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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

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth (He/him)
Again I consider this a matter of degrees.

A player of mine goes into a town, and does the following:

1) Decides to put on their extra special shoes. Nothing magical of course, they just think they look cool.
2) Wears some loose summer clothing, because its quite hot in the city.
3) Puts their money pouch tight around their leg, because they have heard of bandits around.
4) Prepares the absorb elements spell today.
5) Decides to go the west part of town to talk to the blacksmith.

I as a DM, do the following:

1) I make no adjustment to any of my encounters due to the shoes.
2) I do not make any checks for the hot weather, and would not have done so even if they wore "normal clothing"
3) The PC was not pickpocketed at any point in the day, so the choice of money pouch location has no meaning.
4) The PC is not hit with any elemental damage spells, and so this spell preparation choice was meaningless.

Have I railroaded so far? A lot of player choices have had 0 impact on the adventure so far, so am I a bad DM? Should I have improvised some pickpockets or had them get struck by lightning to ensure a few of these choices were impactful?

5) Now we get to the blacksmith. I as the DM decide to do an assassin encounter, and yes would have done that regardless of which direction the PC goes. However, because they choose to go to the blacksmith before the end of the day, the blacksmith is there, and they have a long talk and get some key info about the bad guy they are pursuing. And with a great persuasion check, gets 5% discount off some wares.


So for 5, the players choice absolutely mattered. Their decision to go to the blacksmith did not have any impact on their combat encounter, but it did absolutely have impact on what information the player was able to obtain, which now impacts the plot.

So does a player choice have to impact every single element of my story in order for it be impactful, or can we agree that as long as the player choice had some key impact, that's its not required for it to have ABSOLUTE impact over everything?
Yes, it sounds like you forced an assassin encounter the PC had no opportunity to avoid. Whether it was railroading or not depends on the player’s expectations of gameplay.
 

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Players absolutely want agency in the game, but I don't think they expect ABSOLUTE agency. I don't think most players expect that every little decision they make will have plot altering consequences.
That's not agency. Agency is not invalidating their choices by forcing them down paths or to encounters. Their choices have to be their own and not be invalidated, but do not have to be enhanced.

If the player of a wizard chooses to memorize protection from energy, it's not railroading if no encounters that you had set up have energy attacks, or maybe there are no encounters set up at all. It IS railroading if you go through all your prepared encounters and change all of the energy attacks and spells into something else. That invalidates the player's choice and agency.
 


Mort

Legend
Supporter
It's about agency, not mattering or impact. Above the players have no agency to avoid the assassin. It's going to encounter them no matter what. That's railroading and without player buy-in, is bad. The assassin should be avoidable. Not that you can't have an assassination or attempted assassination no matter what, but the players shouldn't be forced to be there.

But if the assassin is there because of the player's actions - it may well be an unavoidable encounter (or at least VERY difficult to avoid) precisely BECAUSE of player agency. If the PCs did something to piss of someone with access to assassins, an assassin tracking them down wherever they are is not railroading, it's a consequence.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Are you assuming "hidden gameboard" play? Crimson Longinus, it seems to me, is not.

In non-hidden-gameboard play, why would the players assume that the stakes of going first to the library then to the market are different from those of going first to the market then to the library? And if the players have made no such assumption, then in what way is the meaning of their choice vitiated by the GM deciding to frame their trip to the market as an exciting encounter with a wild beast? How is that railroading? What choice which was presented as meaningful has been rendered meaningless?
I wouldn’t have thought of it like that, but its quite possible I was assuming “hidden gameboard play.” I don’t see any problem with the encounter at the market example, and it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to consider it an example of the same thing as moving the location where a setpiece encounter was planned to occur. Though I wouldn’t have been able to put into words why they felt different to me; I just intuitively registered them differently. But, yeah, as you demonstrated, that wouldn’t impact player agency at all, and so wouldn’t be an example of railroading, in my eyes.
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
But if the assassin is there because of the player's actions - it may well be an unavoidable encounter (or at least VERY difficult to avoid) precisely BECAUSE of player agency. If the PCs did something to piss of someone with access to assassins, an assassin tracking them down wherever they are is not railroading, it's a consequence.
There are always going to be exceptions, but even then it should still be avoidable, even if avoidance is extremely unlikely. Let's say the players pissed off an assassins guild by killing an assassin who was on a job. Now they want the one who landed the killing blow, the fighter, dead. You have set it up so that it takes a month for the assassins to learn where the PCs are, where they live, and a rough schedule. They will strike tonight!!! Except that unbeknownst to you, the players have discussed travelling to a nearby city with a large library to research something and leave that afternoon via a teleportation circle. Ooops! Encounter avoided! Agency mattered. It was very, very unlikely that would avoid the encounter, but it could still potentially happen.

Now if the assassin struck them the night after they teleported, that would be railroading. There was truly no chance to avoid the encounter and nothing they did could matter. You were going to force them down that path right then no matter what.

To complicate things a bit more, let's assume that the assassins have a wizard with them that is capable of scrying. They've been watching the PCs and know where they live. The assassin goes into their home and grabs something belonging to the fighter and scries the location of the party, then they too teleport. Maybe the attack does happen, but it's not because of railroading. It's because of valid in fiction reasons and consequences. That would not be railroading, since the attack isn't simply happening no matter what just because the DM desires a certain outcome.

It may be that one day they do get attacked by the assassins. Or maybe they grow too powerful before the encounter for the assassins to risk attack, and they back off.

The players' choice mattered and the encounter may or may not happen because of that choice and perhaps other choices.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Ok well then I'm having trouble reconciling why having an assassin attack a PC is railroading.

The PC had no knowledge of the assassin, and so their choices and action were never about the assassin, it was about acquiring information. And their choice did exactly that, their choice was rewarded with the impact of information provided from the blacksmith.

So why is this extra part, the part where they had a combat encounter....now railroading? At no point was their choice invalidated, the player got a reasonable impact from their choice.... so why if I throw in some extra is that railroading?
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Ok well then I'm having trouble reconciling why having an assassin attack a PC is railroading.

The PC had no knowledge of the assassin, and so their choices and action were never about the assassin, it was about acquiring information. And their choice did exactly that, their choice was rewarded with the impact of information provided from the blacksmith.

So why is this extra part, the part where they had a combat encounter....now railroading? At no point was their choice invalidated, the player got a reasonable impact from their choice.... so why if I throw in some extra is that railroading?
Let's say the assassin was set to kill the duke's eldest son in 8 hours. The party is unaware. You know that the blacksmith, the head livery boy and a priest of the god of secrets either know about it or have clues that something bad is going to happen.

If the party is allowed to find or not find these NPCs according to their choices, that's fine. If the party just happens via their choices to be at the spot where the assassination attempt is going to happen, that's fine. If they learn about the assassination attempt and decide not to go, that's fine. If they never learn about the attempt, then they won't be there and will hear about it some time in the future. Their choices determine if they know and if they will be there.

Now let's assume you just want them there no matter what and their choices are irrelevant. They will learn the information whether they talk to the blacksmith, the hermit 2 miles outside of town or a sailor from a ship that just arrived in port. If they decide not to go there, you will have the assassin come to them for some reason you contrive. At that point nothing they do can matter, you've completely deprived them of agency and you are railroading them big time. That's bad.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Let's say the assassin was set to kill the duke's eldest son in 8 hours. The party is unaware. You know that the blacksmith, the head livery boy and a priest of the god of secrets either know about it or have clues that something bad is going to happen.

If the party is allowed to find or not find these NPCs according to their choices, that's fine. If the party just happens via their choices to be at the spot where the assassination attempt is going to happen, that's fine. If they learn about the assassination attempt and decide not to go, that's fine. If they never learn about the attempt, then they won't be there and will hear about it some time in the future. Their choices determine if they know and if they will be there.

Now let's assume you just want them there no matter what and their choices are irrelevant. They will learn the information whether they talk to the blacksmith, the hermit 2 miles outside of town or a sailor from a ship that just arrived in port. If they decide not to go there, you will have the assassin come to them for some reason you contrive. At that point nothing they do can matter, you've completely deprived them of agency and you are railroading them big time. That's bad.
But that's not the scenario I outlined. The assasin is just a random encounter, or maybe its a subplot I'm setting up for later. The player just knew they were going to get information about a villain they are pursuing....they choose the blacksmith, and got specific information. If I didn't have the random encounter would it be a railroad? Of course not...the player's choice was validated with the blacksmith's info.

So why does adding in a random encounter the player had no knowledge of suddenly make it a railroad?
 

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