From free-range to back on the railroad--how to adjust?

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
After five years of running a sandbox campaign, I now find myself running a large adventure path. I'm finding that I'm having a bit of trouble adjusting to this--mostly in the form of some anxiety over committing the "sin" of railroading the players.

First: I have never run a long campaign that was truly an open-world, mostly improvisational game. I love this style of play for one shots and mini-campaigns, mostly with rules-light systems that better support this style of play. I use the word "sandbox" to mean that players can pretty much direct how things will go, but the play has some boundaries. My last campaign, for example, took place in a megadungeon ("Rappan Athuk" but Frog God Games). There really wasn't a plot. It was not an adventure path. Most of the plot arose through the exploration and actions of the players, their motivations, and how the "world" reacted to their actions. If they would have tired of this setting, it was part of a much, much larger setting ("The Lost Lands" by Frog God Games), for which I have shelves groaning under multiple massive setting and adventure tomes, plus many PDFs. I have thousands of pages of content for The Lost Lands. So the players could have noped out of Rappan Athuk and gone off to explore other areas of the world. But I would require some advance warning of their intentions, desires, and/or plans to prep for the next session. I don't want to get into a debate of what a real "sandbox" is. Just suffice it to say that for about five years I ran a campaign the leaned far more to the sandbox style of play than the railroaded style.

I've decided to take a break from D&D after 10 years of running D&D campaigns and am not running "The Enemy Within" campaign in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e (WFRP). It is a large, complex, classic Warhammer Fantasy campaign updated to 4e by Cubicle Games. It is heavy on political intrique. It also take the PCs across the Empire. I am really enjoying prepping for and running an Empire-spanning WFRP campaign heavy on political intrigue. It swings between being very linear to points in the campaign where players can take a variety of different paths. But it does require you to ensure that the players get to certain places at certain times. It requires the the players buy into this, otherwise it just doesn't work. Well, at least without the DM taking a lot of effort to rewrite much of it.

I'm weaving in some additional plotlines and side quests, because I can't help myself. But I'm finding that besides the potential for greatly increasing the length of the campaign, it risks creating other issues. For example, the PCs leveling up to fast for encounters in the main campaign. It also adds even further complexity to an already complex campaign.

I realize that as GM, I have a lot of tools at my disposal. E.g.,

1. Give out less XP, less often. That may not be satisfying to players. WFRP character advancement is much more granular than D&D. Players like and expect a regular trickle of XP to incrementally increase attribute, buy new skills and talents, and advance in their careers. I can slow it down, but to go entire sessions without XP would detract a bit from the fun of the game.

2. Simplify. Adding complexity is really just obfuscating the railroad. I've already pared down a lot of the extra stuff I was considering throwing in, so that they get into and progress in the main storyline sooner. If you are going to get someone on the rails, at least put them on the express line, I guess.

3. Distract and subtly direct the PCs. Some folks here, based on other posts, probably find this anathema. But I like this and find it necessary. Just because there's a plot and goals and places you need to be at certain times, doesn't mean that it has to feel like you are being led by the nose.

4. Limited adjustments and rewriting. No adventure as written survives contact with the players. I don't want to have to do major rewrites and would rather not just abandon the adventure. But I certainly expect that I will have to adjust things based on what the players do to make it work. This is where I feel weakest. I feel that this skill has atrophied after 5 years. It seems strange to write that, given that in my last campaign I was constantly coming up with new plots and twists and encounters based on what the players did. But that was just applying new things to a setting. Not an adventure path with detailed written plots. Also, because the adventure is so large (three books) and complicated, I worry about how changes will effect or complicate thing later on, requiring more reworking of the adventure than I counted on, or worse, "ruining" the adventure.

I'd be interested in tips and lessons learned from others, especially those who have run more open-ended games or homebrew and then ran a large pre-written adventures successfully.
 

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Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I don't have any advice for The Enemy Within, and little in general, but I wanted to show my support anyway. It sounds challenging and I hope you succeed and you and your players have a wonderful experience.

I will say this, though: when running more linear adventures (like Avernus in 5E) I have found it helpful to be open about that and embrace the meta with the players. Now, I don't put too high a premium on "immersion" and so it may not work for folks that do, but if you tell the players straight out that this is a more linear thing and the fun is to be found inside the lines, in my experience it works better overall.

Good luck!
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The Enemy Within is a fantastic grand adventure. C7 knocked the remake out of the park.

The two easiest ways to do this are to get the players on board by just telling them there are certain timed, location based events they need to hit and weaving in reasons for them to keep those appointments…or simply pausing the ongoing story until they arrive. Neither is particularly wonderful for various reasons, but they work. Mostly.
 

GrimCo

Adventurer
Personally, i don't see big problem with railroading if everybody is having fun.

Tell players up front that it's linear adventure with timed, location based events and hope they are willing to play along.

Other option is, run it, and if they fail to hit those timed, location based events, things happen without them. Let them feel consequences of it. Don't be afraid to let them fail. Present them with clear "adventure this way" plot hooks. If they play along, great. If they go in opposite direction, things happen. If they fail main goal because of it, so be it.
 

Committed Hero

Adventurer
If the time limits aren't affected by the PCs' actions, there's probably no harm in playing fast and loose with time. The reason things keep happening at dramatically interesting points is because the PCs are the central focus of the game. Most players should appreciate this on some level.

I agree with the three fellows above me. Talk to the players. Convey that this is a well known and like adventure, so the presumption that the PCs will be interested in finishing it should be worth it.
 

zakael19

Adventurer
Echo chamber here, establish a social contract in session 0 about pursuing the adventure. Bury the rails a bit if you feel the need too, my favorite way of doing that is to try and work appropriate triggers into PC's motivations by discussing character concepts and shaping them a bit (eg: if a player wants to be party of a knightly order, and one faction that seeks aid is a specific one, propose they be affiliated) and/or rework certain triggers or breadcrumbs to suit PC backgrounds. In either case, one or more PCs should feel naturally motivated to pursue the thing and the thread of story.
 

Voadam

Legend
My experience in running adventure paths is to telegraph a little about the intended theme of the campaign and give characters an initial hook to build characters off of that ties into the adventure so they are consciously coming up with reasons to engage in the plot.

When I ran the Freeport Trilogy I let people know it was a pirates and urban investigation themed game and asked everyone to come up with characters who would have a reason to help out Brother Egil, a helpful and charitable Athenaeum scholar, when he needs to turn to others for help, this tied them into the plot from the beginning.

When I ran Carrion Crown I started off letting everybody know it would be gothic horror and to make characters that would have a connection to the dead Professor of Archaeology Lorrimor Jones to the point his daughter would ask them to be a pallbearer at his funeral.

As the game continues and new adventures have different plots I try and think how they connect to what the PCs are already doing and how to connect them more into the PCs interests and aspects. So in Carrion Crown module two the Kellid swamper community was the home town of the fighter PC and things got more personal for him to investigate there and follow up on the plot events there.

If PCs die and replacement characters or new PCs join the game later on I try and work with the players to provide hooks for them to tie into the party and its goals and also to tie into coming up stuff. So in my Iron Gods game a replacement PC was discovered in a stasis pod in a tech dungeon, an alien who had been subject to experiments long ago. The party freed him and he wanted to join the party to get back at "the scientists." which tied into technomages as a big villain group in the Iron Gods AP. A replacement cleric PC could be charged by the city high priest in module 1 to take a message to the undercover priest in module 2 as a subplot.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I will say this, though: when running more linear adventures (like Avernus in 5E) I have found it helpful to be open about that and embrace the meta with the players. Now, I don't put too high a premium on "immersion" and so it may not work for folks that do, but if you tell the players straight out that this is a more linear thing and the fun is to be found inside the lines, in my experience it works better overall.

Indeed. If you create characters who have personal proclivities for following the thing through to the end, then they don't really notice the rails, and there's little issue with immersion over them.

I am running The Wild Beyond the Witchlight right now, which is kind a set of small sandboxes strung together in a semi-linear fashion. But partway through, there is a way for the PCs to say to heck with it all and just leave and go home. When presented with this option, my players chose to stay on the rails.
 

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