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?


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?
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

log in or register to remove this ad


I have no problem with linear sessions - in fact I often prefer them, as long as they are honestly presented as linear. It irritates me when a session is presented as open ended yet turns out to be anything but.

I've found VERY few players who don't share in that view, the linear adventures are not the problem, the deception is.

So why deceive?


Follower of the Way
No hurry, but I would love to see it. Some of my players (and my wife) are big murder mystery fans, but I have never been able to write one.
As an overview, the structure of the adventure was as follows:

1. Players arrive in the Jinnistani city of Mt. Matahat, which is located inside the mountain. (It's lit up during the day because the side of the mountain is made of transparent crystal--probably the work of an ancient noble genie.) For my group, they needed a favor that only a foreign dignitary could provide; your group would likely have its own reasons.
2. They secured an audience with one of the four sultans of the city. (It rotates who's Padishah Sultan(a) every couple of centuries, as the original Padishah Sultana of Mt. Matahat had four noble genie children and didn't want them resorting to violence over the throne.) He, being a subtle manipulator type, had the party seek out an audience with his brother, in order to retain plausible deniability.
3. The party did favors for the younger brother, and for their boon from him, asked to attend an upcoming masquerade ball (timed to match a every-other-year lunar eclipse). Younger brother got them nice costumes to wear. (You can use whatever one-session adventure you like as the favor for the younger brother.)
4. The eldest sister is the current ruler, but she's been paranoid someone is trying to overthrow her, and thus becoming draconian. The elder brother (2nd oldest sibling) wants the PCs to investigate, looking for any evidence that his sister has gone truly overboard; if they can find anything, he can use it to pressure the royal court into a vote of no confidence, which will allow him to ascend the throne a century early. Even if they turn up nothing, he'll grant their request--just having them as an asset at the party is worth the paltry thing they're looking for. (Again, this might need adjustment for your group.)
5. Before the party begins, the players have the chance to talk to the staff/servants. This is their first opportunity to gather clues, though they don't know that it's going to be for a murder mystery yet. (I sprung the murder on the players--they thought this was going to be pure courtly intrigue at first!) My group chose to be friendly with the servants, particularly in the kitchen; others could choose the guards, footmen, groundskeepers, or various other workers.
6. At the party, set in a manor estate with various magical protections to prevent invasion or untoward behavior, things go well at first. They meet some foreign dignitaries, greet the Padishah Sultana, and generally have fun. Then, there's a row between one of the guests (the young Baron of Cinders) and the Secretary of Agriculture for Mt. Matahat. The secretary said something disparaging (seemingly by accident) and the Baron took offense; the secretary departs to another part of the manor.
7. An hour later, just after the lunar eclipse has reached its height, a woman's scream is heard from the top floor, and the body is found with an obviously efreet-wought (that is, fire-genie) dagger in his back. The body is currently in livor mortis (blood settling) and his clothes are disheveled. (Successful examination reveals he's been re-dressed, and there is no blood on his clothes around the wound--meaning, the dagger was planted after death, once the blood no longer had pressure to push it out of the wound.)
8. Conversations with the servants revealed a key clue: one of the other visiting dignitaries, who had been at the manor for diplomatic deals prior to the party, had received a dress delivered to her so she could attend the party. The servant who received it explicitly said the dress was blue. The dress the woman wore during the party was explicitly red.
9. Kitchen servants identified that the victim had requested coffee be sent to his room a little while before the party began, but it was left outside his room rather than brought in. (Checking the coffee reveals it was poisoned with a narcotic drug--in small doses it produces euphoria, in large doses it is quite fatal.) [Aside: this was one of the multiple levels of misdirection: another possible suspect was someone who, the party learned, had been hooked on this drug and his supply was missing. It had been stolen by the perpetrator in order to commit the murder, and acting as another possible fail-safe should the true method of death be discovered.)
10. Examining the papers in the man's room, they discovered who he'd been working with. A successful analysis proved that some of the documents had been forged, and that the authentic documents pointed to the woman who'd been with him--the one who had the strange dress of apparently changing color! They also found suspicious connections among the woman's stuff to accounts they knew connected back to a merchant in their home city, whom the party has quarrelled with in the past, a man named Jafar el-Aly.
11. The Baron of Cinders--along with the Prince of the South Wind, Sahl--were effectively under temporary house arrest as possible suspects for assaulting the Padishah Sultana's court. Interviewing them, the party realized that the victim had to have been dead before his quarrel with the Baron. Meaning whoever had had that quarrel, they were using illusions or shapeshifting to pretend to be the victim after he was already dead.
12. Examining the room and the outside of the house, they realized that the windows of the victim's room had been left unlocked, and the plants growing on the exterior of the building had been damaged. Someone had climbed on the outside of the building, while people were busy paying attention to the party.
13. An interview with one of the other suspects--the woman who had found him--revealed that the victim had been carrying on a secret affair with her, despite their outward appearance of antagonism. The two had been subtly funneling money into private accounts, so they could retire and live out the rest of their lives together in some other court. She confessed to having stabbed him (which the party already knew wasn't what killed him) because she thought he had betrayed her.
14. Finally they put it all together: the aforementioned diplomat woman had stolen the drugs from that other dignitary, whom she had gotten addicted to that drug in the first place. She requested a meeting with the man, because she was already there to conduct diplomatic discussions, and killed him by poisoning his coffee. She then pretended to be him at the party, intentionally riling up the Baron of Cinders to make him look guilty of murder. She then returned to the body in his room (where livor mortis had set in), used magic (probably a bag of holding) to carry him up to the top floor by climing on the outside of the house. She then deposited him in the room where he was found, left the knife in easy reach of his location, and venomously directed the man's lover to him.
15. With the correct perpetrator caught, it would seem like everything is good. However, this whole fiasco played perfectly into the elder brother sultan's hands: even though the victim had been resurrected and the killer caught, his elder sister's incredibly poor handling of the diplomatic situation was ample evidence for a vote of no confidence, meaning he was essentially guaranteed to become Padishah Sultan; he gladly fulfilled their request and, in effect, now has warm feelings specifically toward the party and the city they come from, a major diplomatic boon for their own city's ruler (a Sultana herself.)

I used a neat mansion map I found online, I'll have to get you a link. But yeah that's pretty much the overall journey. As I said, a lot of distinct clues, few of which were smoking guns and none of which were a breadcrumb trail per se. Some of the clues do relate (e.g. the coffee, the poison, the drug addict it was stolen from, etc.; or the state of the body, the lack of blood around the wound, the body's clothes, etc.) but I did my best to create as many totally distinct clue locus points as I could so that the players could easily miss half the clues and still potentially solve the mystery.


Even if there is no agency in which door the players go through, there can be plenty of agency in how they act when the do.

To me egregious railroading is when players want to effect an outcome and common sense/plausibility gets bent trying to prevent that happening… the enemy always gets away or can’t be killed. The guard can’t be persuaded or bribed. The door can’t be broken down.

I couldn’t care less as a player which door I go through as long there is something interesting on the other side that I get to interact with. Locational/geographical railroading always happens to some extent and is really just a question of degrees. There is always some form of railroading based on the structure design of the place. It really doesn’t matter to me.

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 I could run a game where you had actual choices that matter with consequences and a good chance of the whole party dying?

I get the idea you are going for but why teach people a short cut when you can work to teach them the actual process.

It's scary but start small, practice, and don't be afraid to fail.

In fact I would sat you to take steps to show your player the transparency.

For example I roll all my dice on the table. So when I roll a wandering monster and it comes up a trolls I might hand them the paper with the list that shows a troll is a 13 on the table. Then let them roll the 2d4 to see how many. If there are no spoilers on the list why not show them the dangers they face, the ranger should know anyway.

When a player is fleeing randomly down hallways with one hit point and they chose left instead of right. And left hits a dead end and get killed. I would show them the map that shows right lead to the exit. Not to rub it in but to show them how close they were and build trust. Trust that I don't fudge for them so they know that victories achieved are true victories.


[insert something clever]
This is the way me and the people I knew used to DM all the time when I was a kid. Turns out players like it, and even kind of expect you to do it, as long as you make their characters look cool and incorporate pay-offs to their backstories in the game. Incidentally it's a style I came to dislike profoundly, because it's all manipulation and keeping the players happy so they'll like you.

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.
Agree and disagree. I agree that choices only matter when the PCs have actionable information. So, a PC who says “We go north” without a specific reason is mot really exercising their agency.

To me, the corollary is that if a PC is not exercising their agency, a DM isn’t taking it away by throwing in a disconnected encounter. If the PCs go north and encounter a troll, their agency is not impacted if, had they chosen to go west, they would have encountered a western troll (maybe with a hat and cowboy boots).

Of the other hand, if a PC is exercising agency (“Yon peasant, prithee tell what is to the north of this hamlet”), then the DM ignoring this is denying the PC their agency.
Last edited:


When these types of threads come up, people inevitably turning into the notion that "The Dm lying is inherently bad".

And that is simply not true. As a DM, your job is to craft an experience for your players. And you have many tools at your disposal to choose from, manipulation is simply one of them. And all DMs do it to some extent or another. For example, do you describe in detail every single person that exists in a city?....probably not. So when you decide to describe in detail an are manipulating the players, you are focusing their attention on something specific. Maybe because the NPC is important, or because you want them to be a red herring, but you are directing their focus and their decision making.

There are definately times when the PCs throw you a curve ball, and go somewhere you had never thought of, and have no plans for. So maybe you throw together a super quick dungeon in your head, using a few of the tricks above. This isn't meant to be a major dungeon, its just meant to cover an XYZ quick thing and then the party moves on. And sometimes....DMs get busy. Maybe they didn't have as much time to prep as they wanted, and so their choices are throw something together real quick with maybe a little manipulative glue in the middle....or cancel the session. I know my players would always rather play than me going, "sorry guys I got busy, no game". Now like all tools, overuse of one is not a good idea. And if your doing this is a crutch because you haven't learned how to make adventurer's with player agency....than yes that's a problem. But as one more tool in the box, these tactics are fine when used in moderation.

Visit Our Sponsor

An Advertisement