A bit of railroading theory

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  • edited April 2018
    Matt, agreed -- we really need to avoid getting to the point where the player's only two options are Break the Railroad or Act Like a Moron. My brainstorms above include some attempts to erect walls between the flow of play and "Now I know something I shouldn't." D'you see any value there?

    Eero, I agree that the railroading storyteller needs to bring something of value to the proceedings, and they really ought not to back themselves into corners where they need to plot-armor their villains. And I think your game design prescription makes some sense. At the same time, don't forget about the more passive end of the player spectrum! As much as you or I might not want to be merely occasionally-interacting audience members, I think a lot of players out there do enjoy that. Listening to a story being told about "you" (or at least "your guy/girl") is a fairly unique and distinctive pastime, I'd say. It can be a fun ride even with a storyteller who's merely okay (at least for a while :) ).
  • I thought that the storyteller I described, the one capable of performing on a chamber music level (as in, capable of entertaining friends at a get-together - I don't really know if this idiom works in English at all), is precisely that - "okay". I mean, have you seen the people who routinely try to GM roleplaying games? RPG geeks are, sadly, not a demographic known for being great storytellers. This is highly counterintuitive in that you'd expect people in a narrative hobby to be of artistic inclination, but that's cultural history for you - a hobby derived from wargaming has strong roots and inclinations that way, so you get plenty of trainspotters trying to be storytellers.

    If I seem frustrated with this, it is obviously because I am. I mean, nothing in particular forces people to play storytelling rpgs if they're bad at it - or even might not enjoy the storytelling aspect that much. There are all sorts of roleplaying games out there, and many of them don't require you to be any caliber of storyteller at all to play and referee them. The traditional monoculture forces people to perceive their hobby in a counterproductive way.

    Personal anecdote time: currently in my neck of the woods there are as far as I know five prospective gamemasters. Six if I count a teenaged nephew running a game for his friends. This list includes three people who are perceptibly sub-par as regards narrative arts - they're worse than a random pick out of the general population, if I'm any judge. At least one of them is this way in part because he's been counter-trained by traditional rpg practices to actually trip over himself, such that he's actually an actively more interesting storyteller when he's not playing a roleplaying game than when he is.

    The worst part? All three of those GM-hopefuls are very, very stuck on a railroading premise. Their vision of what roleplaying is about concerns strictly the notion that the GM should orchestrate an "adventure", meaning a story. This despite all of them having played regularly with me in all kinds of games that are predicated on entirely different precepts, so it's not like they lack examples of other ways of doing things.

    We're not talking "okay" here, I'll elaborate: we're talking people who have managed to knot themselves up sufficiently as storytellers to think that three sessions straight (12 hours total) of interviewing suspects goes for a murder mystery; who will unflinchingly introduce a Mary Sue NPC self-insert with a dream girlfriend as the major protagonist of a fantasy campaign; who consider "go into a place and meet a monster, then shoot it dead" to be the essence of Lovecraft.

    But of course all of this is subjective. You find people willing to be entertained by whatever caliber of GM, and I guess that works on some level - satisfaction does not need any further justification, who am I to question other people's fun. I do suspect, though, that part of why some groups find railroad games less than satisfying is simply because the GMs are trying a gaming form that they're not ready for. It is, as far as I can perceive, exactly like when somebody bad at poetry goes into a poetry jam, or somebody bad at singing goes to karaoke. It'd be fine if you're "okay", but at some level the lack of skill just becomes a hindrance.
  • Ouch.

    Fortunately, of the railroady GMs I've played with, many have been artistic types. Lots of theater folks. Some people who maybe couldn't write a great plot, but were stellar actors. I remember this one guy doing a fantastic Bob from Twin Peaks. And then I've played with a few railroders who had a really good sense of conducting a dramatic scene, building tension and conveying mood and whatnot. So, yeah, the really bad railroad GM might seem more of an exception to me, even if out there in the wild it might be the norm.

    I kinda figure that anyone who's willing to preside over 12 hrs of interrogations shouldn't be GMing any game, railroady or otherwise...
  • As an aside: chamber music, in English, is definitely the wrong idiom! In an orchestra, if the 8th 2nd violin isn't that good, or the 3rd violist, it's not going to impact the sound that much. But to play actual chamber music, like Beethoven violin sonatas or whatnot, you have to be really good. (And Mozart is known as a composer whose music gets harder to perform the better you understand it.) Chamber music is very exposed, because there's only a few other people up there with you. I... may have had some of my own pieces played by not-so-skillful string quartets. :-D
  • If you want to be surprised, then I don't think it's possible for the GM to be 100% infallible at hiding all their cards and still providing an entertaining narrative, so that leaves us two options:

    1) The players actively try to not know, notice, dwell on, or communicate things which might ruin surprises. A suspicion of betrayal willfully stops at, "Guys, I'm starting to wonder if we can trust this person..."

    2) Rules for noticing and concluding things, which can be used to effectively prohibit such when necessary. Examples:
    • Nerfing the heck out of Sense Motive-type abilities with extreme math (roll well against the lowest difficulty or fail)
    • Having an explicit "no one can read anyone" rule
    • Having a "test a theory" or "gather evidence" system which is useful in many situations but relies on circumstances the GM won't provide for their key plot characters
    • Having an "ask the GM questions" system, to which the GM can always answer "you're not sure" when they wish to sustain uncertainty

    That last one might actually be a pretty decent approach for railroad play in general...
    Dave, this is the brainstorming you're referring to? I think these are fine ideas, but the first one could easily cross into "Be a Moron" territory for me. This objection, however, also dovetails with the more recent comments about how railroading actually requires great virtuosity. My experiences with railroaders have definitely been closer to Eero's end of the spectrum than Dave's. :smile:

    I also think you meant "highest difficulty" in your first bullet point under 2). The problem there is that... what if the player gets lucky? It's also pretty clumsy to set DCs vengefully high like that. "I shoot him." "Yeah, well, he has an armor class of... a billion!" Makes it pretty obvious that person has plot armor. Same with a high Deception score or whatnot.

    For my money, the best idea here is the last one. I'm imagining something like AW's "Ask Questions" moves, but if there's something that would "ruin the plot," the GM can simply say, "You're not sure; ask something else." That way, the player still gets their 3 questions, or however many, but the GM can control access to conclusive information.
  • As an aside: chamber music, in English, is definitely the wrong idiom! In an orchestra, if the 8th 2nd violin isn't that good, or the 3rd violist, it's not going to impact the sound that much. But to play actual chamber music, like Beethoven violin sonatas or whatnot, you have to be really good. (And Mozart is known as a composer whose music gets harder to perform the better you understand it.) Chamber music is very exposed, because there's only a few other people up there with you. I... may have had some of my own pieces played by not-so-skillful string quartets. :-D
    Yeah, I was more thinking of "chamber music" in the sense of "music that gets played at a private saloon, particularly if you're old-fashioned bourgeoisie and need entertainment for your get-together". As in, music that's played in a private venue for a social gathering, often by a hobbyist musician who's also a guest. A typical example would be that you happen to play guitar as a hobby, and this comes up at a get-together, and you're asked to play - that's chamber music. (Or heck, maybe it's not and you'd use a completely different word in English for what I mean. I didn't particularly intent to connote difficulty by my word choice so much as a private social setting that doesn't require professional skill to participate.)

    I don't know, I guess I'm describing a social institution that either doesn't exist in America, or has long been superceded by watching television [grin].

    Karaoke is something we all understand as an example, yes? You can sing karaoke at a bar even if you're not like one of the top five musicians in your country. However, there is presumably a point at which you're so bad that it makes no sense for you to sing. The same goes for being an auteur GM in a roleplaying game, I think: if you want to hold all the balls, instead of playing something less autocratic, then it would sort of be good for your image if you didn't fumble them like a total idiot.
  • For what it's worth, I agree with this line of reasoning entirely. My experience with "railroading GMs" has been more or less in line with Eero's. I like the reframing he is making here, where a railroaded game is a venture of high difficulty requiring skill.

    However, in my experience, railroaded games are seen, more often, as the default for gaming, and the natural entry point for a new GM. I'm currently on a minor crusade trying to figure out whether this is a Law of Nature or just a preconception that's popular in the RPG world. I have a few friends who have either tried GMing or just playing RPGs for the first time recently, as adults. I'm trying to get an opportunity to chat with each one about this aspect of play.

    So far:

    * One friend, who has played a variety of games (mostly D&D, but I've also introduced her to Monsterhearts, Fiasco, Musette - a collaborative storytelling game, and The King is Dead), finally decided to run her own D&D. From her account of the game she's running, it's more-or-less a railroad. Not a "you can't do that!" kind of railroad, but "the adventure's over here, and if you do anything else, you'll be bored" kind of railroad - she knows how the story starts, what challenges the PCs will encounter, and how it will end, with some room for surprises along the way (@Adam_Dray, if you're reading, that's my best guess as to how Critical Role operates, incidentally - given the amount of canned material, handouts, prepared text, and so forth, and given the GM's own GM Tips videos, it sounds likely to me).

    * Another friend, who has never played RPGs, was invited to a D&D game with a bunch of other non-gamers recently. He had a blast, but he was convinced that everything was planned out and orchestrated by the GM. From his description of the game, that sounds fairly accurate, but, of course, he's not the most reliable witness.

    My own early attempts at roleplaying were all pretty railroady, too, for what it's worth.

    Is there something about a railroaded game which comes naturally to people trying to play RPGs (GMs, I mean)? My guess is "yes".



  • Deliverator,

    I agree with your assessment of Dave's suggested techniques.

    Eero and Deliverator,

    Eero's metaphor of "chamber music" makes sense to me; he's not talking about the difficulty of the written music, but about the context in which it's performed. It's a private context among friends of acquaintances, which no one spent huge money to buy a ticket to, isn't going to be reviewed in the newspapers, and so forth. No one is going to be fired if they can't play their part well, no one is going to ask for their money back, and no one is going to be panned publicly for a mistake they made.

    I think the metaphor is quite accurate, but, for modern American audiences, rather dated (as you say yourself, Eero). It's pretty rare for someone to "host a salon" and have their friends play string quartets at a party these days. :) (Too bad; I participated in such a culture in NYC for a while during my years there, and it was a real joy.)

    The idea of the GM running a strongly-led/guided/railroaded game for her friends, I think, definitely should rely on the idea that she is more skilled/competent/effective at providing entertainment in this way than her peers. (Incidentally, this is one aspect of "GMing for Hire" I often wonder about. I'd imagine that getting paid to GM would incentivize GMs to lean in the direction of a heavily controlled or scripted game. (I'm sure the same pressure exists for play which is consumed by audiences, like Livestreamed games online. I don't think everyone gives in to these pressures, mind you, but they seem like a natural phenomenon to me, and quite understandable.)
  • Tangentially, I'm pretty sure the term everybody is looking for is "parlour music."
  • I would say that the reason why it's so common is because of how many people's entrance to the hobby is trad games, which pay lip-service to the concept of telling a story in the books, but then don't actually give you any tools to do that, or any coherent methodology on how you should handle it, and the rest of the game lends itself really strongly to the whole "the GM is in charge, and the players are beholden to what they say" format that's a part of the trad game paradigm, so then when they see that there's supposed to be a story but they aren't told how to do it, they assume that the only option is to fall back on the precedent set by the rules of "the GM does it".
    Whereas in contrast, I've never seen anyone who started with storygames and other games that have structured GMing methodologies and structured tools for telling stories railroad, because they have consistent tools to use and consistent sources to learn from.
  • I've never seen anyone who started with storygames and other games that have structured GMing methodologies and structured tools for telling stories railroad, because they have consistent tools to use and consistent sources to learn from.
    That's a really interesting datapoint, thank you!

  • I suppose if you're coming at RPG's as something new, you'll come at it from the angle of what's familiar to you. So if your inspiration is reading fantasy novels, or watching films, or even listening to a podcast of an RPG where you only see the linear outcome and not all the other possible stories that could have taken place... then if you try to prepare to run an RPG, you will most likely start by trying to make up a story like the ones you have seen.

  • That's a really interesting datapoint, thank you!
    Of course! :)

  • if you try to prepare to run an RPG, you will most likely start by trying to make up a story like the ones you have seen.
    I think it's possible to approach this from another angle, too. For instance, my friend who started GMing for the first time was clearly modeling her "adventures" on her own roleplaying experiences. However, she's running D&D, and that game definitely requires some very real prep (for most situations you'd encounter in play). I think that, perhaps, from there a very natural progression takes place:

    * I am going to run a game. I need to have something prepared.
    * What do the players do in this game? I need a situation or adventure hook to start with.
    * Ok, but once that's done, what happens? I still need to be prepared.
    * I have to ask myself: what might they do next?
    * Now I have to prepare for the thing they might do next. Let's write that up...

    ...

    * Fast forward to playing, at the table: "Uh oh. They decided to do something else, but I've prepared this other thing. Let me see if I can't get them back on track, to interact with the thing I've prepared..."

    ...

    * Fast forward to planning the second session: "It was scary when they tried to do something different, and I risked losing my prep. This time, I'm going to build contingencies into my prep to make sure that they don't do something different - a wall, a scary monster, an impossible Difficulty Number, etc."

  • In either case, one thing becomes really clear:

    If that's not your desired outcome, then your game texts and rules procedures (or your friends' advice, if you're not reading the texts) are failing you.
  • I will add to Vivificient side : the players too can lack proper tools, when they don't find any bread of crumbs.
  • Yukamichi: yes, I think you're right about the terminology. Sorry for the tangent, I just found Eero's original use of the term "chamber music" not only confusing, but actively the opposite of what he meant.
    (Incidentally, this is one aspect of "GMing for Hire" I often wonder about. I'd imagine that getting paid to GM would incentivize GMs to lean in the direction of a heavily controlled or scripted game. (I'm sure the same pressure exists for play which is consumed by audiences, like Livestreamed games online. I don't think everyone gives in to these pressures, mind you, but they seem like a natural phenomenon to me, and quite understandable.)
    If I ever dip my toes back in those waters—unlikely given my mainline professional commitments, but it's something I'd enjoy doing again—I think I'd definitely have to pitch my services in a very particular way. I'd want to make it clear that you are paying for my skilled facilitation and deep rules knowledge, but not for my story-*writing* ability.
  • edited April 2018
    I would say that the reason why it's so common is because of how many people's entrance to the hobby is trad games, which pay lip-service to the concept of telling a story in the books, but then don't actually give you any tools to do that, or any coherent methodology on how you should handle it,
    Agreed, and another thing that plays into this is that the written medium is railroaded. I noticed, when I was late teens->twenty-something, that if I had an adventure in front of me and looked in the book from now and then, I was more inclined to play it in the order it was written, instead of adapting to the players.
  • edited April 2018
    However, after thinking about it for a bit, I came to conclude that there are several important artistic contributions that are clearly possible for character players in a railroaded game's framework. These are, I imagine, what actually successful railroad games focus on:
    * The character players have control of the pace of play: you can choose whether to skim a given scene/topic, or to stop and delve deeper. Just declare your intent to move on, or your intent to stay, and the GM will adapt.
    * The character players have control of the focus of play at any given time: by asking direct questions and paying active attention to certain facets of the on-going play situation, you can direct the GM to change their delivery.
    * The character players have control of their own acting, insofar as the expressive actions and reactions of their own characters go. This is explicitly not control over the events in a true railroad game, but rather control over the Color of how those events come to pass.
    * The interaction between the players. Roleplaying games are social games, and it's fun to spend time with other people.
    * Sense of Wonder. Experienced gamers forget about this one, but if you're new to roleplaying games, everything is exciting and the world that is forming in the players' heads is intriguing. Even older roleplayer gamers can get this, but in forms of twists, compelling stories that makes them question things.

    It's not all about player agency. It's sometimes fun to sit back, relax and and enjoy the ride. If player agency was really important for humans, none would ever read a book, see a play, or even watch a football game. It's important to make the players active, yes, but you can activate them by making them think. Make them fantasize. Create a story in their own head, or paint the world in their mind. You don't need them to be physically or verbally active; sometimes it's enough to make them do active listening.
  • "Sense of Wonder", in the way you've described it, I think, is an excellent point. Lots of people (myself included) like the idea of being immersed in a setting, image, or story that's outside of their control.

    "The interaction between the players," though, I don't understand. I thought we were listing ways players could enjoy or contribute to railroaded play (as opposed to other kinds of play). Is your description missing some detail? Otherwise, isn't "interaction between players" present in pretty much any kind of RPG play?
  • Probably not terribly germane to the main topic, but just to clarify:
    I also think you meant "highest difficulty" in your first bullet point under 2). The problem there is that... what if the player gets lucky? It's also pretty clumsy to set DCs vengefully high like that. "I shoot him." "Yeah, well, he has an armor class of... a billion!" Makes it pretty obvious that person has plot armor. Same with a high Deception score or whatnot.
    No, I did mean lowest difficulty. Like, even against the lowest allowable difficulty level, a very high roll is required for success. So against moderate difficulty, it's near-impossible, and against high difficult, it's literally impossible. So the badguy doesn't need a 1 billion AC, they just need a 13.

    It's basically a way to say, "You mostly can't Sense Motive," in a game with a particular mechanical framework.

    I wouldn't even bother to mention this option for abilities with obvious real-world difficulties, like jumping over a 10-foot gap or whatnot. But sensing motives is subjective and nebulous enough that it strikes me as plausible to have it be incredibly hard by default.

    "Difficulty is always +10" or "skill starts at -10" could be ways to do this in D&D.
  • Probably not terribly germane to the main topic, but just to clarify:
    I also think you meant "highest difficulty" in your first bullet point under 2). The problem there is that... what if the player gets lucky? It's also pretty clumsy to set DCs vengefully high like that. "I shoot him." "Yeah, well, he has an armor class of... a billion!" Makes it pretty obvious that person has plot armor. Same with a high Deception score or whatnot.
    No, I did mean lowest difficulty. Like, even against the lowest allowable difficulty level, a very high roll is required for success. So against moderate difficulty, it's near-impossible, and against high difficult, it's literally impossible. So the badguy doesn't need a 1 billion AC, they just need a 13.

    It's basically a way to say, "You mostly can't Sense Motive," in a game with a particular mechanical framework.

    I wouldn't even bother to mention this option for abilities with obvious real-world difficulties, like jumping over a 10-foot gap or whatnot. But sensing motives is subjective and nebulous enough that it strikes me as plausible to have it be incredibly hard by default.

    "Difficulty is always +10" or "skill starts at -10" could be ways to do this in D&D.
    OK, gotcha!! Personally I'd still find that awful, but if it was consistent from the outset of the game, marginally acceptable.
  • Survive is not the same as “benefit from” however.

    Right, but I’m setting it up to be OK if they can tell it’s a lie and OK if they can’t.

    It turned out that me acting out fake, bad lying didn’t benefit the game. It led the players down my chosen path too much. Instead me just trying to act the NPC the best I can makes it the most unpredictable whether or not they will believe the NPC or not, i.e. more interesting for me, higher “play to find out”-factor.

    Or to put it another way: Maybe GMs are excited when PCs roll Insight because they haven’t thought about the idea of just giving out the information. This seems closely related to the old problem of “I wrote a binder full of world lore that no one except me knows, so I get super excited when I get to exposit some of it.”

    I’ve thought both the same two things about them. That’s not me, though.

    Again, have removed Insight and Investigation. Interesting that the old Sherlock Holmes game didn’t have those skills. It just told you what you were finding / seeing / hearing and had you do your own thinking from there. Very fun & interesting. Some of the NPCs lied and some told the truth, some spoke more or less convincingly whereas others were pretty transparent. Love it

    I would say that the reason why it’s so common is because of how many people’s entrance to the hobby is trad games, which pay lip-service to the concept of telling a story in the books, but then don’t actually give you any tools to do that, or any coherent methodology on how you should handle it

    I agree, that was exactly the problem – and not only a lack of tools for realizing the pre-scripting that the GM book lauded so much, but that the tools that were there, and presented to players, actually made it harder to do that sort of RR.

    I think it’s possible to approach this from another angle, too. For instance, my friend who started GMing for the first time was clearly modeling her “adventures” on her own roleplaying experiences. [awesome, illuminating story elided]

    Yes! I’ve long maintained that you can’t learn to DM just by being a player, for exactly this reason. (DM:s can become better DM:s by also spending time as a player, but that’s another thing.)

    The game example texts in many RPG:s have the problem of eliding what the GM actually thinks and does in her prep.

    One day I’ll need to expand and translate Hur spelledaren kan tänka, an intro text I wrote that not only goes into what’s being said at the table, but also what’s going on inside the GM:s head as she reads her sandbox prep and what she decides to improvise vs what’s in the module text.

    This is also why I’m so happy about LMoP (and wish it’d go further and didn’t have the “chapters”). The first time I ran it my players didn’t go into the dungeon, they went to the village instead. And in the book it tells you that that is A-OK and then it becomes sandboxy from there. Tomb of Annihilation does goes further, it presents the locations alphabetically instead of time-linearly. That is awesome.

  • It's basically a way to say, "You mostly can't Sense Motive," in a game with a particular mechanical framework.
    It's been my experience as a player that this usually doesn't work well. Sure it's awesome once you get that one in a hundred success but usually it's like "you get an idea, the dice shoot you down, rinse repeat". Haven't tried it as GM
  • "you get an idea, the dice shoot you down, rinse repeat"
    Yeah, I'd much prefer to get my "no, you can't do that" straight from the GM's arbitration of the fiction, freeform-style, than via weird rules. But I dunno if I'm the majority there.

    If I'm GMing, it probably goes like this:
    "That was shady! Guys, I don't trust NPC 3. Maybe we should leave town in the middle of the night instead of letting him tag along with us."

    "It might have been shady... but it might have been exactly what he said it was, right? You can ditch him if you want, but remember, he's been pretty useful."

    "I'm going to watch him carefully when I ask him what he's been up to."

    "He just tells you what he said before. He seems sincere."
    When "ask me if he seems sincere" is the whole system, this is a lot easier.

    Maybe the key to making a surprise NPC betrayal work is for the GM to come up with a really good reason for it, such that it'll make sense once revealed, and then not even hint at it at all before it happens.
  • 'He seems sincere' is a really interesting phrase.

    It seems to me that there's some danger for misinterpretation: is that the GM talking to the player about the game, or the GM describing the fiction to the character?
  • One of the tricks I've found to making an Illusionist campaign work is to get player buy-in for a campaign frame that makes it easier. Specifically, a setup where the PC's answer to some kind of authority and have a job to do makes it much easier. I realize that some groups of players are really averse to this, but it makes things a whole lot easier.

    For example, right now I'm running a Trail of Cthulhu game where the PC's are all FBI agents in the early days of the Bureau, so they've already taken the bit between their teeth, so to speak. They're already committed to taking on the next case they're assigned by their boss, investigating it using FBI techniques, and seeing justice done. Sure, they may go off the reservation a little bit, but they're unlikely to either go full murderhobo or decide to go off in an entirely new direction, abandoning the case.

    If they start following clues in the "wrong" direction, then either I forge a new chain of evidence such that this isn't the wrong direction after all, or just let it be a red herring. After all, if you're an FBI Agent digging around in 1930's Chicago, you're going to find a lot of rottenness besides the crime you're investigating, and you have to decide whether to pursue it or let it go.
  • 'He seems sincere' is a really interesting phrase.

    It seems to me that there's some danger for misinterpretation: is that the GM talking to the player about the game, or the GM describing the fiction to the character?
    I don't understand how it could be the former. For that, I'd have to say, "Paul, that was the truth."

    "This fictional character seems a certain way," is clearly about in-fiction info, IMO.
  • I think that if you're consistent in presenting fiction that way, it would work fine, once your players are used to it.

    "He just tells you what he said before. He seems sincere."
    I've taken statements like these as being "out-of-character" before, and seen others do so, as well. It can easily be interpreted as the GM telling the players: "There's nothing more to learn here, and he's not lying to you."

    Once you've established that, for instance, you never say whether an NPC is lying or telling the truth without a successful check (or whatever), then that ambiguity disappears, though. It just depends if you're the kind of GM who uses the word "seems" in a very strict and technical sense, or by habit, in narration, all the time. :)
  • edited April 2018
    Super minor aside between people who generally do agree with each other:
    "It might have been shady... but it might have been exactly what he said it was, right? You can ditch him if you want, but remember, he's been pretty useful."
    I got loud boos the ONE time I tried saying something like that. I am not allowed to give advice and esp not re the shadeworthiness of various NPC:s. I'd just let them leave town in the middle of the night if that's what they agreed on without saying anything.

    Edit because we crossposted:
    I've taken statements like these as being "out-of-character" before, and seen others do so, as well. It can easily be interpreted as the GM telling the players: "There's nothing more to learn here, and he's not lying to you."
    Yes this
  • edited April 2018
    I got loud boos the ONE time I tried saying something like that. I am not allowed to give advice and esp not re the shadeworthiness of various NPC:s.
    Yeah, I do get that player preference. If that's what the group wants, no prob, I can GM with zero advice. Usually my advice is pretty constructive, though, so my groups are happy to have it. Mostly I'm just reminding them of stuff they knew but have forgotten or the like. "You don't actually have any proof that this NPC is shady," tends to just get lumped in with, "Remember you said you wanted to try putting the glowy thing on the altar?" And sometimes the NPC is shady and sometimes they're not; and sometimes the glowy thing interacts with the altar and sometimes it doesn't.

    I guess my technique is less a solution to NPC betrayal issues and more just an entire style of GMing...
    I've taken statements like these as being "out-of-character" before, and seen others do so, as well. It can easily be interpreted as the GM telling the players: "There's nothing more to learn here, and he's not lying to you."
    I'd way rather say, "There's nothing more to learn here, and he's not lying to you." I think there are some major downsides of going through the fiction instead. Rant on this topic edited out for now.
  • I totally agree with that. It's just a basic English communication thing: Is "he seems sincere" a fiction statement or a statement of fact about the game? "Seems" suggests that it's fiction, but not everyone is 100% consistent with using it that way.

    For instance, in real life:

    You say, "Hey, can you get the paper to me by Monday morning?"

    I say, "Yeah, that seems good."

    You'll probably be surprised and disappointed if you don't get it on Monday morning - a similar thing is happening with the example.

    Some people are more direct and some people less. (With some GMs, "He seems sincere", with a concerned frown, could be practically begging you to just move on, already.)

    No biggie. If in doubt, just ask ("You mean my character can't tell for sure, right?").
  • "He seems sincere" uses the same technique as "You don't notice any traps here." That's all.
  • edited April 2018
    "I can neither confirm nor deny..." except with implicit commentary on the character's ability to accurately perceive reality.

    Actually, in a way it's kind of weird - in the absence of mechanical justification, it's kind of like a GM steps into the player's shoes to describe their character's perception/opinion of the world, rather than describing things they can observe and letting the player describe their conclusions.
  • edited April 2018
    a GM steps into the player's shoes to describe their character's perception/opinion of the world, rather than describing things they can observe and letting the player describe their conclusions.
    The latter is my Plan A and the former is my Plan B. I find there are a lot of occasions where Plan B is called for. Mostly just because Plan A has to navigate between being insufficiently thorough and boringly slow.

    My favorite design solution is to arm the players with useful questions to ask, which can usually be answered succinctly.
  • Yeah! To clarify, I don't think that's bad - far from it. I do think it's an indication that the traditional concept of the player/GM divide is less rigid than it's often presented as.
  • edited April 2018
    "He seems sincere" uses the same technique as "You don't notice any traps here." That's all.
    Applying a predicate isn't the same as scalarly negating an attempted action. A polar negation would give you a stronger equivalency case: "you notice that there aren't any traps here".
    Or, conversely, turn the sincerity predicate application into a scalar negation too: "you can't tell if he's lying".

    For me, all six of those statements ([lie insight, trap investigation] × [predicate application, polar negation, scalar negation]) have the problem that they (at least partially) instruct the player how they reach and interpret the primary sensory stimuli their characters observe. Whether or not any predicate copulae are (a la E-prime) softened into "seems to be".

    My ideal is instead to try to stick to what they hear, smell, see, touch. "This is what he says", "this is what you see".
  • Oh, manixur made the same point. That's exactly it, manixur, and I try to not do that. If I say things like that (which happens), I messed up. Dave, you're spot on about the balancing act between sloppiness (risk of missing something) and boringness. I try to stick to plan A and strike the balance but more often err on the side of sloppiness.
  • 2097, what's so bad about the GM describing something in terms of what it seems like? If my character is a cop and he's interviewing a suspect, is it really necessary for the GM to come up with a bunch of telling details and hope that I understand them and interpret them correctly? What if I actually am a cop in real life, and interpret those details completely differently than the GM meant it? To take this a step further, what if my character is a wizard investigating another wizard's laboratory?
  • edited April 2018
    In cases like that, why would you say "seems" at all? When a character can be confident that they're understanding things accurately, isn't it better to say so outright? That is, if we're trusting the character to interpret a suspect's tells accurately, we can just say "they're lying."
  • Now this has reeeally drifted from railroading theory since my style is about not having as many breadcrumbs.
    2097, what's so bad about the GM describing something in terms of what it seems like?
    Five reasons:

    1. This is something some of my players have requested and I'm happy to oblige because I prefer that style too.

    2. I currently believe that it creates a stronger sense of presence and (in some of the many senses of this extremely overloaded polyseme) "immersion".

    3. I also enjoy that it lessens the social burden / responsibility on the DM. Less of a "But you said it was safe!" factor. I don't want to kill characters. That's the game's job.

    4. It's also a level of subjectivity that I (I have some neuropsychiatric issues) find fatiguing. I can determine what something "seems to be" but it's exhausting. Saying plainly what you see and being quiet about what you don't see is easier.
    What if I actually am a cop in real life, and interpret those details completely differently than the GM meant it?
    5. That is awesome. But that's also why I want to move away from adding in fake detail, fake tells and instead just straight up lie when the NPC lies. If they can figure it out from proof, other facts that they've gathered, or my tells, that's awesome. If they can't, if they're deceived, that's also awesome.
  • edited April 2018
    5. That is awesome. But that's also why I want to move away from adding in fake detail, fake tells and instead just straight up lie when the NPC lies. If they can figure it out from proof, other facts that they've gathered, or my tells, that's awesome. If they can't, if they're deceived, that's also awesome.
    So just so we're clear, you're against people playing characters who are better at detecting lies than their players? That's fine -- though not to my taste -- but it needs to be understood as a consequence of this process.
  • you’re against people playing characters who are better at detecting lies than their players

    That’s a consequence of the subtractive model, yes.

  • edited April 2018
    I quite enjoy specifying levels of confidence. As GM or player, I don't like being trapped into a "you know for 100% sure"/"you have no idea" dichotomy. In a lifelike RPG, I prefer to include all the subtleties of life. In my experience, this is only a problem when the GM-player communication fails, not when the characters simply don't have perfect information. "Seems" tends to work fine for me, though I acknowledge that "as far as you can tell" and "to the best of your knowledge" are often better, and I use them frequently.

    If a character is sure, though, then I will certainly tell them so.

    I've actually considered designing an investigation system with "uncertainty" as an explicit feature. Something like:
    To attempt a task with unknown variables, roll 3 dice:
    • 2d4 plus your relevant skills/stats. This is the part of the attempt you have complete knowledge of.
    • 1 die whose size corresponds to the degree of uncertainty of the attempt. The more uncertainty, the bigger the die:
      • No die: Rote task, no uncertainty beyond the character's own performance
      • d4: Basically known, but can't 100% account for all factors/variables
      • d6: Character knows that they definitely don't know everything
      • d10: Character has only the barest guess as to what they're dealing with
      • d20: Blind shot in the dark
    Depending on whether this is an "emergent truth" game or a "GM preps the truth" game, setting target numbers and determining success/failure/learning would be handled differently. I haven't nailed that down, which is why I haven't actually employed this system. Still, I do like the way the die size communicates the situation to the player.
  • I'm thinking about the times I've seen Dave run Delve, and it occurs to me that generally speaking there are several possible "vectors" of approach to dealing with whatever the problem is. Which is important to this discussion because it means that some lack of clarity over whether one particular NPC is being completely forthcoming or not doesn't derail the game.

    Much like with the ice-moon-doom scenario in the other thread, I think the broader issue here is avoiding play that is information-poor and unclear in its overall direction. I've definitely seen games bog down into debate over whether to trust one particular NPC over another. But it's less likely to happen if we have other avenues to explore, i.e., we aren't in a railroad and don't perceive ourselves to be.
  • Great point, Matt.

    For the record, I think the debate about whether player skill or character skill matters is a red herring here. For me, it's all about whether we are able to communicate clearly at the table about what we're doing.

    Playing with Dave is great, because if he says "he seems sincere", and I'm not sure which it is, I can (and do) just ask him, "Hey, you mean that my character can't fully tell, but his body language suggests he's telling the truth, right?" And Dave, in turn, tells me whether I'm right or wrong, with no weird head games or discussions about what this all means. (For contrast, I've seen GMs answer that kind of question with, "No metagaming!", or, perhaps, even, "Well, what do YOU think?", and a mysterious smile.) Dave handles this really well, though, and it's not hard to answer.

    After that brief exchange, everything's clear and we can continue playing (and likely never have to have that little conversation again).

    I'm really pretty OK with any and all approaches to this when playing, so long as the actual rule or procedure is clear (e.g. Sandra's "this is what you get, do your best" subtractive model).

    The problem with railroading (coming back to the original topic), for me, is that the clear avenue of communication gets broken or erased by an insistence on magical and mysterious processes (e.g. "the GM isn't allowed to say how she runs the game, because that would ruin the illusion" - you can see pretty clearly how and why that would ruin the interaction I just described above, forcing players to lie more and more as it comes up, and, as a result, turn into a point of tension in the group - and, perhaps, eventually, a true-to-life argument and bad feelings).
  • I've seen GMs answer that kind of question with, "No metagaming!", or, perhaps, even, "Well, what do YOU think?", and a mysterious smile.
    For a while, my main high school group had a really strong wish that our acting and describing could do the entire job, and we maintained a preference to try our best to nail that, as opposed to giving ourselves easy outs like table-talk or metagaming. Pure acting and describing did succeed often enough! And that made for a very nice flow state -- kinda trance-like.

    This is still my preference when it's achievable. I've just also learned how to deal when it isn't. :)
  • In my experience, being willing to have those conversations when they're needed is what helps a group get to functional play of that sort.

    Kind of like an X-card, in a way - in ideal play, you don't ever use it.
  • edited August 2018
    Im becoming an expert at arriving to an interesting thread late and dropping an irrelevant reply, but here goes:

    Where is the fun in being a GM if not railroading? Its a creative outlet similar to being both the writer and the director of a theatrical play, I guess.

    From my point of view, GMing an improvised game - a no /low prep game - removes a major part of the incentive to GM, and replaces it with a task that requires order of magnitude more skill, and inflicts an order of magnitude more performance anxiety.

    Im not saying GMing an improv game cant be fun, but the skill and mindset required to do such a good job of it that everybody at the table had a great time, including the GM.... I mean, no wonder those games are the niche of the niche.
  • That's an interesting point of view.

    My perspective is quite the opposite: I find GMing in a heavy-handed style where I'm expected to bring forth the plot tiring, unrewarding, and full of challenges.

    On the other hand, being the GM in a game where the design gives us all tools to push the story forward and contribute freely to play is light and easy, in comparison.

    Just as importantly, when there is no need to "railroad" or "steer", the whole thing becomes so much less fraught in term of social dynamics. This is tremendously relaxing, a relief: it means there's a whole slew of things I don't need to worry about anymore and I can just PLAY.
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