Sunday, 14 April 2013

Plotlines, Railroading, and Sandbox Games – Part II

The Dreaded Railroad

The problem, in some cases, with attempting to run plots and plotlines in the world is that players feel railroaded.  Fair enough.  There is a positive dearth of advice for GMs on the inclusion of plotlines without railroading players.

In order to offer some advice in this regard, I would like to make use of a well-known example:  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Anyone who has read the very funny web comic, DM of the Rings, knows the expected pitfalls of running a game in Middle Earth. 

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to pretend that these novels are an independent creation of the GM.  This is not because it affects railroading, but because I do not want to deal with the obvious question of the players “gaming the novels”.  I.e., if the players know where Bilbo will be with the Ring on such-and-such a day, they could presumably use that knowledge to kill Bilbo and take the Ring.  Unless you are actually running a game where the fictional timeline can be known to your players ahead of time, this is simply not going to occur.  

Because there are a few circumstances where this might be relevant to the average GM, I will revisit “Gaming the Plotline” below.

Well Met in Bree

Imagine that, as a perspective GM, I have access to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, from which I am going to devise the background of a campaign milieu.  Because there is the best information available during the Third Age, I decide to set my campaign during that period.  After all, I have an exacting timeline of events from around the period of The Hobbit to far past the War of the Ring.

The first thing that I want to avoid is having the PCs be anyone depicted in the novels.  Why?  Because plotlines are what happens without the PCs’ actions being taken into account.  The PCs actions cannot and must not be scripted beforehand. 

The second thing I must avoid is believing that anything that occurs in the novels must happen.  The novels are nothing more than a guide as to what may happen if the PCs take no action.  If the PCs act upon the world, even in ways that do not directly impact the events in the novels, things may change.

For instance, imagine what would happen if a dwarf PC became involved in aiding the Elfking of Mirkwood to reclaim a section of the forest from the spiders.  Do the dwarves and Bilbo then receive the same cold welcome they did in The Hobbit?  And, if friendship is fostered here, what happens after the dragon is slain?  Without the “barrel-rider” events and comment, does Smaug even destroy Esgaroth?

Remembering that a role-playing game hinges on a cycle of context-choice-consequence, where the consequences create the new context for further choices, the discerning GM will consider carefully how the PCs’ choices affect the entire milieu.  The goal is not to limit the consequences of those choices, so as to remain true to a predetermined storyline.  Rather, the goal is to highlight the effects that player choices have on the game milieu.  Therefore, nothing in the novels is sacred, and the GM can and should feel free to make any changes that accentuate the PCs’ impact on the setting.

If you recall earlier, how I suggested the GM attempt to gain 2 hours of play out of every hour’s work, it will make sense that you limit how far into the future you extend any plotlines – the odds increase exponentially with time that campaign events will render your work inapplicable.  If there is a choice to be made between that work, though, and allowing the natural consequences of the players’ choices to occur, always go with the natural consequences.  These are fairly easy rules of thumb.

Does this mean that the PCs can try to take the Ring and set themselves up as the new rulers of Middle Earth?  Yes.  Does this mean that they can curry Sauron’s favour by seeking the Ring for him?  Yes.  Does this mean that they can defeat the Necromancer soundly, thus pushing Sauron’s return into the unknown future?  Yes.  Can they kill Aragorn?  Yes.  Can they explore Far Harad?  Yes.  Can they ignore the War of the Ring, and seek to adventure in the North while great events, of which they hear only rumour, occur in the South?  Yes. 

Does this mean that the focus of the game may be completely different than the focus of the novels?  No.  It means that the focus of the game will be completely different.  There is no “may” about it. 

This is a good thing.

Gaming the Plotline

In some cases, the PCs may be travelling into a well-known fictional world as a form of planar travel.  In some cases, the PCs may even be aware of this world as fiction.  Anyone familiar with the Harold Shea stories will know what I mean here.  What to do then?

I recommend that you take the Harold Shea stories as your inspiration.  Not only was Harold Shea able to alter events in those stories, but he was able to use his knowledge of the natural progression of events in the story worlds he visited to his advantage.  Side trips like this can be very cool and very fun – but they are probably best in small doses.  Dipping into a fictional world for a single adventure, and then getting out.

Nor do these fictional worlds need to be exactly like their real-world fictional counterparts.  Good examples of “almost” copies are found in Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, which are 1st edition AD&D modules loosely based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Historical Games

Using real historical periods for your games?  I would suggest that the same rules apply.

If the game is not about time travel, then you might as well assume that your milieu occupies a parallel reality from Game Day 1.  From now on, things may or may not proceed according to historical precedent.

If the game is about time travel, then you have two fun options to choose from, both of which are worth using in the same campaign:

(1) History Resists Alteration:  As the PCs deal with known historical events, actually changing history is an adventure in itself, and the players must work through the puzzle of how to overcome this resistance.  It needs to be clear that PC choices matter – the game is about determining which choices allow you to reach a desired goal.

(2) The More Things Change:  Changing known historical events changes the rest of the universe to conform to the new reality.  Only the PCs (and maybe some time-sensitive NPCSs) know both timelines exist.  In some cases, the changes really are for the better.  In other cases, not, and the game may well become about attempts to undo previous changes.

Again, the important thing is to understand the interplay between context, choice, and consequence, and then to allow PC choices to matter.  A PC choice that does not matter has no consequence, and does not impact the context of future choices.  In a word, it is boring.  In two words, it is a false choice. 

Some GMs pride themselves on their ability to present “an illusion of choice” while only presenting false choices.  I think that these illusions are often not as successful as the GM imagines, and that it is only decades of consuming other passive entertainments that make these “games” playable.  But that’s just me.  Your mileage may vary.


Plots and plotlines are important to create a world that seems to live and breathe on its own.  They are important to allow the GM to have information to impart from the world’s innkeepers, barmaids, and enemy prisoners.  They are important to keep the world from feeling static, or driven by the PCs only.  They are part of the context of the game milieu.

On the other hand, there is a limit to their importance.  The interplay of context-choice-consequence trumps the importance of any future events.  The world can turn on a dime.  The world must be able to turn on a dime, or there is no game.

Another way to say this is that plotlines exist to serve the game, not the other way around.  If you ever find yourself limiting the impact of the PCs on the world to preserve a plotline – DragonLance, I am looking you dead in the eye – you are wrong.  Stop what you are doing.  Glory in the PCs’ impact.  Treasure it.  Use it as a springboard to your own imagination, and draw new plotlines that follow rationally from the new context.

It really is that simple.



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