Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Example

Like my previous post, this is an inchoate one -- notes toward a thesis to be published later, if you will. I thought I'd share a very memorable example from my own gaming history of how a campaign with a referee-created succumbed to what I see as the inherent danger of such things: the referee came to love his own ideas so much that those of his players weren't even considered. I'll say again that I am not saying this outcome is inevitable or even unavoidable, only that it's likely and highly problematic and one of the reasons why I have come to eschew the notion of "theme" or "story" in planning a new campaign. It's only an anecdote and thus highly specific and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates well what I'm talking about.

Some years ago, I joined a campaign in which a character who'd previously been established as the last surviving heir of a far-off kingdom received an invitation by members of a rebel faction who wished him to return to his ancestral homeland and claim his rightful throne. The reason they wished him to do this was because, after the deposition of his ancestor (I think it was his grandfather but it may have been more distant), the priesthood of an evil ice goddess -- this was a northern realm -- took over the reins of power and they were nasty and tyrannical, as evil priests usually are in fantasy worlds.

The character in question knew of his ancestry but never gave much thought of returning to his homeland. He certainly had no interest in becoming a king, but he was good-aligned and the rebels told of the horrible atrocities committed by the evil priests, so he eventually agreed to return and lead this rebellion that had been fighting in his name for some time. He collected some mercenaries and brothers in arms to join him (my character was one of them) and together they set off into the frozen north to fight against the minions of the ice goddess.

So far, so good. The problem was that, as we soon discovered, even the rebellion worshiped this evil ice goddess and propitiated her with human sacrifices each winter in order to keep the worst weather away. The referee explained to us (through the rebel NPCs) that the state religion had always been devoted to the ice goddess. The objection to the priesthood was not their beliefs as such, but that they had usurped the proper place of the king. Their "tyranny" was mostly that they had upset the social order, not that they had imposed an evil religion upon the land.

Needless to say, none of us, least of the character of the heir to the throne, would have any truck with the idea of participating in a rebellion dedicated to evil (we were all good-aligned as well), even they did so as appeasement rather as piety. Now, it had previously been established in the game world that the beliefs of mortals were what gave gods their power and that new "aspects" of a god might spring into being if there were enough mortals with a heretical/heterodox interpretation of that god's teachings. We then hit upon the plan to use the rebellion not just to place the heir upon the throne, but to create an alternate, "friendlier" version of the ice goddess by manipulating the beliefs of the common folk of the northern kingdom -- the ultimate in psychological warfare. We thought it a great idea and one with a bizarre fantasy feel to it. In short, it'd be the basis for a memorable campaign.

The referee, though, would have none of it. His plan for the campaign was about the heir's having to come to grips with the nature of the society whose rulership he had inherited. Over time, there'd be many other aspects of his people that he'd learn about that would "challenge" his previously held notions and this would lead to a great campaign. There was also, if I recall, the introduction of a woman, unpleasant in some way, who belonged to some important faction or other and thus was intended to be betrothed to the heir. My friend, who played the heir, would have none of it; his character had been led to the northern realm under false pretenses and he felt it reasonable that he'd take action accordingly. More to the point, the ideas he and the rest of us players had come up with were exciting and interesting and at least worth a try. Even if we failed, who can say that plotting to use a rebellion to give birth to a new god isn't fantasy roleplaying at its finest?

The referee simply wouldn't budge on this point. He had already made it clear what the campaign was about and had done a lot of work to plot out this campaign. He wasn't interested in taking our alternate ideas and running with them -- ideas, I might add, that made perfect sense given the setting and the nature of the characters involved. I still look back on this failed campaign as an opportunity lost, because it could very well have been an amazing one. The setup for the campaign was fine and the reaction of the players to that setup reasonable. The problem was that the referee didn't see that reaction as reasonable at all, because it was strongly at variance with the "story" he wanted to tell. And so the campaign died before it ever got very far.

I tell this not to suggest that there is nothing to be gained by considering long-term plans in a campaign or that there's something inherently wrong with a campaign's focusing on a particular activity or activities. However, I do believe there's a great danger in attempting to plan story arcs for characters or settings. That danger is identifying these plans as what the campaign is about, when, in point of fact, a campaign is about what the players say it's about through their choices and actions in-game. Sandbox play is not the only way to ensure no one forgets this, but it's a very good one. The further one gets away from that style of campaign, the greater the danger that what I experienced in that long-ago campaign will come to pass.


  1. You hit the proverbial nail on the head with this example.

    If that was the premise of his game concerning gods then he should have gone with the consequences of the players trying to do what you just did.

    Now if it was so certain that even the rebels would kill the players if even a subtle hint of heresy was introduced. As a referee I would be obligated to communicate this to the player in a way so that they discover it before being killed.

    This is not because of story but simply as the DM are the sole conduit of information about the game world. In normal interaction with people are dozens of cues people pick up on to size up a situation. With tabletop you have to keep in mind that those cue aren't there unless you as the DM provide them.

    If the referee doesn't do this and kills the party. He or she is being a jerk about the issue. It makes it doubly worse if it was done of spite over the monkey wrench thrown into his plot.

  2. A great example.

    Would you say that your DM's approach to this campaign exemplifies a more "new school" approach to the game (broadly defined perhaps) or is it just poor game mastering?

  3. Re-reading your previous post, I see that it too was about flexibility in plotting, rather than being against plotting.

    It seems the problem was the DM's inflexibility in providing a fun game, which breaks the fundamental rule: you're there to have fun - and if the players obviously aren't having fun, you need to change what you're doing.

    As a simulation of actual emigres and foreigners getting involved in actual civil wars in order to "bring civilisation" to the warring state, both the series of unpleasant surprises and the inflexibility seem perfectly reasonable - perhaps prophetic, if the game was played before 2001. I'm wondering if the problem here was insensitive railroading or an excess of old school simulationism, or merely the way in which the DM presented his game. Even though your idea was a good one, he had no obligation to make its implementation easy. It seems you had a sense that it never had any chance of working, however. I wonder what resolution he had in mind: was the campaign supposed to be endlessly frustrating? Were you supposed to reach a break-point where you decide to change course completely? Could he have shown you some acceptable options?

  4. James - thanks for a thought provoking read. I'm curious how this campaign ended...did the players have a chance to express their displeasure about where the story was going, or did everything just sort of fizzle out?

  5. Patrick,

    The campaign just ... died. Back then, we ran a shared world campaign with at least three different PC groups operating in different parts of a single setting. PCs would occasionally swap between groups and there were strands of connection between them. So, there was never any incentive to stick with any one campaign if it wasn't appealing -- and so we didn't. We reached a break point where all the players involved in the rebellion campaign decided we were more interested in the other campaigns and so we played those each week rather than going back to it. After a few months, it was clear no one missed it and that was that.

  6. Would you say that your DM's approach to this campaign exemplifies a more "new school" approach to the game (broadly defined perhaps) or is it just poor game mastering?

    A little of both. This was the early 90s, at the height of the "storytelling" phase of RPGs and, while the referee was explicitly not keen on the whole White Wolf thing, he did like epic fantasy stories. I get the impression that he wanted to simulate them and so constructed the campaign in that fashion. I suppose I should ask him, since I still game with him and he's a far, far better referee now than he was back then.

  7. It seems you had a sense that it never had any chance of working, however. I wonder what resolution he had in mind: was the campaign supposed to be endlessly frustrating? Were you supposed to reach a break-point where you decide to change course completely? Could he have shown you some acceptable options?

    The whole point of the campaign was that, ultimately, the rebellion and the usurping priesthood would have to join forces to work together against an outside threat not yet revealed at the start of the game. The theme of the campaign was about cultural accommodation and putting aside differences to fight a common foe. Even leaving aside the fact that I think that's much too heavy handed a basis for any campaign -- it presumes too much -- the simple fact is that we played our characters as good-aligned and who would brook no accommodation with evil, even "necessary evil." There was simply no way we'd join forces with the priesthood of the ice goddess. Had we known about the coming threat, we'd either have fought them at the same time as the priesthood or sought outside aid to help us. But accommodation? No way.

    It was just a bad campaign premise, because it presumed we'd just go along with the story as it was laid out before us and we weren't buying.

  8. 'Would you say that your DM's approach to this campaign exemplifies a more "new school" approach to the game (broadly defined perhaps) or is it just poor game mastering?'

    Sounds like poor GMing to me. It's one thing to have ideas in mind, a GM should have some meat on the bone of adventure for the PCs to get invovled with. It's another thing all together to utterly disregard PC input. If the PC ideas are plausible, it wouldn't be right to not run with it. If the ideas aren't plausible then you should still let them run with it, but as Rob mentioned, give them a chance to understand that they might just be trying to ski uphill. From there you can let the consequences fall in as entertaining a manner possible.

  9. I experienced this exact same sort of thing before. It is railroading of the worst sort.

    Back in the early 1990s, before everyone in the world was exposed to The Matrix, my gaming friends played GURPS Cyberpunk. One person in our group, an aspiring writer, wanted to run a cyberpunk campaign. We all made up our unique characters and dove right in.

    I honestly don't remember anything about the plot. Something involving cyber-gangsters or some sort of crime syndicate. The first encounter took place in a small store in the downtown of some Blade Runner-like city. It was a firefight involving crazy cybernetic body part gadgets and was good fun.

    After a few encounters, it became painfully apparent that the plot seemed to center upon NPCs and not on the PCs. It was as if we PCs were merely an audience. And if we deviated from the GM's intended story, we were punished.

    It was railroading, pure and simple. And it was in important lesson for me and the other players. I don't think the GM learned a lesson. But I hope he went on to be a writer, which was what I think his true calling.

    At the time, this experience did not wake something inside of me and make me go back to my old school gaming ways. On the contrary. The lesson for us was that the GM should only set up a general outline of campaign parameters. Within those parameters, plot hooks can be presented to the PCs. Once the characters are involved, the GM should try his best to coax the players along, providing incentive to pursue the next steps in an interesting story arc. The DM should do his best to improvise and entertain. But the danger was always descent into railroading.

    But, more than a decade later, I've come to the conclusion that even pre-planning a story arc is a chore that is a waste of time.

  10. I've never played in or run a campaign like this (though I may have had an occasional adventure where I forced things). I have observed some campaigns like this. I have also seen modules (some of the later D&D modules plus modules for other systems - most notably 7th Sea, and Deadlands to a lesser extent, also I remember a Top Secret SI module that advocated heavy handed railroading techniques).

    The problem with the example above is not that the GM had a theme/premise in mind to address, but that he had in mind the outcome. The "narativist" ("story now") gaming that Ron Edwards describes removes the GM intended outcome and just lays the premise out on the table. It is then up to the players what to do with it.

    One thing that I think is important to note about gaming is that every game must happen within some constraints, but once those constraints are set, the players should have a lot of latitude is deciding where to take the campaign. Of course, sometimes the direction the campaign starts to take will turn out to be not fun to someone. In that case, rather than the GM forcing an outcome, the best way to handle it is to discuss the problem, and as a group decide if abandoning the campaign, changing direction, or letting the chips fall where they may is the best solution.


  11. Interesting story. One of my favourite characters tried a similar thing in Greyhawk, starting a fire cult in order to "create a deity". The DM led me a merry path before revealing that Iuz had usurped the role of prospective deity to be! Cunning Bastard!

    More on topic, though, I am guilty of having done this before. An infrequent and story heavy campaign got too story like when I presented the players with a map of an "evil domain" and they wanted to enter it by a different route than I had expected or prepared for...

    ...I forced them to go the route I wanted. And realised about two seconds later that I had become too inflexible and involved in the story. An otherwise fantastic campaign that had gone on for years in a much more freeform style had gone awry.

  12. I suppose I should ask him, since I still game with him and he's a far, far better referee now than he was back then.

    Then perhaps the campaign was really a success. No amount of philosophy of any school will teach you how to be a better referee than actually diving in and making mistakes. ^_^

    Ask him how he would handle it differently in hindsight.

  13. While on the topic of unwanted GM-driven storylines...

    Many recent games include mechanics to solicit player input on the content and direction of the game. D&D4E has player-generated quests, Riddle of Steel has spiritual attributes, Reign has Passions and Goals, The Shadow of Yesterday has Keys, etc, etc. They're broadly known as 'flags' in indie circles.

    Typically, when a player creates a flag, they also have to create a motivation or goal or situation that goes along with it, like 'secretly loves best friend's husband' or 'wants to start a new privateer company' or 'wants to reconnect with mentor who hates him' or whatever. And when players play to their flags, they get benefits -- experience points, better in-game performance, what-have-you. This is to encourage players to think up flags and to pursue them in the game.

    Flags generally aren't ironbound contracts. They don't lock a character or a campaign into a single story, and can certainly change over the character's life. Flags also don't state the outcome of whatever thing they address. The person with the secret love might never get to take that love public; the prospective privateer might get publicly shamed and earn a bad reputation that'll scuttle his dreams of leadership. Only the process of playing the game will sort that business out.

    I know some players in the games that I GM aren't interested in flags -- they're happy to just let me unspool the game to them. And that's cool. Coming up with game stuff is not a problem for me. But I want to do my best to create stuff that's interesting to the players. So, as a GM, I really love flags, and when somebody makes one, I do my best to put some compelling stuff around it. They help me customize the game to the players. And as a player, they help me signal to the GM, hey, this is something I'm interested in, here.

    Sure, we could do all this without game mechanics. We could just, y'know, talk. But the promise of a reward stirs players' imaginations, I find, better than the usual "um, so what kinda things do you guys want to see in this campaign?" :)

  14. Wow, that Flags idea is really interesting. I'll have to remember that for my next game.

    James, the more you explain old-school gaming, the more I find myself in agreement with some of its principles... But I still dislike the OD&D mechanics. =P

  15. Not to sound a little bothered, but flags is the needless enshrining in rules what should be the natural process of the PCs emphasizing, through their actions, what they want to do to a GM who should be paying enough attention to run with it. These past two posts here more than imply this.

    The practice existed way before the rules were divined.

  16. James, the more you explain old-school gaming, the more I find myself in agreement with some of its principles... But I still dislike the OD&D mechanics.

    I tend to agree. But I can't help thinking that I'll end up trying a game session of OD&D. Just to see what it's like.

    For now, I'm soaking in 4e. I like how the rules are simpler than 3.5e. I intend to use 4e for 0e-style campaigns.

  17. On rereading James' post, I realized I missed the idea that there was already a little flag on everyone's character sheet in his example game -- the good alignment -- and the DM totally missed that. So, yeah, it's not like these flags I'm all excited about are the perfect technology to stop this kind of thing from happening, or that they're anything new...

    But I do want to respond to zweihander:

    the practice existed way before the rules were divined.

    Certainly, and I hope I didn't sound like I meant otherwise. Flags are merely a best practice encoded directly in the game rules.

    I disagree that it's needless, though. The idea that GMs should tailor their games to focus on things that their players enjoy isn't very controversial -- but neither is it very obvious. I've played with many, many GMs who absolutely did not understand this. I've (sadly) been that GM. I would've really appreciated a flag rule when I was 17 or so. My long-suffering players would have appreciated it more.

    So "tailor your game to the players" is a best practice (or, at least, a really good idea.) Why not reinforce that in the rules?

    I also believe that heavily formalized rules can really help new players who don't or can't already belong to some gamer community, and aren't steeped in its conventions. The less left unsaid by the rules, the easier time they'll have learning the game.

    My friends and I learned D&D in the wintry isolation of rural northern Canada. We had no one to teach us. There was none of this 'apprenticeship' stuff. Luckily, we were blessed with the Moldvay rules as our first set. It told use everything we needed to do at any point in the game, and explicitly set out what everyone's responsibilities and duties were. Later on, we dismissed rules that didn't really help us (like the 'caller' thing) but we really benefitted from Moldvay's firm, unambiguous explanations in the early going.

  18. 'So "tailor your game to the players" is a best practice (or, at least, a really good idea.) Why not reinforce that in the rules?'

    When something becomes a rule it becomes one more expectation that must be followed. I've noticed that especially today, games and the gamers who play them are very much shaped by the rules, what they include and exclude. Though flags as an idea are laudible making them a rule can become for many, not a best practice, but a straitjacket. The PCs and the GM can start to see the flags as sacrosanct and start to bend their wills only to fulfilling the flags, especially if there is an in-game benefit to be had for the PCs.

    What starts as good advice and maybe even a good rule for other types of play has become one more form of inflexibility that is IMO antithetical to sandbox play.

  19. The biggest thing I've taken from these last few posts is that this style of gaming is reminiscent of classical American values--that our characters have the potential to be great based upon the player's actions, wit, and a little bit of luck. It throws destiny and fate out of the window, and I think, to a degree, that's what gets more modern styled gamers upset.

    Going along with that, I firmly believe that one of the biggest differences between early pulp fantasy (Conan, etc.) as compared with modern high fantasy that so many new players are familiar with, concerns our literary inspiration and background.

    I feel that "old school" and "sandbox" gaming is evocative of the western genre--a clear source of influence and interest to Robert E. Howard. This gaming has more in common with "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", "Shane", or "Bonanza" than it does with "Lord of the Rings."

    Striking it out on the borderlands--the frontier--and fighting against all odds to establish your place in the world.

    That's just me, though.

  20. verhaden - no, it's not just you. I could have saved a lot of breath here by just saying "pulp fantasy is mostly a rewriting of the Western."

  21. Westerns are an important part of D&D literary ancestry, although more remotely than those of pulp fantasy, not all of which were completely consonant with the mores of the Western genre. That said, there's a huge affinity between them and I expect the degree to which one understands and/or appreciates the Western will say a lot about the degree to which one understands and/or appreciates old school D&D.