This post will be about techniques for accepting and influencing the inputs of other participants when roleplaying. Inspirations: Improvisation for roleplayers by Graham and an rpg.net thread by R00kie. Observant readers can see why I use exactly six different categories. I am sure they can be merged and more can be added if such are searched for.
Say, I am running a random dungeoncrawl. A player character has discovered a secret passage to what seems to be a room full of treasure and wants to and grab some. The secret passage is quite crambed.
How can I react, as a GM? The process of picking which way I actually react may be a matter of rules (e.g. failed roll, no treasure; successful spell digs a tunnel), predetermined facts (the character is fat, no treasure; the character can pass through stone, easy entrance), on-the-fly setting creation (there’s a forcefield between you and the treasure; a minor earthquake opens up the passage), or by other means. That’s not the main focus here (not that I’ll keep quiet about it).
“You can’t get through.” Blocking means that the input of the other participant is, for whatever reason, by whatever means, mande insignificant. As a general heuristic, one should avoid blocking. It slows everything down and disrupts flow of the game. Blocking is the way into boring failures when dice are not favouring the players.
here are some expections: The first is an idea that is totally out of synch with the rest of the game. A gritty and serious dungeoncrawl and someone is yelling Superman to widen up the entrance a bit. (Another common reaction is treating it as in-game sillyness. I’m not seeing the benefits of that, but won’t start yelling badwrongfun, either.)
The second situation that may merit blocking is when something has been established as futile, yet someone keeps trying. You really, really can’t get past that forcefield by hitting it with a club. Really. No, not even when raging. This is usually a case of communication failing between the participants and should be handled as such.
“No, you don’t get inside the chamber, and further the dragon hears you.” The idea with what I’ll name shifting is that the previous outcome is not achieved and something else surpasses it in importance. This is what I used a lot in the Burning Wheel game (in context of someone failing a test). Basically, shifting is one interesting way to handle severe failures and setbacks. Not only does the attempted action or contribution to the fiction work, but also something else comes and grabs the attention.
Shift is something one might do when the game is running too slowly and some character screws something up, or other suitable situation occurs. More generally: Use a shift to change the pacing or other aspects of the game significantly. Like, “The orcs overwhelm you. You are standing there with a spear to your throat. The demon who leads the orcs walks through their ranks to face you.”, where an encounter with orcs does not lead to (immediate) character death and a potential BBEG (big bad evil guy) is introduced. Hectic combat is replaced with some probably hectic in-character dialogue and potential deals with demons. (Now I want to run that game. Damn.)
“You can’t get through, but there is this jar you just could tip over to make some noise (presuming that there is another entrance to the treasure trove and guardians in the place).” Opening still prevents the original intent from happening, but offers some other viable action or cause of play. Note the “offers”. Shift forces one instead of opening up new possibilities. Openings tend to slow down the game a bit, as people like to evaluate different options they have.
If running a game where the characters are not sticking together, open up opportunities for one player and move on to the next one. I wish I had figured this out and explicitly written down way before this. Using shifts in the same way may work as (mini-)cliffhangers, but killing the momentum is at least as likely.
“You get through the passage, but a several guardian skeletons rise from the thrones they were sitting in.” Complication means that whatever was attempted actually worked, but so did something unanticipated and usually unwanted. Complication, like shift, changes the nature of the conflict, but tends to keep the goal fairly intact, which shift is likely to not do.
Complications are easy to introduce when some action is almost a success (or partial success or whatever), or when some minor mistake is done is some way. Complications often slow down the overall speed of events, but their effect on tension varies; use them as a pacing tool when something important is happening too fast to be enjoyable. “Your finger of death kills the BBEG, who barely manages to snap a wand in two. Red haze fills the room.” The action of the player is still relevant, but the climatic battle is just about to start.
“You get to the treasure vault and of all the treasure a particular golden ring catches your attention.” Building means that whatever the other participant wanted to add to the game is now part of the fiction, and something that enhances the effect also happens. Interesting successes are situations where something is built. Building means that the goal, if any, is achieved, and yet something interesting happens. Run from the bandits and discover a hermit living the woods.
It is usually possible to ignore the new hooks that entered play, but it is considered bad form in some groups. It is essentially a way of blocking: “No, I don’t even touch or look at the ring.” In other groups the same behaviour might be called smart play.
Where block is a clear No, resolution is a clear Yes. It is a closure, an end. A time to move towards other points of interest, or to end the game entirely. The trick is using resolution if and only if it is appropriate: Too rarely and the game bloats with new options, making it a huge mess full of unsolved events (I do this.); too often and the game will look episodical with only tenous connections between the different sessions or other instances of play. (If you enjoy episodic play, reduce the duration of the episodes until you are no longer interested, like so that every encounter is very much a discreet unit of play with little connection to anything resembling a setting or story.)
Assume that a given instance of play can be divided into scenes, each of which is fairly continuous with regards to characters, location and time. Ignore the scenes that are not interesting (for your particular definition of interesting), if any such exist.
The question is: How are the scenes linked together? This all is after-the-play reflection or even analysis, though may work as a preparation strategy, too. Particularly: How do scenes end and how do they start? My gut reaction is that if a lot of scenes end in resolution, the need for contrived plot hooks and the like is increased to keep the character engaged. Compare: Kill Kranach the raider lord, gather reward from the sheriff, enjoy the reward, spot a plot hook, grab it, go rescue a puppy from a cave. Alternatively: Kill Kranach and rescue the tiny girl at the same time. The girl asks you to go find her dog, which got lost in the nearby dark cave.
In my previous post, I defined railroading. Before that, I listed some heuristics for choosing to use or not use the game’s resolution mechanics. Adaen of Bridgewater asked if there is a connection between these two. I think there is.
Most railroading happens because the GM has something in mind and an action initiatiated by players is threatening it. Maybe it is an entire script. Maybe a single scene, like the death of a villain, has been planned. Maybe the player characters should simply be somewhere or meet someone. Maybe the pitiful goblins should really not have been a threat, only a simple diversion.
Generally speaking, players can ruin something in three ways:
- Ridiculing it out-of-character. “Wouldn’t it be a huge surprise if the tavern-keeper died right after we left the place?” If the plan was that someone assassinates the tavern-keeper, they have guessed it. Chances are that players know of the railroading if this happens with any frequency. They may or may not be okay with it. One should talk to the players in this situation.
- Making the “wrong” decision. Having discovered the big bad’s true identity, they choose to ally with him instead of the assumed blood spilling. Or maybe the clues are interpreted in a totally wrong way and party investigates the wrong rumour. This can be a sign of rebellion, not caring about the existence of prepared material, or simple mistake.
- Failing or succeeding where they should not have. This is a matter of rolling the wrong result or not figuring out the riddle or whatever.
Dice, in games where railroading can happen, generally are tied to the third option. So, that first.
The maxim “roll dice only when both failure and success are acceptable” is a relevant one. It deals with many unwanted effects of the third kind. If PCs need to find something (a clue, a secret door, whatever) simply letting them do so without rolling is a solution that makes any rails explicit, and, generally speaking, accepted. It also makes all relevant skills useless or at the very least less useful. Some other benefit should be given for them. For example, the better the skill check, the faster the research. The maxim essentially makes railroading easier and makes it more explicit.
One trigger for rolling that absolutely kills railroading is to roll the dice whenever two participants disagree about what should happen next, assuming the roll’s result is lived by. Including this statement in game text is a very strong anti-railroading message.
Rolling only when nobody particularly cares about the result, which is somewhat common among the people who think that it is a virtue to not use the rules of the game, makes railroading pretty easy if the default is that GM decides what happens otherwise. The opposite, rolling when the situation is dramatic, will encourage fudging when combined with preparation that tends to cause railroading, otherwise it is not special in any way.
Rolling when something might go wrong is pretty standard. Just thinking hard about what will go wrong before rolling allows on to avert many an undramatic death or failure and put something entertaining as the consequences. Failing the jump roll doesn’t mean a 50 metre fall into rapids for the character, but all his foodstuff does go down and he is now clinging to a steep cliff. Situation potentially becomes more dramatic in the short term (gotta climb up; especially cool if there are enemies there) and long term (gotta find food; especially effective if in hurry) and the game can go on.
I’ll be writing a bit more about railroading sometime soon. Specifically on how to avoid it, if one is willing.