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The Invisible Railroad
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. As they edge toward the end of the paragon tier, the Monday night group confronts and slays various evil members of the Shan Qabal, a powerful society of wizards, in the sunken city of Io'halador. Deep within the Shan Qabal fortress they encounter a warforged emissary of Vhalt, a secret kingdom protected by the evil god Vecna. The warforged poses no threat and claims to have a message for the leaders of the Dragovar Empire, which has been in disarray since the emperor disappeared along with his flagship—one of the great mysteries of the campaign.

My players immediately get the sense that this warforged is not some throwaway NPC but rather an important figure in the campaign—someone the DM has taken the time to develop. He has quirks and complex emotions, and several Insight checks confirm that he clearly means the party no harm. Perhaps for this reason, the heroes allow the warforged to tag along, but they are suspicious of its motives and eventually decline to escort it to the capital, at which point the warforged bids farewell and tries to leave the party. Out of the blue, Bruce Cordell's tiefling warlock attacks! The other players are surprised by Melech's snap decision but join the fray. As the warforged drops to 0 hit points, a magical docent planted in its chest causes the warforged to disintegrate, leaving nothing behind and no clue about the message it was supposed to deliver.

P layers never cease to surprise me.

Although I think it's possible to run a campaign that is 100 percent driven by the players, I'm not the kind of Dungeon Master who can relinquish narrative control to the point where I'm simply reacting to the players' desires and "winging it" week after week. I like coming up with adventure ideas and stringing them together to form a cohesive arc that unfolds over multiple levels. When I plan out an adventure, I usually have a good idea where, when, and how it will end—assuming the heroes don't get sidetracked or TPK'ed en route. I like to call it my invisible railroad.

The worst kind of adventure, in my humble opinion, is one that railroads the player characters—which is to say, one that denies them any opportunity to affect change through their actions or decisions. Players can see a railroad from a mile away, and they are well within their rights to steer clear of it. Even in its simplest form, D&D is all about making choices and dealing with the consequences: Do we go right or left? Climb down the pit or avoid it? Slay the guard or bribe him? Even with my years of experience running D&D games, I've designed encounters that unfold exactly as planned by making player choice irrelevant—and shame on me for doing it! Such encounters usually end with disappointment.

That said, a D&D campaign is basically a series of quests that move the heroes from one destination to another, and if you want the player characters at Point A to visit Point B before, say, Point Q, then a track is a handy tool for getting them where they need to go. The trick (and yes, it is a trick) is to make sure that the players never feel as though they're being carried along by the story.

When DMs ask me how I keep my campaign on track, I tell them that when I plan out the events of a game session, I'm basically laying down an invisible track that I hope my players never see. This track is what guides my campaign toward its intended destination. If all goes perfectly, my players will make decisions and take actions that push the story farther along this track until, finally, I've gotten them from Point A to Point B. Of course, events rarely unfold as planned—you can't lay down an invisible track and expect your players to follow it. The track is for my benefit, not theirs. Its sole function is to remind me of the intended destination and how far off track the campaign has gotten.

To help steer the campaign back onto the invisible railroad, I use signposts. You might call them nudges, hints, or clues. No matter how far off track the heroes stray, they will at some point see an arrow-shaped signpost that says, in not so many words, "This way." More appropriately the signpost takes the form of a rumor, a helpful or insightful NPC, a corpse that comes with a clue, a sudden and unprovoked attack, or some other plot device that tells the players where they should go next. Eventually it will dawn on the players that Oh, the DM is telling us the adventure is THIS way, or even better, it'll present them with a choice designed to help steer the campaign back on track.

In my Monday night game, for example, I decided to introduce a warforged NPC with tons of important information about the campaign—first and foremost that the kingdom of Vhalt, which was supposedly destroyed by the Dragovar Empire eons ago, has risen from the ashes (with a little help from Vecna). Not only has Vhalt created an army of warforged—living constructs empowered with the souls of the dead—as a prelude to war, Vhaltese agents have kidnapped Emperor Azunkhan IX in an effort to destabilize the Dragovar Empire. The warforged emissary killed by the heroes represented a rogue faction in Vhalt that sought peace, not war. He was under orders to inform the Dragovar leadership of their emperor's whereabouts—and because he followed orders to the letter, he was reluctant to confide in the heroes. (And, truth be told, they took no strides to gain his trust.) My hope was that the heroes would learn enough of this information, through roleplaying or other means, to track down and rescue the emperor and be lauded as champions of the empire, but alas. . . . I had banked on the Monday group's tendency to roleplay its way around a problem and was quite surprised when battle erupted.

Rather than have the warforged break character and spill the beans just to keep the story on track, I took the "Well, let's see where this takes us" approach. Several game sessions have passed, and the heroes still haven't gotten back on track, but that's because they've stumbled on another invisible railroad tied to a totally different campaign story arc—one involving a threat from the Far Realm. However, every so often I place a signpost that gently nudges them in the direction of Emperor Azunkhan and his Vhaltese captors. These signposts provide subtle reminders of Vecna's (ahem) hand in the unfolding campaign. My most recent signpost takes the form of another NPC who has ties to Vhalt and some information about the missing emperor. Enough time has passed since the warforged incident that I can introduce this new NPC without my players feeling force-fed, and although the heroes have yet to question her, I feel confident that my patience will be rewarded. And if they kill her, okay—at least they'll have a corpse upon which to cast a Speak with Dead ritual!

Figure 1: The good news is that the players have done exactly what you expected them to do. The bad news is that they probably feel railroaded and have no way to affect the outcome of the campaign.

Figure 2: The good news is that the players are making decisions that affect the campaign. The bad news is that you don't know how to steer them back on track.

Figure 3: The good news is that you're allowing players to chart their own path while cleverly steering them toward your intended destination. The bad news is that you're exhausted from all the fun everyone is having.

Lessons Learned

Dungeon Masters who take the time to plan adventures in advance share a common nightmare: At some point during the adventure, the players veer off track. Sometimes it happens unintentionally—the players simply do something you hadn't anticipated. Other times they do it maliciously, to test or thwart you. I never lose sleep over this sort of thing; in fact, I think part of the fun of being the DM is watching the players derail my campaign and figuring out ways to steer it back on track.

When your campaign goes off the rails, here's what I recommend you do:

  • Don't worry, be happy! As long as you don't freak out, your players might not even realize that the campaign has gone awry.
  • Be patient. Let the players stray. Let them explore the consequences of their actions.
  • Place subtle signposts that help guide your players back toward the desired destination.

I've found that when players feel as though they can make real choices that affect the outcome of an encounter or an adventure, they are less likely to maliciously ruin my campaign. Patience is the key—if you remain calm and don't show panic or fear, your players will think that you're prepared for any contingency. Also, they'll realize in no time that you're not trying to lead them by the nose. As they fumble about and chase other distractions, you'll see opportunities to steer them back on track, or, conversely, you'll discover that the direction they've decided to go is more interesting than the one you had planned.

Next week, I'll talk about my three-arc approach to campaign building, which is, fundamentally, the idea of building a campaign around three big stories. I mention it here only because it dovetails nicely with the invisible railroad concept insofar as it gives you more tracks for your players to follow. If they fly off the rails, it's often easier to steer them toward another invisible track than to try to lead them back to the one they just left. Consider that food for thought.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

As a DM, what do you think of Raise Dead rituals and other death-ending magic?
I like them as simple and effective ways to undo character death. 372 20.3%
They're okay but should come at greater cost or consequence. 828 45.3%
They're okay but should only be available at higher levels. 123 6.7%
I like them for reasons not articulated in this poll. 98 5.4%
I dislike them because they make character death trivial or meaningless. 311 17.0%
I dislike them for reasons not articulated in this poll. 33 1.8%
I have no opinion. 64 3.5%
Total 1829 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #32A

 Hey, DMs: Have you ever had a player maliciously derail your campaign?  
I dunno. Maybe.

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #32B

 How do you deal with a player who tries to derail your campaign?  
I pack up my dice and leave.
I ignore the bad behavior and try not to reward it.
I politely urge the player not to ruin the game for everyone else.
I sic the other players on the offender. Peer pressure—can't beat it.
I put on a brave face and cry myself to sleep at night.
I kill off or savagely maim the player's character.
I don't mince words: I tell the player to stop being a jerk and knock it off.
I banish the player to the Abyss (kick the player out of the group). Problem solved.
I laugh at the player and shout, "Nice try, you damn dirty ape, but my campaign cannot be derailed by the likes of you!"

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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