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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

Thomas Shey

Legend
Again its never that black and white, which is my issue with this debate. I am willing to accept there are certain levels of railroading that are generally bad and excessive, but it seems like there are others that any amount of railroading is absolutely unacceptable. Those are incompatible viewpoints, with nothing in the middle to work towards agreement.

Are you really that surprised that some people draw bright lines on things other people don't care about? If so, why?
 

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But the thing is that outside these internet debates people do not consider stuff like "interesting thing happens when the PCs are around to see it" to be any sort of deception.
In all fiction this is true: no matter what the main characters do or where they go interesting things will happen.

ow, if while talking to the insignificant NPCs they discover that he's a farrier and one of the PCs has an aha! moment and says, "I need some horseshoes made of fairy steel for a magic item I'm going to have made, would you introduce me to the blacksmith?" and the DM says no in order to force the players back towards the plot that the DM wants them to engage with, THAT would be railroading. He's shutting down agency in order to see his own agenda done. If on the other hand he knows that the farrier really doesn't do favors for people and a diplomacy check fails and he says no, then it's not railroading for him to refuse that connection.
Not in my game. I hate such sub plots and wastes of time during an adventure. The idea that a player would lie and say they want to do an adventure, and then just look for ways to ruin the game for everyone else does not sit with me. Your playing a social game with a group: no side things are allowed.

Though the big problem with your answer is the Crystal Ball part. If the DM has the NPC say "they don't know the smith" because they are railroading you say it's wrong. But if the DM "just decides" the NPC does not know the smith, then it's perfectly all right.

I disagree with the idea that the DM must do a tap dance all around a bunch of word play to keep the players happy. It's a huge waste of time. I'm a die hard railroad tycoon, but when asked "why did not NPC F know the smith" I'm going to give the dumb "oh I just decided that npc did not know that npc based on things and stuff". And the clueless players will buy that has the "right answer" and we can keep playing the game.

But I also very much disagree with the idea that the players think they can just walk up to any random NPC and think that is whatever they want. The idea that the player just has a character walk up to a random smith in Happywood and expect that random smith to say "fairy horseshoes? Sure I"m the epic world know fairly horseshoe crafter....and lucky you came today, they are on sale for just one copper coin!"

In my game players need to put a lot more effort into finding the NPC they are looking for...
 

That's not the whole issue, however. Remember part of this discussion isn't just "should you do this?" but "should you do this while hiding the fact you ever even do it?" I think it can absolutely be defensible to do this. I'm a little less on board being coy about it when its spotted by people. But I absolutely think its bad practice to just go in assuming everyone will be okay with you do it without actually ever bringing it up. The latter is a violation of trust in the social contract and I don't think I'm being hyperbolic to state so.

The thing is, nothing is really being hidden. People post advice on message board on how to do it! DMG tells how to do it. It is not a secret. And I have nothing against discussing such things with the players, but in the real life most people literally don't care. They want to have good game and don't care how the GM does it. The handful of people here who have super rigid (IMHO, in some cases to the point of being in practice unachievable) standards for their GMs are the extreme outliers.
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Not in my game. I hate such sub plots and wastes of time during an adventure. The idea that a player would lie and say they want to do an adventure, and then just look for ways to ruin the game for everyone else does not sit with me. Your playing a social game with a group: no side things are allowed.
Different strokes for different folks. Side things are fun for a lot of people. If you don't like it, make sure none of your players do, either. Everyone needs to be on the same page with a game.
Though the big problem with your answer is the Crystal Ball part. If the DM has the NPC say "they don't know the smith" because they are railroading you say it's wrong. But if the DM "just decides" the NPC does not know the smith, then it's perfectly all right.
There's a reason why I chose the Farrier and the Blacksmith. There's no way they don't know each other as they rely on one another for business.
I disagree with the idea that the DM must do a tap dance all around a bunch of word play to keep the players happy. It's a huge waste of time. I'm a die hard railroad tycoon, but when asked "why did not NPC F know the smith" I'm going to give the dumb "oh I just decided that npc did not know that npc based on things and stuff". And the clueless players will buy that has the "right answer" and we can keep playing the game.
Then just get players who are on board with linear play. If they agree to hop on the rails, it's not railroading. If you are not talking to them and forcing them on the rails, you're violating the social contract which is big, bad wrong fun. Railroad = bad. Linear = not bad.
But I also very much disagree with the idea that the players think they can just walk up to any random NPC and think that is whatever they want. The idea that the player just has a character walk up to a random smith in Happywood and expect that random smith to say "fairy horseshoes? Sure I"m the epic world know fairly horseshoe crafter....and lucky you came today, they are on sale for just one copper coin!"
Who said anything about that? There's a very good chance that the smith can't work with fairy metal and will find that out when they go talk to him. Nobody is saying to give the players everything they want. We're saying it's bad to deprive the players of their agency.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
The thing is, nothing is really being hidden. People post advice on message board on how to do it! DMG tells how to do it. It is not a secret. And I have nothing against discussing such things with the players, but in the real life most people literally don't care. They want to have good game and don't care how the GM does it. The handful of people here who have super rigid (IMHO, in some cases to the point of being in practice unachievable) standards for their GMs are the extreme outliers.

But "most people" doesn't cut it. Not when it only requires you to have the discussion once to make sure you don't have someone other than "most people".
 

Different strokes for different folks. Side things are fun for a lot of people. If you don't like it, make sure none of your players do, either. Everyone needs to be on the same page with a game.
I wish players would not lie about such things, but they do. Players that attempt to ruin the game are not invited back.


There's a reason why I chose the Farrier and the Blacksmith. There's no way they don't know each other as they rely on one another for business.
The problem here is it is "what you think" and your going all MY way is the ONLY way. You can't think of even ONE reason why two NPCs might not know each other? Odd, I can think of some. Maybe the two NPCs hate each other. How about they only have second hand contact by their wives. Or any of a dozen other ways.

The idea that you would just say "THIS MUST BE SO", is wrong.


Then just get players who are on board with linear play. If they agree to hop on the rails, it's not railroading. If you are not talking to them and forcing them on the rails, you're violating the social contract which is big, bad wrong fun. Railroad = bad. Linear = not bad.

Who said anything about that? There's a very good chance that the smith can't work with fairy metal and will find that out when they go talk to him. Nobody is saying to give the players everything they want. We're saying it's bad to deprive the players of their agency.
No biggie, my game has no social contract: you play at your own risk.


But.....wait. If the DM has the smith say they can't work fairy metal that is 100% ok, as long as the DM says that they are "just saying it". But if the DM just wants to get back to the adventure that is railroading and wrong, right?

Any time the DM says anything the players don't like it "deprives them of agency".


Your illusion is even worse: as long as you can toss some word salad at the players to convince them your "not railroading" you are free to trick, fool and deceave them and do whatever you want. As long as you have the word salad defense, you can do anything.
 

But "most people" doesn't cut it. Not when it only requires you to have the discussion once to make sure you don't have someone other than "most people".
I'm fine with having session zero discussions and do have such. But you cannot cover everything and people who have extremely specific preferences probably should bring them up themselves.

I don't fudge and I don't really railroad as I would define it. But I can also honestly say that certain people's requirements here seem to be so extreme that I could not promise to meet them even if I wanted to, and I don't want to. And ultimately I feel that how I run the things behind the curtains is my business, and if the player cannot accept that, then we just shouldn't play together.
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I wish players would not lie about such things, but they do. Players that attempt to ruin the game are not invited back.
You do realize that none of them, even the ones that lie, are attempting to "ruin" the game, right? It may have that effect on you, but that's not their goal.
The problem here is it is "what you think" and your going all MY way is the ONLY way.
You're the only one of the two of us talking in absolutes about playstyle here. With you're, "They're lying to me and trying to ruin games!" by wanting to have fun trying to make a fun magic item for their character. The bastards! If there's any One True Wayism going on here, it's from you.
You can't think of even ONE reason why two NPCs might not know each other? Odd, I can think of some. Maybe the two NPCs hate each other. How about they only have second hand contact by their wives. Or any of a dozen other ways.
The farrier whose only job is to put horseshoes on horses and the blacksmith whose job it is to make horseshoes? Man, if you have to jump through twisty swinging hoops to figure out a way for two people who rely on one another not to know one another, you might want to rethink your position. Heck, not even your suggestion there shuts down what I said in that other post. All it does is change, "I know the blacksmith and can introduce you," into "My wife knows him or his wife, we can see if she can get you an introduction."

But hey, by all means shut it down if you've told the players before the campaign started that side quests like that are not going to be allowed, but don't
The idea that you would just say "THIS MUST BE SO", is wrong.
Cool. Cool. Then it's wrong for you to declare that no side quests "Must be the way it is." Fortunately, I don't run my games like that or force things on players.
No biggie, my game has no social contract: you play at your own risk.
It's actually impossible for there to be no social contract in a social game. It's present. That you haven't consciously written one isn't relevant, nor does it mean that one doesn't exist. Depending on what you've set up with the players before the campaign began it could be very different than the one that is present in my game, but it exists whether you want it to or not.
But.....wait. If the DM has the smith say they can't work fairy metal that is 100% ok, as long as the DM says that they are "just saying it". But if the DM just wants to get back to the adventure that is railroading and wrong, right?
If the DM has a valid in fiction reason for to happen and the goal isn't to shut down player agency, it's fine. The vast majority of smiths have probably never worked with the metal and wouldn't know how. Some might. And some might be willing to learn. Who knows. As long as you are not invalidating player agency, it's all good.
Any time the DM says anything the players don't like it "deprives them of agency".
Where on earth did you get that ridiculous notion? It almost sounds as if you are deliberately trying to not understand what we are saying and just throw out absurdly contrary comments.
Your illusion is even worse: as long as you can toss some word salad at the players to convince them your "not railroading" you are free to trick, fool and deceave them and do whatever you want. As long as you have the word salad defense, you can do anything.
:rolleyes:
 

You do realize that none of them, even the ones that lie, are attempting to "ruin" the game, right? It may have that effect on you, but that's not their goal.
I disagree. I have met too many bad players.

You're the only one of the two of us talking in absolutes about playstyle here. With you're, "They're lying to me and trying to ruin games!" by wanting to have fun trying to make a fun magic item for their character. The bastards! If there's any One True Wayism going on here, it's from you.
I'm talking about a social game where four people want to go on an adventure to slay a dragon, and that lone fifth player wants to ruin the whole game for all of us with his horseshoes.


Cool. Cool. Then it's wrong for you to declare that no side quests "Must be the way it is." Fortunately, I don't run my games like that or force things on players.
I force a lot to get a good game. It is just the way it is.

If the DM has a valid in fiction reason for to happen and the goal isn't to shut down player agency, it's fine. The vast majority of smiths have probably never worked with the metal and wouldn't know how. Some might. And some might be willing to learn. Who knows. As long as you are not invalidating player agency, it's all good.

Where on earth did you get that ridiculous notion? It almost sounds as if you are deliberately trying to not understand what we are saying and just throw out absurdly contrary comments.

:rolleyes:
Well, if I, as the Railroading DM, do anything the players don't like it is automatically wrong according to you.

But you are free to do whatever you like, even things the players don't like, if you can toss out some word salad defense.

Maybe examples: The group passes through a town on the trail of someone. Annoying player wants to ruin the game with the "hey can we stop at the tavern and pretend to drink for the rest of the night?"

My Railroad: No, tavern is closed for repairs, on with the adventure. Badwrong fun, right?

Your Word Salad: No, the tavern is closed as they had a big bar fight last night. Lots to clean up. And when the player accepts your lie with a nod that is all good.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I disagree. I have met too many bad players.
I haven't, but then I don't view, "Likes to do things on the side." as being a bad player.
I'm talking about a social game where four people want to go on an adventure to slay a dragon, and that lone fifth player wants to ruin the whole game for all of us with his horseshoes.

I force a lot to get a good game. It is just the way it is.
I doubt it. I mean, I'm sure it's a good game for you, but I've never seen a good game that involved a DM forcing players via railroading. If they agree to rails, then it's linear and not railroading. Have your players agreed to what you force them into?
Well, if I, as the Railroading DM, do anything the players don't like it is automatically wrong according to you.
No. That's just more of your intentional "misunderstanding" of what I'm saying. 🤷‍♂️
Maybe examples: The group passes through a town on the trail of someone. Annoying player wants to ruin the game with the "hey can we stop at the tavern and pretend to drink for the rest of the night?"
I love how your game is entirely about you, and if the players want to do something they enjoy but you don't, they are "annoying, bad players who just want to ruin the game." Have you ever tried to see and understand a viewpoint other than your own?
My Railroad: No, tavern is closed for repairs, on with the adventure. Badwrong fun, right?
Have they agreed to you forcing things? If yes, it's all good. If no, then yes it's bad wrong fun since you are forcing the players along so that YOU can get YOUR fun, and screw their fun.
Your Word Salad: No, the tavern is closed as they had a big bar fight last night. Lots to clean up. And when the player accepts your lie with a nod that is all good.
No. That's just more of your intentional "misunderstanding" of what I'm saying. 🤷‍♂️
 

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