Monday, December 18, 2017

Herd Your Players, Don't Railroad Them

When you're a dungeon master, you put a lot of thought into the plots you put before your players. While the town being attacked by goblin raiders might not seem like a big deal, you know that those raiders are acting at the behest of the Brotherhood of Shadows who want them to steal an important item, and that if the PCs stop the goblins then the Brotherhood will send assassins to take them out. If the assassins are taken alive, and questioned, the PCs will find themselves being led to the door of the local lord, who can tell the party about his cohorts if they catch him off-guard. Then they can follow his information back to their hideout, and find out that the Brotherhood's goal all along has been to release a bound fiend, who is one of their major targets of worship.

Now, that might all sound simple and straightforward in your head. However, a campaign that linear is like a Rube Goldberg device. All it takes is one incident not going the way you expect, or your players stepping off that carefully constructed path, for things to start going wrong in a big way. So, rather than drawing out a straight path you expect your players to follow, instead, flesh out the world around them.

While it might not sound like it, this makes your life easier rather than harder.

And over here, we've got a happy little goblin... and a few thousand of his friends.

The More Options You Have, The Easier Herding Becomes

While you should have an idea of what's going on, and how to get the party involved in the plot, it's important that you be more concerned with what you want the party to do, rather than how you want them to do it.

Take the example above. The end goal is for the party to stop the release of the shadow fiend, and potentially to fight it as the big bad of the campaign. How they get to that final encounter shouldn't have rails under it, though. Instead, set the events of the world in motion, and let your party find their way into the machine using an entrance that appeals to them.

You happen to have an example up your sleeve?
If the idea is to get the party to oppose the goblin raiders, and to eventually get them to track the goblins back to the warren where the loot is stored, what happens if they don't take that hook? Sure, they'll defend themselves against the raiders, but what if the party sets up defenses in town to repel the goblins instead? No matter how many waves of greenskins you throw at the town, the party just digs in deeper, and turns it into a siege instead of going out after the stolen loot.

That's fine. Instead, back up and look at the events of the world. If the Brotherhood has enslaved the goblins to raid the town in order to steal a specific item, and the party isn't leaving town to go get it the way you originally wanted them to, then say the item is still in town. The goblins repeated failures to procure the item would lead to their masters sending in the assassins mentioned earlier to kill the town's protectors, and to steal the treasure. The same minions are showing up, but instead of tracking down the party after they raided the warren, the assassins are now trying to sneak into a heavily fortified town. A change of pace, but the same goal is being accomplished plot-wise.

The party raiding the warren isn't what's important, no matter how many maps you have drawn up of those caverns. By knowing the big picture, and understanding where all the moving pieces are, you can roll with your players' decisions in ways that don't involve dragging them along your pre-set route.

Take it a step further. You wanted the party to spare at least one of the assassins' lives in order to get information out of him, but instead they just kill all of them. Well, now there's no one to question regarding who is sending all these minions into the town. Well, what information can they glean from the assassins' clothes, their weapons, and their skills? Does someone have knowledge of them? Are they freelancers, or are they part of a particular sect? You could slip the party plot-relevant details through these Perception checks. But what if the party decides this whole thing is too big for them, so the players decide to leave town to summon help in defending the region? Well, in that case, they ride to the local hub of power to ask the lord to send the militia, or even knights, to help them deal with this problem. That's where you bring up the corrupt lord who serves the Brotherhood, who now tries to deal with these pesky adventurers himself. Rather than the assassins ratting him out, he party will now find out whose hand was behind the attempt on their lives by surviving another attempt, or by poking around his mansion, or questioning the servants about who had come and gone recently. If the butler turns up his nose at all these ruffians coming to call, and describes the leader of the assassins the party defeated, then they'll have a clue to follow up on.

And if they went to one of the other towns in the area to raise aid instead? Well, they're just small towns, and don't have the resources the party needs to push back the goblin hordes. They'd be told they need to head to the local power center if they wanted to get any help from that quarter. Which makes sense, after all, because you've mapped out what resources exist in the region, and who controls them.

What Exists In The World?

The surest sign of a railroad game is there is nothing in the setting that isn't part of the main plot the DM wants players to follow. The only tavern with fleshed-out NPCs in it is the one where they get plot hooks. The only NPCs they can interact with are the ones that act as sign posts. Towns that aren't key to the campaign will just be empty fronts where they can re-supply, and catch a night's sleep.

Don't do that.

Before you start the game, pull up a big list of NPCs, locations, and other things your players are going to run into. If you're in a small town that relies on lumber, then stat out the whole town. Name the sawmill, have NPCs to act as lumberjacks, and put a few tavern names and descriptions in your notes. Then, once you have a slew of stuff for your central town, make notes on the surrounding area. Where are the nearby towns, and what's in them? Where are the forests? Who resides there, if anyone? What sort of game animals can be found? What dangerous monsters live there? Where are the farms, the trading routes, and the merchants who use them?

By having all those details to hand, you make it clear that players really do have all kinds of options, and that they have the freedom to make choices. You also make it clear that their choices will have consequences, which is one of the most important things to have in a game if you want players to take the story line (and their roles within it) seriously. And you know what actions taken on one part of the map will do to what's going on in the other quadrants.

That's all for my thoughts this Moon Pope Monday, but hopefully it helps DMs out there who are trying to reduce the raildroading feel of their games. For more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, and take a listen at Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and other talented gamers do our best to bring the world of Evora to life. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help keep Improved Initiative going, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it will get you some sweet swag as a thank you!

1 comment:

  1. From my experience, this really does make the job of the dm easier. It requires a little more start uo work, but once it's done, it makes it way easier to tell the story, to get players to the objective, and to maximize everyone's fun.

    As another side effect, I found it even makes gaming tropes usually tend to reduce the quality of a game (like the ever infamous random encounters) into a plot point. Maybe those very same assassins found that because the goblin invasions werent working, they decided to starve out the town, and as such, hired highwaymen to waylay supply caravans and travelers; a plot the party might find out by interrogation, finding a note, etc