Re-railing your Campaign
by Danny Rupp
Has your campaign become de-railed? Let’s get it back on track!
Whether as the DM you feel like you’ve lost control of the direction of the game or you are not sure where the players’ actions are heading it is a good idea to assess where your game is and where it really should go. One of the easiest ways to assess the current position of your game is to ask the players where they think they are in the game. Very quickly you will learn their perspective on what you have run so far and you should be able to ascertain some hints to where they expect the game to go.
I encourage you to take notes on what the players say, and keep a record of their expectations for the game so that you can incorporate them into your planning for getting the campaign back on track. If you find that the direction the game is currently going fits into these expectations, then perhaps no correction is necessary at all. Instead you’re laying new track and exploring new territory. This can be an incredibly rewarding method of planning a campaign as it adds a level of the unexpected, very similar to the feeling of being a player. In addition, the players can look back at the campaign as a whole and clearly see where their decisions changed the direction of the story. However there are still going to be times that, for one reason or another, your campaign has strayed from a path that it really should be following.
If you have a player who loves to take notes then ask to see their notes. This will give you some insight into which facts were important to the player and what makes up the campaign so far for them. Next, you should refer to your DM notes and get a sense of where the game strayed from its path, and also why it has strayed.
The most desirable outcome of realigning a campaign is when the players have little or no idea that anything was wrong to begin with. Almost all campaigns feature a handful of one-shot adventures or side quests that have little relation to the overall plot, so if the campaign has only recently gone out of control you can assess and rewrite with minimal disturbance to the continuity of the game.
If your campaign has been astray for more than one or two adventures, the best method of redirecting it is to find elements from the current direction that you can tie into the new direction you’re planning. If you’ve managed to identify a distinct moment the campaign gained its new direction, take a look at all that has happened since then and make a list of the important elements. Then compare that list with the important elements of your new direction and see if you can tie the elements together. If a new bad guy was introduced that seemingly has no relation to the big bad you are planning, there is always room add a common element between antagonists. My personal favorite is to make the new villain an opposing force to the big bad enemy so that the party is at first fighting two separate enemies but soon find themselves considering one or the other an ally against the common threat.
These elements can be anything such as influential characters, key locations, lynchpin events that change things after they occur, and important items that the characters have interacted with. Once you have a list for your game since it has gone off course and a list for your intended plot, you can join them together in logical and interesting ways. For example you can take an important item from your new direction and place it in a key location the party has gone off track and discovered. Don’t be afraid to change some important details you may have planned a long time ago if it fits in better with where the party has gone since you made the plans.
As the DM you may see a collection of important elements that have no relation to your overall campaign plot, but with some creative thinking you can usually find a way to link all or most of the ideas together. The party may think they’re progressing along a different plot line, but they will be thrilled to discover their efforts have all been working towards a common objective.
Every important element does not need to be positive in nature. Perhaps the party is largely responsible for the de-railing of the campaign, and so some of their actions have had a negative impact on the overall campaign. Don’t over-do it though; most players don’t enjoy feeling like they’ve completely screwed over the world. However, they will appreciate how all of their actions have consequences and the tied together plots make them feel like the world they’re adventuring in really is a unified whole.