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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Chris Geisel on June 29, 2005, 12:09:41 PM



Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on June 29, 2005, 12:09:41 PM
I ran the first of a two-shot d20 Fantasy game last night with a new group, and whipped up some Bangs. But to my dismay, my long habit of Force and Railroading still managed to crop up. Here's a short description of what happened, the players' reaction and my belated recognition.

The PCs are orcs, goblins and other members of a big warband. They are an elite group whose job it is to hunt escaped human slaves and the tricksy Elves who try to help them. The game opened with them on the trail of some fleeing Elves.

My Bangs are:
1. There is a rival group of hunters after the Elves.
2. The orc shaman declares that whichever group doesn't catch the Elves will be killed and eaten.
3. The new boss of the warband shows up, and is the hated enemy of one PC (the group leader).
4. The Elves are rescuing slaves that are reincarnated Elf Souls. One or more PCs are identified by the Elves as one such reincarnation (to mutual surprise).
5. If the above comes out, the shaman orders the whole group killed, to be on the safe side.
6. If they flee to the human slave villages, the humans betray them.
7. If the group flees to the Elf sanctuary, the guards think it's an orc trick.

I threw the first Bang when the PCs were led into an ambush set by their rivals for the Elves (some Elf trickery facilitated the mistake). After they sorted it out, words were exchanged and the rivalry really amped up the urgency of finding the Elves. All was well. Then my old habits took over.

The group decided to press on and continue the hunt for the Elves, even in their weakened and fatigued state. They made some rolls with the intent of picking up the trail, but when they failed, instead of moving on with the intent with complications, I used Force. I gave them the classic DM blank wall: you can't find the trail. They dallied, no doubt trying to figure out what they were "supposed" to do, but I gave 'em nothing. Finally, they ran into some NPCs who ordered them to head back to camp. They conceeded to my Force.

Back at camp, I sprung #2 on them when they got into a serious scuffle with their rivals. That worked out well--the shaman was enraged that they were fighting each other instead of hunting the Elves, and his sentence was punishment and motivation. That's where we ended.

When I got home, I was going over what had happened with my wife when I realized my use of Force. I was kicking myself--there was no reason to stop the group from pressing on with their priority of getting the Elves. And that was a priority I gave them, as the starting situation. Had I rolled with it, it might have given me an opportunity to spring #4 on them, which is really the one Bang that I am dying to use.

Looking at my list of Bangs, I'm noticing something: they look a lot like whistle stops on a railroad. #1, 2, 4 and 5 read like events in a typical "event based" adventure... am I constructing bad Bangs?

Further information about the group and the game: I've been playing with the group for a couple months, and just started to hang out with some of them outside of roleplaying. This is the first time I've GMed this group. We're using d20 Fantasy (SRD), with pregenerated 6th level characters. We're also using the Sweet20 system (http://www.anvilwerks.com/src/sweet20/experience.html) developed by Clinton R Nixon. However, since this is a short game with no advancement, instead of XP, I'm awarding points. The points can be cashed in to re-roll any d20 or heal 4 hit points. So far the players are loving the Keys/points meta-mechanic.


Title: Re: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Adam Cerling on June 29, 2005, 12:38:49 PM
Quote from: Chris Geisel
1. There is a rival group of hunters after the Elves.
2. The orc shaman declares that whichever group doesn't catch the Elves will be killed and eaten.
3. The new boss of the warband shows up, and is the hated enemy of one PC (the group leader).
4. The Elves are rescuing slaves that are reincarnated Elf Souls. One or more PCs are identified by the Elves as one such reincarnation (to mutual surprise).
5. If the above comes out, the shaman orders the whole group killed, to be on the safe side.
6. If they flee to the human slave villages, the humans betray them.
7. If the group flees to the Elf sanctuary, the guards think it's an orc trick.

[snip]

Looking at my list of Bangs, I'm noticing something: they look a lot like whistle stops on a railroad. #1, 2, 4 and 5 read like events in a typical "event based" adventure... am I constructing bad Bangs?


If I understand Bangs correctly, they are points at which PCs need to make significant decisions.

Some of the above points require no significant decisions from the PCs. #2, for example. The shaman says 'do this, or die;' there's no room for a significant decision there. Of course they will then try to capture the Elves.

Now, I don't think that means #2 is a bad even to include in the game: it just means it's not a Bang. Its presence, however, could help turn #4 into a Bang, if it hits the right buttons: do the PCs choose to risk death by helping the elves, or do they disregard their shared spiritual heritage and go for the kill?

Whether #4 is a good Bang depends a lot on how important you've made the idea of spirituality and reincarnation. If it's the first time reincarnation has come up in the game, it would seem like a non-sequitur to me. Why would an Orc care about tree-hugging Elvish spiritual mumbo-jumbo?

If #4 is to work, I think you'll have to foreshadow it with Orcish tribal dogma about the importance of reincarnation, past lives, ancestors or whatever, so that the PCs have some reason to care.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Andrew Morris on June 29, 2005, 12:42:50 PM
I'm certainly no authority when it comes to Bangs, but my understanding is that they are supposed to force the player to make a choice. More importantly, it should be a significant choice. "Do this or die," isn't that significant of a choice. Sure, they could choose "die," but probably not. Bangs, to my understanding, are things that say to the character, "Here's something you absolutely can't ignore, and there's 12 billion ways you could respond to it. Oh, and you have to choose. Right now!"


Title: Re: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on June 29, 2005, 12:49:11 PM
I'm a novice at this technique myself, so, apply grains salt, but - I'm not sure any of these is a Bang. The key criterion for a Bang, as I understand it, is (a) the player(s) must react to it, because it so destabilizes the situation that "I wait and see" isn't an option; and (b) the player can react in any number of ways, not just one.

Quote from: Chris Geisel
1. There is a rival group of hunters after the Elves.


Some Bang-potential here, if the players have the options of "wipe out the rivals, negotiate with the rivals, hurry up and head off the rivals." If there's just one option -- which in this game looks like "hurry up" -- then it's something that adds urgency (meeting criterion A) but not options (failing B).

Quote
2. The orc shaman declares that whichever group doesn't catch the Elves will be killed and eaten.


Adds urgency in a big way -- but at the price of closing down some of the options (e.g. negotiate/cooperate with rivals) that would have made #1 a Bang.

Quote
3. The new boss of the warband shows up, and is the hated enemy of one PC (the group leader).


Meets criterion B in a big way -- there're lots of options about how to play this, from "kiss up" to "stab him in his sleep" -- but not necessarily A, unless the new boss starts making their situation untenable; if it's possible just to live with the change of leadership, the players aren't forced to make a hard choice.

Quote
4. The Elves are rescuing slaves that are reincarnated Elf Souls. One or more PCs are identified by the Elves as one such reincarnation (to mutual surprise).


B, B, B! Lots of ways this could go; cool. But, again A: Can the players just say "uh, yeah, that's freaky" and keep on doing the same stuff as before?

Quote
5. If the above comes out, the shaman orders the whole group killed, to be on the safe side.


Adds urgency but at the price of closing off options (e.g. telling anybody about the reincarnation thing), rather like #2.

Quote
6. If they flee to the human slave villages, the humans betray them.
7. If the group flees to the Elf sanctuary, the guards think it's an orc trick.


Again, adds urgency, subtracts options, because the "change sides and work with the humans/elves" path is a dead end that forces you back on the main path.

That was fun to analyze, actually; I think I may understand this technique better now - hope it was helpful to you, too!

Now I'll duck and let people who've actually used Bangs tell me where I'm misleading you.

{EDIT: crossposted with Andrew}


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Andrew Norris on June 29, 2005, 12:49:12 PM
I would agree that your Bangs are pretty lock-step. 2-5 rely on previous Bangs to have happened, and 6-7 are alternate end scenarios.

I like the rival leading the other warband(3), except that once you've declared that only the winner survives, it's bereft of meaningful choice. (My first thought would be "Great, they can either really play up the rivalry, or grudgingly ally and work together", but that doesn't seem to be an option. It'd probably be more like "Kill your enemy now, and risk dying honorably, or let him live and risk being slaughtered and eaten.")

A lot of the others may suffer from the situation they're presented in. I assume a "might makes right" scenario, with the PCs part of that culture. So while there were options like convincing the warband to ignore the shaman's edict ("Why kill ourselves, we should be killing elves!") or even taking an interest at all in the reincarnation scenario, those would be fairly radical actions and would certainly be a lot more dangerous than "go forth and kill". I'm not sure if alternatives would even come up, unless you had spent some time beforehand establishing that the PC creatures are capable of rejecting the social order.

In order to make the scenario more open ended, the Bangs must present meaningful choices, but those choices have to be fairly open-ended. One way to have done that might have been to have multiple shamen representing different points of view. One might have decreed that the winning group eats the losers, because the strong should always defeat the weak (and I'd see them enjoying a conflict between the groups, not punishing it), while another might focus on killing the anathema elves above all else, and have wanted to punish intra-warband conflict. That would leave two equally difficult options (either way, you anger one of the powerful shamen), but it's not possible to just "go with the flow" -- a choice has to be made.

I don't think your experience is anything to worry about, though -- we've all done it at some point. I'm finding constructing good Bangs to be very difficult. My rule of thumb is that they should cause a player to agonize over how they respond, and not be able to say, "Right, one more complication, but the plan's the same."


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Valamir on June 29, 2005, 01:53:45 PM
See What the Heck is a Bang (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=15451) for some hard core advice on what Bangs are and how to craft them.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on June 29, 2005, 02:30:58 PM
Thanks for the replies, everyone. I knew I wasn't doing something correctly, and now I know what: I wasn't using Bangs.

I'll keep #4, which qualifies on B) Has no clear choice. Perhaps I'll add some element that guarantees the information will come out, so it qualifies for A) Can't be ignored. Something like another Elf captured by the rivals, who will eventually break under torture and reveal.

The rest I'll scrap, except for #2, the PC's Enemy showing up to lead the warband. It qualifies for B, but I'll have to figure out a way of making his appearance impossible to ignore. Since something I'm noticing is that the threat of death tends to close off options... maybe I'll have the Enemy put someone else in charge of the group, demoting the PC and seriously annoying the rest of the group.

Meh, that doesn't seem urgent enough. Bangs is tricky.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Luke on June 29, 2005, 02:59:12 PM
Wait. No. Sure, you didn't understand how to use a plot twist to prompt exciting decisions from the players. Fine.

But you still railroaded their asses. You still presented the GM wall. That's the real crime here, IMHO. (Not that it's a crime, Chris.)

But you also realized what your were doing ex post facto. Which is great! Now you gotta 'fess up. You gotta tell your players that you fucked up. You gotta apologize. All in my opinion, of course. But I think if you out yourself, if you address this issue of yours, you might not be so tempted to go with it again. In fact, your players can even call you on it if you do.

and that is precisely two cents worth of rpg advice.
-L


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Mister Six on June 29, 2005, 06:40:10 PM
To turn Abzu's advice in a slightly different direction, how's about saying "here's where I thought I went wrong last time; here's what I'm going to do differently".

Couple of thoughts from a far-from-expert-banger GM:

Drive the thoughts of how the bang might conclude out of your mind. Toss the match on the gas & run; it's up to them to fan it, quell it, or whatever. Your players will often surprise the shit out of you.

Try opportunity. Like what if the shaman would've said "whichever of you murderous bastards brings me the most pink pretty elf ears gets to marry my hot daughter, Rar Rar." And gets the social status & wealth that comes with it.

And as a player, I've never been fond of getting stuck in a squad situation with an NPC leader. But the opportunity for the hated rivals to become friends could be cool. Or maybe the hated enemy has an elven soul too. Dunno.

But I agree w/Abzu; recognizing when you're railroading is major.

Cheers,
CJ


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Andrew Cooper on June 30, 2005, 04:20:45 AM
Okay, I'm going to play the Devil's Advocate here.

So, you didn't use Bangs.  So what?  Did the players enjoy the game?  Were they expecting something different from the session?  Do they care that you had a specific plot in mind and that you navigated the characters through that plot?  After all, nothing in your session description indicated to me that they didn't enjoy themselves or that they got something other than what they were expecting.  I'm not even sure you were Railroading anyone.

Railroading is taking the important decisions away from the characters in order to pursue your own agenda.  What's important differs from CA to CA and from group to group.  Railroading indicates dysfunction and nothing in your write up seems dysfunctional to me.

If your players are Narrativist players then, hell yeah, you Railroaded them bad and you need to quit doing that.

However, if your group is like mine and made up of a bunch of Gamists, then nothing you did above was Railroading.  The important decisions in my game are tactical ones.  If I fudge on the actual dice rolls or mess with the tactical situation to make stuff come out the way I want, then I'm Railroading them and they're going to be unhappy.  But if I did what you did above, not one of my players would blink.  In fact, they rather expect me to handle a good bit of the plot development.  That's not dysfunctional and its not Railroading.  It is Participationist (or Illusionism).

I also don't see a lot of problems with most flavors of Sim in your session description.  So, the only way I would see what you did as a big, nasty issue is if your players were expecting to have more say in the overall plotline.  Did they?  If they did, then obviously you need to modify how you are running things.  If not, then don't make a mountain out of a mole hill.  If they're enjoying themselves and you had fun, go with it.  Bangs don't work with every group.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on June 30, 2005, 05:45:02 PM
Guess what? Right after my second post, I went directly to the campaign forum this group uses and outed myself as a Railroader and apologized. So it felt great to come back here and see the come-clean advice.

Quote from: Gaerik
So, you didn't use Bangs.  So what?  Did the players enjoy the game?  Were they expecting something different from the session?  Do they care that you had a specific plot in mind and that you navigated the characters through that plot?  After all, nothing in your session description indicated to me that they didn't enjoy themselves or that they got something other than what they were expecting.  I'm not even sure you were Railroading anyone.


I see what you're saying, Gaerik, and the players all said they had a good time, but I still think my Railroading had a negative effect. Looking back at the session, I noticed something. The next scene after my use of Force was the fight between the Rivals and the PCs. The NPC shaman ended the fight by magically compelling the primary combatants to stand down--a power no one had seen before or expected. Because it came on the heels of my "wall", they assumed this was the wall again.*

Instead of fighting or giving up of their own accord, they surrendered because they wanted to play nice with what they perceived was the GM's scenario. Because they're polite roleplayers, who don't know me all that well (possibly not well enough to raise the kind of criticism we're talking about). So in that sense, I think they did get what they were expecting.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm not worried about Railroading because I care whether they're having a good time--it's all about me, and my entertainment!

Still, this discussion is great, especially since I'm right in the middle of Actual Play. In the past, the only time I got to have this kind of discussion was outside the context of a real game. Looking at my pregens, I'm thinking that I didn't make them sufficiently cocked, locked and ready to rock for a two-shot adventure.

*Edit:Goddammit! That was the wall again! For some reason, I decided that I could only spring the "loser gets eaten" thing if the shaman got them to stop fighting. In retrospect, what could be more orcish than settling a rivalry right now, with bloodshed? Gah! I'm a Railroader!


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Andrew Cooper on July 01, 2005, 04:34:12 AM
Quote from: Chris Geisel
*Edit:Goddammit! That was the wall again! For some reason, I decided that I could only spring the "loser gets eaten" thing if the shaman got them to stop fighting. In retrospect, what could be more orcish than settling a rivalry right now, with bloodshed? Gah! I'm a Railroader!


Let me try this from a different tack.

From the Provisional Glossary:

Quote
Force

The Technique of control over characters' thematically-significant decisions by anyone who is not the character's player. When Force is applied in a manner which disrupts the Social Contract, the result is Railroading. Originally called "GM-oomph" (Ron Edwards), then "GM-Force" (Mike Holmes).


Quote
Railroading

Control of a player-character's decisions, or opportunities for decisions, by another person (not the player of the character) in any way which breaks the Social Contract for that group, in the eyes of the character's player. The term describes an interpretation of a social and creative outcome rather than any specific Technique.


Quote
Illusionism

A family of Techniques in which a GM, usually in the interests of story creation, story creation, exerts Force over player-character decisions, in which he or she has authority over resolution-outcomes, and in which the players do not necessarily recognize these features.


Quote
Participationism

The Technique of using Force without the Black Curtain. Term coined by Mike Holmes.


Okay, now that we have the terms right in front of us...  You aren't a Railroader.  You are an Illusionist.  I struggle with this too, so I know where you're coming from.  I don't particularly want to be an Illusionist but the habits are hard to break.

The reason I say that you aren't a Railroader is that according to the definition you can't railroad a player that doesn't mind the use of Force on his character.  I know you said that it's not about them and that it's just about you but that isn't correct.  If it's Railroading, it is about them by definition.  The use of GM Force is only Railroading when it breaks the Social Contract.  From what you've said, I get the impression that it didn't.

You might think I'm just arguing semantics but I'm not.  When you use the term Railroading, I immediately think that you've broken the Social Contract of the game and that's a more serious issue than you being an Illusionist GM that wants to learn some new techniques and break out of the Illusionist mould.  The terms you are using indicate dysfunction in the group but your description of their attitudes don't indicate that at all.  So let me ask some more questions.

Do the other players want all the freedom from Force that you are trying to give them?

Does the Social Contract for the group include GM Force?

Have you discussed with them playing without overt GM Force?

I ask these because there are groups out there who WANT the GM to use some Force here and there to drive the plot.  It's just as dysfunctional to withhold that Force when the Social Contract demands it as it is to use Force when the Social Contract precludes it.  So, what were your player's responses when you appologized for using Force on them?


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on July 01, 2005, 09:15:22 AM
What is authority over resolution-outcomes? I'm curious because it sounds like fudging die rolls and other stealthy ways of the GM asserting his agenda. Anyway, I used the term railroading above because that's the term used by the group when they sense that the GM is forcing the game in a direction he wants.

I haven't gotten any responses to my apology, so I'm not sure where the group stands on Force. My gut feeling, based on what I've observed in the previous game we played (that did have Railroading, from my perspective) and some joking comments during my game, is that the players don't want Force, but have accepted it as part of playing in the group.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on July 01, 2005, 09:36:22 AM
Again, speaking from my own middling comprehension of all this:

Quote from: Chris Geisel
What is authority over resolution-outcomes? ....it sounds like fudging die rolls...


That's a blatant form, but there are subtler forms that don't count as "cheating" in most systems, where the players can roll all they want, and even succeed at everything they try, but the GM can decide it all doesn't matter. The archetypical example being something like

Quote
Player: I bet there's evidence on this guy in the office safe. Let's crack it!
GM: You what?
Player: I'm gonna crack the safe.
GM: Oh. Okay. It's really, really hard to...
Player: I still wanna try.
GM (glaring): It's a -15.
Player: Oh. [rolls] Critical success!
GM: Oh. Uh. You open the safe. And, uh, well, the safe's empty.
Player: Oh.


See? The GM never has to break the rules, s/he just has to use GM authority to set arbitrarily high difficulties for things s/he wants to fail, and arbitrarily low difficulties for things s/he wants to succeed, and -- this being the real insidious bit -- when the roll still doesn't go as desired, the GM just adds or subtracts details from the imaginary world to compensate: You open the safe? It's empty. You kill the Big Bad Guy in the first session? It was just his body double. You sold the One Ring of Plot Deviceness for beer money? NPC shows up and drops it back in your lap. You're settling things with the rival warband in your first encounter? NPC shaman stops the fight with sudden manifestation of megamagic.

Games with conflict resolution systems (discussed various places on this site and on Vincent Baker's Anyway (http://www.lumpley.com/)) and distributed GM powers (ditto) make it harder, but not impossible, to pull these tricks.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Andrew Cooper on July 01, 2005, 09:58:37 AM
Authority over resolution outcomes is exactly what Sydney said.  There are tons of techniques used for doing this too.  If you read most "mainstream" rpg GM Guides you'll find them filled with advice on how to do this.  The biggest, baddest and most prevalent one, in my opinion, is the infamous "Rule Zero."  This is the rule that gives the GM Godlike powers so that the players can't "mess up" the game.

Quote
I haven't gotten any responses to my apology, so I'm not sure where the group stands on Force. My gut feeling, based on what I've observed in the previous game we played (that did have Railroading, from my perspective) and some joking comments during my game, is that the players don't want Force, but have accepted it as part of playing in the group.


I'm just going on instinct here but I'll bet that the reason they accept it is that they have bought into The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on July 01, 2005, 10:11:25 AM
What is the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast? I've seen that term used before but never understood it.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on July 01, 2005, 10:18:15 AM
From the Glossary (http://indie-rpgs.com/_articles/glossary.html):

Quote
Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, the
"The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists." Widely repeated across many role-playing texts. Neither sub-clause in the sentence is possible in the presence of the other. See Narrativism: Story Now (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/narr_essay.html).


The disfunctional way the Impossible Thing often manifests is "I, the GM, have this really cool story! And you guys, the players, get to be the heroes! You can do anything you... uh, wait, you can't do that, that messes with my story. Oh, not that either. Or that. Uh, or that. No, I'm not going to tell you what to do, that would be taking away your freedom to -- no! Don't do that! What do you mean, you don't know what to do? Do I have to spell everything out? Fine, fine, an old man comes up to you in the tavern and tells you about this prophecy...."


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on July 01, 2005, 11:14:32 AM
Oh, and there's this recent essay on the Impossible Thing (http://ptgptb.org/0027/theory101-02.html), too.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on July 01, 2005, 01:01:19 PM
That does sound like, well, all of the games I've run (except possibly a TSOY game I ran). And all the games I've played in, too.

Where to go from here? I'm at a bit of a loss, now that I'm seeing my current game in this light.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Brand_Robins on July 01, 2005, 01:12:11 PM
1. You can admit that you like Illustionist play and make it functional by accepting it with your group. It's only a problem if people don't want it. A lot of players actually like Illusionist play over other types of play, even if they don't realize it until after they've played other types.

2. Do the harder road and learn to run in a different way. Ditch the thing and don't make up a story -- let the players do that. The threads that others linked above about bangs and relationship maps are good places to start reading about how to do this. It won't be easy, as you have to change your own assumptions, but you can do it, others have. As part of this I'd also look heavily at your TSOY game and why it wasn't this way, what you did there, and what you liked about it.

3. Make someone else run for you and do it that way. Support them by being a proactive player with good kickers and strong drive to help form and guide the story through the actions of your character.

4. Continue to play the way you are. Once again, it's only a problem if you and/or your players are unhappy. (Of course, it sounds like you are -- but why? Because you think this other thing would be better, or because you actually have real problems with what is going on now?)

5. Quit playing for a short time and come back to it fresh.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Valamir on July 01, 2005, 01:29:35 PM
Brand's spot on.

The only thing wrong with "traditional" GM-centric illusionist play is a) promoting it as the "right" way to roleplay, or b) doing it because you don't know of any other alternative and think that's "just how its done".

On the other hand, if one knows exactly what Illusionism is (which includes being willing to call a spade a spade and not try and claim the Impossible Thing is actually happening), how to use it well, and how to foster the enjoyment of everyone at the table, then it becomes a play technique as valid as any other.

Illusionism is only "bad" when one claims not to use but really is.

I applaud your efforts to spread your GMing wings and try out some other techniques whole-heartedly but don't make yourself feel guilty in the process.  When all is said and done, after you've got some experience with other techniques you might say "man this is great" and never look back, or you might say "you know, that old way I used to GM had some merits after all".  Either way, doing it with eyes-wide-open is infinitely better than doing it out of force of habit.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on July 01, 2005, 01:50:23 PM
I haven't GM'd for years (well, except for playing lots of Capes, where everyone has GM powers to introduce characters, plots, story elements et al), but, y'know, from my experience as a GM long before the Forge even existed, it's actually less work not to railroad.

Remember the dungeon? You've got a map-o-stuff, the players go in, they wander around, they follow the paths they think are interesting, they ignore the ones they don't, they pick the fights they think they can win, they hold off on the ones they don't, maybe the GM decides that the Orcs in Cave A hear about how the party wiped out Cave B and go ally with the goblins in Cave C, etc.

"A dungeon? But that's so pedestrian! I want a Story!"

Let go.

I'm not saying, "just run dungeon crawls." Not at all; in fact, I've never run one in my life (and hardly played in any, either). What worked for me, though, is what you might call a "dungeon without walls": The GM sketches out a world with a bunch of different non-player characters/groups/organizations/societies that offer various threats and opportunities -- the "monsters" and "treasures"-- and a bunch of different locations/cities/planets -- the "rooms" -- all of which are connected to some degree, at least by geography -- the "corridors" -- and ideally by various alliances, emnities, and conflicts of interest -- that's the equivalent of "the Orcs in Cave A hate the Trolls in Cave B but will ally with the Goblins in C in face of a strong threat, and will sell magic items to a Chaotic Evil party."

The high-powered Forge way to do this is called a "relationship map" (a Ron Edwards technique), which basically means you place all the major characters on a sheet of paper and start drawing lines of relationship among them (the trick is what is worth drawing a line for; much discussion in various Forge threads). If you're really sophisticated, the whole setting will keep posing particular moral questions the players will have to address (Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard (http://www.lumpley.com/dogsources.html) has a brilliant technique for this kind of design), which is where your Story will come from: not a linear series of events you mapped out in advance, but an assortment of dilemmas you posed for the players which they, not you, decide how to deal with.

Anyway, however you do it exactly, you, the GM, create a setting with a bunch of stuff you think is interesting.

Then you show the players. Everything? Not every single thing everything in all the details, especially since (a) you may have written way too much for them to wade through and (b) you don't actually have to have made up the details yet. But you show them everything important. E.g. if you were doing Star Wars, you would tell them about the Death Star; you probably should even tell them the Death Star has a secret weak point. The players should know the major locations, the major factions, the major NPCs, even the fact that, say, there's a Secret Evil Conspiracy to take over Faerieland.

And then you stop.

Because now the players take over. Whatever they want to do, wherever they want to go, you run with it. It's like that old dungeon: If they turn left instead of right, you don't force them back in the order direction, you run witheir choice and they end up in a totally different place.

So if they want to take down the Secret Evil Conspiracy, you figure out how the conspirators react; if they want to ignore the conspiracy and go hunt unicorns to make banjo strings from their guts, you figure out how people react to that. If you offer them the Death Star, and they say, gee that's scary, let's smuggle spice for Jabba, you put all your Death Star stuff in a back drawer and put your smuggler stuff on the table -- and probably start making up more smuggler stuff, fast.

"But I'll have prepped all sorts of stuff that the players won't ever see!"

Yup. You will inevitably create things that never come into play, because if you're presenting people with multiple choices, then by definition, you have to give them more choices than they can possibly take. They may never, ever get to the location or villain or whatever you found so interesting. You know what? That means it wasn't interesting to them.

Now, the way to keep from going blind and mad is to sketch out everything, but not go into too much detail until you see what the players want to do -- which means, in practice, you'll have to make a lot of stuff up on the fly. Rules-heavy systems aren't so good for this, and the improvization is demanding, but it's still a lot less work than exhaustively plotting every room, character, and clue in advance.

In fact, the way to make this even easier (though I personally didn't do enough of it as GM because I loved to write elaborate world backgrounds) is to enlist the players as co-authors from the get-go:

Quote
GM: "I'd like to GM a fantasy game, only with a vast empire ruled by dragons, what do you think?"
Player A: "Okay, fine, but no quests or prophecies, I want to be a low-level crook trying to get by."
Player B: "Yeah, half-dragon crooks! With Kewl Powerz!"
Player C: "And because the PCs are half-dragons, they are always caught in the middle, seen by the humans as being tools of the Dragon-Emperor but seen by the dragon aristocrats as tainted half-bloods."
GM: "Half-dragons? Huh, I hadn't thought of that..."


Because this way, they not only give you a good idea of what they want before you start prepping anything, they actually help you prep it.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Callan S. on July 01, 2005, 05:34:35 PM
Quote from: Sydney Freedberg
So if they want to take down the Secret Evil Conspiracy, you figure out how the conspirators react; if they want to ignore the conspiracy and go hunt unicorns to make banjo strings from their guts, you figure out how people react to that.

You might also want to ask the players, how they think the conspirators/people react. This isn't just for game input reasons, it's also for co-GM'ing reasons. If players just do stuff and then leave it to you 'to make it exciting' then you'll hit such a brickwall. The player should have some intent for the game, just like a GM, when they propose some course of action. Then you act like a co-GM who fills in the blanks of their intent. When they don't have an intent and just do stuff to see what happens...it'll be you providing everything and trying to string it along to some game intent of your own devising (ie, it's still illusionism).

Illusionism isn't just GM generated. It also comes from players who have never thought about performing GM'ing responsibilities even as they play and instead think that what they want will magically come from the GM. When what the GM will produce is purely the GM's story (and if the GM doesn't produce a story, there is no story...the players wont make one because their not taking on GM duties). Even if you want players to control the story, if they don't and as GM you are controlling it, they've made it an illusionist game.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on July 02, 2005, 12:00:53 AM
Okay, I meant "where do I go from here" in the lower-case, what to do next Tuesday with my current game, and you all answered the upper-case version of that question. Not that I mind; although I know something about r-maps some of the other techniques discussed here on the Forge, reading your responses was helpful. (I didn't realize there was a glossary of these terms until this thread... that would've been useful when I first came here). I've just never tried to use any of the stuff I've read about here until now.

I don't like Illusionism. I don't like it as a GM because it's a lot of work with few surprises. I don't like it as a player because I chafe when I can't contribute to the story, probably because I'm used to being a GM who is controlling the story. I also have issues with the whole "roll dice in secret"/GM knows best philosophy, where GMs are encouraged to fudge resolution in accordance with their judgement of what's best for the players.

I've got plenty to think about with regard to Where Do I Go From Here, in the larger sense. In the sense of What Am I Going to Run Tuesday, would you guys be willing to help me take a look at what I've got to work with in my current game, and suggest some Bangs for next session?


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Brand_Robins on July 02, 2005, 11:53:31 AM
I can try. I'm not always good at coming up with bangs for other groups, but I'll do as I can.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Callan S. on July 02, 2005, 03:47:59 PM
Quote from: Chris Geisel
Okay, I meant "where do I go from here" in the lower-case, what to do next Tuesday with my current game, and you all answered the upper-case version of that question.

I just see lower case. They aren't ideas that you save up for that one super amazing game you intend to run one day in the far future. They're all next Tuesday ideas.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on July 03, 2005, 09:45:09 AM
What Callan said. Although, yeah, okay, I did phrase my advice as "here's a way to handle an entire campaign," but it can be scaled down for a single session too:



1. Come up with a bunch of ideas the way you usually do, but don't flesh 'em out.

2. Ask everybody beforehand (e.g. over email), "Hey, I've got these three (or four, or whatever) ideas for next time, whaddya think?"

3. Go with the one they seem most excited about -- or, better yet, combine the two (or three, or whatever) they seem excited about.  [EDIT: this is why it's hard for us to come up with Bangs for your group, because while we're happy to look at your ideas, we're not able to see/read how your players react, and that is actually more important than the initial idea]. Flesh things out a bit, but...

4. The key step -- the "let it go" step: Don't have a "plot," as in "a sequence of things that's going to happen." Don't even have alternative branching plots. Don't even have a really cool climactic scene in mind, because if you do, you'll probably fall in love with it and start nudging your players towards making it happen.

5. Instead, just have a bunch of threats, opportunities, and, above all, really dynamic NPCs who will respond to whatever the players do.

6. Then pick up on whatever your players seem interested in and run with that part of the scenario, discarding the rest.



Tricky bit: If your NPCs are really active, how do you keep from railroading through them?
 - One way is to make sure the NPCs will not do the same thing no matter what the PCs do, but rather respond very differently to different PC actions. E.g. the Big Villain shouldn't always respond to any stimulus by trying to have the good guys killed (so they can capture the assassins, interrogate them to find the villain's lair, go to lair, etc. -- you've seen that plot before, haven't you?): Maybe he'll try to kill them if they attack his pet Monster A, but offer to help if they want to tangle with his rival Sorcerer B. That kinda stuff.
- Another way is to make sure the NPCs all want different things from the players. E.g. not everyone should be out to kill the party; it's more interesting if some NPCs want the party's help -- especially interesting if two NPCs each want the party's help against each other and will seek revenge if thwarted, because then, Bang!, the players have got to choose. (Note that if the players can say "ignore 'em both and keep on doing what we were doing," it's not a Bang; but a good Bang would probably allow the choice "run like hell from 'em both and hope they don't find us," because then the players are giving up other things they care about).

It all boils down to the idea of Bangs: (a) the players should have to make a choice -- the situation should be so explosive that even "sit here and wait" should be a choice, with all sorts of consequences coming down on the players' heads -- but (b) there should be no clear obvious choice -- especially not in your mind, because if you as GM have one in mind, your players will probably read you well enough to guess it instead of doing their own thing!

Most players have been railroaded often enough, and think it natural enough, that they'll look for any cues from you about what's the "right" way to do things. So you need to avoid giving those cues (although, even you don't, they'll probably think they were just responding to your cues when they were really thinking for themselves; see this old post (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?p=706&highlight=#706) for an example). Instead, you as GM need to be super-attentive to the cues the players give you about what they find interesting, so you can start giving them more of that. E.g. if they stop in an inn to buy food, and you make up some random innkeeper character off the cuff, but they start laughing at the dialogue you give this NPC and roleplaying a long conversation with him, you need to pick up on that interest and start inventing a family life and maybe some Orc problems for the guy.

Again, Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard has really excellent scenario-creation guidelines that are worth looking at. As in, I recommend you buy it. As in, now. As in, http://www.lumpley.com/dogsources.html.

For the longer run, other instructive games (not all of which I've played, mind you, so grain of salt suggested) are Matt Wilson's Prime Time Adventures, which has great advice on co-creating campaigns and adventures (and almost no other mechanics at all, really); Ron Edward's Trollbabe, which is streamlined and 100% designed to produce the kind of play we're talking about, including rules that let the player narrate new facts into the plot all the time; Ralph Mazza's Mike Holmes's Universalis, which gives everyone GM powers so railroading is just impossible; and Tony Lower-Basch's Capes (full disclosure: Was playtester. Get free pizza from Tony all the time), which gives everyone GM powers and makes it impossible not only to railroad but to protect any kind of plot if the other players aren't sold on it.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Kerstin Schmidt on July 03, 2005, 11:38:47 AM
Ok, you want to wrap up the game next session, so you don't have time for complications, building up conflict or anything.  You need to give your players options for cutting right to the chase.  

Currently from your players' point of view the characters are kinda out of options. They have lost the elves' trail, the orc shaman has suppressed their scuffle with the rival orcs, and now they are threatened with being eaten if they don't bring back the elves that they've already failed to find.

So you want to give them options, some ideas below.  Before I go into detail though, one thing is vital:  you need to make sure that the players realise they are going to be presented with various options, or they will likely jump on the first one presented and treat it as the "plot hook" they are supposed to follow.  And you say you don't want that.  

So don't try to spring the options on them IC one by one.  Instead, tell the players before the start of the session that you'll be presenting some choices and they are free to take the one they like best.  Then give them something like the following:

"You're hunched around your little fire discussing your options in low tones, away from the rest of the clan.  Here's what you've heard about since we ended last session:  NPC X has slunk up to PC A and told him.... ;  PC B has been approached by NPC Y offering..." etc.  
You might consider telling the players in clear words that all the options are genuine and they are free to choose. How far they'll trust you with that is their problem (and if they are anything like a veteran D&D group I used to GM for, they won't trust you very far at first),  but at least you'll have done all you could to let them know.  


Now here are some ideas, based on what you've written on your scenario ideas and play so far.  Mind you,  the players need to get all the info right as play starts or they'll start running after the first perceived "plot hook".  

Oh, and one more thing:  the following are only examples, meant to spark imagination. Use them if you like them, throw them if you don't.  You're certain to be able to come up with better ideas than I could.  As everyone else has said it's your group, and even though you haven't known them all that long you know tons more about their preferences than we do here.


- PC A is approached by NPC X who says he can lead them to the elves, if they then back him in his upcoming challenge of the clan bully NPC Q, a dangerous opponent.  

- PC B  is offered help by NPC Y and his gang to wipe out the rival group. Obviously if there's only one group left to hunt elves, the shaman will think twice about eating his last remaining elite hunters...

- PC C gets talked to by Z who wants C to make sure he and his buddies stay sober in the big drinking bout tonight. Apparently there's a *gulp* plan to overthrow the evil but scary shaman.  

Let the players hash out what they want to do.  Note why (for future reference, next time you GM for them you'll have a better idea of how they think). Are they thinking things through tactically, evaluating risks? Are they thinking about what's going to make them look coolest?  Going back to the elf-hunt because that was the original mission, or because they want a second chance? Going after the shaman because they hate him most?  Or what.


Then respect whatever option the players go for and play through it.  Cut straight to them finding the elves / ambushing the rivals / seeing the shaman totter (seemingly?) drunk to bed.  

If you have enough session time left at that point, you could consider complicating things a bit.  I'll just give you some thoughts for each option above.  Note that this makes things into a bit of a flowchart again and you don't normally want too much of that, you want to base your prep around the characters and not around specific events that happen.  

In this case however I don't know anything about the characters, so I'm working with what you say you've planned and introduced in play - and for a wrapup session it won't matter all that much.  

If PCs have gone after elves:  
- The elves are tracked down, but instead of hurling themselves desperately at their hunters, making a last stand or scattering to give some of them a chance ot get away, they try to talk.  They have stolen some easily breakable orcish McGuffin and are willing to give it up if the hunters let them go.  
(This could be the shaman's staff of power, but _only_ if the players have been quite keen to go after the shaman anyway. Don't do this if the players have shrugged the shaman option aside. You want to respect their choices, remember.)

Make clear that there is a real choice here:  the elves are likely to be able to escape if a deal is agreed - perhaps there's a magic escape portal close by only the hunters have intercepted the elves before they got to it.  If the hunters start killing OTOH, the elves could break the McGuffin and destroy its power.

And let things develop from there.  Of course if the players come up with a nifty trick to get both the McGuffin and the pesky elveses, more power to them.  
And whatever happens once they get back, with/without elves and/or McGuffin, see how they choose to approach the shaman, for example.  Make nice? Use his own staff against him?  Give him his staff back if he accepts them as their new elite guard? Tells you lots about how the players want to see their characters and what they like to see in play.


If PCs fight rivals:
- Whether they win or lose, they find some proof that the rivals have been dealing with the elves.  It might turn out that some of the rivals are elf reincarnations!
- One reincarnation might point to a PC and cry out, "But you are one, too!" At which point you might want to ask the player what he considers more fun:  his PC actually being a reincarnation, or the other orc trying a desperate but hollow bluff?  

And again let things develop from there. Etc.


If PCs go after shaman:  
I'm getting lazy.  Now you make something up. :-)


Does that help at all?


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Chris Geisel on July 03, 2005, 01:36:00 PM
That old post by Ron was a great read, thanks for pointing me there. Because I never really checked out the Glossary until now, I've always avoided the GNS forum because so much of the vocabulary and ideas seemed like a thieves cant. Now is probably a good time for me to digest the Glossary and try to figure out the framework for many of the discussions here.

Sydney, your post was the shove I needed to buy Dogs off the Forge bookshelf. Done, paypaled, please allow twenty-four hours. Rockin.

Kerstin's given me an idea of how to set up some explosive situations, so I think I have a handle on Sydney's Step 1. If there are dissenting opinions about whether Kerstin's ideas are the right starting point, please sound off. Originally I was going to start by posing more open-ended ideas to my players, such as "power struggle" vs "elf hunt", but Kerstin glommed on to my need for a speedy entry and resolution of the game.

Assuming they are, next up is Step 2. However, I strongly suspect that when I pose these ideas to the group, the general response will be that these choices are up to me, the DM. I bet the most common response will be variations of "these all sound good". Any thoughts about how to approach the rest of the group? Or how to proceed if I don't get much feedback?


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Callan S. on July 03, 2005, 05:05:41 PM
Quote from: Chris Geisel
Assuming they are, next up is Step 2. However, I strongly suspect that when I pose these ideas to the group, the general response will be that these choices are up to me, the DM. I bet the most common response will be variations of "these all sound good". Any thoughts about how to approach the rest of the group? Or how to proceed if I don't get much feedback?

Yeah, I've had the same sort of thing in the past (I think it helps lead to illusionism as I said before).

Think about the problem now: Putting myself in their position, I've had idea proposals made to me and I've gone blank on it myself. This is because -

A: If I agree to an idea, I'm essentially locked in to it if we play by the old methods. It's sort of like getting to choose the type of cage your to step into...getting that choice doesn't stop it from being a cage.

B: Rather than agree to anything, I could instead go passive agressive, saying that anything the GM wants to do is fine (note how this leaves responsiblity on the GM's shoulders, for how fun the game is?) and not give any input myself (giving input would be agreeing to something, which leads to A). Or I'd not commit to anything at all.
Note: Well, to give myself some credit, what I'd sometimes do in these situations is say 'Oh, option B would be cool...if this and this and this happened'. I'd try to add to it, but usually the GM would then go blank and not commit...because he fears being locked into doing these things in just the same way I do.

Responce A is based on not knowing any other way of handling it, a by product of the impossible thing before breakfast, where supposedly only the GM controls the story. Anything is a cage, if someone else exclusively controls the door.

All I can think of is emphasise that the ideas are just something to springboard off from and that at any time in game they can just be ditched and forgotten about. Really emphasise this! Give examples like "Well, we could be half way through a dungeon and then just say 'screw it' and leave the whole thing". Though it sort of gives you palpatations as GM, thinking that at any moment they might flee the prepped material you have, thus leaving you naked and thinking 'what do I do next?'. But that's why I was emphasising how players need to think as a GM as well...it shouldn't just be up to you to make something amazing happen next, when they abandon your prepped material. They should help steer the game in a cool direction and propose cool stuff they want to get into. Then you fill in the blanks (and if it's too hard to fill in some blanks, again the players are obliged to assist you (I think)).


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Kerstin Schmidt on July 05, 2005, 12:56:06 AM
Quote from: Chris Geisel
Kerstin's given me an idea of how to set up some explosive situations, so I think I have a handle on Sydney's Step 1.
...Assuming they are, next up is Step 2. However, I strongly suspect that when I pose these ideas to the group, the general response will be that these choices are up to me, the DM. I bet the most common response will be variations of "these all sound good".


Actually what I had in mind didn't quite have Sydney's step 2 in it, or not in a fully fleshed-out form.  Not at all because I disagree with him (that was brilliant advice) but because I didn't think you had the time to start a proper discussion before the actual session.  That's why I suggested to present choices at the start of the session in this case, and to give the info straight to the PCs as well.  (Kind of briefly touching on step 2. My bad for not making clear how I thought this should work.)

If you drop those choices right into the game with NPCs asking PCs for help as I suggested, it's clear it's not a "DM's job" to choose the path to follow.  It's been presented to the PCs, so obviously the players are supposed to deal with it somehow.

If your players are anything like a group of D&Ders I used to GM for, they'll now regard the choice put before them as some kind of obscure and tricky challenge, and will try to work out which option is the tactically most sound/least suicidal to take. They may suspect you of trying to screw them over by offering two "death traps" and only one viable choice.   Assuring them that that isn't what you're doing likely won't help (as Ron said in his post - I wish I'd had that when I was still wrestling with my D&Ders!), but hey. Let them approach their choice tactically and suspiciously if they insist.  It'll give you a chance to hang back and respect their decision, if nothing else.

Still, use Sydney's step 3. Listen for what the players sound excited about and consider combining their favourite ideas. This may well also include cues for ideas you hadn't even thought about like, "Maybe we should take a shot at that shaman." - "Don't you wish. Wish we could get back at that NPC NN too, wasn't he one arrogant bastard." (Typically followed by general assent and lots of disclaimers about how NN is likely faar too dangerous to meddle with...)    

And if they genuinely (as opposed to sulkily) say "these all sound good", well you could say, "Oh cool, then let's figure out a way to play them all. What do you think should come first?"  



And I now realise there's one thing I completely omitted to say in my earlier post, but should have. The way I set up these three choices it may look like the players can afford to have their PCs sit by the fire discussing their options to death and do nothing, and nothing will happen as a result.  Not good.  In fact, that's what you very, very, very much don't want to happen.  

But it's a bit tricky to deal with.  The instant you have NPCs do even the most minor thing to show that non-action will have consequences later (say, in a first step NPC X is jostled aside and insulted by the rival he means to challenge with the PCs' help), the players likely will leap up and run after that perceived "plot hook".  

So don't.  Instead do pretty much what you were going to do before I barged in, explain choices (except you do that after you've set up specific situations like the examples I suggested, so you'll be quick to start play).  
Show the players how their choice will lead to cool (but different) things for the PCs.  

Like, if the PCs successfully take out the shaman who's been controlling the warband with an iron fist, there's going to be lots of infighting later - tons of hitting things and chances to become renowned as brutal warriors.  If they manage to take out or subdue their rivals, the shaman will be have only the PCs as his elite hunting unit - a good position to be in to curry favour and lord it over other orcs.  Etc.   In your explanations show how you see the PCs ending up as cool people: this isn't about "power struggle" as such, it's about what the players want the PCs to be. The people with the big club who crush someone powerful and fight for dominance? Or the people who grasp an opportunity to use someone powerful to their own advantage? Or something else entirely that they may come up with.  


I know it's not an ongoing game, but give the players the feeling that they are making big-time choices for their PCs, in the sense that they can decide how their PCs will turn out in a major way.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Andrew Cooper on July 06, 2005, 04:57:56 AM
Quote from: Chris Geisel
Assuming they are, next up is Step 2. However, I strongly suspect that when I pose these ideas to the group, the general response will be that these choices are up to me, the DM. I bet the most common response will be variations of "these all sound good". Any thoughts about how to approach the rest of the group? Or how to proceed if I don't get much feedback?


Yes, I've had this problem before too.  I got around/through it by remember something I read in Stephen King's book, On Writing.  He said that one author friend of his told him that whenever he was at a loss for what should happen next in a book, he just had a guy show up with a gun.  He did it without knowing who the guy was or what his motivations were.  He figured all that out during the process of writing what happened.

Adapt this to your current situation.  The "guy with a gun" is some NPC, Monster or situation that shows up and *makes* the PCs do *something*.  You don't know what they're going to do but make it so they have to do something.  Anything.  Get over the initiatial creative inertia and things will probably go smoother from there.  Once they get going, you've already told them some of what their options are so they'll probably head towards one of those but they might do something totally different.  That's cool.  Let them.  That's what keeps it from being Illusionist or Railroading.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Thor Olavsrud on July 06, 2005, 01:29:28 PM
Hey Chris,

I think you need to back up a little bit and really think about what your players are into. Characters are just fictional constructs. Bangs don't work on characters. Bangs work on players.

So think about who your players are, what they're interested in, what they care about, and how those things are reflected in the characters they've made.

We can only stab wildly at possible bangs here unless we have an idea of what the players are about and why they care about their characters. Once we know that, creating potential bangs for them should be fairly easy.


Title: Narrativism Prompting
Post by: Mike Holmes on July 07, 2005, 01:31:34 PM
Wow, lots of great advice here.

So I'm almost loathe to do the following, and make an admission about my recent play that will hopefully highlight an important principle.

Recently I've been messing up on my own supposedly bang-driven play.

Now, what I don't want that to do is to discourage anyone. If Mike's messing up, and he's the one teaching the stuff, how can I do it? Just shows that I'm human and that there's hope for us all. Because I caught it and fixed it (I hope). And it turns out that it's practically the same mistake that you made in some ways.

What it comes down to is that the presentation of the style of play is really very important. Ralph talks about this a lot, but it's all about keeping the metagame chatter going. See, I've been playing a lot of IRC and PBEM lately, and in no less than three games that I've been running, I simultaneously noticed the same problem occuring: players were starting to turtle.

What the hell was I doing wrong that was causing these good players to turtle? Took me a bit to figure it out. I was getting lazy because keeping up with all the extra typing is a hassle. What was I ommitting?

Basically if you present a bang that looks like it's part of a GM originated plot, players will respond to it using their old trained sim tendencies. I had players in all three games who were "playing along" waiting for me to reaval the plot. Which is really problematic since I don't have a plot!

But these were carefully designed bangs, thought I. How could they not see that? Well, becuase sometimes it doesn't matter how interesting the question that you pose, if you pose it in the wrong way, players think there's only one right answer. Or don't care about the answer at all (since they're not getting to make it, or so they assume).

And it's a really simple cue that I was blowing. This is a crucial thing, though it seems really minor.

Never ask the players, "What is your character doing next?" See, I'm playing most of my games with a pretty traditional power split, as I assume you are. So, really, they only have control over their characters technically. But that idea can lead to actor stance responses if you don't try to shake them into author stance once in a while.

There are a few easy techniques to do this, but I was not prompting on any of them. That is, for example, though there is a traditional split I make it explicit in my games that players are free to ask me for whatever scene they think would be fun next. When players play this way, they're automatically catapulted into author stance. But though the option was theoretically open, since I wasn't prompting on it correctly, people felt as though the option was gone.

That is, instead of saying "What does your character do next?" I should have been asking things like, "What sort of conflict would you like to see in the next scene?" Or, "Who is your character tracking down and why?"

Definitely never say, "What are you doing?" That's even worse than what I do because it "expects" an actor stance response (a lot of this has to do with person and tense use per my recent discussion). Language is powerful.

What does this have to do with bangs? Well, let's look at your best bang:

4. The Elves are rescuing slaves that are reincarnated Elf Souls. One or more PCs are identified by the Elves as one such reincarnation (to mutual surprise).

Good bang. I take it that what it asks is: Do they capture the elves to save themselves, or refuse at this point?

(When you write down the bangs write what question it asks the players to answer, and you'll be sure it's a bang and not just an event. Keep in mind you'll probably have some events, too. You don't have to make everything a bang.)

OK, here's the obvious what not to do, "Well, you could join the elves, but the shaman is vastly more powerful than them, so you're really risking things." Even if this is true, such talk says to players, "He has a plot that we're supposed to stick to." GM's are trained to do this to avoid a gamism response of "That wasn't fair, you blindsided us!" But that's not the mode you're worried about here. Anyhow, even if you're not doing this, less subtly, don't say, "Well, the elves are there, what do you do? " Or even "Well, the elves are there, what do your characters do?"

Actually say, "Well, the elves are there, what sort of outcome do you think would be cool, Bob?" Where Bob is the player. When Bob says, "Oh, I'd like to see my character betray the elves!" then say, "Cool, how does he go about doing that?"

Now this is a stilted example, but it illustrates the technique. And you don't have to do it every time. But do it enough that people know that "What is your character doing?" is code for "What are you going to have your character do so that you get the coolest outcome you can imagine?" Start with a question directly to the player. After getting the player to state their intent, then ask them for how they're going to make that happen in-game.

Makes a whole ton of difference.

Another thing to do is (as somebody mentioned, I think) to simply discuss it with your players so they know that they have the authority to do whatever they want when the bangs come up. The only problem with this is, per my experience, we can all tend to fall back into old methods easily without the appropriate prompts. So make sure you prompt correctly and often.

Mike


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Callan S. on July 08, 2005, 09:17:17 PM
Hi Mike,

What do you think about reflexive actor stance though?
GM "Jim, what do you want to do with the situation I just proposed?"
Jim "...Ummm, I guess what what my character would do is (thinks) start looking for traps."
GM "Well, I'm more looking for what your interested in as a player?"
Jim "...Well, what can my character see?"
GM "What would you like him, as a player, to see?"
Jim "I don't get what you mean?"
GM "What do you want to happen next?"
Jim "Oh, anythings good!"

Actually, that final line looks like it ties into the previous advice I gave. Is there anything else to be done? whatcha think?


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Warren on July 09, 2005, 06:20:55 AM
This is something I found with my DitV game I ran this week. All the players have only really played simple dungeon-bash AD&D before, and I've come along to the club and introduced a whole new world of indie madness. Most of them like it, but I find the kind of conversation Callan describes above to be fairly common. I have to remind them each time that I'm interested in what the players want to achieve, and then we will set the stakes and resolve the conflict.

It seems to be working, and they all seem to like the fact their characters get to look a lot 'cooler' than simple D&D 'I swing at him' narration.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: S'mon on July 11, 2005, 03:36:58 AM
Quote from: StalkingBlue
If your players are anything like a group of D&Ders I used to GM for, they'll now regard the choice put before them as some kind of obscure and tricky challenge, and will try to work out which option is the tactically most sound/least suicidal to take. They may suspect you of trying to screw them over by offering two "death traps" and only one viable choice.   Assuring them that that isn't what you're doing likely won't help (as Ron said in his post - I wish I'd had that when I was still wrestling with my D&Ders...


To be fair, you did actually kill all our PCs, and most of those deaths seemed due to our lack of tactical acumen or the lethality of the ruleset combined with the lethality of the Midnight setting.  You even told us once or twice "If you hadn't done X you would have all died", so I don't see how this was an issue of players at fault for thinking in a d20 mindset.

On topic - I also don't think there were any actual Bangs in the OP. Just a standard plot-railroad.  >:)


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Mike Holmes on July 11, 2005, 05:24:54 AM
Quote from: Noon
What do you think about reflexive actor stance though?
Play D&D.

Rather, players who are already canalized to this sort of play, and can't seem to get out of it, are, in fact, going to have more problems than a little prompting can solve, likely. It might take some outside of play discussion about the style you want to play, or something. Or, perhaps, they're simply not the sorts who are going to like this sort of play.

But you can prompt more powerfully if you really want to do so. For example, in a bang situation, ask them the bang question in an OOC fashion. Like:

At this point there are probably lots of things your character can plausibly do. For instance, betray the elves, or join their side. Either way would be lots of fun. Which do you think would be coolest? It's your character, you decide where this is going to go.

Don't present open-ended options if you can't take the "oh, anything" response, or suspect that's what you'll get.

The thing is that you don't have to really give the player any more power than the traditional GM/Player split. That is, with a real bang, just controlling the character can produce the appropriate results. Yes, even an actor stance decision in this case is actually not a failure. It just means that you can't be sure that the player was playing according to his desires, and, therefore, what their desires are. The prompting is to get that player opinion out in the open, so the player knows it's OK to show it.

Mike


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Callan S. on July 11, 2005, 08:53:47 PM
We do play D&D! :) The thing is, for various reasons I really don't want to write up trail blazing session notes. I want to take the direction where players will suggest their own challenges...not just saying that they side with the elves, but also what they hope to earn by that and roughly what difficulties they would face in earning that. Those last two items have to be open ended questions, unless I go back to writing trail blazing session notes again.

Edit: I suspect I'm going to (perversly?) compare this to when we play the PS2 game "Time splitters", to get the idea across. In the multiplayer for that weve all sat down many times to decide the mission type, decide how many bad guys we will face (and at what level of AI) and what weapons will be involved. Same principle really.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Mike Holmes on July 12, 2005, 06:45:54 AM
Well,  as always, you know my thoughts about using the wrong system to play a particular mode. Bangs don't work well with D&D, because D&D informs the player that their role is that of problem solver. Not theme creator. So when looking at a bang, the player will always be looking for the solution that gets them the most EXPs. Which often bangs won't have balanced out. Meaning only one choice.

Play TSOY instead.

Mike


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: S'mon on July 12, 2005, 07:06:30 AM
I agree with Mike that D&D is oriented towards Gamist play.  OTOH it's certainly possible to let the players know that their PCs have a range of viable options, and that they should decide based on preference.  If the players are paranoid (as we were playing Stalkingblue's Midnight game, after the first few PC deaths) it's best to do this out-of-game; it's fine for the GM to say "These are all valid choices, all with potential dangers and rewards, none is a death trap", if you like.

Edit: While I have seen Bangs in D&D, they tend to be emergent in play, not pre-planned or pre-negotiated.  In SB's game, because we lost a battle, my PC Zana had to decide whether she preferred an honorable but futile death in battle, or surrendering to try to save the life of her friend Jez.  I always felt that the way SB GM'd, either choice was potentially valid, and there were several others like this in the campaign - like "Do I kill the prisoner, or risk him alerting the enemy?"  I think a combination of SB's talented GMing and the dramatic nature of the Midnight setting enabled a fair bit of 'driving with bangs' despite the potential handicap of the d20 ruleset.


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Mike Holmes on July 12, 2005, 07:46:29 AM
Gamism Bangs? I suppose.

But presuming players in the gamism mode, this presumes that they want challenge. Meaning that the GM should, in fact, not be presenting equal options, but ones that do have better and worse outcomes. So that picking the right one is, in fact, a challenge.

This is the basic modal incoherence between gamism and narrativism. Narrativism options have to have the same ability to provide theme. Gamism options have to have disparate outcomes. If they are all the same, then there's no challenge in selecting the right outcome.

Now you can mix, certainly, but then you run the risks inherent with incoherent play. One of the largest is that, somehow even when you talk about this sort of thing OOC, even when you get players nodding that they understand, somehow the game rules mess with players heads, and they fall back into a familiar pattern.

"Why did we kill the baby kobolds? Because they weren't worth any EXP alive."

To use my campy example. If it works for your group, great. But if you feel that your game needs bangs, then I think you are probably also feeling a need for a system that supports that mode of play.

Mike


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Callan S. on July 12, 2005, 06:51:18 PM
Quote from: Mike Holmes
Gamism Bangs? I suppose.

But presuming players in the gamism mode, this presumes that they want challenge. Meaning that the GM should, in fact, not be presenting equal options, but ones that do have better and worse outcomes. So that picking the right one is, in fact, a challenge.

I gree with your entire post, but I think in terms of gamism it has the oversight that I'm trying to deal with. The idea that the GM only ever presents choices as a challenge. When I mentioned setting up a co-op game of time splitters deathmatch, it's because when one of my friends suggests "Okay, how about ten stupid bots with machine guns? Or perhaps only a couple of tough as nail bots with rocket launchers?" he's not presenting me with options where I'm supposed to evaluate the best one and take that. It's really my choice as a player what sort of challenge I want to jump into.

Whatever the gamist GM says, can it only ever be treated as a trick question?


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: contracycle on July 13, 2005, 12:19:28 AM
I agree with Noon's point.  Thinking about things like Power/Evil has recently priompted this idea: why not be much more explicit about the challanges that are posed?  Why not even let players choose them?  Further, why use an abstract reward system when a concrete one could also be used?

To explain the last point first, the distinction I am claiming between abstract rewards and concrete rewards is the distinction between a bunch of XP and an actual change on the charsheet.  That is, conventionally we award XP and allow players to spend them on whatever they want, but why not offer them what they want up front?  Then you can say, this challenge carries the reward "4 levels of Swordsman skill" or something like that.

Prompted by some elements that have become standard in PC games, like checkpoint saves and explicit goal lists accessible through the game menu, such challenges could also be checkpointed up front so that the player knows what the express goals are.  So the challenge associated with the above reward of 4 levels of Swordsman skill might be:

Rescue the Princess
1) Break into Castle Dread
2) Kill the Evil Count and get the dungeon key
3) Find your way to the Dungeons
4) Escape via the sally port

The reason we do not conventionally do this sort of thing is in order to retain the "surprise" and discovery associated with Sim.  But for strict gamist purposes such concerns can be ditched.  Such an explicit structure would facilitate scene framing, by having clear points at which the process has developed from one stage to the next.  In addition, the use of concrete rewards might prompt more discussion between player and GM as to what they want ourt of the game and their characters.

It also opens the possibility that individual players could be pursuing individual challenges that coincide or overlap, if such is even necessary - conceivably an explicit system like this could be re-integrated with open, Tourist sim in a manner reminiscent of MMORPG's.[/b]


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Silmenume on July 13, 2005, 01:38:28 AM
Just a quick thought on the parallels between Narrativist Bangs and the idea of Gamist Bangs.  What contracycle proposed seems to incorporate overtly, as in the Gamist equivalent of overtly discussed Narrativist scene framing based on Premise issues, the notion of Ron’s Go’s or “Go lengths” in the Gamism essay (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/21/).  Contracycle’s proposition sort of fills in the other half of the “Go length” coin.  IOW’s the player’s are aware of the Go’s and can have a say in them.  There may be some good stuff to be mined in this type of game design.

Sorry to disrupt, back to the topic at hand…


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Mike Holmes on July 13, 2005, 07:10:02 AM
I've refered to this split in the elements of gamism as spliting the arena from the challenge. I agree that it exists. But even so, in most of this style of game arena selection is simply a meta-challenge.

Take, for instance, a game like Omega, a "Roguelike" game on the computer. That game presents a whole world and you can go anywhere and do anything. But one of the challenges is discovering the difficulty of the different arenas of conflict. One of them is, actually, the arena in the city, where you can combat every increasingly more difficult to take out monsters, gaining wealth and status in the Gladiator's Guild (or somesuch). The weakest of the "dungeons" is the sewers in the city. Once you've done that for a while, the rewards of playing through it become small enough that you want to head out of the city and find more difficult dungeons.

So, while it's certainly possible to present arena selection as a separate element from the actual individual challenges to be overcome, in gamism you still tend to get players looking at the arenas in terms of the ratio of the rewards/ability to the danger presented by the arena.

To the extent that players are deciding to select arenas based on what's important to their characters, etc, this is sim supportive hybrid play. Which has the annoted tendency (note, not saying it always happens) to fall into incoherence as the gamism motives try to over-run the sim ones.

There's also that form of "gentelmen's gamism" where the player uses the arena selection moments to use more narrativism-ish decision-making processes understanding that if they make a poor tactical choice here, they're merely "handicapping" themselves in the upcoming challenges.

Can you make a game where this works functionally most of the time. I'd say take a look at The Riddle of Steel. Yes, you can do it in D&D, or any other primarily gamism supporting game. It's just a lot harder to get the players to understand what you're doing.

So do they always think it's a trick question? Well, no, but without some mechanical indicator, they do tend to do so. Thinking that the option that you present is more like the Omega option, than a sim or nar one. Do we go to the dungeon with the "4-7th level" on the cover, or the one with "7-10th level" on it, if we're mostly 7th level? That's a challenge question. Many players will think that your question of which way to go is such a question, unless something informs them otherwise.

With the elves situation the gamism think goes something like, "Well, if we stick with the elves, what can they give to us? Maybe we'll be heroes when we return to town? Or they can become henchmen? Or maybe we can conquer the orc shaman, get his EXP, and loot? OTOH, it might simply be safer to go with what the shaman wants, get the EXP for killing the elves, and come back later and kill the shaman when we're higher level.

No, not everyone will play this way. But some will, when presented with such questions. Interestingly, even if you tell them not to use this sort of decision-making process. The system informs play.

Mike


Title: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad
Post by: Ron Edwards on July 13, 2005, 08:25:58 AM
I believe we have experienced significant thread-drift. Let's close this one and take up related/daughter topics in new threads of their own.

Thanks,
Ron