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 firstname.lastname@example.org.