Thursday, 9 April 2015

Railroad Tycoon: Memoir of a Failed Campaign II

In a previous post I attempted to blame the failings of my Mystara campaign on allowing published material to dictate its course. Youth had a lot to do with it, too: I'm quite sure a more experienced DM would have handled it very differently. With a little more maturity I might not have adhered so slavishly to the published canon, I would have ignored or modified the material that didn't fit in with the established campaign. But perhaps, more importantly, I wouldn't have railroaded them into the pre-ordained situations laid out in the module.


Maturity is probably the wrong word. Experience is better, and though connected, maturity and experience are not the same thing. It was many years after the Mystara campaign had bitten the dust that I returned to the DM’s chair, and though I’d garnered much life experience none of it was particularly helpful when I eventually decided to run my own 3rd edition campaign.  

"I'm a special snowflake!" "No, I'M a special snowflake..." "NO! I'M A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE!"
To my credit, the campaign I devised was initially approached from the point of view of the player. I had recently returned to playing RPGs, and really enjoyed the mechanics and gameplay of 3.5e. However, after a few games I started to feel as though the DM was going through the motions and that the game-world felt a little vanilla... we'd begun the first adventure in a tavern, for goodness' sake. In hindsight I was a little harsh: it was the DM's own setting and though it wasn't going to win any awards for originality, it was consistent and a respectable backdrop for a dungeon crawl. What I wanted- and what I thought all players wanted- was a stunningly original, trope-flipping campaign world. 

This was a few years ago, and I've since become familiar (thanks to the Hill Cantons Blog) with the term "special snowflake setting". I interpret the term to mean a campaign setting lovingly and obsessively detailed by its creator, but perhaps restrictive and creatively stifling to its players (and indeed other DMs using the material). Chris Kutalik's post rehabilitating the special snowflake setting cites the (presumably hypothetical) example of someone responding "no one cares about what color hats the burghers of Madeuptown wear or the burial customs of Whatthefuckistan" when confronted by pages and pages of flavour when all the want to do is get into the dungeon and start killing things. In the same post Chris Kutalik contextualises antipathy to the "special snowflake" within the paradigm of the Old School Renaissance. He speculates that this term was applied pejoratively because such campaign settings were felt to detract from what traditional (i.e. old school) incarnations of RPGs did so well, namely "the micro-exploration and tactical choice of the dungeon, the emergent story (if any), the boardgame-like rise of zero-to-hero etc.", to quote the author directly.

It is implied that we've now entered a "post special snowflake" period, an idea that is given greater clarity in the same blog's interview with Trey Causey. Causey, discussing the "special snowflake" status of his Strange Stars setting states that  'The debate  often framed as "setting detail versus freedom" is really something more like "inspiring setting versus constraining setting"'. Sadly, this debate was not something I was aware of when I started working on the world of Empala. As is often the case with creative projects, the initial drafting ideas rapidly experienced an ideas glut, and I wrote everything into the campaign. I put a great deal of time and effort into it: I was invested.

Empala was inspired by a book I'd read about the neolithic revolution. I'd studied anthropology at university, specialising in the relationship between linguistics and subsistence strategies, and was fascinated by the circumstances that led our ancestors to adopt a sedentary lifestyle after millennia of nomadic foraging and primitive pastoralism. The impact of this shift was immense: in short, this shift from humans being but one piece in nature's fabric to being its marshals defined human culture as we know it. It defined the management of resources, power and introduced conflict. It was thus a time of great upheaval and, as I saw it, a great epoch in which to have an adventure.

One of the many maps I produced for Empala, which the players owuld never see, because paper had not yet been invented.

All of which was, and is, true. Unfortunately, as I started to put my ideas down on paper, fleshing out the major (and minor) NPCs, the tribes that populated the land and the emerging settlements dotted across it, a grand narrative started to take hold. By the time I presented my concept to my would-be players I not only had details of the pantheon their characters worshipped, a complete (very restrictive class list) and an entirely scripted first adventure, I also had very clear ideas of where this was all going to go. Before a single die had been rolled I was already preparing to railroad my PCs through four years of campaigning.

That's not what gaming is about: that's me inviting some people around to my house to listen to me tell a story that I think is fascinating. But I didn't see it like that and, after hearing some encouraging noises, put a group together and began the campaign.

Okay, no swords. Everything's made of stone. There's no currency either, so you have to make everything yourself.
The problem was that as invested as I was in the project, my players had nothing on the line, and thus nothing to lose. Even their characters were not spared my ruthless rail-roading, as I re-wrote their brief backstories into Homeric epics (in fairness, I think some re-writing is needed on occasion, else you end up with a party of five adventurers all desperate to avenge their parents' murder). The oft-cited frustrations of the DM dealing with a PC demanding to play a ninja in a setting based upon medieval Europe was not something for which I had any time: I was tearing my hair out at the prospect of players' using names which weren't selected from my list of proto indo-aryan monikers.

It got worse. Because I had so much scene setting to do the players didn't get around to an actual encounter until the third session. Furthermore, suddenly aware that I was railroading the shit out of my PCs, I weirdly took my hands off the wheel at the moment when I could have steered them into my (almost) fun scripted adventure, leading to the PCs (inevitably) going in completely the wrong direction.

In the end the campaign turned into something completely different: in search of the mysterious southerners who'd kidnapped members of their tribe, the party found themselves enslaved by the Evil Empire (so much for trope-busting) and forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. This seemed to be where the PCs wanted to take it, and I was able to recycle material from TSR's Arena of Thyatis (and its sequel, Legions of Thyatis) and run quite a fun campaign. My heart wasn't in it, however, and I looked upon the thousands of words of lovingly crafted game-world fluff and wept. The campaign ultimately fizzled out before any of my big adventure hooks had been addressed, let alone resolved.

Storytelling is an important par of the RPG, no doubt. But it's a collaborative story: the DM might provide the majority of the material, but he or she has to provide room for the PCs to shape how that story develops- and not just on the basis of whether they succeed or fail in the tasks the DM sets them. If the DM is really convinced that the pre-ordained path they've created is too unique or special for other people to mess with, then it needs to be made into a novel or a film script or a comic book; but if they're honest with themselves, it's probably not worthy of such treatment.   

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