Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Story Flow

In the previous adventure I ran, keeping track of loose ends was easy - they were built right in. I'd written a story, given the players the illusion of control, and allowed the story to play out around them. Apart from a few tweaks here and there ("Oh, they spoke with him, not her - I'll just switch who shows up later."), I could nearly have posted a write-up before the session. Like a producer of a television show, I knew what was going to happen long before the audience - the players - ever did. Don't misunderstand me; it wasn't a carnival ride on rigid rails, with obvious pop-up adventures and a slowly-clanking plot that leads you to an inevitable climax. The players could choose where they went, what they did, and how they affected the world. It was, however, scripted; the Big Bad Guy had zero chance of showing up until the very end, and the players had 100% chance of finding information about him, in one way or another. Events were triggered by specific actions, and information was designed to be found. Like the plot from a well-designed video game, there were countless options, but they all ushered the players into the next episode. Which may or may not have been the episode I had originally planned to use, but it was there. It was a story on rails - well-crafted rails, judging by how much my players enjoyed it, but rails nonetheless. Not any better or worse than any other kind of adventure, on the whole, but certainly different.

Granted, as the "man behind to curtain," I can see the rails much more clearly than the players; they only see the stage, but I see the rigging, the lights, and the actors out of character, even out of makeup. Don't take my broad descriptive strokes to mean that the players had no choice in the matter at all; I'm a huge fan of "player agency," and left their choices well intact. What I mean is that I left obvious breadcrumbs in some areas, and laid out some illusions of freedom - sure, the players were able to jet all over the galaxy if they wanted, but the really impressive stuff was still ahead. In some cases, players surprised me with choices - ignoring tasty adventures, or picking over an offhand encounter with a fine-toothed comb. There were a few "episodes" that were moved around for just that reason. But, as far as the players knew, the universe was cohesive and consistent. And apart from one unfortunately obvious bit of railroading, it all went swimmingly, as far as I could tell. It's like a video game; sometimes, you can really see the rails, but other times, you only realize you've been following the story line-for-line after it's finished. I can remember playing a game - though I don't remember what game it was - and I got a full minute into a cut-scene without realizing I was not controlling my character. That's what railroading should be.

However, in this adventure, the players drive the plot, the story, and any and all events. There are a few time-triggers, some from adventures abandoned, some from adventures no one heard of, but overall, the majority of the action comes directly from the players' decisions. Once I set up my world (past tense), all the little gears began to turn on their own. Speaking as the GM, it's a very different experience; instead of carefully setting up the plot points and introducing characters at just the right moment, dishing out clues and information in single-serving bites, and designing each and every encounter to be precisely level-appropriate, I simply lay an enormous buffet in front of my players, wipe the grease off my hands, and put up my feet. The lack of prep for a given session is almost disappointing. I have little more to do than write a summary blog. If I really want to plan, I can tweak my random generators or write a few rumors, jobs, and/or quests, but I already have enough of those for now. I'm only stealing future planning opportunities at best, and giving myself entirely to overkill at worst. What's the opposite of robbing Peter to pay Paul? It's basically that.

Compared to the last adventure (a full year of planning and writing, plus another three months of converting, plus a good 8-10 hours a week of further planning), I feel lazy! I've only spent about 3 months planning, and quite a bit of that was learning how random encounters work, then making various random generators so I don't ever have to do that again. Now, with a click of a mouse, I can generate an encounter, so quickly it looks as if it were pre-made. I click on a different page, and now I have a city job board with 5-10 jobs, and the rumors floating around town. And... that's it. The plates spin themselves, to borrow an old circus image; the players make their own paths, following plot-trails or abandoning them at their leisure. It's a sandbox, through and through. What took hours per session takes so little time, it actually happens during the session! Madness, I say!

Rather than following (or even avoiding) the rails, the players can fight hordes or run away, overthrow governments or join them, stick around or strike out for the open seas. Heck, they can invent new spells, and even new creatures. It's the wild, unpredictable Age of the Fae, and anything can happen, and probably will!