Control and the Fuzzy Gray Areas of Free Will

Game Masters (GMs) often equate control with railroading. They worry that if they allow player characters (PCs) to have free will, they’ll lose control of their roleplaying game. Luckily for them this just isn’t so.

As I mentioned in part I of this series, there’s a crucial over-arching problem in roleplaying of which the free will issue is just one symptom: many GMs don’t think about the fact that the point of roleplaying is for everyone involved to have fun. In certain ways, control is necessary in order to ensure a fun game for all.

Adjudication of Action

Roleplaying generally isn’t as much fun if anyone can just do whatever they want. Much of the fun tension comes from the fact that players can try anything they can think of, but the GM (with the help of dice or similar mechanics) decides whether or not it will work. Without the possibility of failure success isn’t nearly as sweet. Because of this, the GM needs to be able to adjudicate the action. He needs to be able to say “this is what happens,” and have his players ultimately listen to him. This is a measure of control that few would term railroading – this isn’t the GM trying to force the players to play the game his way; it’s the GM working to keep the game entertaining.

Adjudication becomes railroading when the GM forgets about that “fun” thing and uses his ability to say “no, this is what happens,” to negate the PCs’ ability to make their own, voluntary decisions and choices. Ideally, you want your judgments to be relatively impartial. I say “relatively” because you do have an agenda that will color your decisions, and that agenda should be to create a fun game. But when a conflict comes up between your planned story-line and the creativity of your PCs, you shouldn’t rule against the PCs for no other reason than that you want to stick to your story-line.

Planning Out Plots and Creating the World

All right, so I’ve started out by telling you all the ways in which it’s bad to script a story-line ahead of time. You probably think the only alternative is to sit there every week and create the game wholesale as you go along. In fact, this isn’t what I’m talking about at all. Suffice to say for the moment, you usually need to create a certain amount of plot and world in advance – you need to create plot set-up and plot background, as well as a world to place them in. It also helps to speculate a bit about what the PCs might do and how you’d handle it. This isn’t railroading – this is simply preparing the tools with which you and your players create the rest of the game.

This can become railroading when you plan out the entirety of the plot in advance, from start to finish, including what the players are supposed to do. Ideally you shouldn’t touch their part in the plot, except to speculate about the various directions they might take things in and what you’ll do when and if that happens.

As a side-note, there is one other way to shape their part in the plot that isn’t considered railroading, and that involves subtle in-game manipulation of characters rather than out-of-game manipulation of players. We’ll get into that in a later article as it requires a deeper explanation.

Surprising the Players

If roleplaying games were predictable, they also wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun. The point of having a GM who comes up with plots and world stuff is that the players don’t know what’s going on ahead of time. Plots can still surprise them.

Yes, this does mean that you risk surprising your players with something they don’t like. For example, you might throw a plot at them that requires their characters to travel to a distant land, and it turns out that the players really liked the city that everything had been taking place in up until then. They’re not at all happy about changing the location of the game and leaving all of the background materials that they created for their characters behind.

It’s only railroading, however, if you see that they aren’t interested and then deliberately foil any attempts on their part to get creative about finding another way to do things.

Players Who Want Different Things

Of course, not all players want exactly the same thing out of their roleplaying experience. This is normal. Part of your job as GM is to find a way to balance the needs and desires of your different players. This may be one reason why you end up having to do things that some of your players won’t like.

This is only railroading if you’re showing favoritism toward one player or one faction of players and ignoring the needs of the others. Otherwise, it’s just doing your best to make sure that everyone’s having a good time. Obviously if you have players who seem to deliberately do things that make the other players miserable, you might have to give a little more weight to what some people want than others.

Making Things Too Easy

Some GMs worry that all of this “giving the players a fun game” stuff means catering to player desire for piles of experience points, treasure, and powerful items. Not at all! Again, you have to remember that key point about making sure all of the players have a fun game. Piles of treasure might lead to a single fun night, or even a handful of them, but in the long run it might unbalance the game and make things less fun.

Besides, there are ways to give the PCs cool and special things without giving them too much wealth or power. And you don’t necessarily need to keep your party weak and poor in order to make the game interesting. Be open to exploring areas of roleplaying that you don’t necessarily favor, because your players might have different preferences than you do.

Blurry Gray Lines and Fun

You’ll note that there are fuzzy gray areas in pretty much all of the above topics. I’m sure you can come up with plenty of borderline examples that leave you uncertain as to whether you’re railroading or not. If you’re asking what’s railroading and what isn’t, if you’re trying to do it by pinning down some exact line you shouldn’t step over, then you’re asking the wrong question.

The only question that matters is, “am I making a fun game for my players?” Every group is a little bit different. Some groups need a little more control and a little less catering to whims. Other groups need a looser hand. Some GMs are good at introducing their groups to new and interesting experiences and making it fun. Some players just know what kind of roleplaying they like and are happy to stick with it. Some GMs can successfully run a fun high-powered campaign while others cannot.

Only experience with your unique group of players (and with your own strengths and weaknesses as a GM) can teach you how best to avoid railroading your particular group. Only experience can teach you where the exact line is to be found. Don’t despair, though. That rule about fun can get you through the stickiest situations and the hardest quandaries. If you’re trying to make sure that your players have fun, then you’re more likely to listen to what they want, ask them for their opinions, pay attention to their gripes, and play with the things they find interesting. This is most of what you need.

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