Sunday, February 5, 2023

A new look at the early history of "railroading" and non-anglophone RPG design

Two and a half years ago, when I was still getting reoriented to what was going on with table-top role-playing games, I wrote a post on the history of the concepts of "sandboxes" and "railroads" in RPGs.

My conclusions were that (1) gamers have been talking about these ideas for a very long time, but (2) the specific term "sandbox," for a world open to player characters to explore without a predetermined end-point, was an import from video game design in the late '90s, and (3) the idea of "railroading" came from the Forge gaming forum of the early 2000s. What motivated me to look into this was that I could not think of any instance in which these terms had been used back when I used to play, up to the mid-'90s, but gamers had been discussing both of these with great intensity in more recent years. They had even become quite dogmatic about it (and they still are). That's the kind of thing that calls for historical checks.

It turns out that the third part of my conclusion (at least) was wrong, specifically on historical grounds: it goes way back before the Forge. I'm always happy to be corrected when new information comes to light.

The author of the new blog Diegesis took a deeper dive into old uses of the term railroading. I don't know how he did it (are search engines getting better or is he just that much more proficient?), but he found several earlier references to railroading, even going back to Dragon magazine, 1988! That's a lot older than the Forge.

Even cooler (to me at least) is that this now-earliest known use of the term "railroading" for scenario design was by Ken Rolston. This is the same author I cited in my post as my main example, referring to his Dragon magazine article on adventure design structure from 1982, for talk about linear design before the term "railroad" existed (so it seemed). (See my post for more.) Ken Rolston clearly deserves more attention as a theorist about adventure structure. He's had quite a career in game development, both rules and modules, not to mention computer games.

Another good point the Diegesis post makes is to distinguish different kinds of "railroading." There is the linear adventure, in which PCs move from scene to scene, but there is also the deceptive practice of the GM giving the players the illusion that their choices matter, when they don't. These are not the same thing (although they can co-occur).

Anyway, the main point of this post here is just to refer you to the Diegesis post about railroading, which supersedes part of my post back then with valuable new information. Read it!

That post also tells a lot about "railroading" (the concept, not the term) in the early RPG scene in Germany, the author's country. Specifically, it shows how player choices were regularly invalidated by deliberate and explicit design in modules released for the popular early German RPG Das Schwarze Auge (1984). (It was published in English as The Dark Eye, with the first English version released in 2003; in English it seems to have been just another "fantasy heartbreaker" [not a term I like]).

Already in 1984, there were DSA modules directing referees to ignore player choices to guarantee specific outcomes, regardless of whatever players choose and even whatever the dice declare. The modules prescribed certain sequences of events no matter what else happened.

This information got me thinking again about about how we still lack RPG histories for countries besides the USA and the UK. (If I'm missing existing ones, please leave comments.) This Diegesis post hints at a whole world of stuff to be learned and game history to be written that Anglophone gamers have mostly never heard about, let alone asked about.

I'll give an example of why European RPG history matters, even to strictly Anglophone players who don't have any interest in European history (to their detriment). To make this point I have to generalize about "Europeans" who have had many different experiences, but I hope readers will understand my point despite this necessary shortcut. I'm talking about the OSR in Europe. The way in which some different European gamers reacted to and adopted "the OSR" (which took off as a term internationally, on the internet, in 2008) has been conditioned by the relatively late reception of RPGs in their respective countries. In many European countries, D&D and other RPGs were introduced with translations and the design patterns of American RPGs of the mid-to-late '80s and the '90s. (Explore the links here for examples.) OD&D, Holmes Basic, and AD&D 1e were not part of this. The new products, sometimes the first examples of RPG books in their respective countries, were already embedded with implicit negative takes on D&D of the '70s and early '80s. Why would you go back to older, superseded editions? AD&D 1e was not disseminated much, for this reason. The contentious Gary Gygax had been ousted from TSR and his writings were no longer promoted. BECMI and AD&D 2e seem to be the earliest available in most European languages that had D&D translations at all. The first European-language editions of D&D therefore offered innovations not found in the earlier iterations of D&D and left a lot of things out that were found in earlier D&D. Consequently, European players who had no exposure at all to the living play styles of the hobby in the '70s first encountered the "old-school" as an implicitly already-stigmatized prehistory. "Old-school" gaming, for them, meant discovering and reading forgotten older books and implementing old rules regardless of how those books and rules had actually been used. That was the basic historical mistake of the OSR: to regard the rules as written, selectively emphasized, as how play actually worked, testimonies be damned. (A lot of Anglophone players have done the same, especially younger ones.) So they have tended to view that early stuff as forgotten classics to be recovered, treasured, and preserved (if we take their words seriously), where many American players, older and younger, tended to look on the older stuff with the attitude "been there, done that," and associated it with juvenile play (ripening for revisitation as a guilty pleasure of nostalgia in the new century). Once upon a time, you could find copies of the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide in bins of unwanted used books across the USA. That was the impression AD&D 1e gave to many of the munchkins of the B/X generation as they matured into adults and played Ars Magica and Vampire. Moreover, those European gamers got into gaming in very different political contexts which most American players don't understand, just as the latecomer RPG players of Europe tend not to understand the nuances of the lived experience of the American political context (though the mass exposure to US media, particularly fictional film and TV, contributes to the illusion that they do understand it more deeply).

(Let's not omit mention of the young men in the US armed forces stationed in American bases in Europe who played RPGs there before any locals did. What do you make of that? D&D as colonial imposition? D&D as part of the reflux of European capitalism on steroids from an erstwhile colony? D&D as anti-fascist, anti-communist mission of democracy through collaborative play? "Thank you for your service"? You, the player, decide your own badly theorized hot take! Or, just play.)

One outcome of the discrepancy in receptions is that some European bloggers on "the OSR," who write in English and, thanks to the internet, are just as accessible as any English-language blog anywhere, come at the hobby from a different perspective out of sync with or oppositional to those of Anglophone gamers, and often with a political charge that makes minimal sense to lots of American readers, at least. On the internet, all of these different perspectives meet. Sometimes they clash. I'm not evaluating (not here, anyway). Nor do I wish to generalize further about "European gamers," who have had plenty of different experiences amongst themselves. I'm saying that thinkers have their contexts and conditions leading to different outcomes. Yes, a middle-aged D&D player who lives in a country with the population size of Wisconsin, overwhelming ethnic homogeneity fostered by state policies, and a history of being the subject of foreign empires and autocratic governments, but who craves the pristine classics of the "Old School" he never knew directly, is going to think differently from most 20-something US-Americans about character race and "player inclusion" in D&D.

Zooming back down to the publication history, it should be obvious that some differences of approach have their basis in historical factors like when players first encountered RPGs and what kinds of games those were. If you got your earliest idea of D&D from Frank Mentzer's introductory Basic D&D set or from snobby dismissals of D&D by players of Vampire: The Masquerade Second Edition, and not from the convoluted words of Grandmaster Gygax, the experience and the outcome will vary. The same goes for the US-American kids who know only 5e. The foundation of this history must be an account of the dissemination and reception of RPG commodities in Europe. European RPG bloggers: please get to work on this! Give us not hot takes but dates, products, and events in chronological order. Please: scan and post, and translate programmatic statements of intent by designers and publishers into English.

Moving back to the topic of railroading, here is another example of how non-Anglophone RPG design matters for the familiar English-language stuff. Usually the Dragonlance modules by Laura and Tracy Hickman take the blame for introducing railroading as a common feature of D&D/RPGs adventure design. I think that this commonly encountered assertion is off the mark. The way for this kind of design was paved and popularized by TSR's early modules designed for tournament play, soon picked up by D&D players everywhere as models for scenario design. Products for other early RPGs that were not D&D, perennially ignored by the D&D historians, also played a part. Anyway, the first Dragonlance module came out in 1984 (DL1 "Dragons of Despair"). In the same year, in Germany, as the Diegesis blog points out, the (apparently influential) module "Unter dem Nordlicht" for Das Schwarze Auge was released. This is featured in the new Diegesis blog entry. The same kind of adventure design, in which players' decisions were explicitly ignored in favor of pre-planned events, was happening in Germany, far away from TSR, simultaneously.

To learn more about this stuff, go read that blog post.

And add the Diegesis blog to your list.


  1. For Germany (and, to some extent, other German-speaking countries) there are some starting points:
    Tom Hillenbrand/ Konrad Lischka: Drachenväter. Die Geschichte des Rollenspiels und die Geburt der virtuellen Welt. Münster: Monstenstein und Vannerdat 2014.
    Tom Hillenbrand, Konrad Lischka: Drachenväter. Die Interviews [Der Interview-Begleitband]. Designer und Autoren über die Geschichte des Rollenspiels. Prinn & Junzt (Monsenstein und Vannerdat OHG Münster) 2014.
    Hillenbrand & Lischka did not attempt to chronicle the history of design ideas or play philosophies. Instead, they aim for a relatively palatable overview of the pre-history of D&D, its continuing influence, and RPGs in Germany.
    I maintain lists of RPGs published in German ( and rpg-related fanzines ( They might be useful for someone researching certain topics.
    I'm sure I'm missing important contributions left and right.

    1. Vielen Dank! Diese Ressourcen sind sehr hilfreich. Abenteuer in Magira war mir nicht bekannt. Ich hoffe, dass es in Zukunft ein größeres Interesse an diesem Thema geben wird. Besonders wertvoll wären PDF-Scans der deutschen Fanzines aus den siebziger und achtziger Jahren.

    2. Die meisten Fanzines sind schlecht verfügbar - nur wenige sind in öffentlichen Bibliotheken. An Scans bin ich selbst interessiert, ihre Veröffentlichung ist leider ohne Zustimmung der Urheber rechtlich problematisch. Ich vernetze mich aber mit anderen Sammlern, wir tauschen uns aus und versuchen, das Gesamtbild deutscher Zines zu vervollständigen.

    3. Ich wünsche Ihnen viel Erfolg bei diesem Projekt und hoffe, dass diese Zines online verfügbar werden. Danke!