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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AnotherGuy

Adventurer
So there are players that actually welcome the "railroad" like those at my table.
The option exists in-game for them to pursue their own agendas fulltime and yet they enjoy the semi-linear storyline provided by a railroad with me as DM having to find creative ways of inserting their diverging character-driven check points along their path and at times be provocative on which check point is more urgent (theirs' or the railroad?)

The only way to truly set their (as well as my) mind truly free, I believe, would be to remove the over-arching railroad storyline completely and see what the players do with that much freedom. i.e. when there is no impending doom/enemy or someone asking them to perform a fetch/find/save quest.
As long as the railroad storyline exists, they, trained as they are, are likely to get on board the train and follow the tracks.

Is the railroad really invisible to them? Do they care? How much agency in the game-world do they want?
These will be interesting questions to have with them one day. But as long as we are having fun in the heavily invested current years-long campaign, and given the RL time constraints we have I do not know when it will be possible to explore a pure player-driven adventure.
 

So there are players that actually welcome the "railroad" like those at my table.
Being perfectly frank, I don't really understand why you feel you need to say more then.

I and others--at the very least, @Charlaquin and @Maxperson--have said that if you have your players' consent, awesome. You've respected their agency. It wouldn't be my cup of tea, but who the hell cares whether I would enjoy playing in your game? I'm not one of your players!

The problem is with the lack of consent, the invisibility, the hoodwinking, passing off a game (not a fictional world, not a fantasy setting, not a place, the actual, IRL game activity) as being something it isn't.
 

AnotherGuy

Adventurer
Being perfectly frank, I don't really understand why you feel you need to say more then.

I and others--at the very least, @Charlaquin and @Maxperson--have said that if you have your players' consent, awesome. You've respected their agency. It wouldn't be my cup of tea, but who the hell cares whether I would enjoy playing in your game? I'm not one of your players!

The problem is with the lack of consent, the invisibility, the hoodwinking, passing off a game (not a fictional world, not a fantasy setting, not a place, the actual, IRL game activity) as being something it isn't.
Fair enough I haven't been closely following the thrust of the thread. I have been caught in a moment of rambling :)
For me, if the DM is good, railroad or not I'm game. My bar for enjoyment is pretty simple. Good DM = good game.
 

My stance is that generally everyone participating actually understands and has consented to the idea that the fictional world cannot have perfect objective existence, and required the GM (or at least someone, but in D&D it is mostly the GM) to make decisions of what exist and how it is presented. And that when doing so the GM is authorised to use their own judgement. Furthermore, it is understood that the GM may use that judgement to bring forth elements they think would be cool to include. The GM deciding that the third forest area the PCs explore will contain the witch's cottage, or that the next treasure parcel they find will contain the plot relevant magic ring or that the character's long lost brother will not be found until dramatically appropriately arduous amount of searching has been conducted is not 'deception.' It is just the GM using their framing powers to include interesting elements in appropriate moments. And may this sometimes mean that some choices do not have the weight that they perhaps could be imagined to have if we assumed objectively existing world? Like it actually didn't matter which treasure parcel you looted, you found the Ring of Power anyway, even though logically, in an objective world it would have mattered. Sure, that can happen. But also don't think this is shocking. No one expects that every minor decision will have a huge impact, and everyone is aware that the world actually isn't perfectly objective and the GM is making some decisions to direct things.

Now could people agree that they wanted to explicitly play an old school map and key game where basically everything is predetermined? Yes, of course they could. In such a game the GM wouldn't be doing much of such directing, though perhaps even there they might need to make calls on small thing. But in either case, I don't think there is any basis on assuming that this is the expected playmode of 5e D&D, and that any deviation from it requires an explicit announcement.
 
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Mort

Legend
Supporter
So there are players that actually welcome the "railroad" like those at my table.
The option exists in-game for them to pursue their own agendas fulltime and yet they enjoy the semi-linear storyline provided by a railroad with me as DM having to find creative ways of inserting their diverging character-driven check points along their path and at times be provocative on which check point is more urgent (theirs' or the railroad?)

The only way to truly set their (as well as my) mind truly free, I believe, would be to remove the over-arching railroad storyline completely and see what the players do with that much freedom. i.e. when there is no impending doom/enemy or someone asking them to perform a fetch/find/save quest.
As long as the railroad storyline exists, they, trained as they are, are likely to get on board the train and follow the tracks.

Is the railroad really invisible to them? Do they care? How much agency in the game-world do they want?
These will be interesting questions to have with them one day. But as long as we are having fun in the heavily invested current years-long campaign, and given the RL time constraints we have I do not know when it will be possible to explore a pure player-driven adventure.

What you're describing isn't a railroad, especially if the players have the option to pursue their own agendas along the path.

It's a linear throughline, something that links many of the threads of the campaign together - and one the players are either fully aware of or become fully aware of.

Now, if the players utterly rejected this throughline, kept trying to pursue something else - but invariably ended up right back on track to do this particular plot - then it's a railroad (But that doesn't sound at all like what is happening.)
 

bloodtide

Adventurer
I've literally never seen or heard of this. Ever. You are the first person to ever speak of such a thing to me.
Scroll back in the thread, the "player agency choice" to avoid encounters is talked about a lot.



Okay. Now...what if that one person (because it only takes one!) is expected to be involved in most activities because, say, they're your spouse and you really love to include them in the things you do? You'd be terribly disrespectful to throw those surprise parties knowing you'd be dragging your spouse into a party they would legitimately dislike attending.
Well, sure, in your exterme example. But not so much when your just talking about playing a game for a couple hours.

That does not sound good to me. "I want my players to not think much of anything." That's...what? I want my players to be thinking constantly! I yearn for their critique.
I can take or leave critique, much of it is not really useful, even more so when the player will just toss around jargon word salad.
Then I will consider the point conceded; if you refuse to refute the examples, then your claim that there is no such thing as a well-meaning but still wrong deception has been given two counter-examples.
The problem is your changing things. I give and example of one thing. You ignore it and say oh what about this other thing.
Again, you are thinking of this as "I want to check in on the things my child likes." That is not what I am saying.

I am saying that this parent literally doesn't even allow their child the possibility of meeting someone,
Yea, the problem is your example is a crazy extreme not possible in reality.
So...in contravention of what you said before, you did in fact MAKE them clueless. That was your goal. You specifically intended that. And you do these things, knowing that (a) you did NOT have to, you COULD have done something that wasn't railroading "and worse" (whatever that means), and (b) they WILL be upset should they ever find out.
Again, I don't "make" people anything. They are what they are.
 

pemerton

Legend
My stance is that generally everyone participating actually understands and has consented to the idea that the fictional world cannot have perfect objective existence, and required the GM (or at least someone, but in D&D it is mostly the GM) to make decisions of what exist and how it is presented. And that when doing so the GM is authorised to use their own judgement. Furthermore, it is understood that the GM may use that judgement to bring forth elements they think would be cool to include. The GM deciding that the third forest area the PCs explore will contain the witch's cottage, or that the next treasure parcel they find will contain the plot relevant magic ring or that the character's long lost brother will not be found until dramatically appropriately arduous amount of searching has been conducted is not 'deception.' It is just the GM using their framing powers to include interesting elements in appropriate moments.
The first clause seems plausible, and the second clause also with the parenthetical qualification.

The second sentence, about the GM's judgment, is more contentious. Likewise the fourth sentence about a "dramatically appropriate" amount of effort. There are a variety of ways to handle these elements of framing and discovery, even within D&D: 4e, for instance, presents different techniques and different principle from 2nd ed AD&D. What you describe seems (to me, at least) much closer to the latter than the former. And 2nd ed AD&D is a version of the game I don't much care for, precisely because it basically advocates all railroad, all of the time.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Scroll back in the thread, the "player agency choice" to avoid encounters is talked about a lot.
No it isn't. That's your pretty blatant misinterpretation of what was said. Nobody has said that agency is avoiding encounters. Repeating something that you know to be false, because I've corrected you at least 4 times now, isn't going to suddenly make it true.
 


They've certainly implied it. Eg:
It's worth emphasizing the extremes being presented here.

The example that was being discussed at the time of your quote from Max, over ten pages ago, was a combat which is not logically required to happen (e.g., not the same as "the campaign premise is you start with a prison break, SOME kind of fight is unavoidable"), but which the DM ensures absolutely will happen no matter what the players choose (e.g. "it doesn't matter which direction you go, you will run into and have to fight Bandit Lord Al-Hazen.") That's fairly clearly not respecting player agency. That is not at all the same as saying player agency is combat-avoidance. Whereas the claim made above was not only very specific, but went much further than just avoidance; it included mean-spirited celebration and active, gleeful efforts to destroy DM prep work. Explicitly it involved the players bragging about preventing the DM from using prepared stuff.

Saying, "Agency means embracing things like the possibility that the players choose things which invalidate your prep work" does not, at all, whatsoever, mean saying, "Agency is very specifically players maliciously trying to waste the DM's time, and then bragging about their successful rejection of work the DM put into the game."
 

pemerton

Legend
It's worth emphasizing the extremes being presented here.
My view is that many posters seem to have an obsession with avoiding encounters (ogres, bandits etc) as if they can't separate a conception of player choice in RPGing from the sorts of choices that are central to hidden-gameboard dungeon- and hex-crawling, but completely irrelevant to a lot of contemporary RPGing.

The players in my Prince Valiant game have almost infinitely more agency then I see in most posts about 5e D&D play. The fact that, when we confirmed they were travelling from the Dalmatian coast through Dacia to Constantinople, I framed an encounter first with Huns and then with an undead lord and his entourage, doesn't change that. The outcomes of their agency are manifested in the fact that the survivors of the defeated Huns are now members of the PCs' warband (a religious military order), while the remains of the undead (whom they converted to Christianity) are now located in the reliquary of the martyrs of their order.
 

G R (grizzyGR)

Explorer
Oh my goodness, so many responses. Not going to bother responding to everyone. I said what I said and stand by it, a bunch of entitled opinions here that are upset about things that they would have no idea or clue about if done properly.
 


My view is that many posters seem to have an obsession with avoiding encounters (ogres, bandits etc) as if they can't separate a conception of player choice in RPGing from the sorts of choices that are central to hidden-gameboard dungeon- and hex-crawling, but completely irrelevant to a lot of contemporary RPGing.
Well, encounters are just a very simple and straightforward example of something which might or might not happen. They clearly require some effort on the DM's part to set up, while being easy to negate/derail purely by happenstance via player choice. There have been other examples, though, like running into an important NPC no matter which town you travel to, or finding a certain treasure in the next dungeon regardless of what that dungeon is or who(/what) occupies it, or certain physical locations cropping up regardless of the direction the players travel (such as, from previous threads, the "haunted house" scenario that the DM plonks down on the path the players take, no matter which path that happens to be.)

Other examples of railroading appeared in the OP, like the dungeon which has 10 rooms that the DM will use in the order the players enter rooms, not as put onto any map or location, or the mystery-solving adventure where the DM just flings out a new clue if the players ever wander off in an unexpected direction. I think what you see as an "obsession" is just using the simplest, most ready-to-hand example that requires minimal faffing about with explaining or inventing context.

So, to cover other examples that have nothing to do with encounters (in the sense of combats or at least the risk of such):

1. The players are presented with what seems to be a difficult choice: they are adventuring through a cave system, and they can either try to rappel down a rock face, or take some circuitous pathways that hug to the wall. This looks like a real choice, with risks and significance, but in actuality, there's no way for them to get down safely: the DM has prepared a fall into an underground lake as a prelude to a "Lost World" scenario in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs (which she happens to know several players are fans of Burroughs.) If they try to take the slow but safe path, a rockfall will occur, throwing them off into the darkness below. If they try to rappel, the crumbly rock will fail, same result. It seems to be a choice, but it isn't.

2. A war is brewing. The PCs know that the Duke and the Countess are both gearing up for civil war against the childless King who has been acting strange and draconian, but that in truth, they are each being deceived by the Abbess, actually a demon in disguise who has been manipulating the King. If the players support the Duke, the King will in turn show favor only to the Countess, and vice-versa. If the players try to reconcile the two sides, the DM will invent new problems to prolong the tension until the three-way meeting can occur. If the PCs try to heal the King, find an heir, or seduce any of the three, all attempts will either fail or "succeed" (that is, appear to work, but never actually accomplish anything.) There are many different things the party could potentially think to do, but the DM won't let anything that doesn't lead to this (literally) crowning moment of heartwarming happen. No choice--they will get that awesome scene. Edit: Oops, trimmed out important info. First: Duke is King's sister's son. Second, at the fateful meeting, King will be freed of compulsion but will die, and Duke/Countess will fall in love and agree to rule jointly (since they both have a claim.) DM knows a player loves sappy romances, another finds inheritance law fascianting, and a third is an English historian who will catch the War of the Roses references. Hence, it's totally cool to block any player actions that would prevent this awesome, heartwarming scene!

3. There is no example 3, because the DM won't allow there to be one. Oh, you'll think there's an option 3, there will be an option labelled 3, but it's actually one of the other options rephrased.

4. It's early in the campaign, and the DM thinks the players would really love a story about cursed artifacts and ancient deals with eldritch beings and people, both wicked and well-meaning, making decisions for the whole world whether or not they are justified in doing so. But to get the ball rolling, the players have to get drawn into the curse. The players are presented with their choice of which magic item to take from a mysterious benefactor--but no matter whether they choose the ring, the sword, or the robe, it's a cursed item and the others will just be ordinary magic items. They won't be allowed to investigate which item might be cursed, nor even know that they're cursed. The choice is illusory, but presented as though it could have gone differently--they WILL get this plotline, there is no other way.

5. Murder mystery. A victim was murdered, and there are clues that point to the real perpetrator. Let's say the Baron did the deed and the Duchess is the innocent person he's framing. The party has found clues and started to build a case. They fall for the Baron's ruse immediately, and interpret the deceptive clues as genuine. For a classical railroad (as described in the OP), the PCs will simply keep bumping into new clues until the resolution is a foregone conclusion; there will never be any doubt. Or for the quantum railroad, whoever the party decides is guilty is in fact guilty, no matter what fiction was established to begin with--which, to be clear, is just as bad. Either way, there is no choice: correct because of enforcement or correct because of transformation, either way, the only world allowed to exist is one where the PCs correctly identify the killer. This shows more clearly the connection to consequences, which is why "agency" is more important than "choice" per se--sometimes, a choice either has no consequences, or the consequences of a particular choice just aren't relevant. But clearly there should be consequences for pinning guilt on an innocent person, and that's not allowed to happen here.
 
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Medic

Neutral Evil
Just because the wronged party isn’t aware they’ve been wronged, doesn’t mean the act wasn’t wrong.
Does not bother me at all. And it's not like they will ever know. The ends justify the means.
I'd just like to juxtapose these two gold nuggets against one another.

If the PCs try to heal the King, find an heir, or seduce any of the three, all attempts will either fail or "succeed" (that is, appear to work, but never actually accomplish anything.)
I detest this one in particular so much, because it's basically a GM spiting me for getting invested in the NPCs. It's one thing if, say, the countess just totally rebuffs all of my advances, but if I manage to successfully heal the king only for it to inexplicably fail later, it feels like I wasted my time caring about these characters. Like, sorry I bothered to engage with the fiction instead of rolling dice during the fights and texting the rest of the time.
 

I'd just like to juxtapose these two gold nuggets against one another.
Yeah that's...yeah.

I detest this one in particular so much, because it's basically a GM spiting me for getting invested in the NPCs. It's one thing if, say, the countess just totally rebuffs all of my advances, but if I manage to successfully heal the king only for it to inexplicably fail later, it feels like I wasted my time caring about these characters. Like, sorry I bothered to engage with the fiction instead of rolling dice during the fights and texting the rest of the time.
Worth noting, I fumbled my edits (tried to keep it short...or at least shorter...) so I left out that the "awesome moment" the DM was plotting was the Duke and Countess having a whirlwind battlefield romance and agreeing to rule jointly after the King's untimely (but guaranteed) death. I doubt this will change your feelings about it, but the point was to emphasize that in all of these cases, the DM totally does have a planned scenario they genuinely believe their players will find cool...but they're enforcing that event even if the players take actions that would, unknowingly, prevent it from occurring.
 


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