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  • [Ask-a-GM] Avoiding Railroads: Part I - Build Modular Encounters

    Do you remember that advice our parents use to give us about not playing near railroads when we were kids? Sage advice that is just as true in gaming as it is in the real world. In case you've never heard this term before, let me quickly explain what I'm talking about. Quite simply, railroading is when you as the Game Master force the players along a single track, allowing them no meaningful choices and providing only one route to success. If the players decide to go any other direction than the one along the railroad tracks, the entire adventure can become derailed. I've been in games like this, and they are not fun in the least.

    Unfortunately, it's an easy mistake to make, especially for the time strapped GM who has a life, work, and other responsibilities to balance alongside his hobby. Back in my early years of gaming, I could spend countless hours planning adventures and contingency after contingency. I had more than enough time (and desire) to plan content that I might never even use. As I joined the "real world," and my spare time diminished, I came to rely on a handful of basic techniques that helped me create an immersive environment and quickly adapt to (instead of shutting down) player choices: building modular encounters, being flexible by planning ahead, and just plain winging it.

    This is part one of a three part article on how to avoid railroading your players. In this first segment, I'll explain how to use modular encounters when creating an adventure so that your game doesn't crashing down whenever the group takes a route you didn't quite expect.

    Part 1: Build Modular Encounters
    Some years ago a very good friend of mine, Brian, decided to try out running a Dungeons and Dragons game for the first time. He was extremely nervous about it, but he wanted to give me a break and find out what it was like from the other side of the screen for a change. Instead of picking out a module though, he wanted to go the full monty and create his own adventure. Not being a fan of modules, I fully supported this idea, but I knew that creating a story and putting together encounters was no easy task. It didn't matter though; I was excited just to be at the table for my friend's first attempt at donning the DM hat.

    Brian spent at least a week putting a short adventure together for us to try out. The crux of his story was that we were to find an old graveyard unexpectedly in our journeys as we made our way through a thick forest. While we were investigating it, we would be attacked and have to take cover amongst the mausoleums. In one of these mausoleums we would find an entrance to an underground crypt, and so our crawl through the "dungeon" to figure out what in the world was going on here would begin.

    Not a terrible beginning right out of the gate for a new DM, really. The problem was that the players didn't do quite what he expected. First, we decided to travel a different route through the forest than he thought we'd take. Unsure what to do, he had to tell us that he really needed for our characters to take a certain path. The second problem came when we didn't take the subtle hint to explore the graveyard, which forced him once again to have to press us out-of-character to "see hook and bite it." Even once we were in the graveyard, we continued to thwart his plans by not taking cover in the particular mausoleum that held the secret entrance into the dungeon below.

    My friend had fallen into a classic trap of creating a completely linear adventure. In the linear adventure, there is only one path to success, or worse yet, there is only one path to actually continue the game. If the players miss the signs that point to "Adventure Here," the game comes grinding to a halt until the players are ultimately so frustrated with their lack of progress that they have to ask the DM for a mulligan or go home. In my friend's adventure, there were three critical decision points at the beginning of the game, and any wrong decision cascaded into a complete game-stopping adventure failure. So, what is the solution?

    He could have planned for what would happen if we went one direction instead of the other. When you think about it, this is the basic nature of a dungeon design. There's a door to the left and to the right. Only one of them might lead to my end goal -- not the best dungeon design, actually, but if the party takes the wrong path, the adventure (and hopefully the fun) continues until the party needs to backtrack and explore a different direction. The problem with this solution is that outside of a dungeon setting, the number of possible paths your group might take can be myriad. Even the best DM can't anticipate every move their group is going to take, and the meticulous Dungeon Master is likely going to spend a lot of time preparing content that the players will never explore -- his efforts have been completely wasted.

    He could also have done several things to make the signs more clear. Our party could have been tasked to find this graveyard for some reason. The mausoleum with the secret entrance could have been more obvious. This wouldn't have solved the problem though if we still had missed the clues or made the wrong decisions. Nor would it feel like we had any real choices, and that is the keyword there -- feel. When I am playing a roleplaying game, I want to feel like the choices my character makes are shaping the story. If there are no true choices to be made, then I might as well be reading a book that someone else wrote, or playing a computer game where I know and expect that my choices will be limited.

    When I run a game, I want my players to feel like they are in a robust and living world, free for them to explore. Part of that is the illusion that the players are forging their own path, and that what is happening now in the game is a result of all of the choices they made before. Smoke and mirrors, my friends. Smoke and mirrors. The trick I use quite often is to build my encounters to be as modular as possible, so that I can easily adapt them to whatever direction the characters take. By encounters, by the way, I don't mean just planned combats, but also story elements and scenes. If I am going to have a town being harassed by orcs and in need of help, I design it so that it can really be any town the players decide to visit or at least one along the way. If the heroes aren't swayed by the town's calls for help, then I am ready to give them other reasons to take up sword against the foe I planned.

    In the case of Brian's game, there was no reason that we should have to go a particular direction to find the graveyard. He could have popped it along whatever trail we took, and we wouldn't have been the wiser. If we passed up the subtle trail to the secreted cemetery, then he could drop the cemetery on the outskirts of whatever town we were travelling to. If we still didn't follow the clues that something suspicious was going on, then we could have heard rumors of strange happenings or been hired to deal with the problem. Once we were at the graveyard, the mausoleum with the secret entrance could have been whichever one we picked, and we would have exclaimed, "Wow, isn't that cool that we stumbled onto this..."

    This technique may seem to be a bit dishonest. One could argue that we're really just fooling our players into believing that their choices matter, and that this is just another form of "railroading." This is a legitimate argument, but just because the "magic" isn't real doesn't make the show any less entertaining to watch. Who really believed that David Copperfield could make the Statue of Liberty disappear? Knowing that there is some trick to it doesn't diminish the enjoyment of the performance. We watch magic shows because we want to be tricked. Your players are your audience. Get up there on that stage and make them believe the illusion, or more to the point, make them forget that there is an illusion.

    Illusion isn't the only tool at your disposal though. Come back next week for Part II, and I will show you how it is possible to "Be Flexible by Planning Ahead."

    Do you have a tough gaming situation or question you'd like to have answered by our panel? Send your questions by email to

    About the Author: Robert A. Howard has been a roleplayer from the tender age of twelve when he cracked open that first red boxed Dungeons & Dragons set and all the way to today. The vast majority of his gaming experience has been with D&D, but he's also been able to convince his gaming group to try something new on occasion... Oh, and he runs this obscure website you might have heard about, Pen & Paper Games. *grin*
    Comments 15 Comments
    1. TimGip's Avatar
      TimGip -
      Being a new GM I am really looking forward to this column. I've already run into some unexpected snags that I'm sure the tips and hints well help resolve. The idea of illusion was a very helpful one, I can't wait to try to employ it in our next session. Thanks again!

      Tim G.
    1. Nanban Jim's Avatar
      Nanban Jim -
      Good stuff. It's all to easy to confuse where you want the story to go with where you want the characters to go. And as a player, equally easy to confuse your sense of wonderment with your character's. Sometimes being excited on your character's behalf makes you excited.
    1. spillaneja's Avatar
      spillaneja -
      Super article. I remember those exact same struggles until I figured that out. It was frustrating to the point of almost quitting DMing all together... I figured out the concept of building modular encounters but I wished it had been sooner..LOL

      Jim S.
    1. trechriron's Avatar
      trechriron -
      Well written and great advice! There's several forum threads in the wilds from new GMs. This resource should prove helpful.
    1. spidey's Avatar
      spidey -
      Great article. I've known several GMs whose "Solution" to wandering players was to always have a mega-powered NPC leading the party. The GM would then often throw monsters at us that only the NPC could harm. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you what a horrible "Solution" that is.

      One of the things I'll sometimes do is to have one-shot mini adventures ready that can be inserted when the players go wandering. Eventually after a session a player will say, "Wait a minute. What did that encounter at the mill have to do with the kidnapping?" I'll say, "Nothing, you guys never bothered to read the scroll that you found and thus went totally the wrong way. You are welcome to continue going the wrong way, but since you now only have 2 days to find the kidnappers, I'd recommend reading the scroll at the start of our next session." At the start of the next session we'd then roleplay the PC remembering the scroll while breaking camp. Of course, if they misunderstood the scroll, they could be in for more unexpected adventures.
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -
      Spidey, turning the players into spectators who follow powerful NPCs who make all the important decisions and steal the spotlight is the probably the worst form of railroading topped off with a bit of DM-PC action to really bring it home.

      Having unrelated encounters ready to throw in the mix is a good idea, but I would caution against using them as a purely "random encounter," especially in a story driven game. The encounter at the mill may have had nothing to do with the kidnapping in your example, but it shouldn't just be complete filler. Rather, it should reveal something. Perhaps it foreshadows future adventures or otherwise leads to the discovery of something interesting. For instance, under the mill the characters find an old escape tunnel. One of the characters knows from history that there are a network of tunnels that were used for moving about clandestinely built back when the territory was under hostile control. This might make the players wonder if perhaps the kidnappers could be using some of these old tunnels to move about unseen? Or even if they are not, you've foreshadowed the tunnels for something that might come up later.

      Whatever it is that happens in the game, I think it should further the current plot, a sub-plot, character development, or otherwise lead to something more interesting than an hour spent rolling the dice.
    1. Arkhemedes's Avatar
      Arkhemedes -
      Farcaster, I know you're not a big fan of modules, largely (I believe) because they very often do feel very "railroady", if I may use the term. I on the other hand, use modules a great deal. There are a lot of great minds out there with a lot of great ideas, and they can be very helpful for a time-pressed DM who is running low on new and creative ways to entertain your players. Besides, I bought so many of the danged things, by golly I'm going to use them.

      But here's the thing - so much of the advise you give in the column, and good advise it is, can be used in modules just as easily and effectively. There are a whole host of methods a good DM can use to steer a group of PCs back on track when they have wandered off course, and this includes modules as well. As you said, "Smoke and Mirrors." And I believe it's okay, and sometimes even a bit necessary, to be a little bit "railroady" so long as the players never realize they're being led in any one direction. Part of the trick, I think, is to give the PCs choices, but to make sure that the choice you want them to take also appears to be the most enticing to the players - but be subtle about it, so that the players always think that they are the ones making the choices.

      A good DM, I think, will also study the players so that he or she will get a good idea of how they might react to certain situations. Eventually, patterns will emerge and these can be used to subtly manipulate the players in the right direction simply by the way the DM phrases things. If done well, the players again will think they have made all the decisions and will have no idea they are being guided by the DM at certain crucial points. But it is also important, in this case, that the DM allow his players to occasionally make bad choices as well so long as these bad choices are not too detrimental to the adventure/campaign.

      On the flip-side, a campaign that is the complete opposite of a linear adventure, where the PCs are always allowed to do whatever they want and the DM cannot possibly be fully prepared for every contingency, can be as big a disaster, if not greater, than a linear one. Who wants to play in a game that is constantly being interrupted because the DM has to stop and think for a while, or look things up in a book, or make hasty, ill-conceived decisions that contradict others or have dire consequences later on in the adventure? All of these are game killers and are very likely to happen if a DM does not exert a certain amount of influence in the direction taken by his players. In addition, allowing the PCs to do anything they wish is simply unrealistic, even in a high-fantasy world where there are always rules and laws and bad luck and somebody else telling you what you can and cannot do. Part of a good campaign should be about dealing with these adversities, rather than simply avoiding them because the players want to do whatever they feel like doing.

      Again, a little bit of railroad, I think, is okay. My players, some of which were with me for 20 years, certainly never complained about it. Just make sure you never let them see the track!
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arkhemedes View Post
      On the flip-side, a campaign that is the complete opposite of a linear adventure, where the PCs are always allowed to do whatever they want and the DM cannot possibly be fully prepared for every contingency, can be as big a disaster, if not greater, than a linear one. Who wants to play in a game that is constantly being interrupted because the DM has to stop and think for a while, or look things up in a book, or make hasty, ill-conceived decisions that contradict others or have dire consequences later on in the adventure?
      I think you'll enjoy part II of this article, Ark. As I eluded to in this article, illusion isn't the only tool in the toolbox.
    1. Obah Bason's Avatar
      Obah Bason -
      One useful anti-rail method I am currently utilizing is informing the players they need to earn the respect of an NPC or group to proceed with a quest. How they do that is up to them. I usually prep a few random modular jobs they can do as favors, some red herring stuff to keep them thinking critically, and some generic encounter groups to fatten up stuff I didn't plan on them doing. That way, regardless of how extreme their plan gets, I only need to prep for their eventual success or failure.

      That way, I am still in 'control' of the direction they are going, but the path they take to get there is completely up to them. That is more fun for me as well, because in a group of 4 or 5 people, one of them is bound to have a great idea you would not have thought of.
    1. ahollowplace's Avatar
      ahollowplace -
      Thank you, Farcaster, for an excellent article for any GM. I'm looking forward to the next ones, and I hope the you throw in some interesting tips about developing believable NPCs.
    1. MortonStromgal's Avatar
      MortonStromgal -
      One thing I would add is come up with problems don't come up with solutions just hear what the players plan to do and if it sounds reasonable go with it.
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -
      Part II of this article, Be Flexible by Planning Ahead, is now up and available for your reading pleasure.
    1. draco181's Avatar
      draco181 -
      my big question is what happens when the players accidentally kill an important character for the continuation of the story? other than just bring him back from the dead. in a campaign that i recently ran the players accidentally killed what was suppose to be an major character in the plot of the game. i even tried to have him escape but the players still managed to kill him.
    1. cplmac's Avatar
      cplmac -

      That is relatively simple to fix. All you have to do is use that same character information, just give it a new name. After all, there would always be some assistant or apprentice waiting for the chance to become the boss.
    1. Lord Captain Tobacco's Avatar
      Lord Captain Tobacco -
      Always a pain when an NPC is killed out of turn.
      I once had a group of players who started a collection of severed heads just to make sure that the villain didn't return. Illusions, similar armor, patsies, and perfect getaways help but if the Big Boss gets away too often the players may feel (rightly so) that they are just spinning their wheels.