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Author Topic: [d20 Fantasy] Bangs don't always stop the Railroad  (Read 15357 times)
Chris Geisel
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Posts: 55


« 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 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.
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Chris Geisel
Adam Cerling
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« Reply #1 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.
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Adam Cerling
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #2 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!"
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #3 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}
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Andrew Norris
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Posts: 253


« Reply #4 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."
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Valamir
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« Reply #5 on: June 29, 2005, 01:53:45 PM »

See What the Heck is a Bang for some hard core advice on what Bangs are and how to craft them.
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Chris Geisel
Member

Posts: 55


« Reply #6 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.
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Chris Geisel
Luke
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« Reply #7 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
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Mister Six
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« Reply #8 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
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Andrew Cooper
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« Reply #9 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.
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Chris Geisel
Member

Posts: 55


« Reply #10 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!
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Chris Geisel
Andrew Cooper
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« Reply #11 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?
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Chris Geisel
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« Reply #12 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.
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Chris Geisel
Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #13 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) and distributed GM powers (ditto) make it harder, but not impossible, to pull these tricks.
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Andrew Cooper
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« Reply #14 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.
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