Beware, Online GM! Temptation is headed your way! That’s right, the quintessential GM temptation — the grand Temptor itself! The temptation to railroad your players.
Surely a GM like yourself wouldn’t be tempted to do such a thing! Despite our hardy stock and distinguished retinue around here, even the most skilled GMs will be tempted to railroad when GMing online. But, why would the temptation be greater online, you ask? I have been tempted and even succumbed to railroading when GMing online, because of these three factors:
Temptation Factor #1: Using Online Mapping Tools
While online tools like Roll20 are remarkably helpful, they are also more time-consuming to prepare than their offline alternatives. Allow me to illustrate:
The adventurers delve deep into the dark, evil recesses of the earth only to find (surprise, surprise) wretched beasts that desire bloodshed! So what do the adventures do? They ask for a visual aid! After all, if there’s no map, how will I know if my ranged attack is close enough? If I can’t see where I am, how will I know if my AoE attack hits more than one evildoer? These are reasonable requests. For some systems (I’m looking at you, 4e), they’re beyond reasonable. They’re necessary for the game to work.
If you’re playing around a physical table, all you need to do is grab your wet-erase marker and your vinyl mat and you’re good to go. A few scribbles and you’re back to slaying. Not so on Roll20! Don’t get me wrong, I love Roll20. But when there are so many sweet backgrounds, tokens, and tiles, I want to use them! An impromptu map just doesn’t lend itself to that. However, it takes too long to pause in the middle of your session and put together a detailed map in Roll20. This leaves you with three options:
- Railroad your players, so that they get to the map you’ve already prepared,
- Prepare several maps (even more time-consuming) and hope that your players get to one of them (which usually leads to railroading again), or
- Set new expectations for maps.
I’ve tried all three of these and I’ve found the third to be most helpful. Use Roll20 like you’d use your graph paper. When it comes to battle time, take a 10 minute break and throw something together really quick. Get some lines on there, some random placeholders as cover and PCs, and let the players imagine the rest. Your maps don’t need to look professional. They just need to be functional. The players themselves are supposed to be imagining it anyway! (For the record, you could, depending on the system, abandon maps altogether, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Temptation Factor #2: Time Constraints
This is a big temptation for me around a physical table, but even more so online. My gamers at both tables tend to be folks who have to be at work early in the morning. As a result, I have to be pretty careful about starting and ending on time. Especially if I have cinematic ideas for openers and closers, I want to make sure we get all the action in. I mean, who wants to end a session right in the middle of battle? Or in some anticlimactic moment of mundane dialogue?
The typical result is a bunch of handwaving and quick explanations leading up to the big end you wanted. But is that really the end that you want? Instead, let the players drive the story forward, as much as they are willing and able. As they propel the story forward, think visually and cinematically, looking for moments that would fit your criteria for a good closing. The GM isn’t the writer of the story — he or she is the director and editor. Your job is to build tension and to reward players as they resolve that tension.
I’ll put it another way: The game is not about our story or our storytelling capabilities. Sure, you may be able to cram a neat story into a three-hour session. And you may have some flowery descriptions. But, did you get buy-in from your players? Do they feel ownership of the story? Better yet, do they care? If you’re railroading them, I can guarantee you, they won’t care for long. So don’t let time constraints get in your way. Take a back seat, be observant and attentive, and let your players provide the opportunities for good endings.
Temptation Factor #3: Insecurity as an Online GM
The number one factor that encourages railroading is insecurity. Around a physical table, it may be insecurity about your capabilities, about your creativity, or even about your personality. But online, many find themselves insecure about the magnitude of what’s happening. You’re playing with people around the world, some of whom you have never met before. It is a daunting thought, if you consider it. Especially when you’re GMing for people you respect, like other bloggers or members of a site you enjoy.
The only way to deal with your insecurity is to put yourself in a bad situation. Let your insecurity push you to the edge! Take risks. Let the players push the story in a new direction. Or, heaven forbid, under-prepare! Show up blank and see what happens. Railroading will not help you. In fact, experienced players will know what you’re doing. New players may not know what you’re doing, but they won’t like it.
So what then?
Just go back to the old way: have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sketch out the few things you’d like to achieve. And if you don’t achieve them, you don’t achieve them. No big deal. If you’ve had the post-game talk with your players that I recommended, you’ll already have some idea of where the players want to go. And you can be prepared if that’s where things go. But if it doesn’t go that way, roll with it. You’ll have more fun that way.
GMs are supposed to have fun too! It’s really not all that fun to railroad your players. Especially when they stop showing up to your games. It’s much more fun to have a good idea — to challenge your players with that idea — and then to let them respond in the way that they want to respond. Because that’s when they challenge you. And that’s when you really start to have fun. So resist the Great Temptation to railroad, my friends. Instead, get online and have some fun.