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?

away-1020200_960_720.jpg

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

Though honestly, these days I still think saying "Guys, I misjudged this something horrible, lets do a rewind here" is the better choice and disrupting the flow be damned.
Personally I don't agree. That would bug me hella lot more than the GM just fudging behind the curtains to fix the situation or even deus exing us out of the trouble.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

yeah I actually agree with this. "opps" happen.

BUT it depends on the game and the group really... I would not mind if the DM said "Yeah, that didn't happen"

Well, and I'm not super-hostile to someone fudging to paper over a mistake; I did it for enough of my early gaming career to not consider it intrinsically malign. But I do think its kind of a moral hazard and better to avoid in general. Different people have different priorities, though.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
yeah but lets be honest at CR 2 the shadows would be powerful... but I miss typed they are CR 1/2 Hobgoblins can already hit above that weight class but shadows blow them out of the water...

Sure, Shadows can surprise a party (any stat draining monster can - Intelect Devourers are even worse!).

And I certainly see not wanting a TPK because you (the DM) misjudged the threat.

But giving the shadows a case of Stormtrooperitis? The problem with that is the players are almost sure to catch what you're doing and then what? it's just awkward.

I much prefer clueing the party in on something they're likely missing (If the party has a round, an 8th level party should be able to annihilate the shadows, especially if the have a cleric). Or even, as a last resort do what @Thomas Shey just suggested.
 

Personally I don't agree. That would bug me hella lot more than the GM just fudging behind the curtains to fix the situation or even deus exing us out of the trouble.

See my comment above. But like I said, I don't need to be dancing around with the temptations these days, and my priorities are such I'd really rather not go there even if the players prefer it. I just think its bad practice.
 

Everything I've heard tells me that 5e CR material is pretty much a joke.
it pretty much is... I have complained a few threads about it. THe shadow the wraith the intellect devourer all hit harder then they look, and things like the Mind Flayer that feel like they SHOULD be the BBEG end boss often have glass jaws and are let downs.

in general 5e has a monster problem, one I am hopeing the MotM is fixing... but I still don't have a copy yet
 

Sure, Shadows can surprise a party (any stat draining monster can - Intelect Devourers are even worse!).
yup
And I certainly see not wanting a TPK because you (the DM) misjudged the threat.

But giving the shadows a case of Stormtrooperitis? The problem with that is the players are almost sure to catch what you're doing and then what? it's just awkward.
I mean it depends... I am useing Roll20 so they would all see the fudge, but back when we gamed at my house they would not see the dice and there have been plenty of real (both at table and on roll20) times the luck of dice took a swerve and someone went from hit, crit hit to miss...misss...gee does a 8 hit...miss... wait I got a 14, oh your a 15...miss.
I much prefer clueing the party in on something they're likely missing (If the party has a round, an 8th level party should be able to annihilate the shadows, especially if the have a cleric). Or even, as a last resort do what @Thomas Shey just suggested.
see the whole "The party should annihialte them" is the problem... that is what SHOULD happen, and even unlucky shouldn't start killing off characters, but 1 or 2 lucky shots can ruine a campagin.
 

Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
I live for player generated plot hooks
I am envious. My current group is so old and jaded that I feel like they are constantly playing the metagame of: wait for GM to bait the hook, then obediently bite and follow. But my preferred GMing style is to provide lots of options then wait for the players to surprise me, challenge me, with the unexpected. Unfortunately the groups I used to game with that did this are long gone, and my current gang of players, while decent folk, are a lot more interested in waiting for me to "show them" what to do which is deeply frustrating to me. Improv is intrinsically part of what I like most about gaming.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
yeah I actually agree with this. "opps" happen.

BUT it depends on the game and the group really... I would not mind if the DM said "Yeah, that didn't happen"
I will correct my mistake. Not by saying, "You wake up from a dream!", but rather by fudging a little behind the screen to even things up and make it the encounter difficulty it was supposed to be. It's my job as the DM to fix my mistakes. Fixing an error is neither railroading, nor illusionism.
 

it pretty much is... I have complained a few threads about it. THe shadow the wraith the intellect devourer all hit harder then they look, and things like the Mind Flayer that feel like they SHOULD be the BBEG end boss often have glass jaws and are let downs.

in general 5e has a monster problem, one I am hopeing the MotM is fixing... but I still don't have a copy yet

Its not an easy problem to address; 3e had it, 5e had it, and the guy doing Sabre struggles with his own variation on it. Heck, even 4e muddled it sometimes early on, and it had a lot of advantages here. Its not impossible to do right (I'm of the opinion Pathfinder 2e has done a credible job here) but it helps a lot if the rest of the system supports it, and you still need to do care when setting up monsters and applying the rating to them (the former because there are potential builds that are almost impossible to rate properly; horrific glass cannons (monsters that do massive damage but can't take it) are almost impossible to properly assess as opponents, and honestly, probably just should be avoided in design).
 

I am envious. My current group is so old and jaded that I feel like they are constantly playing the metagame of: wait for GM to bait the hook, then obediently bite and follow. But my preferred GMing style is to provide lots of options then wait for the players to surprise me, challenge me, with the unexpected. Unfortunately the groups I used to game with that did this are long gone, and my current gang of players, while decent folk, are a lot more interested in waiting for me to "show them" what to do which is deeply frustrating to me. Improv is intrinsically part of what I like most about gaming.

Its absolutely a difference in style that you need to account for. As I put it, some people want to go out and forge their destiny, and some just want to find their chalk marks (and with some, it depends how they're feeling this weekend).
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
see the whole "The party should annihialte them" is the problem... that is what SHOULD happen, and even unlucky shouldn't start killing off characters, but 1 or 2 lucky shots can ruine a campagin.

I can see that if you overclock your CRs (meaning you keep throwing "deadly+" threats at the party), but as wonky as the CR system is "hard" and lower encounters very rarely go sideways that badly. And even if they do (say the shadows take the rogue down) an 8th level party should have a revivify or similar handy - so it's a resource loss not a dead PC.

That said, one thing I tend to do, wherever possible I try to make escape or evasion a possibility. Not a big fan of the fight to move forward or die model that's often presented.
 


That said, one thing I tend to do, wherever possible I try to make escape or evasion a possibility. Not a big fan of the fight to move forward or die model that's often presented.

This is a problem that, as I've noted, is reinforced by people who are used to the fact most systems are pretty much pants at providing a viable method to flee if things go wrong; barring games with an explicit separate escape mechanic set, it usually adds up to using the extent movement system to try and disengage, and there are enough things that are faster and better at handling terrain than at least some PCs that can be a loser. And of course people who have run into that even once in a serious problem imprint on the lesson that its better to fight until you die than get cut down as you run.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
yeah but lets be honest at CR 2 the shadows would be powerful... but I miss typed they are CR 1/2 Hobgoblins can already hit above that weight class but shadows blow them out of the water...
The problem is when you think you have a pellet gun and discover its a .357 Magnum. At some point in getting used to a given game system that can happen to anyone. Its why I tend to be extremely cautious when applying opponents with unusual abilities or tricks until I'm really, really experienced with a system, but not everyone has been GMing for 40 years.
Oh, absolutely. Shadows’ CR is severely lowballed, and they remain a significant threat at any level thanks to their strength drain. And misjudging the difficulty of an encounter is an easy mistake to make, even for experienced DMs. That’s exactly why I think it’s important to impress upon new DMs that any encounter can result in character death, even one you meant to be easy. Even when you judge the difficulty correctly, sometimes the dice just fall in such a way that a character dies anyway. In that way, it’s much like with guns - even if you know what you’re doing, an accidental discharge can still happen, so don’t point it at anything you aren’t ok with shooting. Don’t put PCs into life or death situations if you aren’t ok with them dying to unlucky rolls. There’s no shame in ruling that PCs only get injured or something instead of dying, and in my opinion, better that than to fudge rolls or change monster HP mid-combat.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Personally I don't agree. That would bug me hella lot more than the GM just fudging behind the curtains to fix the situation or even deus exing us out of the trouble.
This is a rather polarizing matter, as it seems everyone feels strongly about this one way or the other. As such, I think this is a matter well worth discussing beforehand with any new group, or newcomers to an established group.
 



Ah yes. The unshakable neutral arbiter DM, who exists only to provide context for the world, never giving or expecting any quarter.

player: hey DM, think one day I can get a holy avenger?
DM: if I randomly generate one on the loot table, yes.
the only thing worse is the one that claims they do that then stack the deck... "97, thats a Holy Avenger I'm not giving that... reroll"
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Ah yes. The unshakable neutral arbiter DM, who exists only to provide context for the world, never giving or expecting any quarter.

player: hey DM, think one day I can get a holy avenger?
DM: if I randomly generate one on the loot table, yes.
I mean, I enjoy random loot tables, but I also have no problem with hand-placing loot. That’s no different in my view than hand-crafting a dungeon layout or hand-placing monsters. All three are significantly different than dice fudging, and I fail to see any meaningful connection between them.
 

Remathilis

Legend
I mean, I enjoy random loot tables, but I also have no problem with hand-placing loot. That’s no different in my view than hand-crafting a dungeon layout or hand-placing monsters. All three are significantly different than dice fudging, and I fail to see any meaningful connection between them.
For me, placing a magic item just because a player has requested it is a type of fudging. If it makes sense the villain would have a holy avenger then place it, but if you're placing it because your paladin player wants one, that's not being a neutral arbiter.

But that's a wild tangent and I don't want to take the topic further off the invisible rails.
 

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top