Narrative RPGs and Ops Sessions

I’m going to start this post by describing something that has nothing to do with model railways – and then try to connect it to railway modelling. Bear with me…

Last year, I returned to another hobby after a hiatus of some 30 years. That hobby is Role Playing Games (RPGs), and my return was an eye-opening experience:

The Game Master at work.
(That’s me, pouring over notes as Game Master for a session of Star Wars: Age of Rebellion at the end of March: My first time acting as GM in 30 years. It was nerve-wracking, but fun – and I can’t wait to do it again!)

If you’re familiar with RPGs, you can skip ahead. For the rest of you, well…

It’s a big subject – but here’s an overly-simplified description. A group of people gather around a table. One person (the Game Master, or GM) has acquired (or written) a set of rules, and prepared the setting plus other information needed to conduct an adventure. Think of the rules as the mechanics of making a film – the lighting, the camera, the microphones, and all the other things are determine what you can and cannot do. And think of the setting and the adventure as the script.

The other people (the Players) each take on the role of a hero – the actors in our script. But instead of following a rigid script, the action unfolds through a group-based story-telling session. Where they go is limited only by the imagination of the Players and the GM, plus the GM’s ability to respond to the actions of the heroes in his setting. An adventure can last a single session – typically, 3 to 4 hours – like a stand-alone movie. Or, it can stretch over multiple sessions, like a TV series. It can also be part of a larger campaign in which the same Players (playing the same heroes each time) undertake several adventures – acquiring experience, plus a combination of wealth, status, power, and other benefits. Campaign play is more like a movie franchise, or multi-season TV show.

The games can be set just about anywhere: They can be based on any popular genre (e.g.: detective stories/pulp, fantasy, realistic science fiction or space opera, horror, super heroes, and so on). They can be realistic, even historical, or built entirely around an imaginary premise.

There’s usually a challenge involved: Slay the dragon, find the stolen plans, stop the evil empire, catch the bad guy, rescue the captured scientist, prevent (or solve) a murder… the possibilities are endless. The GM has a general plan of how things are to unfold, but the players are free to take their own actions.

The rules of the game tend to focus on basic activities. They define how to shoot a gun, how to cast a spell, how to pick a lock, how to fly a star ship (as appropriate to the world in which the heroes are adventuring). These rules typically use dice to resolve successes and failures. But the mechanics of the game are balanced by improv/narrative, where the Players and the GM can make up things on the fly to move the story forward.

As I mentioned, I’ve been away from RPGs for 30 years. And since I’ve had such a long break, I’ve noticed some interesting developments between then and now.

Many of the games I used to play are still around – although they’ve gone through several rules revisions, moved to different publishers, and so on.

Over all, those games are better – the quality is better and there’s a much greater choice of accessories such as figures (many to 28mm scale, which is very close to S scale) to bring adventures to life. (By the way, these new accessories are built the same way that much of our ready-to-run equipment is: It’s designed by the game developers on computer and manufactured in China. And then gaming hobbyists expand on their collection through scratch-building, kit-bashing, and developing their own computer designs for laser-cutting or 3D printing.)

And while I don’t know whether this is universal, my own experience is that many of the newer games have mechanics that are much easier to learn. In fact, in some of my favourites, the game authors have made it clear that the mechanics should enhance the narrative – not direct it.

For me, there’s been a definite evolution – which I noticed in large part because of my hiatus. The most significant change, in my experience, is the change in emphasis from mechanics to narrative as the driving force in game systems.

The games I played as a teenager were dice-heavy, and the randomness of those roles could make or break an adventure. You rolled the dice, a number came up, you compared it to a chart that told you what happened, and there was little room for GM and/or players to interpret the results.

The games I’m playing today often have dice with no numbers on them at all. The dice are marked with symbols that mean things like “success”, “failure”, “positive benefit”, “setback” and so on. They support the character’s actions, rather that dictate them.

Arkhan's character sheet and narrative dice.
(The portfolio for Arkhan – one of the heroes in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion adventure for which I’m game master – plus dice)

In RPGs, the character sheets (or portfolios) contain a mix of data to influence dice rolls, plus background that allows the player to assume the role. In the photo above, the character is a Bothan commander in the Rebel Alliance, played by my friend Brian. How well Brian assumes the character has a direct influence on the mechanics, so he can shape his hero’s destiny.

So, what does this have to do with model railroading? Good question.

The model railway hobby has also advanced a lot in the past 30 years – and in similar ways to role playing games. Our mechanics are definitely better:

We have DCC, laser cutting, photo-etching and 3D printing.

We have amazing ready-to-run models and terrific resin kits.

We shop the world via the Internet.

We have blogs and forums to share ideas and techniques.

We have strong historical societies, photo galleries, history websites, books and other resources – online and offline – to answer questions, and help us become better modellers.

And more.

The narrative side of things is also better: As a hobby, more of us know more about the rules of railroading than ever before, thanks to groups such as (but not limited to) the Operations SIG and Layout Design SIG. Thanks to many of the improvements to “mechanics” that I’ve already listed, more people are also getting beyond the “building models” stage to the “building a layout” stage. More layouts have scenery and detailed structures than ever before. And with better running trains, sound-equipped locomotives, signalling systems, prototype paperwork, and more, operating sessions are more realistic than ever.

These are all good things. So what’s next? I suspect that as a hobby, we could do better to define and communicate the narrative that drives our layouts.

Often during operating sessions, we become fixated on the mechanical: Moving this car from here to there… moving that train from there to here… letting the dispatcher know where we are… following the time table… deciphering the DCC throttles, track diagrams and switch controls… and so on. But if we step back and look at what we’re doing, operations sessions are essentially a Role Playing Game.

The owner/builder of the layout is the game master, who has created the world, defined the adventure, and established the rules.

The rest of us assume the roles of various “heroes” in the game: we’re the dispatcher, the engineer, the conductor, the yardmaster, and so on.

With rare exceptions (and I’ll provide an example, below), the narrative takes a back seat to the mechanics of the operations game. We follow the rules, but otherwise we basically play ourselves. I know I do. Are we missing an opportunity?

Those who like Role Playing Games would think so.

I suspect that gamers would enjoy a layout like the Kansas City Terminal, built by Jim Senese of Oklahoma. I’ve read about Jim’s layout in Great Model Railroads and Model Railroad Planning. It’s also been featured online. You can find a good description of it on this page, where I will direct your attention to the last line of the first paragraph:

It’s 3:00 pm on Saturday, November 15, 1980 – the last weekend before the Frisco was absorbed into the Burlington Northern. The eight model railroaders who come to operate the KCT are divided into four two-person crews. One crew will be hired by the M-K-T, one by the Frisco, one by the Kansas City Southern, and one by the Missouri Pacific. During the 3.5 hour operating session each crew will switch industries along their railroad, provide customer service moves at grain elevators, and interchange interline freight cars with the other three trunk lines. As an additional dimension, each crew will be provided with a description of the corporate culture of the railroad they work for and will be asked to adopt that persona during the session.

What a terrific idea!

Now, this works well for Jim because he has built a terminal switching layout focussed on the interplay between four railroads in the Kansas City area, and each railroad has its own culture. But I’m sure this idea could be adapted to individual jobs on any layout. It could be as simple as assigning each operator a persona – a character sheet – that describes their personality.

Are they new to the job, and worried about making errors? Or are they old hands, counting the days to retirement? One could add detail as one sees fit. An old hand might live to hold court with the other railroaders – or might be somewhat dour and unapproachable.

In the Star Wars RPG universe (and, I’m sure, others), each player selects an “obligation” or a “duty” for their character. This is their motivation for being in the Rebel Alliance in the first place, and it combines with the character’s background story to help the player in several ways, including:

It helps the player assume the persona of their hero. In fact, it encourages this, because the Game Master will assess how well the player is fulfilling their character’s obligation (or duty) when awarding experience and other goodies at the end of an adventure.

It helps direct the story, by giving players an understanding of how they would react to situations and what sorts of opportunities they act upon. It also gives the Game Master tools to use to engage the characters in the adventure he or she has designed.

I wonder: If a long-time gamer suddenly embraced railway modelling and built a layout… what would it look like? What would operating sessions be like? Would they include props – perhaps, come to sessions dressed for the part?

Something to think about, as you ponder three Stormtroopers on speeder bikes patrolling through Port Rowan…

No 'droids here: Move on!

22 thoughts on “Narrative RPGs and Ops Sessions

  1. Very good analysis and analogous comparison of RPG to MR. I used to play D&D in college and I think its limits were based more on the technology available at the time (I was in college over 35 years ago when dinosaurs still roamed the earth). I agree that both RPG’s and MRing have adapted well to technological improvements. One difference between model railroading and role playing is that in model railroading, you are both the game master and the player — often at the same time.

  2. Hi Trevor,
    Thank you for sharing this interesting article…..

    For some months I have been using the same analogy,
    “A Model Railway – Role Playing Game” to describe the underlying premise of the Model Railroad operating session, who friends and people like customs agents when traveling to the US for events such as Bay Rails.
    It certainly helps to quickly establish understanding.

    Another variation is “LARP” where “Live Action Role Playing” games are taken outdoors and the participants are dressed up and are equipped with medieval weapons made of styro-foam.

  3. I also to do RPG’s! Great experience, though I’ve come to think it took much time from the pike…

    I like you’re idea of putting more narrative into model railroads. The problem then becomes where to put it. For a games master, that’s given. For a model railroad, there are several options, non as self-evident as in a RPG.

    Obvious choices are blogs or magazines, but most layouts aren’t featured in such channels. Signposts? Verbally at meetings?

    A related issue is that not everyone is a skilled narrator. Here in Sweden we had a guy who took the narrative approach with their club layout in the early nineties, and wrote a whole book about it, all stories. He was good, but not everybody that tried to follow in his footsteps were equally gifted. I admit to dabbling in the field myself at the time, and that experience just made me like a plagiarist.

    • “I like you’re idea of putting more narrative into model railroads. The problem then becomes where to put it. For a games master, that’s given. For a model railroad, there are several options, non as self-evident as in a RPG.”

      For those who favour TTO on multi-operator layouts, the layout host sets the scene, but the dispatcher is effectively the game master. (I guess, having only read about this sort of thing.)


  4. We’ve never had it better in terms of the tools or knowledge but I wonder if we’ve made as much progress in exploring our imagination? If anything it feels like we’re getting better and better at insulating ourselves from imagination one rule at a time. In that way, I wonder if the amazing growth in our hobby is really progress or just change?

    For example: We revel in making sure we set the pretend brakes on a model freight car but we do so because that’s what a real railroader does in real life. We don’t, as you suggest, step into that role. We fail to invite ourselves to pretend a little and imagine what we’d need to do to secure the real rail car – the model is a model of a hundred ton rail car but we don’t treat it like that when we use it.

    What if we super-detailed and weathered our relationship with the model’s emotional attributes with the same care and precision we express toward the more tangible dimensions?

    What if “more imagination” was a vehicle to reinforce our relationship with the work? That might be a way to elevate the models from being just a collection of nice things to something we further look forward to interacting with. We look forward to because of the emotional bond we’ve been investing in each time we play. A bond made stronger every time we play.

    Early on in your post you touched on something that really fires my imagination and something that I’d like to experiment with: the mission. Wouldn’t it be neat to promote operating sessions that were more mission-based? Instead of just announcing that you were planning a generic op’s session and needed X number of operators you could provide a narrative in that invitation: “It’s harvest time and the railroad is at peak capacity.” Friends could respond to that invitation based on their desire to be a part of or abstain based on how they want to relate to the model railroad. For the host, the guy with the model railroad, it’s also a chance to re-cast the layout in a variety of roles rather than just the more singular way we tend to describe them.

    I hope you continue to expand on this post with further thoughts. These hobbies have more in common. It’s neat to read about how a model railroader relates to RPG stuff and I’m just as interested in the opposite.


  5. As a model railroader and former RPG player I agree with several arguments, however I think Role Playing a specific persona may be hard in a model railroad due to several reasons:
    1- Setting: When role playing miniatures are just a aid for the players, the real action is in the narrative built by players and GM. On a model railroad the physical world (layout) have precedence above anything else.
    2- Interaction: A RPG player interacts directly with other players in a normal conversation, in a model railroad this direct interaction happens only among crewmembers (engineer & conductor). Even model railroads that incorporate radio/telephone/telegraph communications with a dispatcher or other crews do not feel realistic since using these comms the crewmember has to adhere to heavily scripted comm standards he is not familiar (as if in a rule-heavy RPG).
    3- Not much room to role play: Role playing a character in a RPG is very much up to the player. He can have a character that is roguish like Han Solo, wise as Obi-wan, ruthless like Boba Fett or many other characteristics that will affect game play. How can it be translated to a model railroad setting? If I am new to a layout, using a different throttle than the one I have at home and using a different dispatching system and signals I can hardly role-play the experienced engineer nearing his retirement for I as a player am not confident in my abilities. How would someone role-play a character (motivations, personalities etc.) through the way the train moves?
    4- Rule heavy: A RPG can have really few rules, my latest game used a set of rules that is very permissive to storytelling instead of dice-rolling (blood & honor). In model railroads the interaction a crewmember has with the narrative goes mostly through throttles, toggle switches, skewers etc. That is setting very similar to dice and rule-heavy systems, only less random. Crewmembers are always checking the mechanism they have to use to transfer their intentions to the narrative (session).
    There are ways to make a model railroad session closer to a role-play situation, using simpler throttles (some argue that non-transducer throttles are more intuitive to use, therefore increase role-play attitudes), avoid toggle switches to throw points, adopting prototype rules only as far as needed for deconflicting layout situations and increasing role-play situations (such as incorporating a MOW crew NPC at some point of the route) and using a less rigid radio/telephone/telegraph procedures, however those are only partial solutions.
    Some experiments are far on the other side such as the model railroader that built a cab mock-up complete with controls and projecting the real-time image from the layout using a camera car. This kind of thinking may solve the engineer side of the role play, however the conductor still has to work in the layout itself, and unless it is a single locomotive branch or shortline some crews will still face the same issues above.
    There is the very real possibility that these issues may be solved using simulators, dovetail’s latest Train Sim World not only recreates the cab controls, it allows the player avatar to leave the locomotive and walk along the right of way, throw switches and uncouple cars. Multiplayer sessions on TSW may be the closer to completely role play a railroad work, but it is not model railroading anymore.

  6. I just read the page for Jim Senese’s layout. You’re right. That sounds like a great pile of fun and instantly, I know I’d love to have a chance to be a part of that session. Cool eh?!

    I remember reading about a typical day on the Modesto & Empire Traction railroad. How the crews all showed up at the office at the same time a split off into teams. Each team had a radio (cell phone? I can’t remember) and while they worked their respective arms of the railroad they received their next tasks by radio.

    In the typical session we provide the operator with the full switchlist so he can see everything he has to do that time. What if we just revealed it one task at a time?


  7. (I can only apologize for a blog post’s worth of comments I’m leaving here: sorry)

    In terms of narrative why is that when we think “narrative” we model railroaders think about a book of history and rules the visitor needs to study before they can play with us? Could it instead be something that evolves during game play?


  8. Interesting commentary, everyone – thank you! As you can tell by the length of the original post, and the fact that it’s been a couple of weeks since that first Star Wars game, I’ve been thinking about how to approach this subject for a while, so it’s great to see so much thoughtful feedback.

    (And not just from Chris Mears! 😉 )

    Please, keep the comments coming…

    After writing this post, I headed out this afternoon to pick up an order of Test of Honour – a tabletop skirmish 28mm miniatures representing Japanese Samurai and support troops. (I’ve been following progress online as gamers build and paint their miniatures and the terrain they need to decorate the battlefield, and I’m really impressed by the look and feel of this game. But I digress…)

    Since I had time on the drive – and I was, after all, headed to a gaming store – I thought a lot about this post while out and about. And it occurred to me that while operations sessions have some elements in them that Role Playing Gamers would recognize, they’re also a lot like one of these tabletop miniatures games, for several reasons:

    In both, the rules are well defined. In a game, this is defined by the rulebook and house rules. On a layout, it’s by the owner’s operating scheme.

    In both, the selection of equipment is important to how the action unfolds. In the case of table miniature games, players build and paint miniatures to represent the force they’ll take into battle. In model railroading, we build and paint locomotives, freight and passenger cars, non-revenue equipment and so on to represent the trains we will run in an operating session. (And in both cases, hobbyists can amass an extraordinary amount of equipment – often, more than they really need to engage in the activity.)

    In both, the equipment is restricted to certain movements. In a game, this is defined by the abilities of each piece – in terms of allowable distance moved per turn, types of terrain it may pass through, and so on. On a layout, this is defined by the track, obviously.

    Many of these table top miniatures games have, at some point, developed a Role Playing Game component. For example, the BattleTech miniatures game later spawned the MechWarrior RPG. There are many other examples – but one thing the RPG versions tend to have in common is they have the feel of a rules supplement, more than a stand-alone game: You can certainly play MechWarrior without owning a copy of BattleTech, but you probably wouldn’t.

    Not to knock what Jim Senese is doing – not at all, because I consider him one of the more advanced in our hobby in terms of setting up an operating session, simply based on his idea of role-playing the corporate culture. But it still seems like a tiny step – more like a rules supplement, rather than a full-on Role Playing Game. And again – that’s fine! It’s better than most of us do.

    But it does make me wonder: If we take that first step – to enhance our operating sessions by adding even a small element of role playing – how far we can travel down that road, to enhance the narrative action that takes place in our sessions to match the well-defined mechanics…

  9. Fascinating concept – I’ve no experience with RPGs, but I’ve often thought about op sessions on a layout from a business perspective – consider that the railroad is actually supposed to turn a profit. How would that change the session? Now one must take into consideration the number of passengers served as well as freight shipping and demurrage charges.

    I definitely want to follow this discussion.


  10. We have been to Jim Senese’s layout in Claremore, Oklahoma a number of times. So many, in fact, that once he paired us with some newbies to help them learn the ropes (and that, sir, is a scary thought!). However, we love the role-playing aspect of his op session… maybe a bit too much sometimes. He describes the Frisco crew as “no-nonsense, business-like, and maybe even a tad surly”… after all, who knows if they will even have a job after the BN takes control. Assuming that role is always fun for our little operating crew, and several operators have commented that we fit the mold of a Frisco employee to a tee. HA!

  11. Imperials scouts speeding through Port Rowan made my day, Trevor. Bravo!
    What a fascinating and insightful post linking two seemingly disconnected departments of ye olde hobby shop. I was positively tickled to see this post as it tracks with some of my own recent gaming experiences and also touches on the connection I have always felt between trains and science fiction.
    I started playing Star Wars X-Wing and Armada, along with a few other late generation games, semi-regularly this year with a group, and my gamer mates are always interested in hearing about my trains and model railroad operations as a kind of game or simulation. And we have a rocking good time! The state of the art of gaming miniatures, as you note, is breathtaking. It’s worth noting that railroad themes surface with some regularlity in the artisanal board game market place, the most prominent example is ‘Ticket to Ride’–somewhere, there’s even a Maerklin-branded version of the game.
    I’m meeting the guys for a game of ‘Terraforming Mars’ later this week–a new game to me but I’m already wondering if railroad building is part of the game. Railroads, after all, have been key to how we have terraformed earth to yield our current way of life; surely railroads will be useful on the red planet.
    I actually have an upcoming post on my blog up linking my abiding love of science fiction hardware–spaceships, giant fighting robots, and the like–to my model railroading. I’ll have more to say in the post, but in my imagination, GG1s, armored vehicles, rockets, race cars, electric power plants, container cranes, zeppelins, asteroid mining robots, starships and everything in between populate a continuum. You and others out there feel at least somewhat the same way, apparently.

  12. Several of the regulars on our local operating layout are also RPG enthusiasts. In fact, the core of our first local HO modular group was formed nearly 30 years ago by a group that met regularly to play games and watch the then-new Star Trek:TNG.

    Shortly before our local “all-things-to-everyone” hobby shop closed for its second and final time around ten years ago, I’d proposed that sometime we should cross to the other side of the store and invite some of the gamers we know to come play our TT&TO game, on our large (30’x60′) game board. That never came about back then because of time constraints and a stream of commitments within the Ops community, but there’s no reason that we couldn’t do it now- we’d just have to head over to a different store…

  13. Wow – LOTS of food for thought here and an excellent analogy for sure (btw, I too enjoyed the storm troopers!). I’ll echo many/most of the comments above, but have a slightly different take – not so much model railroad as RPG but as Time Machine.

    It’s really two sides of the same coin – adding an additional dimension to our sessions based on a point on some continuum between fiction and non-fictional. Jim Senese appears to tend more toward the non-fictional (trying to replicate the different/competing corporate cultures). You, Dave Ramos – and I hope I as well – have tended more toward the non-fictional: We’ve actually researched what the weather was on a particular day in history that we’re trying to replicate and I (expanding on an idea I got from Dave) even go so far as to include in my Crew Call everything that’s happening in the world on that particular day (it’s fun research in and of itself!). That gives my crew – provided they read through the sometimes-long crew call(!) – added layers of context and, if I’ve accomplished my goal, they will get as close a sense to working on the Valley Line on the New Haven Railroad on a particular day in history as is possible for me to (re)create.

    I guess it’s not “role playing” per se, though it is certainly “setting the scene” using actual facts/data/info/research/etc. to create a virtual time machine.

    Now….. more toward the RPG concept – and you and Jim have both touched on it – how about “superdetailing” our roles? As a prototype modeler I try as much as possible to recreate in miniature the actual locomotives/cars that ran on my line and the structures located along the line. Instead of a “generic” house, when possible I’ve tried to find out who’s house it was during the month I’m modeling (without getting creepy LOL – having friends who lived in the area I modeled during my chosen era is priceless). But using RPG to superdetail actual folks? What an idea! As I learn more about Jack Sopher (Wethersfield agent), Ray Scire (Wethersfield express agent that delivered REA in an old Dodge pickup that left a trail of smoke everywhere it went), Bill Beaupre & Dave Corsair (engine crew on the Valley Local), Bernie Edison (conductor), how about I pass that information along to my operators and they have to adopt the correct individual’s persona? Talk about history coming alive!

    It wouldn’t be too far removed from what we experience when we go to historical sites and there are actors there that have done so much research on individuals who lived there that it really is almost as if you’ve traveled back in time.

    ANYway, I didn’t mean to go on so long – but as you can tell from all the comments, you’ve certainly struck a nerve here. It’ll be so fun and interesting to watch as our hobby continues to evolve – and I’d sure enjoy seeing examples of how folks have started using RPGs to enhance their layouts!

  14. Heh, heh, heh…so now when the S Scale Workshop is at a venue, look for Andreas the elf archer and Conrad the dwarf somewhere on the modules!

    Seriously, well said, Trevor. But I do have some people from another realm waiting to fill their mugs at the brewery.

  15. Fun post Trevor. As a 30+ year D&D DM who has run many, many other games over the years, I’ve got perhaps more gaming than modeling experience since I had about a 15-year hiatus in modeling (although I did have a head start in model railroading).

    The hobby has a lot to offer, of course. I’ve sold of the majority of my minis, but my modeling skills were much improved by painting thousands of them, as well as modifying a few along the way. There are materials and techniques that I’ve picked up just like we do from military modelers and so on.

    I agree with the RPG aspect of ops sessions, even if it’s not quite as formalized as a “game.” Being the type of gamer that loves tweaking and modifying rule-sets, I’ve found it’s given me a lot of help in working our ops session, whether it’s figuring out how to work a complex local freight, to how to best work in a representation of what the railroad does within our model.

    But RPGs grew out of war-games, and there are many (like me) that prefer a “simulationist” approach. Railroad operating sessions also fit that approach.

    For those fuzzy on what role-playing actually is, you are assuming the role of another person. While some people are capable (and enjoy) acting the role, many of us aren’t that talented. All it really entails is making decisions as if you were that character.

    So when you’re the conductor, engineer, or in my case, the freight agent/yard master, you’re role-playing when you make decisions as if you were, the engineer, freight agent or conductor. Many would of course be as offended if I were to suggest that an ops session is as much a game as if I told them we play with toy trains :>)

    So I won’t go that far…But for those of us that enjoy both hobbies, I’m sure it’s no secret how many skills, particularly mental ones, that translate well to either one.

  16. One way to look at this, I think, is to ponder how you would role play railroading and what you could transfer to our op. sessions and how that would impact how we set up an op session.

    For instance if you are role playing, a group of players could portray the crew of a local. The travel between towns might not be much more then “after 40 min you reach the town of…” although the decision to venture out of the mainline probably would be a key moment. In town switching would be a key scene, as in many op. sessions, but I think interaction with non-player characters (NPCs) portrayed by the Game master would be a big part that is often let out of our traditional op. sessions. The NPC:s might be a worker at an industry you’re working getting a car ready for the crew to pull, a stranger that have parked a car on the spur where you’re supposed to spot a car and so on.

    In my experience much of RPG is about decision making, problem solving, interacting with other players and non-player characters, and a big part of the fun comes from the dialog (in character) between players and between players and NPC:s. Decision making and to some degree problem solving we already have in model railroading, interacting in character with non-player characters, not so much. As Chris writes I think it comes down to imagination.

    What if we introduced a game master to some of our op. sessions to help with the imagination? We could sit down around a model railroad switching layout portraying a part of an industrial park with a couple of spurs with some cars spotted. A couple of us could play the crew of a turn working the park, and one of us the game master. The crew could consist of an engineer, a conductor and maybe a brakeman or two, each with their own characteristics. The crew has work to do with the model railroad engine and cars like in a normal op. session, but also the game master could come up with situations the crew has to act on and can portray different characters the crew meets. For example: “You see a van parked across the spur to ABC-warehouse, what do you do?” The crew could decide to wait and maybe spot another car first hoping that somebody moves the van, or they might go looking for the van’s driver. If they do the later and find the driver they have to convince him to move the van. How do they do that? Playing out their different characteristics might make them interact with him in different ways.

    You might not move the same amount of cars in the same amount of time as you would in a normal op. session, but it might be a fun experience!

    • I like where you’re going with this idea. In the typical operating session we work to forge and then reinforce a relationship between the individual and the railroad (1:1) but this your suggestion sounds really fun for the way it might encourage more interaction between the operators instead of always through the medium of the layout.


  17. Could the operating session on the model railway be the product of more than just the layout owner’s intentions?

    If currently we invite people to our homes to operate on our model railway we project upon the guests our vision for how that session should come together. I wonder if there’s ever a case where the layout is opened for a more democratic approach to designing the operating session?

    Obviously, guests are still guests and some basic house rules still apply so that the layout and the work it represents are respected, as well as the builder/owner’s intentions toward that work but everyone that participates in the operating session has their own reason for doing so. As operating crews spend more time together after years of operating together on the same layout I wouldn’t doubt that each operator starts to develop a personal relationship with the layout that might equal that of the actual owner and builder.

    So, what if a “planning for the operating session meet-up” became an event prior to the time of the actual operating session? Over a (beer, coffee, whatever) the crew got together and exchanged ideas for a session they’d like to attempt and then how practical that might be. Instead of operators gathering around the layout to serve the layout’s needs and that already scripted play, the layout instead gets viewed as a resource. It’s trains and tracks become tools that can be re-cast in perhaps a very different light to showcase perhaps a very operating session.

    The overall game would still be basically the same but rather than replaying the same script, session over session, and without any major change to the layout’s physical plant, a chance to refresh the relationship with it.


  18. I have long viewed operations on a model railroad as akin to playing a board game…with very detailed pieces. Ever since the “European” board game renaissance, games have had good rules, good-looking boards, and frequently good-looking pieces. I have also been a tabletop wargamer since forever, and see the same ideas. (Same with LARPing, and tabletop RPGs.)

    For me, they are all facets of the same gem. Most model railroad operators ARE playing a board game…they just don’t know it. 😉

    For me, bringing new people in the railroad hobby has been aided by treating it like a game. I introduce them to the basic rules, give them the scenario, and then we play it out on the model railroad.

    In all cases, things like paperwork, locks, brake vales and such fall under the broad definition of the word “props”. In LARPs, you have props: Jeweled crowns, lost messages, treasure, etc. In operations, you have Timetables, Form Ds, and so forth.

    The combination of good models, good scenery, rules, props, and so forth creates “immersion”, which, I think, is the end goal for an operations-oriented model railroad. At the end of the session, you want to feel like you’re stepping back OUT of the zone, out of the era.

    The more immersion, the better the experience.

    Of course, it is easy to go overboard, and have too many rules, too many props. Then things get tedious, and the players never want to play that game again!


    • Hi Brian:
      Very good points. Immersion is key to bringing the game to life, but a balance must be achieved with the props. One way to do this is to make every prop serve a useful purpose. For example, I have a lot of props on my layout – from paperwork, to fascia-mounted aids to help represent activities like setting hand brakes, to a fast clock and a working telegraph system.
      But I never insist that guest operators use these.
      For some, blowing the whistle and ringing the bell in the right spots is enough – and that’s cool: I won’t insist that they do more. Others want to immerse themselves more fully – and it’s nice to have the gear required to do that.

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