Get Off the Reverse Railroad

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0722

Do you create detailed backgrounds? Kingdoms, villains, magic items. These days I avoid them like the plague. They’re like reverse railroads.

I only want a paragraph — two at most — about each game piece. Here’s why.

You flesh out your campaign in two ways: either you play the game, or you talk about it.

Which one do you prefer?

Me? I’ll take play over talk, thank you.

Give me a good way to capture session notes Campaign Logger and I can run NPCs, plots, locations, and characters all night long and watch in amazement as my campaign and world grow in depth and detail.

So why do we insist on doing more talk, less play?

For example, why bother writing long backstories that force me to shoehorn new details into my careful campaign details? If this happens just once, with the villain for example, ok. But repeat over and over again, and now I’m trying to parallel park in a crash-up derby. I’m forcing myself to reverse engineer my own campaign! I create new, pointless work for myself by having to make things fit. And the more details and backstories you have, the harder it is to piece the puzzle together. On top of that, I have control cascading changes and do a lot of extra work, because I’ll be tempted to change A to make B work, which means changing C too as it relates to B. And then there’s D, E, and F to consider. And on it goes.

However, consider the alternative. You show up with your core notes built around the people, places, things, and plots in your campaign. A paragraph or a few bullets, like I said.

  • What is it?
  • What fun gameplay opportunity does it present?
  • What are a few of its most interesting qualities?
  • Give it a twist, secret, or plot hook

Then you game things out as your primary way to flesh things out.

This gives you many benefits.

First, it totally reduces prep time.

Second, your players get to experience your ideas (because when do they ever really experience all the details locked into your backstories?). Your players also help you build on your ideas. In gameplay, everyone interacts with the game piece and all kinds of details will come into being. Just play and record.

Third, there are three Actors in your game who thrive on campaign details. There’s you, the keeper of secrets. There’s the players, who only know what they learn from you and gameplay. And then there’s the silent majority who thirst for as much information as possible to properly serve your campaign: the NPCs. The more the NPCs know, the bigger opportunity for them to make the PCs’ lives interesting.

When details are trapped in backstories and unplayed game notes, the NPCs and players are denied all the information. But when you play those details out, when you create them by playing the game, then everyone is getting this information at the same time and can wield it to the best of their ability!

Fourth, no more painting yourself into corners. You might be thinking, “Johnn, if I don’t come prepared with all these notes then how will I GM all the details correctly? How will I get the background details right? How will I integrate things into my campaign?”

That question comes from the reverse railroad. It’s your old way of thinking. It’s habit.

Instead of bringing game pieces into play encumbered by history and logistics — as static and brittle things — bring them in fresh so you can integrate through interaction. Gameplay will build that story for you, and you create the game piece’s future history now (mind bender, right?).

Awhile ago I presented you the idea of creating villains as a consequence of character choices during gameplay. Keep rolling out new NPCs into your game. Those who survive a murder hobo experience may want revenge, retribution, and more. And the NPC’s backstory is now well-known to the players, who will love to see the cogs of your dynamic world grinding out new challenges once again.

I didn’t always feel this way. I’ve written tips about developing backstories in the past. But these days I’m all about a concept that Campaign Logger developer Jochen Linnemann and I are working on called Agile GMing. It’s about receiving the most value and fun from all the time you spend on RPG, whether it’s dreaming, planning or playing. So long backstories are out. I don’t want to have to memorize scripts. I don’t want to have to carefully place plot bits into the session petri dish with shaking hands and tweezers. I’m railroading myself by GMing like this.