lead to trouble. Our GM did warn us/me multiple times about the game being brutal, and also that it was a scripted module. What did not translate till afterward (I mentioned our play-style above) is how poor it felt to be on rails when the game told us we were not. The GM did, but the setting and story style was built to a more open path style game.

I’m looking forward to playing on rails this time. The emotional investment in the story will stay appropriate to the action. Playing a character in rails means we can keep it simple. Foes will often be clearly articulated; friends will offer advice, and rewards will be progressive. The mechanical game becomes a major part of the experience, and the lore might be fudged a tad here and there.

It also gets me thinking that the “on-rails” games are the ones I like running the least. I like choice as a GM, but the time it takes to run even a short open ended story is ten times more that I have free, and with out team’s style I can’t see them playing deeply in that either.

There you have it; a gamer of (many) years experience wishing to keep it simple, mash the button, and enjoy the game.

Happy killing.

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