As part of running Roleplaying Tips, I often receive questions about common gaming problems.
“How do you wean a GM off of a cinematic/railroad style? In a recent game, the GM railroaded the characters onto his plotline. It was evident enough that we felt we could hear the steam engine. What is a good way from a player POV to get him to let the players succeed or fail in his plot by themselves?”
That’s a tricky one because there are many possible reasons a GM might railroad:
- Tired or off his game tonight
- Does not know any other way
- Is an egomaniac and control freak, like myself, and we are all his puppets
- Is scared to give up control
- Wants a certain outcome no matter what, probably for the best of reasons (i.e. maximum fun)
- Is scared to try another way
- How he was taught, or how his GMs ran games
- Is using or designing linear modules
- Is terrified of or poor at ad-libbing, and only has limited materials and ideas planned for the session
- Is a cold-hearted machine with no empathy who uses a respirator for voice enhancement
The most insidious is when a GM feels he’s got an idea so good it’ll please everyone, and will force the game to make that outcome happen. Here the GM has the best of intentions, but those exact intentions almost always end up ruining the game. GMs handle so many details when in the thick of things they rarely stick their head up to see how their players are enjoying the game. Then they are so busy planning between sessions they rarely do a post-mortem to figure out what, if anything, could be improved from last session. And when they do sense something amiss amongst the group, they rarely connect the dots back to the GMing style – it’s human nature to look first for external factors and excuses.
I’ll get my top tip out of the way first, in case you are tired of reading already:
I would go out and buy your GM a sandbox module. Ask him to at least read it through, with a request he try a more free-form adventure. Even if he does not like the adventure you’ve given him, he can use it to understand your request better. Everybody likes a gift. Depending on your GM’s temperament, you can be direct or dance around it by chatting up the module’s ratings and features and style.
There are some many reasons your GM might prefer rigid plots though, so you should consider some other approaches as well:
- How would you GM? I remember a co-worker getting feedback from our boss: “good article, but be funnier.” It is like the constant advice folks send into the Roleplaying Tips newsletter for GMs to be creative. Easily said, but just how do you be more creative? Just how do you become funnier?Take a moment and imagine two or three specific ways you would like your GM to tweak his style. Use last game session to provide examples and as a basis for alternative approaches. If you are clear on what you want, you not only will be able to provide your feedback better, but you are also sure you have something more tangible to offer than to just “be better” or “don’t railroad us.”
- Have a private chat with the GM. Avoid commiserating with other players beforehand. Nothing kills a group and its morale faster than tearing down fellow gamers when they are not present. So gather up your feedback and have a friendly chat with your GM in private. If he is ok with having a group discussion, that’s awesome. But if you ambush him with a group discussion out of the blue, it’ll feel like an intervention. That’ll freak any GM out.Further, just as you dislike being railroaded as a player, be prepared for give and take during your discussion. Coming in with a strong agenda of how you want the future to be is just another form of railroading, which I find ironic when reading anti-railroad forum threads and players have views so entrenched or planned out it’s like they’re immovable rods – and choo choo trains themselves.
- Try a more free-form game. I would have a chat with the GM first, and if experience, confidence or skills are the source of the problem, switch to a few one-shots with a game that’s designed to be anti-railroad and more collaborative. If you have suggestions for a good game that does this, please drop a comment below.
- Be an influencer. Provide some leadership at the table. Be supportive. Provide objective feedback but be diplomatic about it. Offer praise when due. Be professional, respectful and non-judgmental. This is a difficult skill set to master. Bookshelves are lined with advice on how to tackle this. Some folks are naturals, but if you are like me, though, you have to work at it – and fail often and keep trying.My best tip here is to think about a person you know who embodies these traits best, then model and imitate them. Ask yourself, what would they do? For me, that’s a former manager, Robin, who had tremendous talent for dealing with difficult conversations, being supportive while providing critical feedback, and being respecting of others regardless of their current behavior. When a barb is on the tip of my tongue, I ask, what would Robin do? Soon a more productive phrasing or point of view comes to mind.
- You can’t go wrong starting with Colin Powell’s book on leadership.
Worst thing you can do as a player is get into a power struggle. The GM always wins, and the group always suffers, if it somehow manages to stay intact. Back-biting, negative emotions, poor behavior and other symptoms of conflicts only generate a downward spiral. Clear and open communication without judgment always wins the day.
That’s my two cents. Readers, how would you advise this reader on getting his GM to railroad less?