Dark have been my dreams of late. Seriously, very dark. I think it must be the season.
This post in particular I sat and wrote in my sleep last night, after having conceived it minutes before falling off ... only to find upon waking I would have to write it again. Now that is annoying.
I was thinking about the Opening Module and what sort of advice ought to follow it, once I have gotten my coffee and sat back down at the table ... and this led me to thinking about the differences between a campaign that progresses dynamically (impelled by what has come before) and one that progresses artificially (the result of a contrived plan). Once the party has decided upon an action/activity, how can a DM approach that decision in terms of the ongoing campaign.
Let us say, for example, that a party is in the town of Kaffa (or Kefe), the starting point of Marco Polo's journey to China ... and let us suppose the party has decided to journey to China in the same way, having invested all their wealth into a caravan and into goods which they hope to exchange for things of which Europe has little. The choice may not need to be something that appeals to the gentle reader, but it is what the party has chosen, and the DM ought to step up and provide them the best experience possible.
The journey between Kaffa and China is considerable - six thousand miles and more - and allows for a considerable number of possibilities - and in fact the journey itself, just one way, could easily stretch into a year of runnings. As I DM it is up to me to fill those miles with something, since merely saying "Okay you leave ... and ... you arrive in China" is rather insipid. My personal feeling is that a road trip game requires a ROAD, and events that occur along that road that serve to make the game meaningful. Note I don't say 'entertaining.' I'm not interested in boarding the party on a Disneyland ride called "The Mysterious East." I want to create that sense of GRIT that I wrote about recently. When the party arrives in China, I want them to feel as though they've accomplished something impossible.
I hear some saying right now that I am a hypocrite, that I in fact DO plan everything in advance and that everything I've ever said about a sandbox is bullshit.
Do I know what's going to happen along that road? Of course I do.
I have mapped out the Earth in the direction of China and the party is free to choose their direction of passage. They could cross the Crimea, set off eastward, crossing the Don and Volga rivers, climbing up onto the plateau of Kutan-Kirghiz and wend their way up the Amu Darya to Tashkent. Then they could turn, as did Marco Polo, for the Dzungarian Gate, crossing the Tien Shan mountains into Sinkiang, then down into the valley of the Yellow River (Hwung Ho) to Peking (as it was called). Or they could turn instead south and then east, through Hodzhent and Osh, climbing through the Pamirs onto the high plateau of Tibet, choking and suffering through the thin air, crossing that great wide semi-desert until descending into the Yangtze Valley, following it to Shanghai.
Or they could forego Marco Polo's route, take ship to Vati in Colchis, cross Transcaucasia into Gilan in northern Persia, and thence either south to the Persian Gulf, to take another ship around India and Malacca to Canton, or overland through Khuzistan, Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass. From there they could cross the wide plain of the Ganges to the Seven Kingdoms, pass over the Chin Mountains into Burma, over the Ledo road into the valley of the Mekong, struggle down to Hanoi and finally take ship from the Vietnamese coast again to Canton. This last, I would recommend, not be done with wagons.
What happens to them is largely going to depend upon which road they take. If they strike for any of the southern routes, I'm not going to plague them with Uighurs and Jagatai raiders; if they take the northern routes, they can be sure they won't be attacked by pirates or captured by Hindu spiritualists.
It's only natural that where they are will have something to do with what they encounter.
But rest assured, I will know what they're going to encounter, I will know the number, I will know when along the road they will be met and what the creatures will want. I will know these things just as I know that this particular port overlooks this particular bay or that these mountains are this high and must be gotten over by this pass. So yes, it does appear that I 'plan' the campaign out. In fact, quite often I plan such things months, even YEARS in advance.
My online party was given a reason to return to the birthplace of the one of the players to collect an inheritance worth 10,000 g.p. It was more than a year ago that the reason was given. It will probably be another four to five months of running before the party arrives there. Do I know what they're going to find upon arriving? You bet I do.
Does that make it a railroad?
I want to explain about contrivance in artistry, and why we say something is 'contrived,' and why that is a bad thing. I don't mean the word in the sense of something that is made or that is clever ... in that sense, obviously, every artwork is contrived, it could not have come into existence without effort. Rather, I am speaking of 'contrived' in the sense of its evident artificiality, revealing the clear and blatant hand of the artist, so that the work appears unnatural or unappealing.
If we consider movies, for no other reason than they they represent an art that offers a common experience among readers, apart from books, which have often not been read, or music, for which there is no common language, then what is the difference between a film that is 'contrived' and one is not? And ultimately, how does that apply to running a D&D game?
Most of the time, particularly in blockbuster films, the protagonist of the story is offered a very distinct choice between two awful possibilties. Either they will have to sacrifice, risk their lives, risk the lives of those they love, etc., or the world/city/existence of everything will be destroyed. There is no third option. The tension is usually drawn from the protagonist's resistance against accepting that they may die/suffer horribly, until a point is reached where the character MUST do something because time has run out. In short, the character is compelled, ultimately, to do the only thing the character can do if all they care about is to be preserved.
There's nothing wrong with this formula. It often makes a very pretty movie, if ultimately a predictable one. Watch enough of them, and you will find yourself waiting through the procrastination portion of the film for the eventual movement of the character so the pretty stuff can get going again. You know it can go nowhere else.
We call this 'contrived' because every other possibility is carefully removed by the author. Parley isn't possible, the bad guys won't change their minds, there's no one other than the protagonist who can solve the problem, etc. Eventually we know this one chosen person HAS to save the world.
In roleplaying, this is the railroad. The players MUST do this, for whatever reason the DM has determined. They're all dying of a disease and they must have the antidote. The town is going to be destroyed. The princess will die. If the party backs out, the wizard will kill them, the baddies will hunt them down and kill them. Etc.
The reason why many "boring" films receive such positive reviews from the critics is due to the lack of this sort of contrivance. The characters are pursuing a particular course of action, but they are in no way compelled to pursue it. They may get themselves caught in a set of circumstances, which may in turn compel them to take certain actions ... but the consequences for not taking such actions are less final.
Consider the film American Beauty, which for an Oscar Best Picture offered just enough interest to the non-artistic crowd that I can rely on most readers having seen it. None of the characters have any sort of inevitable destruction hanging over their heads. No one is dying of a disease. No one has a set amount of time to 'do something' before it's too late. The characters choose to take specific actions, but there's no artificial compulsion ... the motivations are all based upon the character's biological desire for a young girl, a character's desire to be free from a father, a character's desire to escape from an unpleasant circumstance, a character's need to be successful and so on. If, halfway through the film, all the characters were to suddenly stop what they were doing, in order to do something else, the sky would not fall, the world would not collapse. Lester could realize it's all just an infantile fantasy, deciding to return to a straight job that perhaps gave him more respect. Carolyn could give up her ambition and apply her energy to something more satisfying. Ricky could realize drugs were killing children, causing him to reconsider his habits. Any of the characters could witness something, recognize the course of their lives and change those courses, and nothing bad would happen to them.
Roleplaying has to be like this. Railroading isn't that the process of planning ahead of the party, it isn't arranging the actions of an NPC to do this or that to the party or react to the party in a particular way; it is the process of creating the motivation for the party along with the events themselves. If I'm railroading, I'm doing more that creating NPCs. I'm creating REASONS for the party to do this or that. I'm inventing a consequence that says to the party, "Do this or else ..." It is the "or else" that creates the railroad.
So the party decides to go to China. They get two hundred miles down the road, they decide they don't like it, they sell all they have and they change their stars. No big deal. I never had an 'or else' scenario planned for them. I don't care if they go to China. I haven't done any planning on the encounter I expected them to have on the salt marshes of Astrakhan except to think, "When they get here, this will happen." I'm not invested. And I've never breathed a word to the party that I had that plan, so they have no investment either.
In the Art and Fall of Preparation, I wrote that one of the greatest motivators to a party was the recognition that the DM had worked hard on a pre-generated adventure, and that this creates a GUILT in the party. The DM made it; we, as a party, have a responsibility to run in it.
This is an awful, horrific ideal for any group activity to incorporate. Yet it is constant and rife in D&D, as is evident on all the storyboards. It is just another kind of 'or else' ... one that is outside the game, but all the more real because the tag on the end is, "I will stop running D&D for you."
It is this contrivance that is ruining the game. Purge it from your gaming. Purge it from your adventures. Let your players change their minds without consequences. Only then can your game improve.