The Alexandrian


Session 4A: Riot in Oldtown

In which a cry for freedom takes an unexpectedly sinister turn, the scope of events becomes larger than can immediately be managed, and Master Ranthir performs astonishing deeds of derring-do…

As with the rules for handling house fires that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, I created a custom structure for handling the riot in this week’s installment of the campaign journal. And I similarly posted them here on the Alexandrian back in 2007. They’ve actually got much wider applications than just riots, and you can find them here: Crowd Rules.


Although the group’s decision of what to do next is presented at the beginning of this entry in the campaign journal, I had actually asked them that question at the end of the previous session. (As a I talk about in the Railroading Manifesto, one of the most potent tools in the GM’s arsenal is simply asking, “What are you planning to do next session?”) So I knew that the PCs would be present for the riot, which by its very nature was going to be a big set piece.

Successfully pulling off big set pieces at the table can be tricky. By definition, they involve a lot of moving parts and managing all of those parts can be a bit of a juggling act. The secret, in my experience, is clearly organizing all of those parts into distinct tools which you can then easily pick up and use on-the-fly. For this particular scene, I prepped several tools.

First, a general timeline of events as they would play out if the PCs didn’t interfere with Helmut’s plans. (See “Goal-Oriented Opponents” in Don’t Prep Plots, and also the detailed example of doing this sort of thing at a larger scale.)

Second, the relevant stat blocks for the Riot Mobs (the large crowd was broken into 8 mobs) and the City Watch.

Third, Helmut’s speech. Using big speeches like this at the gaming table can be tricky. Being able to deliver them effectively and dramatically helps, of course (I’ve literally trained professionally for this, so I have an advantage). But the real trick is making sure that they don’t deprotagonize the PCs.

You know those video game cut scenes where all you want to do as a player is pull the trigger and shoot the idiot who’s yammering on? Right. That’s exactly what you want to avoid here. At the gaming table you’ve got the advantage that your players actually can interrupt what you’re saying and declare that they’re taking an action. But it can also be useful to take a more proactive approach as a GM, which is what I did here: The timeline of events was specifically designed to overlap the speech and, as you can see represented in the journal entry, the speech was broken down into chunks between which actions could be taken. (So, for example, Helmut would speak for a bit and then I’d call for Spot checks to let people notice the guards moving towards the stage.)


Something that isn’t represented in the campaign journal is the point where one of the players declared that everything happening had been foreordained and there was nothing they could do about it — i.e., that they were being railroaded.

Which was a weird moment. First, it had been their choice to attend the riot in the first place. Second, as we’ve seen, the whole encounter had been structured to insure that the PCs could take action and influence the outcome of the event. Third, the PCs had been taking actions in an effort to affect the mob… they were just failing. The specific moment which triggered the comment was, oddly, when Dominic tried to calm the crowd down… and rolled a 2 on his Diplomacy check. His failure could not more clearly have been the result of pure mechanical resolution.

And yet the conclusion was reached that they were stuck in a railroad.

This was one in sequence of events which led me inexorably to an unfortunate truth: Railroading is a form of abuse.

I recognize the hyperbolic nature of the claim. And I’m not saying that people who are railroaded actually suffer emotional damage. But within the specific context of the game table, the behavior modification is remarkably similar: Railroaded players become hyper-aware of the GM’s behavior, constantly looking for the cues that indicate the railroad is coming. Their response will be to take actions to minimize the damage of the railroad — either acceding to it so that they don’t have to be manhandled into it; or becoming disruptive in an effort to resist it.

And this is where the analogy becomes useful, because this behavior modification persists even after the player is no longer threatened by the railroad: They continue looking for the subtle cues that warn them the railroad is coming. But when those cues occur in the absence of railroading, their behavior becomes seemingly erratic and irrational. (Why are they randomly shooting people in the head? Why are they just blindly doing whatever an NPC asks them to do, even when it’s clearly not in their best interest and they’re endlessly complaining about it?) This can be baffling and confusing for the GM who doesn’t understand what’s happening. (And it can be even more difficult for a GM who is trying to improve themselves and stop their previous railroading tendencies.)

Having identified the problem, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy one to be had. A frank conversation in the metagame where you make it clear that the outcomes in your game aren’t predetermined and that the players are in control of their own destinies can be useful. Beyond that, the best you can do is to keep running your game: When they see that their actions have a meaningful impact — when they realize that the entire course of a campaign can be radically diverted by the simplest of moments and the smallest of choices — they’ll figure it out.

And although that will take time, it will be worth it in the end.

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7 Responses to “Ptolus: Running the Campaign – Mob Rule and the Fear of Railroads”

  1. Wyvern says:

    So how did you respond to that player?

  2. Nicholas says:

    It seems that Ron Edwards once made a similar observation, albeit in a more ill-tempered and insulting format, when he talked about game brain damage.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @Wyvern: Talked it out. And checked in with the other players to see if they were having similar perceptions of what was happening (they did not).

    @Nicholas: I find Edwards’ brain damage comments (particularly the follow-up where he also equates it to the damage suffered by the victim of pedophilia) to be him at his most incoherent and nonsensical.

    Buried somewhere deep, deep, deep inside the offensive nonsense, though, is the potentially interesting point that some RPG players develop the weird behavioral tic of interpreting other media as if they were interactive RPG experiences.

    The most obvious example of this is whenever you see people discussing a piece of media as if the characters had stat blocks. This can get quite weird when they insist that the source material got something “wrong” because it didn’t match the imaginary stat block in their head.

    (Although some of this is also just a specific iteration of the way some elements of the geek community interpret media in general. For example, the ways in which elements of a setting — like the Prime Directive — can become more important as “fictional facts” than the narrative context in which they exist. Or the endless discussions among superhero fans about “who would win”.)

    I think the reason Edwards runs into rhetorical problems here is that he’s so busy trying to use the tools for analyzing static narratives to create his RPG/STG experiences that he can’t recognize he’s making the same category errors in reverse.

    Interactive mediums are fundamentally different from static narratives. Trying to interpret (or create) one through the lens of the other is fundamentally dysfunctional. (You can translate one to the other, of course, if you’re aware of the differences between them, in much the same way that you can translate a novel to the screen. But just as you wouldn’t adapt a novel to film by literally projecting the words onto the screen, you have to embrace the form you’re translating the material into.)

  4. Yora says:

    One thing that immediately sprang out to me was “the player rolled a 2 on his Diplomacy check”. From an objective outside perspective this is a reasonable and fair thing that happens in the game.
    While the player might rationally know that, the feeling of the situation might very well be “I did anything I could and it was no use. There was nothing I could have done differently to get a success.” From the perspective of players, it makes little difference whether the GM overrides their choices through railroading, or the dice override their choices through random chance. In either case, their descision feels to have been meaningless. Even with such an obvious case, it probably feels the same to many players, leading to the assumption that the situation had been set up and stacked against them.

  5. Jonathan Killstring says:

    To get at the question of “what next?” – I’ve found that yes, metaspace discourse is essential to addressing these kinds of issues.

    Going one step further, I’d suggest that discussing what made the player feel trapped in the first place is a useful line of discourse. A simple “look, I’m not railroading” might cut it, but anything that puts the player on the defensive, or makes them feel socially threatened is going to be less useful to everyone.

    But getting someone to talk about how they were railroaded once, and it sucked, leads into “what made you feel that way tonight?” And then you can meaningfully address the issues that came up, explain your reasoning, and hopefully come to an understanding.

    Frankly, just having a discussion about these events is likely to do some psychological priming — and framing that discussion as a collaborative dialog between player and GM — gives everybody a pretty good shot at avoiding such issues in the future.

    (Sorry to barf forth communication theory in the comments section!)

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    Those are all good points.

    I also find it useful to get in the habit of simply asking the question, “How was the session?” even if there wasn’t anything that obviously went wrong. (I’ll frequently do this as the session is wrapping up, and I’ll also occasionally touch base with players on an individual basis.)

    If everything is going well, it’s a nice little boost for the ego. (Woot! I’m not sucking!) And you can often nip problems in the bud before they develop into larger and less easily correctable frustrations. Also, getting feedback on what’s working can be just as important as getting it for the stuff that isn’t.

  7. Jamie Le Rossignol says:

    Thanks for the post and related discussion, as I’ll be running a riot soon. Having the villain talk while avoiding being hurt is a difficult one to deal with. I like the idea of distracting them with other things going one. After reading it all I was thinking of using the social engineering angle to direct the players until violence happens.
    Firstly, by playing up the guards and defenses the villain has to protect himself. A high location with cover, some magical protections, many guards out front to make it harder to reach him, etc.
    Secondary, with the talk in the crowd. There are various groups, supporters and protestors of the regime. So some will redirect the potential player towards other targets (EG. In conversation “we need to stop those ….”, while others notice the PCs and will talk about the consequences, “Don’t do anything enrage the guards”, “Why are the guards just waiting and not breaking this up?”.
    Thirdly, if the PCs some how they manage kill the villain, where will always be some else to replace him and they have to detail with the fall out of being “Murder Hobos” in front of all those people. And the crowd could turn upon them.

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