In the past I’ve expressed my affinity for railroading a D&D game with the goal of creating an epic tale. My thinking has been that I want to create a thrilling story with the players as the central characters, and any subtle railroading that furthers that goal is highly desirable.
Great stories tend to have three acts, where we 1) introduce the challenge or threat 2) raise the stakes,and then 3) bring everything to a thrilling climax. Imagine a movie where the villain is defeated in the first half hour, and the hero spends the rest of the film goofing off. Or perhaps one where, in the middle of the film, the heroes forget about defeating the Big Bad and wander off because they can’t figure out how to beat him. Or maybe they join him, indulge in a bunch of senseless killing, and the story grinds to a halt when they run out of stupid ways to abuse the innocent. These are not interesting stories. This sort of gaming can appeal to some players, but it gets old quick. I think it is my duty as the DM to guide the story so that it remains as true to the three act ideal as possible, as long as my manipulations are subtle.
But let’s make clear what I mean by subtle railroading. Let’s imagine I’m running a game where the players confront the Big Bad before I intended, thus threatening to end the tale in the middle of the story instead of the end. I have plot twists and important NPC’s that they have yet to see, and if they beat the bad guy now the story will be sort of lame. They may not even realize they are facing the main villain, or perhaps he hasn’t enacted the bulk of his schemes and thus isn’t all that bad yet.
All of these are ugly, crude, hackery on the part of the DM and are a good bit worse than just letting the story die with the villain. They all deny the players their well-earned victory, thus preserving my story at the expense of their fun.
In both cases the plot stays on track, my plot twists are preserved, and none of my NPCs go to waste. But in scenario #2 the players feel like they accomplished something. Instead of feeling cheated, they are going to be even more motivated to go after the New Bad.
I’ve never been a fan of meandering, rudderless plots and games which are little more than a freeform sandbox world of pointless combat and loot acquisition. I can have fun creating an epic tale for the players to inhabit, but I’m not interested in acting as the accountant for their dice-powered Diablo game.
|This doesn’t really lead to an exciting adventure.|
I realize this isn’t for everyone, and some players simply balk at the idea that they can’t join with Vader or turn over the princess for a bunch of cash. They would rather take part in a story with no arc than inhabit one where the arc is imposed on them. A lot of the out-of-game humor, angst, and conflict comes when these two different player types collide.
EDIT: Below, some people seem to be confused by what I’m saying here, complaining that they wouldn’t want to play a game where they couldn’t change things. The whole point above is that there is no way to know about my changes. It wouldn’t be a “princess is in another castle” moment, because they weren’t expecting to rescue the princess just yet anyway. They don’t see the rails because I only change things they don’t know about.
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