Continuing their exploration into the vagaries of roleplaying, Dan Humphreys explains what railroading is, how much backstory is too much and why electromagnets are always a bad idea. Now you’ve found some players, how do you keep them focused on the story?
Find Part 1 here.
Part 2 – ” If Homo heidelbergensis could do it…”
Expect the Unexpected
Congratulations! You are the proud GM of a fine clutch players, all ready for some adventuring action. The hardest part is over now, right?
Sort of. The reason choose-your-own adventure books worked is because they were closed systems. Whatever your choice, you were still in the adventure. You sit in the chair, turn to page 163; you don’t sit in the chair, turn to page 80. No option to search the chair for traps, go back the way you came, or chop the chair into tiny little pieces. While pen-and-paper RPGs simulate closed systems, they’re not. They’re confined only by the limits of the GM’s imagination and the players’ ingenuity. New players will do things you didn’t expect because they’ve not been conditioned into automatically recognising the arbitrary limits of most games; old salts will try and game the system using their meta-awareness of past narratives (NB: don’t do this, it’s bad form). This is usually just funny – when a madcap player-concocted scheme goes awry and someone catches fire, or a superpowered electromagnet rips half their house off and throws their car into the street (it made sense at the time) – but if you have a carefully plotted narrative and the players keep throwing you curveballs or wandering off the map it can get frustrating quickly, and you may be tempted to start narrowing their options so that they have to get back to the adventure at hand.
This is called ‘railroading’, and to a certain extent it has a place in games it can quickly become a point of contention between players and GMs. For instance, if you have a player who has become preoccupied with their character’s backstory and doesn’t want to participate in the main narrative anymore, or someone who just likes to dither and mess around when others are trying to pursue the plot then it might be time to start laying some track. If it gets disruptive to the rest of the group, you might even need to take them aside and explain the issue – chances are, they don’t realise there’s a problem and will be happy to stop it and get back to the issue at hand.
However, if the players just want to do something completely unrelated and you keep slapping their wrists and trying to drag them back to your story then it becomes frustrating for everyone. The resolution to this is to work out what it is the players want and incorporate it into the story – yes, it’s more work for you, but it’s usually worth it. Say you’re running Call of Cthulhu and you want the players to go to the mob hideout and find the next clue. Instead they have a sudden onset of citizenship and decide to report the mobsters to the police rather than pursue the plot themselves. You make the police surly, even outright rude or incompetent, but the players stick by their guns and keep trying to blow the whistle. Rather than continuing to stonewall them until they get fed up and do the plot, why not have them discover evidence that the mob are buying the police anyway? Or perhaps there’s another way for them to get the clue with the aid of a few good cops? Or maybe you can enjoy feeding a few boys in blue to the shoggoth in the mobsters’ basement and putting the guilt on your players? The point is, there are plenty of resolutions that are a) good storytelling and b) make your players feel like their choice was meaningful.
This leads nicely to…
Be Proud, Not Precious
You’re going to really pleased with some of the stuff you come up with, and deservedly so. Writing roleplaying games is a phenomenally underrated creative endeavour, given that a good game has all the hallmarks of a good short story or script but is also versatile enough to withstand the players’ capriciousness.
There is a danger, however, in becoming preoccupied with your own creations. Say you’ve drawn out a whole arc campaign about fighting off an undead plague. It’s got multiple in-depth locations and dozens of key NPCs, and a complex tiered legion of baddies from the skeletal foot soldiers right up to their lich generals. And it’s awesome! Your players love the first couple of adventures, hacking apart vile zombified minions and delivering precious plague cures to harried temples and defending a besieged city from the ramparts. Eventually, though, they start to get a bit restless – but they’ve not even seen a quarter of your grand vision! So you pile it on even more, writing complex backstories for even minor enemy lieutenants and making encounters as dramatic and atmospheric as possible, and still the players just don’t seem invested.
The scenario just isn’t working for them. That’s not to say it’s bad – it’s probably spectacular and well worth playing – but whether they’re tired of fighting undead, not into the overarching plot, or just not feeling the setting, something’s amiss. The temptation is to make them play it through to the conclusion. After all, you put all the work into this, and they don’t even know how it’s going to end. But if you do that you’re only really playing for yourself, it’ll show in the game, and the players will drift further and further. Sometimes you just have to concede that while you’re really proud of what you wrote, it’s not going to work right now. That campaign might go on hiatus while you try something else, or the players could pursue some side-adventures away from the plot, or you could introduce a sudden twist that takes them down a wholly different road. As soon as something new catches their eye they’ll be back in the game with renewed vigour, and maybe one day they’ll suddenly get the urge to come back and finish off the lich-lords once and for all.
Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff
This is probably the most important thing for any new GM. No matter what you play or who you play it with, it’s going to seem intimidating. There’s a bunch of rules and statistics to remember, you have to make the narration compelling without forgetting anything, and all the while be prepared for the players to go off-book. Argh!
It’ll be fine. This is basically the oldest form of entertainment; people have been sitting around telling and participating in stories for as long as we’ve had an oral tradition. If the Homo heidelbergensis could do it, then you can. No one’s expecting you to be perfect first time. If your mind goes blank and you forget how it works, just keep cool and ask the players to bear with you while you look it up. They’ll understand; all they have to do is roll the dice and try not to die (and they’re not even that good at that).
Some experienced GMs look like pros because we don’t hesitate mid-action or even look at our books or notes. The secret? Don’t tell anyone: We’re making it up. So what if you can’t remember exactly how grappling works? Make it up. How much damage acid does per turn? Make it up. What the rules are for turning undead (I genuinely don’t know)? You get it. Whether it’s the name of the bartender or the correct pronunciation of the elder god or how many hit points the succubus has left. The rules frame the game, they don’t make it. It’s your game world, and so long as everyone’s having fun you’re doing an amazing job.
And, above all else…