by Mike Shea on 17 February 2014
DM: "A figure appears from the heatwaves of the desert ahead. He approaches, keeping his cowl across his mouth to avoid the burning sand. You recognize him as a member of the Asarat nomads, tribes who seek to uncover the treasures of the desert for their own profit."
DM: "As he steps closer, his foot collapses into the sand. He screams and pulls his foot back, blood pouring from his severed tendon. A figure rises out of the sands, brandishing a wicked blade."
Player: "I jump in to protect him!"
DM: "Before you are able to stop it, the hidden assailant stabs his dagger into the nomad's chest and his lifeblood seeps into the sands below."
This isn't an exact transcript of my New Years Eve Dungeons of Fate game using i3 Pharoah, but it's close. I made a mistake, a rookie mistake, and I'm embarrassed to even write about it today. It is, however, a teachable moment for all of us so I'm sharing it today.
There's always been lots of discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of adventures that are "on the rails" in which the GM guides the PCs through a single or relatively narrow narrative story or the "sandbox" style adventure in which the players guide the direction of the PCs in a larger world. Both of these methods have merit and different players will be happy with different choices.
That's not the real problem we're talking about today, though. The real problem is when a GM force-feeds a story to players who really just want to see their characters influence the world. If they see that their influence has little to no effect, they will become disenchanted with their role in the adventure.
This most often occurs when the GM has a clear direction for the adventure before the players ever sit down to play. It's an easy mistake to make. We GMs spend a lot of mental energy working on our adventures and campaigns. It's easy to build the arc we want to see without letting the four to six other brains have any input.
This is the problem at the larger scale. GMs want to build stories ahead of time while players want to be able to influence the direction of the story through the actions of their characters at the table. This is one of the two problems addressed in the Lazy Dungeon Master and also a key to how story-focused games like 13th Age and Dungeon World handle storytelling, by forcing a GM to under-prepare and leave blanks that can't be filled out until the game itself is played out.
Sometimes the unexpected successes of PCs push GMs into uncomfortable territory. In a series of blog posts entitled Making Success Interesting Part 1, part 2, part 3, and Prepping for Success, Mike Mearls describes this exact problem and a great solution: take a break.
"The first step to keeping things interesting is to never be afraid of pausing the game. Not everyone is awesome at thinking on their feet, and your first reaction is rarely the best possible one. As long as you don't pause the game too often, it's a great tool to catch your breath, think about things, and come up with a good idea."
The problem of force-feeding the narrative doesn't just happen at the adventure or campaign level, though. As we saw in the original example, it can happen in a single scene or even just a small description. We might have lots of blanks in our adventure but still have a couple of scenes in mind that we expect to play out in a particular way.
We GMs need to be aware that even these small bits of narrative may be pushed off the rails if a player wants to jump in. We shouldn't be afraid of that — we should embrace it. Whenever something like this goes off the rails, we should fall back to our core question when adventures like this play out:
"What would the NPCs do? How are they reacting to the PC's actions?"
We discussed this concept previously in Build Worlds, Not Stories.
If we look at the scene between the battling nomads, there's no reason the PC couldn't have jumped in and potentially saved the first bandit from the hidden desert nomad. It would have been a great opportunity for the PCs to see the struggle between these two tribes first-hand instead of in simple descriptive text. It would have forced the PCs to take a side or engage in a hairy negotiation for the first bandit's life without harming the reputation of the PCs with the hidden nomad's tribe. Will the wounded man slow them down in the desert? Will he turn out to be a valuable ally later? I'll never know because I killed him without letting the story unfold organically.
We can think of scenes like this as interrupts in 4th Edition D&D or Magic the Gathering. We have strings of narrative that occur all throughout our adventure, whether it be the descriptions of a room or descriptions about a ritualistic ceremony. Instead of pushing off attempts to jump in, we should give our players agency to interrupt the story whenever they choose. It might just be for clarification or it might actually alter the scene. We must be comfortable with the latter if we really want the story to grow at the table, even in the smallest of scenes.
Railroading can happen even in the smallest pieces of an adventure. Players want their PCs to get involved, not just sit while things happen around them. When players want to get involved, let them. Let players change history and drive the story even in small events.