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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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

It’s perfectly goodvalidfun. As long as everyone involved consents to it. Which they can’t do if they don’t know it’s happening.
that is the thing... my group is open about everything (sometimes too much) and I can't imagine in the moment of needing to flub a bit of railroading saying I was... but in the wrap up or the pre game of the next session I would. Hiding things like this is BS and very much WRONG
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
1) Just because you railroad a portion of the game doesn't mean the character is entirely railroaded. I might say that you will always meet NPC X in the next room (no matter which room you choose), but your character still determines how they interact with that character.

2) Some people like stories. Not everyone plays an RPG to make an endless series of character chocies. Its a combination of choices, and then seeing where it goes. People like hearing the villain's monologue, the NPCs quirky dialogue, and their fellow PCs epic moment just as much as making their own character decisions. Its a balance.
Yep, and some people feel the opposite way. It isn’t appropriate to secretly enforce one way of playing on the group without their knowledge or permission. If you asked, and everyone was like “yes, I would like you to manipulate things behind the scenes so that whatever we decide to do, it will always result in the story you have planned,” then great! Knock yourselves out. The issue here is that this strategy has been devised to deny the players the opportunity to say, “no, I would prefer you don’t do that, please.”
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I am not going to weigh in on anything specific on the OP or the responses directly, but offer a third opinion on "railroading" from Brennan Lee Mulligan (from Critical Role's GM roundtable):
In-context, I think what he’s actually trying to say here is great. The problem is, the clip that’s going around leaves out important context, and communicates kind of the opposite of what I think he was actually saying.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Yep, and some people feel the opposite way. It isn’t appropriate to secretly enforce one way of playing on the group without their knowledge or permission. If you asked, and everyone was like “yes, I would like you to manipulate things behind the scenes so that whatever we decide to do, it will always result in the story you have planned,” then great! Knock yourselves out. The issue here is that this strategy has been devised to deny the players the opportunity to say, “no, I would prefer you don’t do that, please.”

It feels like there is a lot of ground between "getting the story the DM wants no matter what" and having "a.non-zero chance the party never runs into anything interesting because they kept choosing places things weren't or dies because they run into something really dangerous by happenstance."

What's the best way to have a consistent game world where the later isn't a problem, but the DM doesn't do anything at all to tip the scales?
 

In-context, I think what he’s actually trying to say here is great. The problem is, the clip that’s going around leaves out important context, and communicates kind of the opposite of what I think he was actually saying.
I don't know the full context... but again I am not on board 100% with any of there styles... but what I heard doesn't sound too bad. I want my character to say "Why don't we just call the eagles and fly this ring to Mt Doom" but I want the DM/NPCs to explain "That wont work and here is the ingame reason" (and I have plenty of tolken reasons), I also think sometimes when teh PCs keep trying to find a short cut "Why can't we give it to the elder god, why can't the egales fly us there, why can't I give it to the immortal elf queen of beuity and goodness, why can't I XXXX" the correct answer for the DM is to sometimes say "Okay, you give it to X and they handle it for you" then move on to another story beat.

Were I sometimes have to say "Out of game, I want you to say no" a great example is a Ranger I played in 2e. He just wanted to be a farmer... every thing he said or did was about wanting to 'go home and own a farm' and things kept coming up. I kept reassuring the DM out of game... Yes Grant the character wants to be a farmer, Rob the player wants you to keep making me be a hero instead"
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
It’s perfectly goodvalidfun. As long as everyone involved consents to it. Which they can’t do if they don’t know it’s happening.
That's the bit that always sticks out. If the referee's so invested in railroading their players thought it was actually okay, they'd tell the players it was happening. They typically say something about spoiling the illusion. What illusion? The illusion that the players' choices actually matter. And if the players' choices don't matter...why are you running a game?
 

Reynard

Legend
That's the bit that always sticks out. If the referee's so invested in railroading their players thought it was actually okay, they'd tell the players it was happening. They typically say something about spoiling the illusion. What illusion? The illusion that the players' choices actually matter. And if the players' choices don't matter...why are you running a game?
I think it is okay to get "blanket approval" at the beginning. I did that when I ran Avernus, which i chose to do as a railroad. I let the players know early on that was the style of game we were going for, they all agreed, and from that moment on CHOO CHOO MFER. But everyone was in and we had a great time and I had Doom Troopers descend from the kies with chainswords and beam rifles.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
In-context, I think what he’s actually trying to say here is great. The problem is, the clip that’s going around leaves out important context, and communicates kind of the opposite of what I think he was actually saying.
I started a thread about it when the video first dropped. The fuller context is really, really important to that clip.

ETA: It would be helpful to actually include the link...need more coffee.

 
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overgeeked

B/X Known World
I think it is okay to get "blanket approval" at the beginning. I did that when I ran Avernus, which i chose to do as a railroad. I let the players know early on that was the style of game we were going for, they all agreed, and from that moment on CHOO CHOO MFER. But everyone was in and we had a great time and I had Doom Troopers descend from the kies with chainswords and beam rifles.
Exactly. Lack of consent is bad. Lying about consent is worse.

But there's a difference between a linear adventure and a railroad. They're used interchangeably, but they're not the same thing.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
But there's a difference between a linear adventure and a railroad. They're used interchangeably, but they're not the same thing.
I could swear there have been people in various threads on here that would disagree with that. And it's sometimes hard for me to parse what folks mean by the former so it isn't the later.

What are your favorite definitions? (Links to some are just fine too, thanks!)
 

I think it is okay to get "blanket approval" at the beginning. I did that when I ran Avernus, which i chose to do as a railroad. I let the players know early on that was the style of game we were going for, they all agreed, and from that moment on CHOO CHOO MFER. But everyone was in and we had a great time and I had Doom Troopers descend from the kies with chainswords and beam rifles.
yup... in the current try at Strahd we had to make some conssessions cause that book even with me doing a bunch of add on stuff (adventure league cities, old supplments, online suggestions for expansions) there is ONLY so much we can do.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
It feels like there is a lot of ground between "getting the story the DM wants no matter what" and having "a.non-zero chance the party never runs into anything interesting because they kept choosing places things weren't or dies because they run into something really dangerous by happenstance."

What's the best way to have a consistent game world where the later isn't a problem, but the DM doesn't do anything at all to tip the scales?
Very true! And I think the best way will vary from group to group. Personally, my preference is to use a combination of design and procedural generation. Plan out adventure locations, designing interesting areas and encounters by hand, and putting together some solid random tables to lean on to generate content on the fly.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Very true! And I think the best way will vary from group to group. Personally, my preference is to use a combination of design and procedural generation. Plan out adventure locations, designing interesting areas and encounters by hand, and putting together some solid random tables to lean on to generate content on the fly.
What's your favorite way to make sure they get to the interesting areas or encounters? Are they usually ones that clues have been dropped to?

What ballpark size of a random table has worked best for you? (The n=1 extreme is just a quantum ogre, right? At the other extreme its not really saving any work).
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think it is okay to get "blanket approval" at the beginning. I did that when I ran Avernus, which i chose to do as a railroad. I let the players know early on that was the style of game we were going for, they all agreed, and from that moment on CHOO CHOO MFER. But everyone was in and we had a great time and I had Doom Troopers descend from the kies with chainswords and beam rifles.
Yes, agreed. This can easily be a quick conversation during session zero, like “hey, I want to run this adventure path, which will require some buy-in on all of your parts. Can we all agree we’re here to play through this story and we’re going to follow the plot where it leads us?” Or, alternatively, “I want to prepare some custom stuff, but I don’t want that hard work to go to waste because you all decided to zig when I thought you would zag. Is it ok with all of you if I shuffle things around behind the scenes to make sure you don’t miss the best bits?” Those are both perfectly reasonable requests, and if the players agree, I don’t see any issue with either approach. The problem is deciding you’re going to shuffle things around like that without checking in with your players first.
 

Yora

Legend
This seems like an excessively big effort to convince players of a lie when it would be so much easier to tell the truth. Players are not that stupid. If their choices never matter, they will catch on to it quickly. I think the chance of this working is very low, and is it really worth to wreck several campaigns in the hope that one day you become good enough at lying to fool a group of players?
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
I could swear there have been people in various threads on here that would disagree with that. And it's sometimes hard for me to parse what folks mean by the former so it isn't the later.

What are your favorite definitions? (Links to some are just fine too, thanks!)

Linear simply means the adventure moves in 1 direction, there is no choice where the players go. They go from point A-B-C etc. But they players are aware of the direction and choose to go along with it.

Railroad means the players go to the set destinations no matter what choice they think they are making, there is no actual choice, but the players don't know that.

That's the key difference - if the players know what they are in for and there's just always one direction to go - it's linear. If the players think they have multiple choices but in fact have none, it's a railroad.
 
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I could swear there have been people in various threads on here that would disagree with that. And it's sometimes hard for me to parse what folks mean by the former so it isn't the later.

What are your favorite definitions? (Links to some are just fine too, thanks!)
first, we could fill an encyclopedia Britannica with the word definitions disagreed with on enworld

second I can run a linar adventrue a few ways...

1) the dungeon is just 1 path with maybe a side room here or there but all the side rooms are dead ends.

2) my events that (hopefully) my PCs can't stop or directly interact with start at A go to B then to C and teh story is how they react.

3) a mix there of 1 and 2...

example of 3) the campaign is pitched as exploring the new world. the first game starts at docs in the kingdom of X. You all either come togather or meet there at the docs... no matter what the PCs do a fight breaks out and the PCs have to react. (the fight is between a group of elves and a group of orcs both wanting into the expedition)
once on the boat that leaves the next morning they are locked into the boat for 3 months at sea... the orcs and elves not only are still at odds but they are recruiting others (do the PCs join 1 side or the other or do they try to defuse) No matter what the PCs do there is a storm.
after the storm has damaged the ship there is an enemy ship from anothe rcounty approching... the captian of this ship and head of teh expadition warns to prepare for a fight. there is going to be boarders...

assuming the PCs and boat survive all this they find islands half way to the new world with a tribe of dragon born and a tribe of avarial elves on them. they can explore make friends and resupply if the PCs want they can sit it all out.

assuming everyone still is okay (so is the boat) there will be an attack by aquitic creatures that are undead.

when the PCs finally get to the new world the boat is beaten up half the expadition is gone and they need to make a base camp... how do they respond.

no matter what they do they are being spied on by the evil dark shaman that lives here, and also the aasimar tribe near by the landing site... how do they react?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
What's your favorite way to make sure they get to the interesting areas or encounters? Are they usually ones that clues have been dropped to?
Clues can work. I also am comfortable with the possibility that some hand-designed content will just get missed, and that’s ok. Especially because, in a location-based sandbox campaign, just because the players didn’t get to explore room 34b. today, doesn’t mean they won’t do so on another day.
What ballpark size of a random table has worked best for you? (The n=1 extreme is just a quantum ogre, right? At the other extreme its not really saving any work).
I’m a big fan of the old 1d12+1d8 table, so 19 possibilities, weighted in favor of the numbers in the middle of that range. Then I’ll make multiple such tables for different areas. You can assign each area a target level, and have 2-4 be trivial encounters or non-threatening events, 5-8 be easy encounters or simple hazards, 9-13 be medium encounters or moderate hazards, 14-17 be hard encounters or complex hazards, and 18-20 be deadly encounters or deathtraps. That creates a nice balance of challenge, which should be suitable for characters of the target level and one level above or below it.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Now though I have (and will continue) to defend the DMs right to use illusionism to augment their game, there are aspects of it that are more efficient than others.

The 3 doors scenario is one of those, which is effectively a "directly invalid choice". In such a case its better just to remove the choice entirely, the one door leads to one room, and we move on.

But if my group chooses path A (versus B and C), and they always meet a Nymph no matter what, that to me is a soft railroad. THeir choice of path might have still mattered for other reasons, might even affect some of the conditions of the Nymph. If the choice has impact, even if I remove some of the impact through a soft railroad, its still a valid scenario.

There is also an important aspect of believability that sells a notion. Finding a nymph in a forest (and all my paths were forest paths), sure that makes sense. Finding a sand crawler by going through a forest path.....ok that's weird, its going to need an explanation. Maybe the DM comes up with a cool explanation to sell it, but I do agree that the DM wants the world to make a certain amount of sense. If things are happening "just because", than that removes beliveability even if you aren't using illusionism.
 

I’m a big fan of the old 1d12+1d8 table, so 19 possibilities, weighted in favor of the numbers in the middle of that range.
I love that... but I often play with the 2 and 20 bringing you to a separate chart... and/or some encounters can not be duplicated but when it happens it doesn't make that number a no encounter but it moves a new encounter in it's way...

a 5 is 2 hobgoblin archer 'scouts' but after you encounter them the next time it is rolled it is 3 hobgoblin legioniares, but after that encounter the next time it is rolled it is a hobgoblin warlord with 2 archers and 2 legioniares. woe to the low level party that chooses fight and beats the 1st two but some how keeps rolling 5s...
 

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