Judgement calls vs "railroading"

pemerton

Legend
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.
This still doesn't seem to answer my question. If you can run the pirate game without prep, and "everyone had a blast", what is the point of the prep?
 

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Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
[MENTION=23751]Maxperson[/MENTION],

When you "ask questions and use the answers", how do you decide which player(s) get(s) to provide the answer? Is it first-come-first-serve? Round robin? Collaborative?

Also, what critetia do you expect the players to use when coming up with their answer? What they would find fun individually? What the other players would find fun? Free association with the current storyline? Logicial inference? Whimsy? I'm having hard time figuring out how I would begin to answer such a question as a player. This is in part because I don't understand which OOC GM responsibilities (if any) implictly attach to such on-the-spot delegation of content creation from the GM to the players.

A question: when you are GMing a game, and a player fails a check, what do you do? If they can fail the check yet still get what they wanted, then what was the point of the check?

I describe the direct consequences of failing the task that the check was modeling. I stick as closely as possible to consequences that would be expected in the real world, so that players can rely on their real-world experience to accurately judge the stakes of their actions in advance. When the game world predictably responds to actions analagously to the real world, this contributes to verisimilitude.

The players aren't going to get what they want as a result of a failed check, but the failed check usually doesn't preclude them getting what they want via other means or more effort. For some checks, that won't always be possible. Failure on a check to catch a falling vase, for example, is likely to frustrate the players' intent in catching it, but only as a direct consequence of that failure when the vase, forseeably, shatters.

The point of the check was to determine, in a case where there was doubt about the outcome, whether the action in question succeeded or failed.

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.

Or, conversely, if it turns out that this spontaneous game is a good one, then what was going on with all that effort on prep and pre-authorship? What was it for?

Much of the content of my games is generated on the fly. If the players decide to follow a plotline I hadn't added deliberately (and this happens all the time when the party finds something unexpectedly interesting and decides to pursue it) this does indeed require me to make up a mystery or plot as I go along. Often, I can do this seemlessly, staying one step ahead of the players, without letting on that I've switched to wholesale improv. If it's a situation where I think I need a little planning time first, or I think I'm too tired to pull off full-improv well, I'll simply admit that this is an area of the game I've only got a vague sketch of, and call for a 10-minute break while I fill in the details.

I do a small amount of prep work for each session (I do more at the start of a new campaign), based on my best guess(es) of what the party will choose to do. If I'm wrong and my work isn't used that session, I'll keep it around in case the party follows up later. If they don't, I can file off the serial numbers and use generic parts of it (e.g. a dungeon layout) to supplement future on-the-fly content.
 

Sadras

Legend
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.

Exactly that.
Any spent resources in getting to the temple are spent as it is a recollection of the truth (as you put it). The only differences in resources which occurred were:
- Fewer hit points for the asleep character, in order for the Sleep spell to take affect;
- The character who fell unconscious thus losing all this hit points due to the continuous Cause Serious Wounds spells. He was the unlucky one, this will be countered by providing some interesting benefit;
- The Charm and Fear spell victims did not suffer any resource loss, but positioning will play a crucial role.

So yes, the first two suffered Hit Point loss as a resource, this will will have to be factored in.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
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.

Let's say I accept your distinction that you've carved out a slightly less overbroad position than Max -- it's still overbroad.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I think you dropped a "not" - I'm guessing that you're not overly fond of the way I'm framing things!

That's exactly right. I think your line of inquiry is misguided for a few reasons.
  • It presents a false binary that fails to capture the diversity of play as experienced. It also enables debates which present another false binary that also fails to capture actual diversity of play - that a game is either a railroad or there is no significant pressure on a player to follow a path that is contrary to playing their character with integrity. We then become gridlocked in a discussion about which of these false binaries is true, rather than meaningful discussion of play.
  • It presumes a general lack of shared player interests or any real meaningful distinctions in how the game and social group shape player interests. We then get to avoid the equally contentious, but far more meaningful discussion about conflicts of interest that can arise when we have an aversion to actually talking these things out.
  • We also sidestep discussions about distinctions between various forms of player motives, the sort of decisions they are expected to make, how they are expected to make those decisions, and what that means for group dynamics, the fiction, and play of the game. For example by framing things in terms of who is driving play the subtle social cues that encourage GMs to mitigate undesired outcomes could be framed as a sort of player driven play when I am fairly certain that is anathema to the way you play roleplaying games. I know it is to me.
  • It also averts discussion of the possibility that we could all play a game with no one really driving the game. We're all just playing.
  • I think there are better ways to talk about these distinctions in a way that better accounts for diversity of play and does not assume poor alignment of player interests. Character Advocacy is one such way that I believe avoids going through the weeds.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
What I wanted to post, after reading [MENTION=23751]Maxperson[/MENTION] talking about "allow[ing] the PCs to engage the path or leave the path entirely if they wish", is what does allow mean here?

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?
Sure it can, assuming the DM has a clue what she's doing.

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.

Or, conversely, if it turns out that this spontaneous game is a good one, then what was going on with all that effort on prep and pre-authorship? What was it for?
What happens - and believe me, I say this from experience - is that for the rest of the session in which the left turn occurs the DM is (usually)* winging it as best she can. During the following week she then takes what happened during that session and uses it as a basis for prep for the session to come.

* - in very rare cases I've seen parties left-turn from one prepped thing directly into another (that in theory they were going to get to sometime later anyway) without realizing it.

Having a well-thought-out setting as a solid foundation certainly helps with the winging factor, as does having a supply of canned modules/maps/adventure ideas on hand for emergencies. :)

Which means what, in practical terms? If you can run a game that has veered "hard left" without prep, what is your prep for?
Well, it's wasted now, isn't it? Part of the risk of being a DM lies in doing prep for something that may never see play.

But, speaking for myself, I know all too well that the longer I just wing it the more chance there is that I'm going to really mess it up - either generate some awful inconsistencies, or talk myself into a corner, or put a room right where another room already is...that sort of thing; to be avoided if at all possible.

Lan-"flap flap flap"-efan
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
You can use passive scores and roll behind the screen for perception/insight/etc. (And engage in legerdemain like making decoy checks for no reason, or making checks in advance, in order, so no sound of rolling dice to add inappropriate tension.)

For knowledge checks, OTOH, the joy of being the exposition character can get pretty watered down by the vagaries of the d20. ;( The character with the best roll craps out, then everyone else jumps in and one of them rolls high enough to do OK. One thing I've started doing when I call for a knowledge check is to put a mechanical choice before the party: either the high-check character makes the roll and everyone takes what he has to say as gospel, or they compare notes, hash it out and find a consensus, modeled by a group check.
But, even if you succeed and your exposition character has the knowledge, it's the DM then tells everyone what's what.
Exposition seems like it'd be the perfect time to give players some extra fiction-writing agency. Say, to get all indie with it: let the player who successfully ID's the heretofore unknown monster and it's weakness name it and decide what the weakness is... ;)

I think it is a mistake to associate player agency too strongly with the use of specific mechanisms, particularly ones which players have no reasonable ability to actually utilize themselves. I actually feel that certain sorts of mechanisms can often be used to obscure the impact of GM judgement calls. This provides a certain sort of firewall that can make it difficult to advocate for things a player should have access to by virtue of their fictional positioning of their characters. In a game without perception checks it is entirely reasonable for me to advocate that my character would have had a chance to react to the assassin's strike by pointing out features of the fiction which would be on my side. I could also respond to the nature of the framing, and contest it on grounds of fair play. Similar things could be said for the ways in which action economies often leave gaps to be taken advantage of that do not adequately respect the fiction.

My belief is that player agency is about player decision making and its impact on the playspace. Reliable mechanisms that players can depend on are somewhat helpful, but I believe most rules debates are a form of proxy warfare. We really want to be having a discussion about our fictional positioning and the decisions we are making as players for our characters, but mechanisms can obscure this. I find when the rules of the game are easy to grasp and reliable we often see much rules lawyering subside and instead will often see discussions pointed back towards the fiction.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.

Correct! Again, that's the point.
Where sometimes I don't want them to know right now that anything is at stake; they might find out later...or might not...depending on how things go.

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).
Yeah, I'm not at all sold on systems where OOC resources can influence die rolls like that.

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.
Which in the game is modeled by asking the DM.

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,
So just ask for more details (preferably those specific ones relevant to what you're doing e.g. don't ask about the number of tables in the bar if your main interest is whether there's a hook or not) until you get the relevant info you need.

Some players will take this too far and ask for descriptions of absolutely everything whether relevant or not; some DMs will also take this too far by proactively describing everything whether relevant or not. Both of these just waste time.

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.
Fair enough, as long as the DM always has right of veto.

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.
Again, though - what if the situation dictates that it not be known what's at stake. OK, there's hooks...you hang your cloak on one...now I'm going to secretly roll to see if a) your contact noticed this and b) if anyone else that might care noticed this.

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.
Whyever not? Can't the play be driven by greater forces (external plots, wars, impending apocalypse, etc.) than the characters' own angst?

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.
And in those few of that list I'm familiar with the motivation is usually external. Sure Luke ends up trying to redeem his father (though both father and son are pretty angst-laden anyway; Anakin in the prequels is just painful) but his main motivation is to right the galaxy's wrongs once he learns about them. Frodo takes the ring due to external pressure - it has to be done and during that fractious council meeting he feels he's the only one who can do it. The X-men are mostly fighting for their own survival and to prove they belong in the world (in the movies, I don't know the comics at all). Arthurian romance is just more personal angst against a different backdrop and certainly not enough to hang an entire campaign on (though romance etc. is certainly welcome to arise as a sidebar in the ongoing game).

I'd rather have a campaign where the PCs slowly but surely enmesh themselves in something much bigger than their own lives, and then play that out wherever it may go. LotR does this very well with Frodo...well, with all the Hobbits, come to that. Star Wars does it with Luke, if not quite as seamlessly.

And The Hobbit - all of Bilbo's motivation is external to begin with; sure he discovers himself as well as things go along, but that's not his reason for adventuring.

In my games, most adventurers I've seen played are motivated by either sheer greed, by wanting to improve their social standing (e.g. reach name level), or by being recruited into an existing party.

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!
Or just watch what the PC does and make mental note e.g. in the case of this wizard I'd be formulating my own ideas on its alignment after this without regard to what's written on the character sheet.

Lan-"when in doubt, ask the DM; if still in doubt, have another beer and try again"-efan
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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?
Possibly. That said, in this campaign only a very few adventures (maybe 3 out of 64+) have taken place anywhere near the home-town of a PC; and in those cases I try (and admittedly don't always succeed as well as I'd like) to make sure the player has some grounding in the PC's background there.

Lasnefan
 

Tony Vargas

Legend
I actually feel that certain sorts of mechanisms can often be used to obscure the impact of GM judgement calls. This provides a certain sort of firewall that can make it difficult to advocate for things a player should have access to by virtue of their fictional positioning of their characters. In a game without perception checks it is entirely reasonable for me to advocate that my character would have had a chance to react to the assassin's strike by pointing out features of the fiction which would be on my side. I could also respond to the nature of the framing, and contest it on grounds of fair play.
You're also left with /just/ that. You can say your character is being alert, you can describe him as perceptive, but with no mechanic to back you up, you're back to DM judgement calls. Sure, it's out in the open - you know the system has given you no mechanism with which to model your character in that case, the 'game' is reduced to your ability to advocate for your character and make decisions for him, thus 'gaming the GM' or 'Gygaxian skilled play' - I like to call it 'player as resolution system.' The character you're playing doesn't matter anymore, just your ability to make a case to your GM.
 


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