One of the biggest complaints I hear about bad experiences at the table is to do with railroading. The main element of this is having no choice in where the adventure goes next – I actually think there’s a place for this, but that’s for another blog. Right now however, I’m concerned with sequences of play which feel ‘scripted’ by the GM and creating a world and processes which render this behaviour unnecessary or even impossible.
Players understandably hate it when their actions or choices are meaningless. If the groups comes up with a plan which is inevitably thwarted by the GM because its not what they planned would happen, its obviously going to leave a sour taste.
This is a pretty extreme example and I don’t for a minute imagine that most GMs are willfully ignoring their players’ choices in favour of their own narrative, but I do think it’s easy to have your planning subtly affect the story at the table.
I think TTRPGSs are best when they’re a collaborative storytelling game. The players should be able to make choices and actions which affect the outcome of the tale.
For this reason, when planning a campaign or session, I don’t focus on the micro level – scenes, sentences and sword swings – I focus on the macro – schemes, settings and stimulus. You can think of this more as generating an understanding of the environment and the forces within it than ‘planning’ in the traditional sense.
Having a good understanding of the world around the PCs allows you to react in real time to their actions, to make snap decisions about what the environment and the NPCs in it would do – it allows you freedom to roleplay yourself. You can have the appearance of flying by the seat of your pants, while actually standing on a solid foundation.
So how do you generate that understanding? I can’t tell you what’s right for your table, but here’s how I do it.
This method works whether playing in a home brew world or a pre-generated campaign setting. For the latter, simply read through the relevant areas of your campaign book and then adapt and redact as needed for your version of that world.
I break down my understanding to three levels, each one slightly more zoomed in that the previous one and which draws on the level above it to influence it. In each level, I look at the motivation of the people or person involved.
I concentrate here on the very high level things, to set the scene. The ideals and issues I want to know about when considering the world are to do with choices, goals and consequences for the next year. While they affect decisions on a day to day basis, the effect is not something which can be seen at so micro a level.
These will be the long term goals for the decision makers, rulers and scheming factions of the world; geographic changes such as a volcanic due to erupt imminently; an ancient force being awoken by a series of events.
It’s good to have an idea of this when starting the campaign, and becomes a good backdrop for session and campaign planning once it’s up and running.
This level is about the key groups within the world. I think about guilds, important towns, organisations with influence over a subset of society and I focus on what they would want over the next 1-3 months. What are their goals? How do they interact with what’s going on in the rest of the world?
I find this is the most useful layer to think on in more depth. It’s informed by the layer above, and doesn’t include too much granularity that you can become bogged down in elements which prove irrelevant when you get to the table. Knowing what the important groups want overall can help you make snap judgements on how the members of those groups will leverage the situation in the moment to benefit their goals.
Particularly powerful people will fit into this category too – rulers, powerful mages, the big bad.
Here, I think about the NPCs the party might meet in our next session. What are their aims over the next few days, to a couple of weeks out?
At this point the motives become a lot more changeable, based on emotion and reacting to the events of the moment. For this reason, I don’t spend too much energy thinking about this from a campaign planning point of view. It’s a good thought exercise when getting into the character of an NPC though, and understanding the starting point of an NPCs motives will help you roleplay better as they are affected by the player characters.
For example, the motives in my world are structured thus:
Two countries at war – each obviously looking to win.
A looming threat from an old and powerful necromancer, thought to be destroyed but gaining power in secret. Wants to see the empire destroyed, for revenge and to bolster their own power.
An ongoing excavation of important historical sites by two rivals – a group of scholars and a group of mages. They are each looking for important artefacts to generate technological advancements.
The main goal for each country will be to win the war. Over the next few months, their goals are ‘Protect our trade routes at all costs, these are the life blood of the empire.’, ‘Assess the capability of our opponent using deception and subterfuge.’
The big bad is looking to gain favour with as many outcast groups as possible, to set them against the empire in the war. They are also looking for powerful ancient artefacts, which will give them powers to change the world.
The excavators and researchers wish to find the secrets of a particularly dangerous dig site, and discover other sites to begin work on.
The thieves guild are looking to profit off the war by selling arms and stolen goods to both sides, taking advantage of suspicions having shifted focus and also want to k ow what is being excavated by the wizards.
I can’t describe the motivations of every NPC in my campaign, so here are a couple:
Ellis wants to be paid and stay alive, and she’ll do whatever her employer asks of her to make sure that happens. When her contract with the big bad came into conflict with the new one she made with the party, she opted to side with the big bad on that basis that swift death might be hers if she didn’t.
Dawnmind cares only that her tribe are fed and cared for, that extends to the wild ones who have not yet been brought into the fold of the village and she will put herself in harm’s way to help them.
The story of the party sits within the context of this world, the factions in it and the NPCs who they will meet.
Some factions are more willing to assist in the party’s mission than others, some see opportunity to further their own plans, some see dangers which would jeopardise everything they’ve worked for to date.
You can’t fully understand the motivations and complexities of the party’s journey without seeing this backdrop. Nor can you understand how to affect the backdrop based on your party’s actions until you understand the starting point.
Of course, every level will be affected to some degree by the choices of the party. As the player characters influence the world, so too will they influence the choices of the decision makers, factions and people in the world.
It’s important to decide how much influence you want the party to have. Will you be playing at a domain level, where the party become important political figures in their own right, bending the world to their whims? Or will the party remain a rag-tag bunch who can wow a few people in town, but otherwise don’t cause disturbing ripples outside of their vicinity?
It’s hard to railroad your players in a living, breathing world. Railroading tends to occur in a one dimensional fantasy world, where the only things that matter are the contents of the dungeon and the monsters inside it.
As mentioned, there’s a place for this, and what I’ve described is a story lead campaign. In a one-shot, the backdrop matters less and some railroading may become necessary. But I hope that what I’ve described here helps give a framework to deepen your experiences at the table and allow more player choice and nuanced impact in the process.
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