The Case for Railroading

By Shamus Posted Tuesday May 22, 2007

Filed under: Tabletop Games 57 comments

In the past I’ve expressed my affinity for railroading a D&D game with the goal of creating an epic tale. My thinking has been that I want to create a thrilling story with the players as the central characters, and any subtle railroading that furthers that goal is highly desirable.

Great stories tend to have three acts, where we 1) introduce the challenge or threat 2) raise the stakes,and then 3) bring everything to a thrilling climax. Imagine a movie where the villain is defeated in the first half hour, and the hero spends the rest of the film goofing off. Or perhaps one where, in the middle of the film, the heroes forget about defeating the Big Bad and wander off because they can’t figure out how to beat him. Or maybe they join him, indulge in a bunch of senseless killing, and the story grinds to a halt when they run out of stupid ways to abuse the innocent. These are not interesting stories. This sort of gaming can appeal to some players, but it gets old quick. I think it is my duty as the DM to guide the story so that it remains as true to the three act ideal as possible, as long as my manipulations are subtle.

But let’s make clear what I mean by subtle railroading. Let’s imagine I’m running a game where the players confront the Big Bad before I intended, thus threatening to end the tale in the middle of the story instead of the end. I have plot twists and important NPC’s that they have yet to see, and if they beat the bad guy now the story will be sort of lame. They may not even realize they are facing the main villain, or perhaps he hasn’t enacted the bulk of his schemes and thus isn’t all that bad yet.

Lame railroading:

Make the bad guy too powerful. Make him invincible. Have him teleport away just as he’s about to be defeated. Have an army of henchmen charge into the room to bail him out. Negate the powers of the players. Bring the bad guy back from the dead later.

All of these are ugly, crude, hackery on the part of the DM and are a good bit worse than just letting the story die with the villain. They all deny the players their well-earned victory, thus preserving my story at the expense of their fun.

Subtle railroading:

I will slightly alter my story. I will invent a New Badguy that will do everything I had originally planned for this badguy. Just as the Old Bad is defeated he will reveal that he is merely an agent of a higher power! Their true enemy is still out there, and by killing this guy they have perhaps even advanced his plans or fallen into his trap.

In both cases the plot stays on track, my plot twists are preserved, and none of my NPCs go to waste. But in scenario #2 the players feel like they accomplished something. Instead of feeling cheated, they are going to be even more motivated to go after the New Bad.

I’ve never been a fan of meandering, rudderless plots and games which are little more than a freeform sandbox world of pointless combat and loot acquisition. I can have fun creating an epic tale for the players to inhabit, but I’m not interested in acting as the accountant for their dice-powered Diablo game.

This doesn’t really lead to an exciting adventure.
This doesn’t really lead to an exciting adventure.
So, going into an adventure I decide ahead of time that the players are going to face Darth Vader. They can’t kill him in act 2 (or if they do, I’ll replace him) and they can’t join with him, bribe him, or ignore him. In the end how they defeat him will be up to them, but they are going to face him in act 3. They can fight him in person, shoot him down, or boobytrap his toilet with a thermal detonator. I’ll let them use any means permitted by the rules of the game, but I will make sure that by the time they have the opportunity to move against him, his Death Star will be drawing a bead on the rebel base and everything will be on the line.

I realize this isn’t for everyone, and some players simply balk at the idea that they can’t join with Vader or turn over the princess for a bunch of cash. They would rather take part in a story with no arc than inhabit one where the arc is imposed on them. A lot of the out-of-game humor, angst, and conflict comes when these two different player types collide.

EDIT: Below, some people seem to be confused by what I’m saying here, complaining that they wouldn’t want to play a game where they couldn’t change things. The whole point above is that there is no way to know about my changes. It wouldn’t be a “princess is in another castle” moment, because they weren’t expecting to rescue the princess just yet anyway. They don’t see the rails because I only change things they don’t know about.


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57 thoughts on “The Case for Railroading

  1. Robert says:

    When I DM, I make it plain to the players – there’s a plot. There’s a big adventure going on. It will be as cool and as exciting as I can make it. I will make it easy for you to be a big part of the big adventure. But I won’t make you do it.

    99% of the time, the players will happily get onto the tracks.

  2. Jeremiah says:

    The problem with pre-thought-out plots is that you haven’t calculated the players’ or their characters’ interests or desires (usually). No amount of railroading (subtle or not) will really matter if the characters don’t have a stake in the story.

    And, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to join the other side. If that’s what their character would do, it’s not up to the GM to define the character’s roles. If that’s what they do, then you just need to adjust things. Like with your example of the new big bad guy, if they switch sides, now the big bad guy is their former boss/rule/leader/whatever.

    I believe if there are any tracks to be laid, it should be by the players. Everyone at the table should have a real stake in the story. It shouldn’t be just the DM who’s dragging the players along for some plot he/she finds interesting and want to play out. It should, however, be up to the GM to give the characters’ hooks that they actually have a veste interest in, not one they should feel obligated to follow because they know they won’t get adventure otherwise. If you can tie that into some pre-existing story you have planned, great. If not, trash it, and follow what the players are actually interested in.

    Sure, if you keep giving them hooks they care nothing for, then they’ll probably just wander around aimlessly in a, “…freeform sandbox world of pointless combat and loot acquisition.” But if you take the time to find out what they’re (players and characters) actually care about, then you can craft hooks that you should never have a problem getting them to follow.

  3. al_fruitbat says:

    Not sure I agree with you on this one, Shamus. One of the BIG things about rpgs instead of other entertainments (books, movies, games) is that the players are in control.

    I’m a GM too, and while I don’t like to admit it, probably the best game I ever ran (in terms of player enjoyment) was when my characters went *totally* off the rails. I just had to deal with it. They slaughtered my carefully laid out plot and went on a blood-crazy killing rampage through a city I was frantically inventing as they destroyed it.

    They robbed a gun store (rolling really well), then piled into a car with their loot. I sent the cops after them, they drove onto the freeway, then fired shotgun shells into the engine blocks of nearby cars, crashing them into the pursuing cop cars. (all the time, rolling really well). I said that they were ravenously hungry (we were playing TMNT and one of them was a mutant weasel) and desperately needed fresh meat. They stopped at a service station, failed to get meat, and ended up killing and eating the cashier, taking the body with them in the car.

    I sent a SWAT team after them, the hyperactive weasel player (fuelled by fresh meat) then ran around the team, got in the SWAT van, drove it over the SWAT team and picked up my players.

    They were barrelling down the freeway in a SWAT van stuffed with body armour and rifles, so (after about 5 hours playtime) I sent in an Apache helicopter and killed them with missiles.

    My players *loved* it. They seriously thought it was the best game they’d ever played – they felt ‘in control’ like they never had before.

    Just saying…

  4. Purple Library Guy says:

    I guess I have a certain degree of luxury: Most of my players are *very* good, and the remainder, while perhaps less original and plot-driving, appreciate a good game with flavour.
    So on one hand, these people are tough to railroad, although that subtle method might work to a point. On the other, left to their own devices they do not tend to degenerate into hack and slash.
    So I don’t really make up a lot of adventures in the sense of serious plot arcs. Oh, sometimes, sure. Especially at the beginning of a group’s career. But what inevitably happens is that after the first few adventures, the characters become entangled with the world. They have objectives of their own, they have contacts, they have taken sides between this barony and that one or this kingdom and that one, they’re involved with the elves’ efforts to re-establish population and territory or dwarves’ ongoing attempts to stop orcish invasions.

    So my main chore becomes making sure that The World Is Out There. That current events move along, nobles betray one another, invasions are begun, timber interests start chopping down forests, kings emerge to unify the warring orc tribes, making them a greater threat, and so on and so forth. As long as I do that, the players tend on their own to come to conclusions about what side they’re on, and they’ll decide to do something about it. And you know, I can never really predict just what, or whether they’ll temporarily ignore some problems in favour of personal agendas. Sometimes they’ll get right in there with the armies, sometimes they’ll decide to work the diplomacy and espionage, and sometimes they’ll change their minds part way through. Right now they’ve decided guerilla warfare attacking supply lines is their approach.
    My role as the GM is, when they’ve more or less decided what situation to investigate and a rough style of approach, to come up with interesting and potentially significant situations that they might run into along that approach. At that point I just say “Your scouting/social schmoozing/listening for news in taverns/dealings with the underworld reveal that (clue to adventure) is going on” and they’re off. So right now I’m all, like “You’ve found that supplies are being gathered to be sent on in caravans at this small castle” and they’re having fun storming the castle. Meanwhile the generals are getting really annoyed with this problem and are working on a trap, because they’ve had no luck trying to track the PCs.

    Now, occasionally some horrible existential threat to the Continued Existence of the World As We Know It comes along. Or they don’t have anything seriously in mind and are clearly wondering “what should we do next?” at which point I might grab one of the potential crises I’ve been putting together and have someone they know contact them with a “Your help is needed urgently!” at which point they’re usually happy to go after whatever it is. Set pieces have their place.

    But I generally find my preference runs to skipping the well-made plot in favour of greater realism and flexibility, where I know who the antagonists are and what they’re doing and roughly what their resources are and how they think, and try to have them react realistically to the unpredictable actions of the PCs. I have little choice in a way, because I seriously cannot predict these players’ actions–they are sharp cookies with firm grasps of strategy, their capabilities, and tons of lateral thinking.

  5. -Chipper says:

    I guess it comes down to what you want out of your role-playing. Some people want the chance to behave antisocially in a way they won’t/can’t in real life (see comment #3), and others want a chance to be the hero in an epic tale. I prefer the latter myself and so would prefer to be on Shamus’ rails.

    Which reminds me of the forward to “The Book of Virtue” by William Bennett (former U.S. Secretary of Education). He advanced the idea that stories should be more that just about entertainment – the best stories also reinforce the virtues that we want in our children & society. I agree, thus my preference for role-playing style


  6. Kris says:

    Usually I try to play my alignment and class effectively. So if you let me play a chaotic nuetral rogue with no personal motivation to move the plot forward, it’s your own damn fault. :)

    Otherwise, I’d probably enjoy your DM’ing immensely.

  7. wererogue says:

    I’m mostly with “Purple Library Guy” above – I tend to write a gameworld and some plot, and keep it moving while the players define their scope. Once they’ve set their level, I can concentrate on plot at their level, and I can re-use the gameworld with other players.

    If I really want to run a particular plot/story (usually a horror game), I specify the scope from which they can create their characters, and then tend to ‘wing’ events leading them toward the plot. Once they’re together, it’s up to them how they deal with what’s happening. Horror games give you a lot of freedom to hit the players with whatever you feel like, though, and I like to run them diceless.

  8. AR says:

    I dispute the idea that your subtle railroading is all that great. It basically reduces down to, “The princess is in another castle.” Is there any reason why they couldn’t know that he was merely a lieutenant ahead of time? To prepare for the problem you describe, I’d let it be known that the agent of evil they’re actually dealing with is just that: an agent. Then they can kill him ahead of time or they don’t. If they do, well, that’s great. “We just killed a badass agent of evil! I know who we’re going after next!” If they don’t, then the final event just becomes that much more interesting as they must then defeat the BBEG’s right-hand man right after kicking down the doors of EvilHQ, followed by the BBEG himself and probably some pirates.

    But if you don’t reveal that the guy is an agent until after they’ve defeated him, you go from “We just killed the boss! Awesome!” to a disappointing “Aww, just an agent?” Instead of just straight, “We killed a powerful agent! Awesome!”

    But I must confess that the other problems you describe are almost entirely alien to me. My group generally agrees on what the campaign goals will be and what sort of people the PCs will be before play starts. So if the general idea is, “honorable vigilantes with the best intentions and the skills to back them up fight organized crime,” or, “a group of otherwise dissimilar people come together to pursue their common goal of destroying all life on Earth,” then that’s what everyone can reasonably assume is going to happen. The GM can then have the villain offer to let the heroes join her without having to worry about them actually accepting, unless they’re heroes in the classical sense instead of the modern sense and are more open to practice considerations, in which case this will be known by everyone ahead of time and the GM making such an offer will have already prepared for either side of this fork in the path.

    So, what ends up happening is that the plot is fairly heavily railroaded, not because the characters can’t change paths, but because they don’t, because they don’t want to, because if they did things would have been planned differently from the start. Though, it is of course assumed that sufficiently impactful events may change characters from what they started out as. But since when is planning for player initiative supposed to be easy?

  9. InThane says:

    Sagiro over on ENWorld had an interesting way of handling the whole “railroading” thing – he set up several different metaplots. The players decided which one to pursue, and as a consequence of ignoring the other plots, they saved their nation from an invading army, only to have a group of wizards send someone back in time to change history, requiring the entire party to go back in time as well to set things right…

    His gaming partner Piratecat does a similar thing as well in his campaign. He throws hooks out like mad, the party either takes them or doesn’t, but there are consequences to ignoring them. For example, when the Modrons started marching in his campaign, the party ignored them, and several years later, every single Modron dropped dead. A bad example, but the one I can think of off of the top of my head. There was something about negotiating with a mind flayer brain pool that had been partially zombified at one point…

    (In case you don’t know who these guys are, they write two of the longest-running story hours on ENWorld, but they’re both temporarily in hiatus – they are currently in crunch mode working on Bioshock. Both of them at one point worked for Looking Glass games, and their story hours are amazing pieces of work.)

  10. Autumn says:

    I guess I feel that if the GM has a story that I can’t have an effect on.. then I have better things to do with my time, and he should probably be writing a book.

  11. Schneebrunser says:

    I’m currently running the whole Queen of the Demonweb Pits via E-mail. My original concern was that it was going to take SOOOO long. My first impulse was to just get them to the dungeons as fast as possible, no extraneous stuff. The guys on the site though are great writers and once I could get over the fact that it will take a long time to do the scripted stuff, then I could start enjoying the gameplay.

  12. Evan says:

    I am DMing one campaign right now, and participating in another.

    The one I run is a bit like this one. It is a military campaign, so they have motivation to stay on task (court martials if they go on a rampage), as well as a threat that the invading army will destroy everything. This keeps even the LE Pale Master and the even worse CN Psiwarrior sticking to the missions. As for the missions themselves, I basically set up what is going on, who is there, what would happen if no one interferes, and any “scripts” that NPCs will follow(if the Stone Giant hears fighting in the other room, he will slink beside the door and wait with his club upraised). The players have total freedom to decide how they do the mission itself; they have surprised me a few times with creative solutions(Summoning Dire Lions to smash firepots into enemy catapults from a distance, baleful polymorphing someone into a pig and threatening to eat him unless he talked, for a whopping +10 to intimidate). And when they get way off topic, a subtle hint is usually enough to get them back to what they are doing. So far, that campaign has been a wild sucess, and they are still doing things as they should.

    The other campaign is run a bit like one of my missions. The DM made a freeform world with a number of set missions that can be shoved anywhere. The party consists of a brother and sister dwarf team who simply wants enough money to buy their way out of exile, and a druid who wants to smite the unnatural while gaining enough money and experience to continue doing so. It works because we all found ways for our motivations to make us want to go on missions (though, at one point, we had the LG character have a moral objection to drugrunning and sit one out). It too works surprisingly well.

  13. Kevin says:

    A good idea is to ask your players what kind of story they want to be in, and write that. Often you can get a lot of hints from their character backgrounds, but asking is always great. Players are almost always happy to play through stories when they had a hand in deciding what that story was going to be.

  14. Melfina the Blue says:

    My one and only attempt at railroading went something like this… Quest-giving guy: So these ancient artifact swords were stored in a wizardry school for safe-keeping and then the school blew itself up. You go get them, and you get all the stuff that’s still intact in the school plus x gold. If you don’t want to go, the approaching drow army will get the artifact swords, and then you get to fight them. Oh, and these swords will just about double either your power or their power. So, you want to go get them or what?
    It worked quite well as I recall. Artifact-level weaponry is a wonderful bribe.

  15. Jim in Buffalo says:

    I think if the players kill the Big Bad too early on, and the DM is forced to go the way of revealing that there’s a Bigger Bad waiting in the wings, the Bigger Bad should at least growl at the PCs that the Lesser Big Bad was a top henchman, “I will make you interlopers PAY DEARLY for depriving me of my most valued warrior!”

    Then the Bigger Bad might retreat into the shadows for a while, and the PCs along the way pick up hints that the BB is on the hunt for a new top henchman, or is looking for an item that will promote a lesser henchman to the power level of the one they killed.

    PCs like to think they’re sticking it to the Main Bad Guy in some form.

  16. JagDell says:

    I’m with Shamus 100% here, I like Epics games with dramatic buildups. So are my players (Which is all that matter here). When we start a campaign and some create Chaotic F*&% you anti-heroes , I plan the plot with these characters in mind. I usually create stakes so high that the Anti-Hero will want to join with the doo-gooders-at-least-for-now-until-I-change-my-mind.

    I’m also blessed with players that have a pretty good idea how much work DMing prep really is (yes some of you are kick ass adlibber, I’m not) so they nicely overlook when a bit of rail shows through the plot. But a key strength needed for a structured-plot DM is to be extremely good at understanding individual players motivations (Buttkickers, Drama-focused players, Outliers, etc) and prepping the game as such.

    I feed tidbits to our RP-god that loves to cavort with the setting’s nobles, I create kick ass recurring Baddies for my conflict-driven players and I sprinkle a lot of Awed NPCs who focus on coolness-hungry players.

    I once read this: The Players are Rockstars and the DM is the roadie. That resumes my thoughts on the DM-player relationship.

  17. Mordaedil says:

    A tip for when your players try to join the dark side, let them, and then have the bad guys put them in the same cell as the good side.

    … Though I also tend to never follow the rule that -10 HP = death.

  18. Cat Skyfire says:

    I’m reminded of the Knights of the Dinner Table (KODT). The players constantly shatter the GM’s plots. Any attempt to nudge them towards the adventure gets a shout of ‘railroading.’ When the GM lets the dice fall where they may, and has consequences for them slaughtering a town, they shout that he’s just being a punisher.

    …Mm, makes you wonder if the DM can ever win.

  19. Telas says:

    I wrote a really long bit over at about the role of the GM as leader of the group. Won’t copy it here, but the upshot is that leadership = responsibility.

    Yeah, you’ve got power, but not only do you have the responsibiliy to give the party all the makings for an enjoyable game, sometimes you even have to mix them up yourself.

    Most importantly, talk to the players beforehand, and see what gets them motivated. Most “sandbox” games I’ve played in are really boring, turning into a personality contest among the players.

  20. gedece says:

    I usually don’t raillroad my players, I manage a game world where cause and consequence will rule supreme. They want to join Vader? Allright, I let them. Then they are under an iron fisted ruler that knows only pain and power, and that doesn’t reward conquests but punishes failures.

    Not only that, if they somehow suceed in becoming notorious under Vader, now they become targets of the rebel groups they betrayed, who can track them down as they have become highly visible. Some are surely going to die this way, but it’s the way they choose. Eventually, the survivors might learn that having such a powerfull master equals no fun, no freedom, and they might reform on their own, but I won’t force them to do that.

    One of the things that I love about roleplaying with my gaming group, who are all 25+, is that not every game has to be about the same, not every game has to have a happy ending, so those that finally do are enjoyed a lot more.

    I must say, however, that a little railroading is necesary when you setup the game world and insert the players in it. But that’s only necesary until they get enough information to make their own choices and live with them.

  21. ZackTheSTGuy says:

    I have kind of a different take on railroading when running my games. When I start a campaign, I have only one thing in mind: the plot’s destination. Usually, this is some grand scheme that will take quite some time to come to fruition (such as a powerful wizard destroying a god and assuming his powers or a mighty dragon slowly corrupting a nation to serve his goals). Then, I pick a starting point for the characters to begin at. From there on, the game is completely free-form. I literally build the ‘rails’ underneath their feet. In the example of the wizard above, perhaps they hear the locals chatting about some kobolds causing trouble in the mines. They go after the kobolds and find a strange ore there. They take the strange ore to a mystic who tells them that the ore is usually only found on a certain Celestial plane. They do research and discover that a mighty battle was fought between an angel from said Celestial plane and a powerful demon at the very spot where the mine was found and determine that the Celestial’s essence caused the ore to appear after the Celestial’s death. Time goes on, yadda yadda, the ore is used for rituals designed to visit the Halls of the Gods, yadda yadda, the kobolds were working for this big bad god-killing wizard all along. Now, bear in mind, I hadn’t thought of all these ‘waypoints’ in between. The players meandered their own way through them and I simply invented degrees of separation. It works out very well and I’m rather happy with the way things tend to go. It gives players a good measure of free will and also allows me to flex my creative muscle when they do something ‘unexpected.’

  22. thark says:

    I’m not going to argue with the whole post because frankly I don’t have the energy to lay out long arguments and anyway I would end up sounding like I disapprove of your way of having fun (which I totally don’t–if it works for you and your players, hey, have at it), but if I did, it would be from the perspective of — a roleplaying game isn’t about the GM telling his story (whether subtly or unsubtly), it’s about GM and players weaving a good story together, which presents surprises and twists for both sides. This, of course, presupposes that both sides are actively striving towards this goal and have similar ideas of what makes a good story and good drama — not players who want kewl powerz and phat lewt (none of which, again, there’s anything wrong with if you agree up front that’s what you enjoy).

    That said, one thing I have to comment on–

    That picture? Totally sounds like it could be an awesome adventure. Star Wars? No. But awesome, if done right? Hell yeah. (Just how are Han and Leia going to react to Luke turning sides? What new struggles will this bring for the alliance? How far down the dark path can Luke go before his conscience catches up to him? You get the idea.)

  23. Shamus says:

    Jim in Buffalo: I agree 100%. The PCs should feel they have struck a serious blow, or at least uncovered some critical info. They should still be generously rewarded, it just that the adventure shouldn’t end.

  24. Shamus says:

    thark: I agree that Luke joining the dark side could be a great adventure for Han & Leia, but it would be sort of stupid for Luke. And if Luke and Han are all sitting around the table, but now different players are on different sides trying to kill each other? Suddlenly you have a metagame nightmare.

  25. Will says:

    Shamus, your post reminds me very much of what Ron Edwards calls “The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast”:

    “The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists.” Widely repeated across many role-playing texts. Neither sub-clause in the sentence is possible in the presence of the other.


    But maybe you’re thinking about something a little different?

  26. FhnuZoag says:

    Your ideas are interesting… but as a specific example, I really dislike the russian doll model of baddies, whereupon a defeated baddie is replaced by another. And another. And another. Not just in rpgs, but in any media. I don’t really think there is much sense of accomplishment, and the other problem is that you lose out on any ability to develop an antagonist beyond that of villain of the week.

    I’m not sure if there is another good way of rescuing the situation, though.

  27. Thad says:

    This post is really about games that people design themselves. If you are running a module, and the players are wanting to run that module, then in many cases the players will happily just on the railway and see how the story goes (and still get to be the heroes of course!).

    I remember a game I was in (2nd ed) where us party of about 5-6th levelers met the party of big bads (around 11th level)… and we killed them. (Good tactics, good rolls.) The idea was that they would stick us in a dungeon and that’ll be the next piece. Instead, we did something different, but later on (and in a different campaign) that dungeon remade its appearance!

  28. Julian says:

    The way to rescue the situation is not to have a rigid plot, as much as a good idea of who the bad guys are and what they want, and the ability to make things up on the fly.

    If they kill the Big Bad early, there are consequences. He had plans: What happen when they go rudderless? Somebody moves into the power vacuum: What does he want? If the Big Bad is so indispensable at this point in time, why was he on stage in a position where he was attackable?

    Running this way is harder, but leads to more enjoyable games in my opinion. Yes, they don’t always have a smooth narrative arc, but you can’t have everything, and if you let the players push the plot around, you often find things heading in a direction that’s better than what you’d thought of.

    As for Luke joining Vader, other players providing opposition can lead to a lot of fun, but not everybody likes it. The meta-game problems don’t have to happen. If the situation comes up, talk things out with the players. There are all sorts of ways to handle the problem if it’s actually a problem, and “Can we redeem Luke?” is potentially a much cooler story than what you had going before.

    (As for Ron Edwards, the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, etc., I’ll spare people a rant on that subject, except to note that the so-called “impossible thing” isn’t, and anybody who doesn’t get the metaphor has probably never written a story where they found their characters saying “No thanks, I’m going to go do this now” somewhere along the line.)

  29. Unglued says:


    I agree with you, in that the example “subtle railroading” given above sounded as weak as the “lame railroading” did. However, from my own experiences, I would argue that all of these plot-twists have potential depending on the audience and the desired reactions.

    The level of subtlety required and the method of execution of the railroading scheme depends fully on the psychology of the players involved and their relationship with the GM. “Make the bad guy too powerful”, etc, are mostly “knee-jerk” reactions to unexpected player actions. When a player challenges a foe that you’ve placed obviously beyond his reach, what does that tell you about the player’s wants in the campaign? Is he bored with the plot, or just too big for his britches?

    When a PC highjacks my campaign and puts me on the ropes and I have the urge to cheat my own system with a quick smite, I take a step back – I remind myself that the storyline, the role-playing, and even my NPCs are for my players enjoyment. It’s my job to immerse them in the story, not the other way around.

    PS – But hey, if some min/maxer tool is going to spoil it for the rest of the party by using some gawdawful unsanctioned prestige-class exploit, he’s going to find himself with nothing more than a handful of fake beard and glasses. Messing with the Force is a good way to cost a young Jedi a hand.

  30. thark says:

    thark: I agree that Luke joining the dark side could be a great adventure for Han & Leia, but it would be sort of stupid for Luke. And if Luke and Han are all sitting around the table, but now different players are on different sides trying to kill each other? Suddlenly you have a metagame nightmare.

    I think Julian rather stated my case for me, and I included the possibility of Luke’s continuing self-doubt for a reason. (My last game had a character start off as a selfish bastard indulging in social experiments for pure amusement, become a devoted peace-maker, and finally turn to warmonger out of frustration as his efforts crumbled. It was an epic story and an intensive character arc; I couldn’t have predicted it if I tried, and I can imagine differing choices at the various turning points leading to equally cool, but different, stories.)

    Metagame nightmare? I could consider it a wonderful metagame opportunity. It depends on what type of game you and your players want and like. After all, if Luke’s player doesn’t enjoy the type of game it would turn into–or knows that the rest of you wouldn’t–why should he accept the offer? Note that I’m assuming players who are intelligent, who want everyone to have fun, who trust me and each other and whom I can trust–which, perhaps to my luck, I’ve mostly found to be the case.

    But like I said, all that’s really an aside to your main point.

    Adressing the actual example, and even more so the one in the later post—of course anything that hasn’t actually been revealed in the game is subject to revision; if I read a story, I read the words on the paper, not the ideas that were in the author’s head prior to writing it (and almost certainly considerable revised on the way). Just as a PCs background is subject to revision and addition as long as it doesn’t contradict anything that’s already been established. Railroading is constricting the players’ options, not changing your mind about something that’s only in your mind.

    (Heck, I wouldn’t be ashamed of saying “Huh, I’d sort of had this idea that this guy was a Big Bad, but the way things turned out, that would make for a rather lame story–what do you guys think? Should I come up with something else, or is there fallout from this that would be cool to play out?” There’s nothing magical or special about the ideas floating around in my head, except for there being way to many of them.)

    Now, I would in the first place construct a game around the PCs’ motivations and personalities, not around defeating bad guy X or some other specific common goal, so the specific example probably wouldn’t come up–but that’s just my style, and not really relevant here.

    I apologize if I sound more preachy than I mean to–it’s a weakness of mine–and for writing way too many words about it–another weakness. All I really wanted to comment on was the picture. :-)

  31. Dave says:

    I have the other problem.. I design a world.. put people in it .. and let them go.. and they just sit there and wonder what to do.. I have plenty of things that could happen.. nothing in stone.. the world is at a moment in time and everything will hinge on what the PCs decide to do.. and usually they just go to a tavern and sit until someone tells them what to do.. and when that doesn’t happen .. well.. the ale can be good I suppose..

    What am I saying?.. the players want rails.. they just don’t wanna see them. As Devo said.. Freedom of choice is what you’ve got.. Freedom from choice is what you want.

  32. So you lie and you deceive because you think you know better than your players what your players will find fun?

    Hmm… Yeah, count me out.

    Also: “Wow. Join you and rule galaxy? Okay, dad.” How, exactly, does this NOT lead to an exciting adventure? Sheesh!

    This is exactly the problem I have with people who have a preconceived notion about how the story Should Be Told (TM). They are so busy actively ignoring or negating the contributions of the other people sitting at the table that they are constantly squandering the potential being offered to them — the very potential which is, arguably, the only reason you should bother playing an RPG instead of simply writing a novel.

    You’re so busy trying to force Luke to a confrontation on the rebuilt Death Star that you’re ignoring the fact that: (a) The player has just expressed a clear preference for a campaign of world domination while roleplaying a character succumbing to the temptation of the Dark Side. And (b) The potential grandeur of that story.

    I had the same problem with a GM in a Star Wars campaign. We were playing in a post-OT campaign. The other PCs were apprentices who narrowly escaped the obliteration of the New Jedi Order at the hand of resurgent Sith Masters. I joined the campaign later in the form of a Jedi Master of the Old Republic who had been preserved in a carbonite freeze. The campaign proceeded quite naturally, with the New Republic decaying before the Neo-Empire of the Sith Masters. Then my character, who had become a master of sorts for the other PCs, finally came to the decision that the New Republic was soft and inefficient. He swept aside the New Republic government and started the Alliance.

    We were poised for an epic campaign — the Last of the Jedi standing against a rising darkness while their master (my character) struggled with the growing darkness in his own soul.

    Unfortunately, we had apparently shot off the rails of the campaign and the GM shut it all down and ended the campaign since we had become “too powerful” to continue.

    Here’s an example what happens if you let your players off the leash:

    Now, I certainly could have fudged die rolls and stat blocks in order to preserve my preciously prepared plot. But the cost would have been the most memorable gaming experience I’ve ever had.

  33. Shamus says:

    “So you lie and you deceive because you think you know better than your players what your players will find fun?”

    What do you mean “better than my players”? They don’t know anything yet. Yes, I know my brothers and my friends. I know that an adventure where they accidently kill their foe in a minor altercation will be boring and stupid to them. I know this, which is WHY I MAKE THE CHANGE. I made it clear at the beginning: The game is about keeping the players at the center of the story. I read them and react to them and give them what they want, which means making changes to the unrevealed aspects of the world. You call this “lies”, but since I made up the world in the first place I’m not sure this makes any sense. Nothings real until it happens in-game. You accuse me of being enamored of my plot, but I’m right now changing it, throwing away my previous villain and creating a new one on the fly because I think it will be more fun.

  34. thark says:

    Three other people are sitting at the table who ALSO want to play. Now everyone has to take turns. Now you're running two campaigns at once.

    Having the PCs in separate scenes and separate plot-threads is what I normally do. It works very well for us, but I fully realize it’s not for everyone.

    Worse, how are you going to keep things secret between the two sides? Kick everyone out of the room? Can't we accept “we are going to be on the same side together” as a way of making the game more fun for everyone?

    Uck. Nothing’s worse than sending people out of the room. That doesn’t mean players should sit around bored while the others take turns–spotlights should shift quickly enough and be interesting enough that everyone pays attention.

    This doesn’t require everyone always being on the same side as long as you stick to an attitude of “OK man, I’m going to betray your character real hard here, is that cool with you?” “Awesome, that’ll give me some real drama to work with!”–I’m fine with PC competivity; player competivity, not so much.

    But again, I’m not espousing this is the One True Way.

    If we want to play a game of evil domination, why not do that together? Why not tell the DM what you are interested in beforehand?

    This part, however, I wholeheartedly agree with. What sort of game everyone wants out of the campaign should be clear up front.

  35. Shamus says:

    thark: You’re too quick for me. :)

    (For the record: I deleted the comment -from myself – that thark is responding to, because I decided it would be a good subject for a full post. It was only up a minute. I didn’t think anyone would hook into it so quick.)

    Anyway, I’m with you on all the points you make. I think where you say “I'm fine with PC competivity; player competivity, not so much.
    ” is an interesting way to think of it. I’ve never had player vs. player combat (we’re just not that sort of group) but I can see what you’re saying.

  36. Laithoron says:

    32 Justin Alexander Says:
    “So you lie and you deceive because you think you know better than your players what your players will find fun?”

    Personally I’d consider the DM being able to “read” their players and figure out what will make for an memorable campaign that’s enjoyed by most (vs. a broken one that wastes everyone’s time) to be a fairly essential skill “” at least if that DM is going to be remembered as a good one who runs fun games anyway.

    To put it simply, whenever I’m asked what D&D (or any other table-top RPG) is, I simply state, “think of it like cooperative, interactive, multiplayer story-telling”. That’s right, cooperative storytelling between the players and DM. I’m not sure *I’d* want to play in a group where the DM wasn’t putting some effort into making the campaign into just a sandbox. That can be fun for some downtime in an urban setting every so often when not all the players can make it but by and large I’d prefer for there to be a bit more structure than a bunch of guys sitting around a table hitting on female NPCs played by another guy…

  37. Laithoron says:

    This site really needs an edit button. Naturally what I meant to say was, “I'm not sure *I'd* want to play in a group where the DM wasn't putting some effort into making the campaign MORE THAN just a sandbox.”

  38. thark says:

    thark: You're too quick for me. :)
    (For the record: I deleted the comment -from myself – that thark is responding to, because I decided it would be a good subject for a full post. It was only up a minute. I didn't think anyone would hook into it so quick.)

    Mwahahah! Fear my constant reloading!

    (Actually, it was just blind luck. Or maybe unluck, from your point of view, as it showed up during my regular morning blog check.)

  39. Dan Hemmens says:

    This is the bit I have a problem with:

    My thinking has been that I want to create a thrilling story with the players as the central characters, and any subtle railroading that furthers that goal is highly desirable.

    The problem is that you and I have different ideas about what constitutes a “main character.”

    You seem to view it all “story first”: you say “the story is that there is an evil mastermind called Darth Vader, and the main character is the person who confronts and defeats him. The main character is also his son.” I say “the main character is Luke Skywalker, whose father became Darth Vader, and the story is about how the choices Luke makes compare to those his father makes.”

    By your definition, this all makes sense. By my definition, saying “I am trying to tell a story with the PCs as the main characters” is as nonsensical as saying “I am trying to tell a story which is told by somebody else.”

  40. Cenobite says:

    I think that all of you (Shamus included) have been gaming with groups far more ethical than the people I’ve known. At the slightest hint of opportunity, my players will actually root for the dark side. Talk about wasting your time by writing a “save the world” campaign!

  41. Erazmuth says:

    See, I take a very different view, but I have another mechanism too.

    Players can willfully join the dark side, they can be evil, they can cave in.

    BUT, either way, the story (the end mission) ends there. The trick is that the next campaign, with new characters, plays a generation later in the same world, which is altered by their events.

    To put this into your star wars example. Them going evil would just be the prequel section. They join with the Sith and BECOME Darth Vader. End of story.

    The next campaign thus begins with them in a hellhole (since Palpatine won) out to stop their previous PC (who is conveniently min/maxed with all the best gear).

    I find that makes a far better story AND it makes the story more rewarding for the players, all the actions they took, mattered.

  42. “At the slightest hint of opportunity, my players will actually root for the dark side. Talk about wasting your time by writing a “save the world” campaign!”

    General rule of thumb: If your players don’t like X, don’t give them X.

    Force-feeding broccoli to a five-year old is not going to make the five-year old enjoy it.

  43. Dan Hemmens says:

    General rule of thumb: If your players don't like X, don't give them X.

    To be fair, sometimes it’s important to give them the option of X, even if you’re fairly sure they won’t like it.

    Even if you’re sure the players will pick the Dark Lord over the Good King, the Good King still needs to be there.

  44. Miako says:

    I like the idea of “The World Is Out There”… it makes for a wonderful place to explore and learn about. And isn’t that fun?

    >Now, occasionally some horrible existential threat to the Continued >Existence of the World As We Know It comes along.

    yah… but the best adventure I was in was one where we didn’t know there was a shitstorm till ironplated skeletons were on our ass.

    Remember, level one means you shouldn’t know so much…

  45. Brian says:

    Usually what I end up doing is spending massive amounts of time pre-campaign setting up an entire world and story line (to include chronology). I actually don’t make the characters the main part of the story to begin with. A new adventurer rarely finds himself altering world events, just witnessing them going on around him.

    I don’t make the BBEG overpowered, just a lot more powerful than the players. Why? Because he’s not there to oppose them, he’s there to oppose the Big Bad Good Guy (BBGG), who the players can support or oppose as they see fit.

    I make sure that the key events built into my chronology don’t depend on BBGG or BBEG being alive, as long as there is someone on that side able to fill the role.

    The way I drive events before they can ever hope to take on either BBGG or BBEG is to have them chose a fatal flaw when rolling the characters. Doesn’t matter what flaw, just a flaw that can be exploited. Most players love to get together and plan flaws that work with – or offset each other.

    I had one campaign where everyone was playing a LE halfling. I’d just throw tall things at them to keep them mad at the world and not complacent.

    Another campaign I was playing in, I wasn’t GM but plan on using this in another campaign sometime, everyone was told to pick one mental defect. The players came up with stuff like the rogue had severe paranoia and would think the mage was stealing his socks. Another was a priest who saw ghosts all the time (he spent about 1/4 of the campaign trying to turn undead a cat or a spider). My character had a split personality. I made up two completely separate character sheets for the same guy and when the GM said “poof , you’re a toaster” I had to change over to the other sheet. Since my two sheets were for a mage and a warrior, this led to some interesting times if I changed mid-combat. The Barbarian had an overwhelming fear of chickens and sheep.

    The GM would throw in seemingly random aspects dealing with our mental defects to try and see how we would react. The entire campaign became looking for ways to RP out of the situation one of us had gotten the rest of the group into by doing or saying something stupid. The one that comes to mind is when the king was about to reward us for something we had done when the priest tried to “turn” his cat who had sauntered in from behind a curtain. The cat got singed and the king got pissed. In order to get back into his good graces, we had to either conduct task x, or get out of the kingdom by sundown.

    Ok, this is too long. I’ll stop now. sorry.

  46. Zaghadka says:

    Comment on the meta-game hell of one character betraying and the remaining characters staying on the side of good.

    I’ve played with people who choose that as a matter of course. It’s ugly when it’s a selfish player who wants to take the game down just to see if he/she can. They usually wind up leaving, either on their own or at the group’s insistence. In any event, while they’re with the group, they frequently wind up blowing themselves up.

    Besides that, my usual solution for that situation, if everyone is above board, is to have the players talk it out. I explain that I can’t run a scenario where the party has massively divergent goals, and I let *them* figure out how to make such a mess work. Metagaming, in this case, is GOOD.

    If they can’t find a way to make it work, and the player still wants to take that step, then I explain that the only way that’s going to work is if he/she a) hands in his/her character to be played as an evil NPC, or b) the other players are willing to shelve their good characters and roll up “friends” for his newly DARK character.

    What I am not willing to do is have them play Han and Leia while he plays “Darth Sufficient.” That asks too much of ME.

    So these things *always* turn into a meta-game discussion, because they have to. That’s not something that should be feared. You have to go OOC and see what the group is willing to do, and frequently it is quite a lot. It’s best to leave the table and talk it over in the living room.

    Note that if turncoat behavior happens enough times, the confused player is going to find that *I’m* in control of most of his/her characters, because the rest of the group isn’t going to put up with the constant departures.

    *They* will ask him to reroll, and I will collect his fallen character as a future plot device. No one has the unilateral right to upset the group, AFAIC.

    But if the rest of the group is willing to roll up evil characters and drastically change the tenor of the game, such turnarounds frequently prove quite rewarding.

  47. Eric Voorhies says:

    I think it’s entirely legitimate for the player running Luke to go over to the dark side as long as they don’t do so on a whim. If Luke has been played with some deep-seated ambiguities about whether to follow the light side or the dark side, it’s a reasonable evolution of the character.

    But as many others have pointed out, it’s not feasible for all the other players to play heroes while one player plays the apprentice-to-the-apprentice-to-the-BBEG. So I agree that Luke should become a DM-controlled NPC at that point, just as he would if he’d been mind-controlled by a villain or suffered some brainshattering mental illness that prevented him from controlling his own actions.

    Then you congratulate Luke’s player on doing a great job of roleplaying a tragic hero’s slide into darkness, and give him the NPC character sheet of, say, Lando Calrissian or something. Or let him develop his own character.

  48. Bizarre says:

    Star Wars makes it easy. Whenever a character’s Dark Side points equal their Wisdom score, they “fall” and become NPCs consumed by the Dark Side.

  49. Alter says:

    I would like to point out since people are using one of the terms I hate most “I did it because my character would.” That it is generally a good idea if the person running the game site down with the players and tells them what kinda game they would like to run and see if the players are interested.

    A lot of work goes into preparing a good champaign. and I have seen way too many players in games who just don’t fit the setting. Like breaking a society law they where fully aware of then complaining that they died.

    Both sides have to compromise I know I might at this point be old and bitter but I have seen way too many people playing in game they really aren’t having fun in and shouldn’t have joined in the first place.

    Shamus you have an excellent point making the players feel helpless isn’t fun for them however a lack of story more often then not makes things less fun for everyone.

    And making a Game Master run something they won’t have fun running is just as cruel as making a player play in something they aren’t having fun with.

    This is all a very gentle balance that needs to be tended to carefully. In the end everyone on all sides of the table just want to have fun and that is something some times we loose sight of.

  50. Anonymous Bosch says:

    I always let players team up with the villain… and then get ruthlessly double-crossed. Then settling the score becomes the focus of the story. “This time it’s personal” and all that.

  51. Chris says:

    So the moral of the story is that there’s a distinction between limiting player choices and railroading them?

    It doesn’t seem unreasonable, in the interest of balance or fair play to limit choices.

    You don’t get to breath fire if the mechanics doesn’t support it. You don’t get to join the bad guys, because the bad guys don’t have openings and would rather kill you, use you or ignore you.

    Doesn’t seem strange to me at all.

  52. Nick (aka Huron) says:

    Copious Verbage indeed! Nothing to say that hasn’t been said already.

    But that never stops me usually, so:

    I think it’s great that your group fits your style Shamus (and from your replies it’s clear you’ve made your style fit the group), but I think I could count on one hand the number of players I’ve gamed with who would play like that (ie. almost fixed storyline, the players change method and order of events).
    Every DM has a style to their play, many strike a balance, some concentrate on a particular aspect a bit more, but the bad ones (who fall into the non-interactive cutscene or one combat after another catagories generally) forget about all but one aspect. Seems you’ve got a balance that works.

    In all the games I’ve played, it’s either been sandbox or /seemed/ so much like a sandbox it was hard to tell.
    For example, I’m a player in one where we had sketchy info of a goblin invasion. The group had backstory where attracting a lot of attention might have caused trouble. As a result the invasion went ahead and we only managed to drive them off, subsequent problems have meant the town had been reduced from maybe a couple thousand to a couple hundred. Not the best result, but we know it’s our fault and it makes a much bigger impact to know it wasn’t planned. Although now I think of it, the DM did have an NPC appealing that we go to the authorities….

  53. Don’t know if this has been said yet, but I’d LOVE that Luke-joins-Vader alternate universe! It’s implied that they wanted to cut out the Emperor, so both Father and Son would have to cooperate, learn to trust each other, while making Machiavellian moves against the Emperor. If Luke were smart, he wouldn’t cut out his previous allies in the Rebels, but would rather fake his escape and use the Rebel Alliance to eliminate Palpatine, then betray them. (Or just make them into the new Stormtroopers). Certainly, it’d be DIFFICULT. Yes, as a GM, George Lucas would have had to toss out all of Return of the Jedi, but plenty of folk think that wouldn’t have been so bad.

    Some of my favorite games have been when I guaranteed that the bad guys would win. In one, I used my position of being the only person who knew that the Dark One was coming to… become the Dark One’s ally. In another, I went off the deep end, manipulated my fellow players, and became an overlord. And so forth. Done right, it can be very interesting for everyone involved.

  54. mazer says:

    Something I’ve noticed is people tend to run the game they wish they were playing in. Shamus appears to be lucky enough to be runing a game for people who enjoy the same types of games he does.

    My group consists of me who prefers plot driven fantasy, one player who likes sandboxes where he can be as evil as possible, a player who enjoys shooting at the authorities in modern settings, and 2 players who will follow whichever player is loudest. we rotate through 3 kinds of campaigns: I introduce an evil necromancer menacing the town, so they burn down the inn and start killing town guards. Another dm introduces a small town with fat, happy npcs and sparce descriptions of the surrounding countryside, so we haggle with merchants for a while, and 3 sessions later when no plot hooks have presented themselves people stop showing up. Then the third dm introduces an epic plotline to destroy a corrupt elven empire, and then starts hitting us with random encounters that kill 3-5 sessions each. When play rotates back to me I just hand them assult weapons and a map of portland, and let em run with it.

    when fark wrote “Note that I'm assuming players who are intelligent, who want everyone to have fun, who trust me and each other and whom I can trust” I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

    @cenobyte: exactly!
    Players shooting random civilians because ” they saw my face” is the least of it, I once saw a LG paladin kill the cheffs assistant in an bag guys castle “because he was evil”, when the dm suggested that maybe the guy just needed a job, and maybe the pally could use “detect evil” or something, the pally player objected ” I might need that later!”

  55. HeroOfHyla says:

    What I like to do is design a dungeon in advance, but then leave it up to the players to decide initially what kind of quest they want to go on. It doesn’t really change too much stuff, because wherever they go, the first dungeon they go into will be this one.

    They want to go hunt for treasure? It’s an abandoned dungeon filled with treasure.

    They want to go smite evil for the glory of the paladin’s god? It’s a temple of a forgotten old god.

    They want to rescue a princess? It’s a bandit lair where she’s been taken.

    The same dungeon I’ve mapped works for pretty much any setting, with some improvisation.

  56. Vermicelli Noodles says:

    Just because your players turn bad or otherwise go rogue, doesn’t mean you can no longer challenge them, or even that your original story has to end.

    The very least that’s likely to happen is that the Big Bad will start to see them as potential rivals, and find a way to betray or sideline them. Let them abuse all the innocents they like – they’ll get their comeuppance when Sauron decides they’ve earned too many XP to trust.

    Other options include: now they have to figure out how to fulfil Big Bad’s plans, instead of working out how to thwart them. This can be every bit as challenging. Or now they have to figure out what to do about the ludicrously powerful NPC who first set them on this quest to begin with. And if they fail, their new boss is a lot less understanding than their old boss.

  57. RCN says:

    The DMing style I’m experimenting with right now is decidedly a sandbox, but by no means just a Diablo-esque one.

    The characters are in a famous setting in my country. They’re pretty much free to pursue and do whatever they want, I’m not dumping anything on them to do until at least they’re famous enough to catch the interest of some powerful players of the setting.

    Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story to be driven forward. I required backgrounds from my characters and then took a good read of each of the backgrounds. I found every hook I needed right there.

    For instance, one character is an elven fighter. This is relevant because in this setting the elves are almost extinct. They’ve recently lost a huge and seemingly endless war with the goblinoids once a prophetic and messianic Bugbear raised all the Bugbear tribes under his rule and then took the command of the Hobgoblin empire by force. The goblins were already slaves to the Hobgoblins, but once established they enslaved also the Orcs, Ogres and Kobolds of the continent under their rule. With all the goblinoids and bestial humanoids united under a common ruler and Messiah, they’ve crushed the elves and defeated their Goddess. Since this is a recent event for elves, just 25 years ago, pretty much every elf left alive has taken part in this.

    This character was a minor noble going through training at elven military academies at that time. He had an arranged wedding with another noble of a family with higher political power and his sister was a hero of the elven armies. The woman he was promised to was someone he actually came to love and be loved in return. Then the goblinoids won the siege on their nation and city-state.

    As the goblinoids poured through, the elven best died in droves. Mostly, only wizards and families that were alway at the time survived, but his character is an exception. His family had an escape plan, but he was the only one that managed to get through with it. On the way, he found his sister’s body and claimed her sword.

    Now, he is a player character with a clear objective. To have a new elven city-state founded somewhere in the human Kingdom-realm, a sort of league between all the human realms of the northern continent (the southern now overrun with goblinoids).

    His character alone gives me 4 threads of adventure hooks I can place in their way to follow. Finding anything about his promised wife, who he mostly considers dead, but would like to be sure. Finding anything about his family (I have plans with his sister to unleash upon the party). Planting and nurturing the idea of the elven renascence among his peers, probably by beginning at the place where most of the living elves that are left reside: The Empire of Tauron, where they are slaves (the Empire is a Roman-esque empire of civilized minotaurs that recently attacked and annexed just under half the human Kingdom-realm and see themselves as slavers by necessity, since they don’t have females and can only reproduce with human or elven females). And finally, ways to gain political power towards that goal.

    I also have a Cleric for a trickster God passing for a Cleric for a war God; a wizard with an abysmal 6 charisma whose master is persecuted by a Magocratic regime based on a flying city, who has special eyes that allow him to see the invisible and detect magic, that I interpreted as allowing him to view the Shadow Plane and the Etherial Plane juxtaposed over the Material Plane (and thus turning a somewhat broken power into a tool for storytelling); and a halfling rogue/mage with some serious issues about his race. Lots of things to pull from for my sandbox.

    Considering they go after their goals. Which their characters are usually inclined to.

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