If there’s one thing that players can’t stand, it’s being railroaded through a campaign (or portions of one). The concept of player choice means little when there is only one option available, and as the GameMaster you can pretty much forget about the group having any real investment in their characters, or any genuine excitement about what’s going on in the game. Once the rails have been spotted and the track identified – the only thing you can count on for sure is the players to politely go through the motions until your predictable plot runs its course.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You have a story you’re trying to tell, and certain events need to transpire in order to get the Party to the grand finale.
As a rule, railroading your players is bad form. It removes the significance of their choices, makes your campaign world feel hollow and contrived, and it certainly doesn’t make you come off as the most versatile GameMaster. That said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting the players to experience the campaign in a manner consistent with what you’ve imagined. So, the question becomes, how do you keep things “on track” without railroading the players?
The typical answer here is to guide your players or steer them toward the final destination. It’s sort of like a boat; you point in the direction you want to go and make gradual course corrections over time. Sometimes I like the boat. Sometimes however, I prefer the track. I like the high speed, direct route it offers. Sometimes it’s perfect for the mood I’m going for, or the pace I’m trying to set. The trick is to make the destination the focus, not the tracks. How does one do that? Motivation. My gaming troupe affectionately refers to this technique as “The Vengeance Train”.
Consider movies like Taken or Man on Fire. The hero has a clear objective – and it’s obvious from the start; The villain has destroyed or stolen what the hero loves, they’ve pushed him over the edge. Now, he’ll do whatever it takes to make them pay and rectify the situation. Everyone knows exactly where this train is heading, there’s no attempt to hide the tracks – but we don’t care. We can’t wait to see the hero get that train roaring and start dispensing the righteous smack down.
Admittedly, it’s sort of a “beer and pretzels” kind of way to move things along, but I don’t imagine you’ll hear too many complaints. I never do. It’s an opportunity for the players to kick ass and take names, and it’s fun. In my campaigns, the players always envision The Vengeance Train as an old style locomotive, with a stockpile of coal and a furnace. They happily climb aboard, “grab a shovel” and don their conductor’s cap whenever it becomes clear that I’ve laid a track down for them and put an enemy at the end of the line.
The first time I ever used this method with my players was as a campaign opener. After the multiple hour session zero, I began play by informing the party to erase all of the equipment from their characters as they had spent the last several weeks chained to an oar as a slave and forced to row. Players who had sketched their characters were told to erase the hair from their drawing, as their masters had shaved everyone’s head to prevent lice. They were all also given the fatigued condition, fresh whip marks and a slaver’s brand.
“Your character’s ancestral sword? Yeah, that was melted down into the manacles the master uses to keep your sister chained to his bed”, “Oh you speak? Take 4 damage as the taskmaster gives you a crack of the whip”. Suffice it to say, that when I did finally land the boat and give the Party the opportunity to make an escape, they couldn’t even see the tracks, there was only The Vengeance Train and a destination.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what method or methods you use to move from point A to B to C, as long as everyone is engaged and having fun. Railroading as a technique might be not great, but that doesn’t mean the track can’t be used to good effect from time to time.