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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Troll in the Playground
     
    SamuraiGuy

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    Default DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Full title:

    The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players in the right direction, if there even is one)

    This is part 5 of a weekly series of conversations.

    The master thread can be found here.

    This week's topic is sandbox campaigns. Actually, it's railroading. Well, really it's about how not to railroad... but make sure the players do what you want... Gosh, DMing is hard sometimes.

    I think most campaigns fall somewhere between the railroad and the sanbox. Having a pure railroad or a pure sandbox is pretty uncommon with advanced DMs, and after all, this series is about advanced concepts in RPG management. But even a good DM can fall into the trap of railroading. Possibly more common, however, is the trap of not railroading enough. Campaigns can become listless and aimless without a strong through line driving the action. Yet, paradoxically, the best campaigns are driven by the player characters wills, not the DM's plotting prowess.

    So I'm looking for advice, anecdotes, questions and conversation about this paradox. I'll do my best to guide the thread along without railroading too much.

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    Last edited by Human Paragon 3; 2010-05-18 at 10:17 AM.
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  2. - Top - End - #2
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    Totally Guy's Avatar

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    As always in the series I'm not talking about D&D.

    The players in the games I run are told explicitly the situation they are walking into. Who the main players all are. I like it to be known from the outset what the game is about. From there the Players all write beliefs they have about their Characters (and that's a tricky concept we still struggle with).

    The game is about those beliefs.

    My group:
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    Thel:
    I am a pacifist upholding pacifist ideals.
    I will send the immigrants back to where they came from.
    I will find my half brother.

    Bob Sporrington
    I will send the Criminals back to where they came from.
    I will map new lands... but first I need a map to show me what's already mapped...
    I will help Harris' wife have a comfortable birth.

    Harris McNamara
    Personal is not the same as important
    I will find a place to call home
    I will make myself useful by subduing criminals.

    Bernhard Eckhard
    I will reclaim my ancestral polearm. A man named Jabel has it.
    I will reclaim my name as a great knight by showing the knights the head of my sworn enemy (which he keeps in a jar of brine!)
    I will earn the trust of my compatriots.


    I'm not happy with the diversity of the above group as they keep wanting to split up...

    But those are things to be challenged and the whole game's plot is about conflict between the bandits and the knights with a dose of the half brother stuck in between. And that's the focus of the game because the players have written about those things and decided that they are important to them.

    The system rewards beliefs that are pursued (I say we get a ship to put the bandits on!), achieved (Yay! My polearm is back!) or dramatically averted (Screw pacifism, you die!).

    It's really good for each party to be open and honest about what they want from the game. Because then you can give it to them. Whenever a nudge is need it's usually me I ought to be nudging to escalate the conflicts that the players are interested in.
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    DwarfFighterGuy

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    If the players are good RP'ers and avoid making decisions or otherwise acting out of character, then after a few sessions you got the PC's nailed down enough so that you can custom-tailor plot hooks that the characters cannot refuse. Bonus points if those hooks tie into character backstory. Probably the best way to railroad "properly". Just make sure you know the character's personal goals, and you should be fine.

    Of course, if you have a group of players that specifically refuse all plot hooks you give them because that is "railroading", then you can go 100% sandbox and let them do what they want. Or you can use reverse psychology and make it look like you are throwing them a plot hook, knowing full well they will refuse it and do the exact opposite just to spite you, thus firmly planting themselves on your rails.

    Alternatively, you can go the middle route and have a bunch of villains, potential allies, and various plots all out there. If the PC's learn about them and choose not to intervene, they have to live with the consequences of that decision. Don't want to help thwart the lich's plan to rip a portal to the negative energy plane? Don't be surprised when the plan succeeds and you now getting overwhelmed with undead everywhere you go. Or even better, another group of heroes does it and they are the talk of the world, with you living in their shadows.
    Been there, fought that, died horribly.

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Quote Originally Posted by Gaurd Juris View Post
    Yet, paradoxically, the best campaigns are driven by the player characters wills, not the DM's plotting prowess.
    Actually, I think that's an untrue generalisation (and one that would seem to place you more towards the sandbox side of the equation). It depends on the players (and the DM). If the players don't have a burning desire to do their own thing, the "best" campaign will be one with a good plot, but allows them enough freedom to not feel too linear1.



    Personally, me and my groups tend to run modules (whether purchased or our own quests that we write which basically play like modules). I tried - once - running a more sandbox like game, and it was the only real failure I've had in 20 years of DMing. (Heck, sometimes, even when dealing with the oldest and most beloved party we've got, which we run 1-2 times per year as a day event, trying to get the next plot hook out of the players is like getting blood out of a stone.)



    As usual, the trick is to ascertain what level of plot-verses-freedom the players find acceptable, or are at least willing to meet the DM half-way at. I don't have to do that with my groups, because, having played with them continuously for twenty years, I kind of know! But, were I to start an entirely new group, I'd first be sure they were prepared to play the sort of game I'm prepared to run. As always, communication is the key.



    1Of course, the real acid test of "best campaign" is in reality, no more and no less than the one in which everyone (players and DM) has the most fun and talk about for years afterwards.
    Last edited by Aotrs Commander; 2010-05-18 at 11:45 AM.

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Orc in the Playground
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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    I believe sandbox/railroad trade off is largely dependant on players skills, experience and attitude to improvise. Usually is not a good idea to put a bunch of newbies in a sandbox. If your lucky, they'll end throwing each other the sand, if you're not, they'll quickly get pissed off.
    On the other hand, experienced players usually are allergic to yes/no alternatives when adventuring.

    In my early days as a player, I had an Orient Express DM and a Sand Castle DM. Both of them screwed the campaign pretty soon, so as a DM I usually try to be on the middle, maybe putting railroads under the sand so anyone notices.

    I'm DMing a high level campaign as a sequel of previous campaigns, 16th level start and now I've 5 PCs, between 17th and 18th level. All of the players are skilled one, with a pair of outstanding ones. This give me a lot of freedom to give them a lot of freedom.
    To a certain extent.
    My general plot is all around elven history in Faerun and around fighting and vanquishing the BBEG, enemy of all elvenkin before he destroys the world (or, with luck, only a pair of continents). Being old and epic, the BBEG is a master of deceivement, so my PCs are having bad times recovering any useful information and I'm not helping them very much: if you want to vanquish an epic threat, you have to be smart by yourself.
    DMing this way, however, puts them in a cul-de-sac more often than I wuold hope. This is the situation when the invisible hand appears.
    Maybe the group find more informations of what were intended in an ancient book, or they "manege to find" a friendly NPC (=the NPC finds the players) glad to give them the hint exactly intended to make the story go further.

    Unless you want your PCs metagaming like OOTS ones, it is important to make them believe that all has been resolved by their good play or, at least, by their luck on that Knowledge (history) or Bardic Knowledge check (or whatever is fit).

    My second strategy is respect a chronology. When the time passes by, "something happens". Maybe a big city is destroyed, or a NPC gets killed, the BBEG sends a band of minions to find the PCs (and maybe inadvertedly drops them a couple of hints).

    Third, improvise. If something is getting incredibly boring, extremely long, or is leading the party too far away, just cut it.

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    Kobold

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    I like to think of my games as sandboxes with rollercoasters. There are railroads sprinkled throughout the game. They're supposed to be entertaining and they're well advertised. The players can pick and choose which rollercoasters they'll ride and when. Or they're free to wander about and make their own plot. I only try to nudge them towards a railroad if they're bored. If they're putzing around town, but having a good time I'll save my railroad for next week.

    I've also seen GMs who are successful with hidden railroads. They'll let you wander wherever you like, but all roads end up at the same place. I thought this was awesome until I saw through the illusion. Then I felt like my choices were meaningless, so I try to avoid this kind of railroad most of the time.

    My games started out a lot more sandboxy than they are now. I can think of two factors why they might have changed. I've probably grown better at advertising my rollercoasters to the players. If I make the railroaded options sound more appealing, the PCs are more likely to go for it than to seek alternate entertainment. I've also been playing after work instead of on the weekends. Saturday games were 8-12 hours. Weeknight games are more like 3-4. You don't have as much time to screw around in a weeknight game. Some players I've dealt with get upset if nothing gets accomplished. So there's more impetus to push things along and just get through the session. Even the players are aware of this and are more likely to jump at the plot than to make up their own in character but inconsequential shenanigans.
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    SamuraiGuy

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Aaorts Commander, I think you have achieved a false impression of me, although I can see where you would have gotten it from.

    I actually tend toward more structured plots, but have had the occasional player express a lack of agency in those structured plots. For some players, making their own story and shaping the world through their actions is preferable to playing a star role in a well-crafted tale. A feeling of predetermination creeps in.

    For that reason, I am seeking a more pleasing synthesis between the two: players provide momentum, DM supplies direction. Or should it be the opposite?

    However, I do feel it's important for the players to have goals, and to feel as though their characters are really accomplishing those goals, or at least working toward them. It's better for the goals to be player-provided, too, so you have a player saying 'I want to retrieve my ancestral spear', to borrow from Glug's post above, vs. the DM saying "You are trying to retrieve your ancestral spear."
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    Ettin in the Playground
     
    Kobold

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Quote Originally Posted by Gaurd Juris View Post
    For that reason, I am seeking a more pleasing synthesis between the two: players provide momentum, DM supplies direction. Or should it be the opposite?
    I go with something similar to that. DM provides destination. Players provide transportation. Give them goals. Let them choose how to get there. Along the way, more mini goals will emerge and the players will deal with those as they come.
    If you like what I have to say, please check out my GMing Blog where I discuss writing and roleplaying in greater depth.

  9. - Top - End - #9
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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Quote Originally Posted by Gaurd Juris View Post
    Aaorts Commander, I think you have achieved a false impression of me, although I can see where you would have gotten it from.
    Aotrs. (Army Of The Red Spear) Though don't worry, I've found almost no-one on the internet gets it right...

    Not so much you overall as that particular sentence came across as a bit loaded, actually.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gaurd Juris
    I actually tend toward more structured plots, but have had the occasional player express a lack of agency in those structured plots. For some players, making their own story and shaping the world through their actions is preferable to playing a star role in a well-crafted tale. A feeling of predetermination creeps in.

    For that reason, I am seeking a more pleasing synthesis between the two: players provide momentum, DM supplies direction. Or should it be the opposite?

    However, I do feel it's important for the players to have goals, and to feel as though their characters are really accomplishing those goals, or at least working toward them. It's better for the goals to be player-provided, too, so you have a player saying 'I want to retrieve my ancestral spear', to borrow from Glug's post above, vs. the DM saying "You are trying to retrieve your ancestral spear."
    Again, it really depends on what sort of players you have, and what sort of campaign you are planning to run. These days, when we play, it tends to be someone says (usually me) "okay folks, we're going to be running Rise of the Runelords next." And they go "righty-doke, chief." We tend not to put so much emphasis on backgrounds then, and pretty much treat the module like we were playing a computer game. (In that one feels obliged to chase down every single hook presented for the sake of seeing everything. And for the XP.)

    Conversely, when I manage to right something of my own, I sometimes - but not always - work with the PCs to make a background. Usually - as when I write something, I do it on one of my worlds - we do the background half-and-half. I.e.,they tell me what they want - in as much or little detail as they like - and I affix the relevant place-names and such and fill in any details if any are needed. Sometimes, as in the quest I'm setting up at the moment1, I pretty much do all the background needed. (Which tends to be more of a brief explaining why they are where they are and joining the adventure.)

    It is also worth noting, however, we fall decidedly towards the mechanics-first school of character generation, and usual the first choice in character design is what character class we wants to play. Things like personality and appearance tend to develop more or less spontaneously when we start to play (with perhaps a rough germ of an idea2). We all pretty much have the ability to pick up and play more-or-less anything, which I'm given to understand is not as common an ability as I would have initally thought.

    Generally, then, our player plot input tends to fall mainly in the gap between adventures (with our more episodic day-games) and not so much in the campaigns from official modules. (And somewhere in between when I run my own campaigns, though I haven't done that for a year or two now, as I can never find the time to write them, between converting other modules to 3.5 and my omnipresent wargaming.)

    But I am fortunate to have a set of players who are quite happy to play pretty much anything I am willing to run. Having had more-or-less the same players over twenty years rather helps in that regard, of course. (And I likewise, am happy to play almost anything if it means I'm taking a break from DMing, as I tend to do about 60% of the DMing over both our weekly groups.)



    1Which involves the PCs being agents of the Dark Lands who will eventually be the Dark Lord's Black Ops Shadow Commandoes, sent north to reek havoc unseen amongst the unsuspecting Northern Nations.

    2For example, one of our players said recently, he's going to run a module when I've finished running our 3.5 Night Below conversion. I sort of ended up playing cleric, and then realise I was kinda fed up with clerics, so I went looking around to see what else I might do in that role. I ended up looking over archivist, and thought "yeah, that's pretty good". When I got to the Dark Knowledge ability that lets you daze creatures, I suddenly thought of Doctor Who (specifically the Tenth Doctor); I could see the way he talks (okay more like lectures) at the monsters to get them to stop whatever it was they were doing and drew a parallel. So, that's my concept, David Tennant the Archivist. And that's about as far as my character concept goes (as the DM hasn't said he wants or needs backgrounds). When I actually generate him - or for that matter, her - I'll fill in all the rest of the details like appearance and stuff and then go from there. And that's pretty much how we do characters in a nutshell, more-or-less.
    Last edited by Aotrs Commander; 2010-05-18 at 05:29 PM.

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    Troll in the Playground
     
    SamuraiGuy

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    An interesting side question:

    Has anybody here on the forum actually ever run what they consider to be a pure, or nearly pure, sandbox campaign? If so, how did you manage it? And what was the "plot" that eventually emerged? I'd be really interested in hearing your experiences.
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    Kobold

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Quote Originally Posted by Gaurd Juris View Post
    An interesting side question:

    Has anybody here on the forum actually ever run what they consider to be a pure, or nearly pure, sandbox campaign? If so, how did you manage it? And what was the "plot" that eventually emerged? I'd be really interested in hearing your experiences.
    I got very close to a pure sandbox once. Whether or not it was a sandbox depends on your definition. I had 2 NPCs with agendas. They didn't really railroad the PCs, they were just there to bounce the PCs in random directions.

    To be honest, I don't remember a real plot emerging. The game was odd though, so this might be a symptom of how the game was run rather than the sandboxiness of it. This particular game wasn't done at a gaming table. It was played during in between time. I was hanging out with a couple of my friends almost every night one summer. We spent a lot of time at the movies and various restaurants. Each of those activities comes with down time. So I ran this game while we were driving around or waiting for our food to show up.

    It was WoD set in Boston, because that was something we could easily draw on and refer to when we only had a couple minutes of play time. There was a mortal who was an investigative journalist and a hobo werewolf who called himself Shaggydog. I had a generic vampire city prince and a malkavian who was the closest I ever got to a DMPC. He was obsessed with TV. Called himself Elmo (and occasionally sang the Elmo song). In his home he had a wall that was covered with TVs so he could watch all channels at once. He was the initial plothook (as his TV wall was causing brownouts) and was a good source of info, but wasn't reliable enough to provide any real direction. If not for Elmo, the game probably would have been a pure sandbox. If he's treated as a DMPC, maybe it was.

    Anyway, they somehow ended up in the Umbra. And I had ideas for a plot with a werecow (inspired by Cows with Guns) leading some sort of lycantrhopic revolt, but I'm not sure if it even went that far.

    It was a weird game. When I stop and think about games I've run, it doesn't usually occur to me that that one existed. But the memories I have of it are very fond. Sorry if I rambled more than sandboxed :-P
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    SamuraiGuy

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Ha, I once ran a pulp detective session in 1920s Boston, but I could NOT get my players to bite in my plot hooks no matter what I did. It ended up in a grizzly death for the honest cop, and confusion for everyone else.

    In retrospect, I think it's because I was trying to make it feel like a sandbox, but it was really a rail, and the players just could not find where to get on. I should have put an NPC with them, a leggy dame or something.

    In fact, I had one, but they never encountered her. I should have just had her walk into the office with a cigarette and hire the PCs.
    Last edited by Human Paragon 3; 2010-05-19 at 09:08 AM.
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    Who Beats Who? the hilariously geeky game of hypothetical battles.

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    One thing that I often find unusual with DM's I play under (especially on the PbP boards) is how little investment they have in the PC's, as characters, as people, as discrete portions of narrative material.

    When I Dm I like to go through the characters bit by bit before they start playing. I'm not talking novels of back-story, just parsing out the character's motivations, wants, needs, goals, obsessions, etc etc. I don't think I've ever started a character without at least three rounds of Q&A and notes.

    And, during the process, I also get to know the player. Even over PbP, this kind of discussion tells you a lot about who the person is, what they want in a game, what sorts of things they find important, fun, boring. People prone to causing trouble and disrupting games either won't go through the process (claiming too to be busy, dropping out and then applying for three dozen more games that very day) or reveal themselves during it ("Why do I care what his parents did for a living? I just wanna kill stuff!").

    And so I've never had a problem with railroading or sandboxing. In fact, I never even considered the matter until I came across it on the internet (I've been DM'ing since before the internet). In fact, the only persistent trouble this approach has caused me is that it emphasizes the individual over the group, and so splitting up to take care of personal business becomes a real concern. You try to stop this by mixing up the personal business with the main plot ("The general we're chasing is actually my long-lost father!"), but it remains a real problem.

    Last little while, I've been working on methods of character and party creation meant to prevent this, with mixed results.

    Point is, if you know your characters, you know your players, then the plot takes care of itself. In my experience, if the players wander off your carefully devised narrative, then you haven't designed your narrative properly.

    Everyone needs to be invested in the game.
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    SamuraiGuy

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Is it possible to replace player agency with the illusion of player agency part or most of the time?

    Is the illusion of choice a fair substitue for actual choice, and possibly even a healthier mode for the game?
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    Who has two thumbs (up) and a board game coming out from Rio Grande? This guy. Gladiators (Rio Grande)

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    Matrix Solitaire, likely the best Solitaire game you will ever play.
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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    I ran a Cyberpunk campaign with between 12 and 16 players once. People used to come and go, or miss sessions, but with a group that big it never seemed to matter. By enforcing a strict "You said it so your character said it" policy, we ended up with possibly one of the best games I've ever been part of.

    The stomping ground was NIght City, and I'd roll random encounters from various tables now and then, plus have hooks for missions and things now and then. It was pretty chaotic, but it did end up with the characters pacifying ther neighbourhood, then getting perplexed when a corporation started buying up the block they lived on to develop it.

    All in all, it was good fun, but I've found it almost impossible to replicate with more manageable sized groups.

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    Kobold

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    Default Re: DM Series pt 5: The Invisible Hand of the DM (Nudging players...)

    Quote Originally Posted by Gaurd Juris View Post
    Is it possible to replace player agency with the illusion of player agency part or most of the time?

    Is the illusion of choice a fair substitue for actual choice, and possibly even a healthier mode for the game?
    Only if the illusion is kept up. Having been in such games, they lose their fun once you see the image of choice for what it is. What a GM must do to maintain such an illusion varies from player to player.
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