All Aboard the Invisible Railroad!

What if I told you it was possible to lock your players on a tight railroad, but make them think every decision they made mattered?

What if I told you it was possible to lock your players on a tight railroad, but make them think every decision they made mattered?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

While this may sound like the evil GM speaking, I have my reasons. Firstly, not every GM has time to craft a massive campaign. There are also plenty of GMs who are daunted at the prospect of having to figure out every eventuality. So, this advice is offered to help people scale down the pressure of being a GM and give them options to reuse and recycle their ideas and channel players through an exciting adventure that just doesn’t have as many options as they thought it did. All I’m suggesting here is a way to make sure every choice the players make takes them to an awesome encounter, which is surly no bad thing.

A Caveat​

I should add that used too often this system can have the opposite effect. The important thing here is not to take away their feeling of agency. If players realise nothing they do changes the story, then the adventure will quickly lose its allure. But as long as they don’t realise what is happening they will think every choice matters and the story is entirely in their hands. However, I should add that some players are used to being led around by the nose, or even prefer it, so as long as no one points out the “emperor has no clothes” everyone will have a great game.

You See Three Doors…​

This is the most basic use of the invisible railroad: you offer a choice and whichever choice they pick it is the same result. Now, this only works if they don’t get to check out the other doors. So this sort of choice needs to only allow one option and no take backs. This might be that the players know certain death is behind the other two doors ("Phew, thank gods we picked the correct one there!"). The other option is for a monotone voice to announce “the choice has been made” and for the other doors to lock or disappear.

If you use this too often the players will start to realise what is going on. To a degree you are limiting their agency by making them unable to backtrack. So only lock out the other options if it looks likely they will check them out. If they never go and check then you don’t need to stop them doing so.

The Ten Room Dungeon​

This variant on the idea above works with any dungeon, although it might also apply to a village or any place with separate encounters. Essentially, you create ten encounters/rooms and whichever door the player character’s open leads to the next one on your list. You can create as complex a dungeon map as you like, and the player characters can try any door in any order. But whatever door they open after room four will always lead to room five.

In this way the players will think there is a whole complex they may have missed, and if they backtrack you always have a new room ready for them, it’s just the next one on the list. The downside is that all the rooms will need to fit to roughly the same dimensions if someone is mapping. But if no one is keeping track you can just go crazy.

Now, this may go against the noble art of dungeon design, but it does offer less wastage. There are also some GMs who create dungeons that force you to try every room, which is basically just visible railroading. This way the players can pick any door and still visit every encounter.

This idea also works for any area the player characters are wandering about randomly. You might populate a whole village with only ten NPCs because unless the characters are looking for someone specific that will just find the next one of your preset NPCs regardless of which door they knock on.

What Path Do You Take in the Wilderness?​

When you take away doors and corridors it might seem more complex, but actually it makes the invisible railroad a lot easier. The player characters can pick any direction (although they may still pick a physical path). However, it is unlikely they will cross into another environmental region even after a day’s walk. So as long as your encounters are not specific to a forest or mountain they should all suit “the next encounter.”

So, whichever direction the players decide to go, however strange and off the beaten path, they will encounter the same monster or ruins as if they went in any other direction. Essentially a wilderness is automatically a ‘ten room dungeon’ just with fewer walls.

As with any encounter you can keep things generic and add an environmentally appropriate skin depending on where you find it. So it might be forest trolls or mountain trolls depending on where they are found, but either way its trolls. When it comes to traps and ruins it’s even easier as pretty much anything can be built anywhere and either become iced up or overgrown depending on the environment.

Before You Leave the Village…​

Sometimes the easiest choice is no choice at all. If the player characters have done all they need to do in “the village” (or whatever area they are in) they will have to move on to the next one. So while they might procrastinate, explore, do some shopping, you know which major plot beat they are going to follow next. Anything they do beforehand will just be a side encounter you can probably improvise or draw from your backstock of generic ones. You need not spend too long on these as even the players know these are not important. The next piece of the “proper adventure” is whenever they leave the village so they won’t expect anything beyond short and sweet. In fact, the less detailed the encounters the more the GM will be assumed to be intimating it is time to move on.

Following the Clues​

Finally we come to the most common invisible railroad that isn’t ever considered railroading (ironically). Investigative adventures usually live and breathe by allowing the player characters to uncover clues that lead to other clues. Such adventures are actually openly railroading as each clue leads to another on a proscribed path. The players aren’t forced to follow the clues, but what else are they going to do? The players are making a point of following the railroad in the knowledge it will take them to the denouement of the adventure. What makes this type of railroading entertaining is that the players feel clever for having found the clues that lead them along the path. So if they start to divert too much the GM can put another clue on their path or let them find the next one a little easier and you are back on track.

The "Good" Kind of Railroading​

Now, all this may all seem a little manipulative, but modifying events in reaction to what the players do is a part of many GM’s tools. Any trick you use is usually okay as long as you do it to serve the story and the player’s enjoyment.

That said, never take away player agency so you can ensure the story plays out the way you want it to. This sort of railroading should only be used just to make the game more manageable and free up the GM to concentrate on running a good game instead of desperately trying to create contingencies. So, remember that you must never restrict the choices and agency of the players, at least knowingly. But it is fine to make sure every road goes where you want it to, as long as that is to somewhere amazing.

Your Turn: How do you use railroading in your games?
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

NotAYakk

Legend
Choices only matter when the PCs have actionable information between the choices.

"There are 3 doors, which one do you open" isn't a choice, it is a random number generator. If the same encounter is behind all 3 doors regardless of what scouting work the PCs do, it is a fixed random number generator.

I don't know about your players, but when I'm playing and my choices are blind and the information I try to gain is unconnected to what happens when I act on it, I don't feel I have agency.
 


Choices only matter when the PCs have actionable information between the choices.

"There are 3 doors, which one do you open" isn't a choice, it is a random number generator. If the same encounter is behind all 3 doors regardless of what scouting work the PCs do, it is a fixed random number generator.

I don't know about your players, but when I'm playing and my choices are blind and the information I try to gain is unconnected to what happens when I act on it, I don't feel I have agency.
Exactly this. "I go left/I go right" is meaningless unless its based on information or knowledge. Coin flipping decisions isn't player agency.
 

jgsugden

Legend
In my experience, these approaches tend* to result in games that feel like slow paced video games rather than an RPG.

Why? The text works, but the subtext is often* nonexistent. It usually* has that feel of randomly inserted challenges because the way

Players start to ask questions about why the dungeon is laid out in such a random manner. They ask why the group has to go through the kitchen to reach the chief's bedroom. The group asks why they always choose the right door. They ask, and ask, and ask ... the same way we ask questions about video games, especially older ones, where the pieces only kinda fit together.

D&D is an RPG. A role playing game. Characters play a role in a story. In a good story, the world around thew characters makes sense. It feels like the players are entering someplace that has existed long before they arrived, not something that was thrown together to give them a challenge. A well prepared session is going to be a better experience for players most of the time.

Usually*, it isn't hard for players to see through a collage approach of improvised railroads and note that it feels far less immersive than a dungeon setting where you built the dungeon with a plan and a thought about how it is laid out. When you can smell the cinnamon a few rooms away from the kitchen, when the escape passage is laid out in a way that makes sense, when all the puzzle pieces fit ...

* All that being said, there are times when this is the best path. For example, when PCs reach higher levels, they get the capability to teleport across the world - or even between planes - in an instant. My setting's primary world is roughly 23 times the size of the Earth. My Astral Sea is literally infinite, as are my Elemental Planes - as is my version of Space surrounding the Prime Planet. I can't plan everything. I have a few 'in reserve' dungeons/cities/bnuildings/wilderness settings that I can pull out and populate on the fly, but there are times when none of them work for the strange place the PCs decide to go. In those instances, I have to improvise the entire encounter/scenario and follow many of the rules recommended above to do so. However, when I do so, I try to make sure I do the following:

1.) Put a story first, There has to be something there for the PCs to discover. That story should unfold, and it is often best if it is not 'linear' so that the PCs are walked through the story as they find the elements. It has to unfold as they go.

2.) There should be a greater story element wherever they go. It may play into the current storylines that the PCs know, or it may drop seeds for a future storyline, but the adventure they are undertaking should have a purpose. Sometimes that lore drop isn't even going to come to fruition during the current campaign ... but may result in seeds the players can plant that will impact the next campaign. In the end, they can't just feel like this choice they made went nowhere. You can get away with the occasional entirely self contained one shot ... but I really try not to have that be the case.

3.) I try to drop a seed that will get them back to parts of the world that have prepared materials. It won't be a direct connect, usually, as that feels out of place, but instead it will be something that reminds them of what they might be neglecting, or that would benefit them in doing what they are trying to do elsewhere. A simple example would be finding a skeleton key that can open any lock once when they've been stymied by a lock that was not intended to be such a challenge, but they just couldn't get past and they left behind many sessions ago.
 

It’s a nice OP.
I feel as DM that I deliver a story influenced by players.
I can’t have infinite rooms, encounters and npcs prepared.
I use floating plot and encounters that can be place on need.
The overall need to be coherent, feel real, and a Dm should be a good story teller and have a good poker face.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
What if I told you it was possible to lock your players on a tight railroad, but make them think every decision they made mattered?
Then I would think you have rather a high opinion of your ability to consistently and faultlessly outwit 4-5 other people for a sustained period. I find most players are highly intelligent, and can pretty quickly figure out that they're being deceived. A clever and chary DM can keep up the charade for a while, but it never lasts forever.

While this may sound like the evil GM speaking, I have my reasons. Firstly, not every GM has time to craft a massive campaign. There are also plenty of GMs who are daunted at the prospect of having to figure out every eventuality. So, this advice is offered to help people scale down the pressure of being a GM and give them options to reuse and recycle their ideas and channel players through an exciting adventure that just doesn’t have as many options as they thought it did. All I’m suggesting here is a way to make sure every choice the players make takes them to an awesome encounter, which is surly no bad thing.
It is a bad thing if it is presented deceptively. It's not the rails that are the problem--it is their (alleged) invisibility. Putting someone in a cage when they think they're completely free is questionable at best.

A Caveat​

I should add that used too often this system can have the opposite effect. The important thing here is not to take away their feeling of agency. If players realise nothing they do changes the story, then the adventure will quickly lose its allure. But as long as they don’t realise what is happening they will think every choice matters and the story is entirely in their hands. However, I should add that some players are used to being led around by the nose, or even prefer it, so as long as no one points out the “emperor has no clothes” everyone will have a great game.
Yeah...this is exactly the problem I have. If their joy depends on never, ever realizing that they've been deceived, then the game is eternally on the edge of collapse when it doesn't need to be. It's really not that hard to actually let players have agency either--nor to recycle old ideas into new things if you didn't have the time or opportunity to use them when you originally intended. Recycling doesn't have to take the form of "it's literally exactly what I was originally planning to do, but I've just quantum-superposition'd it from being south of the Dark Marsh to being west of the Fire Cliffs."

You See Three Doors…
This isn't even agency in the first place, so we're not exactly off to a good start.

This variant on the idea above works with any dungeon, although it might also apply to a village or any place with separate encounters. Essentially, you create ten encounters/rooms and whichever door the player character’s open leads to the next one on your list. You can create as complex a dungeon map as you like, and the player characters can try any door in any order. But whatever door they open after room four will always lead to room five.
At one point, I actually did something like this....sort of. It's from the Gardens of Ynn supplement, which (other than this one small flaw) is actually quite excellent. When I solicited feedback from players after the journey to Ynn, one of them spoke up about how when he realized that I would roll to find out what the next area was after they chose which way to go, it bled away all tension and impact. He knew that, whatever would happen, it was random, so there was no strategy or preparation involved. Just some new thing the party hadn't seen before. (Technically that was me very slightly tweaking it because I didn't want to have to keep completely re-drawing my map every time they hit a new room.)

Should I do something like this again in the future, I will try to generate a set of labyrinths in advance, and then select between them when the adventure starts, so that it's still random and I'm still surprised by what specifically happens, but there is an actual set of rooms and choosing to go in direction A actually truly is different from choosing to go in direction B (unless, contextually, it isn't because of magic BS or whatever.)

So while this has some potential, I have actually gotten direct player feedback about how this is not great, and if I were actually hiding it from the players, that would have gone over like a lead balloon.

What Path Do You Take in the Wilderness?
Frankly this is so much worse than the three doors. At least there, you're making it clear that they're picking even if the "choice" is really not a choice at all, just a random selection. With this method, you're literally just straight up lying to them about whether or not they're making choices. There is no direction except "forward," you're just letting them believe there is.

Before You Leave the Village…
....why not just talk to them? This isn't even doing anything that just saying, "Alright guys, time for final preparations before you head out. Is there any remaining business you'd like to cover, anything you might have forgotten?" wouldn't. Like...at least with the others you're trying to be efficient with resources. This is literally just "they'll pick up on the hints! There's no need to communicate with them!" What possible advantage does this provide?

Following the Clues​

Finally we come to the most common invisible railroad that isn’t ever considered railroading (ironically). Investigative adventures usually live and breathe by allowing the player characters to uncover clues that lead to other clues. Such adventures are actually openly railroading as each clue leads to another on a proscribed path. The players aren’t forced to follow the clues, but what else are they going to do? The players are making a point of following the railroad in the knowledge it will take them to the denouement of the adventure. What makes this type of railroading entertaining is that the players feel clever for having found the clues that lead them along the path. So if they start to divert too much the GM can put another clue on their path or let them find the next one a little easier and you are back on track.
Here I must outright disagree with you. Yes, it is one possible option that this is done in a railroading fashion. It is ABSOLUTELY NOT going to ALWAYS be railroading. The problem is, you have presumed a linear sequence of clues...meaning, you have presumed the rails. You can have clues that are just...present. They don't specifically point to subsequent clues. They're just single pieces of information. I know this because that's how I did a murder mystery. There were clues in the kitchens, clues on the body (some real, some faked), clues in the victim's bedroom, clues that could be gleaned from talking to the servants. No clue directly led to any other clue; it was on the players to choose where to look and who to talk to. There were intentionally-placed false leads, and there were dead ends. (The players tried to resurrect the victim, for example; it only partially worked, however, so the victim wasn't going to revive fast enough to prevent the diplomatic incident the players wanted to prevent.)

The players had to reason, had to use IRL information I knew they had (e.g. that livor mortis takes at least 2 hours to be noticeable, so the victim couldn't possibly have been killed by the person who found his body), contradictions between statements made by the suspects, and weird differences in the reports between different people who had no reason to lie. I had prepared for as many possible results of this mystery as I could: failure to identify any culprit at all, positively identifying the wrong person, having two or more plausible suspects without a clear identification, identifying the right culprit but not the reason for the murder, or truly finding everything. The players were persistent and clever and worked out almost everything, including the secret motive. There was no railroad here, because I was willing to accept essentially every possible result from the investigation. The one mystery they didn't solve was who was keeping one of the tertiary suspects under control via addictive drugs. (I think it just got lost in the shuffle, to be honest, but it is the one component of the mystery that never got solved.)

There was no "track" to get back onto, because the players were fully in control of whether the mystery was actually solved, or not. And they very, very much appreciated that their success was theirs, not something I ensured would happen.

Now, all this may all seem a little manipulative,
Because it is. Blatantly so. There is no "seem" about it.

but modifying events in reaction to what the players do is a part of many GM’s tools. Any trick you use is usually okay as long as you do it to serve the story and the player’s enjoyment.
I strongly disagree with this sentiment. Tricking people is rarely wise, and never necessary.

That said, never take away player agency so you can ensure the story plays out the way you want it to.
This order is impossible to obey while implementing the other things you have described here. Either you actually do respect player agency, and thus do not force the story to end up in the shape or location you want it to be, or you do ensure that things end up going where you wanted them to go anyway, and thus do not respect player agency. (Note that, if you have a frank conversation with your players, that's rather a different story; you are still respecting their agency, by giving them the opportunity as players to choose whether or not to participate. It's not ideal to say "please just do X thing, even if you might not normally, because it's important for this to happen." But at least you're respecting them and their agency.)

This sort of railroading should only be used just to make the game more manageable and free up the GM to concentrate on running a good game instead of desperately trying to create contingencies. So, remember that you must never restrict the choices and agency of the players, at least knowingly. But it is fine to make sure every road goes where you want it to, as long as that is to somewhere amazing.
Again, your instructions are directly contradictory. You advocate knowingly making it so whatever direction the players choose to go in the wilderness, it will always lead to the haunted house (or whatever other location you have in mind.) That is directly and specifically restricting the choices and negating the agency of the players. They do not actually have a choice of where to go. They can have any color they want, as long as the color they want is black.

Your Turn: How do you use railroading in your games?
I don't. Ever. Full stop. I have never needed to, and I see no reason to start. I have always been honest with my players. The characters I play are not always honest with them. But I, as DM, have never lied to my players. And doing so has enriched my game in ways too numerous to count.
 

I know this because that's how I did a murder mystery. There were clues in the kitchens, clues on the body (some real, some faked), clues in the victim's bedroom, clues that could be gleaned from talking to the servants. No clue directly led to any other clue; it was on the players to choose where to look and who to talk to. There were intentionally-placed false leads, and there were dead ends.
You publish? I would love to have this adventure!
 


To me, the way I want to 'railroad' came up during a stream with the three Critical Role GMs - Matt, Aabria and Brennan.

Brennan said that any railroad comes from session zero. The plot hooks you laid out during that 'get to know your character and build the party' will be used against you.

(Side note: the video is full of good advice for gaming, but another point Brennan brought up: most people in real life don't HAVE forty pages of back story.)
 

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