Another short session. Also, Thalin’s schedules change which changes our gaming schedule into an unreliable, yet hopefully surviving, one. Regular gaming is important and I am not happy with the change. This’ll be brief report. We played on Saturday, too, though there is likely to be a break until the next game happens.
Half a day in the fictional timeframe. Artha flowed a bit slower this session. I seem to need some time to get into the zone properly and can notice the effects in play. Not a good thing, but won’t go away without practice.
Mori and Halvard leave Nässla’s hut. Mori goes on to manufacture a pretty nasty poison (causes a B10 wound, which kills weak characters and even the strong will be utterly unable to succeed at anything for a long time and will need help to survive without permanent injury; giant would actually notice it), while Halvard goes to the village. The stakes for Mori’s roll were that failure indicates that the poison is very easy to notice, makes the cause of death obvious, or some such. The poisonousness was not even a question. The poison’s actual effect, in addition to fatal wounding when the target sleeps, is to seemingly age the target. Maybe actually, if the target happens to survive. The herbs for this were gathered a some time ago and the roll was pretty successful, giving a bonus die to this roll. Some artha was also used.
On his way back to the village, Halvard is kinda-sorta-almost ambushed. One arrow from the woods, and that one is not particularly dangerous. I intended it as a warning, but wgaztari interpreted it as an attack. Leaves some options open for me. Halvard took the arrow, intending to later investigate the matter.
Halvard in the village. He tricks Gilla (Brunhildrsdottir) to come with him, which takes a bit of effort (a good roll or two). She gets pretty scared of the magpies, claiming that they are not natural. wgaztari actually succeeds at a pretty hard orienteering test (unskilled) and manages to find the way to the witch’s hut without any help from the magpies, which would have a forced a new steel test on Gilla and had all sorts of potential amusing consequences.
Once inside with Gilla and Nässla, I get to use one of my favourite GM tricks: Assign players whose characters are not there to play the NPCs. I play Nässla, let kysm play Gilla and Thalin gets to play one of the birds (the other is not present). Gilla is persuaded to stay with the witch due to it being good for the village and other reasons. Nettle gives Halvard what was bargained for: Vague direction, guidelines to go to a mountain with lots of caverns. There is a former troll king there with a sword that will be able to slay the giant. Halvard leaves.
Brunhildr and her retinue are looking the the ambush position. They see the giant walking towards them and promptly hide. Brunhildr sends the competent tracker/hunter (named Varg) to track the giant’s tracks, in order to find out where it came from, with orders to come back at night if the trip would be too long. Brunhildr further wants to send one of her men to follow the giant towards the village; this is a circles roll to find someone capable of following the giant. Success: Find someone who can do it and not get caught; failure: find someone who should be able to do it but is not quite good enough and does get caught (is what I tell to ksym). Successful the roll is. The others get as comfortable as they can without fires (which Nifur could notice).
Brunhildr is feeling somewhat sick (due to Mori’s herbs) .
Mori goes talks with the giant. Some information about giant-slaying swords is shared, as well as the body having been a fake. Dice get rolled, just in the case of the soldier following Nifur identified Mori. A tense roll, but Mori remains unidentified. Mori first goes to the village (no Halvard or Gilla there) and then towards Nässla’s house.
Mori encounters Halvard, there is some paranoia from Halvard’s side, who threatens Mori with a spear. Thalin rolls steel, fails, Mori runs screaming through the dark woods. This is a chase situation; Halvard is eventually victorious with some artha burned. There is an interrogation; Mori has falsehood, Halvard no interrogation skill, which leads to a quick defeat on Halvard’s side. Mori must compromise a tiny bit (as opposed to spilling his dealings with the giant); Halvard trusts him, for now. The compromise was that Mori told Halvard that the giant wants to eat Thorvald’s heart to gain the strength Thorvald gained from eating the heart of Nifur’s father. After this bit of exposition, the two return to village.
Leif and Halvard interact in very brotherly manner, with Leif implying that Halvard raped Gilla. There is some further talk, too.
Brunhildr hears of the traitor (identity unknown), tells everyone to keep quiet, fails the roll that would have made it so, implying that at the next opportunity someone will tell about the existence of the traitor and probably more, sends a messenger to get Halvard, some loyal men and specifically no Mori. Messenger finds the Halvard, makes his request, which which Halvard agrees to. He picks some men, Mori comes with him, messenger questions, is denied.
The man who tracked the giant returns and can approximately tell where the giant might be, but didn’t get that far. It can move pretty fast over long distances. This was not a roll, but possibly should have been. I just find it boring to roll dice when player characters are not the target and found no way to translate this test to a test for any PC.
At Brunhildr’s campsite everyone meets, happy as ever. Mori is inconspicuous enough to not get Brunhildr’s attention and goes spreading rumours among the men, mostly about Halvard having sold Brunhildr’s daughter to a witch. Mori fails in being discreet enough so that people would not remember who originally spread the rumours.
Halvard admits to having sent Gilla help an old man and tells what he knows about the sword. There is some negotiation about who would go about getting it, with Brunhildr not being very well and all. I could have asked for duel of wits, but decided that this is pretty much a foregone conclusion and thought the dialogue as mostly elaboration.
njharman asked how to avoid railroading. For the purpose of this post, I assume reader does not want to railroad and has a good reason for it, such as not enjoying railroading or wanting to try new things. (Bad reason would be because some internet person told that railroading is inherently evil.) Any examples will be drawn from D&D because njharman used DM as a phrase, which kinda implies D&D or similar. I further a prep-heavy game (that is, not Wushu or similar).
Railroading can be avoided, and can happen, on several levels. The easiest and lest painful change is to change the macro level. The simplest method is to always prepare at least two adventures and let players essentially select which they pick. After one has been finished, the other should be altered as appropriate due to PCs ignoring it. The undead gains more minions or the orcish horde sacks more towns or the rakshasa infiltrates a position of power. Even if the adventures are on rails, players still have some choices: To engage this adventure or the other one, with the neglected situation often growing worse. Or maybe some other adventurers solve the other case. Something concrete that the players will notice.
Slightly less simple method is to ask players what their characters will next pursue and to build the next adventure around this. Pacing is important: The direction that PCs take should be clear at the start of each adventure, otherwise boring play and all symptons of that may start manifesting. Big twists and reveals should happen near the end of the session and the next adventure at the very end, preferably roleplayed to not make it boring, if people are in the mood for that. Email or simple face-to-face meetings between games may be an option based on the social environment of participants.
The key in both of the above methods is to clearly communicate with players that their choice matters. This may be out-of-game or in-game, whichever works more smoothly and reliable. Another important factor is to always start each game on the run. Either the plot hooks hit them on the head (more or less literally) by someone asking for help, some PC hearing rumours, the party being attacked, et cetera or the preselected adventure gets rolling right away, e.g. “You are in the sewers and have discovered the body. Who has the light source?”.
One way to get rid of the rails is sandbox gaming. It takes a heavy up-fron investment, though, and is not trivial to get correct. Do this only if you like building or memorising settings and have the time for it.
Not surprisingly, the method is to create a dynamic setting and then let players create characters and do as they will within the confines of the setting. The tricky part is “dynamic”. The setting must have interesting things going on on the scope that players can concretely affect. If they start with power and prestige, politics and wars are good default solutions. If they start as random farmboys, which is probably the better way to introduce elaborate settings for long-term play, slowly giving them power and prestige opens up many possibilities. The “slowly” part is to avoid player freesing at the terror of having the negotiate politics or an unknown setting with a fairly unfamiliar character.
There are some common pitfalls hidden sandboxes. First is players who don’t get interested. It is probably a good idea to start with a bang to avoid this. Burning farms is a long-time tradition among orcs and evil empires. Second is falling in love with the setting. Good gaming is the point. Setting is at best secondary. Players probably are not that interested in random setting bits (but if someone is, let him build parts of it or get involved in other ways). Also: Player characters are the most unreliable portion of the setting. They will blow it to pieces and reassemble them. Or not. Allow this to happen. Maybe they dethroned the emperor. Good for them. Play on. The setting is not sacred. Third is to make a totally impenetrable or alien setting. Resist the temptation. Players will start interacting with the setting only after they understand how it works, generally speaking. As clash bowley did when designing Book of Jalan, steal liberally from real world cultures, but feel free to mix and match cultural tropes, religion, environment, etc. Monotheistic roman dwarves living in jungle or something. It will look and feel exotic but also familiar, which is exactly the point.
The method of gamemastering in a sandbox is to have the aforementioned dynamic forces, player characters who are involved with them, and the rest of the setting for context and ideas. When preparing, think about the motivation and goals of the dynamic parts. What will they do to accomplish them? What do they want player characters to do? What will they do to PCs? How will they be involved? There’s the adventure. Some fairly static but interesting locations and events are good to keep the game changing. A dragon sleeping in the cavern, some random ruins there, an enchanted island here. Just don’t assume that players will go after them. Restricting PC travel is useful, because one can always spring random encounters (that hopefully do have a point or serve a purpose besides depleting hit points) on hapless travelers.
More on the next post. These are the easiest to adopt from railroading background, I’d say. Also: remember to inform the players that you won’t railroad as much anymore. You can’t change a group’s style by yourself.
Disclaimer: I think railroading is distasteful. My definition portrays it as negative.
Game master’s decisions are railroading when
- Players assume they can have an effect on a particular aspect of the game.
- There is no credible diegetic (fictional, in-game) reason for players to not be able to affect that aspect.
- GM’s decision negates or marginalises player input with regards to that aspect.
I think the first part makes railroading inherently bad and feel railroady to the players.
- A band of merry PCs must decide to go either south or west because they are at crossroads. Wherever they go, they shall encounter the same group of bandits. They have no reason to assume that there would or would not be bandits at either direction. Not railroading.
- As above, but reliable sources tell that there is only one group of bandits and they prey on the south road. The group of PCs take pains to make it seem like they are going south, but actually go west. They spread rumours, check out that they are not bieng spied, etc. Still they face the bandits. This I would call a minor instance of railroading, unless the bandits had a good reason to go west and it is revealed to the players.