On Railroading

I’ve been running Hoard of the Dragon Queen for my Raleigh Dungeons & Dragons crew. I had played through it with my Chicago group a few years ago, and I thought it was plenty of fun – it has some cool fights, and that’s really all I would ask of any D&D module – so when I all of a sudden found myself DMing for a group of new players, it seemed like a logical choice. I was excited to be picking up the books and running this adventure I had such fond memories of.

And then, once I started prepping the campaign from the book, I found myself frequently annoyed and underwhelmed. As it turns out, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is a deeply, deeply flawed module. The pacing is terrible; the most exciting set piece in the entire campaign comes at the very beginning, and nothing that happens after comes remotely close. Since it was the first adventure published for 5th Edition, it references rules that didn’t make the final cut of the game (give me a second here, while I roll up an ‘expert level’ treasure hoard). Many of the event descriptions are vague to the point of being useless, and accompanied by irrelevant background information. There are very few maps of anything, including encounter areas. Dungeon Mastering is always work, but I’m starting to think I would have been better off homebrewing my own campaign with a vaguely similar plot.

I am hardly the first person to complain about Hoard of the Dragon Queen, either on the internet or in meatspace. While D&D is more popular and socially accepted these days that I would have ever thought possible, it remains a game made by nerds, for nerds, and nerds are the dirt worst. They bitch about everything, which is exhausting. While some of the common complaints about Hoard closely resemble my own, one of the most common is that the module leans to heavily on ‘railroading’.

What is railroading? Simply put, railroading is when a DM forces his/her players to take specific actions (or disallows specific actions) in order to move the plot along. It is not something that happens at the written level of modules, it’s something the DM does – some written adventures are excessively linear, and that can easily lead to acts of railroading, however, these are separate (but related) concepts. It has a deeply negative connotation in tabletop RPG circles, so, like any term nerds use solely as a trump card for winning arguments, the meaning has become somewhat muddied. The term itself has become synonymous with the problem it represents.

Here’s the thing – every DM engages in railroading from time to time. Every tabletop RPG adventure has a certain plot, and that means sometimes the DM needs to ensure certain conditions are satisfied in order for the plot to move, and an experienced DM can often railroad the players without their noticing. There is nothing wrong with this. The actual problem of railroading arises when the DM’s acts of railroading undermine player agency.

Every player wants to be able to evaluate and attempt to solve the problems he/she is presented with as he/she sees fit; this is no less than 75% of the fun of tabletop RPGs (the other 25% is, of course, rolling dice). As such, when the DM tells a player he/she cannot attempt to assassinate a certain NPC, or dispel the magic of a certain MacGuffin, or otherwise prevents a player from trying something he/she could reasonably try because doing so would disrupt the adventure as planned, railroading becomes a problem. As a player, there’s nothing worse than devising a clever plan to solve whatever problem the party is facing, only to be denied the opportunity to even try it because the DM lacks creativity.

I’m by no means the best DM out there, however, I have been doing it long enough to have figured out some ways to prevent the bad kind of railroading. Here are the most important ones:

  • Make sure there are always multiple solutions to every problem. Some modules only specify one possible solution to a problem or puzzle. If you’re prepping a module for a game, and you come across an obstacle that only has one specified solution, take some time to devise at least one other possible solution. For example, say you’re prepping a dungeon from a module, and in this dungeon there is a pit trap in the middle of a hallway. The only way to get past the trap the module specifies is by jumping across. What kind of nonsense is that? Surely, there are other ways to get past. You could allow the players to pole vault over, say, or put a notch in the ceiling the plays could tie a rope to, thus allowing them to swing across. Even if you can’t think of any alternative solutions, at the very least try and think of appropriate ability checks or skill checks players could make to overcome the obstacle.

  • Reward lateral thinking, whenever possible. This is very, very closely related to the first point. You don’t have to think of every possible solution to a problem because your players may very well do it for you! Let’s return to the example of the pit trap. You’re running your game and the party gets to the pit. Since you didn’t want to force everyone to jump across, you added a rope notch in the ceiling. But once the party gets there, they don’t try to jump across, and no one pays attention to the notch. However, the big, burly barbarian asks if he/she could try to toss the other players across. You didn’t think of this as a possible solution, but that’s fine! You don’t have to anticipate everything, and in fact, it is foolish to try. Allow your players to come up with their own creative solutions, and reward them for doing so, as long as the proposed solution is reasonable relative to the situation. You can either have the player succeed automatically or call for an appropriate check, your choice. Note that this both enhances player agency and relieves the pressure on you as DM to anticipate every possible course of action.

  • Anticipate the possible deaths of key NPCs. Every campaign has non-player characters, and some of those NPCs, whether they are villains or allies, move the plot along in certain ways at certain points. But players are unpredictable, and they will do things you cannot possible anticipate, and sometimes that means an NPC gets killed before he/she has discharged his/her usefulness to the plot. Maybe the party decides to up and murder the Big Bad during an early villain speech, maybe the wizard accidentally burns down a building containing a key ally, etc. When you’re prepping your game, identify every NPC that moves the plot in some way, and start thinking about what might happen if this character dies before he/she is meant to. You don’t need to plot out every possible scenario that happens next – prepping a module as written is work enough, and, since your players are never going to act exactly as you expect, that way lies madness. Rather, just think about things that may happen if a key NPC bites it. There are too many possible ways to deal with NPC deaths for me to list here, so I’ll just tell you one thing not to do: Don’t replace the dead NPC with an equivalent NPC. It’s lazy and it undermines player agency, since whatever the party did to kill the original NPC did not come with actual consequences, rendering that action (or those actions) meaningless. (Please note that everything in this point applies to MacGuffins, as well; when you get right down to it, many NPCs are just MacGuffins with a personality.)

  • Play loose. The eternal struggle for every DM is the struggle of preparation. There is a lot of information to digest and keep straight both during pre-game preparation and during the game itself, and it is mostly impossible to keep everything straight all the time. Therefore, when one of your players inevitably does something you did not expect or plan for, it is easy to get flustered, since you are now expected to adjudicate the result of actions you are not sure the adventure cannot accommodate easily, or at all. It’s tempting to think that the solution to this is to plan for absolutely everything, but it’s not. For starters, you’re never, ever going to be able to anticipate every single thing your party might try. There isn’t enough time in the day (or year, or decade), and you’ll go nuts. Also, there is such a thing as over-preparing for a game. Since the problem of preparation is fundamentally a problem of information retention, it is very possible to give yourself too much information to remember, and stretching yourself thin as a result. I had a rough session last week for this reason; I had everything as written out as I possibly could, but then one of my players asked me a little question about something I hadn’t given much thought to. This was the straw that broke my uh…mind camel’s back, so to speak, and it threw me entirely off of my game for the rest of the session. Don’t stress yourself out by rigidly plotting out every possibility. Instead, play loose. Make yourself comfortable with improvising, and “Yes, and” with your players whenever you can, and be up front with them when you can’t. Spend some time thinking about what might happen in the wake of something unexpected, but don’t work on this too hard – just kick around possibilities in the back of your mind. In the absolute worst case scenario, when the party does something so unexpected that you cannot think of how to move forward with the adventure in the moment, be honest with your players about it. Tell them you didn’t see this coming at all, and you need to call the session early so you can regroup and figure out what happens next. Your players will understand, and if they don’t, that’s their problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s