Judgement calls vs "railroading"


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pemerton

Legend
When it's already clear something's at stake, all is good.

But when it's not clear; or not known to everyone that something relevant is at stake at all, then rolling dice is a big (too big, IMO) tip-off.
But that's the point - I want it to be clear! I want the players to be invested. To invest themselves, they need to know that something is at stake.

Let's use the anxious-guy-in-the-bar example. Guy arrives, eventually beelines for the PCs' table. If at that point I start calling for checks the players OOC are going to suddenly view the scene differently than had I not called for checks, and dollars-to-donuts that'll be reflected in how they react in-character.
Correct! Again, that's the point.

They didn't previously check the inn for hooks before setting up this signal?? Dummoxes deserve what they get.
Maybe the arrangements had to be made in a hurry, and they went for the plan that they thought had the least chance of going wrong.

If they hadn't checked, that's one where I'd go through the motions of secretly rolling dice and then either ignore the roll and just say yes there's hooks (if it makes sense there'd be hooks there) or go by the roll (if it may or may not make sense e.g. rain here is very uncommon).
Again, this is where I would have a player making the roll. That let's them both have the ritual experience of resolving a moment of crunch for the PC; and in some systems it also lets them expend resources if they want to (eg if the system allows players to expend fate points or similar to boost their checks).

Unless this is an inn they've been to before, the scenario would play out exactly the same as in the real world if I were to walk into a pub and go to hang my coat on a hook...I'd first have to check and see if there's any hooks present.
My point is that, in the real world, this is not mediated. If you want to know something about your immediate environment you just look around.

I'm sitting at a desk. Without even moving my head (just my eyes) I can see, on the desk, a pile of about two dozen books on various topics, another pile of books and papers dealing with a particular legal topic, various notes and papers spread out around my computer, three memory sticks, and a dozen or so pens. Plus some CDs, some boarding passes sitting around from old travel claims, and various other stuff that I'm not going to type up.

When the GM tells the CoC players that "You walk into the academics office and see a desk strewn with books and papers", there's no way the GM is going to have a list that even remotely captures the detail that the PCs can simply see.

Likewise, how many GM's inn descriptions record the presence of hooks for coats at the door? I've never seen that mentioned in a module that I can recall. I've seen many D&D inns with "wine" on the price list, but rarely its colour or its grape. There might be an entry for "stew", but is it lamb, goat, horse or beef? (Or something more exotic?)

A world in which the default assumption is that nothing is there unless the GM mentions it is so barren as to be implausible, outside a very special context such as a dungeon. Which is why dungeons are such an effective vehicle for a certain sort of play!

But once we get out of the dungeon, what are we going to do to rid our world of barren-ness? My solution is this: if the player is assuming that something is there (eg hooks at the door; pens on the desk) and nothing is at stake, I "say 'yes'". Why should my assumptions about what is in the fiction be any more important than there's? It's all just colour, and their sense of the colour is as good as mine.

If something is at stake - ie it's not mere colour - then that's where a roll is required (in BW and 4e, at least; Cortex is a bit trickier in this regard, and therefore poses its own GMing challenges). In 4e that would normally be as part of a skill challenge.

Characters can have family, friends, etc., as part of their background but these don't usually come up in play that often.
The game mentioned in the OP has been driven primarily by the mage PCs desire to redeem his brother, the assassin/wizard's desire to kill the same, and the elven ronin's inability to come to terms with the loss of his master (which was what led him to wander into human lands).

Without those background elements, there wouldn't be any play.

pressure comes from the giant who's trying to stove your head in; from the mentor who paid for this trip who is expecting a mission report within 2 days when you're still 4 days from town; from the unrelenting storm you've been lost in for days; from the party Thief who just won't pull her weight but expects her full share of everything; from being down to your last day worth of rations...need I go on?

<snip>

"the pressure, in short, usually comes from sheer survival"
When I look at the sort of fantasy fiction I would like my RPGing to emulate (not usually all at once, but from time to time across the range of sessions, systems and campaigns) I think of LotR, REH's Conan, the Earthsea stories, Arthurian romance, Claremont's X-Men, Star Wars, and the more romantic/passionate "swordsman" movies like Bride With White Hair, Hero, Crouching Tiger, Ashes of Time, etc.

In none of these are the protagonists driven primarily by the pressure for sheer survival. Survival only becomes an issue because something else has motivated them to place themselves in danger.

I think REH's Conan is especially interesting in this respect, because of the centrality of those stories and that character to the "Appendix N" experience. If you look at the Conan stories, he is almost never motivated primarily by mercenary considerations. The mercenary motivations may be part of a framing device, but in the actual events of the stories he acts out of non-mercenary motivations such as honour (eg Black Colossus), or a desire to prove himself (eg Tower of the Elephant), or compassion (eg People of the Black Circle, Jewels of Gwahlur, Tower of the Elephant again).

I don't think these sorts of motivations will easily or naturally emerge in RPGing, if everything is framed as if the stakes are simply survival. But in order to know what will test a player's commitment, in the playing of some particular PC, to honour, or to compassion, or whatever, you need to know how that player, in playing that character, understands the ingame situation. Sometimes that reveals itself through action (eg I remember a couple of occasions when the invoker/wizard in my main 4e game slew helpless prisoners when the opportunity presented itself, because the player - in character - had formed the view that they were beyond redemption and deserved summary execution), but not always. As a GM, the most obvious way to learn this stuff is to ask the player!
 

Sadras

Legend
@pemerton how do you surprise your players with cool twists if all the cool twists, appear to come from content generated by the players? Even as player I enjoy the exploration of content/ideas which are generated by the DM's storytelling - similar to the enjoyment of a movie. It brings me no joy to explore my character's inner law/good/natural vs chaos/evil/technology philosophical theories to drive the adventure.

Our most recent adventure involved the PCs agreeing to assist some lizardmen led by Snapjaw (HotDQ) to a temple which the lizard-folk held inside a gift from the 'Divine' which would assist them against the Bullywogs and Cultists which latter two groups were abusing/enslaving them.
In truth, what the lizard-folk interpreted as divine gifts were really the regional effects (5e MM) of the unnatural presence of the beholder in the area which was trapped within the temple (disintegrate stalk was damaged).

So the adventure was really their journey through the Mere of the Dead, the swamp, to the temple. They faced obstacles, monsters and these temporary unnatural phenomena (floating pebbles, a whistle..etc - beholder regional effects). Throughout the adventure either the lizard folk would say something strange, or a character would hear a phrase or see a line etched against a tree...this was all a riddle (6 lines) delivered in jumbled fashion. The characters eventually arrived at the temple and I revealed the remaining line of the riddle. One of the character's guessed correctly, the answer being a dream.

That particular player's character awoke inside the temple. Scattered bodies of lizard-folk were everywhere, one of the characters was lying on the floor, wounds all over his body, another was on the other side of the room busy interrogating Snapjaw (the lizard-folk leader) and next to the character floated a large bulbous mass with stalks (the PCs was obviously under a charm spell), the last remaining character was nowhere to be seen and that is how the session ended.

So the whole journey to the temple more or less happened the way it was roleplayed. The setup was if they solved the riddle early, they would have had more resources with which to face the beholder but fewer XP earned, the longer it took them to solve the riddle the greater the amount of XP due to all the encounters, but with less resources available.
The one who solved the riddle would have his character wake up (from the Sleep spell) and I as DM would roll randomly to see who would be affected by the Charm, Cause Wounds and Fear spell.
The character affected by the Sleep spell would get to roll the die as per the Sleep spell to determine his maximum number of hit points before the spell affected him (per 5e Sleep spell)

Was the session railroaded: Sure.
Was there much story content generated by players: No.
The player's enjoyed the twist of having a backstory of having initially lost against the beholder and that the session was a dream which did in fact occur and played in similar fashion to how it was role-played by them.
They enjoyed discovering the riddle, piecing it in the correct order and eventually solving it.
And they are looking forward to how they will resolve this encounter with the beholder given that they are at a disadvantage.

Obviously not all my session are this rail-roady but the above certainly wasn't a 'crap game' for our table.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
A classificatory scheme is of no use if everything we want to classify ends up under the one label.

Compared to a rocket, Usain Bolt and I are both slow. All that tells me is that using rockets as my standard for fast is not very good in a conversation about sprinting speed.
Amusingly, this is the exact problem I have with your use of "railroading."
 

pemerton

Legend
@pemerton how do you surprise your players with cool twists if all the cool twists, appear to come from content generated by the players?
Here's one instance, drawn from the game referred to in the OP (and these events happen not long before the events of the OP):

Two PCs drug the assassin/wizard, so that they can get to the tower and abscond with the (unconscious) mage who is resting there recovering from extreme injury. They decide (for reasons I didn't understand at the time, and still don't) to go there via the catacombs, even though they don't know the way, or even know for sure that there is a way into the tower from the catacombs.

The players fail a Catacombs-wise check. So I tell them that, after some hours of wandering through the catacombs, they are well and truly lost. But then, as they come to a place near the surface, with an opening about head-height onto the street, they hear a taunting voice: the wizard/assassin has regained consciousness, and is heading to the tower, and - having seen them in the catacombs as she passes through the street to the tower - is mocking them! (The third-person plural pronouns in the preceding two sentences straddle players and PCs - I was addressing the players, but addressing them as their characters. I mention this mostly because it is something that [MENTION=16586]Campbell[/MENTION] might be interested in, connected to the "advocacy" relationship between player and PC.)​

That was a surprise: the players knew that, with the failed check, something adverse to their PCs' aims would occur. But they weren't expecting it to be the sleeping potion wearing off!

Another example, also one that I've mentioned upthread, and from the same game: when the players fail a check in navigating through the Bright Desert to the Abor-Alz, the failure narration was that, when the PCs arrive at the first waterhole on the edge of the hills (where water falls down and pools in a rock, before spilling over its edge and draining away into the desert sand) they find it fouled.

It turned out that this had been done by a renegade elf. The elf was introduced into the fiction by me, to give effect to the failed check, and to connect that to the elven ronin's Belief that I will always keep the elven ways. An elf who fouls waterholes clearly is not keeping the elven ways - but how does one deal with such a filthy personage while keeping the elven ways? Later on, when the PCs failed to find the mace they were looking for in the ruined tower, the player of the mage PC (who was the one who instigated the search, having the mace as an element of backstory) speculated, "Of course the mace is going to be with the renegade elf." Which it was - a twist arising from the failed check, and the interweaving (by me as GM) of various story elements.

In my 4e game, failure is less common (4e is far more generous in it success rate than Burning Wheel) and so twists mostly arise in other ways. One way is out of the various strands of fiction that are generated during skill challenge resolution: on this occasion, for instance, the way that a skill challenge unfolded meant that the PC "paladin" (a fighter/cleric of Moradin) was obliged, out of his sense of honour, to seek a mitigation of punishment for a murderer, even though this contradicted his sense of justice. (Other, less honourable, PCs made a promise in his name that they intended not to keep; but before they could summarily dispatch the beneficiary of the promise the "paladin" PC turned up on the scene and so the murderer NPC was able to hold him to the promise made in his name.)

Another way is simply framing. When the PCs travelled back in time, they helped a young apprentice mage. A hundred years later, in the "present", the PCs learned that (i) the baron of the city they were in had a niece who was the spitting image of the apprentice, (ii) that said niece was engaged to the baron's adviser, whom they knew to secretly be an evil necromancer, and (ii) that the niece hadn't been seen for a few days. They (naturally) formed the conjecture that the necromancer had done something horrible to the niece, and set out to rescue her. The players were genuinely shocked when, at the end of their search for her, they found out that she was a necromancer, performing some ritual over a sarcophagus.

The shock was further compounded when they learned that the apprentice, too (who was the great-grandmother of the niece), had become a necromantic servant of Vecna: Jenna Osterneth, with whom they have since had a relationship that fluctuates between alliance and enmity (a bit like Magneto and the X-Men).

In my BW game I will also use framing to establish surprises, although probably a bit less liberally than in 4e (it's a different game, with different expectations). The first time, in the actual course of play, that the mage PC saw his (NPC) brother was about five or so sessions ago. That was a dramatic moment, and unexpected: the PC had gone to the docks because he had heard that a ship was arriving with a holy man on it, and he was cursed with mummy rot and wanted to be cured. As the Abbot Bernard stepped off the ship, the PC was struck by how much Bernard seemed to resemble his brother; and then he looked across the crowd and saw, on a rise on the other side of the docks, his brother looking down on Bernard with a mix of longing and contempt. The player wasn't expecting to see his brother; nor to learn that his brother was a bastard son of the holy man.

That moment led to a new Belief for the PC: Now that I have seen Joachim [the brother], I do pity him.

Was the session railroaded: Sure.
Can you elaborate? From what you say, it's not clear. Eg what is the connection of the players to the lizardfolk, the beholder, etc.

If I were to run something like this - the closest I've come is the time-travel scenario mentioned earlier in this post - my main concern would be (i) linking the resource expenditure choices made in the "dream" to the post-dream situation, and (ii) relating the outcomes in the dream sequence to the beholder situation. (So I probably wouldn't just roll randomly for charm, fear etc.)
 

pemerton

Legend
Amusingly, this is the exact problem I have with your use of "railroading."
I would posit this difference: [MENTION=23751]Maxperson[/MENTION] denies that any RPGing is player-driven or GM-driven. He asserts that all are both. (His example of GM-driven - ie that players just sit and listen to the GM read a story - I regard as (i) fanciful, and (ii) not an account of RPGing.)

Whereas I don't assert that all RPGing is railroading.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
If the GM has prepped the adventure path - or, to use Maxperson's analogy, if the GM has set up a shot for the 2nd hole - then what happens if the players want to play a different scenario (or, to use the analogy, want to play on a different course)? Are they really free to do that? As in, can the game really be run if they choose that?

What are the expectations around GM prep? What are the players' expectations? If the players expect a "living, breathing" world - a GM-authored backdrop that they explore and learn about through playing the game; and if the players expect a "plot" or a mystery that their PCs will hook onto and try and (re)solve; then how is the GM expected to provide this spontaneously? It seems like it will be a crap game.

Why couldn't the game really be run if they choose that?

One campaign the players were in Baldur's Gate and a demon incursion began. It began slowly, with some demons popping up here and there around the Heartlands. The PCs got into one fight with them and they began hearing of a few other examples. The PCs decided that demons were too much and for some reason still unknown to me, decided that they wanted to go become pirates. They got a hold of some maps and found out that there were a bunch of pirates down in the Nelanther Isles, so that's where they headed.

They got a ship and sailed to the Nelanther Isles and became pirates. Rumors of the demon incursion eventually reached that far south and some of it was good news, and some of it was bad news. The demon storyline continued without them. It added depth to the game when they heard about what was happening. Since the spread was going to encompass everything, even during their pirate adventures sometimes there were some demon tinged elements going on. They weren't engaging the original storyline, but it occasionally engaged them a bit on the fringe. Everyone had a blast.

I set up the shot for the 2nd hole and they left the course for a completely different one, and the game ran just fine.
 

Sadras

Legend
Can you elaborate? From what you say, it's not clear. Eg what is the connection of the players to the lizardfolk, the beholder, etc.

In Hoard of the Dragon Queen (HotDQ) an uneasy alliance exists between the Bullywogs, the Lizardmen and the Cultists, the adventure stipulates that the lizardmen would be amenable to an arrangement between the PCs and the Lizardmen against the other two factions.
As a backstory (and to fast-track the HotDQ story, as we had had 10 full session prior of Murder in Baldur's Gate), I established that the connection which might have been made by the PCs with the lizardmen had already been made by the Harper organisation which in turn asked for the PCs assistance in exploring the alliance with the lizardmen to strike out at the Cutlists.

As an extra I inserted a partially submerged temple within the swamp which imprisoned a beholder (why or how has not yet been established, only that the beholder does not have the disintegrate stalk available). In the 5e MM it describes the unnatural phenomena (regional effects) which might occur around beholders. These regional effects include the temporary appearance of trinkets - I built on this idea that the lizardmen, rather primitive in technology, saw these trinkets as gifts from the divine and they perceived these gifts would appear when they were in close proximity to the temple. Ignoring some inserted backstory about the tribe's shaman and a guardian of the temple, the lizardmen believed that some powerful gift lay within the temple which would assist them against the Bullywogs and the Cultists.
They relayed all this to the PCs who agreed to help.

Therefore the encounters for the journey were all preset - Shambling Mounds near a sinkhole, a whistle, a Yuan-ti hunting party, floating pebbles and a bridge made of foliage which led to the partially submerged temple roof, which was the nest to a Phase Spider and half a dozen Large Spiders.

I had decided that should they enter the temple before solving the riddle, I would create the inside of the temple from from the player's ideas as they spoke at the table (unknowingly) and the random dungeon tables within the DMG until it would dawn on them that this was a dream.

The adventure was therefore linear, and this mostly because the DM who was to run our Westeros campaign for that session informed me earlier that day that he was not prepared and asked if I could run something instead. So I skimmed the next chapter of HotDQ, determined I did not want to run it so hastily, used what was needed from the adventure to run this little side vignette.

Thankfully this railroad session paid off.

If I were to run something like this - the closest I've come is the time-travel scenario mentioned earlier in this post - my main concern would be (i) linking the resource expenditure choices made in the "dream" to the post-dream situation, and (ii) relating the outcomes in the dream sequence to the beholder situation. (So I probably wouldn't just roll randomly for charm, fear etc.)

I'm not sure I understand you here.
In (i) I used the guidelines in the DMG for encounter difficulties expected for their level and indeed was generous - given the situational disadvantage that was imposed on them when facing the beholder for the '2nd time'. I did mention that the journey to the temple did happen as it was roleplayed somewhat, so the party earned XP for those encounters. There was no linking of resource expenditure choices to be made.

As for (ii), that would have been neat had I thought of it, but I had no idea who was going to solve the riddle and I should mention that I had predetermined which beholder spells would be affecting the party.
It would then be my subjective view on whose outcome in the dream sequence more closely aligned with the fear or charm..etc attacks from the beholder.
That would be a DM judgment call right? We have no issue with that at our table.
 
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darkbard

Legend
Characters can have family, friends, etc., as part of their background but these don't usually come up in play that often.

Is it possible that such things don't come up in play that often because of the [GM driven] style of the game? That if the game were player-driven, such elements would develop as a result of players authoring their characters' connections to the fictional world?

Not that that is necessary for a good game, of course. But I do see how [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]'s analysis reveals something important here.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I'm not sure I understand you here.
In (i) I used the guidelines in the DMG for encounter difficulties expected for their level and indeed was generous - given the situational disadvantage that was imposed on them when facing the beholder for the '2nd time'. I did mention that the journey to the temple did happen as it was roleplayed somewhat, so the party earned XP for those encounters. There was no linking of resource expenditure choices to be made.
What I was trying to get at was that, in the dream, the players spend resources (eg spells, hp etc) but then when they fight the beholder how do those dream expenditures fit in?

If the answer is "it's the same" because the dream is a recollection of the truth, I can see that.
 

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