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Let’s try this again

By Shamus
on Tuesday May 22, 2007
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


Some people had great responses to my earlier post on railroading, although a lot of the controversy arose from different interpretations of my hypothetical situations. I think many people were not seeing the heart of the difficulty I was trying to present, perhaps because my examples was too poorly defined. So let’s try to tighten up the definition and see how that changes things.

I have a main villain in my campaign. He’s pretending to be a good guy, and later I have a plot twist where his evil is revealed. He’s a sort of Palpatine character: He seems a little “off”, but not evil, and the players don’t yet have enough information to suspect him as their true foe. His plans are taking shape in the background while the players try to figure things out and dispatch his henchmen.

Then the players go to see him as part of their investigation. A fight breaks out for whatever reason, initiated by the players. They have no idea this is the bad guy, they just know they’re dealing with a bit of a jerk and the conversation gets out of hand. Perhaps they try to threaten information out of him, and he calls what he thinks is a bluff. Perhaps he catches them doing something illegal while conducting their investigation, like spying or swiping documents. Whatever the reason, a fight ensues.

There are only three outcomes I can see:

  1. If I stick to the plan, they will kill the main bad guy and only after the fight would they discover who he was, and that the adventure was over. They accidently won, there was no climax, and all of my plot twists go to waste.
  2. I can brute-force railroad them, by making my bad guy escape, overpower them, or otherwise prevail in a situation where he should have been outmatched. This is “cheating” to most people, and it will not result in happy players.
  3. I can do as I said before: Create a new bad guy, and have this guy be a servant of that greater power. They get the satisfaction of defeating one of his lieutenants, gaining some loot, and moving the plot forward. Tension builds in the story, instead of the whole thing fizzling out.

For those who dislike my style of railroading: How would you approach the given situation? Would you let things fizzle or would you make changes to keep the game going? Is there another option I’m missing?

Comments (99)

1 2

  1. AR says:

    You don’t necessarily have to change things to keep going. People with grand schemes do not exist in a vacuum. Presumably, there are components to whatever evil plan is going on here that do not simply up and disappear when this guy dies. What happens to all that?

  2. AR says:

    Opps, sorry for double post.

    Anyway, in general, this entire problem could be avoided entirely if you remember a simple axiom: if the players didn’t see it, is may or may not have actually been true, as is convenient to the plot. If they didn’t know who he was when they killed him, then for all they know, he wasn’t that person at all. I would hesitate to even call 3 “railroading” at all.

    Interestingly, the most overt case of railroading I’ve ever encountered was a literal railroad track. The job involved hijacking a locomotive, and once you’ve done that your options are, realistically, rather limited…

  3. Dave says:

    The only problem with this approach is that as a player, you don’t want a recurring bad guy that you killed a few months earlier than the DM expected to be just a mid-level flunky (or even a high-level flunky). So I’d shake things up a bit. Sometimes you’ll want the (late) BBEG’s henchman to show a real talent for evil when given the chance to take over the BBEG’s operation courtesy of the PCs. Sometimes another bad guy will move in and take over for the BBEG even though he had nothing to do with the original setup. Etc.

  4. Robert says:

    As the combat begins, there is suddenly a terrible scream from outside. The party is horrified to see (from the window) that some kind of tentacle beast has oozed out of the sewer and is attempting to drag some local children down into the muck. (The scream was a mother seeing this.) The party races outside to save the day. In the confusion, the villain is able to make good his escape.

  5. Robert says:

    Also, unless your party is absolutely bloodthirsty, why couldn’t the villain just throw down his weapon, beg for mercy, and then – having been caught in his crimes or whatever and turned over to the civil authorities – escape to seek revenge, via his already-extant diabolical plan?

  6. 5h4n6 says:

    Hmmm… interesting one…
    I agree with you in that being adaptive is a must when DM’ing a game.
    I can’t say a lot about that because I have only DMd a very informal game, loosely based on Eternal Darkess (a la call of Cthulhu), and it was intended to be only two sessions in length (between some vampire and hengeyokai). But the thing is, I let them choose whatever character & background they wished (for a Chicago 1920s setting), threw in some enemies and hidden places for tension building and (as I had a 70% finished idea of the game’s objectives, final boss and ending) let them choose how to get to the end of the game, what alliances to form and which weapons to use. I remember a monk getting the weapons intended for a professor (a sword) and for a P.I. (enchanted gun) from an undead dean that wasn’t even created for him to confront and were a little plot central, but with some hints and an ominous light appearing in the skies of an old mansion, everything came into place. So, yeah, adjusting and being dynamic allows a DM to have fun with the gamers, and it even adds a little more challenge at creating an universe.

    Oh, btw, in the described scenario I would add something like:
    1. Kill the main enemy and make it seem like an adventure was over, but as they are already packing to somewhere else
    2. Investigation would slowly reveal that something is not quite right, like a seemingly side quest with a loose end, and
    3. Make the worst possible enemy, made from the worst possible fears, come through the least expected way, making the adventure one of apocalyptic proportions (well, maybe a little exaggerated). But the point is, make them seem the despair that the new foe is to the small one like a galaxy versus the moon.

    Happy dicing :D

  7. Cineris says:

    Robert — “…why couldn't the villain just throw down his weapon, beg for mercy…?”

    I refer you to DM of the Rings 36.

  8. Wes says:

    DM of the Rings 36 notwithstanding, I think the idea of having such a shady character “surrender” makes the most sense. Up to this point, the characters think he is a good guy. Surrendering is logical for a good guy who has pressed too many buttons, and the ensuing escape would be an exciting plot point as well (the location where he is being kept gets overrun by some unknown element and the bad guy is “kidnapped”, avoiding blowing his cover).

    Or, the local authorities track the characters down and demand release of this bad guy, who is probably deeply insinuated into the local government.

  9. Telas says:

    If we’re talking D&D, I call a minor “shennanigans”.

    If the PCs discover the BBEG early on, they should get wiped out. If he’s truly the BBEG, he should be powerful enough to take them out if they’re not fully buffed and ready.

    Any decent BBEG should also have an escape plan handy, even if it’s a one-use teleport item that the DM suddenly “remembered”.

    And he will, of course, have all those loyal minio-, er guards down the hall…

    Now, having said all that, I agree that it would be far better for the BBEG to get the hell away than for any of the other options to take place, simply because of continuity. But yes, they’re viable options, too.

    Regarding the “Russian Doll” phenomenon, the manner in which it’s handled is far more important than the actual presence of “a bigger badder eviler guy”. :)

  10. Wes says:

    Ooops, itchy submit finger.

    The key is that the characters are not privy to the “expected flow” of the story. I remember a set of “adventure planning tools” for the 2nd edition AD&D that included a flowchart template for major plot points.

    That flowchart idea allowed for some “choose your own adventure” detours while avoiding totally derailment. Likewise, having a set of side quests handy that can be “dropped in” at most any location is a good thing. These kinds of side quests make the world seem “full” and yet only derail the game for a session or two before returning to the main flow.

    With a flexible plot with contingency paths built in and side quests for those off track days, the only concern is the *really* disruptive group: the one that decides that being the heroes of a story is a distraction to the murder and mayhem they could be causing.

    In those cases I allow the murder and mayhem, and then make it clear that while they were off slaking their thirst for non heroic activities, things back home got a *lot* worse.

    After all, if the “heroes” of the story become agents of evil, then evil *should* win and you can close down the campaign that much sooner: with a “loss” chalked up for the supposed heroes when they find their homelands overrun, their loved ones murdered, enslaved and worse.

    For some reason, that tends to focus the minds for the next campaign.

  11. Jeremiah says:

    Honestly, I don’t see a problem with option #2. He should be super powerful. I’ve been in games where the group I was in made a bad decision, fought some bad-ass and had to retreat or otherwise get the hell out of dodge. That should be a viable option. If your PC’s get to that point and they CAN take him out, then he probably wasn’t powerful anyhow.

    Plus, what big bad doesn’t have a contingency plan? “What, the PC’s are here? Enact plan B now!” and he gets teleported out in a shower of magical sparks.

    I don’t think that just because the group got to that point before you were counting on it means you should give up on the guy and make some story about how he’s some lieutenant. Let him show off how powerful he really is, and once he’s done toying with them, just leave, or find some other way to make it dramatic. I’ve would feel railroaded if I came up against someone that was just plain too powerful for me.

  12. Laithoron says:

    In my own campaign, one of the players is running a highly honorable knight who has made it his goal to protect the helpless no matter the cost to himself “” even if that cost is losing his life against hopeless odds. He doesn’t expect anyone else to share his high ideals and has even instructed the other characters before to leave him behind so that he can ensure their escape. Of course, the other players (being the sympathetic sorts and having characters who would also be sympathetic) aren’t about to let their noble knight martyr himself alone.

    Now the campaign I am running for these fine folks is a published one, “The Red Hand of Doom”. Normally I write my own adventures from scratch but being as part of my goal was to play-test some fairly heavy modifications to the d20 combat system, I needed a good baseline to work from. Now the crux of the adventure is that a huge army is sweeping across the region and the PCs are all that stand between life and death for the inhabitants of the two major cities based there. While it is never intended for the party to try and fight the whole army en masse, provisions are certainly made for those who are brazen or foolish enough to try. (Most of which lead to rather inevitable capture or death of some or all of the party.)

    Now given the huge investiture of time myself and all of the players put into their characters, a TPK isn’t what any of us would consider a good time. Furthermore, matters of karma, spirituality and responsible leadership are of interest to a number of players in the group as they are to me.

    In one instance, the party knows that the army is rolling up on the town they’ve been based out of and they’ve made all the delaying actions they can. Most of the townsfolk have evacuated and some NPCs are shepherding the stragglers on their way. Yet sometimes players *think* that what they are there to do is to always engage the enemy no-matter-what. Had the party stuck around to fight, there’s the chance that they might have finally run (once they realized they were severely outmatched) but more likely they’d have all died heroic but ultimately pointless deaths and the people they were trying to protect would simply be wiped out a few weeks later. Given the knight’s vows to protect the weak (the party looks to that player’s character as the leader) he would have essentially failed in his duties to deity and lord.

    Now it just so happened that another player, whose character is a ranger, had been absent for a couple session. Since I dislike controlling PCs when I’m DMing, the player and I jointly decided it would be fine if his character was off performing guerilla tactics against the army as they made their way. In order to save the party from themselves and to give the hook to the next logical course of action (so that the whole game wouldn’t end prematurely) the ranger got captured by the next ‘boss’ up the chain. When his eagle animal companion flew into camp carrying his latest intel report (only incomplete and blood-stained), they realized their friend was in danger, that there was another threat other than the obvious one. Couple with the compassionate diplomacy of the captain of the town guard, whom many of the characters looked up to, *they* decided to go save their friend and investigate this possible second front.

    Railroading? Perhaps.

    But the story and the enjoyment of getting to keep playing D&D continued without require a month or two of downtime while people made new characters and the DM proofed all their choices (math isn’t their strong-suit) and got all their customized character sheets done up in Word… not to mention rewriting the story. Call it railroading if You will, I call it knowing what Your players want and doing Your best to ensure they still have a game to play the next weekend.

    So fast-forward a couple months and the characters are flying back across the vale (on their new winged mounts) taking in the ravages of the army as it progresses in its march. As part of the descriptive text, they notice a road-side shrine that is currently evacuating some injured refugees who had fled there to escape free-roaming raiding parties. Due to the hilly terrain, the army had not been spotted until it was only a couple miles away and they had only 10 minutes now before the vanguard arrived.

    Now call it a lapse in DM judgment or perhaps not having re-read all the “boxed” text ahead of time but I instantly knew the knight was going to try and take on the army to save them. Sure enough he did and commanded the three characters who were no good in a fight to escape with as many of the injured as they could on our flying mounts. He and the other 3 would try to stall the army long enough for the clerics at the shrine to evacuate the more road-capable refugees to some nearby caves I decided would lead them out of the army’s path. Should the knight and his three remaining companions get overrun, the cleric would cast an “angel wing” spell on the minotaur ranger who could then fly her and the warmage to safety while the knight stayed behind…

    Cliff-hanger for the next session!

    Long story short, the players are committed to saying in character but dreading what they see as the end of the campaign… at least with four of characters they know and love.

    So come game day, the three characters who really can’t fight (and needed to go ahead to research or at least *warn*of* a new threat the party had learned of) evacuate those whom they can while the other three don’t want to abandon their dauntless friend. Their numbers thinned, I allow an NPC sorceress (an enemy spy) to join their ranks to help out. Battle ensues. They defeat multiple ranks of fliers and then a big ass red dragon and it’s wyrmlord is upon them with the whole worg-rider cavalry and lots of flying spellcasters and flying monsters swooping in, dropping off chain-wielding monks. Fliers have also caught up to the retreating peasants barring their egress. The party is surrounded, the minotaur dead from trying to 1-on-1 the dragon, the cleric is pinned and the warmage is out of spells… but the knight is still fighting. The NPC spy got “knocked out” early on when she was hit by a barn.

    At last, the wyrmlord himself confronts the knight and after suffering a really well-placed smite-evil attack, decides to parlay… Should the knight lay-down his life, the general will allow his friends to collect their dead and retreat with the refugees to the city unharmed. Otherwise, the cleric gets crunched the warmage is reduced to ash and the hobgoblins dine on the flesh of the refugees. Knowing that there are other battles yet to be fought, the knight’s player gives quite a rousing speech to the other players’ character about courage and keeping faith (exemplary roleplaying really considering the player considers himself an atheist) and bravely goes to meet his fate.

    Railroading? *shrugs*

    What I do know is that this was one of the most dramatic and touching scenes I’ve witnessed in 15 years of DMing and that rather than being bummed and upset about losing all their characters, there’s an even greater sense of heroics and solidarity among the players and PCs alike. Having expected this eventuality, I had prepared a surprise for the knight in advance… sainthood and getting to continue as a positive-energy ghost (see Sacred Watcher in the Book of Exalted Deed). You can bet that I felt just as well-rewarded by the players good roleplaying of the battle just as the knight’s player did when he realized he was now like a Jedi-Ghost.

    To those who might say this is an unbelievable out and highly unlikely:

    So the lawful evil general finishes off his toughest adversary and allows what he sees as a bunch of despairing and beaten heroes to return to town with a number of people who have witnessed how hopeless it is to fight their army. Morale is a big part of the fight. Furthermore, he has now secreted a spy in the ranks of his enemy “” one who has seemingly fought and bled with them “” one who will now be able to get close to the enemy commanders (as one of the “heroes”) and possibly be able to swing the siege from within!

    What some might call railroading, I call looking out for the interest of everyone being able to continue having fun. If the objection to DMs trying to force a plot is that it deprives the players of choice and creative input then what is challenging what they fear is inevitable with twists and turns?

  13. Lars says:

    “Is there another option I'm missing?”

    When I have time to prepare, I usually have several plot-threads that the players can possibly pick up on (sometimes even interwoven with each other). Individual gaming sessions can see the players working on one of several different leads, depending on which they think is the most important (or easiest). They might not always even find all the possible leads. In a situation like the one you described, where they killed off a bad-guy “prematurely”, I would just let him die, and that thread would fall out of the pattern. There would still be other things for the players to do though, other bad guys to fight.

  14. kat says:

    I think the problem here is one of mixing method with execution. Your option #1 is pretty much always bad, but option #2 has a lot of possibilities — if it’s played right. For example, if the bad guy escapes by silly “trapped DM” methods, BUT you let the players ransack his desk and get all kinds of interesting information/toys, they’re not gonna be too unhappy with the turn of events. If the players get their asses kicked by what they thought was a mid-level bad guy, but this unlocks a huge section of the plot (preferably one that comes with toys), they won’t whine much either. “Ooh, look! A shiny!” derails all sorts of player complaints.

    If you simply drop the vanishing bad guy on them, then yes, they’ll whine that it’s not fair. But that a crappy execution is possible doesn’t negate the method.

    Now I personally wouldn’t use your option #3 much, because my plots tend to hinge heavily on character and it just wouldn’t be that easy for me to shoehorn in a new Big Bad. But tweaking things to speed up the plot or using the “Big Bad screams for mercy” or “ooh, pink tentacle monster!” methods suggested above are quite natural for me. I suspect it’s all in what you consider flexible.

  15. Janus says:

    I think that if it was reasonably possible to do so, the bad guy should try to escape. Maybe when he’s at about half HP he realises the fight’s going poorly, so he uses whatever means he has to attempt an escape. And if he dies anyway, option 3 goes into effect.

    Although this is just a reflection of my view that it’s bizarre that every enemy the PCs assault is willing to fight to the death over whatever it is he’s fighting for.

  16. Unglued says:

    “Time to prepare” is the key issue. If you've just sat down for a five-hour game when this fight begins, you may have to think on your feet, or take a re-write break. I'd do anything to avoid the anticlimactic ending (outcome #1), and almost anything else to keep from breaking the mood (option #2). But the proverbial train has left the station. Will I have enough time to come up with a coherent gambit, and a new set of tracks? Personally, I'm not above grabbing my notes and barricading myself in the washroom for 45 minutes.

    As far as our example story is concerned, I submit this end:

    “Shuffle the deck:” The hierarchy changes, but the plot does not.
    Well, you've killed this man and revealed his nature – but not his scheme. Wheels are set in motion and now with the death of one villain, the party has inadvertently paved the path for greater evil to take the reins of the whole nefarious campaign.

  17. Thad says:

    There’s the option 1#2 twist. “You thought he was dead, but…!” which might depend on how the person died (fell into a stream and carried away, pretty sure he’s dead) or something else. EG., magic item that is triggered by bad guys death and casts resurrection (or whatever) after a short time. (Which can either be one-shot or something the players will have to take care before tackling the big bad next time!)

  18. KGrape says:

    Obviously it all depends on the specific players, campaign, DM, and what ideas strike the DM. Personally, I find the best role-playing experiences come when making these on the fly plot changes.

    For example, most people here have said that Option #1 is anti-climatic and therefore bad. Anti-climatic is generally bad, but again Option #1 could work with the correct group. I’m thinking of one campaign I GM’d. If this situation came up in that campaign, I’d probably let the villain die. The plot would then morph from stopping the villain to doing detective work to find out what the plot really was and stamp out the remaining elements before they can reorganize into a real threat.

    I also agree with AR’s axiom, “if the players didn't see it, it may or may not have actually been true.” That said play to your strengths, pay attention to what your players want, and try to make it fun for everybody. Some fast thinking on your feet helps.

  19. Dan Shiovitz says:

    All the options you list off seem good to me, used in moderation. I don’t think #3 is obviously the best: if you use it all the time, it’ll be obvious to the players that they’re being scammed and the tension goes away (and not just out of this encounter, but out of all future ones — since, hey, they know you’re willing to change the plot to make them not succeed even if they win a fight). A couple other options, beyond what other people have suggested on this thread:

    – Don’t pick a bad guy in advance; have a couple possibilities and choose one (who’s still alive!) when things get nearer the climax. Subtly different from your option #3 in that it discourages fighting random bystanders without actual evidence that they’re bad guys.
    – Have the bad guy have been bad and doing all this stuff and working on their own — but when they’re eliminated, somebody steps into the power vacuum. Perhaps they were holding back some other evil force, for instance, and now that they’re gone …
    – If the bad guy’s tough enough, have him get the drop on and totally nail them. When he’s about to put the finishing touches on them, have a deus ex machina save the day — now they know he’s a bad guy, so what are they going to do about it? Especially if they can’t prove it, and he knows they know?
    – Don’t pick the ending in advance! It is totally possible to have a dramatic ending without forcing it to be any particular kind of dramatic ending. Up above you say letting the PCs win the fight would be throwing away all your plot twists — so don’t create so many in advance, or be prepared to reuse some of them elsewhere (so they kill the bad guy, which creates political upheaval locally and forces the players into the spotlight, which means they’re the prime target of the sleeper agent the enemy country has decided to activate as they begin their takeover bid). Look into No Myth GMing, specifically this post.

  20. Dreamy McSleepland says:

    What if they kill him and then, by going through his stuff, find out that he’s already set some dastardly things in motion that they need to further investigate?

  21. Henebry says:

    I actually prefer method 2, the one you term “brute force.” Any bad guy worth his salt is at least as well prepared as the PCs. And we know that they insist on combing through their sheets looking for the perfect spell or piece of equipment to put to innovative use whenever they get into a tight spot. So surely the bad guy has a spell or magic item “get out of jail free” card.

    This isn’t railroading, in my book. Unless the PCs have given thought to forestall the obvious getaway methods, they don’t deserve to take down the BBEG.

    In fact, I’d go a step further to assert that this is part of what helps them realize that this guy IS a BBEG, rather than just some minor encounter: he’s wily and tough to kill.

    If you want to sling Star Wars precedents, think of Darth Vader at the end of the first movie (yes, I know, Episode “IV”). He gets away.

  22. Mike says:

    #3 is ALWAYS the way to go. It’s always best to be adaptive, and reshape your plot and campaign around the actions of the PC’s. What I do is have some basic ideas to work with, a general state of the world and a few jumping-off plot points; then, depending on what happens while the party is exploring those plot points, I take what’s been established and build from there.

    A simple example was in a campaign I was running, one of the players was a mysterious knight-ish figure, very reserved and quiet, always wore his full black helmet…pretty typical “dark brooding hero” type. The player had aspirations of turning the character into a wyvern rider in the future.

    After about a half dozen sessions, in which the PC’s had yet to meet the “big boss”, the player told me he wanted to switch to a new character. I said fine, but after one more session. During the session, his character betrayed the party at a crucial moment, seized the relic of power they were fetching, and collapsed a tunnel so as to prevent pursuit. The rest of the players were completely shocked, as was the player whose character had just switched sides, but they all thought it was great. Later on when they met him again, he was riding a wyvern, which his former player appreciated. He also knew all their weaknesses and tendencies. And finally, because the player had built him, they all knew his stats, equipment, fighting style…all of it was perfectly legit, and as they well knew, very, very effective.

  23. Steve says:

    I could go either way in this situation. One particularly interesting approach would be to have the NPC behave exactly like any other NPC would in his situation — run off as fast as his legs will carry him, screaming all the while for the guards. If the NPC has a reputation as someone respected (a priest, someone high in the government, a powerful merchant) then you could even let the party kill him, then have the judicial system penalize the players by forcing them to pay for his resurrection. The party will grow to have a personal grudge against the enemy, which will be made all the sweeter when they can reveal he’s not such the good guy that everyone thought.

  24. WolfSamurai says:

    With a properly designed bad guy, there’s not even really a need to make a choice. A smart bad guy is going to have a way to escape. It may not be foolproof (a low level bad guy isn’t going to be able to teleport all over, after all), but it’s planned for. I most certainly don’t think that this is railroading. If the characters aren’t prepared for an escape attempt, either through lack of resources, lack of planning, or lack of knowledge on who they’re after, then they don’t really deserve to bag him.

    Characters aren’t the only ones allowed to be creative after all and if you don’t want your smart bad guy dead earlier than expected, then make sure he ~acts~ smart. Escape plans are only part of this. If he really is a smart bad guy, he should be able to derail the heroes anyway with lies, half-truths, false leads, faked cooperation, red herrings, whatever.

    A powerful bad guy might not have an escape planned, but I think that they probably shouldn’t need it. If your big bad guy isn’t powerful enough to beat the heroes within an inch of their lives, I personally don’t think that they should be the big bad in the first place and you should have anticipated him getting offed and set up the bigger bad ahead of time. I think it’s better to have a big bad who is too powerful initially and then trim him down to reasonableness than to have too weak a bad guy and expect him to survive in the face of players who are doing their best to beat him.

    And if the players end up getting dead because they faced off with someone too powerful and didn’t have the good sense to run the hell away? Well, hopefully your players will be smarter for the experience as they think on it while rolling their new characters.

    You should be at least somewhat flexible on what you have planned, you can’t get around that. No plan or plot survives contact with the players entirely intact, after all. But if you’ve done a good job planning in the first place, you’ve already ~built~ that flexibility in to the game up front and just have to put it to use when the players pull something unexpected.

    In the hypothetical situation presented, it’s pretty easy. Have the bad guy give up and lie his head off, sprinkling enough truth in them to make it believable, but not so much that they’re going to be on the right track. Have big bad sell out one of his more expendable/incompetent flunkies and set the characters after him. Have big bad imply that he’s being set up/framed and set him on the trail of someone else who is a bit dirty. Your characters feel like they’re really doing something, the big bad probably comes out smelling like a rose, everybody wins.

  25. Barbara says:

    As a player who never GMs, I’d be perfectly happy with option 2. Option 3 is what I’d call a “Shroedinger’s villain”, rather than railroading. It can work, but you need to be careful: perhaps the players already have some clue you’ve forgotten about that is inconsistent with the new reality?

  26. Dave says:

    Geez.. don’t try so hard.. Change the guys name and give him a beard.. viola.. new guy.. We writer/DMs have a problem that once we create a character WE see them. If something changes our brains go “akk.. but that can’t happen.” because we’ve seen the ending.. But players have no clue what is SUPPOSED to happen or WHO it’s supposed to be.. Let go of the perfect NPCs and embrace the idea you created.

  27. Rick says:

    I absolutely don’t see #2 as cheating or railroading if done right. A smart BBEG is going to have an escape plan or surround himself with minions in the event that he finds himself up against more than he can handle – which a group of PCs may or may not be.

    Given a choice between the other two options, however, I’d far rather go with #1. Let the players have their victory, although they probably don’t yet realize just how significant it is. As they continue their investigation into the now-deceased BBEG’s plot, they realize what they’ve done: perhaps both for good and ill. The story can still be satisfying: stop the bad guy, then unravel his plots instead of the other way around.

    As for #3, I probably wouldn’t know they’d done it, but if I figured out the DM’s response to me killing the BBEG was to suddenly create a “man behind the man” behind the scenes, I *would* feel railroaded and be unhappy.

  28. Jeff says:

    The only problem with ‘railroading’ is freedom of choice.

    Players NEVER really have TRUE freedom of choice, as the DM responds and so what happens will ALWAYS be up to the DM.

    The key to a good game is the ILLUSION of freedom of choice. Players have certain actions they can take that will affect their game world (attacking something, casting a spell). For their action there is an expected reaction. There are things that have little effect on the game world (ignoring a dungeon, going into a dungeon, going left instead of right) because the game world will adapt to them. Their action has NO expected reaction – because they have no knowledge of what is to come. When a character casts Mirror Image, he expects the effects of Mirror Image to come into play (pending things like Anti-magic fields, which he can also expect to function.) When a character scouting out a dungeon enters a T intersection and can choose to turn left or right, he has no expectation of what is behind the left door or the right door. Thus the DM can choose to put the room with the potion of fire immunity in the first room the character enters, and the fire elemental in the second. The players are none the wiser, and indeed would have little to complain about.

    In this context, railroading is when the players are stripped of their illusion. This means when something they expect to happen DOESN’T happen. THAT is railroading. Players have a small sphere of influence. Some things are out of that sphere (such as what lurks beyond the next hill). The things that are within their sphere of influence should not change. When players deal 50 000 points of damage in one round, they expect the NPC to have some possible responses. The most obvious is death, but another possibility is to trigger a Chain Contingency. If the NPC does none of the possible actions, then there is railroading. The place of the NPC in the ranking ladder of Evil isn’t a possibility within their realm of influence, UNLESS their sphere of influence has extended to include him (for example, if they actually discover he’s the real BBEG via tools in their sphere of influence – Detect Evil, Detect Thoughts, what have you).

    So long as players do not have their sphere of influence violated, there is no railroading. (Consider the previous example of a character choosing a left room and a right room. If the DM has a map, and changes the rooms so that the character gets the potion so he doesn’t get his ass handed to him, is that railroading? If you answer ‘yes’, then what if the DM was running completely on the fly? I’ve done so more than once on minor dungeons.)

  29. Laithoron: Nothing that you describe is railroading. You created situations and let the PCs react to them. Because you knew the players and their characters you had a strong sense of what that reaction would be, but that’s not railroading: It’s only railroading if you force them to do what you thought they might do.

    Jeff: No. I’m sorry. Railroading is when choice is stripped away. Whether you strip away that choice openly or secretly is irrelevant. There are people who are OK with being duped as long as they never know about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re being duped.

    Shamus: You’re presenting a false dilemma.

    #1: The PCs kill the bad guy without ever realizing it. The irony! Of course, they still need to discover that’s what they did. And root out whatever remains of his evil plans. And deal with the people trying to assassinate them because they killed them. And they have to do all this while avoiding the authorities because, until they can conclusively prove this was a bad guy, they’re murderers on the run. Anti-climax? Nonsense. This isn’t a climax at all. It’s just a step in the road.

    #2: The villain can try to escape, using whatever powers and resources are at his disposal. Maybe he succeeds. Maybe he doesn’t.

    #3: Depending on how you designed the conspiracy, the logical consequences of this guy being killed play out. Maybe a lieutenant steps in to fill his shoes. Maybe the demon he was keeping imprisoned breaks free. Maybe one of his allies in the criminal underworld takes over his turf. Maybe an ally or a friend or a lover arranges for a resurrection.

    What’s legitimate? Anything that flows naturally from the situation you’ve created.

    What’s railroading? Anything which purposefully negates the PCs’ success because you don’t like the PCs succeeding (whatever your misguided reasons for disliking your PCs’ success might be).

  30. Shamus says:

    Justin Alexander:


    I know my players. My goal is to make sure they have fun. Offing the bad guy in a random scuffle and then doing cleanup is WAY less epic than a final, pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower when the kingdom itself is in the balance, which is the kind of finale they are going to enjoy.

    Also: What is it with you? I don’t know if you’re aware, but every time you post you sound like you’re pissed and spoiling for a fight.

  31. Adam says:

    I’d like to point out the obvious (which I, and the rest of the people in my campaign, missed a few months ago): if players can be killed and then brought back, why not NPCs? Ok, so Justin already mentioned it, but I’ll say it again. Our campaign, we got sidetracked for a bit, ridding this one city of corruption (which we decided to do, of course, only after the thieve’s guild stole my spellbook, and *then* discovered how much influence said guild had on the city). So, we say we want to bargain, we find the local Big Bad, we walk in and smack him around. He dies (I have a feeling our DM thought we were actually going to bargain with him). We celebrate… then he jumps us a few days later. Turns out he has a wife, who happens to be a high level cleric. Now we get to fight him again, and this time, also his wife!

  32. wererogue says:

    I think #3 is a reasonable way to deal with the situation, but I don’t think it’s the only way, and I don’t think you’re trying to present it as such. I would, however, avoid getting into a situation where players find out who the bad guy is prematurely, off him, and then you reveal that “oh no, he was a decoy/minion/clone” too often – deceiving players is fine, but changing the gameworld on them a lot is going to feel like ‘cheating’ too.

    The main system that I run is an ongoing larp game, and the players and their interests change a lot. We’ve had a couple of GMs run unkillable bad guys, plots, monsters etc. and it’s never any fun for the players. If they’re smart enough to fix your plot, you need to find a new plot (for this kind of game).

    As previously, I don’t tend to write epic stories in which the players fill a role – the people I tend to GM for don’t want to be a part in my story, they want to experience the story created by their choices, as their characters. With that in mind, I’d completely disagree with the idea presented above that “Players NEVER really have TRUE freedom of choice, as the DM responds and so what happens will ALWAYS be up to the DM.” – players in my style of game should always be free to chose their actions and path, and I should reflexively provide the content and consequences to their choices.

    If there is an ongoing plot that is the basis of the game, I’ll subtly railroad the players only as far as getting them into a group if they start separately, and as far as hitting a plot hook. After that, if they spend the next couple of sessions trying to hit on an npc or whatever, then Cthulhu’s going to eat the world and I recruit some new players.

  33. Mavis says:

    I think what your describing is the tension between the part of roleplaying that’s a game – and the parts that’s storytelling/theatre.

    And to my mind these parts are almost always in conflict.

    If it’s just a game – then ‘cheating’ your players is unfair.
    If it’s story telling – then there is no way to cheat your players.

    But it’s both. I’ve been railroaded and it sucked. However I think your looking at the wrong side – that’s what needed for an RPG is not the ability to beat the bad guy but the ability to FAIL to beat the bad guy has to be there. Only when you can fail – is your triumph worth while.

    Personally I think that you need to just play it by ear. Be willing to kill the bad guy and change your plot if events really go that way. But have ideas up your sleeve to protect your story.

    In all honesty – I often don’t have stats for bad guys. Even major bad guys. Am I cheating the players? But if they do clever, unexpected things – then you should let them get ahead of your plot, or kill a major NPC or bad guy. Weather it ultimetly helps or hinders you……

  34. C David Dent says:

    You can let them kill him. This is a fantasy world where resurrection is a viable alternative. So they fight, he dies, and then the body mysteriously disappears.

    Whether it is a failsafe device, a henchman, or some sort of diabolic bargain he has to abandon this persona and and continue his evil plan anew.

    Polymorph spells could allow him to come back to the party as a new mole. All the time seething with rage at his apparent defeat by these inferior fools.

    You don’t read comic books? A villain is never more dangerous than when he’s dead because you are never quite sure if he’s got a plan to get out of that too.

  35. Lavastine says:

    My suggestion is that you NEVER have a npc call a players bluff, cause they are almost certainly not bluffing(or at least thats how it works with my group.)

  36. Dan Hemmens says:

    Coming direct from the previous entry (I’ve not checked the gaming articles in a couple of days) I can’t answer your question, because it’s meaningless to me.

    A fight breaks out, the PCs kill a character. That character is now dead, that character’s death is now part of the story. The story is not the villain, the story is the players.

    In my current WotG game, the main villain was originally going to be an NPC who the players showed no interest in whatsoever, so I got rid of him, and created somebody they found more interesting.

  37. Dan Hemmens says:

    I think what your describing is the tension between the part of roleplaying that's a game – and the parts that's storytelling/theatre.

    Actually, I think what’s being described is a tension between “story” as a creation of the GM handed down to the players, and “story” as something the players and the GM create collaboratively.

  38. Vegedus says:

    Wow, that just sounds epic Laithoron. I’m a martyr-ish sort of paladin and which died in our last session. It’ll be a while before we can game again, but I’ve remained hopeful that he would have a like plot twist for me. His death wasn’t as heroic, but it wasn’t due to stupidity.

  39. Dan Hemmens says:

    I know my players. My goal is to make sure they have fun. Offing the bad guy in a random scuffle and then doing cleanup is WAY less epic than a final, pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower when the kingdom itself is in the balance, which is the kind of finale they are going to enjoy.

    As ever there is precious little you can do against Argument From Fun.

    All I can say is that, for a lot of people, a final pitched battle at the foot of the dark tower is only enjoyable if you don’t feel that the GM forced you to be there and if you aren’t saying to yourself “you know, we should have wrapped this plotline up months ago.”

  40. Mavis says:

    “Actually, I think what's being described is a tension between “story” as a creation of the GM handed down to the players, and “story” as something the players and the GM create collaboratively.”

    Hmmmmmm – maybe – not sure. Take a collabrative game – it’s still the case that important plot NPC does not die until ‘the time is right’. In a collabrative game the right time is determined by the GM and players – in a railroad game – it’s determined by the GM.

    Of course in a game game – the right time is when the dice say it’s the right time. And story be damned.

  41. moonglum says:

    is this a game, or is this forced story telling? if the players kill the main villain “early” good for them. as a GM you need to be flexible. the leader of your faction as killed…dose he not have underlings, there will be a nice story arch dealing with the war for control of his evil empire that the PC’s can get sucked up into. sure your campaign is sucked off into a new direction, sure you wasted a lot of time building your story….that's YOUR fault not the PC’s this si their story not yours you are just facilitating. Next time don’t make such intricate details, and expect the PC’s to go off on what you see as a random tangent.

    If you want to write a book, go write a damm book, don’t force your friends into the role of potted plants in your story.

    The most important skill a GM has is improvisation. If you can't think on your feet don't GM, and never invest so much in your plans that you get upset when the players are inventive. Again this is there story to create, their epic, not yours.

  42. Roxysteve says:

    Wow. Interesting.

    As I’ve said before, I’ve run Call of Cthulhu almost to the exclusion of any other RPG for decades and the players I’ve had have been of a very different attitude than some of the respondents to this thread. It’s a bit of an eye-opener to read these comments, I’m not ashamed to say.

    There is a school of thought that the best Call of Cthulhu games must be scripted in a way that pretty much defines the hardest definition of railroading. DMs espousing this style of play claim that Call of Cthulhu “must” be played as an emotional experience rather than as an intellectual one. “It’s all about atmosphere” to use the vernacular.

    I’ve never played it that way. I have players from many different backgrounds including a dyed-in-the-wool D&D uber-munchkin who’s first reaction to anything – even after years of going mad or getting eaten as a result – is to blaze away with his “trusty” 45. I’ve managed to cater to each player’s needs by emphasising the detective side of the adventures.

    To do this is to railroad the players, yet I’ve never heard a single complaint. The players are aware there is a ticking clock in most cases and are focused on solving the clue-trails. I gently guide them when I can without it being obvious and let them run about inside the adventure as they will, yet they generally stay on course and I get none of the rabid (and thematically unlikely) leaping off the tracks I saw in my last D&D game (in which I was the least experienced player I might add).

    Perhaps the basic premise of the game forces a different mindset? Perhaps the focus on the problem at large rather than key individuals inside the plot makes the difference? I don’t know. Someone smarter than me will have to figure it out.

    Rerailing a busted campaign isn’t about saving the DM work, despite those who feel that way. The reality is that even were the campaign to grind to a halt, that work would find its way into the next one or the one after that. If the players destroy one of the major plot wayponts too early, the fun of playing through the campaign (assuming you aren’t in DMotR) demands some sort of remedial fixing by the DM. The multi-instanced villain is as good a fix as any.

    After all, the point of playing D&D or any other RPG is the playing experience, not the “winning”. They used to print that in the rulebooks when the idea was a new one. As a player I’d rather play in a campaign where a gallant giving of a character’s life before the end was recognised and encouraged as a prime heroic RP experience to be savoured in the event it happens than the “ressurrect until the job’s done” hack’n’slash. If I accidentally kill off your lead villain too soon Shamus, by all means have his boss waiting in the wings, bent on revenge.


  43. Roger says:

    I think the #1 situation is a pretty awesome plot twist, and I’d be happy to see it as either a player or a DM.

    The PCs just *murdered* someone. They went in to have a chat with spome guy and they got all stabby. Furthermore, they murdered someone who was powerful and connected.

    Now everyone is out to get the PCs. The legitimate authorities, the bad guy’s underlings, everyone. The party is on the run. Can they find the evidence they need to clear their names? Can they find anyone who will listen? Can they avoid supernatural retribution from beyond the grave?

    Some players might enjoy that; some players might not.

  44. Roxysteve says:

    I think a couple of things are emerging from the discussion.

    The first is that some people view an RPG as a battle of wits between the DM and the players rather than as a cooperative effort. I’m not surprised that people with that outlook have confrontational styles of play (the urge to behave chaotically irrespective of PC alignment simply to “derail” the game). I don’t intend to judge between the two style except to note that trouble is certain if the DM and one or more players aren’t on the same page stylistically.

    The second is that some people seem to feel that there is benefit in wandering around a campaign in the unstructured (or unplotted) parts of it. I allowed people to do this in my old Traveller campaign, and it was less fun for everyone than you might think. If players or DM get bored the game goes south pretty quickly.

    Perhaps the term “railroading” is causing more problems than there really are? It seems to mean as many different things as there are respondents to the thread.


  45. Dan Hemmens says:

    Hmmmmmm – maybe – not sure. Take a collabrative game – it's still the case that important plot NPC does not die until “˜the time is right'. In a collabrative game the right time is determined by the GM and players – in a railroad game – it's determined by the GM.

    That’s the point: in a collaborative game there are no “important plot NPCs” because the story is about the PCs and their decisions. The story is never about the villain, it’s about the PCs and what they do.

    To put it another way, in a collaborative game, if the PCs decide to kill an NPC, then ‘the time is right’ by definition, because a decision has been made, and that’s what the story is about.

  46. Marty says:

    I think only one other poster has touched on this, which surprised me…

    The player characters should be treated as murderers.

    In the scenario as described, a fight breaks out initiated by the players, not the “villian” (who has not been revealed to be a villian).

    So the characters are basically attacking and killing an innocent victim? In no uncertain terms, the DM should warn the players before the action begins to get out of hand that, not only are they acting out of alignment (ie – evil), but local law enforcement looks down on killing townsfolk for no other reason than “He was a jerk.”

    The villian in this scenario should do exactly as desribed by another poster. Run screaming to the local constabulary. Even if he is powerful enough to defeat the PCs, he wouldn’t want to reveal himself so early in his schemes. He’d rather let the law “take care of these ruffians.” Let the PCs stand before a judge and explain why they were attacking this poor, innocent victim.

    That aside, if the PCs do succeed in offing the bad guy accidentally, as many others have said, power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. His lieutenant should be ready to step in and grab the reins, especially if the schemes will bring wealth and/or power to her. The lieutenant may have been hoping to off the boss herself.

    If the Emperor dies, who do you think becomes the new big bad Sith Lord on the block? He already commands the Imperial star fleet after all. Vader would then run the Empire.

    It should be no different with any other Big Bad Evil Guys. He’d probably have a few underlings.

  47. Dan Hemmens says:

    The first is that some people view an RPG as a battle of wits between the DM and the players rather than as a cooperative effort.

    That’s one way to look at it. The other is that people have a different definition of what constitutes “co-operation”.

    Some people seem to define “a co-operative effort” as meaning “the players co-operate with the GM to help him tell his story” and others take it as meaning “the GM co-operates with the players to help them tell *their* story”.

    Railroading is when the GM follows the first definition and the players follow the second.

  48. Shamus says:

    “It should be no different with any other Big Bad Evil Guys. He'd probably have a few underlings.”

    Everyone keeps making this suggestion, that I should invent or rise up an underling to take his place. In my game, I suggested creating a new villian above him. In both cases I’m inventing a new character to take his place. Why is one bad and the other not?

    Given the choice between the two, I chose the one which was more dramatic.

  49. Dan Hemmens says:

    Given the choice between the two, I chose the one which was more dramatic

    Why do you think your option is more dramatic?

  50. Lebkin says:

    “Everyone keeps making this suggestion, that I should invent or rise up an underling to take his place. In my game, I suggested creating a new villian above him. In both cases I'm inventing a new character to take his place. Why is one bad and the other not?”

    I think that having an new villain above is the killed BBEG. Marty uses the comparison to Star Wars that if the Emperor (BBEG) was killed, Vadar (minion) would take over control. There is an equally valid comparison in Star Wars for higher evil.

    When Obi-Wan killed Darth Maul (BBEG) in Episode I, the evil continued on with a more powerful villain in Count Dooku. Similarly, in Episode III, the heroes killed two BBEG in Count Dooku and General Grevious, only to be confronted with Darth Sidious above them.

    As an aside, Count Dooku in Episode II uses Option 2 above. He overpowers the heroes (Anakin and Obi-wan), requiring an NPC (Yoda) to rescue them while he makes his escape.

    I think these kinds of issues all relate to your players. THEY decide what is railroading. We could argue to the cows come home about what the theoretical definition of what railroading is, but that wouldn’t matter in the real world. Each DM must design his adventures with his players in mind, and then shape it during play for their enjoyment.

  51. Lebkin says:

    Sorry for the double post, but I made a mistype in the post above. The first sentence in the second paragraph should read:

    “I think that having an new villain above the killed BBEG is an acceptable solution.”

  52. Dan Hemmens says:

    Why is one bad and the other not?

    Okay, I’m going to make an attempt to answer this, it is going to involve making some assumptions, so just bear in mind that this has “I” labels all over it.

    I feel that the decision to replace your Big Bad with a Bigger Bad who you retcon in as having “been there all along” is different to having them replaced by one of the previous Big Bad’s former minions because I think it carries the strong implication that you don’t care what the players actually do.

    You said in your earlier post that you wanted to “tell an epic story with the PCs as the main characters.” The thing is that it doesn’t sound like you do. It sounds like you want to tell an epic story which has some main characters who just happen to be the PCs.

    If the PCs kill the villain, and he gets replaced by a minion, then that means that the rise of the new Big Bad is a direct result of the actions of the PCs. This is, in my opinion, extremely cool and highly dramatic.

    If the PCs kill the villain, and he gets retroactively replaced with a different-but-identical character who goes on to do all the things that the original villain would have, then this shows that the PC actions were entirely meaningless.

    This implies to me that you are completely unwilling to let the PCs actions influence your plot in any way, that you define “the most dramatic option” as “the one which most closely resembles my original idea of what would happen.”

    The first option is a reaction to an unexpected event. The second option is a stonewall. In the first situation, you say “wow, the PCs did something completely unexpected, how can I make something cool out of this” and in the second you say “damn, the PCs did something unexpected, how can I stop this wrecking the plot.”

    One engages with player input, the other ignores it. One attempts to integrate a player-initiated change into the game, the other attempts to remove it.

    The two are very, very different.

  53. Cenobite says:

    Okay. At the risk of sounding like a cheering yes-man…I have to throw in my 2¢ here and agree with everyone who said that the Escape clause of Option #2 is really not so bad.

    Think about it. No matter what D&D version is being used, it remains a fantasy-based universe. One that contains magic. Magic which is frequently employed to create portals / gates / teleportation scrolls, rings, and other devices. Is it really such a stretch to assume that a BBEG (one who isn’t a total moron) would not, in fact, keep such an artifact on his person 24/7 for the express purpose of avoiding battles (or assassins) and saving his evil life? Come to think of it, what BBEG worth his monologues would prefer to do physical battle instead of taking the easy way out and letting the henchmen fight in his stead?

    The actual trapdoor of escape is something that heroes should expect BBEGs to install by now, as demonstrated in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Add magic to the picture, and the options for making a quick exit multiply exponentially. Even in a sci-fi setting, I would still expect a decent BBEG to carry some form of protection field that can be activated immediately…or even with an automatic swtich keyed to a personal radar of some sort…or even worn all of the time, as demonstrated in David Lynch’s version of Dune. This is not so much of a trick of railroading as it is a harsh reality of evil: players should not expect BBEGs to fall upon their swords when cornered.

  54. RibbitRibbit says:

    Railroading means just that any choice the players make (through their PCs) is ultimately irrelevant to the progress of the scenario.

    This means stuff like actively trying to avoid the Big Battle but then have it happen anyway.

    I think that in the example the only thing that constitutes a railroad is option #2, as it denies the players their hard-won victory in favor of some nebulous “plot”. The opposite, however, is generally accepted by the majority of roleplayers – having the players survive by Deux Ex Machina when the villain almost TPKs them. I see this as two sides of the same coin, and they both are wrong. Because death shouldn’t be the default stakes in the first place.

    The issue is stating the stakes of a scene beforehand. Do the PCs find out the villain’s plans? Do the PCs manage to thwart the villain’s plans? Do the PCs discover he’s the villain at all? Those are the stakes. Once they’re clear, the “Do the PCs kill the villain dead” can never be an outcome. Once everyone is clear on that, there is no need to bluff or retcon or cheat on the dice.

  55. RibbitRibbit says:

    Shorter version: What Dan Hemmens said.

  56. Josh says:

    Well, I’m a bit late to the party but never mind.

    I think there are at least two issues here: whether the players perceive that they have a choice, and whether they actually do.

    The former is very important IMO. There is (almost) nothing more frustrating than feeling in your gut that your actions were such that the bad guy should be dead, when in fact he escaped via the convenient teleportation device (or whatever) that he/the GM pulled out of his ass. Lots of people have made a range of valid suggestions as to how to get your NPC out of danger, but the bottom line is that players can and do act in ways that will overcome any plan that your NPC (and by extension, you) come up with. When that happens, if you pull a blatant deus ex machina then the players will feel as though there was little point in even trying.

    As for the latter, it’s a very different story. Let’s assume that you are such a competent GM (or your players so dull-witted) that you can effortlessly invent deus ex machinae that no player can detect, and that as a result your players will not notice that nothing they have done has made any difference to the plot you pre-planned from the start. We’ll also put aside the fact that you’ll have to lie to your players forever more (since if you admit you “cheated” then your players will assume their actions make no difference in future games). This is the “minion/uberboss takes over where boss left off” suggestion, but it might also be the teleportation device, assuming you can make it look like the device was “there” all along.

    That assumed, there are a range of considerations. The first is that even if you can keep your players from realising what you are up to, you will probably diminish the consistency of your world (this does depend on how much detail you put into it, but we’ll come back to that later). After all, we’re talking about the situation where you have to actually invent new stuff – if you already had a second-in-command who would naturally take over then you wouldn’t be asking the question! Inventing stuff on the fly is very unlikely to result in the same rich, detailed and internally consistent world that results from decent planning. To me as a player (and as a GM), that matters.

    But even if you are such a creative genius that you can literally make stuff up by the seat of your pants and wind up with a wonderfully consistent, real feeling world, there is another question. I was going to say that this was about “fairness” but I don’t think that’s quite right – roleplaying isn’t a competitive game (normally – if you are running a competitive roleplaying game then the answer must surely be unequivocally that you should never arbitrarily make up stuff just to preserve your story), so “fairness” doesn’t apply. It’s all about what’s fun. But where a few people seem to have missed the point a bit is that it shouldn’t just be fun for the players – it should be fun for the GM as well. I think that’s an important aspect of why I prefer not to just arbitrarily make stuff up; I like to put the players in an interesting situation and watch what falls out. If I’m constantly intervening to change the situation to fix the outcome, then I get less out of it, even if the players were unaware of it.

    For me as a GM I want my games to have a rich, detailed and internally consistent background, and I want my interactions with the players to be authentic. For that reason, I prefer not to just make stuff up. That said, there’s nothing wrong with actually building some failsafes into your plot. Why have one villain when you can have three? That way if the players kill one of them you have something left to play with. Similarly, why not specify in advance that the villain has a teleportation device that he keeps in his back pocket at all times. If you do this, it will be more work, and your players could still foil it by taking out all three villains, or picking the teleportation device out of the bad guy’s pocket. But they, and you, will enjoy the experience more (if you’re anything like me).

    On the point about collaborative fiction, and the player characters being the centre of attention: there is something in this, but in my experience it is very rare to find a player group who have enough of their own ideas and drive to make a campaign interesting all by themselves. Most players come to a game expecting to be plunged into an interesting world where stuff is happening. They may have some ideas about what their character will pro-actively do in the world, but they are usually fairly re-active in their approach. It certainly isn’t going to be a fun game if the players just wander aimlessly around doing nothing of interest! Then again, I’d certainly be interested to hear of games with players who exclusively followed their own agenda that didn’t look like this. The closest I’ve seen have been strategy/roleplay hybrids. They worked well, but still needed GM-led plot to thrive.


  57. moonglum says:

    Shamus in your version you are forcing the players to fit in to your story…this is forced story telling. the players are props, you may as well play with your self. In version two, and underling rising up…well that will throw the villains (and your plans) out of whack, the scheme that villain one had may not be the same as villain twos scheme, and the chaos that happened while he takes control will be significant. This allows the players to have a dramatic effect on the game world….they are the heroes, this is their story, not yours, not the villains, they should be the ones writing the story.

    The game can still be epic, you just have to remember that its their epic not yours. Players can not derail the story with their actions… Their actions are the story.

  58. Stranger says:

    As has been said here, the key is knowing what your players want to play and have fun playing. Shamus, if you know what will be fun for your group . . . why ask us our opinions? We’re not your players, we’re not YOU. This decision is in your hands.

    That said, I’d likely go for allowing them to kill this villain and reshuffle the expected “deck” of what was going to happen. They just killed someone without provocation and thus need to deal with that. Any devout members of the party should feel a weight from their patron deities for the sin they committed . . . the law should be thrown at them for this, but they should have it revealed to them (after making them sweat) what was going on . . . and the lack of information on what plans were in motion. The minions, and lieutenants, have things already in motion and are more than likely going to continue their tasks . . .

    As so many people are willing to analyze the meaning of “story vs game” . . . what is a game without something going on? Sure, I could run D&D as it was way back in the beginning where it was “Players, meet dungeon. Dungeon, get smashed by players. Gold, experience, loot, next dungeon?”. But it’s not very interesting for me to run without knowing WHY. WHY are things like that? WHY are the evil people hanging out in the dungeon? WHY would the player characters care?

    To say it again, there’s no “wrong way” to play the game when the players are enjoying themselves.

    Now, as for my own method of plotting story to a game? Take a simple theme, a world setting (I invent my own, because published settings come with all sort of extra baggage I don’t want) and start to piece what I want to happen together. There is a course history is going to take without the PC intervention, and I want to know what that is. Put it together so there is a realistic timeline going on for when things happen, but keep it loose enough so that it can be shifted and moved as needed.

    Step two is to pick out a number of points in that “course of history” where PCs and NPCs can alter fate and change how things fall. Don’t bother figuring out the potential effects, just identify the points. Pick a number which reflects how long you want your campaign to go on . . . say, one point for every four sessions. Describe these to yourself on index cards, or something, and make sure you know the possible outcomes.

    Step three relies on the characters you have before you. Once you have them (presumably, you’re getting the character sheets before your first session, so the DM knows who’s whom and what they have in mind) you can start extrapolating what’s possibly going to happen through the first couple “plot points”. Don’t go too far ahead, because all this can be MEANINGLESS if the PCs fail to follow what you expect will happen. Keep it simple, keep it fluid and flexible.

    Step four is the best part, in my humble opinion. Let the players do what they want. If they reach a time when an event should occur and they’re nowhere near solving it . . . let it be an NPC group who takes care of it and sprinkle news before the players about how something big happened and their attention might jump like a spark between two wires to pay attention to it.

    I’m running a campaign now, and I had the intention of playing it so the PCs are central to the GAME but the world does not revolve around them (yet). There are other forces and people in the world than themselves, and the sooner they realize it the sooner they can know what is exactly staring them in the face. And of course, who it is they “need” to whallop to make things better (for the world, for themselves, for their amusement, whichever).

    Oh, yes, and there’s the ever-present rule I drop when I start a group playing: “I’m not running a campaign for misfit mercenaries who would just as soon kill a man as help him. If there’s no redeemable qualities about your character’s nature, start over. No rapist-murderer-thieves in this game.” That usually curtails the players having characters they claim would do whatever they feel like doing that week.

  59. moonglum says:

    josh there is a sate in-between, you can have a rich world, with a story outline and some important NPC’s figured out…from there, while your world may be detailed(locations and what not, organizations ect) the story it self need to be dynamic. This is how I run all of my games, the PC’s never end where I expected them to but the journey is always fun. I have been running my games like this for decades, both with teenagers that tend to be munchkins and with my current group that includes a stage actor and two writers…

  60. ninjadwarf says:

    If the big bad dies early, before his plans come to fruition does teh rest of teh world suddenly stop?

    If palpatine had been killed by anakin and obi in E2 there would still have been lots going in on. The players wouldn’t know that they had killed the big bad, or what would have happened if he had survived, instead they carry on investigating what is going on.

    Now either the forces set in motion by palpatine might run to a climax with the remaining NPCs doing their little bits, but the grand scheme never coming to fruition, or it might fizzle out quite fast without his overview.

    Either way it doesn’t matter because there are going to be others out there who have the potential to be equally powerful and another bad guy will soon enough pop up with different plots for the players to solve.

    They might figure out that it was the killing of palpatine that stopped the big plot that was going on, they might not, but that doesn’t really matter, there will aways be another bad guy out there for them to seek out.

  61. Jeff says:

    The problem remains with the illusion of freedom. In fact, every complaint of railroading comes from when this is violated.

    I may be misinterpreting here, but almost every ‘anti-railroading’ post I’ve read thus far sounds like a litany of complaints from players.

    Yet looking at the initial example, neither the 1st nor 3rd option makes a single bit of difference from the viewpoint of the players – because they don’t know a decision has been made.

    From the viewpoint of a DM, I’ve more than once turned a minor bad guy into the major bad guy (within a mini-arc, obviously) simply because the night was dragging on and everyone wanted to finish. At the same time, I’ve also run without prep before, with only a few rooms defined and throwing them together on the fly. In both cases, what happens is defined entirely by me, with the actions of the players being incidental.

    From the viewpoint of a player, “railroading” is bad, but having “paved roads” isn’t. I don’t need a big empty slate to forge a future. I want at least a general objective, a sense of progress to be made. I don’t care if you’ll let me buy an inn or raid a town. That’s useless and pointless. I want to delve into an intricate storyline and unravel mysteries and conspiracies and discover an epic adventure.

    Perhaps that is where the difference is. Some players want a sandbox where you scrabble about and do what you want, some players want a few dusty trails up a mountain towards a destination. Those who want a passive sandbox will call anything a DM does actively “railroading”.

  62. Jeff says:

    It could also be a difference in what stage of life we’re at. Back in high school, where life was more or less regimented and predetermined, freedom to do whatever the heck you wanted and blow stuff up was very appealing. Now as a graduate, where I have previously unimaginable freedom of choice, it’s nice to have a set problem to unravel.

  63. Dan Hemmens says:

    The problem remains with the illusion of freedom. In fact, every complaint of railroading comes from when this is violated.

    People always say this. I don’t think it’s true.

    For me (at the risk of sounding like I take all this way too seriously) it’s about respect. It’s about knowing that the GM is actually listening to my input, that he actually understands that I am an intelligent, creative human being who has a story of my own to tell.

  64. John says:

    I think option 2 can be used every as long as it’s not overdone.

    I had a friend who was running Aberrant and everytime we faced the super villains, they used their “teleport” rings. It was nifty he first time they got away. But then we started to get annoyed the 3rd time they did that.

    Also Why can’t there be an option 4? Evil diabolical plan continues. The plan entails the resurrection of the BBEG.
    The PCs need to stop the plan before the world is thrown into a 1000 years of darkness. They get there just in time for the ritual to complete for the BBEG’s ressurrection. BBEG becomes even more powerful than before. Heroic fight ensues.

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