How to Successfully Railroad Your Players in an RPG and Ruin the Game

Lost Dice

I have been playing at the roll of Dungeon Master for almost two years now. At this stage I am comfortable in the role. This was not the case to begin with naturally. I had to slowly evolve my abilities and confidence over a series of mishaps as well as wins. I did what many new DMs do when starting out: wildly over plan while dwelling in excessive detail. This lack of confidence was compounded by the fact that I had never played more than five or so sessions of D&D 5e before taking on a campaign of my own.

Yes, I made it to the age of 30 as a gamer and over all geek and had never even dipped my toes into the D&D pool, or any tabletop RPG for that matter. I didn’t just wade in the shallow end and wait for my body to acclimate to the temperature of the water. Oh no. Not this guy. I dove into the deep end and decided that I would swim like I was competing for my life in an Iron Man. My initial exposure was to the D&D 5e Starter Set, The Lost Mines of Phandelver (with the same group of players I run now). I was instantly hooked. We made it to the end of the campaign and suffered a total party wipe, but that didn’t ruin the experience for me in the slightest. I was hooked.

As we were wrapping the Starter Set, I pitched the idea to the group about having me run the next campaign. I had a great idea for a story in mind, gave them some spoilers. Everyone was in. Great! Then I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. The natural impulse was to buy the two remaining core books as well as the Starter Set. The Starter Set just worked, it was a successfully written campaign. So simply I decided, why not mirror what works? So I followed the same format as the Starter Set to being crafting my campaign. I even went as far as to attempt to roughly replicate the layout and text formatting within my Google Docs. Since I wasn’t over my head enough, at this point I decided it would be most sage to also create my own world and universe for the players to adventure in. I had an amazing story to tell, why not do it proper justice?

I won’t say that this was a mistake. Far from it in the end. It did though require me to make some critical adjustments along the way to salvage this world and keep the game fun and engaging. I started by writing an intro scenario that really was more for me than for the players. It gave me a way to stay in my comfort zone as an inexperienced DM. It was heavily scripted and did not offer much room for group story telling. I warned the players about this but explained the first session would establish much of the world. Great! Everyone was cool with it. Into the second and third sessions, I had to find a way to derail the story train because things were getting a bit stagnant. The moment I realized I had made a mistake was when I was at about minute three of reading back a scripted response from an NPC. When the players challenged my world I would become nervous, I was getting pulled out of my comfort zone. Improvising felt terrifying, and that was where I was stuck.

I was fortunate in the sense that everyone was willing to let me learn as I went and figure it out for myself through experience. Many of the players in my group had played D&D 2e or 3e, but it had been quite some time. Everyone was in general just happy to be playing, so I couldn’t have had a better group to cut my DM teeth on. I had to sit back and take an honest look at all the scripting I had done, all the campaign details I laboriously fretted over, all the “INTEGRAL” dots I had painstakingly connected… and get kosher with letting them go, or not even using them at all. Letting go or not becoming deeply attached to any of your ideas is the most sound thing you can do when running any RPG. With the goal being a collective narrative experience, the party or even you may find yourself drastically changing a situation as events happen and story elements collide.

I had a breakout moment with my players when I came up with the concept for a job board in the main room of the guild they had joined. It allowed me to take off my training wheels a bit. The job board allowed me to create six broad scenarios for my players to decide to do or not do. I wrote out these six high-level scenarios knowing that they might just be scrapped, and that finally became ok for me. I could cope with this reality. They might choose one, they might choose many, they might ignore them altogether. They did choose to do a few, then carry on with the main story line I had outlined. The jobs they choose gave me opportunities to figure out how I could plant seeds to tie these side quests back to the main quest in some way. The even BIGGER breakthrough for me personally, was when I realized that the side quests can and should impact future events in some significant way! This job board was my eureka moment. This was the moment that DMing became the most enjoyable game experience I have ever had, that realization is why I continue to DM. I took a game that was riding on some unmovable rails to a giant open field. We went from riding a train to a dune buggy and I haven’t looked back since.

The game continues to grow and expand. I have learned to step back and do more generalized world building. The game continues to become more engaging and more enjoyable for the players as well. It’s the game they want to play and the story they enjoy telling, instead of a predestined grind through a script that they are not allowed to modify.

Stronghaven Adventurer's Guild Job Board
Stronghaven Adventurer’s Guild Job Board via Roll20