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?

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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

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
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.
Well… Some players do. Others will be very upset if they learn the DM is doing this. And that, to me, is why it’s a problem. If the players are aware and onboard, great, have fun! But this strategy is fundamentally built around hiding it from the players. That’s disrespectful of any player who might not want to play this way.
 

Stalker0

Legend
As for other railroad options, another classic one is the "Mission based adventure".

Players get the mission from their "boss" and go to work. That immediately focuses the adventure, and I find it works extremely well in many campaigns.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
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.
It is absolutely true. Some players are vehemently opposed to this sort of quantum DMing, and by hiding it from the players, you prevent yourself from knowing if any of your players feel that way. You’re just doing something to the players that they might hate, without their knowledge or consent. And that is wrong.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Railroading is the worst kind of play. What you’re talking about is the illusion of choice. It’s as old as dirt and always bad. If the players’ choices don’t matter there’s no reason for them to be at the table. You might as well read them the story instead of pretend they or their characters matter. The result is the same. Only you don’t have the pressure of lying to them for hours on end session after session.
 


NotAYakk

Legend
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 deny the PC their agency.
Sure. Which is why I consider it part of the "describe the world" problem that DMs have.

1. DM describes the world
2. Players make choices

One choice is "I don't look at the clues and pick something random". But the DM should be providing some kind of clues asto what choices have what results.

This is the game of dropping bread crumbs and hints, and the rule of 3 (if something clue isn't mentioned 3 times, it isn't a real clue).

Once the rule of 3 is in play -- that the DM is responsible to hide 3 clues about meaningful choices, and let the players pick them up or not -- then this kind of invisible railroad won't work.

Like the 10 room dungeon. The meaningful choices in the dungeon should have 3 clues describing what the choice means. Then when the players run into a choice, the DM is no longer "allowed" to nullify the choice, because the previous clues told the players information about the results of the choice.

Even if the players don't work out the clues before making the choice, they could work it out afterwards. And those threads of clues to payoff in the world change what the world acts like in ways fundamentally incompatible with "invisible railroads".

...

On the other hand, the clues as yet ungiven can be changed based on player choices! For example, the DM might want there to be a Kobold dragon-cult, and might even have given clues it exists! But before giving a clue where it is, the location of the cult doesn't have to be determined.

If the PCs follow a trail of clues to the tropics, or the arctic, maybe the cult retroactively follows them; in one case, it is a black dragon cult, in the other a white dragon cult. Or maybe it avoids them, and is in the other spot!

This doesn't have to fully nullify the choice of arctic or tropics, so long as those choices where meaningful in another way, and the clues about them let the player make an informed decision.

With no clues given where the cult is prior to the choice, the choice isn't about "did I find the cult", but rather about the other clues. Still a bit dirty, because the players might honestly think they have a 50% chance to find the cult between the two choices, and in reality it is 0% or 100% (depending on DM's decision).
 


Stalker0

Legend
Railroading is the worst kind of play. What you’re talking about is the illusion of choice. It’s as old as dirt and always bad. If the players’ choices don’t matter there’s no reason for them to be at the table. You might as well read them the story instead of pretend they or their characters matter. The result is the same. Only you don’t have the pressure of lying to them for hours on end session after session.
1) Just because you railroad a portion of the game doesn't mean the character is entirely railroaded. I might say that you will always meet NPC X in the next room (no matter which room you choose), but your character still determines how they interact with that character.

2) Some people like stories. Not everyone plays an RPG to make an endless series of character chocies. Its a combination of choices, and then seeing where it goes. People like hearing the villain's monologue, the NPCs quirky dialogue, and their fellow PCs epic moment just as much as making their own character decisions. Its a balance.
 

MatthewJHanson

Registered Ninja
Publisher

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.
This seems super weird to me. It seems to me that it would make much more sense to either:

A) Lay out the dungeons with the same ten rooms, but in a way that makes most sense for the dungeons.
B) Literally just put all the rooms in one big line. If room 4 always leads to room 5, why have more than one door? Nothing wrong with an actual linear dungeon.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'll leave this here, as it's extremely relevant to this discussion:

The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast

This brief essay talks directly to the issue in the OP and discusses the ways that it works. In short, there's a conflict between the idea that the GM controls the story but the players control the main characters. This is the Impossible Thing. It then talks about how this isn't usually a large point of discussion because every table has found some way to resolve it for themselves. The OP is such a way, discussed in the article as a combination of illusionism -- the presentation of illusion of choice -- and participationism -- willingly agreeing to follow the GM's story. The article also discusses trailblazing, which is very much in line with the 3 clues approaches. It wraps up with a discussion of a different approach entirely, that centers more on the main character side instead of the GM story side. It's a good read, worth considering.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I've used all of these, particularly the "Ten Room Dungeon" example. I find it's the most efficient use of my writing time. I'm also a fan of "Before You Leave the Village" and the "What Path Do You Take" options as well...they're more seamless. I try to avoid the "Three Doors" device, though.

However, I've learned that it is very important to not use ANY railroad devices during the first 3-5 gaming sessions with my players, though. I know that during these first few gaming sessions, the players are going to be testing me. They will deliberately try to break whatever I put in front of them, to test the limits of my game world and find out how good I am at improv and adaptation.

I show them three doors? They will spend an hour searching for a hidden fourth door, then hack all three doors apart with axes, then use familiars to scout through each doorway. Once they are satisfied that each door leads to a different location, they will start digging up the floor just to see what they find. If I don't give them something interesting to find, they will decide to leave the dungeon and go home. Eventually they will they concede that they need to pick a doorway to move forward...so they will divide the party into three groups and explore them all three separately and simultaneously.

Why on earth are they doing this?! you might ask yourself. Well, their previous DM was a railroad engineer, and the players were made to feel like their choices won't matter. The players really do want their choices to matter, so they are going to do everything they can to discover whether or not I'm using a railroad plot device, and then escape it by any means necessary. It takes a handful of gaming sessions for this attitude to wear off...and once it does, I can gently start adding these tactics back in.
 

TheSword

Legend
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.
Procedurally generated dungeons are not more virtuous than crafted dungeons because they include random elements.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
1) Just because you railroad a portion of the game doesn't mean the character is entirely railroaded. I might say that you will always meet NPC X in the next room (no matter which room you choose), but your character still determines how they interact with that character.
Just because you rob the players of agency a little bit doesn't mean you'll rob them of all their agency. Sure. But the fact that you're willing to rob them of any agency is the problem.
2) Some people like stories. Not everyone plays an RPG to make an endless series of character chocies. Its a combination of choices, and then seeing where it goes. People like hearing the villain's monologue, the NPCs quirky dialogue, and their fellow PCs epic moment just as much as making their own character decisions. Its a balance.
If they want a story they can read a book or watch someone else's live play. They will have exactly the same level of agency as in a railroaded game.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Railroading being a useful tool is overrated. Just like player agency is overrated. Being completely honest with your players is overrated, and lying to your players is overrated. Rolling out in the open is overrated and rolling behind a screen so you can fudge if necessary is overrated. In all these cases... the YES! YES! YES! and NO! NO! NO! from a lot of the opinions here on the boards about this topic comes off to me as amusing more than anything else.

Every single one of those things has a place in the game for someone. Obviously not at every table... but there's not a single one of them that is a universal Always Yes or Always No for the entire gaming populace across the board.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Sounds like pure Illusionism.

At that point, if the GM isn't willing to put in the effort to run that includes the choices of the players, isn't it better just to run a module and let your players know it, so they have expectations about how much their character or agency matters (very little) but the journey is still fun.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Sounds like pure Illusionism.

At that point, if the GM isn't willing to put in the effort to run that includes the choices of the players, isn't it better just to run a module and let your players know it, so they have expectations about how much their character or agency matters (very little) but the journey is still fun.
Probably dependant on how well you know the players and whether or not it's something they do or don't care about.
 

I think most experienced DMs run in a grey area, between railroading and openness.

I find the ones that insist they don't have never looked back and analyzed their DMing.

I also find the way DMs lean toward one or the other is based on the stage they're in and/or the players they are playing with.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
It is absolutely true. Some players are vehemently opposed to this sort of quantum DMing, and by hiding it from the players, you prevent yourself from knowing if any of your players feel that way. You’re just doing something to the players that they might hate, without their knowledge or consent. And that is wrong.

Its also often matched up with people who think they'll be able to hide it indefinitely.
 

Remathilis

Legend
Just because you rob the players of agency a little bit doesn't mean you'll rob them of all their agency. Sure. But the fact that you're willing to rob them of any agency is the problem.

Let's take a quick hypothetical.

Your players decide, unbeknownst to you until now, they want to find a portal/Spelljammer/whatever and go explore another setting in the game that isn't the one you are currently on. Go visit Sigil or Krynn or Eberron.

Do you let them go to a completely new world and continue the game? If not, why are you robbing them of their agency?
 

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