Game Master Theory

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Game Master (Dungeon Master) Theory

I just wanted to start a thread that discusses some of the more abstract styles and techniques for running a game. It seems that regardless of game mechanics, setting or genre, there are certain aspects to RPGs that are ubiquitous. I'm going to go ahead and posit that there are probably several dimensions that could define them, but that the two most important are: Roll-play (Crunch) vs. Role-play (Fluff), and Sandbox vs. Railroad. Here is how I define them:

Crunch: Roll players enjoy the challenge of tactical combat. There is a satisfaction to defeating enemy combatants in a physical confrontation. Roll-play also covers non-combat application of the game mechanics: Skill tests, table rolls, etc..

An extreme example of a purely crunch game is the D&D minis game: Two groups on either side of the board, with no context and no motivation beyond defeating your opponents.

Fluff: Role playing is everything that happens outside combat and without game mechanics. The second part is an important point. In my opinion, if the rules dictate outcome, you are no longer role-playing. For example: If my character is trying to influence an NPC, I can describe to the GM what my character says (going into as much detail as necessary, or even speaking in character). That is role-playing. If the GM says "nice speech! I'll give you +2 to your persuasion roll", once the dice come out it stops being fluff, and starts being crunch (Not that this is a bad thing! I'm simply trying to define the boundary between the two concepts).

An extreme example of a purely fluff game is the Once Upon A Time storytelling game. While there are rules as to how the group tells the story, there are no rules governing takes place within the story. This isn't technically an RPG because the players don't just control a single protagonist, but it serves to illustrates how pure storytelling can still result in an enjoyable experience (assuming that's how all the players want to play).

Sandbox: This is a world where the PCs are able to go in any direction and interact with any part of the world they with. This world feels realistic in that if the PCs choose not to interact with it, events will play out without them. On the other hand, some events or plot points may wait until they are triggered by the PCs. In a sandbox campaign, there shouldn't be any pressure on the PCs to follow any particular adventure hook or plot line. If they do, great. If not, there are a dozen others they can pursue.

An extreme example of a purely sandbox campaign is the Forgotten Realms source book (without the use of any published/pre-planned adventures). The setting book is peppered with cities and dungeons and forests each filled with plot hooks just waiting for curious PCs to investigate. A very experienced and agile DM could (theoretically) whip up an adventure on the fly as the players decide they want to search this dungeon or investigate that rumor.

Railroad: A railroad campaign is one where there is a sequence of events planned out ahead of time by the GM. If the players take an unexpected turn, the GM may often rework events to try to get the story "back on the rails". Many published adventure modules are written in this format. Some give the illusion of a sandbox by allowing the PCs to go through some of the events out of order or even make some of them optional. However, if no matter what decisions the players make, the outcome (or final sequence of events) is predetermined, then it's not a sandbox.

An extreme example of a purely railroad campaign is a dungeon crawl. The PCs must get through a dungeon with only one way out. Whether that is to fight room after room of monsters, solve some complex puzzle or even role-play their way past NPCs, there's still no choice for the PCs as far as plot goes.

Bottom Line

The point of these games is to have fun. As the Game Master (Dungeon Master), it's my job to optimize the overall fun the group is having. This has a lot of implications with regard to what I wrote above. Different players have different preferences and interest along each axis. GMs have different interest, ability and time to prepare adventures and campaigns as well, which effects where a campaign ultimately lands on each axis. A crunchy railroad campaign might be easier to prepare than a fluffy sandbox. From my experience, a fun campaign doesn't land in any extreme. Fluff and crunch are interleaved, and the story is neither a railroad or sandbox.

The fluff gives the crunch context. It creates the story and motive for winning battles beyond immediate survival. Crunch adds excitement and competition. It challenges the players both tactically and strategically. Sandbox aspects of a campaign create a sense of realism and involvement with the plot. It helps the players feel that they are influencing the story. Railroad aspects make it easier for the GM to prepare events in the plot and develop a rich story. They can also give the players a clear course of action when they're not sure what else to do.

Of course, the tricky part is the proportions. Not just on the campaign as a whole but in any given game session. How do you decide what to do? Or do you just go with the flow? I'm still playing around with the proportions in my own gaming group, of course. I tried Paizo's Adventure Paths, but that seemed to be too railroad-y. I'm considering trying Pinnacle's Plot Point adventures format for my own campaign, but I'm worried that it's going to end up too sandbox-y.

I welcome any thoughts or opinions on this subject!
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GMing is an odd combination of different things - and there are too many to list them all; but for me they certainly include one important thing - Entertainment. A GM is an entertainer, and a very particular sort of one.

You aren't there to blandly perform wish fulfilment for the players; there is no challenge in that, and there probably isn't any fun for the GM in that. Neither should you be there, I feel, to get your own rocks off by humiliating the players in an adversarial manner, regardless of how the players feel. (Rapidly, you'll have no players).

That is germane to this discussion because of how I would answer the question of where to pitch the balance between sandbox and railroad; and between fluff and crunch. My answer is the utterly unhelpful, but for my money none the less true: wherever suits your group, and you, best.

It will always be a judgement call where the right place to sit between Sandbox and Railroad is, and it's a call which can change session by session. The same group of players (and it's usually player-related, not character related) will respond well to a heavily-sandbox game one session; but the next session they aren't gelling as well, for whatever reason, and they need more guidance - more railroading.

It is to some extent similar with fluff and crunch, although I find that this is more static; there are players who are high fluff, and players who are high crunch, and generally they don't vacillate much about the fluff or crunch ratio they prefer.

I mentioned that for me it's what works well for the group; that is important to get a handle on because what works well for player a solo, and for player b solo, isn't necessarily what works well for them playing together - one person's way of handling crunch might annoy another person, for instance, if player b is very rules-lawyery, but player a more laid back as long as it makes sense; in these situations you tailor the ratio to whatever makes the session fun.

And it's worth remembering that the GM is part of the group. If he's not enjoying the game, probably no one will, and certainly the game won't last.

The great thing about a human GM, rather than a CRPG moderated by software, is that he can respond to feedback; I'm not talking about noticing that the players are pelting him with dice to shut up about the thirty-third detailed subsection of the rules on encumbrance. I mean that you can try a session which is a bit more railroaded than normal, notice that people aren't enjoying it, and retreat from the extremity into a more balanced position (if appropriate). This is demanding at times; most of all, I have found, when I have prepared for Sandbox, but the players need railroad.

One thing that occurs to me about Crunch; one of the great things about detailed rules systems is that they permit players to get a sense of improvement in their character, as they increase an ability from 4 to 6, and feel like they've got somewhere. Lower the Crunch factor, and you have a lot of other options still, but you have ruled out some weapons in your arsenal, and that can sometimes make for difficulties.
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John
That is germane to this discussion because of how I would answer the question of where to pitch the balance between sandbox and railroad; and between fluff and crunch. My answer is the utterly unhelpful, but for my money none the less true: wherever suits your group, and you, best.

Your answer is actually quite helpful. I'm not necessarily looking for some one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, I'm just looking to start a discussion in hopes that some patterns emerge and some helpful advice can be gleaned. Your advice seems fairly intuitive. And yet, I frequently read about GMs who either ignore it or simply cannot process it. At least that's how the players see it. I believe that this just takes some practice and some basic understanding of the different styles of games. My own earliest attempts at running a game were heavily railroaded because I simply hadn't considered a sandbox or anything in between.

John
It will always be a judgement call where the right place to sit between Sandbox and Railroad is, and it's a call which can change session by session. The same group of players (and it's usually player-related, not character related) will respond well to a heavily-sandbox game one session; but the next session they aren't gelling as well, for whatever reason, and they need more guidance - more railroading.

This leads me to a question: How does one prepare for this? Both styles require significant planning. Does one simply "go with the flow"? If the players try to take your railroad adventure off the rails, do you force them back on the rails? If they flounder in the sandbox, do you let them wander aimlessly? In my opinion, I feel that the players are usually just trying to take the story in a direction that they think will be fun, so let them. Make something up. Change your plans. This does require some serious improvisational skills, though. New GMs should be careful not to pull a muscle.

John

It is to some extent similar with fluff and crunch, although I find that this is more static; there are players who are high fluff, and players who are high crunch, and generally they don't vacillate much about the fluff or crunch ratio they prefer.

This is an interesting observation. What this implies is that one can more reliably plan for the right balance of fluff and crunch.
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John
One thing that occurs to me about Crunch; one of the great things about detailed rules systems is that they permit players to get a sense of improvement in their character, as they increase an ability from 4 to 6, and feel like they've got somewhere. Lower the Crunch factor, and you have a lot of other options still, but you have ruled out some weapons in your arsenal, and that can sometimes make for difficulties.

That's a good point, too. Crunch is quantitative. Fluff is not. However, I think there are ways to advance characters in a purely fluff game. It takes more imagination and isn't as easy to define as bumping up a number. In the end, you're right. It's just not going to be as satisfying to most players.
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As a player, when in a "sandbox" type game, I still need some guidance - especially if I'm not familar with the system or setting. If the GM describes a to do, and then just says "go", I may end up feeling like a deer in headlights.

Imo, it's not so much of a problem for modern settings. I can announce I'm doing a generic library or internet search and get a smattering of leads, but in a low tech game, it's a little more difficult to figure out where to start. In my experience there's not an 'info desk' in most towns, and it's painfully slow to find what you are looking for from random people in taverns. I find characters don't ask people the same questions they ask of a data search.

Having options can be fun. There's a pride that comes from figuring somethign out more or less by yourself. However Sandboxes are extra tricky for players too. We don't always know if we are lost, and might not feel like we are making progress, which as just as frustrating for us as it is the GM.

So - feel free to railroad if that's what it takes to get the game moving.




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Railroad vs Sandbox - Downsides and fixes

The two extremes I feel are these:
Sandbox - players feel lost, they don't know where to go or what to do, which is exactly what Rebecca is expressing. That's the Sandbox problem.
Railroad - players are pointless; no choices are meaningful, and they can't alter the outcome. This is enormously damaging to enjoyment. This is the railroading problem.

The way to deal with the Sandbox downside is to introduce something to throw the players a line on what they can do next. In a fantasy setting, not only is it entirely reasonable to suggest a variety of service providers (for want of a better term), but if your players are in a quandary about what to do next, any time there is magic you have a host of other options:
Prophet running up to them and intoning a clue in the form of a vision about one of them
Direct vision inspiring one of them what to do
The result of a divination by the big bad evil guy leading him to send something or someone to attack the players. Or to mislead them. Or trying to bribe them (This is an underused ploy; I've seldom seen even well written published scenarios offer the suggestion that villains would try to buy off the good guys, but often they will have the resources to make it worth trying so try it!)
One of the group's magic items is actually part of a mated pair, and you just brought it close enough to the other part to activate the link between them, leading both owners towards each other empathically.
And so on.

Regardless of setting, one tool I use often is to have an NPC in the party who could conceivably come up with a good suggestion. It is vitally important, however, not to overuse this NPC. If you do, you suddenly move into railroading territory.

If you've over-railroaded the players, I think that's a far harder thing to fix. If you've done it just once, you might be able to fix it by openly acknowledging that it was a bit over-forced, and trying better the next time. If however it's become a habit, it's very hard to fix; players will be used to a delineated route to the next thing, and find it very hard to adjust to the new found freedom - not trusting it.

If the over-railroading has come from overuse of that NPC I mentioned earlier, there's a great way to deal with the problem: let the NPC have a dramatic death (or kidnapping followed by death, or other plot-furthering removal). This is especially effective if you have realised there is a problem before the players have, as in that situation it is likely the NPC has become a valued member of the team, rather than a resented deus ex machina.
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This goes back the definition of sandbox and railroads. In a pure sandbox, the GM must follow the players' lead. If they hang out in the local tavern/library/internet forum/etc., the GM must have a slew of rumors, current events and other plot hooks to lure the PCs into an adventure. In order to feed those plot hooks, there must be a base line of understanding of how to obtain them within the setting (do I go to the library or the internet or the local tavern?). In a modern setting, we have our own personal experience that tells us how to get plot hooks. In other settings, it should be fair to ask the GM where he/she thinks the characters would look for information and plot hooks.

The problem you describe actually sounds to me like a railroad pretending to be a sandbox... For example, imagine a modern campaign that takes place in New York City. This campaign is a railroad, and the only way to obtain the main plot hook is to be at a certain night club in three days. Your party is told this, and also told they can 'explore' the city. NYC is a big place. It seems like a sandbox. However, unless the GM is willing and able to improvise the any of the million possible adventures the characters can get into (possibly creating an altogether new campagin), it is actually a railroad campaign. (PC: "I go to Time Square", GM: "There's nothing of interest there", PC: "I go to Madison Square Garden", GM:"It's closed")

This actually happened recently in a Deadlands campaign I ran a few weeks ago. The module I ran had the party spend the night in Chicago. The module specified 2 possible locations where the PCs could stay and how they might get into trouble there (2 places to stay in ALL of Chicago?!?). One of the PCs has family there, so the party spent the night with them which required some improvised role play. This technically derailed the module, but I didn't want them to feel railroaded at this point, so I just made stuff up and let them do what they wanted. I could have told them that the parents were out of town, or that they didn't have enough room or something. But it would have sounded contrived and would have frustrated the players. This is an example where a blend of railroad and sandbox worked best.

Dungeons avoid this issue by having a very limited set of options for the party. A large dungeon may feel like a sandbox, because you can explore the rooms in whatever order you want. In the end, every encounter was worked out ahead of time and is usually order independent. Exploring the dungeon is the only real option that the PCs are given.
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Oops. Sorry John. I was composing my reply when you responded. I was actually addressing Rebecca
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Why is over-railroading so hard to fix?

Two reasons, I believe.

One: You've established a pattern where it is pointless for the players to make decisions, and they are punished (in effect) for making decisions, so it has been enforced to them: do only as you are told.

Two: far bigger problem: the underlying trust problem. The relationship between GM and players depends on trust, and earning the players' trust that in future you won't be steamrollering over their ideas and choices can be a slow thing to do, once lost.

(Cross-posted with Jonathan, not a response to him but an afterthought for my already long post...)
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Jonathan

John

It is to some extent similar with fluff and crunch, although I find that this is more static; there are players who are high fluff, and players who are high crunch, and generally they don't vacillate much about the fluff or crunch ratio they prefer.

This is an interesting observation. What this implies is that one can more reliably plan for the right balance of fluff and crunch.

Yes, I think that is the case. Certainly I could reliably tell you from memory where on this continuum each of the players I run to FTF or have run to regularly FTF over the last 10 years sit (before that my memory is a little hazy!). (With one exception, which is probably the single biggest reason I never feel confident I've got the game just right for her).

There's something else I'd observe. There's a correlation between Crunch and Combat. It's not a hard and fast rule, but high-Crunch players tend to be ones who feel a session without combat is a session which didn't quite scratch their itch. High fluff players are happy for a session to go by without a fight.

I'd say that my observation is backed up by the tendency for fluff-focused games to simplify combat more than anything else, and conversely for famously Crunch-heavy games to be Crunchier about combat than anything else. (Crunch examples: Rolemaster (OB, DB, Criticals, stuns, Fumbles etc..), GURPS (ultra precise rules about nearly everything); Fluff examples: Spirit of the Century (which models social interaction as combat, very interestingly), Lace and Steel (likewise), Amber (which hardly ever uses rules at all))

Well-run, though, even in a fluff game, a good fight can be the punctuation to a story, or the apex of a chapter. You don't have to have a [kick the door in, kill the foozle, loot the foozle, find the next door, repeat] cycle in operation to have good, enjoyable fights, and to keep both the Combat monsters happy and the Fluffies not too scandalised.
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