Hints and suggestions vs. Railroading – The ‘Three Questions’ Rule
There are a lot of ways to run games, in terms of how much ‘illusion of free will’ the GM is trying to impart upon his group. Some GM’s lay down the tracks of their personal railroad early on, with a plot that the characters have no reasonable way of avoiding and a minimal amount of choice in which direction they can go. A lot of modules are structured this way, for obvious reasons, since the ability to improvise new directions and different subplots are outside the scope of a the 48 to 96 pages that are usually devoted to the standard module. Paizo’s Adventure Paths readily admit this, since they’ll offer some supplemental material as needed, but they know that, for the plot to come together, a reasonable sequence of events have to be followed.
I like modules, personally. They’re fun and straightforward, and they save a lot of time on the part of the GM that’s tasked to run it. But I will never say that they are able to handle all player contingencies.
The other end of the spectrum, of course, allows for players to take off in whichever direction they see fit, pausing to look at the prescribed plot only so much as it concerns their own personal agendas. This sort of play style is the realm of the homebrew campaign, although I’ve only seen a handful of GM’s that are able to deal with players that manage to derail the plot too badly.
Players like me, that is to say.
A brief discussion on CR’s with my friend, Gregory, put me in mind of how much narrative control a GM has over the game, and whether or not certain techniques allow the players to assume that they can win any fight put in front of them. As I covered in my entry on using CR’s, I felt that the game concept balanced things so that PC’s in my games had a fighting chance in any given encounter. Did this mean that my players knew I wouldn’t kill them? It’s a good question. I answered it in the comments section on that post, but there were a multitude of answers I could have brought in as well.
Let it never be said that I can’t ramble on about a subject.
Avoiding unwinnable encounters in my own game does not mean that unwinnable encounters don’t exist. It just means that the player characters have to willfully seek them out. And once they’ve found them, they have to make a series of extremely poor choices to follow through on the encounter that will kill them all out of hand. As I said in the reply, I like the idea of local legends speaking of an ancient dragon that dwells on a distant mountaintop. My favorite part of the White Plume Mountain module was the map in the front that hinted at Dragotha, the dracolich that lived somewhere in the general area. (And predictably, I was disappointed when they finally detailed Dragotha.) Having this sort of legendry within your campaign offers a sense that the world goes on without the characters. There’s still stuff that’s going to happen, even if they don’t get out of bed that morning.
So, if they’re told about something huge and awful that lives in some remote, out of the way cave in the depths of the impassable swamp, this story is supposed to fill one of three purposes. Either it’s a folk tale that is supposed to add flavor to the setting, or it’s foreshadowing some later part of the campaign. Or there’s possibility that it’s the main adventure hook – to be backed up with something more localized, like the rescue of someone from this place – that turns out to have been a little more legendary than the actual nature of the encounter.
But let’s say, for example, that the players have run into something that is way out of their depth. In Rise of the Runelords, Paizo’s first Adventure Path under the Pathfinder brand, there are local legends of the Sandpoint Devil, the rough equivalent of the urban legend of the Jersey Devil. It lived in the pine barrens outside Sandpoint, the hometown of the player characters in this module series, and it was said to be responsible for the disappearances of people around the area.
Now, the actual stats for the Sandpoint Devil put it at a CR 8 creature, something the PC’s wouldn’t be able to handle until they’re well into the Adventure Path – around module four, to be honest. But what is the GM to do if one of the players gets it into their head that they should track down the bogeyman well before they can actually deal with it?
This is where the ‘extremely poor choices’ part of things comes into play. Naturally, there’s going to be an NPC that warns them that this is a bad idea. Maybe the cleric of Desna (this is Varisia, after all) gets a vision of dire portent to guide them away from this particular course of action. There may even be a plot-relevant reason for the characters to be sidetracked from this undertaking, perhaps due to a time limit on some action they’re already tasked to complete.
Failing that, they head out into the pine barrens, ten foot pole and iron rations in hand. This is where I’d throw in some grim evidence of exactly what they’re going up against. The ritualistically displayed bodies of a goblin tribe, all strung up and dismembered, is a good place to start. Perhaps they come upon the remains of a pontiff of the church, someone from Magnimar, who’s rumored to have gone missing and is known to have accomplished significant works of grace that are beyond the abilities of the characters. Over the course of their journey, they find enough evidence of how badly this monster is going to kick their ass. It should become fairly obvious as to what the outcome is going to be in pursuing this thing.
Now for my players, this would be enough of a disincentive to get them to head home, do some research and come back when there’s an actual reason for them to go wandering after certain doom. Or at a minimum, this would tell them that they need to level up a couple of times before taking this thing on.
But let’s say that the players in question have gotten it into their heads that the GM won’t summarily kill them all out of hand, be it some flavor of game where characters never die or the perception that, if they do get killed, there’s not going to be a game next week. What happens then?
This is where I tend to get very direct with my players, while still allowing them what remains of an illusion of free will. And this is a technique that I’ve seen other people use, both in real life and on various internet forums. It all comes down to asking a player three times about what they’re intending to do. Up to this point, I’ve lain down the clear and obvious signs that this is the wrong course of action. And to get here, they’ve managed to continually take the incorrect route, whether it’s a collective action or the designs of a single player.
Sometimes, the questions are somewhat indirect: “So, you want to charge into the clearing and attack? – “Yes.” – “You’re not going to take a minute to get an idea of what’s going on, and instead you’re going to just run in?” – “Yes.” – “Does anyone else have a plan that’s different than this?”
Other times, the questions are pretty direct: “Are you sure you want to do that?” (x3)
My players have learned that this sort of verification is a huge red warning light, no matter which way it is asked. They’ve come to understand that a ‘three questions’ scenario is something of a last line of defense for their characters in the situation, and if they’ve chosen to ignore the subtle warning signs, it’s their own damned fault how things end up shaking out. Once a player has chosen to follow through with an action for the third time, all bets are off.
None of this is to say that I handhold the players the rest of the time. There are plenty of times in standard situations that things can go horribly awry, even in what would otherwise be balanced encounters. If nothing else, the dice can always betray the player. These are things that can be handled in the course of play. The ‘three questions’ rule only gets brought up when a player or a group has decided to go after something that is clearly going to ruin them, and they’ve ignored every other warning sign that’s crossed their path.