Railroading or Player-Centric plot?

Good evening everyone and welcome to a bit of a discussion around Railroading or Player-Centric plot.

When it comes down to the definition of railroading it boils down to, basically the following. “The DM taking control of the outcomes of the adventure despite the actions of the players”.

The beginning

When I was a 5 year old boy learning D&D from my dad railroading wasn’t a concept. No really. It wasn’t. You would play an adventure, go from point A-B. You would track the bandits to their lair that had been overrun with stirge’s, find the mcguffin and bring it back to the nearby village. That was it. The adventure really became a single road leading to adventure, combat and loot. Even the adventure books that came out during that time also were of the same page. A single adventure, albeit longer, where you went from A-B and then to C after you had found out that NPC1 was really BBEG2. Or something like that.

This made it easy to DM. In fact all you needed was one adventure, the plot hook and all you had to do was run it using your prep sheet. You had to improvise around the decisions during the adventure of course but this wasn’t hard to do. As the DM you knew your NPCs, the map and the creatures. You didn’t have to worry about what was off the beaten track and your players knew it.

The players came in expecting adventure, they were trained mercenaries, henchmen or heroes and they had a job to do. They had to explore the hidden dungeon, find the mad alchemists lair and defeat the golems within. These heroes didn’t care for the nearby keep – that was another adventure and this alchemist was dangerous. And so the adventures went like that. Each session a new adventure, a new story and new things to see and explore – but all prepared for by a Dungeon Master who spent hours on it for the players, and their, enjoyment.

The shift

You remember Skyrim? maybe it was your first RPG. For me Neverwinter nights was my first digital RPG and boy was it great. You could move through the towns, buildings, dungeons and sewers and learn and do anything. But there were doors that needed keys and those keys were kept by holders of the plot. You couldn’t continue to the next town until you had done the quest before hand. And you couldn’t do that quest until you completed the one currently assigned to you. Yes the bakers wife would ask you to kil lrats in her basement as a side quest – but you didn’t leave the city until much later.

With the rise of open world games and bigger RPGs, like Skyrim, we saw the humble style of fun weekender-one-shots step aside for long winded campaigns that were completely driven by players decisions. This makes it harder to plan and organise for the DM, which is 100% fine. But the counter argument is if the story is that an evil wizard is in a castle to the north you want the party to find that castle. You don’t want them exploring the swamp-islands to the south where the cannibalistic tribes of Kuthrapika hunt the marshy waterways. Though – that does sound fun now doesn’t it?

Railroading or Player-Centric plot?

The rise of “your decisions, your story” is putting the classic “Your decisions, my quest” in a negative light in some circles. This unrealistic expectation of the DM shifting, changing and maintaining multiple story lines and bending the game that they facilitate (yes.. the big F word..) makes it harder to convince players to come along with you on the journey through the adventure you have crafted.

The old saying of “it takes two to tango” is so true with D&D these days and the real quest is getting the players to care about your story enough and stick to it and not go looking for adventure but trust that you have it in spades, waiting for them to come along for the journey.

Well that’s it for me tonight. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow night where I will take you through the weekly write-up and look to finish up this month. If you have a different view on railroading let us know, let’s talk about it openly from players and dungeon masters alike as the game has changed heaps since I was a kid and the adventure needs to work for both DM and player.

Don’t forget to read up on the past week, look out for new stat-blocks and potential new items for our adventurers in the coming posts and, as always, don’t forget to roll with advantage,
The Brazen Wolfe