Asking Why: How to Put PCs In a Tight Spot Without A Railroad

“Railroad” is a dirty word for many people who play roleplaying games.

From a wide-angle view its use probably just means that the person running the game and the player making the complaint haven’t been on the same page about what makes the game fun. It could be everything from the players rebelling against their controlling frustrated-novelist DM to a single player who balks at the fact that he can’t bail on the adventure that everyone sat down to play, and it wouldn’t have gotten to that point if everyone was on the same page.

A clash of expectations, then, and something that in many cases can be avoided with communication between or experience with the members of a group.

Specifically, though? It refers to the player experience of discovering that the world their character inhabits has hard, sometimes arbitrary-seeming, boundaries that they’re unable to overcome.

“The sword-fighter knows that there is no way he can win this fight.”

“You find yourself chained to the oar of a slave galley.”

“This prison has been your home for three months.”

“You can’t leave the city, the ways south are blocked.”

I can’t tell you how to get rid of railroading in your games, because what one group considers a wide open adventure might look like a straightjacket to the group that often ends up building strong relationships with random – previously unnamed – NPCs.

But I can share one trick that helps mitigate what I think is a major source of the “Railroad” accusation.

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Adventures in the Prison of Dreadhold…

THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.

So, in my current game (“A Confession of Pain”), we’ve decided to take a break from the relatively low-fantasy world of Kalamar and embrace the new Unearthed Arcana starting rules for Eberron. We’ll return to “The Death of Kings” (presently at 15th level and nearing the end of its major story line) soon, but my players and I all wanted to take a taste of a higher magic world without the classicism of Forgotten Realms.

To that end… I’ve decided to take their first “adventure” and make a new adventure pitch from it.

This one will be a bit more complicated and you’ll need to make sure you have the right players to do it justice–but from experience I can say this is a powerfully enjoyable and challenging adventure idea that your players will learn a lot from.

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Adventures in the Great City in the Clouds…

THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.

So, What’s This About?

There could be any number of reasons for having to deal with a city designed for true giants. Like, not just “Large” creatures, but at least Huge. 15’x15′ imprint instead of 5′. Creatures that stand 20′ high (two stories, mind you). Giants. Unequivocal. For the most part, imagining “commoners” of that giant race. Low HP, low attack, low strength (for a giant).

A city OF giants. Like on a mountain top somewhere. Roll-back civilization to a prior level to give the players some feel for “realism” without having to wonder why a fully advanced and intelligent giant civilization hasn’t ruled the world yet. The normal “PC-oriented” world has animal husbandry for agriculture, has the technology of scale like water wheels or mills for grinding corn, breed quickly, etc. This is a place where the city wall is boulders piled up (60ft to 80ft., irregularly), where food is scarce and population is low. Imagine less a giant city and more a giant peasant village with a giant palisade.

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Adventures in the Artificiary of the Fourth Smith…

THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.

Fourth?

The first was the original Being. The second was the planar embodiments. The third was the Gods. This is as high as one gets up the food chain before ascending into godhood themselves.

A great giant, maybe something like a storm giant–something immense and certain and titanic–dedicates it life to the great clockwork of artifice and the gods grant its lifelong labors for mechanical perfections with endless servants to help him.

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Adventures in The Hole…

THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.

What’s This One About?

One of my favorite dungeons ever is the Lost Tomb of Kruk Ma Kali—a 3rd ed module that was just a good, dangerous, interesting dungeon crawl. I wouldn’t say it did anything greatly special, it just did it straightforward and well.

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Adventures with the Old Man…

THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.

Bit of Fluff

The party (for whatever reason you think interesting) is drawn/led/ordered/surprised by/to an old, worn and beaten and half-collapsed cottage in the middle of perfectly nowhere.

The surrounding forests are old, trees standing a hundred feet high or more. Overgrown. Pure wild. The sort of place that makes a wood elf concerned and a druid orgasmic. A place that hasn’t seen the footsteps of a living intelligent creature in millenia.

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