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Johnny’s Five – Five Ways To Keep Your Players On Track Without Railroading

Posted By John Arcadian On July 21, 2009 @ 2:26 am In Johnny's Five | 11 Comments

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of non-linear plots and story structures. However, as the Game Master, you are responsible for making sure the story progresses and certain things happen. Sometimes the players just aren’t picking up what you’re putting down. Here are a few things that you can do to help your players stay on track, without having to railroad them.

1. Make The Clues Obvious and Give Them Context
Ruh Roh Shraggy. It’s a crue!  A lot of pre-written and self-made adventures have clues and tidbits to lead the characters on towards their final goals. A piece of scarlet cloth that matches the cloak of a noblewoman, a letter sent to the newspaper threatening to blow up a bridge or a slimy viscous fluid that was probably dripped by the monster du-jour. All of these are great clues that can lead a party to the proper conclusion, but they mean nothing out of context and might be easily missed.

Keeping the clues obvious to your players is one part of making sure the players piece it together themselves. Make sure the clues are big and vibrant, story-wise, and the players have a reason for picking up on them. If you need to be blatantly obvious with them then use Index cards and write them out once they enter the story. It might make the game feel a little board gamey, but the players won’t forget about them.

Letting the players know the context the clue fits into is another important step. Most clues don’t make sense unless the players have a way to link them to the desired end result. The players might have to do a little digging to find out that the piece of scarlet cloth is rare and available only to those who can afford its exorbitant cost. As the Game Master, you might have to make them aware that the clue will mean something with some more investment of time.

Letting it come down to something as simple as “I go research the clue.” and making a single roll can really speed along the game. If it feels like you are giving away the information, try this: Let the player make the roll and give them the relevant information, but ask them to tell you how they found it out. Let them have free reign with the narrative. They’ll feel like their search was more than just a roll and you’ll keep the story moving along.

2. Avoiding The Ever-Necessary "Make Me A Remembering Roll" By Making The Information Character Centric
Characters aren’t players and won’t remember every little detail. Players are always more focused on their character in the story, rather than the story itself. A player playing a rouge sees a thiefish way out of every situation and a person playing a fighter sees a potential combat in every situation. That thought is a bit extreme but relatively true. People play to the way they design their characters. Even  multi-dimensional characters have a definite concept that  defines their actions. The knowledge seeking archaeologist rogue will be looking for academic and rouge worthy solutions, while the conniving con-man rogue will be looking for diplomatic or scam-like solutions.

With this in mind, give information to the players in ways that will make it relevant to their characters. Putting the pass-phrase to open a magical door on the wall of an ancient tomb will be more remembered by the archaeologist rogue, while the con-man rogue will remember it more easily if he tricked the information out of someone.  It might still be relevant to the players 2 sessions later, when it comes into play, and the player will feel like their character was important to the story.

3. Write Important Things Down In A Big Visible Place Once The Players Discover Them.
This is applying a bit of classroom dynamics, but if you have a big piece of paper or whiteboard, just write it down when the players discover something important. Out of sight means out of mind. Make sure it’s in front of their eyes, so that when they’re trying to figure out what they’re missing they don’t have to look far. Even better than you writing down important information on a big,
visible-to-everyone whiteboard point out when something is important and let them write it down.

The visible-to-everyone piece is very important in this. When people are trying to figure something out they tend to look at their surroundings and see if anything jump starts their memory. Seeing a symbol drawn on the board will make them wonder if there are any unique symbols on the guards uniforms.

4. Tell The Players What Is Going To Happen Beforehand.
A friend of mine, who wants to get into Game Mastering, told me all about the adventure he wanted to run for somebody, and then asked me to play it. I already knew all the ins and outs but wanted to give him some experience behind the screen with someone who would work with the mistakes that all first time GMs make.

Knowing the plot points, information and twists beforehand made it a little hard to be surprised or not meta-game, but it also made me aware of how to play the adventure.  If you give your players a few tidbits about your game beforehand, they’ll have a better idea that the bandits aren’t the ones to chase, but the vizier is the one to investigate. It is kind of like figuring the plot of a movie out before you get to the end. You realize that the astronaut is a clone or that the evil monster is actually misunderstood about halfway through the movie. It doesn’t ruin the rest of the movie, in most cases, but helps you realize why certain elements are important.

5. The Journey Is As Important As The End Destination, But All Roads Lead To The End Destination
The players have careened wildly off course and are investigating slums around the city instead of trying to track down which one of the corporate board members is the werewolf. There is no way the players are going to get back to the place where they realize the truth. There are 2 things you can do:

     1. Try to move the players back to the path
     2. Do some quick recalculation and let the players find the information they
         need in the slums.

Going with number 2 will give you a few benefits. The players will feel more satisfied having gotten the information without prompting from the Game Master. The players will also keep the information more fresh in their heads because of the way they got it. It will feel like their idea from the beginning and having that idea pay off automatically assigns it a higher level of importance. You may have to change some parts of the story to meet with the new direction, but the game will continue and people will keep having fun.  The big story points are still in-tact, the road to them just changed.

The biggest piece of advice that I can think of for keeping players on track is to make the game important to their characters. The more involved they are, the more the story matters to them and the more they pick up on story elements. What other ways do you have to keep players on track without railroading?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Johnny’s Five – Five Ways To Keep Your Players On Track Without Railroading"

#1 Comment By BladeMaster0182 On July 21, 2009 @ 10:27 am

I use the big clues method, but another idea is to use NPCs to keep them on track. For example, if they’re off on side quests and forgot about the BBEG, have his minion attack a nearby village. If you need to remind them of things, have NPCs gossip about little things. To use your example “Have you seen the baroness’s new red dress. I wonder where she got the material from” said the local tailor, and etc.

#2 Comment By HappyFunNorm On July 21, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

The other thing I’ll do is have scripted events take place whether or not the PCs are there, or understand what is happening.

Let’s say the PCs should have paid attention to the intercepted missive that the town would be attacked in 2 days. If they leave, it still gets attacked. A survivor tells them that the attackers had odd tattoos or whatever it is they should have learned (“The BBEG was there and was heard to comment ‘I thought there would be more resitance’ or, even better ‘I know those heros intercepted my orders, so I increased my forces. I was hoping they would be here’ at which point the heros lose face because they LET the town be attacked… they’ll pay more attention next time!). The storyline goes ahead even if the PCs take part, or even if they don’t even know about it!

#3 Comment By Tommi On July 21, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

No script, no problems.

A weaker version is to not build anything on investigation; investigations are problematic on roleplaying games. A weaker version still: Don’t assume any investigation is going to be successful.

(I’d also say that a fixed end destination is a case of railroading, at least unless the players know such exists.)

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 21, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

My signature line on a few websites is “Some days you need a clue; some days you need a clue-by-four.” I know what you mean…

I tend to have an NPC around to play Socrates and quiz the party’s assumptions. “What about this other thing you told me last week?” “Why do you suspect this person?” Etc… It comes in really handy as a tool to test the players’ knowledge, and occasionally inject some common sense into their conspiracy theories. I make sure that the NPC never steps on the party’s toes, and isn’t in the position to do it himself.

And I never give a “clue roll”. If they need a clue, they get a clue. I’ve seen clue rolls fail, leaving the party even more clueless…

#5 Comment By BryanB On July 22, 2009 @ 10:37 am

One of those oversize d20s to the temple usually works at keeping players on track. :D

I’ll just be the echo chamber and say that it is bad adventure design to have the entire game hinge upon a single clue, especially when that clue is only available via one specific approach.

GMs need to have other ways of imparting the information found in the clue, especially if the PCs do not gain the clue at the first opportunity.

#6 Comment By Razjah On July 22, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

@BryanB: I’ve been in a game in college where the vital clue was only available in the first session (september) and one player completely ruined our access to it for 10 levels.

@John: I like the ideas here, but I tend to avoid the clue needing or work around my players. I use a lot more improvise and sometimes looking back the basis of information is incredibly shaky, but the players kept going and got there so I think it was okay.

I will be using the clue via character centric information method. That was something I should have thought of but never did. Great idea!

#7 Comment By BryanB On July 22, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

@Razjah – That is just wrong. Did the player do this intentionaly? Or did the GM fail to have a backup plan? Or was it a combination of both?

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On July 22, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

The GM’s section in Spirit of the Century has excellent advice about Pulp investigations. They spend a few pages on the difference between color, tells, and clues– and strongly emphasize that a good clue (in pulp) should suggest a course of action. Clues leading to clues can make it hard to keep people focused throughout– more links in the chain means more spots where things can fall apart.

#9 Comment By XonImmortal On July 27, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

My take on the subject is this: if the players are not paying attention, neithr are their characters. Most of the groups I’ve GMed for have figured out that they need to take notes,to keep up on what’s going on. Otherwise, they risk some pretty big losses. See the Knights of the Dinner Table for some spectacular examples of when this goes goes bad, or when the players manage to use it to their advantage.

This brings up one of my biggest pet peeves in RPGs: player knowledge vs. character knowledge.

Players may know things that their character has no clue about. A second level fighter in a fantasy campaign has no business using a diamond ring to cut glass, for example.

A few ways to approach this: a) let them try it, and let them fail, by applying negatives to the roll; b) have them point where on their character sheets they have the required backgrounds or knowledge to know this (I make sure character sheets include backgrounds – minmaxers and munchkins are not allowed at my table).

But characters may know something the players don’t. A character whose parents were weavers know a bit about weaving, very few players have a clue.

I’m reminded of the Native American mystic, in one of my games, who decided to make “a perfect blanket” as a bribe to a tribal leader. My conundrum was this: do I tell the mystic that Native Americans believe that a perfect piece of art drains the soul of the artist, or do I let them violate the flavor of the game?

I hate ‘common sense rolls’, especially if I have to remind the players continuously about some facets of the game. But players have learned to say “I’m going to study the problem using [blank] skill.” I’ll allow them a roll (or several) to give them some hints. Usually they get some good ideas going with input from other players.

I’ve had to do some interesting things to players who were convinced their characters were fricking geniuses or gods in the making. They may have sulked quite a bit, but at least the other players got to have fun instead of having Mr. I-Can-Take-On-An-Army hogging the game.

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#11 Comment By Sewicked On August 18, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

I ran the same mystery scenario three times as demo games at cons. I deliberately put three clues, accessible in different ways, that led to the same result (go investigate this noble house). I knew about the ‘plot hangs on one clue’ problem & it worked.

When the players only found 1 clue, hey, they went in the right direction. When they found 2 clues, it was confirmation of what they had figured out.

I didn’t think of the ‘character-centric’ clue. That’s great.


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