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.
Choo Choo! What’s that? It’s the Invisible Railroad!
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.
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.
When your campaign goes off the rails, here’s what I recommend you do:
» 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.