Tabletop RP: Plot Rails, a DM’s Worst Enemy

So, as a DM you have a brilliant story idea or goal for your team to reach. But certain things have to happen in a specific order, and to insure it happens, you just make it impossible for your players to do anything but what you need them to do for your story to happen like you plan.

Congratulations. You just put your party on the rails and, if my experience with this is any indicator, ended your campaign because none of your players are going to stay with you.

Now, my first attempt at DMing got put on hold because my school work went insane, but there were early indicators that I was accidentally straying into this territory myself, so we’re going to reset it period. But one of our group members who was running a military/mech style campaign with d20 Future actually did this on purpose, and between those two events, I think this needs to be something that DMs learn about the warning signs for and why it bothers players so much.

First, from the player’s side of things. The d20 Future campaign had already been on rocky grounds. For one, the distribution of which characters were useful and which weren’t was way out of balance, even among the party. Some of that is the way that weapons work in d20 Future (more on that in a later post), but some of it was the style of missions we were dealing with. An example with my character: I had set Lucine up to be the soldier. She was an all-around soldier rather than a specialist, so she had some ranks in several of her skills and I went the Smart Hero track, letting her be a variable skill monkey. She was also, fighting wise, suppose to be support/sniper/hand-to-hand, ensuring that the party would always have some other defense. There were two other Smart Heroes in the party, who were specialized, a Fast/Smart mesh Hero, and a Charismatic Hero (if I remember right). I wasn’t the only character that got underutilized with the start of the campaign, but we were slowly figuring things out, so I thought that we would be in a good place after the first few kinks were figured out.

We had left off the previous session invading a base. Now, for those who haven’t looked at my bio, when it comes to video games and such, I tend to stick to medieval fantasy games, or ones that aren’t particularly modern or technical. My DM? He glorifies in that style of game. I was really relying on my fellow game players to make sure we took care of the things we needed to. Problem? Almost all my fellow gamers live to do anything they can get away with. So since we didn’t do one thing, the DM felt we needed to face the consequences. What followed was a complete nightmare. My character was tortured (electro-shock style, and the only one to go through standard torture), the others had their own little interrogation sessions, we lost all our gear, even mods that were done to some of our bodies (not mine, I hate those, but the smart/fast character had a few). And then for those of us who were deemed “strong test subjects”…? You guessed it. We had forced mods/templates put on us. Mutations, to be specific, that were completely irreversible. My biggest hatred in ANY RPG where I create the character. I was done.

So why do players hate this? On my side of it, I felt like I was being punished, and the others felt like we’d had no ways of fighting back, meaning we weren’t playing a game anymore, we were just listening to the DM tell us a story, which isn’t the purpose or fun part of the game. There wasn’t even a chance for an escape attempt, which blew my mind. And through the entire session, we’d literally had no control over what we could do, besides what we could say, and even that was lost to some of us with the use of truth serum (that he forgot to mention was truth serum, that was annoying). As for the mutations/templates, I will always hate the ones I have no say in. Mostly because this is my character and while yes, you as the DM get to write the story, but if you are going to be doing any unchangeable and unavoidable modifying to my part in it, I want to know what and when.* Some of my characters, I’m even okay with it to a certain degree. But it takes time on my part to adjust to the change. (The DM later claimed, btw, he did this to my character specifically because he felt I was too attached to my characters and viewed them as versions of me. I’m still pissed off about this.)

*Note: this does not include plot stuff, like the character’s parents dying or something. In fact, I usually HAND the DM plot crap that they are free to use against me.

So how can a DM recognize that they are about to use the rails? I realized that I had done it with my mercenary campaign because of the difficult I was having running the session. Some of this is the fact my fellow DMs have letting-go-of-control issues, but there is a portion of this that is mine for not having stuff planned out in the right way to leave me prepared and them still have their choices. I also had issues with coming up with challenges that would let each player have their moment to shine, whether it be one’s always creative way out of situations or the other using this class that I am DEEPLY not familiar with, and he didn’t brief me on before we started.

(Here’s a tip, by-the-by. If you are using a class from a supplemental book of any sort, be it war mage, favored soul, or anything else other than what is in Player’s Handbook, bring either a copy of the book or find a link to it and send it to the DM so they can look over the class and know exactly what you are and aren’t capable of. Same if you have a race or trait you want to take on. DMs can’t be familiar with every single aspect in the entire Dungeons and Dragons franchise, especially newer DMs. Even our most experience DM hadn’t known about the prophet-variant of Favored Souls until I told him about it.)

I realized I had thrown them into the main plot waaaaay too early, and had made it way too rigid (sort of baby-rails, which are a good warning sign to look for). I have a better idea now on how to structure it so it is still, at it’s core, a mercenary campaign and they have choices to make, but my grand “save the world” plot can happen at the same time, at their pace. I guess the biggest warning sign is to look at what you are planning on happening that session. Are their chances for the players to fight back or escape or bargain their way out? What are you going to be doing to them, and are they (as players) okay with that, or do you have one or two who really hate it and it would be better to plan something else? If you absolutely must do it, is there a save possible? (No saves and sucky consequences are never a good thing to use, btw. Players hate them. It’s one thing to end up Blessed with Suck because of the Random Number God. It’s another to just be screwed over by Word of God.)

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About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

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