Anyone who has ever had to run a project of any size knows that a plan is both incredibly useful, but also a bit of fiction. Anything that has a large number of moving parts and deep dependencies is pretty much guaranteed to go off the rails almost immediately. You can build giant gantt charts and hold many meetings to try to pretend that this isn’t the case, but the reality is that every time something comes up, you need to redo the entire plan from that point forward, and that’s a giant pain in the ass.
Some people take this as an argument to not plan at all, but a more successful strategy is to change the approach. This takes a lot of different forms with a lot of different names from “mission statement” to “commander’s intent” to “polestar” but they share a key idea; have a plan, but make sure that part of a plan is a clearly stated (and understood) outcome, then orient on that outcome rather than the plan.
I like the “polestar” nomenclature because navigation provides one of the clearest illustrations of this principle. If you’re flying a plane or sailing a ship towards some destination, 90% of the time you’re off course. Maybe not by a lot, but if you were to continue on your current heading, you’d miss your ultimate destination. But because you know where you’re going, you can easily introduce a course correction, even if things have gone drastically off course. Whatever route you take, you still get where you’re going in the end.
As useful as this is in business, it’s somewhat interesting to look at it through the lens of RPGs. Yesterday, Doyce Testerman put up an interesting post about Mass Effect 2 and Railroads which got me thinking.
Railroading gets a bad rap for a good reason – it turns the players into passive observers of play rather than active participants, and that’s pretty crappy. However, it has a second bad rap that is for a totally different reason, and that is that most railroad adventures, especially published ones, are stinkers. And yes, I include many classics in that regard. Some groups make them work, but the reality is that railroading is a writer’s trick to allow you to ignore the composition and characteristics of the characters who are actually playing in the adventure. Making the characters irrelevant means you can use it with any group of players! Score!
Except, of course, that’s pretty lame. I am aware that the desire to have adventures that engage the specific characters the players have made is not universal, but I think it penetrates pretty deep. Even GMs who would never consider changing the story of their world or adventure to reflect their table may still be comfortable using the character’s specific hooks to try to draw them into the generic adventure.
Anyway, one way or another, Railroading is strongly associated with the GM having a story to tell, and that story being the driving force of the game.
The thing is, as much as I get (and make) the arguments against that approach, there is a hard slap of reality to consider – some magnificent games have come from this. Not from the techniques (because squashing player choice is crap, however you cut it) but from that idea of the GM having a vision and making it real through the game. Ideally the GM shares this idea with his players, folds their ideas into it, and makes it something that everyone has a stake in, but the heart of it is born from the GM’s inspiration and talent.
The idea of the GM’s vision has taken a lot of hits over the years, in large part because it allows for a lot of bad things. Abusive play. Blocking players. Railroading. Entire generations of games have been born out of frustrations with past GM abuses and try to bake limitations into the rules system. What’s more, it’s one of the earliest models, and as such was treated as the default for a long time. That meant that there were times when it was an uphill struggle to suggest that it wasn’t the only way. Now, I feel this has been a pretty successful struggle, and for evidence I point to the changes in D&D over the years, but not everyone agrees. But even so, I am not comfortable with the idea of framing a position solely based on its position in a very fringey social conflict.
That’s where I find myself pondering the GM’s authority (and vision) as technique rather than philosophy. I have too much evidence that good, even great, games can come out of a traditional GM arrangement to discard the model as inherently toxic. To do so in the face of real fun would be dogmatic. So I open the door and wonder, if it’s a technique, how can it be well done versus poorly done.
And this is where I come back to railroading and polestars. Railroading is, to my mind, a bad implementation of technique. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to keep events moving towards something interesting, and it’s most useful educational role is as a cautionary example. This is where the polestar model is perhaps a little more useful. The GM may have some things in mind, with varying levels of concreteness but if he concentrates on the points he’s navigating towards rather than the route being taken, then suddenly there is leeway for players to make meaningful choices. They may change things drastically while still allowing the GM to draw things back towards the goal. Obviously, the GM needs to be flexible and responsive, and sometimes he might have to discard or change stars if his players take things too far off course, but a good GM will recognize that change of direction as a signal that perhaps he should consider a set of stars the players want to navigate towards.
The reality is, this is a technique that GMs have used for decades under a variety of names. For every dofus who insists on sticking to the rails there are dozens of GMs who roll with the punches, engage the players, but also keep their own agenda in mind. They are the GMs who treat their job as more than a purely technical one, and who would not be comfortable serving as a mere smart rendering engine nor as a glorified referee.
With all that said, I want to highlight the utility of treating this as a technique, not an article of faith. Techniques are not universally applicable. As a technique, this is something that would be terribly received at many tables, and those tables would be best served by not doing it. This should be no more of a value judgment than one might get for rolling perception checks in advance, doing initiative by seating order or enforcing strict inventory tracking. It’s simply another way of doing things.
There is, I admit, a bit of a danger in looking at techniques for an empowered GMs. By its nature, the role means that the GM can choose to ignore good techniques and best practices, and in the abstract, I agree that’s a problem, but I think the reality is more nuanced. Discussing these techniques, treating them with respect rather than disdain, and working to make them better should hopefully have the effect of making the whole community more aware of what is acceptable or not in a GM. If all GM authority is treated as equally bad, players who are comfortable with the model but suffering under bad techniques have been robbed of useful ways to talk about it.
I also kind of savor the challenge of this because the acknowledgment of the GM’s role as a creative one makes it much harder to simply come up with a few canned rules to make for a great game. Much like writing or other creative acts, there are rules to learn and things you can do to improve, but if you try to do things purely by the rules, the product is going to be flat. There’s a necessary element of human inspiration. I think, in ignoring that, we’ve been grabbing for the low-hanging fruit of RPG design, and that’s part of the reason that rules have thrived, but more explicitly creative elements (like setting and adventure design) have received far less attention.
I don’t know that this will change, but for now, I will hope.
1 – Yes, this hinges on the idea that the story in mass effect 2 was compelling. The reality is that, like any example, there are people for whom it doesn’t hold true, and that’s fine. Just accept that there is an audience out there who really enjoyed it, or Dragon Age or whatever other game comes to mind.
2 – Which I’ll define here as a game where the player’s choice have no meaningful impact on events. There are lots of associated definitions, like watching the action and reading boxed text, but that’s the heart of it for me.
3- This is a generally unspoken reason why the idea of Rule Zero (the GM owns the rules) is anathema in some quarters. If the rules are there to curtail the GM, then giving (or acknowledging, depending how you see it) the GM the right to change them undercuts that entirely.
4 – At which point I mention that the I-word is not a welcome addition to this conversation. It is toxic jargon, and there are better ways to say what you intend to say. If you don’t know what I mean, then be glad.