A big problem with many role playing games is that the player characters can make their own decisions and then take actions based upon those decisions. Another problem with RPGs is that the game master may want to control the scene and direct the game session towards a predetermined plot point.
If you think I am a complete moron after reading those two sentences I don’t blame you. It hurt my brain to write them.
Yet it is not that hard to find a game where the GM is dictating the scene so that the PCs are forced to take a certain action (commonly referred to as railroading), and it is just as easy to find a game where the PCs can take any actions regardless of how they hinder the game as a whole (let us refer to this as off-roading so that I can stick with my analogy).
The funny thing is that the GM being able to control where the game is going and the PCs being able to to follow their interests are both good things to have in your game. And despite appearing to be in conflict with each other, when your group focuses on using PC actions and GM storytelling as complimentary tools you usually end up with one very kick ass game.
You need to address both the GM’s and the players’ needs in these situations. Between the railroading and the off-roading approaches lies the multi-lane highway. The multi-lane highway approach is when the GM has a destination for the game, but the players get to choose what lane takes them there.
Let’s take a common scene from many fantasy games where the PCs are assigned a quest by the NPC king. We’ll see how the scene may play out with the railroading approach, the off-roading approach, and the multi-lane highway approach.
Here is the basic scene.
GM: Your characters are brought before the king. From his throne he says “There are orc raiders pillaging the villages in the Southern parts of my kingdom. Will you brave souls go and vanquish them from our lands?”
Player: Man, I was hoping that we would go check out that port on the map instead. “Your majesty, my comrades and I must refuse. Please accept our apologies as we must attend to business at the port.
And here are some possible scenarios using each approach.
GM: The king leans forward and in a very serious tone says “I’m afraid that the port has been closed for repairs. There is another port to the South, and since the only road that takes you there passes by the villages where the orc raids are occurring, you should be able to take this quest.”
Player: I guess we are going South then…
Here the GM has made it clear that the players don’t have a choice. What is of interest to the players is blatantly disregarded so that the GM’s plans are stuck with.
GM: The king grimaces, but then speaks. “Fair heroes, by all means attend to your business at port first. When you have completed your tasks return to my court, and we may negotiate payment for your services for taking up this quest.”
Player: “Your majesty is most kind.” We head to port and pay a charter to get out of this kingdom. I want to see what else there is in this world.
GM: I planned a scenario based upon the party fighting the orcs in the South though.
Player: Dude! Let me play my character, okay?
Here the players are obviously uninterested in the GM’s scenario. While this is a valid problem itself, the approach of just ignoring the intended plot in game is not a very effective way to deal with the problem. The GM is a player too, and forcing the GM to scrap a prepped scenario is the same as the GM ignoring the player’s character sheet.
GM: The king seems displeased but then speaks. “Fair heroes, from port one of my finest ships sets sail to bring supplies to our forces in the South. Attend to your business in the port, and once your tasks are completed seek out my ship. I will pay you handsomely for your services.”
Player: I don’t know. I really don’t feel like fighting orcs again. I was hoping for something with pirates and sea monsters. More nautical in theme.
GM: I see, but I didn’t prep anything like that. I can throw in some encounters while you are out at sea on the ship though. Also, write down some notes of what you want to see in the game and I’ll try to work them into future sessions.
Player: Sounds good. Let’s go check out the port then, and when we’re done we’ll go to the king’s ship.
In this scenario the GM doesn’t just disregard the player’s interest in the port, but instead the GM makes it a possible path for the plot to continue moving forward with. The player in turn explains why the plot isn’t appealing and offers an alternative that is appealing. The GM plans to adjust the session with those suggestions, but doesn’t have to scrap the material that has been prepped for this particular session.
This is how you build a multi-lane highway, by having the GM take player input and then applying that input to the game sessions. It also helps to let the players know that if they work with you as a GM that you will shape the game according to their suggestions. The GM from the example might now decide to change a non-critical detail in order to make the current scenario more appealing to the players (a prepped orc raid may now become a raid by pirates against the king’s ship). The plot of the game can still be moved forward with some slight changes to incorporate the players’ interests.
That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the GnomeStew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!