Viable storytelling without railroading?

So I want to try to set up a "probable story arch" to get the best bang for my storytelling buck for an upcoming campaign. I enjoy the resonance that comes with a satisfying story that not only has a beginning, middle, and end, but also hits on the Jungian archetypes found in the Hero's Journey or Harmon Circles (#103 and #104 is where it gets into the juicy details, so read a few in the series).

The problem is that I also don't want to railroad players.

One way I think I might be able to solve this is to prep in such a way that creates an optimal path through "my" story, but gives players complete agency to veer off the path as much as they want. And then I have to be strong and not use any illusionist techniques to guide them back onto the path, trusting in my prep and hoping they come back. And, well, if they don't, that has to be okay.

Here are my notes for an introductory adventure for D&D 5e, incorporating Harmon Circles.

Troll Troubles

A troll moves into the area, causing trouble, stealing livestock. Turns out that he's not that vicious, and he's not the real problem.

1. Introduce the village of Wraithwalk. Life is good. Establish PCs' gentle foibles. Make the players love the village and its residents.

2. Livestock is going missing. Why? Is it undead? Is the spiritcircle broken? Adon Elkwarden's oldest daughter goes missing.

3. The Elders ask the PCs to walk the spiritcircle around the village (4.4 miles) and check it for missing stones. Discover huge footprints and sheep guts and bones leading out into the wilderness.

4. Track them? It's getting dark. It's heading into the deathcrags, known for being haunted. Feel like you're being watched, followed (unbound ancestor spirits!).

5. Encounter the troll. It's a family of trolls. They're friendly-ish, though scared and volatile. They've killed a lot of the bad undead. Fight or talk, PCs' choice.

6. But the troll didn't take the young woman! Who did? There are screams coming from near the village...

7. On the way back, they run into the young woman, controlled by a scary possession demon. She's kidnapped Beraj Griffonborn (age 8) from the village. The trolls might help?

8. They return to the village. The PCs' gentle foibles are now extra endearing. The minor problems with NPCs are temporarily overcome. Maybe they introduce the troll. Does the village accept it?

Note the 1-8 are octants of the Harmon Circles.

Now, I totally grant that, at any point, the PCs might do something I did not expect, ignore something I did not expect them to ignore, and go do something else. I've tried to frame things as plot hooks that are either interesting (and potentially full of adventure) or responsibilities (and there are consequences for ignoring them). Most likely, when the village council asks you to do something, you do it. But maybe you don't.

In #4, I am assuming that the party will try to track the footprints and viscera leading to the sheep murderer. This is what D&D parties always do. However, I cannot force it. Am I "forcing" it by making it the most obvious path forward? Is this railroading? I think I am not too worried about it. If the party comes up with another idea or decides to go home and ignore their task, I guess I'd play my world-characters properly: The trolls continue to steal sheep and maybe eventually scare a farmer. Maybe the village rounds up a posse to go deal with the trolls. Of course, killing the trolls doesn't solve the kidnapping problem, because the trolls didn't kidnap any people; the demon did.

#7 is a little Force-y? To me, it's an event that happens that night. If the PCs are in the village that night, then maybe they don't hear it and the demon-possessed woman gets away with kidnapping Beraj. Over time, she kidnaps more people. Maybe the PCs patrol the perimeter of the village circle and encounter her later. This isn't me using Force to guide them back to my plot. This is me playing my world-characters.

I think there's a pretty big likelihood of my story going the way I planned, yet there's room for players to do something different.

Thoughts?
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Comments

  • Now lurkers don’t be shocked at me being super harsh here. This is me talking to a friend, I wouldn’t frame advice like this to someone I didn’t know.

    Speaking to you and only to you, Adam, with your success with sandbox games and with our shared values — this really does sound iffy.

    • Just jaunting around in a happy village (named Wraith-walk?! THE BEASTS CALL HIM BROTHER – THE GHOST WHO WAAALKS) is something that sometimes players can play along with. But who knows.
    • Why would the PCs do the menial task of just checking for missing stones?
    • Why are they even on the elder’s side?
    • What if they don’t track them? At night?
    • What if they die vs the trolls?
    • How can they hear the screams + the timing of this feels suuuper convenient, like a force technique
    • (Not an RR issue but so sick of kids in peril. I was so looking forward to Cthulhu Dark but the first story was a kids in peril story and we just played one in the Corsairs of the Great Sea box. Veins also has that and Curse of Strahd has it and like I can’t. Beraj is a beautiful name though.)

    Also not sure you’re hitting the octants. 4 search for it should be the troll meeting, 5 should be really finding the demon-possessed villager, 6 should be being victorious regarding the possession, 7 should be the trip home etc etc.

    Like, if you want to play Harmon circles, beyond just the way that any “we met in a tavern, rolled the rumor table, went to the dungeon, encountered amazing magic, survived at a cost, returned home with GLODGLODGLOD” tends to hit at least a couple of the beats, in order… if they survive – if you want to play Harmon circles use a game set up for it. Chuubo’s or TSoY or MHR or CrimeWorld

    Rule number one of D&D – never prep story

    What I would do with the very interesting and appealing concepts you do have here (I was only kidding about the name earlier hope that was OK I just really love that song):

    1. the places. Great. moody & unique & still juuuust vanilla enough to be a good baseline to work with & just great
    2. randomize the possessed villager’s behavior a bit. i.e. put her on the encounter table & also stick her in a location for when she’s not out & about. so that her location and when or whether she shows up is more unplanned.
    3. put the village and surrounding wilderness in a little sandbox

    Let me start over:

    What you are doing is prepping a linear story.

    Trying to keep it that while making it look like it’s not that, is just wasted effort. If you want to railroad, get participation & buyin & rock on.

    Trying to change it from being that into a non-linear non-story setup that’s the seed for an emergent story is worth your effort.

  • Sandra is right. The best thing to do is to create a situation to which the PCs must respond. You can do a little aggressive scene-framing once they decide upon a course of action, but generally you want to avoid planning "beats" of a story that assume particular choices or particular decisions.

    The first thing you might want PCs to think about when they're creating their characters is how they're connected to this village full of endearing characters, if they are at all. But if you're playing a 5th edition game with backgrounds and so forth, encouraging them to connect their backstories to the village is a good idea. This is going to be their Shire, right?

    Then begin play with things happening. Not "the elders ask you to go investigate." Your uncle's sheep have been going missing, what do you do? The Elkwarden girl is wild and maybe getting into things she shouldn't, hanging out with the old hedge witch who lives near the spirit stone circle. Her dad is worried and asks a PC he might trust for help. What do you do? There's bound to be an investigation; when the players start asking questions, Knowledge rolls or Nature rolls or whatever can let you point to the trolls, or the spirits, or whatever. If PCs "refuse the call," you escalate--more sheep disappear, someone spots a troll, the girl goes missing, until the PCs step over the threshold and start facing their trials.

    Start with a simple, strong situation and let the PCs act within it. Allow consequences of those actions to shape what happens next. You'll get a story out of it.
  • This is going to be their Shire, right?
    I love that♥
    Start with a simple, strong situation and let the PCs act within it. Allow consequences of those actions to shape what happens next. You'll get a story out of it.
    Yes, seeds&petals theory
  • Consider stealing the character/village generation stuff from Beyond the Wall; The game itself is kinda bog standard trying-to-do-something-different-with-D&D-but-it's-basically-still-D&D stuff, but the chargen/village creation invests the characters in the village because they're all FROM there and know stuff about it already.

    Heck, if everyone GREW UP here, it solves a lot of problems all by itself.

    I think a lot of Sandra's stuff is nitpicky ("What if they die to the trolls?" Then the game is over, don't introduce death as a stake if you're not willing to stake it.) but she's spot on with "What if they decide it's DARK and they don't want to track something right now?" Yeah, a life is at stake, but some people are pretty cautious. Screams being heard, likewise, is tricky. Easier to maybe see something burning back there if it's still dark, and also, fires can burn for a while so it makes more sense to step out of a cave and be all "Uh oh, something's on fire (and could have been for a while)" vs. "Hey, someone is screaming all of a sudden."


  • I left out a bit of setup that might help. Maybe not!

    The PCs are all made from a list of characters who live in the village. These are not outsiders. They are all from one of the five big families.

    The circle around the village is a ritual the village casts every so often to keep the undead out. Everyone in the village is part of keeping the circle intact.


    @2097,

    Harsh is fine. I expected this to be controversial.

    Realize though that this is me experimenting with forms. I _know_ how to railroad. I know specific techniques to make sure I'm nowhere near a railroad. I see this as something in between, where player agency matters but where I have a story that might happens.


    Your questions:

    "Why would the PCs do the menial task of just checking for missing stones?" Why would anyone? They are young members of the village with skills other people don't have.

    "Why are they even on the elder’s side?" Well, maybe they're not. But most likely, they are, as the character generation creates characters who are members of this village, who are members of these families, and who have ties to people in the village.

    But can they ignore the elders? Sure. That's an interesting choice with perils all of its own. At worst, it'd be shunning from the village, meaning no protections. This isn't a standard D&D world where they can just go to another village. It's more like 1100 AD Germany where they probably have nowhere else to go, as no one trusts a stranger, except here there really aren't large cities (catastrophe-dragons destroy them).

    "What if they don’t track them? At night?" More sheep die.

    "What if they die vs the trolls?" They make up new characters in the village and probably morn the loss of a bunch of their own, young village friends.

    "How can they hear the screams + the timing of this feels suuuper convenient, like a force technique."

    I'm on the fence about this one. It is super convenient, but I've prepped where and when it happens and I won't change where and when it's noticeable. It's an event.

    I mean, it's super convenient that a troll took a sheep, leading to adventure, too, right?


    Your suggestion to "randomize the possessed villager’s behavior a bit":

    Why? This does not increase or decrease player agency. Do you mean the villager's behavior pre-possession or post-possession? Post-, they're under the control of a demon and they're basically my monster. Why randomize that?
  • What's seeds & petals theory?
  • edited April 2018
    Adam,

    Your degree of prep doesn't sound onerous, your stated flexibility limits how wrong things could go activity-wise, and I agree with you that there's a decent likelihood that your story goes as planned.

    One thing I would suggest is that you have some idea of the world and people and time and place beyond your plot. So if the players do wander away from your plot, they don't just encounter some sort of boring void. And you'll have confidence in that, and thus be less tempted to railroad (and perhaps more interested in their digressions).

    Another thing I would suggest is, during character creation, make sure everyone makes characters who would do # 3 and # 4. I mean, if they don't then they don't, but I assume you don't want to create some sort of party which has no interest in looking after their village or respecting the suggestions of its elders. Maybe include some "Why have you chosen to stay in this village?" and "What debt do you owe the elders?" type questions before play?

    Not that Bill and Sandra's suggestions wouldn't also work, but I know you've played like that aplenty, so I'd say go ahead and try the new approach and see how it goes. If you really do refuse to railroad, and you play your situation-provoking NPCs authentically, then I think your odds of achieving beginning-middle-end, heroic journey structure aren't much better than they would be with the emergent "story now" approach. But who knows? Give it a shot! I'd be especially interested to see, if you tried it more than once with different players, how it'd vary.

    In the end, I suspect the success or failure of this approach might reside largely in how you feel about it -- I doubt it'll make much difference on the players' end.

    Ps,
    -Dave
  • Okay, I get that there's a big difference between "here's a series of problems and what you do is up to you" and "here's a problem and the Elders have asked you to look into it."

    It's not that big a difference, though.

    I feel like, if the characters come to that conclusion before the elders ask them, great! But eventually, the elders are gonna ask the low-level characters to go check things out. Someone has to do this menial task of checking the spirit circle, and they'd naturally ask someone to go inspect it.

    I feel like you've missed that I said, "Now, I totally grant that, at any point, the PCs might do something I did not expect, ignore something I did not expect them to ignore, and go do something else."

    I am not planning to railroad at all. I can write a story and then watch it get torn up. I am fine with that. However, I have prepared some beats. If the beats fall naturally into place, great. If they do something else, that's fine by me. If the beats still work, great. If they don't, I'll treat it like a sandbox.

    I think you're seeing story prep as railroading. It could lead to railroading, if I pushed characters back into the story prep through GM Force, but I explicitly said I won't do that.

    Do you contend that story prep that you're willing to throw away is railroading?
  • edited April 2018
    You know what'd be a fascinating experiment? To run this same plot with the exact same Plan A (hope they follow your story) but the exact opposite Plan B. That is:

    - Get permission for illusionism
    - Try not to railroad at all
    - If you have to push them back into your plot do so
    - Do any pushing artfully, e.g. with coincidence rather than coercion

    Then look at the stories and play experiences that result, and compare them to the "no railroading" approach.

    Heck, throw in the emergent "story now" approach for a third comparison!

    I wonder if anyone would come to a mini-con where it's the same scenario approached with different GM techniques... Maybe if it's an absolutely killer scenario...
  • edited April 2018
    Realize though that this is me experimenting with forms.

    Understood!

    “What if they die vs the trolls?” They make up new characters in the village and probably morn the loss of a bunch of their own, young village friends.

    While Airk is right that my post could’ve needed an editing pass, this one question was a pillar of my case. If they die then forget, your Harmon Circles. Which can be good, like, there is a well-known movie from the early sixties that’s very powerful because of something like that [eliding the name b/c it’s a big spoilerific twist in the film], but it was powerful because it broke story convention.

    And also. If you don’t care about the circles [yay! eff them!] then you could cut this whole scenario loose from the beats already now. It has led you to create some great places and some good characters. I.o.w. you have gotten leverage of the circle beats already, now erase them from your mind and turning this from a linear setup into a traditional module.

    I’m on the fence about [hearing the screams]. It is super convenient, but I’ve prepped where and when it happens and I won’t change where and when it’s noticeable. It’s an event.

    I mean, it’s super convenient that a troll took a sheep, leading to adventure, too, right?

    Starting an adventure right after one weird event happens is usually an easier buy than “convenient, story-esque timing” after a big confrontation.

    [Randomizing the possessed villager’s behavior] does not increase or decrease player agency. Do you mean the villager’s behavior pre-possession or post-possession? Post-, they’re under the control of a demon and they’re basically my monster. Why randomize that?

    I mean post. The reason to do it is to decrease DM agency.

    What’s seeds & petals theory?

    It’s here. (Edit: Whoops, had the wrong link earlier!) It’s my favorite of all the things I’ve ever written about stories, arc and narration at the D&D table. Gonna keep linking to it a lot.

    I feel like you’ve missed that I said, “Now, I totally grant that, at any point, the PCs might do something I did not expect, ignore something I did not expect them to ignore, and go do something else.”

    We’ve talked recently on RPG adventures arranged on a timeline can need a bit of a different mindset to make them good and one of the techniques some of us had had some success with was randomizing monsters more and/or retooling “events”.

    Again, the fact that you’re talking about prepping a story and prepping events in the service of story.
    The whole storyteller-chops, incorporating Harmon Circles is what’s make this setup very shaky.

    Without them, there would still be bad parts (the convenient scream + the convenient sheepnapping). (And some very good parts – you make a good adventure writer in that you can make evocative places and interesting conflicts. CW politics: Also the kidnapped young woman turns demonic/untrustworthy plays to tropes I have a very hard time with – basically the idea of female villains as seductive or falsely innocent or manipulative or untrustworthy or satanic hits on something very old & common in RPG:s. There’s a rare male example in one of my favorite missions in the board game version of Castle Ravenloft but traditionally female NPCs have had three roles: saveable macguffins, fridgeable reaction-getters, or villains playing on themes of deception (or, like in this one, all three).)

    I think you’re seeing story prep as railroading. It could lead to railroading, if I pushed characters back into the story prep through GM Force, but I explicitly said I won’t do that.

    Do you contend that story prep that you’re willing to throw away is railroading?

    I didn’t call it railroading in my posts or attach a positive or negative value to railroading. Also b/c not super hot on semantics arguments (“if behaviour X happens to receive the name/label Y then it’s bad but if it can skirt the definition of label Y then it’s good”).

    I wrote about some of the problems with linearly arranged D&D scenes – modules written on a timeline – as compared to arranged spatially / random-tablely – the traditional map+key+rolltables setup.

    And, yes, that I think doing story prep, especially prepping events, can sometimes be a bad idea (for D&D – especially an intro scenario – I’m a strong believer that new/learning DMs need sandbox – they need the sandbox chops anyway if they’re gonna run linearly arranged modules, and if they have sandbox chops they’re not gonna need linearly arranged modules anyway). Willingness to throw it away or not.

  • edited April 2018
    My only real concern is the assumption that the players love the village and its inhabitants. My long experience with players is that they will rail against any sort of 'see how nice this place is', whether by becoming suspicious that it is all too perfect or deciding that their cynical hard-bitten soopa-killa warriors hate everything peaceful and friendly.

    I think if you can do the groundwork and engage the players in the village (mini pre-scenario games are great for this) then the rest should be reasonable. Most players will see a scenario hook and recognise it for what it is, they will then have to decide whether to follow it and engage with the GM's scenario or deliberately ignore it. If they do the latter then you may want to invest in new players.

    Befriending the trolls might take a bit more work - perhaps allow the scouting PCs to see them in a peaceful domestic scene to establish that 'trolls are people too' before giving an opportunity for any fighting.

    To my eyes it doesn't look too railroad as written, but obviously presentation on the day is everything. Were I a player, I would see each of the waypoints as a reasonable decision for an adventurous young character to take.
  • I consider Sandra's stance to be unnecessarily conservative here and agree more with Adam's position - prepping a story and having "GM agency" are not inherently problematic (even if Sandra has experienced problems when she gave them to herself). I don't really see this as particularly different from literally just planning a timeline of "what NPCs do if the PCs do nothing" -- it just happens to create something of a story if the PCs follow a particular route. (A moderately likely route, given their grounding, but certainly not the only one they could choose.)

    I feel like this should run fine - hold on loosely and all that, but if you ask me there's nothing wrong with creating a series of events that CAN lead to a "story arc" if PCs make that happen.
  • Okay, I get that there's a big difference between "here's a series of problems and what you do is up to you" and "here's a problem and the Elders have asked you to look into it." It's not that big a difference, though.
    No, it's actually huge, depending on what you mean by "the Elders have asked you to look into it." It changes the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic, and it changes the originators of the solution from the PCs to your NPCs (that is, to you as GM). Ideally, as the GM you're giving the PCs information, not telling them what to do.

    NPC: Our sheep are missing! Go walk the spirit stone circle!
    PC: Okay, I go walk the spirit stone circle.
    GM: You find sheep bones and sheep guts. Some of the spirit stones have been disturbed. There's a trail leading off toward the Death Crags.
    PC: Okay, I guess the elders were right. Um, what do I do now? I guess I'm supposed to follow the trail.

    NPC: Our sheep are missing! What on earth is going on? Is it monsters? Is it spirits? Oh, woe is us!
    PC: Don't worry, I will help you. I try to look for the sheep.
    GM: Make a Nature roll.
    PC: I roll okay.
    GM: You find some sheep bones and guts at the edge of the village, near the spirit stone walk. Some of the spirit stones have been disturbed. There's a trail of trampled vegetation leading toward the Death Crags in the distance.
    PC: Huh. I better tell somebody about this.
    NPC: The spirit stones have been disturbed! This is terrible! Ignore everything else and pray for guidance!
    PC: Wait, but what about the trail? I better get my friends and go follow it.
    Other PC: Are you crazy? Let's gin up a ritual to fix the stones, man.
    PC: Can we do that?
    GM: Roll Arcana.

    In the first example, the PCs are just doing what they're told, following the obvious clue. In the second, they're making consequential decisions about what to do next, and making you give them information rather than waiting for you to tell them what to do. The first may not be railroading, but you're willing to spend a lot of time at the station.
  • I think Bill is in recovery after running too many Cthulhu scenarios. :)

    I think the intent here is that # 2 gives the PCs the impetus to build their intrinsic motivation, and then once they have that, # 3 directs it. Whether this works or not probably depends on soft GM skills which I suspect Adam has.
    If the beats still work, great. If they don't, I'll treat it like a sandbox.
    I don't see any downsides to this for the players. I'm mainly just curious how it impacts your experience of prepping it & running it.
  • edited April 2018
    It's about presentation to the players. In Bill_White's second example above, he has elaborated and made the narrative more interesting to make a point, but the first example could easily be made as interesting and interactive.

    Yes, the first example is pushing rather than pulling, but for beginning players that might be what is required. The difference is giving them a path to follow so that they know they are heading in the right direction, and not letting them stumble about looking for clues in the wrong place and getting frustrated. In Bill_White's examples, the second group know immediately to go looking for sheep. What if they instead decide to start interviewing the villagers? What if they don't think to look for tracks but instead head out somewhere randomly?

    I don't like 100% sandbox gaming, preferring at least a faint thread to follow. Nothing puts me off a game more than flailing about for a clue as to what the adventure is meant to be. Give me at least a nudge in the right direction to start me on my way. That said, I don't like wholesaling railroading either, I prefer for my actions and decision to make a difference.

    GMIng has no 'True Way' but finding the balance between complete player freedom and railroading is largely going to depend on your group. Some players need and want guidance, others are happy to go wandering about doing their own thing.
  • But, Bill, this is a village that literally has elders who tell the village what to do, and the PCs are presumed to be among the most junior of villagers.

    I also feel like you've intentionally made the first example as boring and railroady as possible, and made the second example as exciting and sandboxy as possible.

    GM: Sheep have been going missing. This is the third one. The elders call a meeting.
    PC: I'm not going. I go scouting to see what I can find.
    GM: Sure, make a Nature check and I'll get back to you in a minute.
    Other PCs: Well, we go.
    NPC: Our sheep are missing!
    Elder NPC: Someone should walk the spirit circle!
    PC: We could do it.
    GM: All the stones are still intact, so it's not undead breaching the circle. The ranger who skipped the meeting finds a trail of sheep bones and sheep guts leading off toward the Death Crags.
    PC: Uh, we're not going to the freaking Death Crags. We report it to the Elders.
    Elder NPC: We need heroes to go check out the Death Crags. If not you, then who will go?

    In any prep, there's a chance the characters won't bite. There's a chance they'll entirely resist the scenario. That's fine. In any good adventure, there's also a huge consequence for resisting the scenario. Monsters ravage the countryside, the world ends, whatever. In this case, there's a loss of face for the PCs who won't go, plus some hapless NPC will go in their place, probably confront the trolls and get killed. It'll probably be an NPC the party cares about, if I'm playing hard. The demon gets another day or two to further their agenda. Bad stuff happens. Maybe the demon possesses a troll.

    I feel like there's a difference between illusionism and playing my NPCs to push the PCs toward what they want.

    I feel like there's a difference between cascading consequences of PC actions and using GM Force to guide them back to my story.
  • Yeah; This discussion is weird to me.

    You can't have a convincing world without NPCs that want things.
    In order to keep prep manageable, you will generally prep the NPCs in the world that want things that will somehow affect the PCs. You don't prep the affair the shopkeeper two towns over is having with the seamstress, because the PCs don't know these characters, they're unlikely meet these characters, and even if they do it's unlikely that the affair will impact the PCs one way or the other.
    In the process of prepping those NPCs who want things that involve the PCs, you will probably find some for whom the most reasonable/effective/easy/credible way to pursue those things involves asking the PCs to do something.

    To me, those three steps are how you have a convincing living sandbox (instead of just a passive boring sandbox where things only happen because the PCs decided they wanted to make a sandcastle over there because why not, no one else cares.).

    To then say "Whoa whoa, you can't have the NPCs ask the PCs to do a thing! That's extrinsic motivation!" is crazy. What you have to do is understand that the PCs won't necessarily say yes. Though as a game PREMISE, it's usually fair to say "Hey guys, we're having a game about the small village your characters grew up in, and I'm expecting everyone to have a character who cares about the villages problems." because that is a non-railroading social contract akin to "We're playing D&D, so I don't expect you to make characters who refuse to leave town to go on adventures because 'that might be dangerous'."

    When I play Blades in the Dark, there are a ton of other groups active besides the PCs who will sometimes/often ask/bribe/threaten/'gently suggest' the PCs do something. Am I railroading the PCs because the Red Sashes really want the PCs to stick a knife in the leader of the Crows because they hate her guts but she won't let any of them near her? No I am not. And neither is "We, the village elders, request that you, able bodied and capable citizens of this village, go look and see whether someone has broken the spirit circle."

    I am concerned that this discussion is going the way it is going.
  • I don't like 100% sandbox gaming, preferring at least a faint thread to follow. Nothing puts me off a game more than flailing about for a clue as to what the adventure is meant to be. Give me at least a nudge in the right direction to start me on my way.
    I think sandbox adventures aren't meant to be anything. Or they're meant to be whatever you-the-player wants them to be.

    A good sandbox is full of hooks though, but you're right that it helps that the PCs have some built-in impetus to start with.

    The adventure in my OP is meant to be a first adventure for the campaign, so it pushes a bit to get things moving in some direction. It's also meant to work as an open table game, so I won't necessarily know what PCs will show up from week to week, so I can't prep to BIFTs and so on.
  • I think I wrote recently about how I've come to really like the campaign frame of "You all work for X, who sometimes gives you dirty jobs to take care of." This thread helps me see why that works so well for me -- once the players have bought into that, they're already aligned with my style to some extent.

    Also, I don't really see this as particularly railroaded. If the players decide that they're going to fix the spirit circle, like Bill said, and then decide that they're going to camp out there to watch for whatever broke the circle and stole sheep (which is what Conan would do, amirite?), Adam's prep isn't worthless, he can move things around on the fly. Maybe the trolls come back for another meal, maybe the possessed girl shows up.

    This does collapse your narrative arc or Harmon circle quite a bit, but I think you have to be willing to do that.
  • My prep would include Apocalypse World-style countdown clocks for events, so that I'm not repositioning plot elements on-the-fly, because that would feel too much like illusionism to me.

    If I know each NPC's agenda and likely actions over a course of a week, then I can play them fairly, whatever the PCs do or don't do.
  • I'm sure you could the run the game fine the way you're planning, Adam, and I bet there would fun to be had in it. But I think you should be aware of how much your plan puts the focus on the village and its NPCs as what's driving the action, rather than the PCs and their desires. Why make the PCs' instrumentality for the NPCs a central part of the game? As a PC, I would find that un-fun. As a player-character, I am always less interested in the GM's story than in my own. Why set it up so that the implicit message to PCs is that they should do what they're told? Isn't that what you're saying when you tell the players "You're all junior members of a village with elders who know what they're talking about"?

    I don't know. To me, "the elders assign you a task" is not much different than "you all meet in an inn, and a mysterious stranger hires you for a mission." It's functional, but it's still making the PCs live through the GM's story.

    Probably the part that's missing for me is the relationship map of how the PCs are connected to the village and its elders, which you alluded to but didn't put in the forefront of your description of your planning.
  • A good sandbox is full of hooks though, but you're right that it helps that the PCs have some built-in impetus to start with.
    Indeed, and I generally add enough flexibility into my games that the scenario doesn't break when the players go 'off message'.

    However, I have had the misfortune to play a couple of games where the GM gave no such clues or nudges. The first was a Star Trek game back in the mid 1980s. The GM, a Star Trek fan, had lovingly prepared a planetary system, detailing the politics and cultures of each inhabited planet. He then gave us control of a relatively small starship and told us to 'go an explore', presuming that the scenario hooks would become obvious in the manner of an episode of the TV series. Needless to say, we floundered about, landing on planets, talking to people and getting nowhere. In the end the game crashed and burned when we simply set course for home.

    The second example was a D&D3.5 game where the GM introduced the scene in the market square of a town. The PCs wandered about and spoke to people but nothing untoward seemed to be happening. Apparently we should have noticed that a small child sat drawing a picture was far too advanced artistically to be natural. However, I don't believe anyone bothered to look at, let alone critique the drawing boy which was presented as so much background information. As it happened, the game again collapsed.

    These examples of 'more sandbox than is good' are the dark side of a flexible approach. A few hints or subtle clues would have allowed the scenario to begin. By expecting the players to stumble onto the scenario almost by accident, an overly sandbox game will likely fail.
  • Consider stealing the character/village generation stuff from Beyond the Wall; The game itself is kinda bog standard trying-to-do-something-different-with-D&D-but-it's-basically-still-D&D stuff, but the chargen/village creation invests the characters in the village because they're all FROM there and know stuff about it already.
    +100%

    I've been playing a BtW game since last summer, and it's fucking awesome. Make sure you use the sandbox / hexmap generation rules from the first supplement, Further Afield, if you do this: in my opinion, the main book's chargen / village gen process only gives enough for a meaty one-shot plus a few follow-ups, whereas Further Afield's sandbox tool is great for campaigns. Plus, the latter is more system-neutral / easy to export, whereas the stuff from the main book is really tied to BtW's system.
  • Thanks, everyone. I'm enjoying the push-back on this.
  • I'm familiar with Beyond the Wall but haven't read it or played it myself. I will get a copy and see how I can adapt it to my game.
  • edited April 2018
    This is fascinating.

    Adam, i'd consider this:

    1. What do you gain from organizing your prep this way, compared to another form of prep?

    Personally, I find that having such a "storyline" in mind means I get emotionally invested in seeing it come to fruition, which means I won't play the game as well as I would otherwise.

    Having a storyline in mind, but vowing not to railroad (I'm not convinced that's possible!)... how is that better for you than just not prepping a storyline?

    2. Organizing all the prep in a way that's NOT built around a preset storyline usually makes for more interesting, creative, unique material.

    For instance, you've got no details about the Elders, because the PCs basically won't interact with them "on screen".

    If you weren't preparing according to the "expected plot", you might have thought of an interesting conflict or problem with the Elders, which would enrich potential ways the whole scenario could resolve. One of them broke the circle, because he wanted to hurt his neighbour's flock? And that's how've this whole thing started? That would be interesting.

    (For all I know, you do - but this is an example for illustration.)

    3. I agree with Bill, above.

    Have the PCs discover the missing sheep. Have them decide whether to go to the Elders right away or explore first.

    You've organized all your prep according to a set "plot", but you're planning not to railroad... you've lined up a row of nails and then given yourself a hammer, and now expect yourself to spend your playing time trying *not to use the hammer*?

    It's strange.

    My sense is that, as a player, I wouldn't feel railroaded, but I also wouldn't feel much agency. There's basically one thing for me to do, in front of me. No interesting choices.

    My experience with your suggested playstyle is that it's just not fun to GM. You're tearing yourself between two contradictory impulses the whole time, having primed yourself for one thoroughly by preparing it.

    Doing that affects my play of the game - it feels less fun and free play and more like struggling with shaping every contribution to the fiction with little details which nudge the players towards the "hoped-for story".

    It feels a bit like meeting a friend for lunch, except you have a a secret agenda for meeting them, so you aren't listening to them as much as you normally would, because you keep planning how you will steer them towards the topic you want the whole time.
  • edited April 2018
    Was looking forward to getting into this thread again after a day of errands but seems like all of you got it under control.

    Airk, I can be cool with different playstyles existing. I no longer have that fear of there being no sandbox DMs and every DM is a secret illusionist. Now I know how to recognize and appreciate DMs that fit my own style. For this thread, for what I thought Adam wanted, I "donned my own hat": I wrote about how my own philosophy really clashed with what I was seeing here because that's how I could make the strongest contribution to the thread, by fully representing and embodying my view. As I wrote in my disclaimer, I wouldn't want to be so harsh with a stranger or a new GM.

    Like, when you see someone
    who has walked by your side on
    a strange and lonely and rewarding
    road through sand and then start to go astray:
    You cry out to them.
    You shout "Stay!"
    ikosisti doi pendo be mi;
    you are going to lose yourself!
    It took so much to find yourself

    and that doesn't mean that you judge everyone else down in the village
    they have yet to find the strange
    road through sand or they are
    walking other roads and so they are not
    at the risk of going astray and so
    their lives you let pass as clouds on the sky

    Whereas you shout to your friend
    Your friend on the strange
    road through sand Hold on! I trust you to do you but
    be sure!
    but be sure!
  • if you are out in the wilderness
    and you are a group of people who have been on the same journey
    the routines you set up
    as you strike camp
    will look conservative
    rigid
    unbending
    boring
    to others who have taken a different path
    but within the group you teach each other these methods
    because you know that the result is awesome
  • also: seeds&petals. having some awareness of arcs, dramatic beats etc can be like a thin layer of petals to protect your topsoil. but a real flower garden grows its own petals from the seeds you plant there. a real emergent narrative grows its own arcs and beats from the setups and situations you've planted there.

    don't pull the narrative out of the earth. be careful with it.
    don't even sketch up an example path for it to go. there is no path. there is a wide open field
  • edited April 2018
    I run DayTrippers (and other games sometimes) via Harmon Circles, but I separate plotting (what I call "horizontal control") from arcing ("vertical control"). Plots come from player actions in that "wide open field". Arc comes from tension and unresolved stakes, which are modulated by me. In other words, when we sit down at the table, no plans for plot exist in my head, but the arc is my template and my goal is to deliver on that arc vertically while the players control the horizontal. Here is some discussion: https://www.reddit.com/r/DayTrippersRPG/comments/6r195y/using_the_story_circle_for_episodic_sessions/

  • My own style is to plan the big stuff, the key encounters, and to have a few contingencies for any probable diversions. Important NPCs get detailed in so far as their essential personality, basically the stuff that might influence how they interact and what is driving their motivations. I rarely, if ever, give them a fully statted character sheet.

    I am comfortable free-forming when required, but I need some aspects to be consistent. If the lord of Town A is Baron X one week, he needs to be in charge and consistent next week. I also like to pre-plan where possible because I can put more depth in. A situation that grows through plenty of planning, rethinking and refining will usually be more fulfilling than one made up off the top of my head.

    I want to tell a story, but if the players don't interact with that story then they are free to make their own up. However, I prefer to have the story in place as a spine onto which any improvisation can be attached.
  • My sense is that, as a player, I wouldn't feel railroaded, but I also wouldn't feel much agency. There's basically one thing for me to do, in front of me. No interesting choices.
    I think this is the crux of it for me. I need to make sure there are plenty of interesting choices in front of the players for them to have agency.

    I'm not convinced yet that putting lots of choices in front of the players is incompatible with "optimal path plotting" though.

  • I'm not convinced yet that putting lots of choices in front of the players is incompatible with "optimal path plotting" though.
    I don't they're incompatible, but it seems like you're tying one hand behind your back as a result. What do you gain by doing this that you don't have from just "putting lots of choices in front of the players"? (It's a sincere question; no a rhetorical one - I'm curious what you, Adam, are getting out of it, or hope to get out of it.)

    Again, my personal experience is that it's fairly functional but not much fun to GM. After doing it a few times I just start to scrap the "optimal path" and kept the fun situations and choices. It was a totally unnecessary headache which made my job as GM harder to do and harder to enjoy. Whether that's true for others, I don't know!
  • Stories that hit all the octants of the Harmon Circle, or all the points of the Hero's Journey, or whatever, are more satisfying. As I wrote that plot, I had missed some pieces, and adding them in made the story more complete and stronger.

    By thinking through those pieces, it is my hope that I'm /prepared for/ player actions and have created possibilities that can hit the octants and not skip steps. What the players do, who knows, but they won't miss stuff because I didn't think to add the possibility.
  • edited April 2018
    Stories that hit all the octants of the Harmon Circle, or all the points of the Hero's Journey, or whatever, are more satisfying.
    I wonder if one can prep situation alone (rather than path) to hit all those steps? For example, make the root of the problem reside in an inherently other/magical/transformative space. So if the players care at all about the village, they'll inevitably enter Faerie/The Upside-Down/Wherever in order to address it, just because of the simple facts of the world and the NPCs and the situation.

    And then, if you want to support sandbox play, you just have multiple such situations going on with their roots/keys in multiple "other" spaces.

    If pursuit of the kidnap-ee necessariy leads to the deathcrags, and journeying through the deathcrags necessarily leads to the discovery that trolls exist, and returning to the village accordingly means that you come back armed with the power of new knowledge about What's Out There (and maybe some ideas about how to use that knowledge you our benefit), we're a good portion of the way there. "Once you choose this path, the relevant things are where they are," doesn't feel like railroading to me, or at least not in any of the negative senses.
  • That's what I was trying to do.
  • edited April 2018
    Stories that hit all the octants of the Harmon Circle, or all the points of the Hero's Journey, or whatever, are more satisfying.
    What's satisfying for one medium can be counter-productive for another.
    In D&D it's more satisfying if the players create the story (through their choices and journey) than if the DM has put it there on a plate for them to just reheat.
    I even wrote that in my seeds&petals post, that with prescripting you gain access to tighly edited matching to story beats but at too high a price. (I didn't mention Campbell or Harmon, but Snyder and Kishōtenketsu)

    I need to be clear that I know you're willing to stray from the line you've planned here as soon as the players do, that the Harmon Circle was just a way to help you come up with some of the NPCs/monsters/placs in your game world. And so far, so OK. But I want to repeat what Paul said about tying one hand behind your back, to be careful that you don't make the job harder for yourself only for less satisfying (for this medium) results. As me and Paul discussed in the salvage linear thread: if you have found yourself with a linearly arranged module, you can make it much easier to run by ripping it apart, reorganizing it to be spatial instead, temporally dislodging events etc.

    Speaking of Harmon and D&D -- and yes, I've seen/heard many of his adventures with Spencer -- the game in that first AD&D community episode is so powerful not because it hits story beats but because the DM is unwaveringly sticking to the truth about the game world, no matter how unwanted the consequences. It's the players job to create the story beats, they're the storytellers, not the DM. That's what so many miss; it's up to them to hit or miss story beats as they wish. We DMs create the toys and put them in the sandbox and then the players take those toys and turn them into very interesting, satisfying stories full of twists and turn! Or, if we're really lucky, it becomes something much more satisfying than any story: it becomes lived experience, it becomes life.
  • That's what I was trying to do.
    The classic structure of dangerous place next to safe place, dungeon next to village, wilderness next to farmlands, is a perfect setup of tools for your players to create these story beats.
    Think of the Harmon circle again: the top day part of and the bottom night part of it. Any quest hits at least some of the beats in somewhat of a right order. D&D's classic structure inherently has a very satisfying hero trip.

    LMoP has several, you go into the Cragmaw hideout and you make it out alive, changed. You go into Redbrand hideout and you make it out alive, changed. Many small Harmon circles. And the situation as a whole? One big one. We had so many deaths and we did it so out of order and the last thing we did was the, hmm, Venomfang, (trying to avoid spoilers) and it just ended in cruel failure. So awesome.

    Like my job as DM is to be in the front row with popcorn as the players go to the dungeon to find how to make peace with their days in the dungeon. I'm the audience.
  • A question I haven't seen asked - let alone answered - by skimming the thread (but I might be wrong, as past the first dozen posts or so I've only skimmed it):

    Adam, what's your intended audience for this scenario you are prepping?

    Is this something you are crafting for a regular D&D group you're going to start a new campaign with? A one-shot meant for pick-up play with total strangers at conventions and public venues? Is this meant as beginner-friendly scenario - possibly their first ever taste of D&D to some of them - or a possibly nostalgia-inducing diversion for players who've already seen it all?
  • edited April 2018
    I think this is a valid video to watch in this discussion:

    How Much Agency Do Games Need? - Choices in Linear Games - Extra Credits


    "But I like linear games. I think this asking for more choice in games is actually ruining things.
  • That's what I was trying to do.
    Ah. I wouldn't think of that as "prepping a plot". But maybe that is a useful way to think about it!

    Random thought: one could prep octant-specific bangs. Like, "I'd say we're in Octant 3, so I'm picking from this set now," and, "Now we're in Octant 6 so I'm picking from this other set."
  • @Rafu, I'll be running this in one or two modes:

    1. Open table online, with a stable of players I've cultivated for my Mirrorrim megadungeon campaign, which is on it's 30-somethingth two-hour session.

    2. Closed table of 4-5 players I know well. That is, the "typical" game group.

    Not convention play. If I were to run this at a convention, I'd be looking at it through an entirely different lens.

  • @David_Berg, that's a cool idea. I'll see if I can work that up.

    Having just (re)read Beyond the Wall and having just read its supplement Further Afield for the first time, I'm inspired to use their player-driven "I heard a rumor about this place" Kicker technique anyway, but I still want to develop the hexcrawl side of this myself.
  • Adam,

    I still haven't heard what you see as the benefits of this style of prep, if you're not planning on leading the PCs through it. I'd like to hear more about what you see as the payoff here.

    I like Dave's notes on using Story Circles as inspiration for what to prep - for example, your "spirit circle" which encloses the village being broken, otherworldly locations/realms, items or NPCs which can serve a purpose within a particular octant of the circle.

    That allows you to prepare something Bang-like which can introduced at appropriate points in the story. With a variety of these, something more interactive could be prepared. For instance, going back to the idea of Elders, what if there were three Elders with very different ideas, and the PCs could choose to follow the guidance of one or another? All three could serve as the Mysterious Mentor (or whatever) in a specific story of the players' choosing. Instead of a set path and direction, you have at least three possible avenues to explore, and you can mix and match in play, in response to player choices.

    I still find that, generally, the more I commit to certain ideas of plot before play, the less of a good GM I can be, but maybe it's not the same for you.

  • edited April 2018
    Thinking further, I could see some benefit of building in scenario elements inspired by dramatic theory like Harmon's Story Circles. For instance, if returning with a prize is supposed to show growth of the character, then the starting situation should involve some kind of problem which creates an unhappy status quo. For example, the PC is bullied by an older villager, or has never been able to pass the Test of Courage to join the Elders' circle. Another has an unrequited love; stuff like that. They're all struggling with something unhappy.

    Building in some opportunities in the adventure for things to happen which could allow the PC to change that upon their return could be interesting. You'd have to work extra hard not to commit to those outcomes emotionally, I feel, so I'd want to come up with a few different variations - at least that way I wouldn't be committed to one particular one, but prepared for various possible outcomes.

    But, then, how far will your prep balloon?

    Part of the problem here is that traditional stories are usually predicated on a single hero or focal character. As soon as you switch formats to a group of characters or "adventuring party", recreating familiar story structures becomes much more challenging (and possibly even impossible).

    It's certainly interesting to mull this over, but so many things about this line of thought give me the heebie-jeebies, just a little.
  • Actually, since there's all this questioning of "What do you get out of this style of prep" I'd like to see how other people would prep this scenario.
  • edited April 2018
    That's a great idea. If I get a chance, I'll come back here and give it a shot; I encourage others to do the same!

    Which are we looking at, though:

    1. Given Adam's example of a scenario, how would you organize, prep, or present the same material differently?

    or,

    2. Given the goals of hitting Story Circle beats, what kind of adventure would you prep?

    In either case, what elements of Harmon's Story Circle are we most interested in bringing into the game? Any specific points, moments, decisions, structures? Pick a few, and limit yourself to targeting those.
  • edited April 2018
    The challenges I'm seeing:

    1. What is the goal of this exercise?

    As far as I can tell, Adam is trying to structure his prep so that the resulting gameplay stands a good chance of creating a story which fits into Harmon's Story Circle.

    Is that right? (If not, I'm not sure.)

    2. How do we use linear story structure to create interactive entertainment?

    This is a huge problem, as far as I can see.

    Any kind of prep which is based on a linear structure is (assuming an RPG setting where the PCs are free to do anything they want, random or uncertain resolution techniques exist, and so forth) tremendously problem-prone. By making "Step 2" of your prep dependent on "Step 1" being followed, played through, and turning out a specific way, you're making each subsequent step of your prep more and more likely to cause problems (or become irrelevant to play).


    Edit: Here's an interesting datapoint! I just bought "Pandemic: Legacy", a version of the popular boardgame which plays out over 12 "games" and, supposedly, tells a wild story along the way.

    How does it do it? Well, I haven't seen the whole thing yet, but I can already see that it's 12 "months" (games) which you win or lose - but you get two shots at each one, and then you move on to the next one anyway. Unlike an RPG, of course, it doesn't let you do anything you want (instead, you're guaranteed to proceed though the same 12 steps), but it does have some interesting techniques built into it to keep it interesting.

    For example, what if you just keep losing? Or keep winning? Well, the game comes with the concept of a "Budget". Your Budget helps you with resources you need for each game/epidemic. However, if you do really well, your "superiors" cut your Budget for the next game, because clearly you have things under control. If you do poorly, though, then they give you a bigger Budget for the next one.

    This seems clever; you're more or less guaranteed to have a variety of victories and losses over the course of the 12 games. (I have a feeling that the final game is slightly rigged to make it most likely end in victory, but I don't know that for sure yet, it's just a guess.)

    So that's an interesting example of making a linear storyline which can play out a variety of different ways. Not open-ended enough for RPG play, of course, but some variation of the concepts could be used for game design nevertheless.

  • Now, I'm not at all convinced that modeling adventures for an RPG (and, presumably, a group of PCs working together, instead of a single character) on Harmon Story Circles is even a good idea. Do we have any reason to presume it leads to better gaming? Perhaps, perhaps not.

    However, were I to do it, I would look at the Story Circle structure and use it to inspire myself to prep specific material. I'll try to keep as much of Adam's ideas intact as possible, modifying as little as possible.

    Let's look at the Circle, first:

    * We know that there will be a return to the homestead. So, we need some problems "at home" to fix, or there will not be any Step 8.
    * The top and bottom of the Story Circle indicate two different realms. I need to bring in two different realms or stages of being. Adam's done this nicely with the spirit circle and the scary "outside"; it contrasts with the safety and hum-drum nature of the village and is a place where the protagonists haven't been and wouldn't normally go.

    Now, let's look at the individual steps:

    Step 1:

    * This octant tells me that I need, as a basis for the characters' lives, a safe, comfortable status quo. (Adam's done that pretty clearly in his writeup, I'd say.)
    * I also need to establish them as the protagonists. For that, there should be a reason to pity them, it says (their lives can't be perfect, or Step 8 will never be satisfying), and there should also be some justification for them to have agency in the scenario.

    Conclusion: I'd want to keep the writeup of the safe little village, but I'd introduce two other things - first, something that's wrong, either for each individual character, or for the group as a whole (doing "group as a whole" is tricky, but not impossible), and, second, some reason that puts them in the driver's seat.

    Example:

    The country is at war. All the able-bodied, fully-grown members of the village have been sent off to the war. The PCs are those youngsters who failed the Trials of Courage, and have been left behind. (It's shameful!) As a result:

    a) They have a negative reputation in the village, perhaps, or just can't get the respect they feel they deserve. They have a situation they have to fix or solve because of this - maybe a love interest, a profession/position they desire, or just to be considered with respect, as adults.
    b) There's no one else around to do "adventuring stuff"; any dangerous business will fall to them. The village will be forced to rely on them.

    (And that's as far as I've gotten so far; I'll get back to this once I see other people's responses and thoughts on the subject.)
  • That's a great idea. If I get a chance, I'll come back here and give it a shot; I encourage others to do the same!

    Which are we looking at, though:

    1. Given Adam's example of a scenario, how would you organize, prep, or present the same material differently?

    or,

    2. Given the goals of hitting Story Circle beats, what kind of adventure would you prep?

    In either case, what elements of Harmon's Story Circle are we most interested in bringing into the game? Any specific points, moments, decisions, structures? Pick a few, and limit yourself to targeting those.
    I'd be interested in either of these as long as I'm told which is which. ;)
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