There seems to be this attitude that's become more prevalent over the past few years, which says that any GM who wishes to have a plot or story arc for his campaign is a shit GM and is just railroading his players…Of course, not everyone agrees with Jason’s views on dungeons. For instance, pages 104-15 of Gygax’s DMG details suggested responses monsters might take, both when they are first attacked by the PCs, and then after the PCs retreat and regroup. These responses include fleeing the area before they can be attacked again, laying traps to cover weak points in their defenses, and even joining in alliances with other nearby monster groups for mutual defense.
I find this attitude from old-schoolers, who tend to champion concepts like the megadungeon, baffling. Let's look at the megadungeon concept. A dungeon is completely scripted out in advance, unless you're using a random dungeon generator as you go (and let's face it; random dungeon generators as a general rule don't work well on the fly). Every room in the dungeon is mapped out. Wandering monster tables are set. Key rooms with monsters and treasure are placed with care and detailed. Players are deposited in the dungeon and their meaningful choices amount to not much more than up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. They can choose to sally forth or leave, parlay, flee or fight.
That's...really about it. And every one of those choices exists in a story-based game as well. A plot hook is not a railroad, because you can always choose not to follow it, in which case the GM has to come up with a new hook (and a good GM will do so, even if on the fly).
Yes, there are occasionally side quests. But those side quests, and the players choices to pursue them or ignore them, do not change the important fact that the PCs must finish the adventure in a particular way at a particular endpoint, and then move onto the next adventure in the series. There is no other alternative.
Here's where the issues of storytelling come in. Stories are structured to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In computer gaming, RPGs typically have a single story with a few branching options which will eventually feed back into the main trunk. Therefore, it is very easy to give them a beginning, middle, and end. Dragonlance did the same thing with pen-and-paper RPG's. The adventures of the PCs had set beginnings, middle, and a single end, and all were pre-scripted before the players even rolled their first die. This is incredibly useful for somebody who wants to tell stories. It allows for such techniques as foreshadowing and the use of a rising and falling action to set a certain pace to the story or adventures. It does so, however, at the cost of freedom; if the Dark Lord is to be present at the grand climax in Chapter 10, it really makes a hash of things if the players kill him in Chapter 3. It also means that if the players decide they don't give a hoot about the Dark Lord, well where's your story now?
I like this sort of play because it keeps everything fresh and surprising and I don't know what's going to happen next. I suspect this is very much what Jason is doing, and what happens in Dwimmermount and at Raggi’s table as well. The give-and-take and back-and-forth between the PCs and the world is what makes these games fun for many of us. And I think it’s exactly what A Paladin in Citadel is talking about when he describes implied narrative as:
No writer-defined (or Dungeon Master defined) narrative. I think this is the key (or what we imagine to be the key) to the appeal of Trampier's artwork, and the appeal of old-school gaming. The lack of agenda on the part of the Dungeon Master when it comes to what story will be told.
Like a good Dungeon Master, Tramp wasn't necessarily rooting for the good guys. Heck, we don't even know that characters in his illustrations, or the player characters in our games, are the good guys! That is up to the players themselves, or the art-viewers, to decide.
Just like the ending to their story is up to the players.
Art by Friedrich Stahl and Charles Marion Russell.