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  • [Ask-a-GM] Avoiding Railroads: Part II - Be Flexible by Planning Ahead

    Last week we discussed how to use modular encounters to be able to quickly adapt to different paths the players take and avoid making the players feel like they are boxed in. Building encounters that can be easily dropped into the game at any point is one of my go-to techniques, but in and of itself it only gives the illusion of control to the players. This week, I'll discuss another very easy to use technique to help you "avoid railroads," and give your players even more control over the direction the story takes.

    Be Flexible by Planning Ahead
    Modules, to me, have always felt too rigid and linear. This is their biggest downfall. The prewritten adventure can only assume so many possible choices that the characters might make. Some don't even go beyond the very basic decision points of which dungeon corridor will the party trek down next. I'll admit that I haven't cracked many modules open, but of all the ones that I have read in the vain hope that I might find a gem among them, none succeeded in creating the immersive story experience that I long for at the gaming table. And, how could they? The authors, however talented and brilliant they might be, cannot design their adventure with my specific players and their interests in mind.

    The biggest advantage you have when you write your own adventures is the ability to be flexible -- adapt to your players, let them make meaningful decisions that shape the journey and the outcome. However, unless you're playing a rules-light game and are very good at improvisation, it can be extremely challenging to give the players full reign to head off in whatever direction suits them. Building modular encounters as I suggested earlier can help, but as a Game Master, I want my players to truly be able to affect the direction and even the very nature of the story itself.

    Although I can handle doing some improv at the table, my favorite RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, is anything but "rules-light." In fact, for most games, I have hours of preparation to do in advance to get encounters built, customize monsters, build interesting skill challenges, and create any maps I need. All of this is in addition to the untold hours I spend putting together ideas in my head for the next game while I'm relaxing on the bus on my ride into work or daydreaming during meetings. So, by the time I arrive at the gaming table, it's not a great time for my players to pull a 180 and decide they want to delve into a hidden dungeon I may have hinted at a few games ago.

    My approach to giving the players as much freedom as possible to shape the direction they take the campaign is remarkably simple. I try to construct my adventures to generally only come to major decision points towards the end of a session. This way I can ask my players at the end of each game what they plan on doing next and I plan out the next adventure based on what they decide. (Between games works too if your group is committed to having out-of-game discussions between sessions.)

    This approach requires some player cooperation and buy-in. If the players completely change their minds between sessions, it can wreck your plans. When it works though, this gives the players quite a bit of freedom, while still allowing you to plan the game ahead of time. However, if for whatever reason your players need to take a vastly different direction than the one they agreed on at the last session, hopefully you'll be able to put on your illusionist hat and plug in the modular adventure you planned to play out no matter which direction they take.

    Getting input at the end of the session on major decision points will definitely help create a more collaborative storytelling experience without forcing you to try to prepare for all possible contingencies. Still, sometimes the players do something completely unexpected and the story takes a drastically different turn than you thought it would. Next week in part III of this series, I'll talk about letting go of your plans and just "Winging It."

    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*