"Railroading" is often a complaint leveled at rookie Dungeon Masters. How do you get around it, while having some planning, and how do you offer your players some choice, but not too much?
This is my big secret when it comes to DMing. I hope everyone picks something up from this.
The Problem with Open Worlds
The Railroad and it's evil twin, the Truly Open World, have the same problem when it comes down to it. First, let's talk about what these are. The Railroad is when a Dungeon Master prepares a story for the party that allows for no variance from the path of the story, and thus, no player choice. This is terrible once the players catch on to it because Dungeons and Dragons is supposed to facilitate player agency, to give them a sense of power over the world. You can learn a lot about life when you think about why this is important.
On the other hand is the Truly Open World, where the Dungeon Master, either through powers of immense preparation or skilled improvisation, prepares a world where the players can do anything, and just announces 'Go!' This seems like a wonderful thing on paper, but in practice, the sheer volume of possible choices the players can make, and the sheer k of direction frustrates their creativity and leaves them lost in the woods. Even the best DMs can fall to this trap. Moreover, it's precisely the reason I never ended up liking the game Scribblenauts, a Nintendo DS title where you could write the name of any item, and it would spawn it into the world for you to use. Once you have all that power in your hands, it's hard to know what to do with it.
So these options can devastate a campaign, but what's the solution?
Choose Your Own Adventure
I've mentioned before the virtues of the 'mini-quest', a technique of writing short quests that can be deployed easily, and essentially at random to spice up a few hours of gaming without huge plot consequence. Let's consider how you can use these for an entire campaign, as I often do, and the general premise behind them which works so well.
Plan out several quests that your players can dip into on a particular day (it's useful to have a backlog, either written wholly by yourself, or borrowed wholesale from a trusted source) and in particular write down the plot hooks. Then, give the players a handful of options (I usually use 3-5, but use your own judgement) of things to do. These might be completely mundane, like going to the general store in town, or have some significance to the larger plot, like asking around about a nefarious NPC. Regardless, each of these pathways should give you an opportunity to deploy a plot hook or two for a short quest.
It's important that these plot hooks be interesting, but if your players don't jump at an opportunity, just leave it in your pocket and draw out another one; these can always be recycled for a later date. It's very important that your players can walk away from something; if they know that fact alone, they will feel like they have control over things. You can still have consequences for them and the world when they do this, but it’s still entirely their choice.
Illusion of Choice
Once the party bites at a hook, use the same tactic as before, and give them a few different areas of approach. For example:
"To look into the Southpaw Murders, you can investigate around the taverns in the Lower District, inquire about it with the Town Guard, go near where the murders are happening and try to set up a trap. You can also try something else."
This tactic is amazingly effective at maintaining the illusion of choice, and keeps your players engaged, and it's a very good general idea for any situation. As a DM, you can be generally prepared for a few avenues of approach that your players might take, and you can plan the twists and turns that these avenues take, and you allow for a spontaneous gaming session that keeps people engaged. Moreover, it takes less time to have a few different directions planned out, and it provides really good direction to the players at all times.
A Practical Example: Southpaw
Hook: The Southpaw Killer has struck again, a local bulletin in Shroudspire reads. In addition, the healing magic of the party seems to be growing weaker; restoring vitality after a battle seems to take more energy with fewer effects.
Information: (From any official or underground source): Victims are attacked at night and, without variation, are bound, gagged, and lose their left hand to a hooded figure wielding a rusted dagger. Many die from blood-loss before being found, but the survivors are left crippled even after being healed by clerics, and some speculate that divine magic has been unable to heal these victims completely. Targets show no particular trend: no correlation of age, gender, or race, but are consistently assaulted in the city's poorest district, the Gregs.
Ask the Guards: The Guards/Inquisitors on the case seem to have their eyes on a powerful local criminal and possible local steward for the Thieves' Guild, a dwarf named Trec Blackhammer. They also confirm that clerics are seeing healing magic impeded. Some believe that the Marahuud might be involved, but the guard does not believe they have enough men to arrest him. (Another guard sarcastically quips that there might not be enough men to arrest him.)
Stake Out the Gregs: Players who stake out the Gregs will get ambushed by the Southpaw Killer near the Hagfruit Tree and (chase) can pursue him to a warehouse, where, if they lose him, they can find an important clue pointing them to the sewers.
Seek the Thieves Guild: Players who seek out Blackhammer will deal with a building guarded by Thieves' Guild thugs who are selling Drow drugs. If the players fight their way to Blackhammer, he will make a deal with them (future, unspecified favors for information.) Information: He has been losing members of the guild to the Marahuud, an information broker, Hideous, a recruiter for the Bastard Horde who has made shop in the city, and sometimes loses people when they traffic drugs through the sewers.
Seek the Marahuud: Players who seek out the Marahuud, a hugely fat tiefling, can find him in a local tavern, abusing the wench while patrons sit in silence and just let him continue. Should the party intervene, the Marahuud vanishes and it replaced by a red dragon, which lets them off the hook, because he too found the tiefling distasteful. The Marahuud is a strange creature, and seems to be some amalgamation of a number of monsters, each with their own personality. Investigating him is a task for another day.
Final Dungeon: The Players can track Southpaw deeper into the sewers where he set up his base of operations, and uncover his evil ritual to make hundreds of crawling claws to conquer the city above.
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