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Plotting, Part 1: In Defense of the Railroad

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

There is no “right way” to be a Game Master. There are lots of different styles, and the way I run a game might not work as well for you. That’s why, for the next few weeks, we’ll be focusing on different ways to handle plot in RPGs. This week, we’ll talk about the much maligned “railroad tracks.”

For those unfamiliar, “railroad tracks” refer to a campaign where the story is specifically laid out for the Party to follow. Usually, there’s a right way to accomplish the tasks ahead and advance the story, and deviation can stall things or even interrupt the flow. When a GM has to guide the players back to the main story, it’s usually referred to as “railroading.”

Generally, railroading gets a bad reputation, and it’s not hard to see why. As a game master who has railroaded a campaign before, there’s a way to do it well, and a way to do it poorly. In my first campaign, I did it poorly. I robbed the players of agency time and time again, and made it clear that there was a specific plot they had to follow.

In my second campaign, I learned from my mistakes, and from other games I had played since. Even when our campaign took a hiatus, I learned a few tricks from the campaign one of my players ran during that break, so I could return with a new set of tools. And the first is this: the player choices have to have an impact.

For my next campaign, I attempted to run the Tyranny of Dragons a pre-written adventure. Tyranny of Dragons is generally a bit hit-and-miss – some aspects of it work really well, and others not as much. But it is, essentially, a railroad adventure. While it is a pre-written module that can’t predict everything your players will do, it also has some moments baked into the DNA of the adventure to help guide your party to the main plot.

However, our campaign died on the vine during Chapter 4, where the party accompanies a caravan to Waterdeep. In my game, the party was frustrated. On the one hand, that’s because the adventure does an excellent job of building the Cult of the Dragon as a very hate-able group of villains. The cult is a collection of bad people doing bad things, and somehow staying a step ahead of the party. And to a degree, that level of frustration is good… as long as it goes somewhere. But when the party started to get antsy, they started trying new and different ways to draw the Cultists out… and some of these ideas were pretty outrageous.

For example: while stopped in Baldur’s Gate, one player managed to convince an innocent civilian to help lure out the dragon cultists by advertising “dragon eggs” on his restaurant menu. Behind my DM screen, I rolled the equivalent of a perception check to see if the cult would find out about this restaurant. They did. The civilian was killed. This drove the party on an ill-fated revenge mission, where they managed to take out a criminal in the city who had harbored the cult, but did not manage to find any actual cultists.

Managing an adventure like Tyranny of Dragons is challenging, because when they arrived in Baldur’s Gate and I told them they have a few days to kill, I didn't just want to push the players into doing a quick montage; they were in a new city, and they wanted to try to find dragon cultists. After all, I’d just spent several sessions building them up as a villain!

But I also knew that the cultists were leaving in a caravan at the end of the week, so they’re not exactly sneaking around killing puppies or holding secret meetings; they were mostly lying low. But the players had a good plan (well, an interesting plan) to try to draw the attention of the cult, so I wanted to honor that behavior.

But regardless of whether or not the party kills all the cultists in Waterdeep or on the caravan, they know that the only way they can find answers is by going to Waterdeep. And that’s how a railroad works. You don’t necessarily have to force the players to go places they don’t want to go (which is something Tyranny of Dragons sometimes fails at); you just have to give them incentives to go there.

In my last campaign, the railroad tracks were plain as day, but the party didn’t mind them, as they followed their curiosity. How did that woman come back to life? We have to find the other woman in her past, the one who abducted her... Well, we killed that evil woman, but she has a lot of notes about someplace called "The Valley of Summer," maybe we can find answers there!... Well, we’re in the Valley of Summer, but we’re learning about something called the "Blade of Fate," maybe we can find that and use it to kill the bad guys!... and so on.

That’s how a railroad campaign should work, when it’s used well. And, of course, you have to be adaptable. The hardest part about running “Tyranny of Dragons” was that I didn’t write it. Sure, that makes it easy, because I can just bust out the book and start running the game with very little prep, but that does make it harder to improvise. It’s only when I go in and heavily annotate the book, such as completely redesigning the characters in the caravan section, that I start to feel some ownership over that part of the adventure. That’s why, when a member of the party dressed up as a high priestess and drew the focus of the cultists, I knew how many of them there were, and how they would react. Running a pre-written campaign doesn’t take away all the prep time needed to run a game, unfortunately, but it does simplify your prep dramatically.

And at the end of the day, that’s the benefit of railroad tracks when they work: clarity of purpose. My Tyranny of Dragons group knew their goal, because the story had given them a clear purpose – they had to stop the dragon cult. They might not know what the cult is doing, but they had a very clear goal in mind.

The problem with Tyranny of Dragons is that the book - at least the caravan section - actually had a different goal: show the players a tour of the Sword Coast. Which makes Chapter 4 especially rushed and unsatisfying. And when that was their priority, other aspects of the game suffered. The bones were there, and in theory, Tyranny of Dragons could be a great adventure. But without that clarity of purpose, you wind up with frustrated players.

Next week, however, we’ll talk about the other major approach to plotting in RPGS, the sandbox adventure. Let’s see if I can get through that one without spoiling all the secrets of my other campaigns.

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