Well, here’s someting a bit weird, proving that I probably have too much time on my hands at the moment. But if you find yourself as a Pen and Paper RPG Games Master, it might provide you with some interesting thoughts, at least. (also, theres a sketch at the end for you if you finish!) Without further ado:
Your Story in Motion… A GM’ing techniques essay
Q: What is a ‘Plot on Rails?
A: It’s a common (sadly) GM’s trap, a plot that forces players to act upon it or suffer some equivalent of a rocks fall everyone dies scenario. It is when, no matter what they do, the same things will always occur.
Anyway, this, at its core form, is terrible practice. After all, you are lording over the game, and saying ‘this is my story, my game, so follow it, bitches’.
This is wrong, I’m afraid to say. Yes, it is your story. But it is a joint one, crafted in happy union with your team. Your actors get their say, and you should appreciate that.
Of course, it’s not to say you absolutely can’t learn anything from using rails; they focus a tale in way not easily mimicked, and sometimes can give direction to a party that have no normal adventuring spirit. Some GM’s and parties swear by them, and that’s fine. Most D&D campaigns assume rails, and that’s ok. If you don’t want to think, then you get the train and let someone else do the driving.
But lets assume you want to escape the rails. What can you do? Over my years of GM experience, I’ve found the following alternatives:
A) The Plot is on Rails. The Players are not.
The ideal solution in any story where you want to give the players a chance to ignore the main line, but they do so perhaps at their own peril. Basically, you start the plot and players off on the same ‘track’ but almost immediately they can choose to go other directions.
This requires you to improvise on several occasions, or have pre-prepared possibilities for basically everything (even if they’re just bullet points).
It helps a lot if you do this whilst already in an established world setting you’re familiar with. Having maps, prepared side quests, and knowledge of the setting in advance means that when you’re caught with your pants down, you can make sure the game doesn’t fall on its face, and also make the players feel like their divulgence means something: they may lose ground on the Big Bad, for example, but in return gain some knowledge that will help them defeat him.
However, the core point of this is that the plot always keeps moving, even if they do nothing. It doesn’t stop for their convenience. Keep a note in the background of the progress of the big bad’s plans, and tick off his/her objectives as they’re achieved. Consider the players actions as they happen and how these affect the main train of plot… their actions may change fundamental issues and slow the irrepressible progress of evil.
This method is the one I frequently utilise for my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. I keep track of what’s going on behind stage, so to speak, and my players can trip various plot alteration ‘flags’ that alter the stories trajectory depending on how they handle the situations they come across. Additionally, their choices add Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic points to a party total, and these affect what options for progression they have, their eventual ending situation, and which MacGuffins they need to acquire for a given objective.
Don’t be afraid to slow the plot for the players in this setup, even if they don’t deserve it. You’re not supposed to be using a continually moving plot as an excuse for ‘bwahaha, you missed the demon summoning on isle X and now you’re fucked’. If they’ve realised they need to be somewhere, don’t punish them for being a day late, or whatever. In this case, consider the main plot train to work on a schedule resembling British public transport. It’ll get there, just rarely at the time specified.
Also, I would say the level of planning, foresight and improvisation in equal measure required to make this work means that doing this method properly is going to be difficult on a new GM. I’m never one to say that new GM’s can’t do certain techniques, because they can, it’s just that experience allows you to multitask far more effectively.
B) The Illusion of Choice
I’m not really a fan of this, but it has its uses. It basically is a plot that’s still on rails, but the players seem to get free choice to ignore the rails. Only… they aren’t. They will wander and investigate something apparently unrelated only to find a slightly re-fluffed alternative with a different but suspiciously similar reward.
There’s not a lot to say about this technique. You prepare a scenario that is mostly vague on its description, and then as they actually reach that point, you add in an environment-relevant ‘skin’, as if the scenario were a customisable computer programme with alternate looks.
This is actually good if you’re a GM that hates to make extensive notes prior to their session. You instead prepare a set list of bullet points, and expound on them on the fly.
The most memorable usage of this technique for me was a moment when my players could follow two equally important and distinct plot choices (swamp or village), and the lead-up would be entirely different. However, the resulting dungeon was always going to be same. Just… it would have been a twisting forest in one circumstance, and a set of catacombs in the other (they ended up with the latter, by and the by). Cheeky, but it saved a lot of time!
C) Triggered Event Flags!
My most recently refined technique that emulates a Japanese visual novel, and was designed to fit in with Aniventure campaigns. If you’re unaware, a visual novel typically has the player decide a schedule or have specific decision points, and their daily life proceeds around these choices. Every so often, though, their specific collection of choices, such as ‘let’s go to the park to exercise at 5pm’ will suddenly trigger a special event with unique dialogue and consequences on the plot or the player’s relationships.
Basically, I prepare several specific scripted ‘events’ that trigger based on locations, times and other circumstances. These events are crucial to the main plotlines, and have a few decision points in them, however (unlike an actual VN).
The rest of the game is entirely improvised.
Yes, that’s right. Whatever else the players do I react entirely on the fly to and wing it. Core to this improvisation is a well developed setting, vast imagination or an easily accessible random generator (perhaps all of the above).
I’ve been using this for the last two Aniventure campaigns (it underwent its initial first trial with my Space Opera, and is really now finding its feet in my new School based campaign).
Again, this is a deep end technique that requires quick thinking on your part, though I guess you can combine it with technique D.
D) Cloud Processing
A single person is not infallible, and this is all the moreso for you, as a GM. It is very hard to consider every single approach and option.
But, much like Cloud Computing, why not delegate some of the plot details to your players? They may have some awesome idea you wouldn’t have thought of in a million years, and often might come up with a creative solution to a problem that would clearly work in retrospect but which you hadn’t have foresight to consider the implications of.
Some might call this a lazy technique, but it’s actually a very effective one that I tend to use as a secondary in a lot of my games. If a player has a great suggestion that you like, it’s fine to plagiarise it on the fly. If you do this right, they’ll feel clever about ‘guessing the plot’ (haha) and won’t feel cheated in the slightest when you reveal their suggestion was correct.
And indeed, you can use this as a prime technique. It halves your workload in some respects, but it has a couple of its own unique problems. The key is not let the players figure out they’re doing cloud processing for you, so you absolutely MUST entirely prove their suggestions wrong on a few occasions and select some scenarios that will always be unaltered by their ideas.
This technique is like playing a comic or manga author when utilised correctly, as you set the frame, the characters, and the conclusion, but you let your art and dialogue (part-generated by your players!) connect the dots, so to speak.
This is probably the easiest first non-rails technique for a newer GM to try, though I can’t say I did so myself (I jumped straight of the deep end and learnt to deal with it!).
E) The World Outside is Gray
Now, actually, I’ve never used this, but rather it’s something I’ve observed, most notably in western ‘free-form’ Computer RPG’s. It refers to the idea that only with the players presence does a place become lively and colourful.
Basically, in this solution, there however many hundreds of interweaved plots and side-plots on rails. But the cars on the tracks can only move based on the players input. This is more frequently understood as ‘the plot waits for you’ and whilst it doesn’t make much narrative sense, it is the best way to make the player in such a game feel important.
Frankly, it’s going to be a bit unlikely that you can easily adapt this to PNP RPGs due to numerous problems, like party splits and people who love to deliberately ignore the plot. So really, this is for comparison sake.
Finally, it has to be said again: there is no right and wrong in GM’ing. What works for one group will fail for another. As already noted, sometimes, plain rail-track games where there is little player choice on the narrative level is what some people like. This is especially the case with groups of power-gamers who don’t care about the ‘why are we cracking heads in?’ and merely want to get down and prove that they can crack heads.
I hope this little essay helps some GM’s understand the trains of storytelling.
This is Aya Oshino-Date, whom I don’t believe has actually been previously seen on the blog. Originally created two Aniventure campaigns ago (Tachiban Yagyo campaign), she has recently returned to haunt my new school based (Ukushima) campaign, as the president of the occult society, resident school vampire, and demon hunter extraordinairre. This is her sitting in the pouring rain in the park, awaiting the arrival of some ghouls which she proceeded to cut down, but in the meantime our school newspaper photographer came across her in this rather unladylike pose. Sadly, his photos didn’t develop… as photos of the undead don’t… hehe…
Her Katana (the seventh sword of Masamune Date, her father, lol*) ended up a bit wonky, but other than that I think it came out pretty well. It’s nice to draw a proper background when I do it so rarely these days. She’s in a rather fanservice-y setup here, eh? Soaked to the bone and all that. Still, ended up an amusing exercise for me.*= She didn’t actually originally have this association. But after I played Masamune in Shogun Total War II, and his first randomly generated daughter turned out to be called Aya, it just suddenly made so much sense! And then I linked her further to Sengoku Basara, decided that Masamune in that actually originally wanted to Septawield rather than Hexwield katanas, and silliness was born.