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?


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


Mod Squad
Staff member
Mod Note:
There's a lot of people making this discussion personal. I already had to warn someone against doing that several pages back.

No. That's just more of your intentional "misunderstanding" of what I'm saying. 🤷‍♂️

Hey, @Maxperson you're basically accusing someone of lying now. That is extremely uncool. Learn to walk away from people you feel are being dishonest.

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Neutral Evil
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?"
The sheer amount of acrimony with which this portrays the hypothetical player in question astounds me.



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?

I think I see the disconnect.

You view the game is open, whatever happens is fine and fun. It's a fine way to run a game.

Nothing like my game, however.....

Players show up on time, no excuses. If anything less then your house exploding happens, you are expected to be at the game. If not, you won't be invited back.

Players show up ready to play. They have everything they need to play, and they want to play the game. When the game starts, players must focus only on the game.

Game play will be fast, focused and intense. I want to get to intense scenes of drama, comedy, action, adventure and combat, all with in a detailed heavy story with a plot(s). Players must pay attention and engage in game play.

Infamous Three Second Rule: Any time during the game when we switch from role playing to roll playing, such as an action, adventure or combat scene, the player has three seconds to state their action. If they don't, their character stands in place confused for the round(and often a target in combat).

You must play the agreed upon adventure. It's a vote, majority rules. If you really don't like the vote: LEAVE. No one, least of all me, wants you slogging along "just so you can play".

And, yea, no side stuff: you agreed to go on the adventure, remember? There are times (often AFTER the main adventure segment of the night) that the DM will call for Free Time, and the players may vote for Free Time. Otherwise you may NOT abandon the adventure and group to go off and do a solo thing like "pretend to drink in a tavern". If you really feel that your character "must go", then just leave the game.

So, you see a slight difference in our two games.


Dungeon Master of Middle-earth (He/him)
I posted this in @Stalker0's thread about the definition of railroading where it didn't get too much attention:
The Provisional Glossary at the Forge ( has this definition of Railroading:
Control of a player-character's decisions, or opportunities for decisions, by another person (not the player of the character) in any way which breaks the Social Contract for that group, in the eyes of the character's player. The term describes an interpretation of a social and creative outcome rather than any specific Technique.​
I think it's a good definition because it states railroading isn't just GM Force. It's Force that breaks the Social Contract in the subjective opinion of the player whose character's decisions and opportunities for decisions are being controlled by someone else. If you, as a GM, want to use techniques of Illusionism, such as those described in the OP, but want to avoid railroading your players, you'd do well to make sure ahead of time the players' expectations of the game include the use of Illusionism.


Because the former reflects an imagined world that exists independently of the players' choices, and in which the consequences of those choices are durable and meaningful.

The latter is exactly equivalent to Skyrim, where the monsters level up to match you whenever you enter a dungeon and the market-stall assassination (or at least the attempt thereof) of an NPC only occurs the second you arrive because it's a scripted event.
There is an old rule of Dungeoncraft I live by: never create more than need. That is to say, I don't have two dozen potential plot hooks up in the air, existing in their own space in the vain hope that the PCs will stumble into them. If the campaign is going to center around an evil cult that is attempting to open a portal to the Hells in the King's bedchambers, I'm not ALSO going create a rampaging dragon, a schism between the elven royal heirs, a problem with kobolds in Rock Ridge, the turf war between two rival thief guilds and pirates ravaging the Southern Coast unless any of that is relevant to the Cult activity. Moreover, even if I did, the odds are too great the PCs, unable to be everywhere at once, will be too busy fighting pirates when the Blood Moon rises, and the center of the Kingdom becomes a one-way ticket to Hell. Congrats, the pirate problem is over because now the Kingdom is a demonic wasteland!

Those things could exist, but they are not relevant to the campaign I am running, which involves rooting out cults and fighting fiendish foes. They might stumble into a small side quest (those kobolds have grown bolder since the cult started recruiting them) but at most, you're talking a 1-2 session side-trip to fix the problem at Rock Ridge. The focus is on the campaign I'm running.

Thomas Shey

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.

This requires them to know they're unusual. People who enter the hobby often have no idea that the game culture they come from may be unusual.

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.

Which is fine, but the idea that the player is supposed to second guess to what degree the GM is going to be honest with them, and if they aren't its their fault doesn't really cut it from where I sit. I might miss something too, but if a player got upset about it, I wouldn't act like they were the unreasonable one the way some people in this thread apparently would.

Thomas Shey

The thing is, nothing is really being hidden. People post advice on message board on how to do it!

And every player participates in message boards?

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.

I have to again note that the fact you haven't hit many in no way means they're necessary outliers (it doesn't mean they aren't, either, but overextending from person experience is not uncommon).

@Thomas Shey I'm not sure what your point is. I've said that I'm not opposed to communicating, but everything can never be covered, and players can make their preferences known too. And what is printed in the game books being used probably should have some connection to what the expected baseline is.

But ultimately I don't get this need to thought police the GM, and I don't want to play with people who are going to do that, epically they throw around judgemental language like "lie" or "dishonesty." I think I've been perfectly open about how I feel about this, and I certainly would do the same in the RL too, if I had the slightest inclination that anyone would actually care.


I objected to the INVISIBLE RAILROAD (the title of this thread) and encouraged people to plan to create a world that makes sense. When the world makes sense, it opens options, not closes them. Real choice is created in a world that is prepared. When the DM just shoves whatever they want in front of you regardless of the choices you make, as the OP suggests, that is the railroad. Preparation is necessary ofr players to actually have choices to make. Choice is between options, and options have to exist before you can choose between them.And this has NOTHING to do with the type of preparation I describe. You're setting the stage. You're not limiting what the players do with/on the stage. You're preparing better for the NPCs to contriburte to that world meaningfully by giving them the background they need. If you wing the NPCs as you go, they'll come off as random and nonsensical too often. If they have goals, if they have a reason to be where they are, if they have a spark of life... then they're far more likely to be engaging.
To me, this reads like a recipe for GM-authored and GM-dominated play.

The way to allow choices, in my experience, is to allow the players to decide what their PCs do, and why they do it, and what they hope to achieve by doing it.

So, and any one can answer here, how do players contribute to the shared fiction?

Lets take a simple adventure: small town has some bandits nearby. The players and characters both agree to help the town and stop the bandits. So the DM has a simple railroad flow chart for the characters to find the bandit camp. Very simple. So what can't the players do to "contribute to the shared fiction" on the railroad. Keep in mind both the players and characters agreed to do this adventure, so doing anything else except this adventure is disrupting the game.
Who decided this adventure? Who decided that bandits would be a focus of play? Why do the players have their characters agree to help the town? What counts as helping the town and stopping the bandits? Until we have answers to those questions, how can we possibly tell whether or not we are talking about a railroad?

Probably the most important way the players contribute to the shared fiction is by deciding what is at stake. There are very many ways this can be done, more or less formal depending on the RPG being played. The most formal approach to this in D&D has been 4e's player-authored quests. But it can be done informally.

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