View Full Version : Riding the Rails: New DM Advice Requested

Dire Cohort
2007-02-06, 10:19 AM
(This is my first thread here at Giant In The Playground, so apologies for any faux pas)

How much railroading will players tolerate? And/or how can railroading be done tolerably?

My group has had the same DM for just under a year now, and he's hinted that he might start playing instead and let me run a campaign in a couple months. I've fallen in love with that one campaign setting that the Giant's archrival created, and I have this story I really want to tell. While the PCs would be a huge force for change in the world, they won't get that kind of influence until the eight or ninth adventure (it's not a power issue, I'd just need that time to realistically set up the plot). At the early stages, however, I really need this and that to happen, which makes me guilty of conspiracy to railroad.

I've attempted to mitigate this as much as possible. Rather than needing to do a then b then c, I've got it set up to do a, b & c, but in any order the players want. I still need a, b, & c to happen, though, which means I'll have a hard time letting the players choose their own goals.

Am I being a control freak? Is a (hopefully) good story too high a price to pay for a loss of control? Does an open-ended campaign have to be a simple one without intrigue and surprises? How much long-term thinking do players appreciate?

I would appreciate any advice on designing campaigns that achieve your own goals while still allowing sufficient freedom to the players.


2007-02-06, 10:28 AM
Well I'd say an occassional nudge is acceptable. Like last week our group was captured by the barbarian horde. We were surrounded and it ws how many we could kill before they overwhelmed us. There was nowhere to run. But doing it more than on occassion makes the PC's feel that all their planning is for naught cause if it's gonna happen there's nothing they can do. So it's like hot suace, use sparingly.

2007-02-06, 10:30 AM
Look at the characters' back stories and create incentives for them to accomplish these goals. If their characters have their own goals it becomes easier because you can entwine them with the story's.

That Lanky Bugger
2007-02-06, 10:39 AM
Don't leave control in the player's hands. That will only lead to disaster. Instead, have it flow something like this: A happens, B happens, and then C happens, and all of them regardless of player input. Either the players will take interest in what's going on sooner (which allows you to get them involved), or later when A,B, and C add up to something they CAN'T ignore.

2007-02-06, 10:47 AM
Talk to your players. Ask them how much they like the game to be open-ended, and how much they like GM-authored plot.

One way to get the game to run along your plotlines while making it appear more open-ended is to work with your players to create PCs that have a large stake in the conflict you're setting up. That way, they'll want to stop the big bad guy (or whatever you have up your sleeve) without you having constantly to hit them with the plothammer.

2007-02-06, 10:49 AM
Am I being a control freak? Is a (hopefully) good story too high a price to pay for a loss of control? Does an open-ended campaign have to be a simple one without intrigue and surprises? How much long-term thinking do players appreciate?

Just remember that once you bring the players into it, it's their story too. Don't be so married to your "plot" that it becomes inflexible and doesn't allow for player creativity.

2007-02-06, 10:51 AM
I would actually say a combination of Piccamo's and lankybugger's suggestions:

1. determine what motivates the characters and structure goals that feed directly or indirectly into your Plot Points A, B, and/or C.
2. have some "benchmark" events that will occur regardless of whether the PC's are involved or not (if they are, great, but if not, the event still happens)

And finally, a twist of my own; once you have these two in place:

3. let the player's choices DRIVE what happens (for the most part) in the world around them. Once you do this, it will give them a sense of accomplishment and effectiveness that they will be chomping at the bit to continue... :smallbiggrin:

2007-02-06, 10:52 AM
I think you'd probably have to look to your players for an answer to that question.

I've DM'ed groups that are completely clueless about what to do with themselves unless they're railroaded, and groups which can solve any given problem 4 different ways depending on the mood they're in. So really, I don't think we can help you much.

Elliot Kane
2007-02-06, 11:04 AM
You'd do far better to give them enough clues and ncentives that they end up doing what you want than railroadng them, honestly. Few players will deliberately set out to ruin the game by purposely ignoring the story because it ruins the fun for everyone.

Trying to over-control things is a common mistake among neophyte GMs, but the thing to remember is that you have all the power - you don't need to keep proving it. Just relax and have fun, and your players will, too :)

2007-02-06, 11:13 AM
Also remember that the world is a living place. Events occur whether the players take action or not. If one of the players is from another area, where his family is, you could have the BBEG (or whatever it is) destroy his homeland, thus causing him to possibly want to get revenge.

Woot Spitum
2007-02-06, 11:29 AM
Use the carrot. The PC's can do what they want, but you can still hint at BIG TREASURE if they go in a certain direction. Alternately, you could let them go off and do what they want, but these adventures are short and relatively mundane. Eventually, the PC's are going to get tired of killing rats in the cellar and want to move on to something bigger.

2007-02-06, 11:32 AM
How much railroading will players tolerate? And/or how can railroading be done tolerably?

The secret is to railroad while giving the players the illusion of free will. You're going to have a finite amount of material prepped, and you want the players to go through it in a logical and reasonable fashion, but you also want them to be able to make their own decisions (which is never really a good idea, but hey, that's Life Behind the Shield).

Let's say you've got three encounters prepped that all lead towards a "boss fight" of some sort:

1) Caravan ambush.
2) Warehouse raid.
3) Sewer crawl.

It would be logical and reasonable for the players to do them in order, the way you've prepped them out: They get hired to guard a caravan, which gets attacked en route by mysterious ninjas or whatever. Upon arrival, the caravan leader asks the players to pick up a special shipment for him in an old warehouse, only to run afoul of a mysterious spellcaster than summons a crapload of crunchies in the warehouse. The spellcaster flees into the sewers, and the PCs track him back to the wine cellar belonging to BBEG. Since this is the most logical, reasonable way to go through these encounters, of course the PCs will never, ever do this willingly.

So, you've got to be flexible. The first trick is to rework your linear plot into a system of network nodes so you can limit the paths the players can take while still giving the illusion of free will. For example:

They turn down the caravan duty, but the caravan leader asks if they're interested in another job - before he leaves, he needs to pick up a special shipment at a warehouse. They may turn that down and go do something else, in which case they run into an irate nobleman that is willing to pay an obscene amount of money to track something that's been stolen from him. He hires the PCs to search the warehouse for it, or track down the caravan leader who just left town, or find out how the thieves broke into his house (through the sewer).

Essentially, you're turning a linear plot (A-B-C) into something that looks like:


Make sure each node point has a "hook" to the other nodes: If the PCs start with the Caravan, then there's a link to both the Warehouse encounter and the Sewer encounter. If player actions close down a node (for example, the Warehouse gets burned down off-screen), then you just remove that option or route the players around it. The order the players tackle them in isn't quite so important... to the players, it looks like they're being given free reign to go where they like, but what they don't necessarily see is that no matter what direction they go in, they will inevitably encounter a Caravan, a Warehouse, and a Sewer.

The second trick could be called the "teleporting clue". Let's say you're trying to force a confrontation with the BBEG for the "Boss Fight". Obviously, they need to learn his identity and where he can be found. You could use a "squeeler" NPC that exists only to get captured and spill the beans on the BBEG's evil plot. Where the players finally discover him moves around. If they do the Warehouse last, then they find him cowering under a desk. If they do the Sewers last, then the squeeler might be a frightened scullery maid who got lost trying to get away from the BBEG. If the Caravan is last, then it's a teary-eyed apprentice merchant that sold out the Caravan's location but repents and tells all after the battle.

And, obviously, if the players have the feat "Kill Important NPCs Just On Principle", then the incriminating information is on a note in the NPC's pocket. If the PCs burn the NPC's clothes to ashes with the indiscriminate use of Fireball (as if there's really any other kind of use), then you have to resort to tattoos or carving stuff into the NPC's flesh. If the PCs forget to search the body, then they run into an NPC later that found the note - for example, a City Watchman investigating the attack on the Warehouse finds the note, and when the PCs run into him later, he mentions it to them or offers to sell them the info. If the PCs go out of their way to avoid the City Watchmen, then perhaps check with the local Mob/Merchant/Guild boss, then it turns out the City Watchman who found the note is on the take, passed it along to the Mob boss, who can then give it to the players. Whichever direction the PCs go, the clue "teleports" to a new location so they can find it and move along to the next encounter/node.

Finally, some things to keep in mind... no matter how carefully you prepare, you're going to forget about 50% of it once the dice start hitting the table. No matter how many twists and turns you anticipate, the players will inevitably come up with something you didn't think of. And if the players do manage to turn the tables on you and foil your elaborate plot, then concede gracefully and let them win. You'll get another chance to surprise them next time.

2007-02-06, 11:51 AM
Riding the rails is a very delicat art form. It comes with practice. My advice is to provide little to no Plot essential details and make their decision limited to your plot and subplots (if any).

If they make a decision that isn't one of the ones you want, humor them but not in depth. If they want to go to a town that they herd is a great plact to hire assassians, and that isn't in your plot, make it very, very difficult for them to do this. If its a "magic item shope" have those items very bland, but have the locals talk about the "wonderous items of power."

In short, limit their decisions, but make them ones that are enticing and inviting... in that manor, Rail Roading is very tolabral and even welcomed.

Trust me, it comes with practice.

2007-02-06, 11:59 AM
There is more than one way to solve this problem, obviously.

For my own, I keep the campaign fresh by using as many different te hniques as possible. So, I railroad blatantly at times, at others, I give the players complete freedom.

I have two main story arcs. One is a Rod of 7 parts-like artefact hunt. This one they can do at their own pace. They never know what going to happen when they get there, but they can go to each location when they want to.

The second is a long-term mystery. This one is linear. They find a clue that leads them to the next place for the next clue.

Beyond that, the party has options like joining expeditions in Xen'drik, investigating things in the newspaper, and so on.

So, sometimes they get railroaded. For instance, they went on an innocuous side quest to an elven continent and wound up being associated with thieves, and forced into capturing those thieves in order to a) prove their innocence and b) stop the evil. I followed that with a "What do you want to do next?" question. The enemies were not active, so the players got complete freedom to choose their next adventure.

All of the suggestions by other posters are good. Use them all! Railroad the PC's sometimes. Give them complete freedom the next. Carrot them the next week. And so on. Variety makes for an unpredictable and fun campaign.

2007-02-06, 12:36 PM
How much railroading will players tolerate?

Almost any amount . . . as long as you make it fun.

How can railroading be done tolerably?

Lots of ways! Here are some of the simplest:

1. Mission Orders

"Knight Group Bravo, you are ordered to travel to Hellgate Keep and investigate what you find there."

If the players are all members of an organisation, then just have their superiors give them orders to do what you want them to do anyway. Nice and easy.

2. Parameters

Lay out some rules for character creation at the game's start. For example, if your campaign is about saving the Nation of Ellyrian from the orc invaders, you might say "Your characters must all have some kind of connection to Ellyrian, and a reason to defend it." As long as you keep it broad enough, this won't cramp the players' style much. The thing you have to avoid is for players to make characters that have absolutely no in-character motivation to do what the GM wants them to do, and the easiest way to fix this is to let the players know what they'll be expected to do.

3. An Offer They Can't Refuse

"You wake up. You're in a cheap inn, and you've got a headache. You can't seem to remember exactly what you got up to over the last few days."
"Uh, okay, I get up, I guess."
"As you get up and look down at your right arm you see a strange-looking series of blue tattoos. There are six symbols . . ."

The PCs start off in a situation where for whatever reason, avoiding the plotline just isn't possible. Maybe something nasty will happen to them if they try to go away and do something else - this could take the form of environmental threats, monsters, or somebody who's going to punish or hurt the PCs if they don't do what he wants.

This is by definition going to be short-lived, though, so a more elegant way to set this up is that the PCs ARE the adventure. Have a look at stories like Azure Bonds - the adventure happens BECAUSE of the PCs, not because they went looking for it.

4. Invasion

This is kind of like 3, except it's more open-ended. The main storyline IS going to happen, and it's so big and all-encompassing that there's no way the PCs can avoid getting caught up in it somehow. For example, Ellyrian's going to be attacked by the orc hordes, and eventually overwhelmed if nothing is done to stop it. Exactly what the PCs do about this, though, is up to them.

5. Past Histories

Let the PCs make up their characters, then go through their backgrounds and give each of them a very strong reason to get involved in your story. For example, that missing sibling the ranger is looking for? Finding her will require getting involved in the plot. A nastier version of this is to do the same, but make up something the PC doesn't actually know about. "You remember that orc raid you described in your background? Well, you witnessed a little detail that you didn't consider important at the time, but some other people did, and now they want to make sure you don't tell anyone . . ."

And so on. The key is to give a consistent, believable in-game reason for why the PCs are doing what you want them to, and to give them enough space to do what they want at the same time. The one thing you have to avoid is this:

"I want to travel north to find some new spells."
"Uh, you can't."
"Why not?"
"Because I want your characters to go south so that you can stop the orc invasion."

Obvious in-game railroading is a bad idea, too.

"I want to travel north."
"You can't, the pass is blocked by snow."
"What? It's the middle of summer!"
"Freak weather conditions."
"Okay, I hire an airship."
"Um, it turns out they're all out on other jobs."
"Every airship? In the whole city??"
"Then I hire a wizard to teleport me."
"Uh, it turns out that all the wizards are . . . busy. They've got a big conference coming up."
"Okay, what if we just fly there?"
"Um . . . plague of dragons. Flying all over the mountains. Very dangerous."
"Then I-"
"Pelor descends from the heavens and tells you to go south."

Instead, try something like this:

"I want to travel north."
"It'll take a while. You find out from talking to the people around the city that the pass north is likely to be blocked. However, they also mention that the arcane college of Ellyrian has a better collection of spells, anyway."
" . . . Isn't that the place that's just about to be invaded by orcs?"
"Yes, but on the plus side, after saving that caravan last week the wizard's guild there owes you a favour. And they did say they'd give you a good deal on scrolls if you ever showed up."
"Fine. South it is."

- Saph

PnP Fan
2007-02-06, 11:47 PM
Railroading. . . that really depends on your group. Most gamers who've played for any length of time enjoy the illusion of free will (whether they realize it's an illusion or not is another matter). At the same time, most DMs will also realize (when they are players) that it doesn't really matter, as long as there's something to do for the evening. I would avoid railroading if at all possible. But, on those rare occaisions when you've got no choice, just admit it to yourself. Your players will humble you, so you might as well admit it, and laugh about it, and then get on with the evening's entertainment.
Just make sure that nothing permanent happens because of the railroading (i.e. don't use GM fiat to steal a treasured magic item, unless the adventure is the retrieval of said magic item) That tends to feel like "The DM is out to get me!" and can breed hard feelings.
As far as your issue with making sure that event's A, B, and C happen, well, depending on what they are you have lot's of options. Most of which have already been discussed:
Make the player's tie their character motives in with either A, B or C
Make events independant of the PC's, if the events are large scale enough for them to notice then they'll want to get involved
Arrange to have NPC's that are peripheral to the main story guide the PC's into the location of your campaign events. The NPC's may or may not have anything todo with the major campaign events, but coincidences happen (especially in adventure stories!).
If you give some idea of what specific events A, B, and C are, I'm sure you can get more concrete advice, instead of broad general approaches.

Regardless, good luck, and try to avoid the trainstation!

2007-02-07, 01:10 AM
How much railroading will players tolerate? And/or how can railroading be done tolerably?

No group of players react to railroading the same way. When game opportunities/DMs are few, they'll swallow alot. If you run for group that plays in two other campaigns, with little or no DM railroading, they may pass on your whole game.

I'd advise you to get tips from the current DM without getting into story specifics. He knows how to entertain your group, it's a good style basis.

The key is to give a consistent, believable in-game reason for why the PCs are doing what you want them to, and to give them enough space to do what they want at the same time.

I fully agree. The best RPG sessions/campaigns I've been in are about collaborative story telling. Adapting the story to reflect the actions of the PCs is the source of my enjoyment of DMing. A good start to improv mastery is preparing several variants of one encounter to factor how the PCs get to them.

Set up PC creation parameters which allow them to enter initial plot point A. Their reaction to A (evil lieutenant) should modify B (evil superior): say, killing the evil lieutenant causes his superior to hire more goons. The resolution of B modifies C (mastermind): the defeat of the party by the superior leads to the evil mastermind getting arrogant/sloppy in implementing the master plan.

If A, B, & C absolutely must occur, set them away from the PCs, maybe as a prelude to the story.

2007-02-07, 01:25 AM
I'm a fan of the 'floating clue' technique.

There are all sorts of plot points that don't really have to happen at a particular time or place. Any of them can be moved. For example, maybe you need to have an agent of the Imperial Intelligence Corps give the heroes crucial information at high noon in Townsville Square.

But the heroes decide to be somewhere else at noon, either not knowing or not caring about the meeting. So the agent goes looking for them. Maybe she'll find them that day, maybe not. Either way, it's OK. Just make the appropriate changes 'behind the scenes'.

Or maybe they skip town because the rogue decided to steal a small fortune in jewelry (this actually happened to a party of mine). Now the agent has to go running after them to track them down. If it takes long enough, then she may remark to them that they're remarkably hard people to find or catch up with.

Or perhaps there are two roads to The City (the one that they're planning on going to for whatever reason). One road is safe, well-traveled, and comfortable. On that road, you've placed an inn (or a dungeon, or an ambush) where some plot-important point happens. However, the heroes, for their own reasons, decide not to take the safe road. Instead, they take the steep, narrow road through the mountains infested by Huge sentient boulder-monsters.

Assuming that the heroes aren't killed by the boulder-monsters, all you have to do is move the inn or ambush or dungeon to be along the road they actually took instead of the road you expected them to take. They'll never know the difference, and they got to have a great time fighting the boulder-monsters.

And, of course, the best technique is to have just enough preparation to do the next session or two (the period for which the plot is predictable because it's controlled by factors that are already determined) and rework things if necessary. If the evil mastermind finds out that his enemies just blew apart his most trusted lieutenant with fire magic, you can bet that he'll either run away or find ways to defend himself against fire magic.

2007-02-07, 06:28 AM
All excellent suggestions. I'm running a military style campaign now, so I get to do a lot of Saph's #1.

One important thing that no one's brought up yet is to know your own limitations. How much "PC system shock" can X duration of your campaign take? Let me give you an example.

In the current campain that I'm running (Military), the PC's all enlisted together and eventually became something of a spec ops, almost Mission Impossible meets Rambo style unit. So far they've been sent places and ordered around, and been in 2 modeately big battles. Their performance in the battles is important to them but not nescessarily crucial. Note that Saph's #2 (Parameters: the PC's were informed at the start that they were enlisting in the KSA army and should have backstories to match) and #1 (Orders from superiors) have been used to keep the PC's in line. The whole campaign is pretty much based on #4, providing a continuing motivation for the PCs to accept #1.

I have a reason for this: with the plot I've developed, there's no way under the sun that I could drop enough "hints" to get the PC's to do what they're supposed to relative to the plot. But that's in the context of the whole campaign - literally, I know that the whole of the plot can't handle the PC's if I cut them loose. But, their latest mission has taken them to an unusual scenario: an elven princess's galanae ball, prior to her wedding. Problem is, someone is trying to kill/hinder/cause misfortune to happen to someone at the ball or perhaps just disrupt it, and the PCs's mission is to figure out who's out to get who. The ball itself is important because a) it strengthens the human-elf relations and b) they were ordered to protect it. So the PC's were railroaded into the ball because they likely wouldn't go there on thier own.

However, I've spent enough time working on the gala scenario that I'm confidant that I can cut the PCs loose in terms of the mission. There are multiple endings to the event based on the PCs' actions, and other than "make sure that nothing goes horribly wrong" they have no standing orders regarding the ball. There's a superior officer there, but she can't supervise them directly so they really get free reign on thier own actions. They're free to talk to who they choose, make thier own plans, interact with all the parts of the palace, and manage their own time - even leave and look around town for clues. They find this to be a lot of fun after having been ordered around a while.

The point is, while the whole plot of the campaign couldn't handle the PCs without some railroading, the micro-plot of the gala event can. So the smaller the portion of the campaign you consider plus the amount of time you spent thinking about how certain things could affect it increases the amount of freedom you can give the PCs.

That Lanky Bugger
2007-02-07, 09:39 AM
Another method of railroading without appearing to railroad is something called the spiral plot. If A, B, and C need to happen you should plot the "what" of the events but not the "where". A should lead into B with both a tempting item or rumor and a threat if the players don't take action.

Let's say you've got A plotted out to be an encounter in a dank, abandoned temple in the wilds. However, the players have no interest in going into the wilds to look for this temple, and would rather mess around in the city. So instead, as they walk by a temple in the west district one night, some random NPC runs out and thrusts some paper into the hands of one of the PCs. An arrow arcs out of one of the windows and the NPC dies. More cultists appear from the temple door and charge at the PCs screaming "Protect the dynasty's treasure!", while one runs off shouting "I'll get the east gate's guard captain! We don't bribe him for nothing!"

Now the PCs have a reason to investigate the temple. Inside, there's some sort of treasure, as well as people willing to kill to protect some sort of secret. The town guard is coming, but not for a few hours. The PCs will probably want to investigate, and even if they choose to just run away the cultists AND the town guard will be after them for some secret they may or may not know.

The events of A could link to B by virtue of a cultist catching up to the PCs somewhere else, or some unrelated organization tracking down the PCs for the secrets from the temple mentioned above.

2007-02-07, 10:03 AM
I would not say I railroad. But then, my homebrew world is fleshed out to the point that if the PCs take off at any time form an area, I know what will happen to it. For example, I have my group currently aiding a besieged city and actually offered to be a strike force behind enemy lines.

Of course, if they didn't do this, I have enough info on what will happen to the city if they stay in it, or if they take the chance and run off entirely. That said, it is probably in their best interest to do this and that is enough for me to figgure out what I need to have well prepped for the next session.

So, in short, do not railroad; just provide incentives and know your group well enough to know roughly what they would do next.