As you might be able to infer from other parts of my blog (or perhaps just remember from a previous post), my favorite part of playing Dungeons and Dragons is the storytelling. DMs developing worlds and spooling out stories in every direction. Players and their characters taking the reins of the DMs stories and telling smaller ones through the way their characters develop. The stories we see at the end of a campaign as we look back and admire all we’ve done since we started. I love them all.
The stories I prefer most are the ones I can tell as a DM. Unfortunately, telling a story as a DM can be a bit of tricky business. If the DM is too forceful in their storytelling, the players can wind up feeling railroaded–which means that they feel like their characters have been placed on a track and they have no options or choices that really make a difference. Sometimes, with certain players, a bit of railroading is necessary if you want them to actually be doing anything. Sometimes, the players don’t mind a little firm direction, if you’ve set it up correctly. If a DM tells the story right, it’s possible the players won’t even notice that it’s happening.
Different DMs come at storytelling from different angles, but most fall into one of a few categories. There’s the adversarial DM, who is trying their best to kill the players’ characters and the players need to use all their wiles and skills to escape the DM’s traps and narrative sticky spots. There’s the supportive DM who just wants to ensure their players are having fun, bending the rules so they don’t get in the way of the players reaching their goals. Finally, there’s the DM who just lets the dice decide, setting up situations that they players can get through with luck and/or skill but could still include lethal consequences if they’re foolish or really unlucky. Personally, I tend to flip-flop between the last two categories.
I like the supportive style for fun-oriented campaigns. It is generally more fun if the players are successful (and death isn’t NEARLY as funny as some kind of persistent negative consequence), and I’m not one to let a mere rule get in the way of a good joke. Plus, one of the keys to good humor is subversion of the expected. If a player opens a chest expecting a monster, trap, or treasure, one of the best things to put inside it is a series of slightly smaller chests. Top the whole thing off with a “goblin punch” aimed at someone’s vulnerables and you’ve got yourself a hilarious setup for humor.
For my more narrative campaigns, I prefer the “let the dice decide” style. The best way to involve the players, to get them to suspend their disbelief and emotionally invest in the campaign, is to make them feel like their actions matter, like their decisions have consequences. You have to balance risk and reward so that they have the opportunity to fail and succeed on a smaller scale on a regular basis, so they never develop a god complex. Then mix in opportunities for them to fail or succeed beyond the scope of the situation and you can really hook them. Reward them when they’re clever and punish them when they’re making poor decisions. The exact nuances of how to do exactly that are a blog post of their own.
Situational railroading has a place in the narrative campaigns. Sometimes, because of the past choices a player has made, the entire party winds up in a situation they can’t escape from. Sometimes you need to move them from one city to another, so you “railroad” them by provide a reason they would NEED to move. On the flip side, that level of guidance can absolutely kill the fun in a more relaxed campaign. The whole point of the relaxed style is to let the humor and feel of the room guide your choices as a DM, so you can keep people laughing and the funny moments rolling out. Dictating anything at that point can sour someone’s fun.
So far, in my narrative campaign, I’d like to think I’ve only engaged in the permissible kind of railroading. The only time I think that it could have been a little too heavy-handed was in order to help my players remake their characters. One wanted to change pretty much everything and another needed a way to be introduced to a prestige class, along with make a few changes to the way his current class worked. So I laid out the path for them, knowing they’d take the bait, and then forced them to keeping walking down it.
In my opinion, the key to building ANY kind of narrative structure in a D&D campaign (and this includes permissible railroading), is to make sure the players never feel like their choices don’t matter or that they don’t have any choices. They should always have the option to just turn around and walk away. They should always be able to make decisions about how their character acts in a situation or how their character plays it all out, even if they don’t have a choice about what that situation is. In short, never take away ALL of their agency. Unless they’re being mind-controlled. That’s a whole different story, though.
I’m writing all of this up as I’m preparing for a D&D session with my narrative campaign. I hope none of them see this and read too deeply into it. Today, I just want to gather my friends around a table and help them tell the story we’ve been working on for almost a year and a half. No railroading, no narrative traps, just a lot of fun with my friends.