Fall of the Immortals: Room for Improvement

We’re now four sessions into our D&D campaign Fall of the Immortals and it’s shaping up quite nicely. The PCs have reached level 2, the players are beginning to find their feet and we’re slowly establishing the details of the world in an approach that is somewhere between traditional D&D and the PBTA trappings of Dungeon World. I’m making an active attempt to ask the players to define details without overwhelming them.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the screen and based on our most recent session one of mine is that I need to improvise less. This seems counter-intuitive in many ways as my progress as a GM over the last few years has been squarely towards improvisation. Going into our last session my concrete notes were little more than

PCs infiltrate noble party looking for the scroll. Upper echelons of gnome society; modron like mechanical creatures used as guards.

However, when it came to running the session I felt that while I was able to introduce scenes I felt like they lacked depth and that the connecting elements were paper thin. I had little sense of how the mansion was designed, of who the host was or of how the PCs might uncover the whereabouts of the scroll. When the PCs chanced upon an interesting location, such as the library where monodrones were loading and unloading books from cages that were slowly rumbling past, I then failed to provide proper context. The PCs decided to follow the cages of books, which led them to a room where dozens of shackled scribes were working away furiously on… something. My mind was blank, I just couldn’t think of a good explanation for them existing beyond trying to explain elements of the previous scene.

Fortunately, the PCs didn’t dig too deep and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players hadn’t picked up on my troubles but even so it is bothering me. The solution is likely that I need to prep more, taking those few sentences of notes and expanding them slightly. For example, going into the last session I knew the PCs were infiltrating the party so a few notes on the mansion would have helped. I knew they were after the scroll so I could have made notes on where it is and what might be protecting it. I’m never going to go the way of full on adventure paths, with every detail described in advance. I have neither the time or the inclination to put that much restricting prep in. But some more prep would have been invaluable without preventing the addition of elements on the fly.

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Rant: On Railroads (or Plot != Railroad)

Between blogs, twitter, forums and podcasts I consume, on an average week, a considerable quantity of RPG material (it’s one of the few bonuses of having two hours of commuting per day). One of the topics that keeps coming up time and time again is that of railroading and how it is a bad thing under most circumstances. Which I agree with. It’s just the definition of railroad that gets to me, as I regularly see posts (or hear episodes) that insinuate if the GM comes to a session with any plot / plans then they are railroading the game. So let me just get my opinion out there,

Having plot is NOT railroading.

Simple as. It’s only a railroad when the GM forces the players onto that plot and forces them to follow it in the manner the GM expects. If I, as GM, come to the table with plans for the game then unless it’s the start of a new game it will be based on the actions of the previous session. I might have expectations on where the game will go and will plan accordingly, that doesn’t mean I am railroading the players, merely that I am planning ahead based on the direction the game has already taken. No, it may not be a truly sandbox game but even if I were planning a sandbox game I would still expect to come to the table with some plans on where the session might go, the only difference is that the initial plot hook would have come from the PCs as opposed to me dangling it in front of them as an option. They’re free to ignore that hook, go off and do something else instead. Hell one of the most enjoyable Demon Hunters adventures I’ve ever run was triggered by one of the players seeing a plot hook in what I’d intended as a mere background description. That was five minutes into the session and resulted in me throwing out my entire plot, calling a beer break so I could come up with a new plot (based around the aspect that had grabbed the players attention) then continuing in the new direction.

So I still had a plot. And I still wasn’t railroading. What I’m saying is that it’s only a railroad if I force the players onto a particular path and shut down their options when they deviate from my plan. Having a plot, that’s just saying to the players that “hey, there’s something interesting over here if you want to take a look.”