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On the Assumption Railroad

We attempted a pulp game last night. I say attempted because although everyone professed to have fun, I have to admit I did not.

We’re going through a published module that I’m going to review (you’ll see it here and hear it on the podcast). I’m not a huge fan of published adventures, but as my game design time dwindles (especially as I’m trying to devote what little free time I have to creative writing), published adventures might be a way out.

Or not.

There were three big problems that actually made me stop running the game and discuss the situation with the players. When I read this module (three times before trying to run it), the problems didn’t really jump out at me. They really hit me during the game.

First, there is the level of railroading that seems to be necessary for most published adventures. This module came right out and said (I paraphrase): “Yes, you will railroad your players. There’s just no way around it.” And I get why. The module is replicating a pulp adventure, and it wants to jam all the pulp tropes in there. The problem is that in insuring—for example—that the characters get captured by the villains so the villain can monologue, the characters are put in a situation in which they cannot win. No matter what their skills, abilities, or powers, nothing they do can avoid this trap.

And that really bothers me.

Again, I understand the why of it—the need to hit that trope—but in my mind the removal of character autonomy, the removal of player power from the equation, is a very serious action while the payoff—the villain monologue—is not reward enough for it. I can think of a few ways to get through the villain monologue without pulling the “rock falls, no save.” It just goes against everything I believe makes a fun game.

Second, there are points in the story—early in the story—where the continuation of the plot demands success at a specific action. In this case, the bad guys get beaten, and a successful search reveals clues that lead to the next step in the adventure. What if the characters don’t search the bad guys? What if they do, but the search attempt (a skill check or trait test or whatever) fails? There’s no next step.

The particular example is not egregious because I believe I could have GMed my way out of it. Still, the continuation of the plot should never be a situation that might not happen as written. If the clue is important, why make it a trait test? Why not just say “You find X when you search the guys.” In my case I did “As the police haul away the bad guys, X and Y fall out of one of their pockets.” Sure, problem easily solved, but why did the problem exist in the first place.

Finally, assumptions are made that are, frankly, poor assumptions. The module intro basically lays down the law about pulp adventures, and in pulp adventures, the characters are good. There are mechanical penalties for acting morally ambiguous or evil. However, in the fight with the bad guys referenced above, the only two outcomes posited in the module are escape and death. It just so happened, two of the players took the good guy law to heart and knocked out two of the opposition.

So now what? Again, as a good GM I can pull this fat out of the fire, but why is it in the fire in the first place? Why was the assumption that the good guys would kill opponents out of hand? Especially after reminding everyone to play nice.

It seems to me that this adventure compilation will be getting a pretty poor mark. A good GM, armed in advance against these defects, could keep the game going strong, but given that I can pretty much run a 4 to 6 hour session of RPGing with a page or two of hand-written notes, if you want my money for a published adventure, I want it to save me time and I want to enjoy the process. Not so much last night.