05/17/00: All aboard the Catch 22 Express!
by Pieter van Hiel

Ok, here's the situation. You and your fellow adventurers are sitting in a north-bound train travelling 95 kmph towards Point A, Runaround Station. You're due to arrive at 12:15 PM, at which time you'll be meeting a contact who will give you an important package. At the same time, a rival group of adventurers is travelling away from Point A (Runaround Station) in a car, averaging about 70 kmph. In their car is the package, and in their trunk is your contact - quite dead.

You and your group arrive at Point A, where you learn about the klling from local police. The police arrest you for being nosy and take you in a paddy wagon averaging 65 kmph to Point B, the Police Station. There, the lot of you are beaten with rubber hoses before being released at 6:41 PM.

Your party decides to retreat to Point C, a local diner, to plan strategy and start trying to track down the package. The party spends 10 minutes in the diner, during which time you spend $2.97 on coffee, $5.24 on the lunch special, and $0.75 in the juke-box. After 10 minutes pass, 3 large men enter the diner and order coffee in a threatening manner. Then they pull out guns and threaten to shoot everyone in the party unless you give them the package. You tell them you have no package, and they shoot everyone in the party. An equal proportion of the party ends up at Point D, Heaven, and Point E, Hell. End of story.

Now then, with the information provided above and using only pencil and paper, determine:

A) the percentage chance that your group could have gotten the package.

B) the amount of fun the group was having.

You have five minutes.

I'm afraid this is a bit of trick question, actually. The answer in both cases is "zero."

The above is an example of what's known as "railroading" on the part of the gamemaster. The players have no choice but to go along with the scenario - no reasonable choice, anyway. Sure, they could've taken the train to Tiajuana or given up on finding the package as soon as they reached the station, but what's the point? They were making an honest attempt to complete the mission provided by the GM within the very narrow parameters of reasonable action he provided.

To some extent, railroading players is a neccessary evil. Players left to themselves cannot be counted on to do the "right thing" all the time. Give them the opportunity, and half of them will spend the adventure carousing, gambling, and lording their power over the locals. This is fun, granted, and many a merry campaign has been built around the idea of letting players do whatever they want, but in the mean-time your carefully constructed campaigns are going to waste. Players are like so many surly children - they need direction and limits on their behavior or they turn into uncontrollable hellions.

However, again like surly children, they also need freedom to express themselves or they grow up hating their parents and eventually run away to join a freak show or tap-dance for nickels at Yonge and Eglinton. In game terms, they get sick of your campaign and start playing Monopoly.

Unless your players are deliberately antagontistic or stupid, a little bit of direction goes a long way. A obvious clue here, a dead-end there, and they'll stay on track while at the same time keeping the freedom for unexpected action that is the hallmark of a good campaign.

Never force your players along a path of certain doom, or even certain success. Give them alternatives, and be prepared to adlib if they do something unexpected. If your players are supposed to meet someone at a bar, and they go to the black-smith instead, have the guy come look for them at the black-smith. Don't put a bunch of unlikely obstacles in their path - ie: "You can't go there! A dragon burnt it down last week..." to keep them on the straight and narrow. In short - don't bully your players. If they do something unexpected, it's because they're inventive and think differently than you do. It's not because they stupid - though, Lord bless 'em, players ARE often a lot of right royal droolers.

To conclude - A healthy dollop of freedom leavened with a bit of judicious direction will keep your scenarios fresh and your players happier than a puppy-dog with three tails.

Pieter van Hiel will update the zine more often. Really. Watch for an interview with Margaret Wies!