Critical Role Story, rails, and running games

overgeeked

B/X Known World
There was a round-table discussion last night between Matt Mercer, Aabria Iyengar, and Brennan Lee Mulligan. There was a lot of laughs and a lot of referee talk. One thing that stood out was this analogy by Brennan.


I'm not sure what to think about this, honestly. I know that's a common style, but it goes against the core reason I run games. So it's not for me, really. But I thought it was a cool clip.

The full round table here:

 
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Hmm, maybe? But it seems like he is working really hard to make an analogy to understand how he runs things. I certainly dont see it being how I run or perceive the game and the story interactions between the players, characters, and DM.
 


@overgeeked , I agree with you. I very much like his analogy for GM-directed play and it 100 % captures the type of 5e…but I don’t want any part of curating and directing to the degree that analogy expresses.

Ive done it before (early 90s Greybox Settng Tourism for a few years and then a heavy Setting Tourism + metaplot FR and PS game from 99-04 and standing in for a flakey GM’s 5e FR + metaplot game from late 15 to early 17). While the select group of players enjoyed the play, I loathed all of the extreme cognitive workload + out of game time investment + inability to be profoundly surprised by the shape play took (like he says in the quote…”your job is to irrigate the hill with the flowing water so it takes on a pleasing shape”). I understand it’s mass appeal, but I’ll never run that kind of game again.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
My theory is that plot-based adventures are easier to prep, but harder to run in that you're trying to hide the plot in some sense yet also keep the players on it. Sandboxes are harder to prep, but easier to run. I have to create all kinds of tables and other stuff to use on the fly up front so I can be ready for anything, but when that's done, I don't have to do hardly anything at all in play except manage the prep and see what happens.

In addition, plot-based adventure products are probably more interesting for the DM to read than the collection of tables and whatnot that comprise a sandbox. For many DMs, these modules are what they understand adventure design to be.

Put all that together and we will naturally get more DMs running plot-based adventures - they're less prep on the front end and it's what people are used to seeing in products.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
My theory is that plot-based adventures are easier to prep, but harder to run in that you're trying to hide the plot in some sense yet also keep the players on it.
IME the trick is to somehow generate enough interest among the players that they in effect keep themselves on it, because they want to see what happens next and-or how it all turns out (a.k.a. whether they will succeed or fail overall and what the ramifications of either might be).

It also means that if they don't show that interest, one needs to be ready to abandon that idea almost on the fly and have somehting else ready to go as a backup or plan B.

I also disagree as to whether plot-based adventures involve less prep, in cases where one is homebrewing the plot and designing/writing adventures oneself.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Hmm, maybe? But it seems like he is working really hard to make an analogy to understand how he runs things. I certainly dont see it being how I run or perceive the game and the story interactions between the players, characters, and DM.
The larger context is that it’s for shorter games. One-shots, con games, etc. Limited time and needing to hit certain things.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
IME the trick is to somehow generate enough interest among the players that they in effect keep themselves on it, because they want to see what happens next and-or how it all turns out (a.k.a. whether they will succeed or fail overall and what the ramifications of either might be).

It also means that if they don't show that interest, one needs to be ready to abandon that idea almost on the fly and have somehting else ready to go as a backup or plan B.

I also disagree as to whether plot-based adventures involve less prep, in cases where one is homebrewing the plot and designing/writing adventures oneself.
What I do is I tell the players there's a plot, that there is no content outside the plot, and that they must agree to stick to the plot as best as possible. If they agree, I'll run it but only begrudgingly. I also tie character advancement to staying on the plot and not anything else.

I can prep a plot-based adventure to fill 4 hours of session time (5 hours with shopping) in about 10 minutes - a basic storyline, a couple NPCs, some stat blocks, and a couple maps (which I only need for the VTT). I can't do that for a sandbox. Putting together a wandering monster or random encounter table alone takes longer than that.

This is also one of the reasons why I think city-based play is popular - less prep. It's easier to improvise stuff there than construct a dungeon and populate it with traps, monsters, and treasure. It's the path of least resistance for the DM, prep-wise.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
There’s a great bit at 1:05:30 where Matt talks about the player cycle of freedom and rules. Very relevant to a lot of conversations I see popping up.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm not sure what to think about this, honestly. I know that's a common style, but it goes against the core reason I run games.

So, if I may ask, what's the core reason you run games? And why do you think this runs against that reason?

I ask, because there seems to me to be a simple modification of the analogy that shifts it from rails to sandbox...
 

jgsugden

Legend
D&D is an RPG - a role playing game. Players run characters that play a role in a story.

You want stories to be interesting. At the same time, you want things for players to be simple.

What BLM describes here is leaving a path before players that doesn't require them to struggle to follow it, but that is interesting. You can achieve it by dropping enough hints that they eventually pick up on the thing you're leaving for them.

This is the approach of most of the Adventure Paths, but it isn't the only way to run a campaign. It is a 'result oriented' approach.

You can also have a 'path oriented' approach that starts off with interesting ideas and then opens up multiple paths that the PCs can pursue. I think of it as the 'journey is more important than the destination' approach. When they select a path, you allow it to go where it makes sense, and then open up new paths from there. As you do so, you make sure some of the paths you open head towards a potential conclusion - and you allow the PCs to choose whether to try to conclude, or whether to go on with more decisions. If they're enjoying the story, they may dig deeper and push to go on. If they're ready to move on to other paths, they might select the 'conclusive' option.

The decision tree is the focus, not the destination.

My personal appraoch to most campaigns: Railroad from levrels 1 to 5. From 5 to 17 it is a sandbox where I present options and let the PCs decide what intrigues them, and give ramifications ot the setting for the items they do not handle (and they can't handle everything). Then from levels 17 to 20 it narrows rapidly back towards a railroad that brings PCs to the completion of their tale. That model works. Those levels 5 to 17 are all about letting them explore and make choices while I drop the lore into their hands that they'll need to find new options, and to prepare for the final railroad finale.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
So, if I may ask, what's the core reason you run games? And why do you think this runs against that reason?

I ask, because there seems to me to be a simple modification of the analogy that shifts it from rails to sandbox...
My reaction is to the concept of rails and railroading. For me, RPGs are about player agency. That's the point of them. Anything that violates player agency is bad. Like railroading.

Railroading is the negation of player agency so that the referee's story, plot, module, etc can be preserved.

I am against that.

But, really importantly, that's not actually what Brennan is talking about in that clip. The context is lost and, as always, the context is important. He's using the word rails but not with the typical meaning it's used.

Taking out the problematic word rails and restating his point it would read something like this:

The character wants to solve their problem by taking the most direct path and in the most efficient manner possible. The player wants an interesting and engaging story. The job of the referee is to give them "both" what they want by making the "most direct path" an interesting and engaging story.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I mean, ok... I guess.

I don't really understand his premises about what he claims 'characters' or 'players' want, but I do feel like he's making an argument here for high illusionism where he tricks the players into believing that they made choices and were creative and really, they went along with the rails. The metaphor appears to be like those in an apparently open world game like 'Journey' or 'Half-Life 2' where when you are first playing the game you feel like you could have done anything and you actually came up with clever things to do, and as long as you stay on the path you felt like you made your own story, but really there is just one story that everyone is supposed to have because everything was on rails.

And I don't really dig that.

What I try to do is more like "Narrow-Broad-Narrow" where I may have "doors" that I am expecting the players to pass through to advance to new parts of the stories, but there really isn't a water sluice or rail between doors and I legitimately don't know how the players will get from one door to the other. I sprinkle a lot of clues around so no one gets lost in the sandbox, but sometimes the players do things I never anticipated. And sometimes they exit out of doors I never expected them to take, and I have to invent a whole new area of the story I didn't anticipate. Occasionally I've had them find doors that let them skip areas that I had planned for and go straight to parts of the story I thought were more remote.

When I put PCs in the sandbox, I don't see this big disconnect between the character's motivation to get to the next door quickly and efficiently and the player's motivation to do that same thing. There are obviously obstacles in the sandbox, but I don't really think of it as my job to ensure the players don't bypass the obstacles because the obstacles aren't really the story anyway. But to the extent that wandering in the sandbox is story, I am perfectly fine with the players adding their own wrinkles and twists and engaging the setting it in ways I never expected.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
The character wants to solve their problem by taking the most direct path and in the most efficient manner possible. The player wants an interesting and engaging story. The job of the referee is to give them "both" what they want by making the "most direct path" an interesting and engaging story.
The trouble I have with this is, who decides what will make for an interesting and engaging story? In this analogy, seemingly it’s the DM as they’re the one irrigating the flow of the water. And that doesn’t quite sit right with me.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I don't think I understand the analogy. Anyone wanna take a crack at translating into an example of the shape of game play?

Edit: [No need for more explanations, I got it. His analogy is not so great because it is extemporaneous]
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Forget it. This is good enough. Thanks.

Taking out the problematic word rails and restating his point it would read something like this:

The character wants to solve their problem by taking the most direct path and in the most efficient manner possible. The player wants an interesting and engaging story. The job of the referee is to give them "both" what they want by making the "most direct path" an interesting and engaging story.
 

jgsugden

Legend
The trouble I have with this is, who decides what will make for an interesting and engaging story? In this analogy, seemingly it’s the DM as they’re the one irrigating the flow of the water. And that doesn’t quite sit right with me.
Deciding isn't the right word when this works well.

I look at it this way: Movies have actors, directors. So Does D&D.

The lead actors are the players running the main characters. The DM (and perhaps some frelance drop ins) cover the rest of the acting roles.

The direction comes from the DM. They take what the writers give them and find a way to move the story forward in an interesting way. A good director can make a good movie with a bad script. A bad director can ruin the best of scripts and make a horrible movie. In the end, the direction is a very different skill set than what is required to write a good story.

Then who is the writer? Everyone. The writers are the players, the DM, WotC, and everyone that contributed to materials being used at the table. They're TV shows, books, movies and comics that inspire. The material the director / DM turns into a great game come from a lot of sources. I think the head writer is the DM, but they work closely witht he lead writer for each PC - the player - to work out stories for each PC.
 

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