Am I railroading my D&D group? That is a common question that many dungeon masters ask themselves. Many view railroading as a terrible thing, and it can be. But what is railroading and why should you care about railroading?
When asking ‘Am I railroading my D&D group?’ The answer to this is simple. Railroading is when your player’s choice does actually not matter.
Do you see how this can be a problem? If a player ever feels powerless, they quickly lose the will to play, and, can you really blame them? No one wants to feel like their choices are meaningless, but many choices that we make are. Did you eat two or three eggs? Did you chose shoes A or shoes B? These are all meaningless choices in the long run, but what about more important decisions?
Change can’t to can
You need to let your players make decisions that are meaningful. Like the example above, not every decision needs to be meaningful. The main decisions, the decisions that shape their character or the game when given the choice matter.
Let’s say that a dungeon master wants the players to go on a certain path to reach a destination. Before this happens, the dungeon master gives them two choices on a path. Right or left. Right is towards a town, and left is towards the destination you want them to go. The players say right because they don’t want to re-supply and left looks dangerous. The dungeon master tells the players no and that they are going on the left path.
This is absolutely terrible. This dungeon master above practically told the players that their choice is meaningless, and they must submit to a higher power to make any decision. So what should you do in that situation? Should you just let them take the wrong path?
In the example above, the dungeon master said to the players that they can’t do something instead of saying that they can. But how can you as a dungeon master accept them going left? There are a few options.
Option one, do not present the choice. If you want the players to go one way, then make them go that way. Do not let the players think they have a choice to only then rip it away from them.
Option two, roll with the punches. I prefer to do this as a dungeon master, but rolling with any decision your party makes can be a difficult thing to do. I only recommend doing this if you are an experienced dungeon master, or have a very improvisational style.
Option three, repurpose the encounter. Oh no, you didn’t go to the palace of the demon necromancer. I cannot fathom why you chose to not go there, but instead to a town! (sarcasm*) If your players go to the town, you can either link the plot with the town (raised undead that are threatening the town) or just make Gregor the grave digger be a necromancer. Completely repurpose the encounter to a town setting rather than a palace setting, change the name, and have the players hear from the villain that the other place was actually a decoy.
This makes the players feel smart and special when they didn’t actually do anything different, but they now feel their choice mattered.
Plan environments, not plot
I am a big proponent of planning your environments instead of plots so that you can repurpose as we did above. If you plan the environment, how people will react, and understand the characters that you have created gameplay will go well.
If you planned the plot about how in the castle the necromancer beats the players and turns them into his minions and forces moral dilemmas, your plan will go poorly. Instead, you plan out what the necromancer wants to do, how his castle, minions, and he works. Now your life will be so much better.
Now that you do not have a plan of what will happen, your players are free to make any decision or action that will not destroy the game. You as a dungeon master can adapt to anything that your players will do, even the unexpected, because you know the environment well enough. This is much better than scrambling to figure out how in the world to fix the plot.
No plan survives contact with the players
There is an old quote that says ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ Just this once, you can think of your players as the enemy. When you make a plan or a plot, it will not survive first contact with your players. Some people might disagree with this and say that players will only destroy the plot at a crucial time. To you say, what caused that decision?
So what do you do once your players completely break everything that you have worked so hard for?
You can always fix things
I think that my current game is a great example of this. If you want to hear a story that is directly linked to this topic, sign up for my newsletter! You will also get some resources and eventually hear the ongoing story of my current campaign.
Not to spoil too much, my players screwed up. We are doing a module and….um…. Well….. The players might have let the person they were supposed to save
This has completely broken the module that I am running. This person that they ‘saved’ was supposed to be crucial to the plot later on providing information that makes them understand where to search.
That ain’t gonna happen now!
So what did I do? I adapted in order to fix things.
Now that my players have completely screwed up the game, what do I do? Look at your environment, and with a clear head consider your options. You may need to take a day, or a few days, off of Dungeons and Dragons. Once you return, think about what you can use.
My players are currently in a big city and are now unknown to many factions. Many doors were closed that day, but the players still have some friends. These friends can get the information and replace the dead person who the players were meant to save.
Genius! There was also an infinite number of ways to solve this problem, but I was able to adapt to the situation. Think of what you can do with the environment and current player allies. By doing this, you too can adapt to any situation.
Now in the above example, I let that important NPC die. I could have said that the NPC escaped, but I didn’t do that. That seems cheap to me and is a blatant railroad. Instead, there are more subtle ways to railroad while not railroading my D&D group.
When the players looked down the passageway, the players could see a big room. Most players at the table are experienced, and big rooms most of the time mean a big fight is about to go down. Warning one!
Something else I could have done was make the party hear screams of anguish since the NPC in question was being tortured. I didn’t do that since the warning was obvious. Next room will be a big fight, and you want to be prepared.
The players chose to ignore that, and one player died that day. Note to self, do not charge into a boss room when you have 2 hp and know nothing about the enemy……
Something not to do is give your players a false choice. A false choice is where the player picks an option. Let’s use A and B for an example. I flip a coin, is the coin in hand A or hand B? Trick question, the answer is neither since I used sleight of hand. Haha!
This would just make someone angry. You have given them a task and had them play a game with clear options. Instead, you lied to them and became scummy instead of clever.
This behavior is only fitting for con artists and or people trying to fool others. The worst part is, you as the dungeon master are flaunting it in the players face because at some point they will figure out that you lied to them. This is never good. Don’t lie, trick, or cheat your players in a malicious way. Ever.
Make the world alive
If your players are making meaningful impacts upon the world AND their choices matter, the world becomes alive.
It is hard to immerse yourself in a game that tells you no all the time. The same thing is for Dungeons and Dragons. If you are told no, you will want to stop and do something that matters. That is why saying yes is important.
If you as a dungeon master say yes to the player’s decisions, they will feel validated. The world will become alive, and they can truly make an impact! This dynamic flow makes your world become more alive, and immerse your players into the world creating an attachment. They helped shape the world, and are now more invested. Keep that feeling alive to improve your Dungeons and Dragons game!
Punishment is not railroading
If a player burns down an orphanage and goes to jail, this is not railroading. If a player is caught breaking and entering to stop an evil villain. only to have the watch believe the respectable individual (the villain), this is not railroading. Lastly, if the players steal, are caught, and have to serve jail time, this is not railroading.
All the examples above are consequences. Dungeon masters, please, always punish your players when they have earned the punishment. If a dungeon master lets their players get away with everything, then the players will completely destroy the world. Make the game realistic, but do not force punishment.
Consequences for natural actions are fine, making punishment happen because you want to is pretty scummy. In order to know the difference, ask yourself these questions.
- Did the players have a real choice?
- Did the players deserve this consequence for the actions they took?
- Does it make sense?
- Did the players choice cause this to happen?
If the answer is yes to all four of these questions, you are not railroading. If you want to read more about consequences, check this article out.
Some want to be railroaded
I have made almost an entire post about how railroading my D&D group and every other is bad, so how can it be good? Newer players, or even some experienced players, want to have a narratively solid game.
We play most of our games in a linear fashion. If you want to read more about linear games, read here. If players want linear games, they sometimes want to sacrifice creativity and choice for security. The players want to make sure that the game will go in a certain direction and be fun for them.
If you think your players want to play this type of game, find out in session 0. I am not a fan of this but to each their own.
Linear vs. railroading
At this point, you may be confused about what is the difference between linear and railroaded games. Both games have an overall goal, plot, and idea where the game is going. Both want the players to do x so that they can go to z and have ending 1a. But these two concepts are completely different.
If you read the linear article, it talks about how my group is running an adventure module. My group has completely destroyed the game by some decisions made, and I have to adapt.
In a railroaded game, the players would not destroy the game. The main bad guy would be suddenly sick, the players can’t die, or at the very worst the NPC can pull a deus ex machina and win the day.
The players made a choice to be stupid, so they suffered the consequences. The player’s choices mattered. This is what the difference is between linear vs. railroading. Player choice needs to matter.
Railroading is forcing the players’ choices to not matter and making the game go a certain direction. Railroading is terrible when done to this extent, but some people do like it.
The strength of Dungeons and D
If you think you are railroading, ask yourself those four questions above. You can easily fix railroading by saying ‘yes’ to player choices after session 0. Let them happen, but please punish them with the appropriate consequence when it is deserved.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!