Railroad tracks or hyperspace lanes

Since it’s been commented on fairly recently, I thought I would put my two credits worth in on the GM Fiat: railroading. Related to railroading is its opposite: improvisation. And, like the way of so many paradoxes, they go hand in hand.

First, let’s tackle a question that I don’t think has been looked at before. Why do GMs railroad their players?

A matter of control

A wise goblin once said that a campaign world functions much smoother before the players ever show up. The GM is in control of everything and it all happens exactly how they want it to. Once the players enter, you expect they will stop all over your ordered little world and want to twist it in new directions that you didn’t anticipate.

And most of the time, this is what does happen.

Railroading is a natural reaction, it’s the GM’s not-very-subtle attempt to put the players on the path that it set for them to follow to the pre-determined goal. And the simple reason is this: the GM is to attached to their own creation. This a symptom that occurs with budding writers and a hurdle they need to overcome before they can really begin to write. You need to fall out of love with your own work and see its faults as well as possibilities that could make it better.

As a GM, I realise that when I sit down at the game table I’m not the only person with ideas. I’m not even the only person with good ideas and sometimes accepting those ideas that players bring can take you places never thought possible.

Yet there is a step between there and here, as accepting a new idea takes you outside your established script. And to leave the script, you need to be able to improvise.

Be willing to change

This sounds a lot scarier than it actually is, as accepting and using a new idea is not just about be willing to discard what you have made, there’s a lot of trust involved.

You need to trust yourself as a GM, that you are good enough at it and know the mechanics well enough to pull things out from random directions, being slightly reactive but at the same time thinking three steps ahead of where the players are at that moment. This is not just about storytelling, but I’ll get to that later.

You also need to trust your players, that they will come with you on this journey “off the rails” and they know that you are up for the trip.

I’ve done this in small doses, and it is surprisingly liberating and almost always fun, but it is rather draining. Remember those kids that I GMed for? They wanted to play “the Star Wars game'” and I ran it completely from the seat of my pants, but perhaps there was a little too much roleplaying where they rather liked the combat action and contested dice rolls. We stopped as I had a lot of trouble getting them out of the corner we had managed to get ourselves into, and it was flagging slightly.

But the reason I managed to keep it going for as long as I did was the fact that I know the way stories work.

The series of the events

A story can be basically broken down into four phases: Presentation, Action, Consequence, Development. A character is presented with an occurance that effects them, they take action (or decide not to take action), the action or in-action has consequences and then the story continues onto the next point of presentation.

In gaming terms, a player is told they are facing a kobold in a dungeon, the player makes an attack roll and rolls a 17 with a damage of 11, the kobold falls over dead and then the player next to him takes his turn. If you keep this in mind while improvising you can’t really go wrong, just keep in mind a few options for the various stages depending on what players actually do.

This works for encounters, but for the actual campaign you need to go a little further. Those four stages I mentioned above can be seen as a stepping stone made of many other like it, and in a story there is a thread of narrative linking them all as the protagonists progress through the story. Fir gaming, I quickly discovered that the GM has to remove this connecting thread of narrative, this is something that the players provide. If you have this thread of narrative through your game, then you will probably end up railroading to get your players back onto it.

With the stepping stones alone, you have direction and plot as well as giving the players choice (or appear to) to negotiate their way through your game. The stepping stones do not need to be taken in order, and some not even at all. When I had a particular ending in mind for the first Cerulean campaign, this was the method that I used.

But there is another method, one much better and has a lot more motivation from the players themselves. But that deserves a post in it’s own right and is a story for another day.


~ by katanageldar on February 13, 2010.

One Response to “Railroad tracks or hyperspace lanes”

  1. Nicely done. I love nothing better than being in a game where the players and GM bounce ideas off of each other in an every increasing spiral of awesome.

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