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

Andrew Peregrine

Thomas Shey

Legend
Players are smart, they know the DM have a finite preparation, they can help to keep the story on track.

And this is the other side of this. With most players you don't need to play this sort of silly game; unless they specifically signed on for a heavy-duty sandbox kind of experience, they'll work with you. The only people who won't/can't are really hardcore deep-IC/immersionist players, and those aren't so common that everything needs to be structured with them in mind.
 

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diceexmachina

Explorer
I am not going to weigh in on anything specific on the OP or the responses directly, but offer a third opinion on "railroading" from Brennan Lee Mulligan (from Critical Role's GM roundtable):
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
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.

Not, however, with the same level of engagement. If you don't think there are players who want to just find their chalk marks and proceed from there, let me disabuse you; there absolutely are and too many options makes the game worse, not better for them.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I'm curious how the various ways of having replacement players show up after a player death fit in. Would the replacement player not have showed up if they turned right instead of left? I mean, clearly the as-of-yet revealed character has a different place in the game than the as-of-yet revealed monster, but it seems quantumish in both cases. Or is that one of those things the party will almost always agree to? Does everyone on here always bring up how that works in session 0?
 

I hate railroads... but I admit we all have to keep some semblance of control of our games... and as much as I have played the "What ever way they go they have a bandit encounter" once or twice over all I do not suggest it.

in my current mindset I make a world, I put 3-5 hooks and 3-5 points of interest in each city... I make 3-4 dungeons, and a bunch of NPCs and bad guy groups then I start my campaign. Wha the PCs choose to focus on I flesh out more, and becomes the game
 

Arilyn

Hero
Every GM develops their own tool box and every player has game preferences. What will work fine at one table will be despised at another. There is nothing wrong with the Invisible Railroad advice. It could be a tool that you'd never use, one you use rarely or even frequently.

I think of it like art. Are you using a craft kit? Are you a purist avoiding mixed media like the plague? Do you only use oils or watercolours? No right answers.

It gets said a lot but if you are having fun GMing and your players are eagerly coming back for more, game on. If you want to expand your horizons then give new games and techniques a try and hone your skills.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Thinking of dungeons. Are modules where creatures are assigned to a room and assumed to be there -- instead of having some natural pattern of movement through the thing (excepting those that wouldn't) -- also a railroad?

I'm wondering in particular about
Goodman version of B1 and B2
and the other party of adventurers and the family of gnomes. Should there only be a pretty darn low chance the party ever runs into the former, and a pretty high chance if the party dilly-dallies that the gnomes have cleaned the place out before the party even gets there?
 

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?
I would for sure let them look for the portal and/or spell jamming ship... but I get to decide if there is one to find. In my current world the place the players are is locked... you CAN'T planar travel to or from it but they don't know that... I would not stop them from trying though.

Given time if they rreally put there effort and game time into it I would let the game unfold where they could unlock it and head to another world...
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
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

This is an argument that always leaves me pondering. Whenever I tried to have a traced road with plenty of prepared elements (for whatever reasons) it always ended up being much more work than just have some tools, lists, prompts, tables and a bit of improvisation. You don't have to prepare for most of what the players will do, you mostly have to prepare to be able to react to what they'll do.

It boils down to saying "I can't overprepare every eventuality, so I'll overprepare only one at the cost of the players agency". Seems like a great price to pay when there's other simpler solutions.
 

Reynard

Legend
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?
One presumes that at the outset you all had a conversation about the campaign and everyone agreed to play THIS one. Now, that isn't necessarily a permanent choice but changing it definitely requires another conversation.

In actual practice, if the party decided they were going to go on a hunt for a Spelljammer or planar portal or whatever (and assuming we weren't explicitly doing a plotted campaign) I can't see why I wouldn't let them at least start their quest. Maybe they exist. Maybe they don't, but their wandering around aimlessly in search of clues would definitely give me a few weeks to work it out one way or the other.
 

And this is the other side of this. With most players you don't need to play this sort of silly game; unless they specifically signed on for a heavy-duty sandbox kind of experience, they'll work with you. The only people who won't/can't are really hardcore deep-IC/immersionist players, and those aren't so common that everything needs to be structured with them in mind.
this is why I come clean. "Yeah... that dessert goes off the map, and I didn't plan for off the map, so if we want to wrap game now for the night and maybe depending on my time skip next week I will work on that, or do you want to pick some other way?"

THis also follows from when in 3.5 one player (thank the gods he moved) used to brag "In real life I have the 'avoid DM plot hook' feat" and would go out of his way to avoid joining the party, go to unmapped area's do dumb out of character things just to be diffrent... we finally instituted the rule that doesn't get used much
-If your character doesn't fit the game/group you are going to have to retire them to NPC and create one that does-
 

Reynard

Legend
this is why I come clean. "Yeah... that dessert goes off the map, and I didn't plan for off the map, so if we want to wrap game now for the night and maybe depending on my time skip next week I will work on that, or do you want to pick some other way?"
Yeah, I have never understood the desire to stay so "in character" that some players and GMs won't talk about their preferences and concerns like adults. Instead, they insinuate things in play and then get frustrated when the other party doesn't pick up on their cues or whatever. It's weird.
 

Jack Daniel

dice-universe.blogspot.com
If you offer three doors that all lead to the same quantum encounter, what happens when a PC peeks behind them with a divination? Well if there's nothing actually there, they cannot be permitted to do that — forcing any DM who didn't anticipate this to throw up a last-minute, BS anti-divination shield or the like. Even simpler, what if the players capture a wandering monster in this dungeon and ask what's the behind the doors? Will every single monster be ignorant or recalcitrant, 100% of the time?

There is no foolproof method for keeping the railroad invisible. To even attempt it is the height of folly.

Firstly, not every GM has time to craft a massive campaign.

Just massive enough that the players have agency is all you need, and that takes no more work than writing a linear plot. Honestly, there's no excuse not to.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
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?
Of course I let them.

If it's a very focused story that's being ran, let's say the hook of the campaign is to find who stole the jewels of the King, I'll let them know that leaving the region would equal dropping the current "quest" or "plotline". Most of the time, they'll decide not to.

But in most of my games, I lean much more towards an buffet-like experience with plenty of hooks and the players are free to go wherever the want. It might take time (which is buffer for me to go read stuff before next session) and it will surely lead to something different. But they can.

I had this exact challenge when we played Starfinder. They finished a little two of three session investigation, and I was sure they'd bite to one of the few hooks I had presented them. But they actually didn't find them that interesting and they told me "we want to take one spaceship and fly on the other side of the system to Akiton, because Felix's character has family that disappeared a few years ago in his backstory and we want to try and find them." It's challenging for a DM, but this type of situation is pure gold. I didn't have to craft anything and the players right now are telling me what they're intrinsycally interested in.
 

But they actually didn't find them that interesting and they told me "we want to take one spaceship and fly on the other side of the system to Akiton, because Felix's character has family that disappeared a few years ago in his backstory and we want to try and find them." It's challenging for a DM, but this type of situation is pure gold. I didn't have to craft anything and the players right now are telling me what they're intrinsycally interested in.
I live for player generated plot hooks
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Just massive enough that the players have agency is all you need, and that takes no more work than writing a linear plot. Honestly, there's no excuse not to.
The secret is it takes far, far less time. And it's dramatically less stressful. You don't have to constantly worry about what you'll do if they go left when they "need to" go right or try to peek behind the curtain. So much easier not to bother with that nonsense. I've played and run for decades and the easiest time I've ever had running a game was a West Marches open-world sandbox. I didn't have to prep the entire thing, only what was close to the PCs...about a day's travel. As long as I knew what was there, I could improvise based off that prep. Make some wandering monster tables, some locations, some factions, give them a few clocks, and let the PCs loose. Every time they bumped into something the world changed and reacted. They did most of the work for me. No rails and no pre-written story. All I had to do was have the established world react. So smooth and easy to run. The players had a blast and they had agency.
I had this exact challenge when we played Starfinder. They finished a little two of three session investigation, and I was sure they'd bite to one of the few hooks I had presented them. But they actually didn't find them that interesting and they told me "we want to take one spaceship and fly on the other side of the system to Akiton, because Felix's character has family that disappeared a few years ago in his backstory and we want to try and find them." It's challenging for a DM, but this type of situation is pure gold. I didn't have to craft anything and the players right now are telling me what they're intrinsycally interested in.
Exactly. You don't have to do that work because the players will do it for you. You just need to make it interesting. That's basically what the full context of that clip from Brennan Lee Mulligan is talking about. The character wants the quick and easy locating of their family but the player wants that to be an interesting and engaging gaming experience. The referee just has to put enough logical obstacles in their path to keep them both satisfied. His use of the word rails is unfortunate, because that's not what he's actually talking about. The fact that he put air quotes around the word rails is telling.
 

I am not going to weigh in on anything specific on the OP or the responses directly, but offer a third opinion on "railroading" from Brennan Lee Mulligan (from Critical Role's GM roundtable):
I have a love hate relationship with everyone in that video when it comes to DM style... but that didn't sound TOO bad
 


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