OK, here's something that has been on my mind...
As I gear up for several upcoming projects, I think it's about time I did a 'State of Gaming' address to tell you all what I am playing and GMing now and what the near future holds.
Right now I want to gripe a bit, hopefully constructively, about one of my least favorite GM habits...Railroading.
We all do it or have done it. At one time, each and every Gamemaster ends up pushing the players toward a particular scenario or event regardless of their choices or actions during the game.
OK...I haven't...but I get that it's pretty common.
Why haven't I? I'll get to that later.
Railroading is one of the things I've run into as a player that makes me really, really not want to be a player. I hates it. I think of it as concentrated evil.
I have recently been playing more than I usually do, and in different games, of different genres with different GMs, the tendency to railroad seems almost universal.
As with all things, there are degrees, and a little railroading, expertly hidden, usually goes unnoticed and can provide a GM with a much needed push for players unsure of where to begin.
Some genres benefit from or even require (almost...to some extent perhaps), a push in a particular direction. Starfleet most assuredly assigns ships to investigate various planets and anomalies. In a Superhero RPG, the Mission Monitor or Trouble Alert flares up indicating a crime is occurring and the PCs are expected to go stop it. You don't really have a choice in that. As a Superhero in a Superhero game, you need to head for the crime scene and do what you can. It's in the job description.
Now, the thing is, that's not what I'm talking about here. That stuff is acceptable. It makes sense. It functions as both a troupe of many action-adventure genres and stories, as well as providing an effective model for game play.
What pisses me off (something fierce I might add) is when the GM has decided in advance that 'X' is going to happen and no matter what you do, 'X' inadvertently occurs. The worst version of this is when you can see it coming. You have your PC ask NPCs for information, look for clues, experiment with gear and it happens anyway.
Seriously dude, why did you waste all of our time? If the Magic Gem is going to flash its Magic Light and turn us all into squirrels, just do it. Have it flash in the first few minutes of the game. Don't make me think that the books in the room will help me understand the Magic Gem just to tell me, "No, there is nothing on this Gem in any of the books". Then why are there books there? Do they reference it at least? Do they say what other book or place or person may have more knowledge? "No". Brilliant. Blooming brilliant.
Oh, and then there is the Wizard's Apprentice we captured. I convinced the party not to kill him 'cause, ya'know, he must know something. "No, he doesn't. They just discovered the Gem before you all arrived." Great.
OK, our Wizard can use a spell to tell us what the Gem is and what it does. Casts it, and it's something like 'Identify' or something, and it sets off the Magic Light effect and now we're all squirrels.
Screw that noise!
Here is a constructive piece of advice for both novice and experienced GMs that I found has helped me to avoid this problem in my own games.
DON"T DO IT!
Yeah, just don't. When you say to yourself, "Oh man, I have to have a scene where the team is stepped on by a 50 foot rabbit", the very next thing you should do is figure out how that could possibly NOT happen.
The rabbit rolls to hit, so it could miss, or the PCs could kill it, or run away, etc. If the next thought is to not let any of that work until the rabbit steps on everyone, the very next action you should take, as a person, not in the GM role, is to bang your head against a wall in hopes of knocking some sense into yourself.
I don't ever have to railroad players because...
#1. I have more than one cool scene in my head. Usually hundreds. I am open to more.
#2. I don't know exactly what the players will have their PCs do so I never, NEVER lock myself into a particular outcome a head of time. That's dopey.
#3. I think of several interesting scenarios, not one. If the players leave the adventure or do something unexpected, I have a couple of (dozens of) back up plans.
#4. If I have a map, I look at it. I grab a piece of scrap paper. I decide what is North of the top of the page, South of the bottom of the page, West of the left side of the page, and East of the right side of the page. I know what's past the map. I like to surprise the players when they try to surprise me by going past the map.
#5. If my players bother to investigate, I bother to provide them with Clues.
#6. If the players want to have their PCs talk to someone (or several someones) appropriate to the situation, I have the NPC give them information, or have them suggest where said data can be found. If I have a player who wants to talk to NPCs, I give them someone useful to talk to. Otherwise, I am being a jerk.
#7. I don't assume the PCs are incompetent, that they were born 10 seconds before the game started and/or that they don't know anything about the areas they live in. That's just f*#&ing dumb.
Know your world/setting, have events and stories of different types occuring in multiple locations and let the players set the tone for their adventures. They will be much more invested in a world that seems alive, and more importantly, that they live in and effect.
You may find this and this helpful.
If you don't have to railroad, DON'T railroad.
And trust me...you don't have to.