I wrote a while back about the way I like to GM. Read it if you like but here’s the short version – I like to be a reactive GM. I prefer when my players take control of the campaign and I just have to occasionally give them a little push. And I really enjoy winging it. I’m a big fan of just improvising whole sessions and seeing what happens.
But I got into a conversation about railroading again the other day (I really hate those conversations – so unproductive) but in this case it wasn’t just about railroading it was about villains. It started with Caine. It always starts with Caine – stupid Amberite.
In the Amber gamebook there is this whole part about how the Elder Amberites are just, you know, that much better than you. And one of the examples involves Caine waiting for the PCs when they arrive somewhere and they’re all like, “How did you find us? We just decided to come here.” And for many players that is not okay. That kind of “Caine is using GM knowledge” is a railroady, agency-killing fail.
I maintain that this is not, in fact, the case. To my mind it comes down to the intelligence and experience of the villain/NPC in question. And as I expanded this thought in my mind I started thinking about all the super-genius mastermind monsters in D&D. Liches, Mind Flayers, Githyanki, Drow, and so many others when you insert the planar creatures into the mix. I mean, just a lich alone might have an intelligence in the 20’s and centuries of experience. The PCs should be manipulated by such a ridiculous creature. Such a creature should be terrifying in more than just combat situations.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a GM was to make a really good villain and then to make that villain have a plan – and have that plan guaranteed of success… except for the interference of the PCs. And this makes perfect sense to me. Ancient devils, powerful undead, super-genius illithids or dragons might be capable of planning at a level that a bunch of 20-something murder hobos just can’t even process. But those murder hobos are probably going to F*** those plans up really good over the course of a campaign.
Is this railroading? Is this taking away player agency? If we are all having fun (and I really do mean all) and we are all creating a story together, does this question even matter?
I guess, to sum it all up, what I’m getting at is this… separate the GM from the bad guy NPC. But let the villains have plans, let them manipulate the PCs, let them get their way for a while. It’s not railroading if the villain really is just smarter than the opposition. A truly smart/powerful villain should get their way… for a while. And then it’s all the more satisfying when it all comes crashing down.
This is something I do a lot. I haven’t had many complaints over the years but I suppose on the surface it sounds like “evil GM badness.”
I don’t know – what do you all think?