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.
This is a follow up to my post from Wednesday about Opportunity and Agency.
As some of the comments noted, in the scenario I outlined where the choice was mission or prison, the option to go to prison could also have spawned storyline. Of course it could and I’m glad that people noted that. I’m a big fan of letting the game wander (if it wants to) and dealing with what happens in whatever way it happens. I think the GMs ability to keep together a coherent overall story arc and the players’ ability to have their own agency and freedom to make choices is a compromise. This is also why I don’t believe that one side — the players or GM — is more important or should have more say at the table, necessarily. It’s not all about the GM, sure, but it’s not all about the players either. The GM needs to be invested in the game as well, needs to have buy-in, or why put in all that extra work for the game?
I don’t like being railroaded as a player and I don’t like railroading my players when I’m the GM. That said, I also wouldn’t classify isolated incidents that set actions in motion to be railroading. Railroading is a consistent, invasive stripping away of choices from the players to the point where they are simply following one track that the GM has laid out before them and forces them to continue without any hint of options.
But let’s continue my example a moment. The GM’s plan in that game was to get us caught, send us on this mission, and have us meet up with the Rebels while on the mission. All good so far. So what if we decided to just go to prison? Well, the GM could simply say, “you guys are jerks, you go to prison, game over.” Personally, I think this would be fair enough but that’s not important. Let’s say we go to prison. Now the GM could still put the Rebel option in front of us. He has that option. And maybe the Rebels are the only good chance we have at escape? Does that mean we’ve been railroaded into joining the Rebels? Again, I’d say no. All it means is that we’ve traded one compromising position for another. Maybe we work with the Rebels to get away and then go on the run? That’s an option. Maybe we join the Rebels for a chance to get back at the Imperial officer who put us in this situation in the first place? Heck, maybe we join the Rebels and over time come to realize that we’re right where we belong? We still have choices. Those choices might be limited by circumstance but that’s okay, because it feels real.
I guess, for me, I don’t really game for wish fulfillment. I game to tell a story with other people. The GM is one of those other people so I’ll cut him some slack when I can because — as someone who is 90% of the time the GM — I know how hard it is to balance the needs of your group, yourself, and a satisfying story all at once.
As for losing characters… well. I’m a total character nut. When I play, I’m into my character. I’m one of those people who writes backgrounds and then makes up more details as the game goes along. I love my characters. If they die though, I make a new one. And I love it just as much as the last one.
See, I don’t want my character to die. Of course it sucks. But I’m playing a game, putting my PC’s life in the hands of dice and numbers on a sheet. I know how many hit points I have. If I get critted out and die at the hands of some lousy goblin, well, that was Rambo-goblin’s lucky day. Good for him. He just bagged an adventurer. There are more amazing character’s waiting to be played than I’ll ever have the chance to commit to in a game. So, heck yeah, I don’t want to lose a character but if it happens, I can always enjoy the opportunity to play another one.
When it comes to gaming, the glass can actually always be half-full. You just have to embrace the opportunities.
Thanks for reading.
PS — That’s all I have to say about this topic for a while. I don’t want to get caught in it. I’m going to start a new idea next week. I really want to write more about my big passion, diceless games. Now I just have to decide where the best place to start is?
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.