TV to Tabletop is a series in which I examine scenes in popular movies and TV shows and break them down into game mechanics. Essentially asking, “What if this wasn’t a scripted performance with big budget special effects, but a group of players sitting around a table rolling dice?” There are spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice below.
So, we’ve made it all the way through the slog that was Batman v. Superman. Superman was broody and lacked charisma. Batman was a gun-toting, murderous, psychopath. Alfred and Wonder Woman did their best. Lex Luthor was… the Riddler maybe? The point is, we’ve gotten through the lackluster titular fight, the Marthas, and we find ourselves in the homestretch. The whole Death of Superman comic arc condensed into about 30 minutes of screen time.
Luthor unleashes Doomsday onto an unsuspecting world and mostly ambivalent audience. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman all have to unite to stop the beast before he kills everyone in the twin cities of Gotham and Metropolis. They’re trading blows left, right, and center but Doomsday won’t go down. It’s at this point, Lois Lane almost drowns recovering Batman’s Kryptonite spear, but gives the weapon to Superman. Here’s what I imagine happened at the table next:
GM: Alright you’ve rescued Lois from the pool and she hands you the spear. You know what you have to do.
Henry: Ok, awesome. I hand the spear to Gal’s character.
GM: *crickets* What?
Gal: Yeah, it makes sense. You built Wonder Woman with just as much Strength as Superman, but without the Kyptonite weakness.
GM: No, that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You know what you’re supposed to do.
Ben: Try throwing it.
Henry: Um, I throw the spear at Doomsday.
GM: No. You. Know. What. You’re. Supposed. To. Do.
Henry: Fine, I charge into Doomsday and stab him with the spear.
GM: Perfect! *long flowing flavor text about how Superman dies and everyone is very sad*
This ending is the perfect example of a GM who wanted his story to end the way he wrote it, so the players were lockstepped into following the plot no matter what. The Game Master stole their agency and wondered why so many people weren’t happy about the story. This is usually called railroading, and it’s an easy mistake to make for any Game Master.
The root of this issue lies in the belief that the Game Master is telling a story to the players rather than with the players. Sometimes that’s hard to remember when you’ve got your head down in the middle of the night after hours of working on adventure notes. You’ve become invested in the story in a way that the players simply can’t. They are reacting to these events in real time and their actions are bound to be surprising. That’s okay, I’ve found in my experience that it’s better to say “Yes and this happens” or “Yes but this happens” than “No” in these instances.
Saying no to a player’s action is the fastest way to pull a player out of the scenario. It saps their enthusiasm and shatters their immersion in the story. The players are here to be the protagonists of the story. A protagonist by their very nature is proactive. They’re the movers and shakers of the story world and they need to know that their decisions carry weight. No one wants to feel like they don’t matter to the story being told by the group.
There is a way for the GM to tell a story with total control over the characters’ actions. It’s called writing a novel. Don’t be that Game Master. I promise you, the stories that players take away from your game for years to come, are going to be the moments they came up with a plan that failed or succeeded spectacularly based on fate alone. Those moments when the car flipped right off the track because they pushed it. Remember that you’re here to present the beginning of a story and then go into a back and forth with the players as you react to each other. Your friends will appreciate it, you will appreciate it, and the people who sat through the ending of Batman v. Superman will appreciate it!