Something that bugs me when I’m reading other DMs or GMs is when they talk about “the story you want to tell.” Now, this may just be me, but if I want to tell a story, I just sit down and write it. I don’t invite four friends over and make them jump through hoops to guess what the final resolution to my epic, earth-shattering doomsday scenario will be while carefully ensuring that they complete all the necessary steps to prevent said doomsday scenario. Thataway lies a-holerey.
Now, I’m not saying that all DM-originating plots are necessarily railroading plots, nor am I saying that epic, world-threatening cataclysmic events are a terrible plot choice. What I am saying is that there is a risk for something very similar to railroading to occur when the DM has envisioned a grandiose story arc that will take the characters from 1st level to 20th and drastically alter the foundations of the society that spawned them. I am also saying that the “Ragnarok Scenario” gets kind of dull and uninteresting when you do it more than, say, once.
I present these two facets of RPG gaming together because so often I see them bound up in each other. “Fund my Kickstarter for this awesome new campaign arc!” “Here are some ideas to invest the players in your campaign idea!” “Get your players to write backstories so you can make them personally responsible for the villain that will destroy the world!”
See, the thing about a doomsday scenario is that it leads to (usually) one solution. The good guys have to win. They have to. If they don’t then the world is destroyed, which is kind of a letdown. I say usually because I suppose there are the kind of folks out there who would let the world be destroyed by whatever evil force was trying to make the planet part of a sandwich after the PCs fail to achieve some goal that would have thwarted the bad guy’s plan. Where do you go after that? Roll up a new world, I suppose.
But what happens after the good guys thwart the world-destroying evil? Do they go build castles and rule nations that pop up in the now-sparsely populated areas devastated by the big bad? Or do the credits roll because there’s nowhere to go after you’ve gone all the way up? I tend to think it’s the latter. Epic campaigns to save the multiverse are exhausting, and there’s always the issue of what to do next. Players burn out on that sort of thing really fast. And if you pull out another doomsday device for the next campaign, and the next, at what point do the players start to think, “Gee, this place seems to get threatened with total annihilation fairly frequently, what is up with that?” Or worse, they think, “Man, I just saved the d–n world last month. Can’t I just do some exploring for a while?”
And that is when you’ve lost the suspension of disbelief. It becomes an exercise in number crunching and dice rolling, maybe with some fine script-reading along the way. But the conclusion is foregone, because the players have to win. Your story doesn’t work if the players don’t stop the threat.
And that still applies if you don’t have the result of the PC’s failure being that the planet gets melted down into slag and hammered into a galactic croquet mallet. Every foregone conclusion forces the players into your plot maze, deep as it may be. And for a while, your players might love it. They just might want to replay Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring again and again. But you provide no better service than a video game if that is the case. D&D offers so much more.
Imagine you are standing in the middle of a field. Where you were before doesn’t matter. How you got there doesn’t matter. You have the supplies in your pack, the knife in your belt, and your wits to keep you alive. There is smoke from a village on the far side of the trees on one edge of the field, a massive mountain range looms on the opposite side. You can hear the sounds of the sea and smell salt in the air, brought on a fresh breeze to one side of you, and the sound of strange birds rings in your ears from the other side. Your future is yours to make. You can do literally anything. That is what D&D can offer: Freedom.
That’s what I want from a game, absolute freedom to explore, exploit, navigate, dig, buy, sell, profit, grow, lead, rule. You can offer the same to your players, if you only give them the chance. Don’t pull out another script for them to read, let them invent the plot, let them invent themselves. Let them grow into the kind of characters they desire, not the cardboard cut-outs of your plot devices. The world can be so big, why don’t you let them run around in it? If your game offers them freedom, they will return and return and return. There is no final boss battle, just the next obstacle to their personal goals; and like in real life, failure is always on the table. Since there is no script, no ultimate victory that must be won, every adventure may be the last.
Tension and drama arise naturally when much is risked. Threaten the characters that have been lovingly built, and real emotions will manifest at victory or defeat. When personal goals are achieved, elation happens. When tragedy befalls them, actual despair. Not the simple feeling of self-assurance when the arch-villain is defeated in the glow of just another task completed, but true, actual, glee when the player’s personal nemesis is slain on the field of battle.
You don’t need to threaten the world to get the players invested. Simply threaten all that they themselves have built. All you have to do is to let them build. Someone will always want what others have. There is always conflict, desire, power grabs, attempted coups, strife, war. Let the PC’s own actions bring opponents into the field. Victory is much sweeter when it means something you actually care about is safe.
But maybe it’s just me.