You’ve got the players, the time, and the excitement. But you don’t know how to prep for a D&D session.
Maybe you’ve heard of “railroading” and want to avoid it. Maybe you feel there’s some truth behind a player complaint saying there’s no genuine choice in your game for them. But how can you know what your players are going to do ahead of time and prepare for that?
HOW TO PREP FOR A D&D SESSION
Anyone new to running Dungeons & Dragons or any other TTRPG can feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to preparing content for their sessions. Once you have a few concepts in mind and a little practice, it gets much easier.
Welcome to part one of this two-part series! Today, I’ll be going over what railroading is, when to use it in your planning, and when to avoid it.
Part two comprises how to think about and plan a tabletop roleplaying game session without relying on overpreparing content as a confidence builder. Take a look at it here!
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
What is ‘Railroading’ in Game Prep?
“Railroading” is the term used by players and Game Masters to refer to the process of disallowing any genuine player choice. Players are “on a railroad,” imposed by their Dungeon Master, meaning they are traveling directly from point A to point B in the story with no deviations or choice, much like sitting on an actual train or playing a video game on rails.
One of the primary attractive mechanics of a tabletop RPG is that players are not bound to the same rules or restrictions as normal life or video games. Because of this, railroading is treated with significant vitriol in many gaming communities.
Why Players Don’t Like It
The term “railroading” is slung around loosely and like a curse in many circles. Sometimes, (especially in places like the subreddit RPG Horror Stories) players will accuse their GM of railroading them when they can’t have some kind of special perk, buff, or homebrew item. It’s their way to pout and make their Dungeon Master feel bad. (You should probably address that conflict sooner rather than later, by the way.)
In other cases, though, it’s a genuine concern that takes away from the game’s fun and excitement. Players should FEEL that the world is open to them. It is their oyster. They can do as they please. Your job as the GM is to build that illusion. Obviously there will be times when this is more challenging than others, but your task as the game’s facilitator and omniscient presence is to make the world feel very much open, alive, and centered on your players.
Accidentally Railroading, With the Best of Intentions
Every time I have experienced or seen an instance of genuine railroading, it was due to either GM inexperience or a lack of confidence; not because the person wanted to deliberately control the game (though that does happen).
Overpreparing Leads to Problems
Many new or self-conscious Game Masters will attempt to compensate for this by doing too much prep for a D&D session. When we overprepare for our game as a sort of safeguard to make sure the players will have enough to do, this can backfire. Many GMs become emotionally attached to their ideas and plans, forgetting that a tabletop RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons really should be a SHARED storytelling experience. Now, don’t get me wrong–you should prep, and you should be excited about what you’ve done. Otherwise, why are you playing? But overpreparing in an effort to feel more confident is not the solution here.
When the Game Master starts calling all the shots before the session has even started, players often feel forced into certain conditions. This produces railroading complaints amongst other problems. There should be a cause and effect conversation going on almost constantly at your table, but the GM should not be providing both sides of this in most scenarios.
A Sad Game Master
In addition, if the Dungeon Master creates all this amazing content and then the players take a metaphorical left instead of a right… no one ever gets to see it. That can make a GM unhappy. It can make us feel like our time was wasted. Cool ideas we know our players would have loved are never experienced, and the prep work we did can feel like it was all for nothing. We’ve all been there, and it stinks.
There are times when that content can be plopped down elsewhere. And that “plug-n-play” model is part of how, in my opinion, some of the best DMs can produce incredibly detailed, pre-orchestrated encounters in what appears to be only a moment’s notice. But it just doesn’t always work out that way, and it can be heartbreaking.
I’ve been running games for a very long time, but I remember the first time I had content that I prepared and never got to use. My players made decisions I didn’t expect. This happens to literally every Game Master, in most sessions. It’s part of the fun to me, now that I’m more seasoned and confident, but that’s not the case for many just starting out.
There are entire threads devoted to this topic. Memes are constantly published about it. Some of it is unavoidable, but with smart planning and flexibility, less of your ideas and plans need to go to waste. It was a good learning experience for me, and it will be for you, too.
Underpreparing Can Also Lead to Railroading
On the completely opposite side, a Dungeon Master can choose not to prepare anything, instead relying solely on the adventure guide. This can also cause railroading problems.
I played in a game where the Dungeon Master literally gave no description of anything except what was officially printed in the book. Ever. He would sit and read to us, and get irritated if anyone stopped him to ask a question. He refused to read a passage more than once. He refused to elaborate. And if anyone in the party wanted to interact with someone who didn’t have additional details listed in the book? We weren’t allowed to talk to that NPC. It wasn’t fun. That group no longer meets. This is an extreme example, but it does happen.
The adventuring guides we purchase with stories for our players to navigate and enjoy are simply that. Guides. I promise, both you and your players will have a much richer experience if you add to and modify the stories to customize the contents for their interests and talents.
When You Should Intentionally Use Pre-Defined Structure
There are a few instances when a strict structure is actually necessary to enhance the game. Let me show you what I mean.
Sometimes, there are situations when you need and expect your players to do a certain “thing.” An easy example of this is when a game is just getting started. Your players are meeting in the typical tavern, or some other gathering place, and they are all presented a quest at the outset to get the party going.
Most tables I’ve been in or ran have had some kind of tropey start like this. To me, it hasn’t seemed like a great time to try something really unique and unusual, because that first gathering moment is basically a given if the players want to be in the game.
At the start, I give you a quest, you say yes. Once you’ve gotten together, now you can decide which NPCs to ignore, where to go, and which ideas are most interesting to you. But that first quest, we all sort of have to say yes, if you get my point. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be exciting or a lot of fun, (it should) but the expectation is everyone agrees to help out/do the thing. The party needs to be joined together at some point to get started. Playing nice, and all that.
Certain types of encounters also lend themselves to some restriction. When there are timed events or actions being taken in the background by villains or other NPCs, this often leads to a set of circumstances that once set in motion, continue until the scene is complete.
A Minigame Encounter
For example, my players recently orchestrated a chase scene through a forest. One of their beloved NPCs, Parri, was being chased by cultists. They had just released her from captivity and told her to run back to the city to safety.
During this chase scene, it wouldn’t make sense to the game if they tried to do something random and weird. They know she’s being chased, their characters aren’t even in the scene, and they’re using the minigame I have set up to get her to safety (and she did JUST barely make it).
Chase Scene Cards
I used these cards to facilitate the chase. It looks like they’re out of print now and only used versions are available. If you want a substitute, these cards from Amazon would work just as well. The cards I have are designed for Pathfinder, but I use lots of Pathfinder stuff in my D&D games and it works great. I just have to substitute out some of the skill check language. No big deal.
This chase mini game has a built-in system that you can use if you’d like; I usually keep it fast and simple with a skill check for each card. The player picks how to traverse the obstacle and rolls an appropriate check. I put on tense music, and everyone leans forward in their seats as the characters they love attempt to escape hair-raising, dangerous circumstances. It’s great fun.
Government Interference or Captivity
If a superior power arrests or places players in captivity, then you WANT them to feel a little trapped. At least for a bit.
Once they’re left alone in their cell, they can start to figure out the puzzle and be creative. During the initial arrest or captivity scene, they should be bound as intelligently as their captors would have the sense to do. Maybe it includes silence. Maybe it includes binding their hands and mouths so they cannot complete verbal or somatic spell components. Or, maybe they’re just thrown in a cage on the back of a cart. Then they’ll have some time to figure out what’s up before they’re cooked for dinner.
Pre-Defining the Game, as a Rule: Don’t
The RULE is: Do not pre-define the game’s outcome. At the same time, don’t be scared to narrate or provide restrictions in an extended scene when the structure and boundaries are appropriate. It’s part of world-building. It can give your characters complex conflicts and scenarios to puzzle out.
If you are operating without a sense of story goals or ideas, you don’t have the parameters you need to guide the campaign arc. This means the players are just floating aimlessly in fun-time nebula. While that may be briefly interesting, it does not make for a good long-term campaign.
The term railroading just refers to restricting players unnecessarily within a tabletop RPG. There are some scenarios where we want strict structure and have some determination of expected outcomes ahead of the session; however, the vast majority of the time this will not be the case. In addition, over or underpreparing can lead to a less-than-satisfactory session for a myriad of reasons.
Understanding railroading as a concept and why it\’s undesirable in a game, as well as how it typically manifests, is critical to becoming a better Dungeon Master. Having this information helps us to be better equipped and spend our time more efficiently when we prep for a D&D session.
Part Two: How to Avoid Railroading Completely
Finally, in order to completely avoid railroading our players, there are a few things that we need to do:
- Have confidence in our ability to “wing it” and improv as necessary
- Have a firm grasp on the overarching campaign story points, villains, and special encounters that should take place at some point
- Envision a framework of scenarios the players may interact with in upcoming sessions
- Have a network of available NPCs ready in case they are needed
I am going to go over exactly how to set this up in part two of this article, which you can access here. Why not take a look? I’d also love to read about your opinions or experiences with railroading in the comments below.
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