Influence vs. Scripting: the Fine Line of Free Will

Those of you who’ve been around the site for a while know that free will in roleplaying is one of our soapbox issues. There’s been one thing, however, that has been difficult to put into words, and that has left a gap in the free will articles so far. In an article we called Shameless Manipulation, we made two points:

  • You do usually need to plan an adventure out to a certain extent, simply because you want to ensure that your game will be fun for your players.
  • You cannot create a game world without inherently influencing the player characters (PCs) and their choices. The trick is to take advantage of that to make things fun, not to use it to push your own agendas.

Although there’s a strong boundary between influence/manipulation and railroading, it’s a fine line and there are a lot of people who aren’t quite sure where it lies. Unfortunately that fine line is something we’ve always had trouble putting into concrete words. There are some good guidelines in that other article, but the line itself never quite got defined.

The Threefold Key to Free Will

The key to defining free will in roleplaying is threefold:

  • Player characters (PCs) and players must get to make their own choices.
  • PCs must get to take their own actions.
  • Those choices and actions must have a real and substantive impact on the outcome of the plot, for good or ill.

It’s all right for things within the game world to influence those choices and actions. This is unavoidable, as mentioned above, and desirable as well (it’s how the GM makes the game fun for the players). But as long as those choices are freely made, those actions are freely taken, and they have a real impact on the plot, that’s all right.

It’s that third point that makes things so sticky. GMs tell themselves that they can set things up so that no matter what, things come out the way they want. They may even be right about that; if the players/PCs make just the right set of choices, they won’t notice that their choices don’t ultimately matter. But… well, perhaps an example would help.

Some years ago we read an adventure that shall remain nameless. At the end of act one, things were set up such that the PCs would most likely make a certain choice and take a certain action. However, the author put in a contingency plan. If the PCs failed to do the right thing, an NPC would step in and do it. If they made the author-defined proper choice it seemed as though their actions determined the outcome of the plot, but if the PCs didn’t take that action, it became clear that their actions didn’t matter–regardless of what happened, things would come out a certain way.

That is railroading.*

[*Special note that applies to everything in this article: Pretty much anything we can define as railroading you could turn into a reasonable plot. The trick is to make that lack of choice into an interesting in-game plot, rather than an out-of-game contrivance meant to orchestrate events to the GM’s satisfaction. We don’t recommend doing this, however, without some experience and a group of players that trust you.]

The NPC Influence Example

A GM we spoke with worried that he had unintentionally railroaded his group into doing what he wanted them to do. He’d determined ahead of time that the NPCs had certain personalities and pieces of information. Some NPCs lied, or came to a mistaken conclusion about the evidence and passed on their mistaken theory as truth, based on those personalities and pieces of information. Some of these mistakes or lies led the PCs in a particular direction.

We don’t see this as scripting–in fact, in some ways it can be the opposite of scripting. NPCs shouldn’t be utterly reliable sources of information. One of the best tricks for making sure that PCs can’t overly rely on friendly NPCs is making sure that, like anyone else, NPCs make mistakes. Sometimes they draw the right conclusions from evidence. Sometimes they draw the wrong conclusions. (If you know how your NPCs think, it’s easy to do this realistically.) If your players understand that the world is in fact that realistic, then you end up railroading players less rather than more.

If players believe that an NPC is always right and truthful, then that NPC can become too great an out-of-game influence on the party. It can get to the point where the players believe that if an NPC says something, they should heed those words as though they came from the GM. The NPCs (and through them, the GM) start to override the party. Making the NPCs every bit as unreliable and prone to mistakes as the PCs forces the party to evaluate NPC statements, use their own judgment, and come to their own decisions–it reinforces free will.

The only time this isn’t the case is when players believe they’re working with the kind of GM who uses the ever-truthful-and-right NPC to push his players into doing what he wants. In this case, they’ll probably believe they’ve been misled when they find out otherwise. But as long as the players understand that NPCs are human, and every bit as capable of lies, misdirection, and mistakes as everyone else, then using that reinforces free will.

This is one reason why GM and players should sit down and discuss issues of game-play before they start up their gaming run together. The reliability of NPCs (and their tendency to stand in for the GM) varies greatly from group to group. Making these things clear up front helps to avoid misunderstandings.

What Scripting Isn’t

We spoke with someone who worried that he was scripting because he had worked out ahead of time what the NPCs were planning to do, what they knew, and what would happen if the players/PCs didn’t get involved at all, including a timeline. However, unless you’re planning out what the PCs (the “main characters”) will or should do, or you’ve decided that no matter what they do your timelined events will come out as planned, you aren’t scripting — you’re just detailing the world, characters, and background that will act and react along with the PCs. Consider it setting the stage and lining up the secondary characters. You just need to be willing to allow PC actions and choices to impact that timeline.

The Dangers of Defining Railroading Too Broadly

You’d think it would be players who’d define railroading too broadly. But in our experience, it’s GMs who tend to define any sort of influence on a game as railroading. The GMs who do this generally have one of two reactions, then, to railroading:

“Railroading is necessary. If I don’t influence the plot, I can’t make sure the players have fun.”

Or, “I can’t plan out anything or I’ll be railroading my characters!”

Neither has to be the case. If you stop to realize that railroading isn’t simply having an influence, but rather pushing the PCs along a single pre-defined, straight track (hence the term, ‘railroading’), then it becomes much easier to see where that fine line rests.

It’s okay to influence and manipulate the plot. It’s okay to plan events and sketch out what you’d like to see happen. You cross that line when you start making choices for the PCs as well as the NPCs. You cross that line when you force the PCs to take a certain action rather than allowing them to decide for themselves. You cross that line when you don’t allow these choices and actions to impact the outcome of the plot.

Inevitable Consequences

One remaining gray area is that of the seemingly inevitable consequence. Let’s say that the PCs kill a law enforcement officer, and the local law enforcement knows they did it. It should be pretty much inevitable that the law will inexorably hunt them down and either kill them or take them into custody. This is a direct result of the free choices of the characters, and it’s a natural consequence of their own actions, but it can still feel frustrating, particularly if the PCs felt that killing was the best or only option open to them. (One person’s inevitable consequence of a free choice can be someone else’s inescapable trap.) So, here are a few things to consider when you believe that there are inevitable and difficult consequences to actions the PCs have taken.

First, are they really inevitable, or is that simply an excuse to get the plot to where you want it to be? Yes, some consequences might be inevitable; just make sure that yours truly are. Second, is the inevitable scene the cause or consequence? If it’s meant to drive the characters to an end, it’s cause. If it’s the result of character choice or action, then it’s consequence. Third, did you (intentionally or unintentionally) set up or push the PCs to commit the act that has such consequences?

Sometimes harsh consequences are a good thing–GMs might use them to remind players that their characters should behave as real people, and that their characters’ actions have consequences. For players who have trouble grasping the concept, a more visceral demonstration sometimes helps. Sometimes, however, consequences are a result of poor world design. Some game worlds include opposition to the PCs that is expansive and powerful enough that the moment the PCs make headway against them (or take one misstep), they should swat the PCs down. That isn’t usually fun for anyone.

If you believe that the inevitable consequence might be a bad thing, then try to find a way to make it less inevitable. Put another way, take it as a given that absolutely nothing in this world is ever inevitable, and simply think about what, in this particular case, could cause that to be so.

Sit down and write out the chain of cause and effect that led to this point. Write out the resources the enemies have, and the way in which they plan to crush the PC(s). Then list out several potential events, circumstances or plans that might change things. Someone who wants to help the PCs might warn them. The enemy might want something out of the PCs, thus keeping them alive and perhaps setting the stage for an escape or rescue. The enemies might have restrictions on them that keep them from doing certain things, or flaws that can be exploited. The PCs might get their hands on something that makes the enemy’s plans less effective or certain.

I’m not saying that you should save the PCs–you only have to make sure that choices and openings exist, even if they’re difficult or non-obvious and have only a very small chance of success. And as always, keep an open mind with respect to player creativity. Don’t declare that something won’t work simply because you think an event should be “inevitable.”

Absolutes are Plot Holes in Disguise

This is something I’ve mentioned elsewhere. Any absolute (never, always, must, only, can’t) is a potential plot hole. It’s also a very good signal that you may be stepping on free will.

When you put an absolute into a plot, you’ll tend to create plot details that depend on that absolute. Any PC creativity could then wreak havoc on those dependencies, which can lead you to feel that you must railroad the PCs into fulfilling the absolute. For example:

  • Absolute: the PCs can only get into the ruined castle via the servants’ entrance.
  • Dependency: a special item is in the room right by the servants’ entrance, and they’ll need it later on.
  • Creativity: a PC comes up with some weird way to tunnel through some other part of the ruins.
  • Havoc: now they won’t have the item when they need it.
  • Railroading: in order to make sure they have to enter via the servants’ entrance, you have a wandering monster wreck an item they need for their new plan.
  • Bad feelings: now the players feel as though it’s useless to try to be creative, because you’ll just make them do things your way regardless.

As demonstrated in another article you can use things like the fluid world principle to fix such problems if you didn’t spot them in advance, but it tends to be easier to fix these things during the planning stages of your game rather than on-the-go.

Winning and Losing

As mentioned in our other free will articles, forcing your players to “win” or “lose” their plot can have negative consequences. What you may not realize is that you might be unwittingly pushing your players in this direction without even realizing it. Some GMs send out the message (often by saying things like, “oh, your characters won’t die in my game unless they do something stupid”) that losing will be viewed negatively. This puts pressure on players and tends to make them feel that they must take the route that will lead to success, rather than simply doing what their character would more naturally do.

One way to avoid this is to avoid attaching a stigma to failure or character death. Another is to make sure that the outcomes of your plots aren’t simply binary win/lose conditions. Having gradations of failure can be handy (the PCs can fail at a piece of the plot without losing everything), as can non-catastrophic failure conditions (not every failure results in loss of life or the equivalent).

Testing Your Plots and Game

If you ever aren’t sure whether or not you’re scripting and/or railroading, take a look at your adventure and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are the PCs being allowed to make their own choices, or am I forcing them to make only the choices I want them to?
  • Do their choices have appropriate repercussions given the context of the game world (and the consideration of a fun and enjoyable game), or am I simply punishing and rewarding the choices I dislike and prefer?
  • Are the PCs being allowed to take their own actions, or am I forcing them to take only certain actions and not others?
  • Do those actions have reasonable repercussions, or am I punishing and rewarding in order to herd the PCs through the “proper” plot path?
  • Have I given my players the message, intentionally or not, that they must choose a single path that leads to victory, or am I allowing them to create their own story ending?
  • Are there any absolutes in my plot? If so, what dependencies are there? How can I remove or change these dependencies and absolutes to leave room for player creativity?
  • Does any of my preparatory material assume or dictate certain actions or choices on the part of the PCs? Can I/am I willing to handle it if the PCs do something different? What other things might they try, and how would it impact the plot?
  • Do my NPCs have too great an influence over the decisions the PCs make? Are they always right? Do the players know that NPCs will behave as realistic people, and can lie and make mistakes?
  • Am I allowing the PCs to have a real impact on the outcome of the plot, or is the outcome predetermined?
  • Am I treating any events as inevitable? If so, under what circumstances might that inevitability come into question?

Ultimately, it still comes down to these three things: choices, actions, and impact. While you can influence and manipulate them, you cannot dictate them. If you keep this firmly in mind then you should be able to find that thin line, wherever it may lie.

Posted in Gaming

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