Sunday, July 8, 2012

No Railroad. No Metaplot.

While we encourage players and gamemasters to play RPGs whichever way they enjoy, we also have our own preferences and those have a huge impact on our gamelines. The corebooks themselves pretty much leave the game style up to the group. Personally I am not a fan of preaching to out audience. But there are still key aspects of the games that demand a point of view from the designers. So today I would like to talk about two of those: the railroad and the metaplot.

As a player I hate being railroaded. As a GM I hate railroading my players. When I was younger I wasn't as aware of the issue or of this preference. But slowly over time, in spite of advice from many published games to the contrary, it became clear to me that "keeping the players on track" amounts to the GM telling the story he wants to tell. Player input has little to no impact on the setting or course of events in such a game. And such an approach failed to give me any satisfaction at the table. Even if he isn't railroading every single little scene, when the gamemaster charts out a plot and keeps the players on it no matter what they do, it reduces the players to actors reading from a screenplay.

But there is a problem. The railroad is safe, it provides comfort to the Gamemaster who has spent hours preparing for the session. Do not fear this. Yes, it is unfortunate when the players miss what you had prepped. Yes, it can be frustrating when they don't heed your cues. But once you relax and stop pushing for them to stay on track, new possibilies open up.  

As Gamemaster you are not a novelist or film director. While drawing on books and movies can be helpful for inspiration, it can harm if you feel you have to overlay their structure and pacing onto a format (RPGs) where the core feature is free-willed characters. Imagine your typical horror movie where the last girl goes into the basement even though the audience knows its certain death. Now imagine that movie with a free-willed character who knows better than to go into a dark basement when a masked killer is on the loose, just because the meow of a cat or the hiss of a steampipe. Role playing games are about free-willed characters and that needs to be considered by designers as well as GMs.

I guess what I am saying is, I don't have a story to tell when I come to the table. The reason for this is simple. If I plan out an elaborate story that is carefully paced and outlined, then I might as well just hand my notes to the players before the game even starts because the outcome has already been determined by me before hand (even if I allow for some minor variations within that scope). So I prefer a much more organic approach. One where the players are given the freedom to do what they want, where everyone at the table (including myself) can be genuinely surprised.

For this reason I avoid anything resembling scenes. There are no happy coincidences in my games and there are no pre-planned climactic showdowns. What I do instead is prep all the characters, power groups, background and any events that stem from those things (something I have discussed many times on this blog and an approach that is very similar to Situational GMing as described by Clash Bowley: SITUATIONAL GMING).

For me, this is what works best. It is something which evolved slowly over time and really came in handy when I started writing modules. All of our published adventures adhere to this approach. There may be an initial set-up for the adventure, but beyond that everything is in the hands of players and the forces they fight against. My own term for this is the Living Adventure.

It means a few things. First the Gamemaster doesn't worry about pacing, and he doesn't worry about the players taking 4 hours to reach the end of the adventure. If they figure out a way to beat the bad guys in ten minutes, great. Let them and call it a day if you have to. If they fail and as a result the city falls to orc hordes or an atomic bomb, thats great too. As a GM you don't need to protect the players from success or failure. We often think we do, and we are often told we should, but the truth is most players seem to appreciate fair and honest GMing over approaches that try to manage the impact they have on the adventure.

Second it means the GM needs to bake in some inherently interesting things so the adventure can go in wild directions without there being nothing to do. This is generally pretty easy to do and I resort primarily to two key things: timelined events and characters. Fully fleshed out and mobile NPCs will plot against or work with the players as they come into contact at different stages of the adventure. This is a criticial tool for the GM to use. On the other hand, having events that stem from the NPCs and powergroups (or just from nature itself) is a great way to keep things interesting as the game moves forward.

Third players do need to take initiative. This approach can crumble if the players are not aware of what the GM is doing. Explain to the them that they are in the drivers seat and have the freedom to go where their character's take them. With some groups you may need to do so incrementally.

Finally its all about adapting and reaction by using your head. If the players take an approach that you  never considered, think about it. Honestly evaluate their course of action and what it ought to yield.

This is all preference and opinion. I don't expect anybody to adopt this approach if it goes against their natural style. But it is an important introduction to what I really want to discuss which is our game modules.

The above philosophy is embedded in our entire module line. All of our adventures are approached more as settings than plotlines. We focus on characters, location, events, etc. We try to give the Gamemaster everything he needs to run an adventure intended to go off the rails.

Our upcoming adventure for Servants of Gaius, will be no different. It will also be enormous. Most of our modules so far have been 70 pages or so, in 6x9 inch format. The Secret of Actium will probably reach 110 pages, in 8x11 inch format. It will also be made in the railroad-free spirit of our previous adventures.

While there will be events in the module that are significant in terms of setting, we have made a formal decision to not include metaplot elements in our products. So while individual adventures could contain earth shattering events there will be no assumptions of continuity between modules and setting books. For example, if we release a module that includes the possibility of Parthia invading Syria and expanding into the eastern provinces of Rome, we will not make that canon. So anyone reading Herod Agrippa's Guide to the Eastern provinces will not find any reference to the potential events of that module.

We did this for a reason. I don't like creating a long canon for players to remember or for GMs to feel compelled to purchase. There is a vague outline of future events in the Servants of Gaius rulebook, but we won't go beyond that. For me there is no point in making people have to read five or more sourcebooks just to understand the recent history of your setting. It is hard enough to learn the regular history and rules of the game. It also feels a bit gimicky to me, when the publisher surprises the GM with new plotlines. Just my opinion, but this is how we intend to manage our lines going forward.


  1. As far as adventure kits go, I appreciate your approach. Having the freedom to run an adventure without having to read five sourcebooks is always a pro.

    However, when it comes to GMing, I find more and more - although I also hate railroading - that having rough scenes to run is very helpful. Moreso, having a scenic structure to fit into your evening, with flashbacks, openings, endings and cliffhangers etc, can greatly enhance the enjoyment of the game. It also gives you something to fall back to, to ensure there is an "adventure" in your session.

    Just as long as you're ready to weave in extra scenes or stray off your path if your players want to do so.

    Cheers, Jake

  2. Thanks for the feedback Jake. This approach certainly isn't for everyone, but for me it is my favorite way to play. I recently ran a game system that was much more scene heavy. I can see how that would appeal to you. For me I just prefer thinking more in terms of characters than scenes (and stuff like flashbacks, while perfectly fine for some groups, don't fit my natural style). At the end of the day, play the game however you like. If you have Servants of Gaius and want to include a flashback montage, cliffhangers and some scene structure, by all means I encourage you to be true to your preferences (I would never want a GM to adopt my approach if it reduces his or his player's enjoyment of the game). This blog entry was more of an attempt to explain our adventure structure and the design philosophy behind it. my feeling is there are plenty of adventures out there that take the adventure path or scene approach, so our modules are really tailored to peope like myself who want something much more open.