Cast away your notes: why I don’t plan Dark Heresy

For the uninitiated: Dark Heresy is a roleplaying game, like D&D, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Sometimes I like rails. For example, when I’m on a train or a rollercoaster. These are good rails; they keep me safe and prevent me flying at high-speed into a messy death. Sometimes I don’t like rails. For example, when I’m roleplaying. These are bad rails; they make me play your story when really I’m more interested in mine.

Is that a bit selfish? Your NPCs have big guns, and there are explosions and one-liners worthy of a CSI: Miami style WOOOOAAAHHH! That’s great and all… but the reason I’m finding it fun is that I like the characters the other people are playing with, and mostly because I like the character I’m playing.

I want to know more about my character. I want to discover it. Thinking about it now, isn’t it true that the best novels and films are built around characters? Take The Departed, one of my favourite films. That succeeds in telling a thrilling and exciting story, but it’s really a story about two characters. I won’t spoil the film by discussing it in-depth, but it essentially looks at a man from a bad background who makes good, and a man who takes the easy route to power and lives a double-life.

Do you want the plot even more simply? The Departed is about just one character: the bad guy living a double-life and the journey he goes on. Compare him at his most cocky early on, to that haunting final scene of acceptance at the end. That’s what the film is about.

No offence Mr GM, but though your story is great, my character’s untold story is better. Please let me tell it.

I started as a GM by adapting a pre-written story published by the games’ designers. I had an idea of the overall plot I wanted, and had decided to be as free as possible in how the players proceeded to tell my story. Retrospectively, I realise it was the wrong choice, but at least I had intended to allow the players freedom in how they got from point A to point B.

But we were all new to Dark Heresy, in fact we were all new to roleplaying. When they finished that first pre-written story and I told them to tell me what they wanted to do next, I was met with confusion. Nobody really knew what they wanted to do, nobody really knew what they could do.

And so I folded immediately, lacking confidence in my vision of how I could allow the players to continue. I set them on a path with only a few diversions which all ultimately led to the same places. I hope it was enjoyable along the way, but it was came close to a choose-your-own-adventure story. You find a warehouse, do you go in the side door or the front door? If the side, turn to page 9!

Rail-roading, in roleplaying terms, is putting the players on a figurative train, the only capability of which is to go forward along a linear path — your narrative. There’s nothing I dislike as a player more than playing through a session which I feel has been written. Go to X, speak to Y, go to Z, kill everyone. There is no freedom and all I can do is dictate my character’s response to your situations, and often a truly in-character response would be outside the scope of the adventure the GM has so clearly planned in detail.

Player choice?My concession to the idea of being freeform was to write a list of clues, characters and locations and just switch things about so that no matter what the characters did they still got to the same end point. There’s a great phrase for this, called ‘rail-Schröding’. It’s named after the famous thought experiment with the cat where you must consider a cat in a box potentially containing poison as being both dead and alive at the same time.

In a GMing context, there might be two doors. You have a location in mind, and whichever door the player chooses that’s where the location ends up being. In other words, all doors point to the right direction. It’s at least a bit more free than simply having one door to the right place and forcing your players through it, but really how free can it feel if there’s only one location to end up at?

Moreover, it creates a sense of amazing luck for the players which they will eventually find breaks their immersion in the universe you’re creating with them. Whichever place they go will always turn out to be the ‘right’ one!

I recently began running my second campaign after months of playing campaigns run by others. I went into it determined to avoid that rail-roading pitfall which befell my first campaign and which I felt I had experienced in those of others. It didn’t mean they weren’t fun, but that I felt I was always working towards a particular resolution and the only way I could fail to reach it was to die or abandon the mission.

Let me be clear. I failed. I knew I wanted to set the scene and put the players in a certain position of being cast out by their organisation and forced to fend for themselves. This I did, but I did so through rail-roaded games which evolved into rail-Schröded games. I could have achieved a much more satisfying beginning to the campaign by allowing the players to tell their stories during the setup phase, and have the events unfold around them rather than having them locked into a rollercoaster car powering past the narrative I had envisioned.

Now we are in the middle of the campaign and I decided to do what I had originally intended to do and let the players take the lead. For the last three games sessions we’ve played, I haven’t had any plans written down. It works, too. I haven’t had a set of rails for them to travel along. The most planning I’ve done has been to consult my original ‘master’ list of clues (to provide some structure should they wish to pursue certain lines of inquiry related to the events which befell them) and to set up a few ideas for places.

I don’t mean pre-planned locations. I just mean ideas, or themes. Where my players are right now I know they have set themselves a certain objective, so I have thought about some ideas on how they might meet that objective. I need to ensure things are more complicated than simply arriving and immediately fulfilling their objective, because I need to ensure there is a framework around which they can tell the stories they want to tell about their cool characters and the cool (and frankly, often crazy) things they do.

One of my players said during this session when his character was approached on the street randomly by a man advertising a circus “looks like the GM wants us to go to the circus” and it made me chuckle. I had no opinion on whether they should or not. I certainly don’t have an idea about what will happen when they go there.

Well, I tell a lie. What I plan for when they go there is that they will watch a carnival show. If they opt to do nothing whilst they are there, that’s all that’ll happen. I’ve now got ideas about what the relevance of the carnival is, but I only developed those after creating as some characterful interaction an NPC amongst many other street sellers who earlier approached them to promote a carnival in town. The player’s response interested me and I thought it might provide opportunities for them to roleplay and develop their characters.

And if they don’t, then so what? If they abandon all the leads they’re following now and decide to start totally ploughing their own furrough, so what?

It’s not my story I’m telling. It’s theirs.


6 Responses to “Cast away your notes: why I don’t plan Dark Heresy”

  1. 1 Jonathan
    September 10, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Long time reader, first time replier.

    What are your thoughts of DH and D&D systems vs totally free RP on forums etc?

  2. 2 Tom
    September 12, 2010 at 3:06 am

    Started a reply to your comment but it exploded in quite an unpleasant way into a longer post.

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