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Rolling with the plot

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If you're reading this, you either have a brilliant idea for a story you wish to tell or you simply want to play some dungeons and dragons, but can't find a group to join. If you're the former, be prepared for your players to stupidly stumble through one shenanigan after another and derail and destroy your perfect vision of the story. If you're the later, well, be prepared for your players to stupidly stumble through one shenanigan after another.



Now, there is nothing wrong with having a story that has no real major plot to it. This is more of a sandbox style game and it can work fairly well at low levels. However, the most interesting games will require some larger story going on where the characters are the key roles which drive the story to one conclusion or another. There is a fine line between good storytelling and railroading your party, so as a DM it is your job to make them want to go along with the plot presented before them. This can sometimes be tricky, but there are several good ways:


Tick them off
Get your players angry at something. If you have an evil cult which wants to perform a terrible ritual, have them need to wait a few months before it can be performed. In the meantime, have the party stumble into their hideout and end up captured and stripped of all equipment, then locked up. Let the party escape, but make sure they know their best option is to flee. Or if they want to charge into battle against the people who just kicked their butts - only this time with no armor or weapons - let them. If they choose the non-suicidal option, the players and their characters are now angry. The cult stole their stuff. They want revenge. They will certainly be willing to go back, only to find the place abandoned, and take up the quest to track down the cult.


Tie into their backstory
If a player is going to use the old childhood tragedy angle, you might as well capitalize on it. You can rope in a character by tying their backstory into the plot. Did they watch from under a blanket as a group of bandits brutally murdered their parents (which is apparently a very common occurrence)? Tell them they recognize the face on the wanted poster as one of the guys who was there. This encourages going out on a nice little bounty hunting quest for the sake of vengeance and answers, gives them moral choices (kill the guy or turn him in), and if questioning the guy leads to his boss, the guy who actually killed the PCs parents, well, you can have them doing anything you want now.

Guilt trip
Guilt is a powerful force. It can make for a very good campaign if they are hired by some guy in a tavern to go and retrieve this artifact from some ruins. Then a week later, they discover this guy is now using that artifact for evil purposes. Well, look who is to blame for that? The local authorities can round up the party and threaten to charge them as accomplices if they don't high-tail it out of town to stop the guy.

Just kill them all
This is a sub-part of pissing them off, but start the first session by giving them character sheets for some commoners. Let them get into character and start enjoying things, and then have everything they love get ruined. You can kill most of them, and make it so the lucky ones who survive are in horrible shape. Then in your next session, bring in the PCs and have them meet the characters they were just playing as, and hearing them begging for help. How can you not help someone you have come to identify with as yourself? Bonus points if you can get them to rescue some of the NPCs you had them playing as later. Extra bonus points if you keep bringing those characters back.



In the end, the trick is to motivate characters and players into wanting to go along with the plot. Everyone has something that motivates them, and as a DM, it is your job to zero in on what can motivate your players.

If you can't find it, and force them into it anyway... Congratulations, you crossed that line and are now railroading them.
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Updated 01-11-2011 at 05:38 AM by Teksura

Tags: dnd, villian Add / Edit Tags
Categories
Evil Plots , My Game

Comments

  1. Sefarian's Avatar
    Railroad

    1. V., to coerce, trick, or seduce others into a course of action that they would not otherwise choose. This includes, but is not limited to, specifically sexual situation
    --

    I totally get what you're saying, Tek, but the way you're presenting it here -- your options sound like just as much of a railroad as simply saying OOC "you're going to go do this because I said so,". Those are all not bad hooks for short term plots or side stories, but I've rarely seen them work for longer term campaigns that also feature engrossing stories.

    From my experience, if you're doing a very story driven campaign, the players need to have a firm understanding of where the plot is and what is going to happen in the immediate future right from session 1. Give them a setting, an objective to complete in said setting, some cool encounters, and nifty challenges to complete for the first few sessions, then let the paths open up for them to walk down once they've completed them.

    This not only lets you, the DM, figure out what direction your players will want to go, it gives you time to meld your plans to meet their own, and has the bonus of giving you some key events for establishing how the world's various factions will react to the players. You don't have to worry about railroading if the established point and goal of a campaign is set right from the get go, and it can allow your players tremendous freedom to accomplish it, if you sit back loose, and play the game from the other side of the screen in such a way that the player's choices, failures, and accomplishments dictate the road in which the journey drives down to it's destination.

    For truer sandbox games (I.E. there is no overarching established plot, and the PC's do what they like), you don't have this luxury. As a result, from what I've seen, the only successful sandbox games are usually at lower levels, and tend to be pretty much monster-of-the-week (or, in this case, dungeon-of-the-week). These kind of games can be extremely fun, but they're not the sort of games where you talk about an engrossing story. Those are the kind of games where you get together, throw dice, get half drunk, and laugh yourself silly for six hours. That being said though, there is a manner of merit in the success of these kind of laid back, little-to-no roleplaying, barely visible plot, social experience games. I've seen such campaigns last for years, and create a lot of memories for everyone who participated. And in the end, for some groups, these sort of games are *the* way to go.

    What it comes down to, in the end, is knowing what *you* want, and what your *friends* want. If you want a long term, story driven game with a massive plot and detailed RP, but your friends want monster of the week while getting drunk, odds are you're not getting a long term, story driven game. The same can be said for the patrons of this website. Don't be wishy washy about what you're looking for in a game. It might take a bit longer, but you wont regret it in the end.
  2. Teksura's Avatar
    It's hard to take you seriously when you outright say "Finding ways to make your players want to follow the plot is the exact same thing as forcing them to follow the plot when they don't want to." Your definition of railroading is flawed. Railroading is not defined as having a plot and giving the players a good reason to explore the plot. Railroading is defined as forcing the players down a path they specifically do not want to take.

    The alternative you suggest to avoid railroading is to start off in the first session with "Here is where you are, here is your objective wither you like it or not, and it's all cool and not railroading because I have some cool encounters and nifty challenges." I'm sorry, but I don't think railroading means what you think it means.
  3. Sefarian's Avatar
    No, I'm pretty sure I know exactly what it means. I think you're the one who doesn't understand what it means. To railroad a group is to trick, coerce, or outright force them to do something they otherwise wouldn't do. The term actually originates as a form of slang related to rape. Learn your cultural expressions before you cast stones.

    What you suggest in your post is far more flawed then being honest with your players with what type of game you're going to run and having everyone design their characters with that in mind. By building a pretense that everyone is aware of and agrees on before the game starts, you prevent railroading before it even happens, because the group not only sees accomplishing the plot as their goal IC, everyone knows to begin with OOC what the game is about and expects it to go in that direction.

    By contrast, you're being secretive, dishonest, and coercive with how you apply your suggestions. You tell them to make whatever characters they want, then you create a scenario in which they do what *you* want them to do from either coercion (Guilt Trip, Just kill them all), trickery (Backstory tie in, Just kill them all), or seduction (tick them off, just kill them all). That is definition of the term railroading. This kind of attitude is exactly why I've seen so many tabletop games online fail. People refuse to communicate with each other and just go off in different directions, end up on completely different wavelengths, people quit, and the game dies.

    Furthermore, your interpretation of what I said is equally flawed to your concept of railroading. With your attitude, I'd expect you go to a game store, looking at a fantasy RPG, buy it, then go home and get upset when you can't play with spaceships. If you want to create a strictly plot driven game, make one, and don't be apologetic about it. If your players want to play sandbox, then don't go and make a plot driven game and expect them to want to play it. You're a DM, not a dictator.

    A game that's exclusively based on doing what the PC's want to do all the time, every time is an incompatible concept with a game that's heavily based on an overarching plot. The sandbox PC driven game is a staple of the plot defined by the PCs -- they choose the events, and you adapt to them the best you can to keep *them* entertained. An overarching plot is the exact opposite. It *isn't* defined by the PCs, the PCs are defined by it. And thus the characters grow and adapt to it in different ways, much like the characters in a novel grow and adapt as the plot of their book goes on.

    Imagine it this way. If you come to your players with the idea for a game of D&D that says, "You're farmers turned heroes stealing from the wealthy villain castle lord, and giving to the poor", an they agree to build characters for and play it, then you do your best to make sure the first part of the game cements that storyline as well as you can, odds are your players are going to want to keep playing that story to it's conclusion. In essence, you give them a path, then have it branch out based on *their* choices, so they can take it where they want it. *That* is how you make a story driven game. You do not open dozens of paths from the beginning to them, then use information or emotional manipulation to push them down one path specifically that they could have decided not to choose.
  4. Teksura's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Sefarian
    No, I'm pretty sure I know exactly what it means. I think you're the one who doesn't understand what it means. To railroad a group is to trick, coerce, or outright force them to do something they otherwise wouldn't do. The term actually originates as a form of slang related to rape. Learn your cultural expressions before you cast stones.
    You might want to learn those expressions yourself before you attack someone over them. And rape? Really? That's what you think it means to compare a game to a system of transportation which only goes along one set path? I think you might want to check your sources on that one.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sefarian
    What you suggest in your post is far more flawed then being honest with your players with what type of game you're going to run and having everyone design their characters with that in mind. By building a pretense that everyone is aware of and agrees on before the game starts, you prevent railroading before it even happens, because the group not only sees accomplishing the plot as their goal IC, everyone knows to begin with OOC what the game is about and expects it to go in that direction.
    Lets ignore the proper definition of Railroading for a minute and go with the rape-definition you seem to have made up (I can't find anything anywhere to link Railroading to Rape, but I'll humor you.)

    You're telling me that you believe it is not a DMs job to use subtle acts to guide the plot along the way. You're suggesting that having a situation where the party is attacked by bandits, and one of them happens to be carrying an unholy symbol of a cult which is planning something nasty the party can stop, is clearly railroading in its worst form. By way of contrast, you're telling me that using your authority as DM to force a party along a path they know ahead of time without regard to individual wishes or desires is perfectly acceptable.

    You're speaking in such crazy absolutes, it is not possible to take you seriously. It looks like in your mind, the only 2 possible ways to DM are to tell the entire party what will happen (spoil the plot for them), or "trick" them into going along with what you have prepared by giving them good reasons to go that way. Now, obviously letting them make the choice to possibly find their long lost brother is railroading because they "would not otherwise choose" to find their long lost brother if the option did not exist.

    You're really something.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sefarian
    By contrast, you're being secretive, dishonest, and coercive with how you apply your suggestions. You tell them to make whatever characters they want, then you create a scenario in which they do what *you* want them to do from either coercion (Guilt Trip, Just kill them all), trickery (Backstory tie in, Just kill them all), or seduction (tick them off, just kill them all). That is definition of the term railroading. This kind of attitude is exactly why I've seen so many tabletop games online fail. People refuse to communicate with each other and just go off in different directions, end up on completely different wavelengths, people quit, and the game dies.
    The funny thing is, my most recent game started up because after a 3 year long weekly maptools game, real life constraints prevented more than 2 members of the party from continuing. It seemed like inviting new players into an existing level 16 party would not work well, so we put it on the shelf and may pick it back up if our lives ever align back up again.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sefarian
    Furthermore, your interpretation of what I said is equally flawed to your concept of railroading. With your attitude, I'd expect you go to a game store, looking at a fantasy RPG, buy it, then go home and get upset when you can't play with spaceships. If you want to create a strictly plot driven game, make one, and don't be apologetic about it. If your players want to play sandbox, then don't go and make a plot driven game and expect them to want to play it. You're a DM, not a dictator.
    I wondered when the ad hominem would come out. Now that you find yourself unable to attack the argument, you instead attack the speaker.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sefarian
    A game that's exclusively based on doing what the PC's want to do all the time, every time is an incompatible concept with a game that's heavily based on an overarching plot. The sandbox PC driven game is a staple of the plot defined by the PCs -- they choose the events, and you adapt to them the best you can to keep *them* entertained. An overarching plot is the exact opposite. It *isn't* defined by the PCs, the PCs are defined by it. And thus the characters grow and adapt to it in different ways, much like the characters in a novel grow and adapt as the plot of their book goes on.
    The really adorable thing here is you are now forced to twist around things. While just a moment ago, you were arguing that the only 2 ways to DM were to spoil the plot or railroad it, you're now saying that the only way to run a game where you don't spoil the plot is to tell the players it's a sandbox game! Such a narrow minded point of view you have there. Naturally, the rest of us are fully aware that it is quite easy to have a game where you don't spoil the plot, and don't tell people they are playing in a sandbox. This is typically known as "the vast majority of games". How am I supposed to take you seriously when your entire argument depends on playing make-believe and pretending that the only way to run a game without laying down the entire plot to the party is to tell them it's a free-flowing sandbox? Did you ever consider that it is possible to do games just like pretty much everyone else does and just play them?

    Quote Originally Posted by Sefarian
    Imagine it this way. If you come to your players with the idea for a game of D&D that says, "You're farmers turned heroes stealing from the wealthy villain castle lord, and giving to the poor", an they agree to build characters for and play it, then you do your best to make sure the first part of the game cements that storyline as well as you can, odds are your players are going to want to keep playing that story to it's conclusion. In essence, you give them a path, then have it branch out based on *their* choices, so they can take it where they want it. *That* is how you make a story driven game. You do not open dozens of paths from the beginning to them, then use information or emotional manipulation to push them down one path specifically that they could have decided not to choose.
    You've pretty much said "you don't do this because I say so". However, you don't even once try to explain what is wrong with a DM taking part in the group story effort. You seem to see a DM as either the only storyteller (who must spoil the entire plot for the game ahead of time), or a guy with no control over anything who just rolls the dice for monsters. Have you considered that the DM is every much a part of the story-making process as the players? When making a story as a group- which is what you're doing when playing anything other than a dungeon crawl -everyone at the table needs to do their part to tell the story. It is the job of the DM to take what he knows about the party and present them with scenarios that guide them through the story. The DM must be aware of what his party is like, who the characters are, and what choices they might make. In this sense, a DM should know to avoid situations where a party full of Lawful Good characters needs to break into the records hall and steal forbidden documents in order to find the counter to the ritual contained within. In that case, another means of discovering the counter to the ritual must be made available, and it's hardly railroading just because you didn't tell people in the first session how they were going to find the counter to the ritual.

    As a DM, it's my job to drop the surprise twists and present options. If players can find another way, that's fine. You may not be comfortable with the idea of a player not knowing every detail about a game, but that's your style. And you have no need to attack others for not agreeing with you.
  5. Darren's Avatar
    Right I'm going to ask everyone to calm down. Railroading is one of the hot topics that can tend to raise emotions of people (especially those who've had bad experiences with it in the past), but that is no reason we can't keep the discussion civil and without attacking the other person.

    Personally while I tend to side with Teksura on the fact that I'm happy to coerce (or more accurately provide hooks I'm nearly certain they'll take based on personality and character background), I can kind of understand Sefarian's point that a player might be annoyed if he realises that you've been leading him along by the nose in that way.

    Me, I wouldn't have a problem with it and neither do any of my players, but it is definitely possible that some people might have a problem with it, so being open, not with the plot itself obviously, but with how you run games for example that you will tailor hooks toward your characters and make them appealing to take up and follow can allow people a chance to decide whether they like that kind of game or not.

    Darren