Tuesday, July 17, 2018

More Than One Way To Skin A Cat (Avoiding Railroading At Your Table)

It's not easy being a DM. You have to keep track of an entire cast of characters, run a world, balance how much time every player gets dedicated to them, keep track of combats, and craft a tackle box worth of adventure hooks to get the PCs out of bed, the tavern, or the brothel. With all of that going on, DMs should be given a little slack if they get sort of myopic when it comes to how the party is supposed to get from A to B. However, if you find yourself constantly setting up plot points where there is one und only one way to solve the challenge you've put forth, you might need to back up a little.

And pull those ties up behind you on your way out.
Some doors only have one key, that's true. But you shouldn't be overly picky with how your group chooses to acquire the key, if you see what I mean?

Set The Stage, And See What The PCs Do

As a for-instance, let's say the first arc of your campaign is about a company of orcs raiding a small town for food, supplies, and treasure. Your goal is to have the PCs scuffle with the Red Hand, win a couple of smaller fights, and then move on the main force to roust them. Pretty basic, but there's nothing wrong with a setup if it works.

And it doesn't TPK the party right out of the gate.
However, what do you do if your players want to take an alternative course of action? For example, say that the halfling rogue wants to sneak into the Red Hand's camp during the night, and assassinate the commanders in their beds (perhaps while making it look like they were killed by a rival group)? How about if the bard and the paladin want to negotiate with the Red Hand, and see if they could be hired as mercenaries to protect the town and patrol the region (the logic being that these orcs are sentient beings, and thus they would see that being paid to do nothing but keep the peace is preferable to risking life and limb in raids)? What if the half-orc in the party wants to "defect" to the Red Hands, poisoning their cook pots and utensils so the soldiers are incapacitated?

What if, what if, what if.

Now, a good DM will look at the course of action proposed, and decide whether it is technically possible to achieve. For example, sneaking into the camp and killing the leaders in their sleep is doable, if difficult, provided the party all make the necessary stealth checks, and perform all the right actions. On the other hand, defeating a champion in single combat may be a notion that the Red Hands find childishly quaint. If they win, they'll insist on your side agreeing to terms, but there's nothing in their culture or code that says losing one duel means you have to pack up and go home. It's also possible that they're already being paid, and thus you'd need to outbid their current masters... that might not be possible, but it would mean the PCs' strategy failed for a logical reason.

A bad DM will just say no, none of those alternative ways will work because you have to do it this way.

It doesn't matter how high your Stealth check is, you won't be able to sneak into the camp, much less into the commander's tent. Even if you're invisible. No, the Red Hand will not talk or change their course of action, because they are not here for sensible reasons that could be discussed during the course of diplomacy; they exist only for the PCs to fight and kill them in order to gain XP and level up. Unless your solution is some form of, "We assault their camp," it will not work.

Tell The Players What To Do, Not How To Do It

There's an old piece of wisdom I once heard associated with the military. Captains give the orders, it's the sergeants' job to figure out how to fulfill them. Just as commanding officers are concerned more with results than with methods, so too a good DM should be more involved with the end goals the party is trying to achieve, rather than the specific methods for how they achieve them.

Because sure, you might need to acquire the Four Sacred Keys of The Great Winds to unlock the Gate of Aeons in order to stop some huge, encroaching threat. That's perfectly sensible. So the first goal is to get the four keys, cool. Don't micromanage how the party does that. Do they raid the temple Indiana Jones style? Do they pass the traditional test to prove themselves worthy? Do they pull a Mission Impossible and come down from the ceiling to steal the key from under the noses of the monks guarding it, sight unseen?

Who cares how they do it? As long as they make the rolls and their strategy follows the rules of the game world in terms of possibility, then let it ride. It will maintain the players' agency, and give you a lot more unique approaches in terms of how your players try to solve the problems you put forth.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully some folks out there find it interesting, and if you've got questions (or DM horror stories to share), leave them in the comments below. For more work by yours truly, consider checking out my Vocal archive (or just going straight to my Gamers page), and stopping in on the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To keep up on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, you could make a one-time donation by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or give me a little every month by becoming a patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, there's free stuff in it for you!

1 comment:

  1. Classic one I've seen is prison break scenes. If you have to make the bad guys omniscient and inescapable to get the party into jail in the first place, think of another plan.