The Alexandrian

As with the other ASR scripts prepared for the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare, the full script presents the complete play. The conflated script, on the other hand, is what we use in actual performance. The conflated script is uncut, but does contain the role conflation which allows us to perform plays which have 30-50 roles with casts of 10-15 actors.



The textual history of The Merchant of Venice, while paling in comparison to the tangle of Hamlet, is nevertheless something of a muddle. The confusion in this case arises almost entirely from the relationship between the First Quarto and Second Quarto of the play, both of which, according to the title pages, were printed in 1600:

Editors studying both of these quartos noted that the text we now refer to as the Second Quarto (Q2) appeared to be a superior text in that it corrected several errors found in the First Quarto (Q1). Two theories were postulated to explain the relationship between the texts: First, that Q1 was published first and, when the book went back to press for Q2, errors were corrected. (Possibly a fresh print run was ordered because of the errors.) Second, that Q2 was published first and, when it sold out, a new print run was either hastily ordered, typeset from Q2, or both (introducing fresh errors).

(In order to maximize the confusion, the Q2 -> Q1 version of the theory proved most popular and so, for a very long time, the texts were actually referred to using the opposite numbers: The text we now refer to as Q1 was called Q2; the text we now refer to as Q1 was Q2.)

As it happens, neither of these theories were true.

The truth was ferreted out in the early 20th century by Alfred W. Pollard, W.W. Greg, and William J. Neidig. In 1619, the publishers William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier printed new editions of 10 Shakespeare plays. For reasons which are not entirely clear, but which probably have a lot to do with the fact that they didn’t actually have legal right to publish all of these plays, Jaggard and Pavier printed many of these books with false title sheets claiming earlier publication dates and different publishers.

You can see where this is going: The Q2 of The Merchant of Venice was, in fact, one of the books published as part of the “False Folio” or “Pavier Quartos” (as these volumes have come to be known).

Once the truth came out, the textual history of The Merchant of Venice became a lot easier to figure out: Q1 had been published in 1600 (from either an authorial draft or a scribal copy); Q2 had been published in 1619 (from Q1); and the First Folio text had been published in 1623 (most likely from Q1, but including additional stage directions suggesting the copy may have been used as a theatrical prompt book).


Intriguingly, the Pavier Quartos may have been responsible for the First Folio getting published. William Jaggard, responsible for printing the Pavier Quartos, was contracted just two years later to begin work on the folio. But why would you select a printer who had just attempted (or succeeded?) in pirating Shakespeare’s work?

Possibly because Jaggard had one of the few print shops capable of handling a book of the First Folio’s size. But also possibly because people who wanted to see Shakespeare’s works back in print didn’t care if Jaggard was ripping off somebody who owned the printing rights to a play but hadn’t done anything with it for nearly two decades. (For example, J. Heyes owned the printing rights to The Merchant of Venice… but it hadn’t been reprinted since 1600.)

The Pavier Quartos were also likely the first attempt to publish a collected edition of Shakespeare’s work. (One theory is that the works were released as separate volumes only after the project collapsed. All of the title sheets, for example, were printed at the same time.) Although Ben Jonson’s complete works had been published as a folio volume in 1616, attempts to collect the works of other playwrights had failed (and would continue to fail until Shakespeare’s First Folio was published in 1623). In fact, it may have been the exact same people coordinating both attempts.

Or even if that isn’t true, the publication efforts around the Pavier Quartos did have the effect of concentrating the printing rights of many Shakespeare plays into Jaggard’s control. Without that first step, the final collection of printing rights which allowed the First Folio to exist at all might not have been possible.

The truth is that we will probably never have the facts necessary to untangle what, exactly, was going on in 1619. But the few documentary trails which remain paint a delightfully convoluted picture of intrigue, conspiracy, and literary piracy.


The muddled textual history of The Merchant of Venice, however, does highlight a modern oddity of Shakespeare’s plays.

If you search the internet for a Shakespeare play, you’ll find versions of it scattered around on hundreds of different sites. But virtually all of these texts are derived from the Moby Shakespeare.

The Moby Project is a collection of public domain lexical resources, many of which are now mirrored by Project Gutenberg. In 1995, the Moby Project released an ASCII text version of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. This text, in turn, was derived from the 1866 Globe Shakespeare. The Globe Shakespeare was selected because (a) it was in the public domain and (b) it served as a standard reference document for Shakespearean studies for more than 100 years due to its immense popularity. (For example, its line numbering was used by the Norton Facsimile Edition of the plays, which means it’s still the standard line numbering used in virtually all scholastic papers.)

But the Globe Shakespeare naturally couldn’t benefit from any of the advances in scholastic techniques or bibliographic knowledge in the 150 years since it was published. And therefore the Moby Shakespeare didn’t benefit from them. And because the Moby Shakespeare is now all-pervasive on the internet, it’s having the interesting effect of rolling back decades of scholastic research.

Take The Merchant of Venice, for example: When the Globe Shakespeare was published, it was believed that Q2 was the most accurate of the original source texts in representing Shakespeare’s original text. We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this isn’t true, but we don’t have time machines, so the Moby Shakespeare (based on the Globe Shakespeare based on Q2) is simply wrong.



Source Text: First Quarto (1600)

1. Emendations from First Folio in <diamond brackets>.
2. Original emendations in [square brackets].
3. Speech headings silently regularized.
4. Names which appear in ALL CAPITALS in stage directions have also been regularized.
5. Spelling has been modernized.
6. Punctuations has been silently emended (in minimalist fashion).
7. The characters of “Salanio”, “Solanio”, “Salarino”, and “Salerio” have been corrected and regularized.

Originally posted on December 1st, 2010.

Tagline: Power Kill questions some of the unspoken assumptions behind our entertainment in a pithy, biting, and utterly provocactive way.

Power Kill - John Tynes - Hogshead PublishingHogshead Publishing has, in my mind at least, successfully exploded without ever letting us hear the bang. As of this writing they are producing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, SLA Industries, and the developing New Style line of RPGs (including Baron Munchausen, Puppetland, and Violence). If you haven’t heard of these, it is quite possible that you’ve been dead for the last two years.

(FYI: It’s March of 2000. Check with friends and families if you’re missing time. Besides temporary death, you may have also been abducted by aliens or the Illuminati or both. If this is the case, you’ve never heard of me, and I’ve never heard of you.)

But I digress.


Unspoken assumptions. Unquestioned premises. Unexamined beliefs.

There are things we hold to be such basic truths that we never stop to ask ourselves why we believe them – or to entertain the conjecture that it might be possible to believe in a contrary point of view. Often this poses no problem, but every so often you’ll find yourself in a heated argument with someone and neither one of you will quite be able to figure out why the other one isn’t “seeing commonsense”. Nine times out of ten it’s because you and your opponent are working from different premises – premises so intrinsic to the way you think about life that you don’t even hesitate to consider them.

A common example: Almost everyone believes that “murder” is an immoral activity – and they do so at such a basic level that they never really stop to ask themselves why murder is immoral, or even what murder is. Often this doesn’t pose any problems (no one really wonders whether or not Charles Manson was a murderer), but at the points where common belief frays (for example, do soldiers commit murder in war?) conflicts can arise without either party ever realizing where the true dissent lies.

This concept of unexamined premises can crop up pretty much anywhere – not just in debates about moral absolutes. Which, for those of you who are thinking I’ve gone completely off my rocker, brings us around to John Tynes’ Power Kill.

Power Kill is a “roleplaying metagame”, designed as an extra “layer of ‘game’ that you add to whatever Normal Roleplaying Game (NRG) you are currently playing”. In three short, hard-hitting pages it is a pithy assessment and satire of some of the unexamined beliefs which go into your common roleplaying session.

Basically it works like this: Everyone creates a “Power Kill Character” (PKC). There are no rules associated with this – just pick a name, gender, “race”, and background for the PKC (the setting is modern day Earth). You then “play” Power Kill in brief sessions before and after your normal roleplaying session.

In the session before play the GM (known in Power Kill as the “Counselor”) asks a few probing questions of the character played in the “NRG”. For example, “How many times a month do you find yourself in genuinely life-threatening situations?” These are filed in the PKC’s patient record, and play begins.

In the closing session the player assumes the role of the PKC. The Counselor spends a few brief moments describing the events of the roleplaying session in it’s real world context. For example, if the game session consisted of going into a dungeon and killing all of the monsters, then the Counselor explains that PKCs entered a low-rent tenement building inhabited primarily by ethnic minorities. “Moving methodically from room to room, the PKCs murdered the residents and took readily portable valuables such as cash, illegal drugs, and jewelry.” Once this summary is completed, the Counselor will again ask the PKC the standard set of Power Kill questions.

The Counselor should then analyze the two sets of questionnaires – comparing the assumptions of the PKC with the assumptions of the NRG character. Evidence that the answers of the NRG are closer to the PKC than to the delusional NRG personality are a good sign – it indicates that the schizophrenic PKC is beginning to associate more closely with reality.

“If the PKC refuses to refute the character in the NRG, continued therapy is required. If the PKC refutes the NRG character, but the player does not refute the PKC, continued therapy is recommended but not required.”


There are two common refrains to the reviews and discussions concerning Power Kill that I’ve seen:

1. That Tynes is “biting the hand that feeds him” by criticizing the roleplaying industry as it exists. Worse yet, that Tynes is a woeful hypocrite. After all, just look at Delta Green — isn’t that exactly the type of game he’s criticizing in Power Kill?

2. That Tynes’ analysis of the roleplaying industry is “right on” – that any conscionable member of the hobby should reform their game-playing style in accordance with Power Kill’s criticisms.

Both of these suffer, I think, from a basic misconception of what Tynes is attempting to accomplish with Power Kill. The work, in my opinion, functions at two distinct levels – one simple, one complex:

At its more basic level, Power Kill is a rather humorous satire of some of the more recent trends in the roleplaying industry. A mock serious tone, bizarre and unusual acronyms and titles for the common roles of GM and player – the whole nine yards.

At its more complex level, however, Power Kill is an elegant (and, to a certain extent, eloquent) attempt to rip away the unquestioned exterior of the premises we bring to the table with us every time we sit down to a session of roleplaying. Why do our forms of entertainment basically consist of various forms of “crime fantasies”? “What is the source of our FAE [Fun And Excitement] anyway?” Why do we do these things with our spare time?

As he says in the summary at the end of the game: “Power Kill is meant to suggest a few answers. Or at least, to ask a few questions.”

I don’t think Tynes is, necessarily, saying that what we do in a typical roleplaying session is wrong – I think he merely wants to make us aware of what we do in a typical roleplaying session. Is this really what we want to be doing? If so, why? If not, why not? And even if we like what we’re doing now, are there other options we haven’t tried?

Awhile back, on one of the many discussion lists I participate on, someone asked the group why we all loved the work of Tynes so much. What makes his stuff so special? There were many answers – “his talent”, “his evocative settings”, “immense creativity”, “he’s a genius”, etc. (all of which are true) – but after giving it some thought I responded with an answer something like this:

Tynes doesn’t just write roleplaying games, he understands them.

We had been recently discussing his unfinished Stargate RPG (the notes for which you can find on his website, Revland), and I blundered on to point out the way in which Tynes was instantly capable of spotting the gaming potential in the Stargate universe, to target that potential, and then begin to design a game around it which accented, highlighted, and improved upon that potential.

The original questioner then asked me how Tynes did this. At the time I thought about it, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. After re-reading Power Kill a few times, though, I think I’ve finally figured it out:

Tynes doesn’t have any unspoken assumptions when it comes to roleplaying games.

Ultimately, I believe, Tynes is very self-aware. He doesn’t just let himself assume something — he asks himself why he holds that assumption, whether it’s a good assumption, what strengths that assumption has, and what strengths other options have (and in what contexts those strengths would manifest themselves).

Let me give you an example: One of the quickest ways to start a fruitless flame war in a roleplaying discussion group is to say one of two things – “Diceless games aren’t really roleplaying!” or “Dice ruin storytelling!”

The reason this will lead to a fruitless flame war (even if the original statement is made in a non-provocative fashion, rather than the belligerent tones presented here) is that you will very quickly have the two sides of this argument (the pro-diceless and the pro-diced) square off against each other – neither one ever really asking themselves what the relative merits and weaknesses of the two mechanical options are.

The real truth – and the truth Tynes, I think, understands – is that neither side holds the ultimate truth. For some things, dice is the better option. For others, diceless. If you move beyond your simple belief that, for example, “diceless games aren’t really roleplaying” to the question of why you think dice are essential for roleplaying (usually dealing with making the experience a “game” or introducing the “random factor” into the equation) you’ve made a good deal of progress.

If you take the next step and ask yourself: What about games which don’t use dice – can’t we base a roleplaying game in those traditions, too? What about situations where randomness isn’t necessarily an important component (or even a situation where randomness would be a downright substandard choice)? Well, at that point you’re on the verge of making some important breakthroughs (Baron Munchausen, Puppetland, and Amber being some key examples of innovative designs which have come about by such questioning).

I’ve been discussing rule systems, but this applies equally to world building, plotting, adventure design, character design, and pretty much anything else. You just have to learn to ask the right questions.

And I think, at the end of the day, that’s what the message of Power Kill really is: Asking the right questions, and seeing where the answers take you.

Or, at least, that’s the conclusion it’s questions took me to. Your answers might lead you somewhere else entirely.

Which is the whole point.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing, Ltd.
Cost: $5.95
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-899749-20-9

Originally Posted: 1999/10/23

[ Note: Power Kill is packaged back-to-back with Tynes’ Puppetland game. Rather than do both games the disservice of attempting to review them together, I am instead going to review them separately. The page count listed for Power Kill is for Power Kill alone; the price is the cost of both games together. The review of Puppetland can be found here. ]

It was really fascinating re-reading this review nearly 15 years after I wrote it. There’s that section in the middle of it where I’m struggling to express the insight I had about Tynes’ fan-brewed Stargate game: Add ten years to those thoughts and you get my (hopefully much clearer and more useful) series discussing Game Structures.

Upon further consideration, I’m forced to conclude that this is probably one of the five best reviews I ever wrote. (Although that feels like a bit of a cheat because so much of it was prompted by the superb quality of Tynes’ work.)

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.


Big Red - CGP Grey

I’ve just had an interesting discussion regarding the intersection between random generators and railroads.

Hypothetical Situation #1: You’re running a standard hexcrawl campaign. You generate a sequence of six locations. Regardless of where the PCs decide to go, they will encounter those six locations in the order that you prepared them.

This is self-evidently a railroad.

Now, take this hypothetical situation and begin stripping off locations until you’re left with a single location. Regardless of which direction the PCs leave town, they will encounter that specific location.

Still self-evidently a railroad.

Hypothetical Situation #2: You’re running a standard hexcrawl campaign. You create a random encounter table of six locations. When the PCs leave town, you start rolling on the random encounter table. As they encounter locations you cross them off the random encounter table. Since they’re randomly generated, however, the sequence in which they’re encountered may vary.

Is that a railroad?

Does your answer change if I similarly strip off locations until the random encounter table consists of a single location?


Does this mean that random content generators are an example of railroading?

No. But this thought experiment does demonstrate the complexity of these issues and the danger of trying to create some sort of “railroading purity test” for various techniques without considering the motivation, context, and and methodology of their use.

The core distinction here is whether or not the players are making a meaningful choice. In this hypothetical hexcrawl scenario, the choice of direction has been rendered meaningless (since you’ll have the same experience regardless of which direction you go). And if the choice is meaningless, why are you having the players make it? Why are you lying to them about the choice being meaningful?

Random anecdote time: Many, many moons ago my players needed to explore the sewers beneath a major fantasy metropolis. I didn’t want to map the sewers out and the only game structure I really understood for that sort of thing at the time was dungeoncrawling. So I came up with a system which randomly generated dungeoncrawling maps for the sewer.

This worked just fine and the players were having a great time… until they realized that the terrain was being randomly generated. Their interest in exploring the sewers instantly evaporated: They knew that their choices were irrelevant. There was nothing that could actually be discovered. They were using a game structure of exploration, but they weren’t actually exploring anything.

This taught me a really important lesson as a GM: In order for an exploration scenario to work, there has to actually be something to explore. If all choices are equally likely to get you to your goal (because your discoveries are being randomly generated or because the GM has predetermined their sequence), then your choices become meaningless. And meaningless choices are boring and frustrating.


I’ve talked frequently in the past about the usefulness of procedural content generators: In a dungeon, random encounters can simulate the activity of a complex. In open campaigns, dungeons can be restocked with random generators. In hexcrawls, random generators can simulate the activity of the wilderness or they can be used to generate new locations on-the-fly.

These tools are incredibly useful. But how do you use them in a way that doesn’t negate player choice? How do you use them without the railroad?

The solution is actually quite obvious: Make sure the players’ choices are still meaningful even with the presence of the random elements.

A really simple example of this is simply allowing the actions taken by the PCs to affect the random generators: In a dungeon, for example, certain activities will create noise and increase the likelihood or frequency of encounters. In a hexcrawl, choosing to go to the Old Woods will cause the GM to roll on a different random encounter table than the Volcanic Peaks. And so forth.

Another straight-forward variation, in the context of an exploration scenario, is to create an environment with enough meaningful detail that it renders choice meaningful while the random content provides an additional patina of variety. For example, for my OD&D open table hexcrawl I keyed specific content to 256 hexes. That pre-existing geography creates a ton of meaningful choice: The random encounters that are being generated on top of it simply provide additional spice. Another example is the dungeon complex where the keyed rooms provide the meaningful choices, while the random encounter table provides a variety of activity throughout the complex.

A more complex variation would be a procedural content generator that creates an environment as the PCs explore it. This only works, however, if the location at which a piece of content is encountered becomes meaningful. This rules out purely ephemeral encounters (you meet eight orcs and you kill them) because the location is meaningless. But if the PCs are heading west and discover that the Salt Flats of Doom are over there and that Castle Vampire is on the far side of that difficult-to-traverse terrain, that geographical placement becomes meaningful if/when the PCs start mounting expeditions to Castle Vampire. (You could also imagine a structure where placing Castle Vampire and the Valley of the Giants next to each other creates a unique alliance that wouldn’t occur if it turns out that the Valley of Giants is on the other side of town.) The ability to revisit and reincorporate content, as is so often the case, is the key factor here.

Let’s consider a non-exploration example: In Technoir, the plot map of the scenario is randomly generated by the GM through play. Both the GM and the players discover the truth of the conspiracy together. However, before the players make any decisions the GM creates the mission seed which forms the core of the conspiracy. The mission seed provides the pre-existing detail which makes choices meaningful as the PCs seek to unravel the conspiracy (and, usually, penetrate to the heart of the mission seed). Even though the outcomes of these decisions are random, the choices remain meaningful because (a) they determine how the random elements connect to the mission seed (even as they also continue to redefine the conspiracy as a whole) and (b) the mission seed itself is a hard truth which can actually be discovered.

There are a lot of other ways in which random generators could be rooted into meaningful choice (or surrounded by it) without losing their utility. (And we would doubtlessly discover even more if we started poking around other game structures.) What you’ll note, however, is that all of these techiques are very different from simply taking the encounter you want the PCs to have and putting it in front of them regardless of which choices they make.

Go to Part 1


The Sphinx

The mechanical gate is a specific example of a broader category of chokers in which the potential solutions to a problem are limited. This limitation self-evidently creates an experiential chokepoint.

Limiting solutions merely for the sake of limiting solutions is almost always a railroad-by-design. What can avoid the railroad, however, is only limiting the potential solutions to a problem within a specific paradigm.

For example, the PCs encounter the Sphinx and it demands an answer to its riddle. Within the paradigm of “solving the riddle” there is only one solution (because the riddle only has one answer). Outside of that paradigm, however, the PCs could also kill the Sphinx, teleport past the Sphinx, or hire someone to deal with the Sphinx for them. (If you opt for the last of these, however, I recommend not marrying the handsome young lad who solves the problem for you. It’ll end in tears of blood.)

The example of the Sphinx, however, also reveals why the technique of limiting solutions can be effective: It creates a sense of accomplishment when the answer to a problem is discovered. (Or when you manage to MacGyver your way around it.) An adventure that consists only of Sphinxes who say, “Say any word and you can go ahead.” is a lot less interesting than puzzling out the answer to an actual riddle. (Or, alternatively, slipping on your ring of invisibility and tricking Gollum into leading you to the surface.)


In addition to limiting solutions, you can also limit information. The classic example of this, once again, is the clue in a mystery scenario. (Here the information provided by the clue is also the limited solution to the problem of where you need to go to find the next clue, which also demonstrates how much overlap there is between these different categories of chokers.)

But the limiting (or structuring) of information can also encourage PCs to interact with a situation in a specific way. Or create entirely new ways for them to interact with it.

A simple example: The PCs discover information that they can use to blackmail the programming director of Arcadia Television. Without that information, blackmail is impossible. With that information, blackmail becomes possible. (Limiting information can be used to prevent certain choices from being made by withholding knowledge that they’re possible.)

Another example: Someone is being framed for a crime. If the PCs are aware of the character’s innocence when they begin their investigation, that’s a very different scenario than if the PCs are ignorant of it.

Let’s take a more complicated example. Imagine a simple hexcrawl in which the small village of Laciton is surrounded by six hexes. These hexes are keyed with:

  • The ruins of the Keep of the Dracolich
  • A bleakened fairy ring
  • A mammoth cave system used by goblin marauders
  • A lake that’s home to a prophetic sylph
  • A tower haunted by “ghosts” who are actually dimensionally-displaced wizards
  • The dreamgroves of the ash-scarred ents

In one version of this hexcrawl, the PCs can go to the center of Laciton and see a billboard that lists all six of the interesting locations surrounding the village. There is no choker and the information is freely available: They can simply choose which location they want to investigate first.

In another version of this hexcrawl, the PCs can ask around town. The villagers know that there’s a ruined keep west of town. They know that goblin marauders are attacking the outlying farms, but they don’t know where they’re coming from. They also warn people away from the “haunted tower”. In this campaign, although the default hexcrawl structures still make it possible for the PCs to visit any of the six locations they want, each limited piece of information creates an arrow which points them preferentially towards the things they know about.


In the blackmail example above, the information was a necessary tool and the withholding of that information necessarily removed the ability to make certain choices. Information, however, is not the only resource which can be required in order to make a particular choice possible.

For example, the PCs might want to blow up the demon with a bazooka. But if they don’t have a bazooka, they obviously can’t do that. Similarly, 1st level D&D characters generally don’t have access to a teleport spell, so they won’t be able to teleport into Skull Mountain.

This choker can also appear during play if the PCs are deprived of a resource: Their swords can be sundered. Their hotel rooms plundered. Their evidence confiscated. Their informants killed.

What I generally recommend when it comes to a scarcity of resources, however, is that it is almost always the right course of action to make it possible for the PCs to gain the resources they want. That doesn’t have to be easy, of course: When Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby Gang wanted a bazooka to blow up a demon, they had to leverage their existing resources (Xander’s vestigial memories of being an enchanted soldier) in order to stage a difficult raid on a military armory.

If the resource they want simply doesn’t exist, is there some way that it can be created? For example, there might not be any blackmail available on the local politician because he’s actually a pretty decent guy. That doesn’t mean they can’t set up a honeytrap and create the blackmail material they need.


When the resource being limited is specifically time, you’ve created a deadline.

The limitation of time has the practical effect of taking certain options off the table. For example, if you know the Priests of Orcus are sacrificing Lady Karna at the stroke of midnight, then the option of performing a tactical retreat and coming back in the morning after you’ve had a chance to recuperate is no longer viable. (Assuming you want to save her, of course.)

However, you can also use deadlines to make choices more meaningful: When the Joker tells Batman that he only has time to save one of the hostages from dying in a gasoline explosion, that creates a crucible for the character which reveals deep truths. (Although sometimes what’s revealed is that you can outsmart the Kobyashi Maru and save everybody. Don’t get so attached to your crucibles that you start negating player choices that would circumvent them.)


The opposite of a limited resource is a unique reward which can be only be gained in a specific way.

A pile of gold coins is not a unique reward; there are a lot of gold coins out there. Even the bazooka from the local armory isn’t a unique reward because, again, there are other bazookas out there.

Having to go to the Lady of the Lake in order to claim Excalibur? That’s a choker.

Like the Sphinx and its riddle, clever PCs may be able to find other methods of obtaining the reward. (And an Arthurian campaign where King Arthur murders the Lady of the Lake and steals her sword is definitely going to be a fascinating iteration of the legend.) But, generally speaking, the unique reward is a giant carrot that says, “Come over and do this really cool thing so that you can get this really awesome reward.”


An external event is one which cannot be anticipated (or prevented) by the PCs because it originates from outside the domain of their experience.

For example, the Red Dragon Gang decides to put a hit out on the PCs. You make a note in your prep documents that on November 18th dragon ninjas are going to track the PCs down and attack them.

If the PCs were previously interacting with the Red Dragon Gang (or, possibly, just aware of them) this is not an external event: The attack could theoretically be prevented if the PCs wipe the gang out before the 18th or negotiate a truce with them or fake their own deaths or just coincidentally kill the dragon ninjas who were supposed to be attacking them on the 18th.

If the PCs were NOT previously interacting with the gang, however, it’s an external event. And it’s a choker because there’s no functional way for the PCs to avoid the attack. (Hypothetically, of course, they might have just left town or something. Which is why this is a choker and not a railroad.)

When taken to an extreme – when the PCs are subjected to an endless sequence of external events over which they can have no influence or control – these chokers can be hideously frustrating. In practice, fortunately, that’s very unlikely: The reaction to being ambushed by dragon ninjas is generally going to be figuring out who sent the dragon ninjas, which immediately gets the PCs involved in events over which they do have control.

And external events can be incredibly useful to the GM because they automatically provide the certainty which simplifies smart prep: Since the PCs basically can’t avoid them, the GM can assume they happen without needing to spend a lot of time on contingency plans. They are bangs that can be carefully incubated and then unleashed at the perfect moment.

External events, properly implemented, can also be very effective in providing a larger structure for the campaign. My Ptolus: In the Shadow of the Spire campaign, for example, started with the PCs waking up after losing two years of their memories. In preparing the campaign, I knew that Act II would be triggered when someone they had hired to find a magical artifact during their period of amnesia returned to tell them that the artifact had been located.

With that external event in my pocket, I could confidently build the interlocking scenarios of Act II without needing to worry about whether or not a specific outcome would emerge from Act I.

It should be noted that this didn’t mean that the events of Act I were irrelevant. Quite the contrary: Ninety sessions into Act II, the decisions they made in Act I continue to resonate daily in the campaign. Intriguingly, this is largely because the decisions they made created a rich tapestry of chokers: They chose alliances and they rejected others. They destroyed some enemies and allowed others to escape. They learned some secrets and gave others away before they knew what they had. All of those decisions limited their resources and the information that they held, which has had a deep impact on how they’ve been able to approach Act II and the problems its presents.


The Czege Principle maintains that, “When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”

This is a principle which applies equally to roleplaying games, storytelling games, and improvisational theater. In the case of roleplaying games, it generally means two things:

First, railroads are boring. The GM creates the adversity and they also create the resolution of the adversity. (Then they force the players into acting out the resolution they’ve already created.)

Second, chokers are necessary. Chokers are either the means by which the GM creates adversity or the result of that adversity in play. A campaign without chokers is a featureless expanse in which the PCs face no adversity of which the players are not the ultimate architect. Here, too, adversity and solution flow from a single spring and the result is lusterless.

Avoiding the railroad does not mean that the GM must abandon their creative agenda. Quite the opposite, in fact. The GM must create richly and they must create deeply, so that when their creations meet the creativity of their players there will be greatness born in the clash of titanic ideas.

Addendum: Random Railroads

Go to Part 1

There’s been a recent memetic trend of attempting to defend the idea of railroading your PCs by, first, claiming that a bunch of stuff that isn’t railroading is a “railroad” and then using that claim to conclude that railroading isn’t bad and we should all just stop worrying about it.

It’s as if I said, “Racism isn’t all bad. After all, apple pies are totally racist. But they taste delicious, right?” It sounds perfectly reasonable until you notice that the bit about apple pies being racist is bullshit.

One thing to keep in mind is that the metaphorical use of the verb “railroad” is not a piece of terminology unique to RPGs. It’s an English word dating to 1884 that means, “To force someone into doing something by rushing or coercing them.” Whenever you see someone trying to defend railroading by claiming that it includes a bunch of techniques that don’t include forcing the players to do something they don’t want to do, they’re abusing the terminology. The term “railroading” in this context has an inherently negative connotation, and it’s simply not useful to attempt to redefine the English language so that you can use the term “railroad” to describe some completely different technique that isn’t railroading.

What would be useful, on the other hand, is a new term that we could use to describe the body of techniques which limit player choice. Fortunately, Zak S. has already created it: Chokers. (So named because they create chokepoints in your scenario design.)

Limiting player choice, you’ll note, is distinctly different from negating their choices. While chokers can certainly be abused in order to constrain choice to the point where the GM is enforcing their preconceived outcome by default, imposing creative restraint upon a given situation creates interest and variety.

For those particularly paranoid about limiting the choices available to a PC, it may be useful to note that these chokers will also appear organically and spontaneously through play. The natural world, after all, often surrounds us by barriers. (For example, I am currently sitting in my office. The only way I can easily leave my office is through the door. I could also climb out the window. I might be able to hack my way through the wall, but that’s unlikely. The nature of the room has limited my choices.)

Being aware of these chokers will not only allow you to take advantage of their strengths, but also avoid their perils. The Three Clue Rule is an example of that: A breadcrumb-style mystery scenario is formed from a series of chokers, with each clue providing a very narrow and very specific path that leads to the next clue. The Three Clue Rule simply adds more clues, removing the choker and allowing the scenario to proceed smoothly.


Map of Faerun - Near Waterdeep

Let’s say that the PCs want to travel from Waterdeep to Neverwinter. Why they want to do this is largely irrelevant: Maybe they just learned that the man who killed their father has fled to Neverwinter. Or they’re traders who’ve heard that their Tethyrian textiles will fetch a good price there. Or maybe they just randomly decided to go there at the end of the last session .

So they look at the map and they say, “Hey. Let’s take the road.”

The road is a natural choker, narrowing their experiences to a sequence of literally linear events. For example, you could look at this journey from Waterdeep to Neverwinter and simply prepare it as:

  • As they enter the Sword Mountains, they’re attacked the Blood Shield Bandits.
  • Black water kappa will emerge from the Mere of Dead Men as they pass it.
  • North of the Mere of Dead Men they’ll encounter Benedict, an itinerant merchant with a beautiful daughter. The axle of their wagon has broken.

Insofar as the road is the natural choice for traveling from Waterdeep to Neverwinter, the choice of going to Neverwinter triggers this specific sequence of events.

Of course, one can loosen the choker if the PCs can choose from a variety of routes. For example, instead of taking the road from Waterdeep to Neverwinter, the PCs could book travel on a ship. (Of course, the journey by ship merely presents a different set of linear experiences.)

It should be noted, however, that the mere existence of multiple routes is often a false choice unless the choice between routes includes an incomparable difference. For example, if the PCs are concerned with speed and the only difference between the journey by sea and the journey by road is the amount of time they take, then there is no real choice: There’s only a calculation of which route will get them there faster. (See The Importance of Choice for a complete discussion of this.)

What I think is interesting about literal roads, however, is that they usually contain an incomparable choice by their very nature. For example, imagine that the PCs are going from Waterdeep to Triboar. There’s only one road, so that’s the way they have to go, right? Except, of course, they could also choose to journey cross-country. The cross-country journey would be slower, but it would also mean avoiding whatever troubles there might be on the road. (The choice between speed and avoiding the events on the road is the incomparable.)

Of course, not all roads are literal roads. Another metaphor for this sort of choker is a bullet in flight: The PCs load themselves into a gun and then pull the trigger. The choice of pulling the trigger is theirs, but once they have done so their flight will logically and naturally take them through a sequence of experiences. As long as they choose to remain upon the bullet, the bullet will continue to fly. You can either take this opportunity to show them some awesome stuff midflight or you can challenge them in order to make the decision to stay on the bullet a meaningful one.

A third way of understanding this choker is “looking out the train window”. Once they’ve made the decision to get on the train, it’s not necessarily impossible to get off before the next stop, but they’d have to put considerable effort into doing so. The metaphor of the train, however, also highlights the ability to create a rich scenario full of complex choices on the train: There may be a linear sequence of events rushing past the windows in the background, but that doesn’t need to be true of the immediate experiences of the PCs. (Maiden Voyage, a D20 adventure by Mike Mearls, is an excellent example of this type of scenario.)

Where you can get yourself into trouble is assuming that the PCs will take a road when they have no need to do so. (Or, worse yet, strong reasons for not taking the road.) For example, the Horror on the Orient Express campaign for Call of Cthulhu ironically makes it a bad idea for the PCs to take the Orient Express. (And then doubles down later in the campaign by, in fact, making it quite difficult for the PCs to stay on the train.)


A mechanical gate exists whenever the PCs need to succeed on an action check in order to do a thing or go to a place or otherwise have a particular experience.

The simplest example of this is a secret door in a dungeon:

If the PCs fail to detect the secret door in Area B, then they will never discover Area C.

A mechanical gate like this is only a problem, of course, if Area C is of vital importance. For example, if Area C is the only place you can find the cure for the Princess’ disease. If the content in Area C is non-essential, on the other hand, then it simply serves as an optional reward for PCs who successfully leap the mechanical hurdle.

A common example of the mechanical gate is the breadcrumb trail approach to mystery scenario design: Every clue is necessary to reach the next section of the scenario, and thus every skill check to find a clue is a mechanical gate which must be passed through in order for the scenario to succeed. (This is the broken scenario structure which the Three Clue Rule seeks to fix. It’s like adding additional routes by which the secret chamber in the dungeon can be found.)

Go to Part 5: More Chokers



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