Is a trad GM railroad just an unfinished hippie LARP?

edited May 2015 in Story Games
Yeah, provocative title, I know, but I am genuinely blown away by this counter-intuitive overlap.

The trad GM railroad

I'm one of those gamers who was introduced to GMing as something of a power trip, and was drawn to the power of being able to tell "my story". I loved my NPC and backstories and schemes, my planned developments and plot twists, my cities and factions and histories and worlds. Whatever my explicit goals may have been at the high school game table -- I can't even remember -- the biggest motivator was probably that moment where I showed the players a thing I'd made up and they provided the desired reaction.

This crypt hasn't been opened since the reign of the Chaos Priests! -- "Ooh!"

As he moves to attack, you see he's holding a sword which looks... familiar. -- "Could it be- Oh fuck!"

We don't actually want to make magic more accessible. We want to wall it off strictly for our own sorcerers. And by defeating the Sentinel, you've gotten us one step closer! -- "What?! Nooooo!!! You bastards!"

That was my favorite part. Of course, there was a lot of other game going on, and getting to my favorite part could be tricky, especially because it wasn't always clear what the players' primary concern was, or should be. The characters had motives and goals, and there were times when we all worked reasonably well together to make sure their goals were about my plot stuff. Some synergy was planned, some was emergent, and overall it worked well enough, but we certainly weren't immune from the predictable hitches.

You know the hitches -- that part where the players want to do something, and the GM feels obligated to go through the process of letting them try, but in the end will only allow outcomes compatible with the GM plan. Which can drive the players crazy, to the point of anger (not so much in my groups) or disengagement (yeah, we had that).

No more trad GM railroad

Like many gamers, I was excited to encounter other approaches to RPGs which left these particular problems behind. Games which were truly open-ended; games which really let the dice and the rules decide how player tactics or choices worked out; games which gave the GM a more limited role, or used no GM at all... I liked all these at first, and I like them still.

They didn't scratch that same itch, though. Backstories and NPCs and worlds? Sure! Most games which have a GM can still incorporate those to some effect. But plots? No. If the players are steering, then the GM can certainly improvise twists and reveals etc. to throw in their path, but the GM can't plan out arcs and build toward predetermined events beforehand. I'd basically lost the "lonely fun", the fun of between-session scheming that had kept me interested in GMing. I still liked GMing the games I created (for various reasons), but whenever a campaign of some published system was proposed, I'd opt to be a player.

I was happy with my gaming, and still am, but I did, and do, occasionally miss the old experience of sitting by myself concocting places and people and plots, and then coming into each session revved up to earn those "Ooh!" and "Oh fuck!" and "You bastards!" responses to them.

The hippie LARP

What I mean by "hippie LARP" is this: more talky than crunchy, more mundane than gonzo, more emotional stakes than physical, more huggy than cutthroat (players, that is; not characters). Superficially, this seems like the most distant roleplay style and culture imaginable from the GM-dominant flavor associated with the "trad" label. Feel free to point out the crappiness of both of these labels; all I'm trying to illustrate is why it seemed counter-intuitive to me to bump into a meaningful overlap. But, lo and behold:

At Camp Nerdly a few weeks ago, I played a game which fits all the above "hippie LARP" characteristics (I don't feel qualified to actually classify it -- "American freeform" by a Canadian for a Danish contest?) called Hope Was the Last Thing in the Box. This game included:

- A mission for the characters that would span the entire game.

- Pre-made characters with reasons to pursue that mission. These reasons were strong, yet in need of player investment to specify them, make them their own, and ultimately judge if any of the events of play would nullify them.

- A structure with four pre-written acts, each describing a new development and phase in the mission.

- A phase in each act where the players sit and listen to the GM, soaking up what the characters have lived through since the previous act, internally forming their takes on it.

- A next phase where the GM asks the players scripted questions about their takes, and everyone gets clued in as to how each character is reacting to their experience on the mission.

- A next phase where the GM hands the players a revealing scenario to react to, a scenario crafted to threaten the hows and whys and character of the mission rather than threatening whether the mission can proceed. You still have the option to get to the end, but (for example) will you do it in luxury and risk feeling like a sell-out, or will you do it barefoot and penniless, facing a destitute life after the mission? No dice needed, just roleplay.

Look at that. Suppose I'd written this scenario -- isn't that everything I wanted when I was running players through my plots in high school? I get to plan out my arcs and twists. I get to hear what it means to the characters. We get to roleplay out some scenes that complicate their relationship to the plot, building more investment in whatever direction. This is the fun part for me! As long as I know they'll give a damn, and as long as I know they're committed to the ride, I love the suspense of, "How do they take it?" Do they pursue the mission in panicked fear, or triumphant exultation? That is the "play to find out" component of the GM-scripted game, and that's exactly what this hippie game about hope emphasizes in play.

Maybe it's about time to dig up some of my old plots about super-powered conspiracies, and look at them anew, with an eye toward unifying long-term mission goals, logical breaks in the action, good reflection questions, events which threaten the mission's meaning rather than its viability, etc. It's a different sort of development than the "what are these NPCs up to" stuff I used to love, but, for now, I'm optimistic that they'll fit well together and I can get some of my old-time between-session GM enthusiasm back (plus some awesome play thereafter).

Thanks for reading. Any and all thoughts welcome. I'll add a link on Monday or Tuesday to a more concise version on G+ for those who prefer to comment on that platform.


  • I don't know that Hope is a game. Maybe. Maybe not.

    But I have found if you're up front with folks about what you're doing, and focus on why it's ... uh... "Fun" if that's the right word, then lots of people are really open to trying lots of things. And sometimes those things work well. If folks know that they're going through a thing where the emphasis is on how they feel, on internality, then a lot of them will be right into that. And some won't.

    Notably, I've talked to about... 25? 26? people who played Hope. About half of them hated it so much they made me buy them beer to make up for doing that to them. The other half loved it and bought me beer.

    So, you know, when it works it works. When it fails it fails hard.
  • Apocalypse World made us love GM fiat again, why not rediscover a love of railroading next?
  • edited May 2015
    Brand, I hear ya. I suspect that "Why this is going to be fun" was a big part of what was missing from my high school attempts. "Look at what I'm bringing to the table!" didn't tell players how they fit into that, which important stuff they got to determine, etc.

    Buying into the premise of Hope basically went like this for me:

    I bumped into Rachel Walton while walking through camp, asked her what she was up to, she mentioned she'd be running some freeformy journey game later, and I said, "Sign me up!" because we have similar taste and she's one of my favorite people to play with.

    Then when she gave the actual pitch at the "pitch your next game" portion of the con, she made it clear that it was a "more about how the journey affects you" deal, and I think everyone got that message. She did mention that completing the trip wasn't a sure thing, but I think it came across that that was about "your character may not have it in them, emotionally" as opposed to, y'know, physical walls or ninjas or whatnot.

    Once 4 of us had signed up to play, I don't think anyone was going to bail regardless (other games having been filled), but the intro text certainly let us know what we'd gotten into, and everyone played by the spirit of the thing 100%.

    I think "journey story" and "focus on the internal" went nicely together in the pitch, and no one brought in any improper assumptions. Perhaps it'll be a whole different deal if I pitch "cyborg mafia" and "focus on the internal"... only one way to find out...

    I'm curious about the people who hated Hope. Did they play because they'd truly bought into the premise beforehand, but just didn't like how it played out? (If so, I'm surprised.) Or did they play just cuz they were there, or were your buddies, or something? (In which case, heh, I'm not surprised.)
  • A bit of all of the above.

    A lot of them didn't really listen during the pitch, or their GM didn't really explain to them what it was going to be about. Which, yea...

    For many, however, they knew what it was going to be about, tried it, and found out they just really didn't like it. For some the themes were offputting, for some the style of play was just to weird and alien and not gamelike. Several got bored.

    For those who knew what it was about, bought in, and didn't just hate the style of game -- most of them really liked it. Though even there a lot had a bit of a struggle in the first act or so, figuring out the flow and style of engagement. After all it isn't like playing things that are actually games, so the interactive patterns take a bit to figure out.

    As far as doing it with different themes, I did spin off something JD was talking about once and made a scenario-thing-not-a-game-but-who-the-fuck-knows-what about Captain Marvel, for one or two players (if two, one is Captain, the other the key NPC in any scene) and one facilitator-thing-person:

    It hasn't been playtested yet.
  • edited May 2015
    Interesting! I'm generally happy to admit that a given RPG or similar may be more "play" than "game", but Hope checked off most of my "game" boxes. It's got plenty of constraints, plenty of contact with a thing (the script) which isn't just the input of the group at hand, even a tiny bit of a resolution system in the Triggers, and most importantly, a tangible goal: "see how this works out for these characters by the end of the journey". That goal is arguably more traditionally game-like than, say, Apocalypse World's "see what these characters make of their world".

    Perhaps, though, even with a general sense of buy-in, that goal is easy to miss. Hmm. "You will pursue the secret of the cyborg mafia. Some things you will discover, other things you won't; that's not up to you. What is up to you, and is in fact your goal if you play, is to immerse yourself in the experience of the hunt and see how it works out for your characters internally." I wonder how that'd go over...

    As for getting bored, I think the "sit and listen" parts walk a fine line between vivid inspiration and too long without action. I might consider some sort of dial the group could set... right before each listening, they pick Short, Medium, or Long, and the facilitator reads the corresponding chunk(s) of text. As far as the mantra-like repetition of that text from act to act, I think there was something really powerful about it. It'd be a less intuitive fit for a game that was not significantly about an endurance grind, but still, there's something about re-evaluating your position, "How do you feel about this now?", that really connects the acts.

    Thanks for the Captain Marvel link! I don't really play 1-on-1, but I will definitely check it out to see another take on this approach.
  • Random note: one guy I talked to about where the fun lies for players in a "GM's story" RPG said, "Oh, it's an acting challenge!" I'm not sure if that's the appeal, but it's certainly an appeal. The character decisions you make inside are a big part of the individual experience, but how you express it all is what makes the group experience sing or flop.

    I thought the part of the Hope intro about the roleplay options available (describe if you want, move around if you want, call "break" if someone's getting too intense for you, etc.) nicely clued everyone in to the fact that expression was important here.

    On the other hand, the "just tell us what your character thinks about this question" parts provided an outlet for the less thespian-inclined; the acting was important, but didn't dominate play overall. Not sure if that's a ratio I'd keep or tweak.
  • Random note: one guy I talked to about where the fun lies for players in a "GM's story" RPG said, "Oh, it's an acting challenge!" I'm not sure if that's the appeal, but it's certainly an appeal. The character decisions you make inside are a big part of the individual experience, but how you express it all is what makes the group experience sing or flop.
    I'm glad that you say it's an appeal, because what's appealing is of course different for different players, and may change over the course of the scenario or from moment to moment. A friend of mine who's very into Nordic freeform and LARP says he often operates in actor stance. He actively thinks about how his words and movements will come across when he's playing a scene. Other friends focus more on their emotional experience, and may have a fantastic experience in one scene that's barely visible to the other participants.

    I've played improvisational theater, and when I list the reasons why it may be appealing to be on stage in front of the other members of the course, presenting a realistic or truthful character is only one of the factors, not even the one that brings me the most joy. Another factor is the creative challenge of working with the material given to you by the director (course leader) or the other actor, and the joy of building on the other actor's ideas. It's also appealing to make the other actor look good.

    You could lump all these together as acting challenges. While on stage you're an actor and everything you do or feel is in some sense part of the acting experience. But the acting challenge of a freeform scenario is at least more that of an improv actor and co-creator than that of a classical script-based play actor.

    In our improv scenes the course leader acted as director, and would sometimes give directions to the actors on stage. If actor A says "Have you been unfaithful? Have you cheated on me?", the director may shout "Say yes!" to push actor B into more interesting territory. If I'm actor B, my first thought is not "How can I present that I've cheated to the audience", but an immediate rush of disturbing or exhilarating emotions. I see the same thing as an important part of freeform scenarions, where the writer and GM puts the players in interesting situations to let them experience them. The acting is there to help the other players experience the situation even more.

    For me the acting is a means to an end. For my friend I mentioned above it's the main pursuit.

    I also think that the worst part of traditional railroading game masters is when the players are given an illusion of free choice, that is then blocked if the players go anywhere but the correct direction. Most freeform scenarios I've read or played have been railroaded in the scene framing and scene ending way, where the GM may jump 10 years into the future in the next scene, or may say "After the last scene you've found the pickpocket and in this scene you confront him". But they are not railroaded in the sense that the players will suggest and play scenes of no relevance until they figure out that the pickpocket must be at the café, the way a railroaded pen-and-paper session might turn out if the players can't find the next clue.
  • Great post, Dave (and some great responses).

    It seems we're coming full-circle from some of our earlier conversations, in particular The Beautifully Railroaded Game.

    (One interesting take-away in that thread was about people gradually gravitating towards this style of gaming for one-shots, and "open play" for long-term gaming and campaigns.)

    I really want to play a game like this with you! One of these days, we will do it.

    Here's my own, possibly irrelevant, take on all this:

    I used to really enjoy this style of GMing, but, like you, was frustrated with its limitations (it can be very unreliable, in a "trad gaming" context). I've found ways, since then, to enjoy my "GMing lonely fun" by atomizing it. The key, for me, is to always start the process from a piece of player input. Sorcerer's Bangs are a perfect example of this: the player pitches some kind of concept (the Kicker), and then you apply some kind of procedure/technique to generate some kind of response, which you can plan ahead. I have my own little techniques for doing this stuff in a way which I find incredibly enjoyable as "lonely fun", including some randomizable elements.

    It doesn't allow long-term plots (at least not with any certainty - you can still have *tentative* long-term plans), but still gives me the opportunity to "plot ahead" between sessions, and scratches the same itch.
  • edited May 2015
    Not sure why I never got into planning bangs; not sure if I've ever given it a proper shot. All I can say is that it doesn't inspire me in the way that cooking up a big story inspires me. I think there's a different level of "lonely completion". A bang by itself isn't much until it hits the table, to me. A whole arc that I cook up by myself, on the other hand, is already fun for me before I show it to anyone.

    Or, well, it used to be. It's been a while!

    What I took from reading / reading about Sorcerer is that, as GM, it's good to bring in a bunch of bangs which you might or might not use. This sounds logical and practical, but isn't conducive to much investment for me. Does your prep diverge from this?

    Agreed on the echoes of past topics! I'd be curious to hear @Will_GM_for_Food (Todd)'s take on this. Dunno if he still looks at S-G, but if so, ping! Hope's triggers remind me of Unknown Armies' stress checks a bit. It's not hard for me to imagine this sort of player experience coming from Hope, though of course the way there is very different.
  • Dave, the short answer is that, yes, it totally does. I'd be happy to discuss in more detail, if you like (whether here or over Skype).
  • Oh, yea -- Unknown Armies is very much one of Hope's spiritual progenitors.

    I bet John would cry playing it. Not so much Jason. Unless I punched him or something.

  • So, if I'm prepping to run a Bangs and Flags heavy game, I often find myself inventing entire big metaplots and histories. Perhaps not as much as some trad GMs, to leave room for player Knowledge rolls to fill in the gaps and the like, but a fair amount.

    Something else I'm doing right now to get some lonely fun, although it's a bit off-topic admittedly: making high-level D&D characters for my players for a one-shot I myself am running. :-)
  • One interesting take-away in that thread was about people gradually gravitating towards this style of gaming for one-shots, and "open play" for long-term gaming and campaigns.
    That strikes me as the crux of the whole thing, really.

    Asking for volunteers to buy in to something very constrained for a brief period of 1-6 hours and really dig in and run with it is a bit different from an open-ended game meant to be played, well, effectively forever.

    I suspect most players think of the second type of play as normal. After all, that's the ideal of the home game for lots of people.

    When they encounter the other type of play, they're still thinking in terms of the idealized home game, but imagine they're simply going to play a single chunk of an idealized home game. Kinda like a core sample or something.

    This mindset and reaction doesn't impact just impact Dirty Hippy Larp railroads, though.

    You can see the same highly negative reaction to games with high player input games and even short-length play traditional games when people talk about them online.

    For myself, I'd play these kinds of things gladly. Not so much because I'm a touchyfeelydirtyhippie, but just because I've always been a GM with gamer ADD.

    I've been to conventions and usually ended up playing weirdo minis gaming one-shots ( yes, minis gaming homebrews have opened my brain up to other kinds of one-off games. Who woulda thunk it?)

    I don't think the problem is with the games inherently ( although individual ones might have problems of different sorts), it's that they fly in the face of dominant gamer culture of play expectations, in their idealized form.

  • Where could we find Hope is the last thing in the box, please? I googled it but nothing turned up.
  • Dave,

    Here's one example of how I like to do some "lonely fun can't wait to surprise the players" in a non-plotting kind of way. Second post (first reply): Ending Games Without Endgame Conditions

    You can see it's not the same at all, but, at the same time, fulfills that whole "I've got this thing set up which is really gonna surprise the players" kick, and you get to work on it by yourself. I see it is a nice middle ground. And it's very satisfying in play because I've never seen it fall flat: the players have already told you that they're digging on this thing or that thing, so it comes off well pretty much every time.
  • Where could we find Hope is the last thing in the box, please? I googled it but nothing turned up.
    It's here: Was the Last Thing in the Box.pdf?dl=0
  • Thanks, Brand. It looks promising for sure!
  • Apocalypse World made us love GM fiat again, why not rediscover a love of railroading next?
    Interestingly, I think AW managed it with that one simple principle: "be a fan of the players". It then reframed the tools that the GM and the players use to work together on the story, and took some of the teeth out of GM fiat by decoupling it from the idea of fiating your own story into being. It counterbalanced fiat and contextualized it.

    So anything which brings railroading to that same place is going to have to do something similar for it.

    For example, Brian Engard's game Becoming is very up-front about the fact that the plot is literally railroaded. It's a very clear "about the journey, not the destination". It counterbalances the railroad by making the railroaded narrative almost meaningless--the real story is not the plot (which acts as a context for the characters' choices) but rather the particular decisions that the hero makes. While the end destination and the events of the plot are the same in different playthroughs, the hero will make different choices about what they value and what they're willing to lose along the way.

    For the example you give (being able to surprise the players with your finely-crafted plot developments), I think a key is using said developments while also respecting the capacity of the players to have agency. I think you can find a middle ground where players have agency but you're also building up other things. Even things like the Dungeon World principle of "draw maps, leave blanks" can be adapted to this.

    It's like how I handle Burning Wheel: I don't play with all of my cards on the table, but I respect the directions that the players take things in.

  • Err, yes, very well said @CarpeGuitarrem. Note that "be a fan of the players" is in turn counterbalanced by "do what honesty/your prep demands." What I mean by that is: in some heavily GM-fiated games, players complain as much about the GM fiating to keep them alive and well and succeeding as they do about arbitrary GM nerfs. You should be a fan of the players and their characters, but you also should not hesitate to let a PC die if that's really what the fictional and mechanical situation is calling for.
  • Also, I totally have a wicked long-burning plot twist planned for my current campaign. :D
  • edited June 2015
    I really don't know what to say. Got lots of thoughts however so I will just throw them out here as topics for discussion. Remember that I'm a huge defender of railroading (when done right, in my book, according to my own definition of railroading).

    - A reason why I don't play traditional games anymore is that I got tired of character immersion. If I had to follow someone else's plans, the only thing I could bring were me acting out my character. So I had to constantly react on someone else's ideas.

    - Railroading usually, if the game master is competent, has better stories. The said can be said about collaborative storytelling, yeah, but then the whole group must be competent (in different ways).

    - Having a fixed ending, or a goal to go towards, is necessary. Be open about what's demanded by the game master from the players. Say that they will die in the end, and the players can adopt to that and do great things with it. The players playing out a family dinner. The game master reveals that the ending scene will be sirens, red and blue lights, the father arrested for murder. Cut back to the family dinner and you got something to play against. So being a player in a rail is not about deciding your character's faith, it's about discovering the journey.

    - And yes, the traditional structured freeform that I know of from the 90s frames scenes in a hard way. They are railroady. ... ... ... One definition I read, stated by Greg Costikyan, is that decision-making is interaction. I agree, but just being active is fine too. You can be reactive, "Oh, she was my sister all along!?", or actively put things together. "So if the queen is your mother, that makes you..?". The latter is the strengths of those freeform scenarios: the aha moment when you realize something, or the philosophical thoughts it creates. That's why I railroad (or why I did it, anyway).
  • People here still seem to see the word "railroading" as a categorical pejorative, and the many techniques, approaches and applications which comprise it are never analyzed functionally by its detractors (who you think might want to be more analytical if they're to be convincing anyone other than themselves). We've had long threads about this before. It's disheartening to see the same conversations over and over again.

  • edited June 2015
    Unfortunately, Tod, many people find that particular definition of "railroading" - "an unwelcome and forced intrusion by a control freak", or something equally harsh - more useful than a broader definition of the term, as you like to promote.

    I'd recommend using terms like "creative constraints", "pre-defined plot", "set sequence of scenes", or "ending established up-front" to anyone who is trying to make themselves clear. Then you can avoid having your very interesting thread turn into a big semantic argument.
  • edited June 2015
    Yeah, that's rather my point, Paul. You've heard it. The term as it is generally applied is so vague as to be useless as anything other than a pejorative, which of course does little to lend any depth to analysis. There is no semantic argument here, because I'm the only one actually analyzing the word (well, me and Will Hindmarch, and a bit by Rickard). For most RPers it's just a dogmatic term, never questioned semantically or otherwise, cast like shade upon certain artistic avenues and coming from a position of assumed authority - the laziest of all possible methodologies for judgment.

    Yet when analyzed even a little bit by someone with a functionalist view, "railroading" turns out to be a complex set of not-obviously-related actions, decisions and techniques - either player-based or GM-based, purposeful or accidental, affective or effective, useful or destructive, artistic or egotistical - which may be combined and built into narrative control systems in a myriad ways. I find it sad to see so many possible developments crippled by such a prejudiced assumption.

    There's little point cajoling me to change my ways (if that's what you were doing). This is just my position and I'm stating it. I'm not gonna stop analyzing such structures or making use of my findings any time soon, whether I'm alone or in company. :-)

  • edited June 2015
    Ok, the reason I butted my face in here is exactly because of this: When you start considering "unfinished hippie LARPs" (although I admit that's the part of the title I have the hardest time interpreting, especially because the diversity within this sur-genre is about as broad as one can imagine)... the whole concept of "railroad" starts to become superfluous, meaningless, changes its meaning, or shifts to a very different level of meaning in the interpretation of the event, both as an experience and as a piece of art.

    [double post, so I'm splitting it here.]
  • edited June 2015
    Whether we agree with Dave's thesis or share the experiences he relates in the OP, what he's pointing at (I think, obliquely perhaps) is that it's not like there's "two paths diverged in a tulgy wood" when it comes to narrative control systems. There's no single definition of "railroading" that you could apply to all possible interactive narrative systems and artistic approaches.

    Thank Gopod!

    But it's really because the term is technically (and therefore critically) useless unless completely exploded.

  • edited June 2015
    I didn't see any anti-railroad sentiment sidetracking this thread, Tod (if it was there, I guess I ignored it with ease). I think the thread title served as a very brief description, which my opening post successfully replaced with a fuller description, and people have been replying to that fuller description by and large.

    Whatever anyone's definition of "trad GM railroad" might be, I suspect folks can see techniques in my session of Hope that function differently in Hope's specific context (social contract, explicit goals, etc.) than in other contexts where they've been encountered. For anyone who's not seeing that, please ignore my "railroad/hippie" comparison. My real point is about the potential of what could be done with Hope-like approaches.

    I'll follow that with a request to all commenters: if you wish to argue the pros / cons / perception / history of the practice(s) of railroading and/or term "railroading", PLEASE DO NOT DO IT HERE. I'd just like to able to read the 5 or so posts about Hope-like approaches without wading through 50 or so posts about other stuff. Please?
  • The thing that's most interesting to me, and the reason I started this thread, is the potential path to scratching the auteur-GM itch in a way that's reliably fun for the whole group. My observation re: auteur-GMing is that it's the drive behind a lot of roleplaying. Those of us who play in groups with multiple players with GM experience can easily forget that much of the RPG-playing world is GM-driven. The GM buys the book and gets the inspiration and shares the enthusiasm and actually gets their friends to agree to play in the first place. But the GM doesn't get to do the thing that's often front-and-center, which is to have "my character" and pursue their ends! Instead, the GM needs to take all this inspiration and enthusiasm they've built up, and... do what? Be an impartial referee? Facilitate everyone else having fun? No way. That may be where you end up at some point, but when you start GMing, you want to throw the fictional content that you're psyched about at the other players and have them go "Ooh!" or "Oh fuck!" or "Nooooo!!!" I'd be very happy to see more RPGs which more clearly supported this. Some sort of "make your own Hope Was the Last Thing..." tool would strike me as pretty cool... (Yeah, I'm working on one... yeah, very slowly.)

    Anyway, I agree with everyone who's posted here to say that one needn't go all "pre-scripted act structure" just to let the GM introduce some twists. There are plenty of successful RPGs already out there where the players have a lot of freedom and the GM gets to introduce plenty of hard-hitting developments. It's just that, well, I've never read such a game and had that old, "Oh sweet, now I must invent a thing, and bring that to the table!" reaction. Instead I usually go, "Well, I could GM this, but I'd rather play."

    I suspect that increasing the emphasis on "make an awesome story and then show it off!" (or something similar) would strike me very differently.

    Is that just me?
  • edited June 2015
    Ending Games Without Endgame Conditions . . . You can see it's not the same at all, but, at the same time, fulfills that whole "I've got this thing set up which is really gonna surprise the players" kick, and you get to work on it by yourself.
    Very cool, but the "not the same" element is still big for me. That sort of connection-weaving exercise is pretty much the opposite of letting the world in my head come alive and grow, in my experience. I mentioned "plot points" because they're a clear and simple example of GM authorship, but a lot of the stuff I got invested in as an auteur-GM was my worlds and cities and factions and NPCs, which felt real to me just as such things often do to novelists. Once they felt real, they largely "played themselves", and the main thing I wanted with regards to sharing it with the players was "reasons why they should care." So if I were looking for a "lonely fun" GM tool, it would not be one to generate mid-game content; instead, it would be ways to interface my already-conceived content with the players' role. "Here's Dave's NPC scheme. Secretly, what does your character think about it? How does this change your prospects for pursuing the mission? Answer these questions aloud for the group." etc.

    Before I've cooked up all my movers and shakers, though, some sorts of parameters would probably be a good thing -- probably based on the players' role, what motives the PCs start with, what the mission is if any, etc.
  • Note: I think "ways players could have fun with this" deserves more thought. Giving enthused GMs tools to share their enthusiasm with willing players only helps if there's actually a decent chance that willing players exist. "Experience this story and have thoughts and feelings about it and share them while it's happening" is not a well-tested pitch, and it could be that the broadest potential appeal lies in something I haven't spotted yet.
  • edited June 2015
    Dave - my initial comment was not an apologia, just sort of an extension of or response to a train of thought started by Rickard above me.

    Have you read the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide? Sounds like you might like it. :-)

  • I might! The RPGnow blurb looks cool. Care to share any pertinent features?
  • Whatever anyone's definition of "trad GM railroad" might be, I suspect folks can see techniques in my session of Hope that function differently in Hope's specific context (social contract, explicit goals, etc.) than in other contexts where they've been encountered. For anyone who's not seeing that, please ignore my "railroad/hippie" comparison. My real point is about the potential of what could be done with Hope-like approaches.


    ... and the reason I started this thread, is the potential path to scratching the auteur-GM itch in a way that's reliably fun for the whole group.
    This was what I tried to address in my post.
  • edited June 2015

    Your point about the GM being the artistic driver behind the game is a good one, and, true, sometimes overlooked in a community which consists of lots of GMs who play together (for lack of a better term).

    As for my example: I can't speak for your priorities, of course. That particular example is also a very limited one, but it was just that - a small example.

    I'll speak of how it is for me, however. Thinking of possible connections between questions raised might seem like the opposite of what you're describing: instead of thinking diegetically, you're trying artificially to create new stuff to appeal to the players.

    However, I'd encourage you to try it. Although starting from a point which takes the players' input as a primary source, thereafter it feels very familiar: you go home having to think about all the fictional and aesthetic elements of your world or story (or whatever it is in that particular game), to dig deeper and find new connections or new details which you think might surprise the players.

    The only difference is that you're not shooting blind. Now you can consider various elements and find connections and learn even more about your NPCs or factions or settings, just as you do when you're daydreaming by yourself, except you have a little focusing tool to help you zoom in on the part of the picture the players are interested in.

    My suggestion, in other words, is that it looks very different because the starting point is different - the players give it a push somehow - but, once the process is started, it's the same process of lonely GM fun where you enrich your knowledge of the fiction and come up with stuff which you hope will excite the players.

    I suppose AW's Fronts are another example: you're prepping very traditional GM-stuff on your own... but with a principle or rule or two which help make sure you're not just totally bulldozing over the players ("play to find out") and ruining their fun.

    In my experience - and, of course, I don't know if you'd feel the same way - I was quite surprised by how it scratched the same itch, even though initially it looks rather different.

    (Tod! All I was trying to say was: avoid the word "railroading", and you can have all these wonderful conversations about roleplaying techniques. It's the word itself which causes the derailing... avoid it, and you can have an awesome discussion and look into interesting techniques and their applications. I was also trying to suggest that we not have the conversation here in Dave's thread, but clearly that was lost on you. Perhaps I should have been more explicit on that point.)

    I like Rickard's comments, as well, especially about establishing framing details about the game (hard scene framing, jeepform techniques, and establishing the "final scene" before you start playing). Those are all good things, and give an auteur-GM the ability to create a certain experience while also communicating clearly to the players where their freedom to play starts and ends.
  • edited June 2015
    instead of thinking diegetically, you're trying artificially to create new stuff to appeal to the players.

    However, I'd encourage you to try it.
    Tried it. Liked it. But not the same, not at all. (I haven't tried your specific technique, just the general m.o. of "What would be fun for play here?" GM prep.) GM-auterism, in my experience, isn't just about having something cool to bring to the table, it's also about having something that's already cool before you bring it to the table.

    "Let's see... oho, this would be a neat twist for tonight's game!" doesn't scratch that itch for me.

    Separately, about establishing final scenes and endings, on the one hand that's great for setting clear expectations up front, but on the other hand it ruins the sense of discovery and surprise. I don't think this play style will appeal to many players who don't have at least some interest in being audience. It's vital that they have an active role too, of course, but one of their hooks is definitely "witness the unfolding plot". I haven't played with a lot of really hardcore "RPGs are a big part of my life" gamers who prioritize that, but I have played with many more casual gamers who actually do show up largely to be an audience and find out what happens next. That component is way less fun (for most) if you know how the story ends.

    Fortunately, I think we have an alternative that's just as useful -- establish "when the game ends" in terms of "when X is resolved", without saying what the resolution will be. I think Hope gives a good example -- the game will end when the PCs either reach their destination or fail to, to be resolved at the end of Act 4 unless they all die or quit beforehand (which is only technically possible; I can't imagine it actually happening, but it's fun to think it might).
  • Cool.

    So what does your "ideal" prep look like?
  • Separately, about establishing final scenes and endings, on the one hand that's great for setting clear expectations up front, but on the other hand it ruins the sense of discovery and surprise.
    How come? And really think about what my answer will be to your answer.
  • I think it's a question of genre expectations. Some forms of fiction - and some games - rely on uncertainty and discovery. Although it could be fun *in a very different way*, watching or reading a murder mystery a second time is just not the same.

    There are other forms of fiction - and games - which are more about the details, the drama, the personal transformations, and so forth. In those forms, revelation and surprise is not an important part of the experience in the same way (perhaps because they have so much more to offer on other fronts, whereas the first type relies on the surprise factor to entertain at all).

    I'm going to guess that Dave is thinking of playing a very specific type of game with a very specific type of player who is very much expecting that first type (and is perhaps not interested in contributing to the fiction or the story himself, but likes being a somewhat involved audience member).

    I don't know if this type of gamer is as common as Dave thinks (an alternative view is that these are people who have been conditioned to expect less from roleplaying games over years of exposure), but I can see how you might think that type of player would not be satisfied by a game where the ending is known from the start.

    (And throughout this whole thing I keep thinking of OSR-style gaming, which is yet another sort of "solution" to this whole conundrum. Is that relevant here at all, Dave?)
  • edited June 2015
    I might! The RPGnow blurb looks cool. Care to share any pertinent features?
    Sure. I can say a lot more but probably should do it somewhere else. For now... DayTrippers is the literal embodiment of many of the theories and mechanics you've seen me write about here: the Cyber-GM, "Psychic Content", the separation of Vertical Control (GM) from Horizontal Control (Players), and alternate uses of "rails" in cooperative-oppositional systems.

    It's a high-but-sketchy-prep game. The GM creates a "PlotField" with setups and triggers but no resolutions. Plot Direction is up to the Players, while the GM focuses on stringing together suggestive bits of Psychic Content with these prepped elements and improv, controlling the tension in the story by dynamically modulating the difficulty of tasks and obstacles, and adjudicating actions with rulings (not rules) based on the state of the emerging narrative (i.e. the current requirements of the narrative arc). "Railroading" is avoided by separating the Horizontal Control of the Players from the Vertical Control of the GM. It's a fusion of traditional and narrativist techniques, you might say, not unlike the stance of the MC in "Apocalypse World". This approach leads to a more collaborative and less predictable story, and is guided by the mental energies of the group as a whole. For example, Action Resolution is determined mathematically but interpreted narratively, using bipartite resolvers like Archipelago ("Yes And", "Yes But", "No And", "No But"). When this happens, Players narrate their own positive results while the GM narrates the negative ones. PlotFields may be event-based (character actions are largely reactive), character-based (actions are largely social) or location-based (action is largely environmental/physical) - or any mixture of the three.

    When run in full-GM mode, the game uses a party's character values to determine the maximum difficulty of obstacles and adversaries. While the game is trad in concept, it borrows many elements from "narrativist" designs, including trade-offs of narrative agency, collaborative improvisation and the cooperative-oppositional stance. The design goal (and for me, the subjective experience) is a more "story-like" arc, and a side-effect is that the Players don't feel "opposed" to the GM, even though the GM portrays all their opposition. In the end, the GM wants to see the characters succeed - "be a fan of the PCs", afer all - but success means inventing effective ways to surmount a rising arc of tension and overcome a Final Crisis.

  • edited June 2015
    So what does your "ideal" prep look like?
    In terms of process, I don't know. That's a big part of what I'd like to work on! I will probably brainstorm on that in a bit.

    In terms of output:
    - A world (or chunk of a world, whatever) I've created (at least in part).
    - Dynamic fictional systems -- politics, schemes, fate, the will of gods, etc. -- which push forward the stories I want to tell.
    - NPCs and NPC factions whose stories and fates I'm invested in.
    - Threats! Big deal scary shit! For me, that's often some sort of conspiracy.
    - Secrets. "Oh, if the players only knew X!" Hidden info I can hint at and tease with and allude to and build toward and eventually reveal.
    - Cool places, items or characters held in reserve to be shown off later.
    - One or more climactic turning points to look forward to.
    - All of the above meshes with player and character goals so they have good reasons to invest in my stuff and care about it.

    Two (a vs b) methods of achieving that last item:
    - (a) GM presents broad strokes of world and key factions. (b) GM also presents current crisis.
    - (a) Players jump on whatever parts of that inspire them, and establish their own positions on relevant conflicts and issues. (b) GM instructs players on what their characters should about; players simply invent reasons why.
    - (a) GM uses "what PCs care about" as springboard when cooking up content for the campaign. (b) Having already cooked up campaign content before meeting with players, and then instructed them to care about it, GM need only look to PCs as optional additional inspiration.
    How come?
    For the reasons I've described. I've played with folks who were there to discover the twists and turns of the story in play, especially the big turning points like climax and ending. This isn't hypothetical; I've been there. I've also been in the opposite situation, in games like Montsegur 1244, where you know before you play that the castle will fall and you'll be forced to renounce or die. My guess, based partially on the variety of responses Brand encountered, but mostly on my own play history and observations of who'd opt in to a "GM's story" game, is that more players would dig a hidden ending than otherwise. But it's just a guess.

    Leaving guessing aside, I can say this: as GM, I want to surprise the players with the ending. It's fun for me.

    I'm happy to see other systems for other GMs and players who look elsewhere for surprises, though! System ideas on that stuff are totally welcome in this thread as well. Just calling out the pros and cons as I see them.
  • edited June 2015
    How come?
    For the reasons I've described. I've played with folks who were there to discover the twists and turns of the story in play, especially the big turning points like climax and ending. This isn't hypothetical; I've been there.
    Cool, but I can tell you that one doesn't exclude another. I've been playing with fixed endings but still been able to do twists. Heck, a movie like The Usual Suspects have a known ending (the interrogation that they constantly jump back to) but still leaves a great twist. The player can know of the last scene, but they wont know the entry point to that scene and not the ending of that scene.

    [edit] The father in my family dinner example can be innocent, to give another example.
  • edited June 2015
    I don't know if this type of gamer is as common as Dave thinks (an alternative view is that these are people who have been conditioned to expect less from roleplaying games over years of exposure), but I can see how you might think that type of player would not be satisfied by a game where the ending is known from the start.

    (And throughout this whole thing I keep thinking of OSR-style gaming, which is yet another sort of "solution" to this whole conundrum. Is that relevant here at all, Dave?)
    Eh, that "conditioned to expect less" thing happens, sure, but for us to assume that that's the only reason audience players exist is simply us proactive types projecting. As a social phenomenon, roleplaying has always included varying reasons to be at the table, and "to be entertained" and "to participate only within comfortable structures" are clearly among them. Common? Well, I really have no idea, not having done any surveys. But I do get it. It makes sense to me. "My friends are really into doing this thing and they talk a ton, and I like it too but I don't want to talk a ton, so as long as I can talk a little in ways that matter, and as long as what they talk about continues to be entertaining, I'm down."

    As for OSR, no, I'm not seeing anything useful in the overlap between watchmaker/ref GM and auteur GM. Are you?
  • edited June 2015
    The player can know of the last scene, but they wont know the entry point to that scene and not the ending of that scene.
    Completely agreed! There's all sorts of fun uncertainty in there. I think most of it lies outside the sort of play I have in mind, but perhaps not, depending on the way it's presented. "The final scene will take place in the king's court, with the king present," for example, leaves open so many possibilities that I wouldn't consider it a spoiler. The PCs could be there to sway the current king to their cause, or they could be there as part of an armed revolt to depose an entirely new king, or anywhere in between -- we don't know!

    At the same time, I'm guessing that one of the reasons why the GM would share a final scene is to provide a sense of where the plot rails are, and I'm not sure if, "You'll be in the king's court, but it could be for any reason!" accomplishes that. Hmm. Is there a way to get both at once? I guess one example is to "spoil" on the large scale but "keep secret" the small scale. Grey Ranks kinda does this -- we know who wins World War II before we start playing, but we don't know what happens to the characters' immediate surroundings.
  • Dave,

    Excellent answers! I have lots more to say, but it will have to wait until the next I get to a computer.

    The short version is that your list of "items you like to prep" is almost entirely compatible with more player-reactive forms of prep, with the exception of:

    - One or more climactic turning points to look forward to.
    I'm not sure how to work around that one, but it might be a good prodding point to get some more detail. How do you do this, and what are the key points which make it enjoyable/desirable for you?

  • Ok, a quick follow-up:

    I agree with you about that kind of player (the "audience member with occasional participation") being something that exists. I don't know how often that happens, though - like you, I don't have the appropriate "research". My experience is that the players I've met who were like this either were a) conditioned to "like it" that way, or b) were well-suited to playing a "sidekick" character with no real depth. They could follow around the true protagonists and follow orders and say their one-liners or do their schtick, but didn't have any real impact on the plot.

    I don't think I've ever played at a table where *everyone* could be described that way. Is that common? I've always seen groups with at least one or two "active" players who were happy to lead and take a hand in events.

    The OSR thing is just a simple example of a style of play which can suit an auteur-like GM - someone with a really powerful creative vision of a world and its inhabitants, challenges for the players, conspiracies, complex history, mysterious NPCs, great secrets, and so forth. At the same time, however, that person (in a "traditional" OSR style, if such a thing exists) takes her hands of the steering altogether, leaving that to the players.

    She can still have her plots and events and mysteries, but she's committed to only revealing the parts the players encounter. In your list of "GM tasks/tools", it satisfies everything except the "climactic points to look forward to".

    I find it interesting that you can have a very committed GM with a very strong aesthetic vision who nevertheless is committed to a playstyle which has no elements of railroading or pre-set plot (or even an idea of whether the PCs will survive or turn out to be good guys or bad guys).

    I wonder if a similar breakdown of artistic responsibilities might suit you. How little of the "auteur GM" can we excise while preserving player agency as well as the creative goals of the GM? (Apocalypse World is another example of this - particularly if you don't use the "First Session" rules as written, for instance.) I bet there are lots of other configurations we haven't seen yet...
  • Hmm. I guess the difference isn't coming across in writing. Having done OSR-style prep, player-responsive prep, and "my GM story" prep, I can say that they feel entirely different and are satisfying in different ways for me.

    I think I already covered the experiential difference between organic and procedural or purpose-built prep.

    Maybe this will help clarify: there was a time when I did "my GM story"-type prep for non-GM-railroad games, but when I did that, I always had the urge to manage play so that things went a certain way. Fighting that urge was no fun, and giving in to it was not functional, so I taught myself to abandon that "things should go a certain way" vision altogether. Once I did that, prep lost its element of "Ooh I have a cool thing and I can't wait to show it off."

    It's not just about making a cool thing, and it's not just about showing it off, it's about the combo of both, including the anticipation of how it ought to come off in play and how the players should take it ("Ooh!" "Oh fuck!" Nooooo!!!"). And then, in play, to reinforce that element of prep, that has to actually happen. That's the part that's missing from every other play style, such as a sandbox where the players might say "Ooh!" or they might say "Who cares?" or "Looks too dangerous" and turn around.

    I imagine "this is how this should go" pops up at different stages for different GMs. During campaign conception, during session prep, during daydreaming and making up setting fiction, during play for sometime down the road, or during play for the very next scene or very next moment -- honestly, I think I experienced all of those at one point or another. So, a lot of the upside I see in a highly structured, pre-written RPG is that it removes a lot of the uncertainty which threatens the GM vision, thus allowing the GM to fully commit to a vision without fear of that investment being wasted.

    I would love to talk about player agency, but I think we should do it within this framework. Any sort of steering where the game goes should be off the table, in my opinion.
  • I don't know how well that could be codified, Dave, except as a Principle. This is why Vincent wrote "Look at everything through crosshairs" and I wrote "Don't be precious about your narrative elements - they are re-useable."

    It's a mental discipline thing.

  • Dave,

    No, I'm with you. I'm just trying to find out what exactly it is that excites you.

    I mean, if we're playing a game, and I find out that the PCs really hate [people of a certain faction], I can plan to introduce a villain from that faction, hoping for a certain response from the players: "Ooh! We hates this one even more!"

    Right? How is it different to do that on your own vs. in response to player decisions and opinions? Where's the line, in other words, and what makes it feel so different?

    The more "modern" approach is for the GM to still make that plan and prepare, etc, etc, but also retain the mental discipline to see what actually happens, and celebrate the surprise that can sometimes come with the players going, "Ooh! He seems TOO evil! He must be faking it. Let's cooperate with him."

    I don't really see the difference in all this, except, perhaps, the scope of how long-term you can plan ahead. Is it necessary to have a whole campaign planned out? Or just three sessions at a time? Can I just prepare cool scenes and twists for the next session?

    Or is it the desire to control (or at least perfectly anticipate) player reactions every time? Is that at the heart of this?
    Any sort of steering where the game goes should be off the table, in my opinion.
    I'm really not sure how one can plan ahead perfectly and aim towards a specific player response *without* controlling players' behaviour significantly.

    I'm also reading through Always/Never/Now, and curious if there are any parallels in there when it comes to this whole topic. (Have you read or played it, Dave?)

  • edited June 2015
    Tod, which part are you thinking would make a good Principle? (Also, I still intend to reply re: DayTrippers!)

    Paul, yeah, I've played A/N/N. I can certainly imagine a "my story" GM conceiving a game that way, where the players have to do certain scenes to progress to the next phase, but those scenes can be done in any order. Some of my own GM plots went that way when I felt obligated to be pseudo-sandboxy; now, though, I dunno if I'd bother.

    I don't think I can answer your latest questions without repeating myself. How about this: Imagine that you have a cool idea for how one scene leads into another. The players are supposed to get creeped out by this mystical door, but then step through it and encounter a heaven-like world, which they will be suspicious of because of how they got there. You're psyched for this weird contrast, but then you start playing through the creepy door scene, and the players are like, "Screw this creepy door, we have a better idea." If you're just as happy to roll with that, then cool, the type of game I'm talking about designing has no purpose for you. But if that's very disappointing for you, and makes you less able to enjoy coming up with such scene progressions in the future because you know they might not get played, then I bet you can see the appeal of playing in a different way. That is, telling players before the game, "Your job is not to come up with a better idea."

    I dunno how many players show up psyched to be audience, but I do know that tons of GMs show up wanting things to go a certain way.
  • edited June 2015
    Actually, wait, maybe this whole "prove how it does things other approaches can't do" topic is unnecessary. We can talk about what pre-plotted gaming can do without worrying about whether other approaches could do it too, right?
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