Railroading and a Wedding

I want to tell a story. It’s a bit long, so if you’re not in the mood, you’ve been warned. The story is about a Star Wars D6 game I played in years ago — and it was one of those instructive games — the ones that make you think about what you want out of a game, what you expect from others at the table, from your GM, and what it means to spend 4+ hours a week pretending to be someone else. This story involved a lot of lessons for me and it’s something I still talk about all these years later because of what I took away from it.

First, a little background. Let me say that I’m going to be using names in this story — they are not the names of the people actually involved, but rather, names I just made up. If you were involved in this campaign then you know who you are — if you weren’t, then you don’t care… So, this would have been about 6 (ish) years ago and the GM, we’ll call him Jim was someone that we’d played with for a while. Jim wasn’t a bad guy but he had a really forceful personality and it rubbed some players the wrong way, especially when he was the GM. A lot of people thought that Jim was a “railroady” kind of GM. I tended to agree. But Jim wanted to run this game and he asked us to play and here’s what he said to us… “The setup is a real railroad, I’m telling you that up front. But I promise you, after the set up, well, you guys will kinda be on your own.”

So we gave him the benefit of the doubt and we tried.

The initial session saw us form a party — fairly typical Star Wars fare — it was the Empire time frame — and we had a Con-Man/Gambler type (me), a smuggler pilot and a fairly weak Force User on the run with his old master’s lightsaber tucked away for safe keeping. That session saw us go on a fairly routine smuggling run and when we returned to port a guy was there, with some Stormtroopers, and he revealed to us that the recent illegal activity we’d been involved in was a set up. He then effectively blackmailed us into doing a job for him. The particulars were a little fishy (and that would come up again later, but isn’t important now). Suffice it to say, we were going to be sent to a political hotspot where a world was being brought into the Empire via diplomacy (an arranged marriage) and we were to ferret out what we could learn about those on the planet who were resistant to the idea. We were not going to have any official sanction, we could only report our findings through an elaborate set of layers, and the Empire would disavow any knowledge of our actions if we were caught… but of course, we weren’t told how to go about our job… at all… that was left up to us.

The only two people on the planet who had any idea that we were affiliated with the Empire in any way were the Queen (the one getting married) and the Captain of her Royal Guard. And even they didn’t really know who we were — very hush hush. Like I said, it was fishier than a Quarren apartment complex…

So we arrive on planet and have our first interview with the Captain of the Guard. And the first thing I do is introduce us as a team of super-elite Imperial Deep Cover Operatives. I give him our ranks and cover names (I was just making this stuff up on the spot). He asked what our plan was and I just looked the GM in the eye and said, “hey, there’s a wedding being planned, right? Well, we’re the wedding planners.” After the GM got back in his chair from the laughing fit, I elaborated…

The real wedding planners could keep doing their job and we wouldn’t disrupt anything, but we would become the very public faces of the wedding and act out the part in front of the other nobles and important figures. After all, we’d have a reason to have access to the nobles’ private spaces, we’d have a reason to talk to them, we could openly discuss the merger with the Empire and not look overtly suspicious while gauging the reactions of others around us and quite frankly, we’d be “the help” so most folks wouldn’t even pay that much attention to us. Sounded perfect — the Captain of the Guard thought so too, it saved him a lot of work, and then we hit the first snag.

Both of the other players in the game wouldn’t even entertain the thought. Not just an in-character “is this a good idea” but a straight up “this is the dumbest thing we’ve ever heard and we’re not going to do it.” So we took a little break from the game and I started asking my fellow players what the problem was. The response was, “wtf — we don’t know anything about being wedding planners, and we don’t know anything about being Imperial Deep Cover Operatives, so this whole plan is stupid and will never work.”

To which I replied. “Um, guys, I don’t know anything about being a gambler, or a card-sharp. Bob here doesn’t actually know anything about being a fugitive Jedi, and you Billy, don’t know anything about smuggling. But we’re playing those characters. And quite frankly, the way I’m playing my PC comes from what I’ve seen on TV shows and read in books and I’m just making it sound good. I assume that my character has at some point seen the Star Wars Universe equivalent of James Bond movies and reality TV’s “Say Yes to the Dress.” So, I feel well-equipped to know everything I need to about this. I mean, let’s just ham it up a little.” It went on from there…

There are two things I realized about this that were important — and there’s more to this story, but this pretty much sets up everything I think I want to say about what I realized that night.

1. I don’t actually care about being railroaded — a little bit. I wouldn’t want the GM just leading me through a story by the nose, but the fact is, in good stories the choices the protagonists make are not always completely in their control. Sometimes life intervenes and the heroes have to react. And that’s powerful too. A GM who throws an unforeseen roadblock is not stomping on my fun, but maybe will be giving me an avenue to more fun if I figure out how to roll with it and respond well. I really enjoy that. I had an Amber DRPG GM who did something similar to me in another game and it turned into one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

2. I expect a high amount of player commitment at the table — not just when I’m the GM but from fellow players as well. I don’t know anything (anything) about what life as a Shadowrunner is like — but I watch a lot of spy shows and heist movies — so I pretty much know everything I need to in order to emulate the cinematic genre conventions at the table. I can supplement that with real research too if I feel it’s important, but honestly, most of my Shadowrun characters end up being Daniel Craig as James Bond because, you know, who wouldn’t want to be him..?

That said, I want to respect the needs of other players at the table, which is why we stopped to discuss it, but ultimately, I found their reasons for pushing back to be a little weird. We’re already pretending to be things we aren’t. The guys in that game have played Half-Celestials and Drow in D&D. I’ve seen them play superheroes and I’ve seen them play full on Jedi Knights. So why was it so difficult to assume that their PCs were also capable of “faking it” at the table? I’ve discussed this a lot with one of the guys from that game and he basically tells me it came down to just not wanting to push the envelope. But I guess for me, that’s part of why I’m at the table — to push the envelope. I want to have a crazy scheme and see it through to the end. I want to rock out and get to be awesome in a way I can’t be in life (I wish I was a con-man/gambler in the SW universe, right?) But when you don’t have that, it can be a tough nut to crack.

Oh well, this is long enough. Maybe I’ll talk about it more next time, or maybe I’ve said enough…

What do you think?

Thanks for reading.

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4 responses

  1. Awesome story and an excellent example of the point you’re making, a point that I wholeheartedly agree with by the way! I have had occasion in the past to encounter players like “Bob” & “Billy” – thankfully, not very often though.

    From my observations, it seems that this type of player is the roleplaying equivalent of a hatchling just after having imprinted upon a mother bird figure. When playing a particular genre, they have a very codified viewpoint on what a given genre can and can not include, the boundaries of setting and player actions, even character concepts, – all must fit within self-imposed limitations. I suspect the root of this is some early movie or book which impressed upon them the “correct” version.

    Thus, any Star Wars character must be structured like and commit actions following the range of such as depicted in the Star Wars movies, any modern era treasure hunter must follow the precepts of either Indiana Jones or Laura Croft, all spy genre characters must match movie characters like James Bond or the Saint, etc.

    If pointing this out to them fails, I have yet to come up with a method of convincing such typecast players to break the mold. They will cling to these tightly-defined tropes like a life raft, and I suppose for these people that is what they are. For whatever reason, be it a lack of imagination, creativity, experience, courage or self-confidence, these players appear to NEED to adhere to their established rules, for without them they feel uncomfortable and don’t know how to play the game “correctly”.

  2. Jim huh? Weren’t the two wedding planners supposed to be flaming wedding planners? Not of the fire sub-type, but the sexuality kind? I agree that as pc’s, it is fun to push the boundaries. Pushing the boundaries against the will of what your other party members are willing or wanting to do is another thing. I understand your point, and have seen Han Solo dress as a storm trooper, though never a flaming wedding planner.
    Wanting to push the envelope is great, but a pc railroading the other pc’s is probably worse than if the gm were to do so, as that is at times the job of gm. When the other players don’t like a plan for the party, forcing it on them makes the game nearly as bad as if being railroaded by the gm.

    But by all means, push the envelope for your own character.

  3. That’s a really cogent look at a problem. A parallel problem I’ve seen has been players who naysay or dismiss plans, but offer no other options. We’ve had a couple of players over the years who will find the flaws in others ideas, dismiss suggestions for moving the group forward, and generally shake their heads at suggestions like your wedding planner idea. But they won’t take ownership of any kind of control, any kind of suggestion. They’ve built a relatively successful life-script in avoiding responsibility through this. But they’ve able to coach it in a devil’s advocate position or “just saying” manner.

  4. Responding to all the comments at once, since they mesh so nicely…

    Well, the thing is, “Jim” that no one actually wanted to railroad the other PCs into playing a particular type of character. While I chose to take the stereotype from a Bravo TV show to the extreme, the other two PCs were only asked to take on the roles of being in charge of the food and taking measurements for ceremonial outfits, and could have played the personalities however they wanted to… As for forcing the plan on others — well — color me frustrated when I come up with a plan, and it’s a good plan, and the other party members don’t have a plan of their own — they simply refuse to even have any buy-in at all to the proposed plan. Honestly, if you’d suggested another plan, it would have been worth looking into, but the push-back was more about the seeming expectation of playing something outside the comfort zone…

    When that part wasn’t implicit to the plan at all…

    Additionally, it’s tough for a player to railroad the party since the party is made up of imaginary people doing the same thing together. I guess, my point there is, since I was playing the con-man and face type, I assumed it fell to me to do the majority of the conning — since the skills were within my character’s mechanical function as well as player interest. No one can force you to play a certain way — but again — the issue wasn’t coming from character interaction, but from player interaction. It shouldn’t be a contest between players, it should be a discussion between characters… and only go “out of game” if the problem is too big to resolve in character. But the idea wasn’t even given a potential try, or any value at all, merely dismissed and the push back almost killed that game.

    I gotta say I agree with edige23 on this — and I remember another game where this exact problem caused probably the most spectacular game-fail I can remember in my years as a player.

    Eh, to each their own I guess.

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