Dungeons & Dragons Online

Let’s Talk About Railroading And Worldbuilding

I've seen quite a few posts here either worrying about railroading players, or misunderstanding what railroading is. I would like to offer my perspective and spark some discussion about ways to more dynamically involve players in your world and story without forcing it. We'll also talk about the relationship between railroading and worldbuilding, and how too much of one makes too much of the other.

When I am starting a new campaign with new players, I give them my spiel. In that spiel I like to lay out my GM-ing style (I actually GM more Pathfinder and play more 5e as a player, but the same general stuff applies).

I explain to my players that my campaigns are like a tiered sandbox. At tier 0, they are free to go wherever they wish and do whatever they like. This usually ends up filling session time between more story-relevant sessions, and is where I leave a lot of my worldbuilding up to the players themselves. Let's give an example: they've just cleared out a dungeon and don't really have any pressing quests to finish at the moment, and they see a nearby town on the map. As the GM, I threw that town name and location down, and haven't really given it more thought than that. I might tailor what they find their to their expectations (such as a nice inn to rest at or maybe a general store), or maybe pull out some mild backstory hooks/NPCs). The sandbox builds the world around them, organically, based on their choices and preferences. Maybe my sorcerer has been taking an interest in some of the lore of an extinct race in my setting… well now some ancient carvings or burial sites might pop up during their travels. This can eventually "build into" the higher tiers as the campaign progresses, into full-on side plots, or even tie into the main campaign.

At Tier 1, we have the first "layer" of planned worldbuilding. This is usually going to include some plot/character-relevant locations, NPCs, or quest triggers, but not things on such a level where missing them is going to derail the entire campaign. Think of it as flavor or small twists in the story. Quest clues may point to these things, but if the players decide not to visit, then the story will shift and other opportunities will arise later. This "layer" is usually stuff I've fleshed out a little more (such as a larger town or small city in a region that contains plot-relevant stuff), but not to a level of high detail.

At tier 2, we have the "plot hooks" layer. These are places/npcs/items/triggers that tie in directly to the main line of the campaign. There might be small consequences for ignoring these things, and the level of detail and planning I put in is a little higher. These are capital cities, important-but-not-critical NPCs, etc.

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At tier 3, we have what I call "plot cattle prods." This usually eclipses the places/npcs/items and becomes actual world events that shape the story of the campaign. My players are still free to ignore these things… but there might be dire consequences. A warring state has decided to march on the capital city and the captain of the guard calls to the party for aid after they helped previously? If they don't go, a beloved or even important NPC might die, or they might be marked as traitors to the realm.

At tier 4, this is where I never go. This is the "railroading" tier. This is where I have played in several games where the DM has messed up by letting us see behind the curtain and see their plot/storyline and how it HAS to play out, or everything falls apart.

So this brings us to our discussion about railroading and how sometimes too much worldbuilding or story-plotting can lead to it. We'll also talk about what railroading is not.

Here is my most recent personal example of railroading, as a GM playing in another GM's campaign. This was a personal friend of mine who had actually been talking back and forth with me during quite a bit of the worldbuilding portion before the campaign started. He wanted to eventually turn it into a book. The problem was, when we started playing the campaign, I realized very quickly we were being forced to play out the book itself.

Specifically, in maybe our third session, we were in the large city where most of the campaign was set. The party had decided to go to the library (let's just call it Place A) to look for some more clues and history of the place. We were approached by an NPC that no one in the party liked or trusted from the get go, who said we should go check Place B instead. Since we got bad vibes and our plan seemed pretty good, we decided to ignore this NPC and keep going to Place A.

Then my character hit the invisible wall. Literally, an invisible wall that had descended around this small plaza. I actually took damage from this. The NPC tells my character, again, that we should go check place B instead. We try to negotiate our way out and even roleplay it and roll-play it very well, but the NPC will not budge on letting the walls down and basically forced-marches us to Place B to talk to another NPC. We don't want to talk to this NPC either, but when we refuse, we are blocked in again and cannot leave. Where a several-sessions-long series of obviously plot-relevant encounters takes place… that then "unlocks" the library (place A) so we can go visit it (note: it was not locked, it was a forced plot moment where we would have skipped a worldbuilding detail that was relevant to the library location).

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This, in my opinion, is railroading. I knew the DM had so meticulously planned and plotted every single detail of this world, down to NPC behaviors and location items and lore. It would not have been any issue to let us go to the library first, and maybe shift this NPC encounter and the subsequent encounters around so that they were still relevant to the plot and worldbuilding, without literally throwing up barriers without any way of working around it.

The problem with designing a campaign this way is two-fold. One, if you worldbuild and plot so meticulously before the campaign even begins that your players making a choice to do something else derails the entire thing, then you will be FORCED to railroad your players into playing your story out. It takes all weight out of decision-making, as your players will feel like they just need to go along for the ride and do the combat. All of the answers to their questions will be given to them when the time is appropriate, rather than having to work for them (and draining any satisfaction out of doing this). It takes away choice and agency, which are arguably the most important elements to a table top roleplay game. What you're left with is your players improv-ing the dialogue alongside your prewritten script, like a weird madlibs game with dice.

The second problem is that they will see behind the curtain, so to speak. They will begin to predict how the plot will play out, where they need to go, what questions they need to ask. If they are nice people (like most of my playgroup was), they will go along with it anyways to humor you as a friend, but they're probably not enjoying themselves much. I kinda dreaded our sessions after this happened, and the railroading didn't really stop until we all lost heart and stopped wanting to play. If you are maybe not so close, you're going to be GMing for an empty table after your first session.

So how do you avoid this? By being a lazy worldbuilder and plot writer. Let your player's decisions impact what happens next. Sure, have your locations and history and lore done and ready to go, up to the point where the campaign starts. Have important NPCs named, and important plot points that happen. But don't fill in every detail of your story and world before the campaign even starts. Leave room for your player's decisions to "create" new things. I am about to begin a new campaign myself and the ENTIRE first session is going to be dependent on my PCs' backstories (I tasked them with telling me "how does your character experience and react to this world-shattering event?). Even where they start and how they meet hasn't been decided yet, I'm waiting on everyone's backstories to do so. The decisions they make in one session influence how the next session begins. Things are kept vague and loose on purpose. This leaves lots of opportunities for the players to make guesses about the plot and mystery of the world, and maybe some of those guesses will be right down the road (as I furiously write down new ideas while they're talking).

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Remember that in a realistic world, things happen whether your players are present or not. The entire world does not revolve around them, but it is up to them how they respond to these things happening, and up to you to unwind the thread of how their decisions play out. Drip-feed the main plot. Whispers one session may come back as a massive military invasion 9 sessions later… and your players either followed up on the whispers and are ready to thwart it, or are caught flat-footed when it happens. This is a collaborative improvisational story game, overlaid on top of a tactical wargame.

Plot hooks and plot "cattle prods" can be very good things in a campaign, and shifting certain things around behind the curtain to make sure your players still experience them is a given, and is not railroading (and won't be accused as such if you're good at making it make sense). But when it reaches the level of "you MUST make choice A to unlock choice B which leads to NPC 3 who only leads you to choice C," then it becomes a railroad, and your players will know. Stay on your toes, keep your worldbuilding and plot loose and improvisational. You and your players will both have a richer and more fulfilling game experience because of it.

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