Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My Yardmaster Has a +4 Rulebook of Smiting

When I was a kid, I played a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons.  At its core, D&D is interactive, co-operative storytelling.  You get a bunch of folks together around a table; one person (the “game master”) describes a situation (usually something dramatic from a fantasy novel involving saving the village from a dragon, or breaking into the Thieves’ Guild, or exploring an underground labyrinth full of monsters and treasure). You each describe what your character does, and the gamemaster describes what happens. At its best, it's like writing an adventure novel on the fly.

Dungeons and Dragons - the initial version - was originally created by war gamers. That lineage shows up as lots of statistics and lots of dice. How much damage can my fighter take before he’s disabled? How much extra damage does my extra-good sword give? What saving throw must I roll to avoid being turned to stone by a medusa? The randomness adds to the fun of role-playing, but it's easy for the dice-rolling to take over.  Worse, some folks start thinking the points are what matters rather than the story.  Min-max'ers start making decisions on the game based on the probabilities, acting out of character in order to get the best results.  “Why rescue the princess? It won't give me enough experience to reach level 7.” Munchkins - the stereotypical kid playing only to score more than their buddies - ignore the puzzles and atmosphere in order to kick in the door, kill the monsters, and collect a +16 vorpal sword.

Dungeons and Dragons is a good forty years old now.  (Note to self: keep an eye out for retirement communities with active gaming groups).  Those forty years of game play also means that role playing games have evolved. The latest versions of Dungeons and Dragons still have voluminous rule books, odd dice, and lots of mathematical tables to decide whether your thief can climb to the top of the castle wall. Other games go much more towards the story telling. One of the more extreme examples, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, has the players pretend to be the famous Baron von Munchausen of tall-tales fame; each tries to tell a story to outdo the others in the 17th century German tavern…. er, sitting around the table.

And some games stress the interactive storytelling but still have some of those random mechanics. One example is Fate Core. In Fate Core, you still create an alter-ego, and catalog down some of that character’s attributes on a “character sheet”. However, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, you generally use words instead of numbers. You choose a subset of skills that your character is good at (“Very good at athletics and investigation, poor at deceiving.”) You name aspects of your character - one liners - naming both how you generally respond, and an obvious weakness. (“Thief with a heart of gold”, “always jumps in to help the underdog”, “afraid of zombies”). Fate Core uses a simpler mechanic for deciding if you succeed, with simple dice with pluses and minuses for the random angle, and a range of success where you get to narrate the result.  Most importantly, the Fate Core rules includes the simple statement:

“Both players and gamemasters have a secondary job: make everyone around you look awesome. Fate is best as a collaborative endeavor, with everyone sharing ideas and looking for opportunities to make the events as entertaining as possible… Fate works best when you use it to tell stories about people who are proactive, competent, and pragmatic. A game about librarians spending all their time among dusty tomes and learning things isn’t Fate. A game about librarians using forgotten knowledge to save the world is... Characters in a game of Fate always lead dramatic lives. The stakes are always high for them, both in terms of what they have to deal with in their world, and what they're dealing with in the six inches of space between their ears.”

After all, isn't that what we want in fantasy stories? Conan the Barbarian fighting off the invading hordes? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser thwarting the evil Overlord? A conflicted Batman deciding whether to go after the Joker? Academic psychologists defeating the Blatant Beast in the world of Spencer’s Faerie Queene?

Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show on YouTube shows what an actual game is like; if I’ve made you curious, go check it out.

But this blog is about model railroading.

I’ve said before that model railroad operation is pretty close to roleplaying - a bunch of us come together in a scenario planned by someone else, and try to tell a story about a day on the railroad.  Switchlists and train sheets give some of the war-gaming randomness.  But we also have a much different mission than Fate Core.  We don't want drama and excitement - we want to be recreating the action of the model railroad in a day-to-day, get-it-done model. We’re coming together to get the jobs done and keep the trains moving.

I think of it as more than a game; I’d like folks to get an appreciation of working on the railroad in the 1930s - what the jobs were like, how busy the railroad was, and where the other San Jose residents was working. The role playing is also a reminder of the difficult parts of railroading - the times you're stuck at the top of Tehachapi Pass at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum,  and can't get permission from the dispatcher to leave the siding, or wondering what a switch job would have been like in the rain or snow. It also determines whether we just re-rail those cars that fell in the canyon, or if the dispatcher immediately shuts down the railroad and sends the Big Hook to fix the derailment.

A war-gaming style doesn’t work for us; Joe can’t be a level 5 hostler; if you run over your switchman, that doesn't mean you have a half-effective switchman. But we can try to name ourselves by adjectives, just like in Fate Core. A particular tower man might be “crotchety” and "slow". A yardmaster might be “helpful”. An engineer may be “selfish” and try to tie up his train ahead of others; another engineer may be “know-it-all” and may push the schedule and safety to get to the next siding. A brakeman might be “sleepless” after ten days working without a break. The jobs might have Fate-style aspects, too. A switch job on the edge of the layout might be slow-speed: “don’t sweat it too much”, while a switchman working in the yard might want to feel as if he’s “micromanaged”. Chuck Hitchcock’s Argentine Industrial District Railway sets adjectives like this for certain jobs, with the AT&SF tower man encouraged to favor his own trains and ruin the plans for the crossing railroaders.

But just like the real railroad jobs, some of the role-playing on the layout comes from our own experience. If I operate on Rick Fortin's layout, I know there's experienced crews who know what they're doing, and newbies who make lots of mistakes, and I’m likely to plan for that behavior when I switch the yard. Some of that role-playing falls back on indivdual personality; there's going to be crochety members of the operating session, and mellow coworkers.  If Sam’s the yard master at Keyser on David Parks’ layout, then the yard’s going to be run strictly by the book. If Falkenburg is an engineer, he'll be no-nonsense. If Seth's running the yard, we'll be working double-speed, but he’ll be teaching the newbies out the whole time.

So we're kinda not role-playing - we're just running trains and letting some of our own personality bleed out. That’s not surprising; I suspect the folks who tend to play thieves in D&D probably tend towards the clever and sneaky personality, and the folks playing a paladin probably have a strong sense (or secret inclination) to make sure Things Are Done Correctly And Properly.  We'll role-play a bit outside our normal roles, but most of us probably tend towards acting in a way that has some parallel with our real self.

But model railroading is still role-playing; we need to describe a setting and provide some hints. Our operators need to know whether the rulebook is “more like guidelines” on this layout, or if breaking a rule gets you banished. Our operators need hints about the job and the role, both so they know if it’s a character they want to play, and so they know how to behave towards the others in the session. We can have a bit of randomness to make the system heroic. Perhaps some maintenance work shuts down an important stretch of track, and we all need to pull together to make it through the day. Maybe we should imagine that it’s a winter day, and getting the trains over the hill is a bit of heroism.

Sometimes we just play up the drama. I often describe my own Vasona Branch model railroad as a "high speed, thrill ride switching layout", for I personally like challenging switching puzzles, and I want to invite operators who are interested both in the prototype and in the switching challenges. Like Fate, most of my operators are "proactive, competent, and pragmatic", and if they're not saving the world with their switching, at least they're removing a bit of chaos from the tracks next to the cannery. The real crews, with thirty years of experience switching these same tracks, were probably just as adept at dispelling the chaos.

If I want to inspire my operators with a bit of drama, I can be blunt in my introduction to the layout:

"It's June 15, 1932; apricots are ripe, and everyone's running full-out to can the crop. The canneries have been running double shifts since April on different crops, and you all have been working with hardly a break since then. You've got all the shifts you would want; you don't dare try to take time off, and you've had enough practice so you're confident and working together as a team.

It's six in the morning; the canneries start up in two hours. You need to get the boxcars in position so all those guys on the dock can load the cars up. Go show those guys on the loading docks how railroaders get things done.

But not all my operators are like that; some of my visiting operators, either by choice or by a random roll of the invite list, can be sedate, challenged by puzzles, or are new model railroaders getting thrown into the deep end of the San Jose extra board switching pool. Sometimes, those folks play the role of the new hire on the railroad, destined in his or her first shift to decide whether railroading is the right profession, or if he's going back to the farm where they won't need to distinguish between thirty boxcars in various shades of brown. Some folks might play the character of the old hand who needs some help in the role, which might frustrate the other folks on his train, or might remind folks of how the railroaders protected their own. Hopefully, no one's playing the rest of Ed Gibson's crew on that infamous trip on the Hayward Turn. Sometimes the operator having a hard time on the layout reminds us of crews the real railroad. Sometimes, we hope they'll fall asleep under the layout. Sometimes we'll just want to scream - just like on the real railroad.

To help our operators play the correct role on the railroad, we need to give them hints. We can suggest the tone of the operating session in our introduction and in how we explain our layout, the way the game master does. Just like Fate Core, we can use adjectives to give our operators hints about their roles or their characters. We can also let each operator's personality reflect into the game, either by letting the operators be themselves, or carefully inviting the folks who match the tone for our layout. No matter which way we provide those role-playing hints, our operators will end up making the operating session awesome, and as entertaining as possible... even if they're not a level 5 hostler.

Interested in other story-style role playing games? Check out Tabletop's video of Dread, where characters need to pull a block from an unstable Jinga block stack to avoid bad things happening, or Fiasco's story-telling based on 1970's dance clubs. And if you'd prefer that +16 vorpal sword, check out the card game Munchkin.

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