Roleplaying the Galaxy: Always in Motion is the Future
There are two distinct directions a tabletop roleplaying game can adopt, both of which I’ve touched on before: that of wild, unpredictable anarchy (meaning that the players are able to explore the vast possibilities of the galaxy), and that of strict adherence to invisible rails (meaning that there is a set story the game master has in mind that is being played through). Of course, there are varying degrees in between. Most campaigns won’t strictly adhere to one extreme or the other, rather allowing the player group in question to adopt whatever slice of middle ground is most comfortable for them.
I’m not here to tell you which is better. I have my preference, as everyone does, but, much like the strengths and weaknesses involved in a broader, galaxy-spanning campaign, versus a finite, contained one, many of the pieces involved are open to subjective preference.
First, let’s tackle the “open-world” approach. The pros here are likely obvious. Even on a single planet, in a single city, in a single building, there are near-endless possibilities in a roleplaying game. Which room do you head to next? Which person do you speak to? Are you sneaking about? Just avoiding a particular NPC? Add to that the untold levels of potential complexity that open up when utilizing the entire galaxy, and the living, fictional world becomes truly massive. This is a freedom of imagination that can’t be found in any other coherent pastime. Even the most open-world of video games can’t begin to match the infinite pathways available to a tabletop roleplayer, and the wellspring of creativity a group of invested individuals can bring to bear on such an immense canvas can be both staggering and humbling.
There is, however, a catch. Investment in such an unbridled campaign can falter, simply because there’s no actual story to explore. If the campaign essentially devolves into, “Let’s go check out that planet over there, because…why not? It’s not like there’s anything interesting happening here,” that’s probably a sign that a game master should put more effort into establishing narrative threads for their players to follow, rather than letting them simply flail about the communal sandbox. While that sort of thing can be fun, for a time, I’ve yet to play with anyone who gets enjoyment, in the long term, out of randomly popping in on a world’s many points of interest just because it’s something to do. Fortunately, there’s always something going on in the galaxy. The saga is called Star Wars for a reason. Conflict will always arise among peoples of different beliefs, backgrounds, and motives, and, while players shouldn’t be too stubborn about not being caught up in galactic affairs, it’s the game master’s job to at least provide players and their characters with a reason to get involved, if they’re going to be afforded so much freedom.
What draws someone from the comfort of their familiar surroundings? While sightseeing can be fun, both in RPGs and in real life, it’s the context that often makes these sights worth seeing. Just as we’d have little reason to visit Gettysburg or Normandy, in our world, without the pivotal battles that took place there supplying weight to otherwise innocuous locations, so, too, would the historians and warriors of the Star Wars galaxy have little interest in visiting former battlegrounds like Ruusan and Hoth without the conflicts that took place there. Experiencing different cultures pushes us to vacation across the globe, as humans, so what peoples and societies would draw the diplomats and anthropologists of your player group, and what could be gained by exploring them? Are your players even steeped enough in Star Wars lore even to know these cultures exist? There should be no shortage of opportunities to lay at the players’ feet.
Conversely, you have the “railroad”. This is often used as a derogatory term, but this game master feels, at least, that a railroad can serve as a perfectly useful introduction for new players, and it can even be utilized well in launching a campaign for a more experienced group. It’s in the meat of a campaign where I agree this approach should be used sparingly.
But let’s be fair and start out with some pros.
Firstly, as I said, railroading a group, at least for some initial encounters, can serve as a helpful initiation for those who are new to tabletop roleplaying. Imagine (or possible recall) being sat down around a table, living room, or virtual space, armed only with some colorful, plastic polyhedrons with numbers or symbols and a sheet full of numbers you only vaguely understand. What’s going to feel more inviting; a low-stakes social encounter that launches you along a greater story and helps you grow accustomed to deciphering your character’s many stats, or a high-intensity skirmish that could see your character dead because you failed to use your abilities properly? As I’ve spent a fair amount of time stating in the past, the Star Wars galaxy is a dangerous place, and a newbie (or a team of them) could easily find themselves overwhelmed if dropped into the vast sea of stars and instructed to figure things out.
An especially patient game master (which I suppose I’m not) might even decide to induct players just starting their roleplaying journey on a number of in-universe training scenarios, much like a tutorial level in video games. In such instances, it may not even be out of line for a game master to volunteer a player character’s first steps. “You’ve boarded the Jedi vessel, knowing that your training at the Yavin IV Praxeum is about to begin. You decide you’d better brush up on your skills, receiving your inductee training saber and heading for the cargo bay. There are some training remotes ready to put you through your paces.”
Chances are that the players in a group aren’t there for the Dark Souls experience. They just want to hang out with friends or new acquaintances and play in a fictional world. Having a training-wheels introduction like the above could be a welcome relief, especially if the player(s) in question is having a hard time wrapping their head around “permadeath”.
Personally, I like to start out new players with some brief social interaction and/or a quick fight with one of the galaxy’s many critters. Just, you know, not a rancor, or anything so imposing. Maybe a nice, squishy mynock.
It’s after the tutorial phase, however, that I’d suggest easing up on the railroad, for most groups. While some players may prefer the simplistic, action-game approach that basically consists of set pieces and cutscenes (and, again, communication between players and game master is key), most any group is playing in such a potentially expansive experience because they want the freedom and imagination they can’t find in other interactive entertainment. If a game master continues to railroad their players through the entirety of a campaign, it’s likely that the players will begin to feel like they’re just unwitting pawns in another person’s fan fiction, not free agents operating in a playground of boundless possibilities.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix. As any good game master knows, part of their job is to tell their players “yes” as often as possible, without compromising the collective experience. A well-placed “no” can mean preventing a (hopefully unwittingly) self-absorbed player from stepping on another player’s moment, clarifying rules (at least as the game master sees them), or simply keeping the binding, in-universe laws from collapsing in on themselves.
Essentially, if you, as a game master, have been carefully corralling your players along a predetermined sequence of events, simply be watching for the moment any of them thinks to ask, “Wait…what if we didn’t do that?” Here’s where you apply your best, mischievous smile and inform them, “You are welcome, of course, to venture into the unknown.” And be clear that it’s an actual invitation. This can be one of the most satisfying moments as a game master; the switch that tangibly flips in a player’s eyes as they comprehend the freedom at their fingertips.
“Uh…I’d like to got talk to that other merchant, instead.” Or, “I actually think the queen’s acting suspicious. I’m gonna try to sneak into the palace, rather than meeting her, as requested.”
“Fantastic! How do you want to go about doing that?”
Yes, you’ll have to cast a much wider net with your planning, but this game master finds, at least, that it’s infinitely more rewarding to have your players surprise you just as much as you do them. A sort of symbiotic relationship, if you will.
For what it’s worth, the balance I tend to strike is setting up an overarching narrative, with points I wish to hit along the way, but, beyond initial encounters, granting my players near-absolute freedom in how the approach their many trials. The first session is when you hook them. Once they’re invested in a certain goal, let them run wild…within reason.
May the Force be with you!