Monday, March 23, 2009

Driving a Train - GMing Part 2

So today's article is on GMing or more precisely about railroading.

Being a GM means you are the director of the story. You paint the highway that the players drive down. That highway needs to go in one direction, and it's in the way you want.

You might think I'm advocating railroading here. I am.

I've run no less than 3 truly open-ended games in my GMing career. Most of my players didn't have anywhere near as much fun as the games where I dropped my players in a fixed scenario, gave them a goal, and said "Go." I didn't have as much fun when I wasn't making up regular scenarios either. In fact, even the scenarios where I basically forced the players down a path, they had more fun compared to the times where they scratched their heads without any real goals or aims aside from getting rich. It turns out that railroading is actually way better, and giving the players too many options is bad.

Yeah, I know I'm challenging the status quo here, so I should clarify. I'm sure like, half the GMs reading this hate me now, haha.

As a GM, it's your job to provide content to the players. You're the painter, the architect of the story. If the players don't have any goals to do, they get bored and stop having fun. Sure, they might have some lofty IC goal for their character, but generally most players are not smart enough to actually plan ways of achieving it. Your goal as a GM is to give the players goals to accomplish, while simultaneously fulfilling their desires of progress towards their eventual personal goals. In this way, you need to railroad them. The key, of course, is that you give them things they want to do.

Most players will play ball with you and just follow the goals you give them. But what if they do not? What if some players what to do something else? I have had situations as a player where I wanted to do things other than what the GM wanted. It was very annoying to me to have the GM say, "no you can't do that" basically. So you should definitely accomodate the players as a whole. If one player does not want to go with the group, you should talk to the players as a whole and find out what they do want to do. If the majority wants to do something else, it's okay to ride off the rails. You may need to take some time to plan the next part out, but you should do that. It's more fun if players are not forced into things they do not want to do.

You might say, well that is not railroading. Of course it isn't, because we are allowing the players a choice if they really don't agree with the choice we give them. But in most cases we should give the players a clear path to follow because without us as GMs to guide them, most players will wander like lost kittens.

Okay, I lie because I have done a fourth semi-open ended game, which had mostly scripted adventures but had several open-ended segments. This game eventually ended up mostly run by what the players wanted to do. I was so impressed because they were actually able to drive the game, and had clear goals for what they wanted to do. I got inspiration to do more open-ended games but since then, all of them have failed. So there may be strange player groups that are very goal oriented and make plans. You should let them run the game, haha. It is quite fun when a player calls you late at night and gives you many suggestions for what they want their character to do next week. It makes your life a million times easier as GM. But this is usually not the case and you will have to plan for less ambitious players. Be careful that you do not slight the really ambitious types. They have fun by making their own way, and most of the party would be totally fine to tag along.

If you get two ambitious players, beware! Either they will work together and try to 'undermine' you, which is fine, although some GMs might not be able to deal with that so well. But if everyone is having fun, it is probably fine. But most often the two ambitious players will be in conflict. It is very rare for two characters to completely agree in their plans for world domination (or whatever) and so there will likely be conflict. You may have to moderate this or perhaps you can change your campaign arc to better reflect the two players' power struggles. You may also have to split your group, which may take a lot of your GM resources. If such a conflict occurs it may be best to talk things over with them and try to get them to work together.

If you make a goal for the players you should not try too hard to give them a path to the goal. Some of the players will think of very creative ways to achieve your goals, and that is of course fine. You should allow them a lot of leeway to think of these things, because that is probably fun for them. Obviously, you need to take common sense into this because you shouldn't let the players get away with too much. Sure it is fun for them at first to get away with lots of things but then it gets boring too. The trick is to never use player logic - always use your own. However, if the rules say one thing, then obviously you should follow the rules, unless you really disagree with them. Real life can also create some disagreeable things. Make sure that you overwrite either game physics, player logic, and real life as appropriate in order to make things go smoothly. But obvious and most important is that you not stifle everything the players try to do. If they think of something creative and you just say no every time, they will get frustrated. That's kind of bad.

The flip side of course is that some player groups are kind of unsmart so you should have a number of 'easy' solutions available. It is quite possible to put NPCs organically so even if the players don't know anything, they can get gently pushed to the next clue, which leads to the next one, which puts them on the right track. Little subtle pushes like this are better than plot hammers that say "GO HERE AND DO THIS." I have however had to plot hammer some players. It's okay, not everyone is a genius, but everyone is entitled to have fun roleplaying. Try not to make too much fun of someone if you plot hammer them. I almost always make fun of my players when I do, though. I feel bad, you should not do this.

Last on our agenda though is whether or not we are having fun. I personally have fun most of the time when GMing, assuming the players are doing things and going through my adventure. I also like it a lot when players try to cheat the system or explore the world in some neat fashion because it makes me feel like I am doing a good enough job that they want to think of some neat way to 'get me' or something. It's fun for me. I don't know what's fun for you though. If you're not having fun because people keep "cheesing you" in some way, maybe you should think over whether or not you should GM. Remember that it is okay when the players win easily, as long as it doesn't happen all the time (boring =/= fun) but winning easily is okay some of the time. Don't retaliate on players because they 'get you' sometimes. The worst thing you can do is design something really hard to 'get them' back.

One time I was GMing with a group of players and they were going to undertake a difficult battle in defense of a group of magic users. The magic users' enemies (demon summoning magicians) were very numerous and the players could only really strike at strategic targets, if they tried to win the whole fight they would be overwhelmed. The battle was very long and thought out. Instead of fighting it though the players decided to drive out a few hours and contact another faction who happened to be opposed to demon summoning as a general society rule. The other faction was a large nation and had a large military, and I had already established a small outpost with a company of soldiers in a reasonable vicinity - close enough that they could intervene before the defense would need to be made. The soldiers moved in on the demon summoners and burned their stronghold to the ground. There were over a hundred soldiers against a few dozen demon summoners, and the soldiers had weapons to fight the demons so the battle was won easily.

In the end the players did not fight any battle, but I gave them EXP - I actually gave them more than what they would have made if they fought the battle. I was so surprised they would think of this, and it worked with established precedents I had set up elsewhere in the campaign. They cut the adventure a little short, but I gave them more EXP. I told them that they chose an option I had not thought of, one that was very smart and solved the problem without any losses for their friends or for themselves. How could I not give them more EXP?

But in this scenario I had practically forced it upon the players to defend the mages. I introduced a NPC mage who asked the players for help, and while they were trying to help with a minor thing, a demon summoner had attacked. The players managed to help out the NPC anyway, even though more demon summoners attacked. The players captured one, and successfully interrogated him using psychic powers and found out about the attack ahead of time (the players were intended to stay at the mage town during the attack, but due to smart play they found out beforehand). The players were basically railroaded into the plot hook, but once they took the hook, I allowed them to solve the story in whatever ways they wanted.

I have another scenario where I was a player. I was playing with a particular GM who had trouble dealing with our party composition. In particular he had trouble dealing with me. I handled a lot of the player finances and tried to get money for upgrades to the people that needed it. Our party was very team-friendly and the GM could not handle that. He posed one very nasty boss fight that was heavily taxing and not fun. It took many many rounds of combat, like 15 or more, in order to win this battle. He thought that because we 'got him' so many times that he had to make an impossible boss, and it almost was. We nearly wiped many times during the fight and our healers were barely able to keep people alive. It was really awful. Everyone agreed that fight was horrible. Do not do this to your players, it is anything but fun.

It's like driving down a highway instead of driving a train. Just make sure they don't drive off the road too much!

So in short, we should not actually 'railroad' the players in the sense that we should force them to go in ways that they don't want. But we should railroad the players into the story by default instead of just letting them do whatever. Sometimes players can think of things to do, but most of the time, they suck and don't make good goals for themselves.

In closing, I would like to present you with the open ended example scenario. My players were given relative freedom to do whatever they wanted. And so they did! One decided to do boring things for money. One decided to 'train' constantly. One decided to go to bars and hit on girls. One decided not to show up!

I think the player who chose not to show up sums up the success of this campaign. Always provide direction for your players, because most of the time, they are not very genius. You are the GM! You make things fun!

# of ambitious players ever: 3, all of which were referenced at least indirectly somewhere in this article.

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