All Aboard the Railroading Train?

When the Dungeon Master is in charge, not the dice.

Dungeons & Dragons Understanding Railroading

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You sit down to play your Dungeons & Dragons campaGameTopic with your friends, but they’ve been in the starting location for two hours. You’ve been taught how to handle this through Reddit, online generators, and guides (perhaps these guides…), you’re in your second hour, and they haven’t even moved their characters from the table. This is a problem. You want them to go to the Cave of Doom, but by the time they’re moving their characters out of the tavern, the party’s decided to explore the Meadow of Tranquility.

But you’ve only prepared the Cave! So, you narrate a red dragon swooping through, picking them up, and dropping them into the Cave of Doom. Your party’s put out, your players accuse you of ‘railroading,’ and you’re left wondering, “Wait, what did I do wrong?”

What Is Railroading? 🚞

Three adventurers– a wizard, a fighter, and a monk flee from a blue dragon

Railroading is diverse and defined differently from table to table. For instance, some people see railroading as a singular boulder being placed in a very narrow path, limiting access to an area. Others see railroading in the form of NPCs directing characters from step to step on their quest without giving the players any agency to decide what those steps might be. You may even find some people who define railroading as being told directly how your character behaves in a situation, or as certain NPCs having plot armor.

None of these interpretations are entirely wrong, either!

In truth, railroading is used as an umbrella term to describe giving the players the illusion of choice while secretly (or, in some cases, obviously) offering none. The Dungeon Master forces their players to run along a particular path with no room for deviation, and the result is as the Dungeon Master intended. Whether or not you want to go to the Meadow of Tranquility, you will end up in the Cave of Doom.

For a lot of players, this is frustrating. They may feel their creativity is being limited, and the collaborative nature of the game is undermined in favor of a Dungeon Master’s total control over the narrative. In a lot of ways, it is. The players aren’t wrong. However, railroading is a common pitfall most new Dungeon Masters fall into, and, while bothersome, is nothing that can’t be fixed.

How To Avoid Railroading 🚃

Jared warn Basil of the Deck’s many dangers

So now that you know what the enigmatic railroad is, you can learn to avoid it. If you find yourself wanting your world to be more of a sandbox, there are a couple of things you can do.

Don’t Overplan 📝

The enemy of DMs everywhere is assuming that they have to be prepared for every little thing their players do. Not only is this an extraordinary amount of work for something you may only do once a week, but it’s also impossible. Your players are human. They’ll get distracted by a shiny in-campaGameTopic thing or attach to Joe the Bartender.

What could help instead is to recognize what’s possible. Have a basic outline of each area, and have a vague understanding of how things work, but don’t get specific. Try to plan one session at a time, because a lot can change in a single session, and have little notes.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have an overarching plot or long-term goal, just accept that at any point it could change. Have failsafe in place for what you think your campaGameTopic can’t survive without, but don’t run your campaGameTopic according to a rigid outline.

Get Flexible 💪

Your players go to a forest, but you’ve planned for bandits to be on the road. No problem. They might not get to that encounter exactly, but you don’t have to give up hours of planning. You can still put that encounter in the forest!

You may find it helpful not to make certain encounters area-specific. Open your mind to what your players want to do and be prepared to move encounters around!

Your players will engage with it, or they won’t, which is what they’d have the option to do anyway. You can give them the choice to intervene, watch, or keep walking. Either way, this lets you move your story along, which will lead you to the next point…

Employ Consequences Often 💥

Many times, DMs fall back on railroading because their players simply won’t move the story themselves. But you don’t have to worry. Dungeons & Dragons, at heart, is a game built on consequences. Your players make a decision, you hit them with a consequence.

Consequences don’t have to be bad. Many aren’t, and stressing that fact to your players can help move a story along. Sometimes, helping the elven ranger means the Emerald Enclave is willing to help you down the line, just as killing her might turn them against you.

By using consequences frequently, your story will feel more like a living, breathing thing and will help you prepare for events in the story rather than the campaGameTopic itself.

Let Players Guide The Story 👥

Ask your players what they want to do ahead of the session and try to incorporate it in, when possible. Employ liberal use of feedback and ask them what parts of the story they want to see more or less of. A lot of the time, DMs may be afraid of their players derailing the story, but the simple fact is that if your group works with your playstyle, you should be able to trust them enough to alGameTopic their campaGameTopic goals with yours.

Aside from that, be open to events and wishes that crop up within your story. Learning your players’ draws and engaging with them is better than NOT knowing what they like and will follow!

How To Fix Railroading 🚂

Knights of Solamnia crossing castlegrounds in DND

So, you’ve already dropped them in the Cave of Doom. Maybe your players are upset about it, or maybe they haven’t realized it’s railroading yet. What do you do?

The good news is that if you’ve recognized the fact that you’re railroading your party, stopping it is easy. If the incident was recent, you may find it helpful to reach out to your party and ask them if they’d be comfortable walking back the incident or asking if they’d rather start where they wanted to go. If the event was further back, it may just be easier to acknowledge that it happened and move on.

If you have an NPC that’s been ordering the players this way and that, consider finding a way to write the NPC out so the players have to make decisions about their quests on their own. Start by introducing choices (“Do you want to fight the orc or run? Or do you have something else in mind?”) and follow through. The most important part of fixing railroading is the communication you have with your players.

Some campaGameTopics are more linear than others. Steps have been taken in communities of popular modules to expand the linear storytelling to be less railroad-y, but linear stories aren’t bad, nor are they necessarily railroading. Some players prefer more direction, and, as established, one man’s railroad is another man’s guideline.

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By following these tips, you can avoid the dreaded railroading and create a more immersive and engaging campaGameTopic for you and your players. Remember, the key is to provide choices, consequences, and opportunities for your players to shape the story. Keep the tracks clear and let their imaginations run wild!

Reference List

  1. Dungeons & Dragons Tips to Help Players Make Characters
  2. Dungeons & Dragons: How to Get Feedback From Players

🗣️ Now it’s your turn! Have you encountered railroading in your campaGameTopic? How did you deal with it? Share your experiences below and let’s keep the conversation rolling! Don’t forget to share this article with your fellow adventurers on social media. Happy gaming! 🎉🎮🥳