Mar 282012

According to role-playing jargon, a railroad is the metaphor which most accurately reflects the extremes of control that a game master has over her players. If she leads them through the plot, as if on a train track, taking them from one “stop” to the next without any flexibility, she is said to be “railroading.” On the other hand, if she gives the players carte blanche to do whatever they like and they go somewhere she never intended, the game has gone “off the rails.” Understandably, neither of these scenarios is very much fun in practice, but acknowledging this raises an important question: how much control can a GM give her players while still remaining in the driver’s seat?

(Find out what I think the answer is after the break.)

In my opinion, it’s quite a lot. However, if you’re going to open the gate and say, “Have fun!” you should take a few precautions to make sure they don’t steal a car and burn down the local mini mall just because they can. Here are a few pointers that can help you keep them pointed in the right direction:

1.) Try to Make Them Want What You Want: This is a step for the scenario design that could be as simple as slipping the group a motivation during chargen — “Whoever your character is, he wants revenge on Senator Whatshisname. You decide why.” It could also mean building in a benefit that can only be achieved by reaching the desired outcome: be it loot, reputation, information or advancement toward a larger goal that the players have. Another option is to put in a little more role-playing time, fleshing the Senator out as a smug blowhard or a smarmy smooth-talker. Give them a reason to want him gone: their agendas conflict; his anti-mutant stance is creating a wave of racism that’s causing the PCs grief; he’s just such an unbearable douche bag that none of them can stand him. Whatever works.

2.) Don’t Fall in Love with Anything: If you dangle a carrot and the player’s don’t bite, let it slide. However, keep them aware of the consequences of their decision. Does Senator Whatshisname pass some meddlesome law regulating superhuman abilities because the players failed to discredit him? Can they try the mission again later without any repercussions?

A subway map of Tokyo illustrates point #3.

A good railroad takes you where you want to go, and gives you options for how you get there. Image from Free Printable Maps.

3.) Give The Players Choices: So you want a plotline that involves taking Senator Whatshisname out of the picture, eh? Well, maybe they don’t have to break into his office and steal his laptop to discredit him. Maybe they can set up a honey trap. Or start up a smear campaign. Or go door-to-door passing out literature for his opponent. Hell, if you’ve got an aspiring Ezio Auditore di Firenze in your party, they could arrange a situation where the player in question deals with him in a more permanent fashion. Which leads me to another important point:

4.) Be Open to Suggestions: If the players think of something you didn’t, keep your head and run with it. If you’re concerned about letting them off the hook too easily, then don’t. Evaluate their choices and describe what some of the possible complications might be. Who might get in their way, and for what reason? What could go wrong?

5.) Make Sure Everyone Knows What to Expect: This is perhaps the most important point of all. If you’re aiming for thrilling political intrigue and your players have back-alley justice in mind, there’s bound to be some dissonance, either when you dump them into The West Wing or when they decide to go Death Wish on all your carefully laid plans. Talk it out beforehand, and make sure everyone’s on the same page. Finally, and perhaps most difficult of all:

6.) Trust Your Players And Get Them to Trust You: Sometimes trust is not easily won, but if the players trust their GM, they’ll follow her campaign anywhere. Likewise, if the GM trusts her players not to light up the nearest liquor store with their flame breath, she’ll be far more open to their contributions. The best way I know to do this is to communicate with your players. If they get stuck, remind them of their options rather than let them flounder around for an hour. Make sure your narration is clear, and if they have questions, do your best to answer — without giving too much away, of course. After a few sessions, they’ll acknowledge that you’re helping them to have more fun and begin to trust you more.

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