By Sea or by Land?

I’m now down with published campaigns; in fact, when the economic recovery finally hits my house I’m thinking about going out and picking up a few of the earlier released modules. My new-found admiration of published campaigns does not mean I now overlook the things about them I don’t like. My over all issue with them is the railroad argument. The fact that the story is already written from start to finish means the players have very little to decide. For some groups this is no problem at all; many groups have a “just put more monsters in front of us” attitude, and a railroad is perfect for them. But is there a way to work inside of a story, published or of your own creation, and have an open feel with a closed story? I think the answer is a simple “maybe”.

First of all, part of what makes most published adventures hard for DMs to run is feeling like they have to say “no” all the time. If the party wants to go to a place outside of the adventure area,  kill an important npc, destroy an important artifact, or just plain go about things in an uncommon fashion. Having to say no until the players try something that is written in the story makes the DM feel more like a narrator and less like a DM, and causes the players feel like choice has very little to do with the game.

To me a good DM can mean the difference between taking a luxury train ride, or a ocean cruise. On a luxury train everything is taken care of for you. Your baggage is loaded and unloaded for you, your seats are assigned, and your destination is determined with no chance of alteration. Sure there is some allowed movement on a train, you can move forward to the dinning cart, or back to the sleeping compartments, but that’s it, forward and back. On a cruise, however, much is the same and so much is different. The choices you can make on where to go while on the ship are vastly greater; you can go to the pool, or to the gaming room, or play shuffle board, go eat at the buffet, or take dancing lessons, and on and on and on. The funny thing is, you still have no power over where the boat takes you. Just like on the train you are at the mercy of the person operating the vessel. But in a situation with a great deal of options, such as a cruise, a person can easily forget they the do not have ultimate control over the story. I think you can all see where I am going with this.

I think the argument of an adventure being a railroad is almost a nonsensical argument. The DM is the story teller, even if some one else has written the story for them. I know the players have a large influence on the story, and some DMs even ask the players for help. But ultimately it is up to the DM to decided if the story is going to be a train ride, or a cruise ship vacation. A published adventure is a very detailed guide, with a great deal of information provided, but it’s by no means a map with the only route plotted out. Sure, the beginning and end should be some what changeless, but everything between points A & Z should be up to the DM. Adventures should feel more sand box even if they are technically not, and much of that feel should come from the DM reacting to the players, and saying yes more than no.

How reaction can change a game:

As I said before, much of making a game feel more open is saying yes more than no. By saying yes and then molding the game and its events around the players’ choices, the story will flow more smoothly and grind to a halt less often while the players figure out what exactly the story needs them to do. Below are a couple ideas for how to react when players want to step out of the story just a bit.

Q. What if the players are exploring an area not included in the published materials?

A. You can move one of the encounters to that area, you can even add importance to the un-described, unimportant location. Make it part of the story and the players will never know they were off on a goose chase. Make it a decoy with traps, or a skill challenge. Or move some NPCs the group has yet to meet into that area. But remember to reward the party with helpful information or clues to their quest so they don’t feel like they just made a bad choice and are being punished for it.

Q. What if they players miss important information or NPCs?

A. Is there an NPC players do interact with? Give that NPC the information the players need. Or take the NPC out of where the book has them and place them in the middle of an encounter; if the players save the NPC I’m sure they will listen to what it has to say.

Q. What if the players kill someone important?

A. Give the importance that person has to another NPC in the adventure. Try to avoid the “and then his brother who no one knew about showed up”. Just pick out another NPC who the players have met and plug him into the story. It might not always flow as well, but it beats the hell out of just adding new a NPC who looks just like the guy your players killed.

Q. What if they players don’t end up where they need to be?

A. Simple: make where ever they end up the right place. I know it sounds like I’m saying do all the work for them, but really it’s an attempt to avoid pointing out how trapped they are in the story of the adventure. If they end up where they need to be and it’s because they chose to be there you players will feel like they are getting things done.

Being proactive to expand an adventure:

There are lots of things a DM could react to in a positive way and allow the story to expand. But sometime the DM needs to be proactive in the growth of the story. I find that setting up multiple paths which lead to the same conclusion helps create the illusion of freedom. I’ll use an adventure line I created as an example.

A group of druid maintain the forests on the borderlands, operating out of 4 camps. Many of them visit the frontier towns on a regular basis. In recent months there has been no contact with the guardians of the wood, and this is disturbing to the local officials who rely heavily on them for protection from creatures of the wild. The players had been charged with seeking out the 4 druid camps to try to gain information as to why the druids had disappeared. When the players found the first camp it was overrun with creatures from the far planes. After fighting the creatures off they found a letter written partially in an unintelligible language, but the addressee and a plea for assistance could be clearly made out. In the battle, a small group of the creatures fled but not with out leaving a visible trail. At this point the group had three options: A) take the letter to the intended recipient, B) follow the creatures who escaped the previous battle, or C) continue searching for the missing druids at the remaining 3 camps.

If the party goes to the next camp they will find the druids fighting off another band of the strange creatures. After helping the druids they will tell the party that they have been invaded by the creatures, and have been trying to drive them out of the woods for months. They will tell the party of a young man who was seeking a relic to help them ward off the attackers. They will tell the party of the location of a dungeon where the man was headed.

If the party follow the creatures, they will soon reach an old stone door carved in a hill side. When they enter they will find creatures attacking a young man who was apparently searching for something in the dungeon.

If the party decided to deliver the letter they will find it was intended for an ancient tree ent,  “The Father of the Wood”. After a short skill challenge the party would be told of a young man who had sought the aid of the ent to help banish the far plane blight. If the party had been successful in the skill challenge, the ent would tell the party not to trust the young man, and how to use the relic. If they failed the challenge the ent would only give them the location of the young man.

Each option would lead the party to a young man in search of an ancient relic used every 100 years in a ritual to seal these creatures in the far realms.If the young man were to succeed he would become king of his small country. They would find out there are other candidates who are searching for the relic and he wants to enlist the help of the party to accomplish his task.

If the players had not chosen any of the three options they would have still ended up meeting the young man and being enlisted to aid him. They players didn’t know they were going to end up at the same place no matter what and they never need to know.

Sometimes the DM needs to expand the options a module presents, allowing the players to feel like they have made important decisions which drive the game. With out beating the point to death, a DM can make all the difference in making a game feel like a ride on the rails, or a trip on the open sea.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.


About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
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