Judgement calls vs "railroading"

pemerton

Legend
Sorry to take so long to get back on this.
No worries.

I think that the methods you are describing, divorced from mechanics that support them, can be applied in a general way to just about any RPG. Would you agree with that? You said that Story Now is not dependent on mechanics, so is that what you meat? That Story Now elements can be used in any game?
In the abstract, yes, but I think some games will push back in various ways.

First, I think you are taking a RPG to be defined by its action resolution mechanics and its PC build mechanics. But most RPGs also include GMing advice. Consider AD&D's GMing advice (whether Gygax's original advice or the rather different 2nd ed advice), for instance: running AD&D in a "story now" fashion will require ignoring the bulk of that advice.

Second, not all RPGs have devices for signalling by way of PC build. Again in relation to AD&D, I've stressed this as a contrast between OA (PC gen that yields thematically-laden PCs pretty tightly bound into an evocative setting) and trad AD&D (PC gen that tends to yield PCs with few or no hooks - thieves being the obvious exception for the main classes, and perhaps some of the more boutique classes like paladins and monks - but an all-thief party is far more likely than an all-paladin or all-monk party!). The same contrast can be drawn between RM (detailed PC building that is player-driven, allowing signals to be sent) vs RQ (much more Traveller-style simulationist random rolling in PC build, so that the build of the PC doesn't necessarily tell us much about what the player wants out of the game).

In my 4e game, I required each player, in building his/her PC at 1st level, to include in the PC's backstory (i) a reason to be ready to fight goblins, and (ii) a loyalty. These kickstarted the game and have generally remained important (whether in original or developed/mutated forms) throughout the campaign. That is something I added to 4e.

Third, action resolution mechanics can cause issues. RM, for instance, doesn't remotely support "fail forward" - which means that consequences of failure can lead to scenes bogging down unresolved, which is the nemesis of "story now" play. In my experience, the practical solution is that players gravitate towards spell users, who have the capabilities (via their magic) to overcome these moments of bogging down. RM's healing rules are also a big issue. As I posted upthread, I think 5e's "bounded accuracy" might be a source of problems, making success rather random relative to the commitments expressed via PC build and play (because anyone can succeed and anyone can fail).

Fourth, some systems give players very powerful scene-reframing abilities (divination, teleportation, starships in Traveller, mind-control spells or diplomancy, etc) which mean that instead of the GM's scenes provoking choices which speak to the themes of the campaign, the players are incentivised to squib on the scenes by reframing them. Which, in fiction, makes sense - why wouldn't a rational person just cast charm monster on the giant king? or use commune to solve the mystery? - but at the table deflates the drama.

Of D&D editions, my feeling is that 3E is probably the least hospitable to "story now" RPGing because of issues (2), (3) and (4): very generic PC building, and with the potentially interesting stuff like prestige classes (i) watered down thematically from what they might be, and (ii) strongly gated behind GM discretions; action resolution that is almost the antithesis of "fail forward" and very strongly favours expedient choices, often bleeds over the boundaries of "scenes", and is often rather intricate to boot but without that intricacy correlating very strongly to in-fiction elements of the situation; and, combining with the previous stuff, many powerful player-side scene-reframing abilities.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Fourth, some systems give players very powerful scene-reframing abilities (divination, teleportation, starships in Traveller, mind-control spells or diplomancy, etc) which mean that instead of the GM's scenes provoking choices which speak to the themes of the campaign, the players are incentivised to squib on the scenes by reframing them. Which, in fiction, makes sense - why wouldn't a rational person just cast charm monster on the giant king? or use commune to solve the mystery? - but at the table deflates the drama.
Interesting to read this from you, as up till now you've been advocating for player agency all the way and yet the things in the game that most bend toward player agency - these spells and abilities that give them the option of reframing or skipping or twisting or ignoring scenes - you here seem to be saying are bad.

The trick for the DM, of course, is that in a system that has these things available to the characters she has to frame her scenes (and design her plots, if she's driving) with them somewhat in mind. Further, she has to have answers ready for when the divination hammer gets wielded...or the scrying hammer, for all that.

Teleportation or other forms of quick long-range travel are often a godsend to me as DM, in that characters can get from point A to far-away point B without spending a few months travelling (and, of course, getting into every bit of trouble they possibly can along the way) if they so desire, and are willing to accept the risk.

As for "PC build" (that very term annoys me, for some reason), while detailed backgrounds etc. can be fun they're not 100% essential. One could (and I probably would, were I ever to play in a game like this) bring in a somewhat generic character*, see what the story is and where it's going, then in-character latch on to some elements within it and make those my thematic concerns while at the same time letting my backstory in effect write itself. In other words, I'm willing to fit myself into the game world rather than expecting it to fit itself to me.

* - generic as regards background, stat rolls, etc. but not as regards personality or "character" - it'll have loads of that! :)

One other way that hasn't been really mentioned yet in which I'm guessing your type of system varies from what I'm used to is character mortality, or lack thereof. One reason I never want to bother with long backgrounds etc. for my characters is that I'm fully aware they have less than a half-chance of surviving their first adventure (at least the way I play 'em, poor things), thus making all that work a waste of time and effort. As both player and DM I see adventuring as an extremely dangerous business where casualties - while unfortunate - are an accepted and expected fact of life.

From the gamist side, I thus also expect character generation to be fast and reasonably simple as I'll probably be going through the process more than once. :)

I'll happily do up some sort of formal background once a character's been around for a few adventures, though by then I've usually role-played my way into some sort of assumed or informal background info anyway.

I'll hazard a guess that in your system character death is rare to non-existent.

Lan-"let's go adventuring, and make sure there's less of us when we get back"-efan
 

pemerton

Legend
up till now you've been advocating for player agency all the way
No. I haven't used the phrase "player agency" at all. I've talked about "player-drvein" RPGing and I've explained pretty clearly (I hope) and at pretty great length what I mean by that, with reference to actual play examples, the text from Burning Wheel, and Eero Tuovinen's account of the "standard narrativistic model".

Here is that latter one again:

One of the players is a gamemaster whose job it is to keep track of the backstory, frame scenes according to dramatic needs (that is, go where the action is) and provoke thematic moments . . . by introducing complications.

The rest of the players each have their own characters to play. . . . they naturally allow the character’s interests to come through based on what they imagine of the character’s nature and background. Then they let the other players know in certain terms what the character thinks and wants.

[O]nce the players have established concrete characters, situations and backstory . . . the GM starts framing scenes for the player characters. Each scene is an interesting situation in relation to the premise of the setting or the character . . . The GM describes a situation that provokes choices on the part of the character. The player is ready for this, as he knows his character and the character’s needs, so he makes choices on the part of the character. This in turn leads to consequences as determined by the game’s rules. Story is an outcome of the process as choices lead to consequences which lead to further choices, until all outstanding issues have been resolved and the story naturally reaches an end.​

The player is responsible for building a PC with dramatic needs that hook the GM; the GM is responsible for "going where the action is", that is, framing scenes that force dramatic, thematically significant choices.

Player-side scene-reframing abilities (eg teleportation; diplomancy, and a similar sort of approach to adjudicating perceptions/searching; certain types of divination) are an obstacle to achieving this sort of play, because instead of engaging the situation they let the players squib.

The trick for the DM, of course, is that in a system that has these things available to the characters she has to frame her scenes (and design her plots, if she's driving) with them somewhat in mind. Further, she has to have answers ready for when the divination hammer gets wielded...or the scrying hammer, for all that.
I'm not saying that games with those sorts of abilities are unplayable. But they're going to tend to drift away from "story now" play, into something more like exploratory RPGing.

while detailed backgrounds etc. can be fun they're not 100% essential. One could (and I probably would, were I ever to play in a game like this) bring in a somewhat generic character*, see what the story is and where it's going, then in-character latch on to some elements within it and make those my thematic concerns while at the same time letting my backstory in effect write itself. In other words, I'm willing to fit myself into the game world rather than expecting it to fit itself to me.
If by "game like this" you mean a "story now" game, then you can't start with a character who has no motivations or dramatic needs. There has to be something to hook the GM.

(Detailed background is not very important. Character motivation and connection into the gameworld - relatonships, affiliations/loyalties, etc - are what matter, as these drive the character, and thus give the GM something to latch on to.)

As both player and DM I see adventuring as an extremely dangerous business where casualties - while unfortunate - are an accepted and expected fact of life.

<snip>

I'll hazard a guess that in your system character death is rare to non-existent.
The systems I am GMing at the moment - 4e, BW, Cortex/MHRP - don't tend to produce a high degree of PC death. (Although others have different experiences of 4e.)
 

innerdude

Legend
The real issue is this: the only things that AREN'T a GM judgment call are A) PC action declarations that are B) tied to a specific mechanical resolution / effect spelled out in RAW.

Everything else in an RPG is, by its very nature, a GM judgment call. Or if not an outright GM judgment call, are at the very least facts or truths about the game world that are negotiated and agreed upon by the group as a whole, with the GM having final say. Even the most story-telling of storytelling games must have SOMEONE who is the final arbiter about what is true or not about the fiction. In RPGs we recognize that role as belonging to the GM. The games we recognize as RPGs largely cease to function without that being case.

GMs make and execute judgment calls by the dozens during every minute of play. How far apart were the two combatants at the start of the combat? GM's call. Which enemies on a shared initiative order move first? GM's call. Which spells and abilities will Monster X use this round? GM's call. Can that stretch of forest be traversed in less than five hours, or must it take longer? GM's call. How would Missus NPC Y respond to the PC's last statement? GM's call.

Let's say a GM has to make between 5 and 15 discrete judgment calls per minute played in a session. In a typical 4-hour session, that GM is making anywhere from 1,200 to 3,600 judgment calls every single session. And yes, any one of those thousands of judgment calls could be used to "railroad" at any time.

The only thing that differentiates one judgment call from another is the intent---to what intent is a judgment call made? Is it to carry out the most "realistic," plausible result, based on the GM's understanding of the world? To create a cool event in the story? To give more freedom to the players to create their own cool event in the story? To frame a new element of the fiction to which future PC action declarations can be applied?

Or is it to ensure a particular outcome is reached, regardless of declared action intent and results of the roll? This is the most obvious, egregious example of "railroading," but can "railroading" become an aspect within any of the other intents? Of course.

And sometimes that's okay. Sometimes it's okay to throw in something the GM thinks is cool, or fun, just because it appeals to the GM. Must the GM's desires be so completely subsumed to those of his players that this isn't an option? I would hope not. Can a GM re-imagine on the fly some element of backstory that suddenly brings to life something happening in the present for the PCs? Of course.

But intent matters. It matters a lot.

In a sense, I find the notion of "secret backstory" to be unhelpful. Of course there's some secret backstory ---- not everything about the world is known by the characters, and that's as it should be. None of us knows everything about our own world's "secret backstory" either. RPGs are unique in the regard that "secret backstory" is totally mutable based on the GM's ideas and suppositions. As it's been used in this thread, secret backstory would be more accurately defined as "world domain knowledge implemented specifically with the intent to force PCs and players to adhere to certain actions so as to ensure a specified result." And yes, it's definitely a form of railroading.

Yet to me, creating elements of the world that define and drive the current action, give it color and texture, and present opportunities for the players to engage in conflict are not "secret backstory." Yet the term "secret backstory" seems to conflate this with its more manipulative adjunct.

Railroading is the product of GM judgment calls made for a specific intent. It is a trend, or pattern of GM judgment calls that manipulatively subvert player and PC intent in play, and do so in a way that fails to serve the group's stated and unstated social contract. If your group's social contract specifically forbids a GM from using judgment calls to subvert player and PC intent, regardless of whether it would be "cool" or "make for a good story," then that's between your GM and his/her group.
 

pemerton

Legend
I find the notion of "secret backstory" to be unhelpful. Of course there's some secret backstory ---- not everything about the world is known by the characters, and that's as it should be. None of us knows everything about our own world's "secret backstory" either. RPGs are unique in the regard that "secret backstory" is totally mutable based on the GM's ideas and suppositions. As it's been used in this thread, secret backstory would be more accurately defined as "world domain knowledge implemented specifically with the intent to force PCs and players to adhere to certain actions so as to ensure a specified result." And yes, it's definitely a form of railroading.

<snip>

Yet the term "secret backstory" seems to conflate this with its more manipulative adjunct.
I can't speak to how anyone else is using the notion of "secret backstory", but I'm the one who introduced the phrase into the thread, and I've made it clear what I mean by it: the GM resolving player action declarations for their PCs by reference to fictional positioning that the players aren't aware of. (Eg you look for a secret door and fail, because the GM's notes already spell out all the architecture of the building.)

There are some approaches to RPGing - eg classic dungeoncrawling - where the use of secret backstory in this fashion is essential. And the point of play, from the player side of things, includes as a significant component learning what is in the GM's notes - mapping the dungeon, learning the rumours, identifying where the treasures are, etc.

"Secret backstory", in this sense, is inherently not mutable. (It may be authored on-the-fly - via random tables, or exercises of judgement - but it's not mutable.) It's non-mutability is essential to it being something that the players can learn.

Luke Crane has made the following criticism of Cook/Marsh Expert as opposed to Moldvay Basic D&D:

[T]he beautiful economy of Moldvay's basic rules are rapidly undermined by the poorly implemented ideas of the Expert set. . . .

This game . . . is built to explore dungeons. As soon it moves away from puzzle-solving and exploration, the experience starts to fray. There are precious few levers for the players to pull once their out of their element. . . .

[T]he involution rapidly begins as they try to make D&D do more and more. Expert sense strains credibility. Companion, Master and Immortal are a series of poorly implemented ideas. . . .

[W]hile the original designers may have wanted an inclusive and expansive design, their best rules focused on underground exploration and stealing treasure. Moldvay brushes away the caked up sand like an archeologist and shows the true beauty of the artifact. Or, more accurately, Moldvay does a fine job editing the rules down to their core game and evoking the brilliance of the original design.

The Basic D&D line is a product line. As you know, each successive product attempted to reintegrate into the game the features you note present in the earliest editions. My assertion is that none of those rules were as well-designed or well-supported as those for the core activity of dungeon crawling. . . .

I understand that the designers may have thought their game could do anything. I understand they may have wanted to bend it to a variety of circumstances, but in truth their design had narrow application. It does most things poorly, and a few things exceedingly well​

In the context of "secret backstory" - once the imagined world of play becomes a world rather than a (contrived) dungeon, the capacity for the players to learn the backstory, and to exploit via meaningful choices, reduces rapidly; while at the same time the need for the GM to make it up on the fly increases, and ability of the GM to remember it all and factor it into resolution reduces. So instead of the puzzle-game of Moldvay Basic the game turns into "setting/story tourism", where the players - via action declarations for their PCs - get to learn what the GM's unfolding vision of the fictional world is.

creating elements of the world that define and drive the current action, give it color and texture, and present opportunities for the players to engage in conflict are not "secret backstory."
Well if they're defining and driving the current action, they don't seem secret, and hence are not secret backstory.

If they are chosen by the GM by reference to his/her concerns and vision for things, then I would call it a GM-driven game. If they are chosen by the GM by reference to the players' evinced concerns and visions for things (in the ways, upthread, I've quoted Eero Tuovinen and Luke Crane explaining), then I would call it player-driven.

the only things that AREN'T a GM judgment call are A) PC action declarations that are B) tied to a specific mechanical resolution / effect spelled out in RAW.
I'm not sure what you mean by (B).

A 3E D&D GM can, at least in principle, respond to the declaration "I cast a spell" with "As you try and cast, a great wind whips up - make a casting check." That's a judgement call; so, presumably, is its absence.

A GM running a scene-framed-style game doesn't have quite the same freedom of declaration for the fiction: introducing new elements of the fiction subsequent to framing and declaration but prior to resolution is contrary to the spirit of those games. If the check to cast fails, then the GM can narrate the failure as resulting from a wind gust if s/he wants. (A corollary - a scene-framed, "say 'yes' or roll the dice" game needs all action declarations to require checks, so that there is the in-principle possibility of failure.)

Even the most story-telling of storytelling games must have SOMEONE who is the final arbiter about what is true or not about the fiction.

<snip>

Sometimes it's okay to throw in something the GM thinks is cool, or fun, just because it appeals to the GM.
These comments seem to be presented as disagreements, but who is the disagreement with?

As to the first: that arbiter can be GM (gets to establish the framing), player (gets to establish elements of PC backstory), or one-or-the other as the dice dictate (on a success thinks play out as the player intended for his/her PC; on failure the GM gets to narrate the consequences). For some genre-level stuff (is it permissible to look for secret doors in trees on the grounds that faeries might make them, or is that too silly for our game?) group consensus is a further means.

As to the second, GMs introduce elements into the fiction all the time because they think it will be fun: I've talked upthread about my predilection for demons and undead (known to my players), and about my BW GM's fondness for elves (which manifested in our first session). In an of itself that has nothing to do with railroading. To requote from the OP:

By railroading I mean the GM shaping outcomes to fit a pre-conceived narrative.

That my PC meets an elf isn't an outcome. It's a starting point, a moment of framing. The outcome is that the elf declines my request that he and his soldiers accompany me to my ancestral estate. And (on this occasion of play) that outcome didn't result from the GM shaping things - it was the result of an application (at my request) of the social resolution mechanics to the situation.
 

innerdude

Legend
For the record, @pemerton, I lean much more on the side that player-driven play is more satisfactory than GM-story, "scene tourism" play.

My real point was that in thinking about the base premise, or conflict presented in the OP, the core of the issue is that "All railroading is a GM judgment call," but "Not all judgment calls are railroading."

My other point was that GMs have to make literally thousands of micro-judgment calls in every session of play---to say nothing of the other thousands of judgment calls made during game prep. This is part of the great challenge of being a competent, successful GM. You are forced to inhabit a creative space that requires constant mental input and decision-making, and asks you to do so while creating semantic/logical/conceptual connections between hundreds of "idea threads."

The reason I think you've been getting pushback from some responders, @pemerton, is that they are not seeing the division, or separation, from what you call "scene framing" and the other kinds of judgment calls a GM is forced to make. And truthfully, even though I'm a proponent of avoiding "secret backstory" and "scene tourism" (having been subjected to it by our GM for over a year now in my current Savage Worlds game), I can easily see how many would simply throw up their hands and say, "Well pretty much EVERYTHING is a GM judgment call, so where the heck do you draw the line? If a GM wants something to happen, or wants to steer the action in the fiction, he or she pretty much can at any time, through any number of small, minute judgment calls."

Your real point in all of this is (I think) to show that player-driven play is an antidote, or obvious antithesis to railroading, because when players are allowed to put their PCs' concerns/drives front and center to the action, the GM becomes much more limited in their ability to negate or subvert that intent.

You're advocating for a change mindset for the GM, primarily. A GM should no longer assume that their "secret backstory" and expectation that players will engage with it (scene tourism) is enough. Instead, they should be considering how their game addresses the expectations/desires being expressed by the players, and "framing" the action to address those concerns.

And it's no surprise to me that there are some (like @Lanefan) who simply disagree, because in their experience, player exploration of a GM's world/creation has provided a (more than) sufficient experience. Trying to frame PC needs/desires forcefully into the action has not been something they've expected their GM to do---nor would they necessarily want them to.

One other side note: Though I'm in wholly in favor of player-driven, scene-framed play, we really should stop presenting the notion that the final "say" in determining what is true in the fiction is in the player's hands, or even determined by fortune/mechanics. That's simply a false notion. In all circumstances, ever, if a GM says, "No, that's not so," then it's not so. HARD STOP.

Now, in my case I would prefer the GM to be exceptionally open and accommodating, be willing to nigh bend over backwards to ensure the players' desires could be met. But at the end of the day, the GM is the one in control. If the GM says "Sorry, that doesn't work, come up with something else," throws out the rules, ignores dice rolls, or changes the "hidden backstory" . . . it's their prerogative.

Admittedly, I think you and I (and likely most players) would probably HATE playing in a game where a GM acted that way, and we would be very up front and transparent about what our expectations for play actually were.

But for RPGs to work at all, when there is a disagreement, there has to be a single, final arbiter, because otherwise it leads to instances where something is both true and untrue in the fiction---the version in the player's head, and the version in the GM's head. And this WILL lead to total breakdown in play, because now the player is making action intents/declaration based on information that is categorically incorrect, and the GM will have no basis with which to judge outcomes, because the premise of the declared intent does not match the situation as conceived by the GM.

Side Note B, i.e., "Things That Aren't GM Judgment Calls": I was more thinking in terms of any individual, discrete action/fortune check that has a prescribed effect in the rules. A "Spot" check in 3e states that once a GM makes a judgment call for a DC, any PC who meets or exceeds the DC is able to "spot" whatever needed "spotting"; a player whose attack roll meets or exceeds the armor class of an enemy is then specifically allowed to make a following damage roll to reduce the enemy's hit points; a player whose initiative roll is higher than an enemy's is specifically proscribed to act before the enemy, etc. etc.
 
Last edited:

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The reason I think you've been getting pushback from some responders, @pemerton, is that they are not seeing the division, or separation, from what you call "scene framing" and the other kinds of judgment calls a GM is forced to make. And truthfully, even though I'm a proponent of avoiding "secret backstory" and "scene tourism" (having been subjected to it by our GM for over a year now in my current Savage Worlds game), I can easily see how many would simply throw up their hands and say, "Well pretty much EVERYTHING is a GM judgment call, so where the heck do you draw the line? If a GM wants something to happen, or wants to steer the action in the fiction, he or she pretty much can at any time, through any number of small, minute judgment calls."
This is pretty much what I've been trying to say for some time, only you put it into better words. :)

Your real point in all of this is (I think) to show that player-driven play is an antidote, or obvious antithesis to railroading, because when players are allowed to put their PCs' concerns/drives front and center to the action, the GM becomes much more limited in their ability to negate or subvert that intent.

You're advocating for a change mindset for the GM, primarily. A GM should no longer assume that their "secret backstory" and expectation that players will engage with it (scene tourism) is enough. Instead, they should be considering how their game addresses the expectations/desires being expressed by the players, and "framing" the action to address those concerns.

And it's no surprise to me that there are some (like @Lanefan) who simply disagree, because in their experience, player exploration of a GM's world/creation has provided a (more than) sufficient experience. Trying to frame PC needs/desires forcefully into the action has not been something they've expected their GM to do---nor would they necessarily want them to.
More or less, yes.

I don't see - and don't want to see - my character and-or the party as a whole as any sort of special snowflake within either the game world or the table world. I neither expect nor want the DM to alter her world to suit any one character or party; I instead want the game world to just be what it is, and to be presented the same whether I'm playing a kill-'em-all brawler (no clear goals or morals) or a virtuous knight (always looking for a noble cause to champion) or a fussy wizard with sibling rivalry issues (internally-focused, lots of angst and drama). Why is this important? Because in the same campaign it's entirely possible I'll play all three of these (or other equally-diverse characters) at some point, and I certainly don't expect the DM to change up how the campaign or its world is presented or "framed" every time I switch characters.

I also assume (usually correctly) that our party are not the only adventurers out there; and that there's always a bigger fish. Again, we're not special. An analogy: there's 32 teams in the NFL and even though I might only care about (and know much about) one of them I can't deny the existence of the other 31; while my team might be special to me it's just one of many from an outside perspective. The party's the same.

But for RPGs to work at all, when there is a disagreement, there has to be a single, final arbiter, because otherwise it leads to instances where something is both true and untrue in the fiction---the version in the player's head, and the version in the GM's head. And this WILL lead to total breakdown in play, because now the player is making action intents/declaration based on information that is categorically incorrect, and the GM will have no basis with which to judge outcomes, because the premise of the declared intent does not match the situation as conceived by the GM.
This is something else I was trying to get at, a few months and a lot of pages ago. :) You can't do this stuff by committee and keep it internally consistent over the long run, if only because committees are made up of individuals each of whom has a voice and in theory has ideas on what should happen next - or what should have happened last.

Lan-"and the first person who even thinks about putting story disagreements to a vote gets slapped with a wet fish"-efan
 

pemerton

Legend
"All railroading is a GM judgment call," but "Not all judgment calls are railroading."
Yes. I said this in the OP, in the context of describing a GM judgement call that was not railroading.

we really should stop presenting the notion that the final "say" in determining what is true in the fiction is in the player's hands, or even determined by fortune/mechanics. That's simply a false notion. In all circumstances, ever, if a GM says, "No, that's not so," then it's not so. HARD STOP.

<snip>

"Things That Aren't GM Judgment Calls": I was more thinking in terms of any individual, discrete action/fortune check that has a prescribed effect in the rules. A "Spot" check in 3e states that once a GM makes a judgment call for a DC, any PC who meets or exceeds the DC is able to "spot" whatever needed "spotting"; a player whose attack roll meets or exceeds the armor class of an enemy is then specifically allowed to make a following damage roll to reduce the enemy's hit points; a player whose initiative roll is higher than an enemy's is specifically proscribed to act before the enemy, etc. etc.
I don't see how both these claims can be true. If the GM has the power to override anything, than she can choose to ignore the outcomes of attack rolls, initiative rolls, etc. And thus choosing not to do so is itself a judgement call.

But in fact I don't agree that the GM has the power to override anything. Upthread I've already quoted the rules text from BW which states that (i) dice rolls are sacrosanct, and (ii) if a check succeeds then the player's intent is realised (BW Gold p 300:

If the successes equal or exceed the obstacle, the character has succeeded in his goal - he achieved his intent and completed the task.

This is important enough to say again: Characters who are successful complete actions in the manner described by the player. A successful roll is sacrosanct in Burning Wheel and neither GM nor other players can change the fact that the act was successful. The GM may only embellish or reinforce a successful ability test.​

If a GM wants to ignore that rule, that's like a player ignoring some rule of the game (eg in PC building). The question at that point becomes a social one - will the rest of the group tolerate or even embrace the rulebreaking - but there is no sanction or succour to be found in the game itself.

GMs have to make literally thousands of micro-judgment calls in every session of play---to say nothing of the other thousands of judgment calls made during game prep. This is part of the great challenge of being a competent, successful GM. You are forced to inhabit a creative space that requires constant mental input and decision-making, and asks you to do so while creating semantic/logical/conceptual connections between hundreds of "idea threads."

The reason I think you've been getting pushback from some responders, @pemerton, is that they are not seeing the division, or separation, from what you call "scene framing" and the other kinds of judgment calls a GM is forced to make. And truthfully, even though I'm a proponent of avoiding "secret backstory" and "scene tourism" (having been subjected to it by our GM for over a year now in my current Savage Worlds game), I can easily see how many would simply throw up their hands and say, "Well pretty much EVERYTHING is a GM judgment call, so where the heck do you draw the line? If a GM wants something to happen, or wants to steer the action in the fiction, he or she pretty much can at any time, through any number of small, minute judgment calls."
Yes, I know that people are saying that. But they're not providing actual examples. It's conjecture, or perhaps extrapolation from experience where the GM was routinely adjudicating resolution by appeal to secret backstory.

I'll go back to the example of the orc encounter. Nothing in my characters' Beliefs or Instincts invokes orcs as an element of play. Thurgon's Belifes are about his god, his order, his family and his companion. His Instincts are about praying, protecting his companion, and maintaining the campfire. Aramina's Beliefs are about her wealth/status, her companion, and fire. Her Instincts are about her cloak, strangers, and spell casting.

So when my GM frames us into an encounter with orcs - as a consequence of a failed check to search a ruined homestead - it is evident that the enthusiasm for orcs is his. There is no illusion, nor any "steering" via "small, minute judgement calls". Likewise when the elves turn up.

Conversely, when the orcs threaten Aramina, that is the GM engaging my evinced concerns for Thurgon - both a Belief and an Instinct. And when, as a player - following Luke Crane's description of my "sacred and most holy role" - I took the opportunity to inject my evinced concerns into the elf situation by trying to persuade the elf to accompany me to my family estate, the GM accepted my Duel of Wits and we resolved it. (I lost.)

The elements that are in the fiction because of the GM's interests are evident. The elements that are in the fiction because of my evinced interests as a player are evident. The resolution is in accordance with the system's mechanics. It simply makes no sense to posit the GM "secretly steering". It's like supposing that someone asking you to join him/her for coffee is trying to "secretly steer you" into a cafe! I mean, yes, they're putting that suggestion out there, but there's nothing covert about it!

Your real point in all of this is (I think) to show that player-driven play is an antidote, or obvious antithesis to railroading, because when players are allowed to put their PCs' concerns/drives front and center to the action, the GM becomes much more limited in their ability to negate or subvert that intent.

You're advocating for a change mindset for the GM, primarily. A GM should no longer assume that their "secret backstory" and expectation that players will engage with it (scene tourism) is enough. Instead, they should be considering how their game addresses the expectations/desires being expressed by the players, and "framing" the action to address those concerns.

And it's no surprise to me that there are some (like @Lanefan) who simply disagree, because in their experience, player exploration of a GM's world/creation has provided a (more than) sufficient experience. Trying to frame PC needs/desires forcefully into the action has not been something they've expected their GM to do---nor would they necessarily want them to.
I wouldn't say I'm advocating, in the sense that I don't think anyone who enjoys "settting/story tourism" RPGing has any reason to change.

But I am asserting that that's not the only option out there. I'm asserting that player-driven RPGing, of the sort I (and Luke Crane, and Eero Tuovinen, and Ron Edwards, and Paul Czege, and others) describe, is a real thing that really happens, with its own logic, associated techniques, etc.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Most modern writing projects are done by committee. Is there any evidence that they're especially prone to inconsistencies over time?
Writing projects, as in - ?

Books (fiction) - usually one author, sometimes two, rarely more - usually consistent
Books (reference) - often a bunch of people but heavily checked and rechecked for consistency (which we don't get time to do in a game session)
TV shows - often different writers for different episodes, and sometimes it's obvious (much more noticeable when binge-watching one episode after another) by the glaring inconsistencies
Movies - someone writes it, then it often gets rewritten in whole or in part, and often the more it's rewritten the worse it is for inconsistencies (usually manifesting as plot holes)
D&D Manuals - multiple authors these days, errors in consistency still slip through despite the editors' best attempts. :)

And - nearly all writing projects are subjected to more or less intensive editing and proofreading before they hit the public eye. During a game session this doesn't happen if for no other reason than the time it would take; so the committee has to go by best educated guess as to what is consistent. A DM with a locked-in backstory and well-built world, on the other hand, pretty much knows what's consistent and what isn't even as it happens, whether it comes from herself or from a player.

Lan-"this post may or may not be internally consistent with a 12-horse Evinrude outboard motor"-efan
 

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top