I’ve been thinking about how I run games, and player agency, and railroading, quite a lot of late. One of the things about doing the Show is the need to answer questions about how I do things, and to restate basic truths of RPGin’ in ways that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of doing.
I realised, the other day, that there’s a definite shift in all my games that occurs at around the fifth session of play. Before then, PCs tend to be ordered about by NPCs, with player agency governing how things are done rather than what things are done. After then, players tend to have settled in a bit more, to have an idea of what the game world is like, to have developed their ideas about Who The Big Bads Are and Who’s Not Totally Evil and their own interests in things that I have (most likely) made up largely on the spur of the moment. At that point the gears change; the players decide where to go and what to do and I tend to let them make their own enemies. If they’ve decided someone’s the villain, then they’ll treat ’em like that no matter what I do, so I might as well roll with it. If they’ve decided they want something, my job is to put things in the way of that, ideally other things that they’re interested in.
I’m just not sure if that’s the Right Way to start. It smacks of railroading a bit, and that’s Wrong, right? Except… I tend to think a good poke in one direction starts a long-running game off very nicely. The poke can be resisted immediately, with the ‘no we don’t want to do that let’s do this instead’, but it’s still achieved the goal of getting the players to do something instead of experience analysis paralysis or fart around with no sense of goal or urgency. Even telling an NPC to fuck off is a start.
Here’s a comment that I made on a recent Von Show that (I hope) will show what I’m on about.
Say the characters begin at Point A, with their goal being to get to Point Z. At every point between A and Z where their failure to continue would a) be exciting and b) not immediately stop the game altogether, there is a chance of something going awry.
Whether or not that chance can actually totally derail them and send them off to Point $ instead is a question of GM style and group preference. Some people will say it’s the GM’s responsibility to make sure that players get what they want. Some people will say it’s the GM’s responsibility to let things fall where they may – stupid players don’t get what they want – and some people will say it’s the GM’s responsibility NOT to present situations where there’s only one way through from A to Z and any deviation from that is strictly slapped down.
I say that a game where things can’t go totally awry is not challenging and thus not fun, and that a game where the players’ cock-ups or the GM’s sudden bursts of inspiration can totally change what’s going on is fun and inventive and rewards player choices and agency far more than some sense that sooner or later they’ll get to where they want to go, and that where they want to go will remain constant.
For instance, I’m running Dark Ages Vampire at the moment. The game started on the first day of the Siege of Constantinople; player characters haven’t met yet (not everyone’s played Vampire before, some people have had bad experiences, I want to ease them into roleplaying a vampire and using the rules and work out what they enjoy in the game before I dump loads of plot hooks and decisions and stuff on them). First thing one of ’em does is skip town – he don’t wanna fight in no siege.
A bad GM would have made it impossible for him to get out, because the game’s set in Constantinople dammit. A slightly less bad GM would have done what I did – have him meet his vampire sire on the road instead. This is still ‘not good GMing’ in some people’s books: to them, “you WILL meet this character no matter where you go or what you do” means the player’s choice has no meaning, because whatever they do they’ll still end up in the same situation. The Right Way to do it, according to them, would be to let that player’s decisions follow through and make up another totally different vampire for that player character to meet, as a result of their decision, and maybe that player would avoid that vampire too…
At least I followed through on the player’s decision to leave the city, and while the PC’s vampire daddy has been putting the ‘fluence on him to persuade him into going where vampire daddy wants to go, he’s *realised* this in the last session and the quality of game is improved by that. He’s invested in and bonded with this NPC who he’s found out has been manipulating him, and now he’s deciding what to do about that. And he’s doing this in a location that I made up in case any players wanted their characters to leave the city (actually it’s one of three; one for each player character. I’m always ready, me!), and he got there by a route of his own choosing with a strategy he devised and that I had to improvise for.
Meanwhile, I have another player who’s realising that the vampire world is much much bigger than what their character’s sire has seen fit to tell them, and they’re playing out that finding-their-own-destiny I’ll-hang-with-these-infidels-if-I-want-to bit with another PC, also an NPC that I’d built and waited to deploy until a player choice led them to a place where that NPC might legitimately be found. Their character’s goal started off as ‘help my sire defend our people!’ and now it’s turning into ‘wait, my sire’s using this whole siege thing to achieve her nasty petty little agenda and these guys who are supposed to be my enemies seem to actually be doing what I thought we were doing’ and it’ll no doubt be something totally different in three sessions’ time. The player’s goals are in flux, all the time, as they (through their character) discover more about the world.
Frankly, if that’s ‘bad GMing’ just because NPCs called the shots for a few weeks and I palette-swapped one important one to somewhere where he’d improve the game, I’m not losing any sleep over it.