The Railroaded Dungeon Master

Every Gamemaster knows that dreaded word: Railroading. It is a bad word, one that means that you, the Gamemaster, have failed. Either your attemts at keeping the players within the borders of your story were too obvious, or, even worse, you put your story above the players choices and actions.

Now, many of us have been railroading our players along a certain storypath. Either because we used a pre-written adventure, or we had a very specific plot in mind.

In the past, I’ve written pages upon pages of adventures, detailing every part of the plot, every NPC, etc. And often, I got frustrated by my players simply not following the plot – or I herded them back on track.

But nowadays, I use a differten method, one that I’m going to present here. I call it ‚The Railroaded DM‘.

Railroading the Other Way Round

When the Gamemaster is railroading the players, they try to keep them ‚on track‘, within a very narrow path that follows a certain plot. Let’s say, you want them to leave town and investigate a ruin to the north.  You give them hooks and nudge them to find the ruin interesting – but what if they don’t? What if they simply want to stay in town and try to fight criminals?

Right, you arrange for them to fall on the bad side of someone important, so they have to leave the town and go north. And there awaits the ruin, hooray!

Wrong. It may work with some groups, and some players happily throw themselves onto every hook that appears, but some will not. Some will find it rather frustrating if these things happen again and again.

So, the thought is: Why not turn the tables around?

Sandboxing? Hexcrawling?

Right before we dive into my method, let’s discuss some already long established methods in roleplaying, that may look similar on the surface: Sandboxing and Hexcrawling.

Hexcrawling is a way of playing that has existed since the earliest days of D&D. A map is built up from hexagonal fields, and each one has a description, some possible adventures, dungeons, etc. The party travels from hex to hex and discover the hidden things. It is a lot about exploration, and the decision where to travel lies with the players. It is the DM’s job to provide things to do on each new hex.

Problem is, the DM has to anticipate, where the party will be going – and if they guessed incorrectly, they may end up with an empty hex. That’s where random tables came in. They provide on-the-spot random things, be that encounters, NPCs, dungeons, whatever.
The negative side is, that this leads to inconsistencies within the setting. Some groups may not mind, but others surely will.

Sandboxing, on the other hand means that the DM provides a more or less complete setting, but a small-framed one. A city, a region, even a village. The party may do whatever they please within the borders of this setting. They can go hunt monsters, explore dungeons, build a house, a fortress even, or interact with the various NPCs.
The problem is: after a while, it can get boring, or derail into a game of intrigues and politics. While some players may enjoy this, some will not – and it is hard work for the DM to keep up with this.

The Railroaded DM – or simply RRDM – has certainly many things in common with these two methods of gameplay. And yet, it has not.

Railroaded by the Players

The keyphrase, when it comes to the RRDM, is that the DM is ‚railroaded by the players‘. It is not the DM that lays the tracks for the players to follow, the players are laying the tracks for the DM. It is their actions and decisions that drive the story and provide the direction.

In order for this to work, the DM needs a solid setting. If sandboxing can work with a very loose setup, where the players may even fill in the gaps, RRDM needs more. If the players can move in every direction, the DM needs information about every direction – but more general than with hexcrawling.

But, this doesn‘ t mean the players can’t contribute. Listen to them when they plan, take notes of ideas that come up, and work them in where they fit. If they suspect there’s a dragon living in the mountains – maybe there is?

The second thing the DM needs, are NPCs – people for the Player Characters to interact with. They don’t need stats – they are merchants, nobles, beggars, criminals, etc. Their job is to make the world feel like a living, breathing organism. You want to buy some food, yeah, there’s this old woman selling groceries at her stall. She’s offering carrots and some cabbages – and talks about how a the weather seems to be cursed this autumn, and that there are rumors of graves that have been dug up from below…

Every NPC is a potential hook – and it doesn’t matter which one the players follow. Some players want to do all the ’side-quests‘ like in PC-game. Some try to find a ‚main quest‘, even if there is none. Which gets us to the next big thing…

The Player's Plot

When I fist began to develop this method, I was still firmly clinging to the PLOT. The big nail that holds a story together. RRDM is a very story-oriented way of gamemastering, by the way.

I was used to have a very clear plot in mind, and even when not nudging my players to follow this plot, I, as a DM, tried to keep this plot in mind as a setback, should things go literally off the rails. A good story needs a good plot, after all. Or does it?

With a movie, a novel, yes, it does. These media have a clear beginning, an arc of suspense, and a solution. At least the good ones have. But that is not what a roleplaying game is about, is it?

A roleplaying game is about player characters making decisions, writing their own stories and maybe leaving a mark on their world. They may be part of a bigger story, but at the end of the day, it is their story that should be told at the table.

So, let the players develop the plot. Or better: let them help you develop the plot. As DM, you are the world. React to their actions. If they cross blades with some influencal faction in a certain region, they have to bear the backlash. Maybe they are outlawed, or outright hunted, now. They may decide to stand and fight – or they may take the wiser route of simply leaving the area and find their luck in a different region, where those hunting them have no influence.

But have their deeds vanished? No. They may still come back to haunt them. Some day, they may need to revisit the area again, or their enemies find them. Years may have passed since their deed, but the memories of the mighty are long. And so, their past catches up to them…

You see, a story can evolve by simply constructing a logical what-if scenario. What if the cult-cell they just eradicated has connections to a far wider network? Have they left any evidence of their identities at the scene? Is it possible to track them down by magical means? And how long does it take to do so? Will the hammer fall down on them immediatly or will it come in a long time, after they have almost forgotten about what happened here?

The players form the plot of their own story. Every step of the way, they make friends and foes. Some of the foes they vanquish on the spot, but some will not forget them. And they may not take defeat lightly.

The DM as a Player

With all that said, there’s one important thing for you, as the DM: Never forget that you are a player, too!

As I’m the forever-DM in my group for over twenty years now, with only very short breaks where some player tried their hand at gamemastering (and gave up rather soon), I’m playing a DM-character in all campaigns. This has mostly to do with small groups of  3 – 4 players, where another PC just makes things a lot easier. But it also givcs me the opportunity to take on the role of a character that is not an NPC.

Now, with conventional gamemastering, there’s always a certain danger, that this character knows too much, and may even be useful to get the group back on the rails. While I consider myself very good at keeping character and DM-knowledge seperate, it still may happen.

With RRDM, there’s no danger at all, as the important things are shaped by the players – and running a character only opens up the same possibilities to the DM a player has. The DM can make decisions with their PC, and while they may have a deeper understanding of the setting, it is similar to a player being very involved with some franchise. There’s always that one player in a StarWars group that knows canon better than the gamemaster – and it does not break the game.

As DM, your character will be like some shy player’s, as you are involved with running the setting, encounters, etc. You won’t have that much time to steal spotlight from the other characters, anyway. But those few moments, when your own character does something worth remembering, are very rewarding – just for you, not because you made the group have a good time. You’re no service provider, after all.

The Living World

Finally, what the RRDM method aims for, is the feeling of a living, breathing world, that is more than just a stage for the PCs. If you are a fan of gamemastering in a way, where everything revolves around the PCs and only their actions really matter – go for it. But you may find the RRDM is not working for you or working differently.

When the players do something, the first question the DM has to ask themselves is „How and who will this affect in the world?“ Quite a lot of actions have no real impact, either because those involved are dead afterwards, or they happen in a remote area. But some can shake the foundations of a community.

When the PCs enter an area, their arrival can shake things up. It depends on the interests of the people and factions at work there. Somebody may look upon those adventurers and think of them as useful tools to further their own agenda. Or they may see them as a threat.

On the other hand. they can be ignored by the local populace, as they pose neither threat nor opportunity. If the PCs don’t do anything to change this, they may well leave the area without further notice.

That’s all OK. The world does not only exist when the PCs look at it. They are not the only shakers and movers around. But they can become one of them, if they live long enough, can gather power and decide to go for it.

The beauty of this method lies in its openness. If you want to do a campaign from 1st to 20th level, it is perfectly possible. If you only want to go till level 10, that is also fine. At some point, you will have to find a way to do the ‚final episode‘, but up to this, your players will probably have provided ample leads to finish.