Critical Role Story, rails, and running games

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Hmm… This seems like great advice for how to run a game in the “Trad” style. But it’s… Kind of the opposite of what I want my games to be like. To roll with the analogy, I don’t want to irrigate a path to direct the water where I want it to go, I want to plant my crops where the river naturally flows.
My version of the analogy would be slightly different. I want to put everything on the hill, then pour the water on and see where it goes.
 

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billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I don't think I understand the analogy. Anyone wanna take a crack at translating into an example of the shape of game play?
The Fellowship wants to take the One Ring to Mordor. The most efficient route for them is the pass of Caradhras. DM decides that's too easy so hits it with a blizzard, thinking they'll divert to the Gap of Rohan. Fellowship decides to try the next straightest path and go through Moria. DM chuckles behind his screen thinking this is even better than what he expected.

The Fellowship wants to split with some heading off to Mordor in secrecy with the others heading to bolster Minas Tirith. DM decides that's not complicated enough so he throws in an encounter with White Hand orcs all the way from Isengard who get lucky enough to grab a couple of hobbits and make a run for home. Now he can REALLY complicate up that straight line path the PCs want to chart through their challenges. He chortles behind his screen dreaming of the hard decision the Mordor branch of the Fellowship will have to make when they run into Gollum...
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.
I thought the same at first. But I don't think he's talking about illusionism at all. The rest of the video provides a lot of context to the statement. He's talking about players giving him backstories and him mining the backstories for plot hooks and NPCs and dangling those NPCs and plot hooks in front of the characters to interact with. So the goal the characters are trying to achieve in the easiest way possible is a player-defined one and he's saying the referee is there to make achieving that goal interesting to play through by providing obstacles.
Hmm… This seems like great advice for how to run a game in the “Trad” style. But it’s… Kind of the opposite of what I want my games to be like. To roll with the analogy, I don’t want to irrigate a path to direct the water where I want it to go, I want to build alongside wherever the water naturally flows.
I'm definitely more in the realm of emergent story myself. But I don't think he's actually talking about story per se. It sounds more like he's talking about putting interesting obstacles in the players' path.
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.
The player provides a backstory to the referee and the referee mines that for plot hooks and NPCs. The player provides the story hooks and the referee jazzes them up and makes sure completion of those hooks is interesting and surprising.

Earlier in that bit he talks about how he wants, as a player to not think about his character's arc. He wants immersion and to be in the character. I think he's coming at this same idea from the referee's side. Keep the players as immersed as possible and seed the plot hooks from their characters' backstories and play to see what happens.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I'm definitely more in the realm of emergent story myself. But I don't think he's actually talking about story per se. It sounds more like he's talking about putting interesting obstacles in the players' path.

The player provides a backstory to the referee and the referee mines that for plot hooks and NPCs. The player provides the story hooks and the referee jazzes them up and makes sure completion of those hooks is interesting and surprising.

Earlier in that bit he talks about how he wants, as a player to not think about his character's arc. He wants immersion and to be in the character. I think he's coming at this same idea from the referee's side. Keep the players as immersed as possible and seed the plot hooks from their characters' backstories and play to see what happens.
Oh, ok. If that’s the case, it seems like a terrible analogy for what he’s trying to describe. I’m gonna have to watch it in context.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I thought the same at first. But I don't think he's talking about illusionism at all. The rest of the video provides a lot of context to the statement. He's talking about players giving him backstories and him mining the backstories for plot hooks and NPCs and dangling those NPCs and plot hooks in front of the characters to interact with. So the goal the characters are trying to achieve in the easiest way possible is a player-defined one and he's saying the referee is there to make achieving that goal interesting to play through by providing obstacles.

Ok, but now all you are convincing me of is that it is a really bad analogy.

Based on what you claim he is saying, I think of this as content density - make sure your sandbox always has a lot of stuff to play with.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Oh, ok. If that’s the case, it seems like a terrible analogy for what he’s trying to describe. I’m gonna have to watch it in context.
Yeah, probably for the best. It's quite likely I'm utterly flubbing it and he means something else entirely.

If you're going by this taxonomy:


I think Brennan is more talking about OC / neo-trad. I mean, the author of that taxonomy even calls out Critical Role as a big source for OC / neo-trad. So...maybe.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Yeah, probably for the best. It's quite likely I'm utterly flubbing it and he means something else entirely.
I’ll give it a watch when I have some time.
If you're going by this taxonomy:


I think Brennan is more talking about OC / neo-trad. I mean, the author of that taxonomy even calls out Critical Role as a big source for OC / neo-trad. So...maybe.
Yeah, Neo-Trad is probably a better fit. Though, as the author says, the categories are permeable, and personally it seems to me like CR blends elements of Trad and Neo-Trad. Or maybe I just don’t understand Trad at all.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I’ll give it a watch when I have some time.
Cool.
Yeah, Neo-Trad is probably a better fit. Though, as the author says, the categories are permeable, and personally it seems to me like CR blends elements of Trad and Neo-Trad. Or maybe I just don’t understand Trad at all.
I think the difference is the position of the referee in relation to the players and their authority over the setting, game, world, story, etc.

If I'm reading the taxonomy correctly (certainly not a given), then it's something like:

In trad, it's very much the referee is in charge and it's their world and their story that the players are moving through. The Hickman Revolution is trad. The referee is the primary storyteller and is there to tell the players a story. "Here's the module we're running, bring whatever characters you want. But this is the story." Characters are effectively interchangeable as their backstories (if they have any) don't really matter. "I'm the referee and this is my story."

In neo-trad, that relationship is almost flipped. The players share more storytelling responsibility as they provide characters with backstories and the referee builds the story from those backstories and guides the players through the story they want to work through...along with elements the referee wants to include. The referee still contributes and plays the world and NPCs etc, but they're not the primary storyteller in the sense that they originated the story. They take on ideas from the players and weave them together to make a story. "I'm the referee but this is our story."
 

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.
The bit I’m referencing is this:

Matt Mercer. “This is a testament to why I love playing with newer players. There’s a cycle I’m noticing, through the years of playing. Like a player cycle. When you first begin, you don’t know the boundaries that a lot of experienced players expect or understand. The more you know the game, the more you tend to, more often than not, stay within the confines of what the game establishes as the rules. When you’re new to it, you don’t really understand that so you take wider swings, you make stranger choices. You really kind of push against those boundaries because you don’t know where the boundaries are. You’re like a kid learning to how to walk for the first time and bumping into the furniture. And it’s wonderful, and eventually you kind of fall into those lines and not always, but sometimes you find yourself kind of subconsciously sticking, coloring within the lines because you’ve learned to do so. Then over time you begin to realize you’ve been doing that. And then you go back to being weird again. And that’s my other favorite point. It’s new players or extremely experienced players who have come back to reclaim their ‘stupid’ youth as players.”

That strikes me as very much a “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” kinda thing. Try whatever. Don’t worry about the rules. They don’t really matter and they get in your way. Limit you, even if subconsciously. You’re playing a character who’s supposed to be a real person in a real place in a real situation. Have them do whatever you think they’d do in that situation. Not what the rules say you can do. And that’s why I love rules light games and FKR-style play. I don’t want there to be lines. I want to just color.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I’ll give it a watch when I have some time.

Yeah, Neo-Trad is probably a better fit. Though, as the author says, the categories are permeable, and personally it seems to me like CR blends elements of Trad and Neo-Trad. Or maybe I just don’t understand Trad at all.
Run a WotC AP. That's solidly Trad. Trad is exploring the GM's setting/plot as a primary point of play. GM setting/plot here includes published settings/adventures. Brennan's analogy is solidly in Trad.

Neotrad is a different thing, where the GM's job is to give the PC's their big moments. Setting is either canonized with the PCs as disrupters becoming the stars (Original Character play) or is serving PC arcs.

Both Trad and Neotrad are heavily GM centered, though, with the GM as final arbiter, but the expected role and things arbitrate for change from the GM's ideas (Trad) to the player's ideas (Neotrad). 3.x was leaned Neotrad because it was expected that the GM adhere to the rules and player builds could easily dominate the rules-directed content. 5e is heavily Trad, with weakened PC build options and heavy reliance on GM as source of fiction/rulings.

CR is a mix of Trad (finding cool things about the GM's setting) and Neotrad (clearly designed arcs centering PCs special things).

Quite a lot of what I'm seeing in 5e recently and suggestions for tge upcoming edition suggest that the game is swinging back toward Neotrad after it's large swing to Trad.

All of the above are general trends and are not meant to say that you can't do whatever at your table. It's looking at how the systems operate to enhance a culture based on how much you'd have to push on it to go a different route. 5e does Trad effortlessly, Neotrad with intent of the table, Classic poorly, OSR with effort, and there's no support for Story Now.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
My understanding of what he describes is as follow. Obviously, this is tainted by my style and limited experiences.

Players will sometimes have long-term goals. But most of the play action in a session is directed towards shorter-term goals. We often seek to achieve short-term goals in the most direct way possible. We're not interested in convoluted solutions (even though sometimes what we think is direct ends up being convoluted). The reality is that going from short-term goal to short-term goal makes for interesting beats, but together they don't necessarily make for an interesting story or arc.

A lot of players, especially newer ones (post-critical role) are interested in a variety of elements of the game, but if they invest time in a campaign that will last, they want a memorable story and some good memories to take home. The DM, in the elements he prepare, in the rulings he does, in the behaviors he encourages or discourages at the table has a ton of power over the shape that a long-term campaign can take.

And thus, while the players are focused on their shorter-term goal, you can weave elements in a way where it creates interesting reversals of situations, dilemmas, challenges and hopefully create a more meaningful story than just an anthological series of quests. If you have players that come with detailed backstories like the characters in Critical Role, they're actually giving you even more power as a GM. They're saying "this is important to my character, he might seek or try to avoid this. I don't know what will happen, but I want this to be important". Where, when and how you weave it or introduce it can have a ton of effect on the story created.

And all of that has little to do with agency. I'm also a hard defender of agency as the core element of roleplaying games. But like most topics, I've disagreed with some definitions of agency.

I think it was actually about the new Critical Role short series that's set before a cataclysm. I read some posts that said that the players had no agency because everyone knew that in the end, a catastrophe would happen and they had no way to stop it. Sure, if what the players wanted to do was to stop it and if there was some implicit suggestion that it could be stopped, it'd be robbing them of their agency to make it so it couldn't be stopped. No matter what you do or try or come up with, the outcome is fixed. But you can absolutely have some unavoidable event that's the backdrop of a more personal story. It does not rob the players of agency, even if they get affected by it; because it's not their main goal. They don't direct most of their decision making towards avoiding it. It's just interesting to see them have adventures and solve more personal endeavours while this event is happening.

Having a campaign happened during the failing weeks of an empire (like Rome) or during a large plague (like the black death) would make for unavoidable situations but very interesting contexts for players to exercise their agency.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The bit I’m referencing is this:

Matt Mercer. “This is a testament to why I love playing with newer players. There’s a cycle I’m noticing, through the years of playing. Like a player cycle. When you first begin, you don’t know the boundaries that a lot of experienced players expect or understand. The more you know the game, the more you tend to, more often than not, stay within the confines of what the game establishes as the rules. When you’re new to it, you don’t really understand that so you take wider swings, you make stranger choices. You really kind of push against those boundaries because you don’t know where the boundaries are. You’re like a kid learning to how to walk for the first time and bumping into the furniture. And it’s wonderful, and eventually you kind of fall into those lines and not always, but sometimes you find yourself kind of subconsciously sticking, coloring within the lines because you’ve learned to do so. Then over time you begin to realize you’ve been doing that. And then you go back to being weird again. And that’s my other favorite point. It’s new players or extremely experienced players who have come back to reclaim their ‘stupid’ youth as players.”

That strikes me as very much a “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” kinda thing. Try whatever. Don’t worry about the rules. They don’t really matter and they get in your way. Limit you, even if subconsciously. You’re playing a character who’s supposed to be a real person in a real place in a real situation. Have them do whatever you think they’d do in that situation. Not what the rules say you can do. And that’s why I love rules light games and FKR-style play. I don’t want there to be lines. I want to just color.
Mercer is bang-on right in that analysis, and puts my own thoughts into better words than I could have.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Run a WotC AP. That's solidly Trad. Trad is exploring the GM's setting/plot as a primary point of play. GM setting/plot here includes published settings/adventures. Brennan's analogy is solidly in Trad.

Neotrad is a different thing, where the GM's job is to give the PC's their big moments. Setting is either canonized with the PCs as disrupters becoming the stars (Original Character play) or is serving PC arcs.

Both Trad and Neotrad are heavily GM centered, though, with the GM as final arbiter, but the expected role and things arbitrate for change from the GM's ideas (Trad) to the player's ideas (Neotrad). 3.x was leaned Neotrad because it was expected that the GM adhere to the rules and player builds could easily dominate the rules-directed content. 5e is heavily Trad, with weakened PC build options and heavy reliance on GM as source of fiction/rulings.

CR is a mix of Trad (finding cool things about the GM's setting) and Neotrad (clearly designed arcs centering PCs special things).

Quite a lot of what I'm seeing in 5e recently and suggestions for tge upcoming edition suggest that the game is swinging back toward Neotrad after it's large swing to Trad.

All of the above are general trends and are not meant to say that you can't do whatever at your table. It's looking at how the systems operate to enhance a culture based on how much you'd have to push on it to go a different route. 5e does Trad effortlessly, Neotrad with intent of the table, Classic poorly, OSR with effort, and there's no support for Story Now.
Ok, that squares well with my understanding.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Matt Mercer. “This is a testament to why I love playing with newer players. There’s a cycle I’m noticing, through the years of playing. Like a player cycle. When you first begin, you don’t know the boundaries that a lot of experienced players expect or understand. The more you know the game, the more you tend to, more often than not, stay within the confines of what the game establishes as the rules. When you’re new to it, you don’t really understand that so you take wider swings, you make stranger choices. You really kind of push against those boundaries because you don’t know where the boundaries are. You’re like a kid learning to how to walk for the first time and bumping into the furniture. And it’s wonderful, and eventually you kind of fall into those lines and not always, but sometimes you find yourself kind of subconsciously sticking, coloring within the lines because you’ve learned to do so. Then over time you begin to realize you’ve been doing that. And then you go back to being weird again. And that’s my other favorite point. It’s new players or extremely experienced players who have come back to reclaim their ‘stupid’ youth as players.”

I also think Mercer is spot on. This is why I never try to teach new players the rules. If I teach a player the rules first, then they think they can only do what the rules say. They don't understand that the rules are just there to help me quickly and fairly arbitrate what they want to do, but they can try to do anything. Yes, this means sometimes they try to do things that their low-level character is not yet ready to succeed at or which their character isn't built to do, and that can cause a little frustration until they can figure out what they can lean into in terms of stunts and moments of awesome, but it's so much better because they don't get hidebound.

But I think he's also being if anything overly kind and generous. The problem is much bigger than he addresses.

The best players are like 12 or 14 year olds because they haven't forgotten how to play make believe. I love the way kid's game - always have. They take moral dilemmas absolutely seriously. They really act like their choices matter. And one of the most fun sessions I've ever run was for a teenage brother and sister about two years apart who started playing and then just leaned into make believe turning into like smart versions of six year olds on a playground, doing dialogue together and acting out slice of life. It was just so much fun to watch. As a GM I love sessions where the players entertain me.

Meanwhile, most of the worst players I've ever played with have like 15 years or more experience. I almost have gotten where I dislike getting players who have a lot of experience. They have dug themselves down into these ruts where they've spent 15 or more years reinforcing bad habits. I gamed recently with a player that clearly had more than 20 years-experience who was incapable of making a proposition in character, was stuck in pawn stance, tried to manage how everyone else played, was incapable of sharing spotlight, rules lawyered and argued with the GM at every opportunity, and spent more time talking than the GM did, and was stuck trying to win in situations where winning was irrelevant because nothing really was at stake. He not only had no role-playing skills; he had anti-role-playing skills. New players play better than that. He hadn't leveled up; he leveled down.

One thing that really strikes me about Critical Role is we spend way too much time focusing on improving GMing skills and how we have good GMs and bad GMs, and we treat being a player as this thing that requires no skill and no thought and where however you want to have fun at the table it's OK. We treat being a GM like you are there to make sure everyone has fun, but the player like they have no responsibility for anyone's fun but their own. And that's one thing CR gets absolutely right - the players are trying to make sure the other players have fun.

Not every player reclaims their "stupid youth".
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I listened to the clip in the tweet while driving earlier & at the time without context thought it was something totally alien to how I run the game. When I started watching it I pretty quickly decided that I was probably missing important context & found it interesting enough to watch to the end.

I only know Mercer, but Brennan Lee Mulligan seems to be the one talking at 8:17 is something I agree with a thousand percent. The joy is absolutely in play & find out. The comment about how that working best for longer campaigns than short run ones.
  • a couple months ago one of my players tried to bring in a leathercrafter NPC contact but at the time but was decided that despite having one the leatherworker was someone he was on bad terms with. Ever since then there has been speculation on occasion but no chance to dig into it or repair the relationship. Tonight the player & rest of the group discovered that the on bad terms was on account of the elf PC having a drunken one night stand that resulted in a kid rolldice 50ish years ago when the player had to remind everyone why visiting a particular town would be a bad idea. He's now expressing an interest in trying to fix the relationship with the maybe a big problem kid. They discovered it at the same time I did in this case :D

    Nobody knew why he was on bad terms who the leatherworker was or even where they were beyond "way west" & now nobody knows how he can repair it or where it will go so it's interesting to explore.
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The stuff Matt is talking about just after around 930 about players coming into the game with a bunch of backstory never seems to work out IME. Sure it sounds awesome on paper, but it's almost always discarded forgotten or just ignored by the players if it'd ever anything but a pure boon to them during the game. several months later it's likely such things aren't even remembered by the players.
  • In that same game I have two players who wrote a long backstory (couple pages) & tried to introduce things but there is no depth or interest in exploring what bob wrote by anyone including bob so it's just a broken latch for anything much beyond one shot forgettable set dressing unless the player thinks there's some immediate benefit they can pull from it. The group is actually in a city linked to the noble family of a PC who wrote a backstory but nobody has any real interest in exploring the family despite the rest of the group starting to be interested in making the town their responsibility.
at 15:16 Brennan brings up an important point about how there's nothing you can do if the players don't care. With the first play & find out style I can shift the story to the world and/or players who do care if one player seems to nope out of a plot but with the kind of backstory stuff Matt was talkiing about earlier it just winds up being a jarring wreck to shift trying to do that in hopes of averting heat death of the universe known as the campaign. I agree with him a lot on players being the driving energy & how where you are going is way more important than where you are coming from beyond if that coming from is used to guide the trajectory of where you are going in that regard really resonates with me.

at 20:10 where Brennan is talking about the 40 page backstory being plothooks he can expect the player to "bite on every time" is kind of how I view backstories. Back in 2e/3.x I could treat them that way & confidently get players to bite on them every time but for whatever reason that seems not so much the case these days to the point there are videos mocking it.

at 1:50:30 Matt & brennan talks about ToTM vrs grid maps with small & large groups, I agree with that a lot & feel like mattlemats have gotten kinda maligned with ToTM elevated some kind of gold standard one true way. The vakue of battlemats & their associated supporting tactical rules really shines in larger groups.

around 1:28:07 it gets to the tweet analogy talking about how is the gm the story teller if they aren't any of the protagonists & how as a player I want to be living in/immersed into a story rather than being a story teller playing a character who is thinking about their narrative arc & such because I want to play a character that wants tobe thinking about saving the world or whatever that the gm as the storyteller "can do using cleverly improvised rails ...".

Matt follows it up at1:31:51 about how it needs to be modular & able to shift about fluidly. I can do that much more easily where the players have "play & find out" type backstories but when they have long prewritten things it's much more difficult to do if they are all that involved beyond simply being on the scene at the time .

At 1:33:44 Aabraia talks about players knowing & consciously conforming to things like the 3 act structure & such doesn't usually play out too well IME. I don't think that I'm an aberration as a DM to admit that very few if any of my players are professional voice actors/story tellers/etc & it's not really reasonable to call that knowledge as described being a box that defines "good players". Yes it can absolutely help but players often get too hung up in trying to force those things without the skill & finesse needed to do so smoothly. Matt follows that up at about 1:37:48 & I think puts it in better terms that draw some important lines with important motivations that are often glossed over by players with less finesse.

Edut:in case it wasn't clear & because I meant to be more clear when I got to it in tgehe video. The analogy ultimately made a lot of sense in ways that I agree with where the rails are just things going on in the world that the players interact with weather then some planned storyline or something.
 
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The Fellowship wants to take the One Ring to Mordor. The most efficient route for them is the pass of Caradhras. DM decides that's too easy so hits it with a blizzard, thinking they'll divert to the Gap of Rohan. Fellowship decides to try the next straightest path and go through Moria. DM chuckles behind his screen thinking this is even better than what he expected.
If I was planning the adventure, I would plot out encounters for High Pass, Caradhas, Moria and Gap of Rohan, and leave it up to players to choose a route (and turn back if they think one is becoming too difficult).

Maybe they press on through Caradhas, the wizard lives and the halflings die. That's fine, the campaign can adapt to that.
 
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hawkeyefan

Legend
The bit I’m referencing is this:

Matt Mercer. “This is a testament to why I love playing with newer players. There’s a cycle I’m noticing, through the years of playing. Like a player cycle. When you first begin, you don’t know the boundaries that a lot of experienced players expect or understand. The more you know the game, the more you tend to, more often than not, stay within the confines of what the game establishes as the rules. When you’re new to it, you don’t really understand that so you take wider swings, you make stranger choices. You really kind of push against those boundaries because you don’t know where the boundaries are. You’re like a kid learning to how to walk for the first time and bumping into the furniture. And it’s wonderful, and eventually you kind of fall into those lines and not always, but sometimes you find yourself kind of subconsciously sticking, coloring within the lines because you’ve learned to do so. Then over time you begin to realize you’ve been doing that. And then you go back to being weird again. And that’s my other favorite point. It’s new players or extremely experienced players who have come back to reclaim their ‘stupid’ youth as players.”

That strikes me as very much a “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” kinda thing. Try whatever. Don’t worry about the rules. They don’t really matter and they get in your way. Limit you, even if subconsciously. You’re playing a character who’s supposed to be a real person in a real place in a real situation. Have them do whatever you think they’d do in that situation. Not what the rules say you can do. And that’s why I love rules light games and FKR-style play. I don’t want there to be lines. I want to just color.

I think there can be some truth to what Mercer says. I think it’s something that likely applies to a lot more than gaming. People form habits and those can become hard to shake.

However, I also think it really depends on the rules and how they work. I think his comments may apply more to certain types of rules than to others. Some systems lend themselves to this kind of phenomenon.
 

I don't think I understand the analogy. Anyone wanna take a crack at translating into an example of the shape of game play?
You made a dungeon full of interesting stuff for the players to interact with. once the players are in the dungeon, they can go in any direction and fun is likely to happen. But, they're not there yet. So you want to create a situation in the narrative where the characters will naturally choose to go to the dungeon. Otherwise, you don't have a game.

So you need to make sure the risk/reward proposition is something the characters would reasonably opt in to - without breaking the fourth wall and just telling the players that this is the only content you have ready.

Note that the analogy doesn't specify a single path being laid by the dm - just that the game shouldn't be easy even though the characters want to make it as easy as possible. That would bore the players.
 

I think a good way to view it may be like this.

As DM, I prep problems, not solutions. This is old advice for challenges and encounters, but it also applies to the plot of a game. I come up with this villain, they are going to do this thing, they have a plan to do it. There is direct given solution to the problem, the problem has to be solved by the players and the methods that they choose. So long as I understand the problem completely, the players can take any path they want, within certain bounds of course. There are rails, but the rails are far, far away; the rails are "This game takes place in this city, and these are the leads you guys have discovered, what do you want to do with these leads?"

This is why I like good setting books too, because a good setting book not only gives me problems without solutions to use for my plots, but also gives me tools to be able to deal with anything the player's do. A good setting book will tell me about the people here, what kinds of likely important places or NPCs there are, what their problems are, and ways to make them interesting.

Most adventures, I feel, do not do this. The published ones, I mean. They give you a problem, but then they also give you actual solutions that have to be used. Having to adhere to these solutions is very difficult for many tables, because the direction a table takes could make getting that solution hard, impossible, or requires silly things like in Dragon Heist to keep the problem from being resolved to soon. This is a textbook mistake in any story: presenting solutions early on that likely should cut the story to a 5th of its length. And likewise, this is something that many amateur writers often do, which comprises the bulk of DMs. Amateur here isn't meant to be an insult.

Likewise, sometimes problems are designed in adventures that don't have obvious solutions, but also don't really leave room for any good solutions. The mechanical dragon unleashed on Ten Towns is a good example of this, from Rime of the Frostmaiden. They gave the problem too much detail, and each detail made it essentially more and more impossible to fix the problem. Likewise, the player's don't have adequate resources yet to deal with said issue, and so, the problem ends up souring a good bit of the campaign.

Making problems without solutions takes some finesse, but WotC are slowly figuring it out. Sometimes they take steps back, sometimes forward. Overall, in terms of home games, this is advice that I think if published would do nothing but improve pretty much every table that took this advice to heart. YMMV.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Most adventures, I feel, do not do this. The published ones, I mean. They give you a problem, but then they also give you actual solutions that have to be used.

To try to be generous to the guys that write published modules, a lot of the problems with published modules have to do with page count limitations. The economics of module publishing generally involve having to publish less than complete information about how to run the game, and generally they have to publish to the lowest common denominator - that least experience GM who hopefully stays on the happy path. Ironically though, it's usually that least experienced GM that is least able to deal with players getting off the happy path.

I rarely find a published module that I don't have to rewrite or add notes to equal to about half the page count before I'm happy with it.

For a good treatment of this problem, watch Seth Skorkowsky's CoC reviews on youtube (assuming you aren't spoiling yourself) where he talks about the work he does to make published modules playable. Sometimes he's fixing actual mistakes by the designer, but I think a lot of times he's fixing limitations of the page count by adding story details that in practice the module designer might well have added themselves if running the module, but couldn't fit into the 32 or 64 pages of text (or whatever) that they had to deal with. Still, whether it's just bad writing he's fixing or parts of the module left out of the published form, it's a very good primer in how to read and prepare a published module for play.
 

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