Posts Tagged With: railroad

Maybe It’s Me

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.

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Categories: Discussion | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

DM Philosophy

As a DM, I have but two jobs:  run the world, and create drama.

Which is more all-encompassing that it first appears.  Running the world includes everything that happens to the PCs, and adjudicating the results of the PC’s actions in my world.  Managing the presentation of those things is how I create drama.  It sounds simple, and really it is.  Easy, on the other hand, well…

Realism and choice are the touchstones of my mission as a DM. The biggest things I do to promote those are 1) provide a world that is believable, comprehensible, and predictable; and 2) not handing out quests.

To explain: I have decided to set my world on what is essentially Earth, circa 1550. Granted, there are some differences (existence of magic, other humanoid races, etc.), but for the most part it is the earth that my player are already familiar with. That way I don’t have to go to great lengths to describe huge tracts of land and development to provide a world with depth, politics, history, and geography. It’s all right there for me on Google Earth and Wikipedia. I don’t have to invent a large metropolis and compare it to something the players are already aware of, I just set them down in London. Or Paris, or Madrid, or Munich, or Bangkok.  Work’s done for me.  That takes care of the comprehensible and believable part. For predictable, any actions or reactions that you could expect to happen here in real life will happen in my world. Punch a guy in the face, he’ll either punch back, fall down and give you his wallet, or pull a hammer off of his belt and clobber you. Most of the time. Invest in a shipping venture, and you’ve got something like a 70% chance to make a modest profit, a 25% chance to lose your shirt, and a 5% chance to make enough money to build a castle and take over Spain. I don’t feel like pulling everything out of my butt on a whim, it’s not fair to my players to have arbitrary results to studied actions.

I hate railroads.  Nothing happens “because I said so,” “because it’s what the story requires” or any of that bull.  Even if it comes down to “I don’t want you to succeed in this so you won’t.”  If a plan is logically sound and there are no active background plots that have accounted for such a plan, it will probably succeed.  Perhaps with unintended consequences, but if my PCs set something in action, results will occur, and not arbitrarily.  Logically.

As for not handing out quests, that doesn’t mean there aren’t quests. I just don’t hand them out. Handing down quests from on high is the start of the railroad.  There are video games if you want a selection of quests handed to you.  I leave the agenda setting up to my players. I start them with no directions, no timetables, no prophetic dreams, no pressure of any kind. I give them the environment, and let them give me the quests. For example, in the campaign I just started, during the character generation process my players decided they wanted to travel to Oslo to visit relatives. Which is great. I have no idea what’s in Oslo yet, because they have to get there first. Which will involve finding passage on a ship to go there. On the way to find said ship they might find an abandoned corpse, be attacked by bandits, encounter ghosts (all depending on what road they take), and they can do with that encounter what they will.  I don’t care.  I don’t plan the future, it’s not my job.  I run the present and invent the past.  The future is up to the PCs, the dice, and the dictates of reason.

But how does all of this create drama?  In the presentation.  That’s the tricky part.  The kind of game that brings players back to the table week after week is a game that they are invested in.  They need to care about their characters, they need to care about NPCs, they need to care.  Care and affection are a result of emotional ties.  Emotional ties are built through drama.

Which is all fine theory.  Now for some comprehensible examples.  Let’s say you have a brother.  Fine.  Lots of people have brothers.  Suppose you care about this brother because he protected you from bullies and such while you were growing up.  Now say that you’ve asked him to go to the big city to watch over some business venture or other for you.  Great, we’re happy for him, he’s helping us, wonderful.  Then let us suppose that we get a letter one day from our solicitor saying our brother has three days to pay off a large debt or he will be thrown into debtor’s prison and probably starve to death.  Uh-oh.  Now emotions are starting to be manipulated.  We care about our brother, and he’s in trouble due in part to us.  Better go make this right.  Then, about an hour before sundown on our way to town, as we are riding hard to make it to the city gate before nightfall and save our brother, we spy a column of smoke on the horizon, nearly in our path.  Riding closer we discover that a building is on fire.  A tall building, at least three stories.  A crowd of people are gathered around it, pointing up at the top level and shouting.  Closer still, and through the smoke billowing out of the second floor we see a window with several faces in it, people trapped above the conflagration.  A choice!  A moral dilemma!  Do we stop and try to save the people from certain fiery death and sacrifice our brother to prison for a night, or possibly more if we perish ourselves in the fire?  Ride on and surely save our brother but leave the innocent people to die?

Drama.  Sure, sent your brother to London to take care of things for you.  But your bro’s got a low wisdom score and gets himself in trouble.  It happens.  It’s a race against time.  You’re on your way.  Then I introduce a moral dilemma that is also time critical and drama happens.  As the DM, I don’t care what you do one way or another.  Heck, for all I care, you could decide to abandon both groups to their fates and ride off into the woods to hunt goblins.  Like I said, the future is up to the PCs and the dice.  I run the present and invent the past.

For me, this is DMing.  Run the world.  Insert drama.  Let the PCs and the dice decide the future.

Categories: Discussion | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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