The Sword
The Cabiri Chronicles
     Life of a History
     Under the Hood

     Balancing Act

     I was just acting!
     Lucifer as a Player
     Player Types Defined
     LARP Boredom
     LARP Survival

     Economics in D&D 3.5

     Sept 11, 2002
     Columbia Disaster

     A Letter of Vocation
     Evidence of Evil
     In Defense of a Reflection

     A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Pardon me, boy... that the Game Master's choo-choo?

          I can understand the mentality. Most RPG books describe role-playing as "interactive storytelling", where the GM creates a story and the players are responsible only for their parts. This is an accurate analogy, but it can be misinterpreted by GMs, whether they be newbies preparing for their first session or old-timers with too much ego. The result is what is referred to in the gamerís "lingo" as Railroading. And it ainít pretty.
          Well, thatís not entirely true. Itís pretty for the conductor, but the passengers just to get to see scenery. Basically, the concept here is that the GM creates a narrow plotline that he expects the players to acknowledge and obey, regardless of any inconsistencies it may have with how those players view their characters and their responses to certain stimuli. For example, the GM plans an adventure where the only way to defeat the final enemy is to catch him unawares and stab him in the back. The GM plants numerous NPCs in the adventure intended to give the PCs this information, to make certain that the outcome is what he expects. Unfortunately, there is a paladin in the group who has serious moral misgivings concerning the honor of sticking someone, even a Big Evil Villain, between the shoulder blades. If the PCs donít follow the GMís pre-determined plot, he often gets desperate or indignant and tries his best to have everything in his campaign, from NPCs to gods to magical geas to unnatural disasters, direct the PCs down the path he has laid out whether it is logical for those events to transpire or not. This problem stems from two major problems that every GM faces eventually: ego and dread.
          Dread is usually what initiates this problem in rookie GMs. Either he doesnít feel comfortable with role-playing, or heís not certain if he has all the facts and stats he needs at hand, or he hasnít finished reading the sourcebooks and has no clue what might be over the next hill. Often, this stems from a lack of trust in oneís own imagination. As a result, the adventures that this GM plans tend to be fairly linear, with little room for the imagination and action of his players outside what he has determined. If they try to wander over the next hill, the GM panics and throws in a "random" encounter or a sign from the gods to redirect the PCs back to the plotline he has prepared for. If you feel yourself besieged by these emotions, relax. Take a breath and go for it. Just consider what might be over the next ridge. Remember, regardless of how many sourcebooks you have, their just useless arrangements of wood pulp and ink without you. You determine what part of the text is right and which is wrong for your own personal campaign. If you decide thereís a town over the next hill, but none appears on the published maps, take out a pencil and put one thereÖobviously the designer made an error, and its your job to fix it. If your PCs get in an uproar for altering the game world, calmly inform them that the world is just as much your creation as the original authors, and youíve got control now. Sometimes, that adventure you planned for for twelve hours while you were supposed to be studying will be completely ignored by the characters as they move on to something you had mentioned as "decoration." Thatís okay, too. Ad libbing is an important part of being a GM, and itís just as easy to ad lib a story as it is to ad lib an NPC. If you are a player in such a game, kindly inform the GM of the problem youíre having. If you feel the NPCs are guiding too much of the action and youíre not getting a say in the direction your character takes, let him know youíd like a little more freedom to roam. It may be that heís pretty solid in his take on things, in which case heís fallen into the other problemÖsee the next paragraph for a resolution there.
          Ego hits us all. It has something to do with using a pencil and paper (or keyboard and pixel) to create an entire world that no-one has ever seen before. Bringing it to life takes a lot of work, and most people believe that the more work you put into something, the more praise you should get for it. After youíve prepared the world and/or planned out a couple of adventures, itís time to dictate how characters will be made and guide the players through the character generation process. Your fingers are in every pie, and your word is law, at least for the next few hours. Unfortunately, this makes many of us believe that our own imaginations are the best, and the players are merely obstacles to be overcome in the creation of a masterfully plotted work of art. If a playerís character attempts to deviate or, even worse, ignore the plotline that this sort of GM has created, heís likely to face a great deal of derision from the GM and may even lose his character for treading too far off the beaten path. These GMs will often go so far as to presume to know better than the player how his character should act, and berate him when they do not operate in a manner that the GM expected. If you realize this trait in yourself, itís probably time to either put down the GMing quill for a while and just play while someone else GMs. Itíll give you a wonderful perspective on how the "other half" lives. You can also try to lighten up about yourself. If you were really that good of a storyteller, itís unlikely youíd be living in a one-room apartment sitting around talking about how George has +5 to his Mack score (unless youíre a game designer, in which case youíre lucky to have that room). To be honest, most game designers arenít even that good at writing. Oh, theyíre great technical writers, but youíll notice that when it comes to writing major novels, publishing companies rarely hire on the same people who write modules (Weis and Hickman being the obvious exceptions). If you are a player in one of these games, the best thing to do is just leave and find someone else to game with. Maybe you can even start up your own game (itís likely that others will notice the problem, too, and be interested in a change from Big-Headís game). If you feel close enough to the GM to discuss it with him, go ahead and give it a shot. Its likely that heíll be a bit belligerent about the suggestion, but you might be able to get through to him.
          Now for a contradiction. Railroading, or more properly "Manipulating," is a necessary component of a good game. Think about your group of close friends. Chances are you spend a couple of a hours a day with them, maybe more. Youíve got other things to do in life, like date, work, read, and work on next weekís game. Now translate that into game terms. If group dynamics operated in a similar way with an adventuring party, as they realistically should, the GM would be running constant one-shots punctuated by a periodic group-game. Youíve got to set up a situation wherein the party would, for the most part, stay together (except that pesky thief who keeps sneaking off to steal the treasure that lies ahead). Manipulation is particularly necessary if you do any sort of prelude with the player characters. You need these people to be adventurous go-getters whoíll risk their lives for relatively little. The important thing to remember when youíre attempting a manipulation of a player character is to keep the characterís personality in mind, and never enforce a punishment solely on the logic that he avoided your cool plot line. If the player feels its not in character for him to take the left path, its not in character. Let it go and figure out what could be done to get him back on the right path, if necessary, or make the wrong path just as interesting. The big thing is to remember that youíre not the only one involved in gamingÖits a social experience, and one in which everyone should be allowed to contribute.