imageStew reader LesInk threw an interesting morsel into the suggestion pot the other day. It is about the concept of railroading and how you force an event to happen when the plot absolutely calls for it. The concept is an interesting one, and LesInk put forth a great solution along with the question and story.


Dear Gnomies,

I believe I have been a victim of the suddenly-appearing-railroad scenario.  There I was GMing my last gaming session when I found myself in a scenario where I thought the players would be forced to a desired endpoint where they are captured.  Lo and behold, the players were able to keep fighting off the rounds and rounds of sleeping gas (4E game mechanic wasn’t working as well as I would have liked) and just when most everyone was knocked out, another was jumping back up (can’t fudge the dice, they get saving rolls).  In this scenario, they were also trying to break through a grating to a pipe they had entered through and escape.  The problem was I have this wonderful next scene that depends on the characters being knocked out.  This isn’t my normal mode of operation, but we are experimenting with more cinematic games.  Eventually, one of the players pulled out an obsidian horse and used it to pop open the gate, allowing them to flee.  I could have introduced a very heavy hand to force the ending to work in my favor, but I decided the characters earned their reward of escaping — they had already been put through enough.

The game ended there for the night and we talked a bit while I stewed over some possible new next scenes.  I piped up and asked the players if they would mind letting themselves get captured if I assured them that a few things would happen (namely that they would wake up alive and still have their equipment).  To my surprise, they agreed knowing that I was working up to something worthy of playing out.

So, here I come to my quest for advice — when you have something that you need to happen, what are some tips on making it seem plausible without offending the players?  And what do you do when you thought the odds were all in your favor and they suddenly go sour?

I should also point out that I also dislike railroading, have read and, but believe that sometimes you really need the players to turn left instead of right even when you want the illusion of right to be there.

Yeah, sometimes as a Game Master there are certain things that you need to happen, especially if you are running from pre-published materials. When you’ve got a plot in a game, no matter how loose or how open it is, it often requires some things to happen.

Villains would never monologue if heroes didn’t get captured. The true evilness of the BBEG would never be solidified for the players if the BBEG couldn’t get off one or two successful evil plans. Often these things can be organically created in the game situation. Sometimes the Game Master needs to do a little nudging. And sometimes, mechanics and GMing tactics are outdone by awesome rolls, great player ideas, and the desire not to push our players around. This is the way it should be, but some things need to happen or  the plot needs to change, and that isn’t always a viable option.

I think LesInk’s approaching of the players was an awesome tactic. Laying out that he needed them to be captured and that it wouldn’t create unfair circumstances led to new play opportunities and an intact plot. I would whole-heartedly suggest LesInk’s approach as a possible solution for everyone encountering this kind of situation:

When you need to force something to happen tell your players about it first and assure them that they will suffer no lasting consequences once the event is over.



I’ve been in complete developer mode for the past few weeks, so reading LesInk’s story sparked an idea. As an add-on to LesInk’s solution, I humbly present the idea of the Railroad Token:

Railroad Tokens

  • When the Game Master absolutely NEEDS something to happen for the story, she approaches the players beforehand and tells them that an event needs to happen. She does not reveal what, but says she will place a nickel on the table. This is the Game Master’s “Railroad Token”. It indicates that the Game Master is taking more control than usual.
  • Once the nickel is placed, the Game Master also gives the players a penny each time she forces something directly related to a player (“You fall unconscious from the sleeping gas.”), prevents an action (“You can’t do that until the BBEG stops talking.”), or merely gives each player one penny. These pennies are the player’s “Railroad Tokens” and are a guarantee that they will be able to buy their way out of the forced situation if they have to.
  • Once the Game Master has finished the necessary event, the players are free to spend their tokens to counteract things the Game Master did. If the Game Master took away the players’ weapons (a very realistic thing if she was forced to capture them) then the players can use their pennies as plot points (ala the cortex system’s plot points) to affect the story so that they can undo the situation. They might spend a token to say the key is on the wall, then spend another token to say the guards happen to walk away or be asleep, and finally they might spend a third token to say that no matter what, they successfully string their belts together and lasso the keys off the wall. 
  • The players might use a mix of mechanics and railroad tokens to undo the forced situation. They might roll to see if they can lasso the key, but if they fail they can spend a token to say it didn’t wake the guard.
  • The denominations of money used will be subject to change, but there are a few things to understand about this system. The points (on both the Game Master’s and Players’ sides) circumvent game mechanics and assure that something happens. The players should be given smaller denominations that add up to be equal to or more than the Game Master’s coin, representing that the players have many small guaranteed actions that undo the forced event, but that they will always be able to undo it by paying more.

This system would work best with a situation that needs to be forced, almost like a cut-scene in a video game, to progress the story along. The Game Master’s token represents the amount of control which they are buying off the players, and the player’s tokens represent the buying off of the control that the Game Master took. I don’t see it being necessary in all situations, especially if you use LesInk’s “Just Ask Them” approach. In most cases that would be enough. This adds a mechanical story element that lets the players cinematically build their own way out of a situation, but ensures them that they can.

So what do you think?  What kind of situations would you see yourself using LesInk’s approach in? What kind of situations do you think the Railroad Tokens might work for? Do you have a tactic that you use when you need to force an event?

(Image: HereCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
18 replies
  1. CaptainHairy
    CaptainHairy says:

    As far as I remember, this is similar to the way it’s handled in Mutants and Masterminds. The hero point system has many ways of the players earning their points, and one of those is ‘Gamemaster Fiat’, where the GM gets to pull something on the players to keep the story moving and in return the players get a hero point each.

  2. Bevin Flannery
    Bevin Flannery says:

    I commend Lesink for how he handled things. As a player I’ve been in the situation Lesink describes, and our inexperienced GM did not handle it half as gracefully. He wanted the PCs captured and branded by the bad guys. He claimed the outcome of the scene was not predetermined, even though it was clear that nothing we did would allow even one of us to escape … or even to drown ourselves in order to avoid the capture. We ended up with a lengthy scene in which the GM had to break several rules in the NPCs’ favor (while still enforcing them against the players) to get the result he wanted. He should have just called a time-out and asked everyone to go along with it, and we would have done it gladly. It would have saved us several hours and avoided a great deal of frustration if he had.

    When it came to be my turn to take the GM chair for the first time in my life, I actually used the “good sirs, won’t you please board the train” tactic with the same group. They went along quite willingly. As a result, I can trust the players to trust me not to screw them.

  3. Squish
    Squish says:


    Years ago I had a Storyteller (Werewolf) knock our party members out. We were tied up and being marched someplace. We would change form and try to break our rope bounds. And she would simply say ‘you can’t’. Was there somethings special about the ropes? no, she’d say. I remember most of us getting really frustrated because she wouldn’t even let us roll the dice to see if we could snap these ropes with our werewolf strength. The whole situation ended up causing some distrust with the players… I’d always wondered if their wouldn’t have been a better way to force us into the story-line she wanted, without causing such a degree of stress amongst us.

  4. DNAphil
    DNAphil says:

    Awesome post! In the past as a GM, I have avoided any situation that looks like a railroad, just because I did not want to force my players into anything. At the same time, there are certain dramatic elements, that I would love to explore that game rules could circumvent.

    Your token idea is great. By giving an indication that the GM is taking a stronger narrative control, using a visual indicator, the players can follow along. Then by rewarding the players for their trust, you balance the extra control.

    I am going put this into my bag of tricks right away.

  5. Bevin Flannery
    Bevin Flannery says:

    @Squish – Heh, that reminds me of a story my spouse tells about how a DM had two PCs captured and shackled in a dungeon. One PC was very strong, and asked for a strength check to see if he could break free. I paraphrase:

    “No, these manacles were made to hold giants.”

    A beat or two passes.

    “Oh, so then I can just slide my hands right out then!”

    Loooooong pause. “Er, no … they shrink to fit your wrists.”

  6. John Carr
    John Carr says:

    This is an awesome idea. Although I think for Savage Worlds, which I’m running, it might just be easier to give everyone a benny after informing them ahead of time, kind of like what CaptainHairy said about M&M.

  7. Matthew J. Neagley
    Matthew J. Neagley says:

    John, Love this concept. I’ve seen similar mechanics before but have never seen a system that suggests using those mechanics to subsidize train rides. Bravo!

  8. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Railroading is just another tool. It’s neither good nor bad in and of itself.

    Regardless of the mechanical side of it, making sure your players are “all aboard” is one way to let the train leave the station intact.

    My first game after a long hiatus, I warned each player in advance “You can’t win every fight”. When the bandits showed up and got the drop on the party, they remembered the warning, and played along. In hindsight, it was a risk, but it worked out fine at the time. The party lost all the gear they had just spent hours buying, and had plenty of motivation to track down said bandits.

    And in distant hindsight, they learned to trust their GM a bit.

  9. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    I’ve never even considered mechanics for this sort of thing. That is a very interesting idea, but not one that I think I’ll ever have a true need for. Still, trying it out might be a fun exercise in and of itself. 😀

  10. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Menexenus – Sure, you can totally be valentine’s with the post. Although, from past experiences, it is a heartbreaker and is always 15 minutes late wherever it goes.

    @CaptainHairy – I’ve never played M&M, but I can see a superhero game doing something like that. There are so many times when a superhero story involves the hero failing before getting back up.

    @Squish – Railroading can definitely leave a bad taste in players’ mouths. I think, like LesInk did, telling the players upfront eliminates a lot of the trust issues.

    @DNAphil – Thanks. I have to say, I totally agree that the visual indicator and the rewarding the players is paramount to my implementation of the idea. When I was developing this idea, I kept thinking of video game cut scenes. There were a few games that put a big icon on the screen when they were occurring. Aside from that they used all in-game models. The icon was the only clue that you couldn’t just move around and do stuff like normal.

    @John Carr – Bennies would definitely fit into a SW game more than a separate point. I tend to like the plot affecting (as opposed to mechanic effecting) types of points for something like this. That is personal play preference though.

    @Matthew J. Neagley – I’m never a fan of railroading players. I’ll usually change my story or plot to accommodate player actions, but there is a beautiful story element to having the characters overcome some form of failure. However, since most games are 5 on 1 and no player ever likes to lose (for fear of a permanent loss), we tend to rail against any attempt to take control away from our characters.

    @BryanB – I’m going to use this if the situation comes up in the next adventure I run. I’m running off of Dungeon-a-day right now, so it may or may not come up. It will be interesting to see in effect, but I think many “necessary” railroading situations merely call for letting the players know beforehand, and like Kurt said “getting them ‘all aboard'”

  11. zacharythefirst
    zacharythefirst says:

    I’ll be honest–I hate, *hate* railroading. Too many Dragonlance modules or something. But when something needs to happen (say because we need to speed up the game for real-life concerns), I don’t want to break momentum by telling the players their about to take a ride on the Game Master Express (that sounded less dirty in my head). Basically, I offer the *illusion* of choice. There are 3 paths, but somehow all 3 lead to the objective. Roll some dice and mumble behind the screen. As long as you haven’t been dropping huge hints beforehand, this shouldn’t be a big issue.

    It can be tough, especially if you’re blatant about it, but a good, deft, and lucky GM can railroad without the players ever knowing it.

    Then again, my games unabashedly skew towards centralized GM power in lieu of increased player narrative control. In return for that sacred trust, I never railroad, unless the aforementioned real-life considerations merit it. But I’ve always found players give you enough rope to manage without having to resort to extremes.

  12. Sarlax
    Sarlax says:

    I think LesInk’s railroading experience turned out as well as it did because it *wasn’t* railroading. By presenting the choice, he may have broken the fourth wall, but the very act of making it a choice means that the players’ decisions mattered. I find the method bold and refreshing, particularly since he could have effectively railroaded the players in one of several ways:

    1. Overtly, by making PC actions and abilities irrelevant or fudging.
    2. Functionally, by simply escalating difficulties (more monsters, even worse knock out gas) until failure was the only option.
    3. Gradually, by allowing them to escape, experience an intervening scene, then creating a new and “better” encounter from which they cannot escape.

    The very nice thing about LesInk’s decision is that it seems to have preserved the fun for everyone. LesInk is able to use the cool encounter he created while the players were recognized for their exceptional prowess and rewarded.

  13. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I think a warning is essential– letting people know that the normal game rules are suspended keeps them from being frustrated when their characters suddenly fail in ways they have always succeeded.

    Railroad/plot tokens are a good way of manifesting this without taking a lot of table time discussing/dropping out of character for assurances– at least after the first time or two, when everyone understands what it means.

  14. thelesuit
    thelesuit says:

    Another option that plays along with Lesink’s idea is simply telling the players a head of time what you need to have happen and allow them to contribute toward that resolution.

    If the plot really needs the party to be captured by the BBEG, tell them that.

    “Hey, guys, it would be really helpful if you got yourselves captured in this next scene.”

    Creative players will run with this and play it to the hilt…probably more theatrically than as a GM you had envisioned. Especially if it gives them a chance to hog some spotlight time.


  15. LesInk
    LesInk says:

    I want to thank everyone for taking the time to think about this situation and to let anyone know if they have any specific questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.

    I do want to point out that although the answer was to ask the players to be captured, this did come at the expense of being after a rather long and painful process that I thought I had in the bag (mechanically) and it was a bit of egg on my face.

    John’s Railroad Tokens are an interesting mechanism, but does require a bit of disturbing the suspension of disbelief upfront. I also have to admit I might not have the foresight to do this upfront. (Oops! forgot to put the coin out, can I do it now?) But more importantly, I like his point of letting the players be compensated for the strong armed tactic. I think it is safe to say that this should be a rarely used tactic.

    Now some specific comments:
    @Bevin Flannery – Thanks for the complement. Although the idea was good, it came much after the fact — after the damage was done.

    @Squish – Trust is very important. I have had lots of discussions since the game about Rule 0(and am surprised people didn’t mention it), but sometimes you really do have to invoke it, make it apparent you are invoking it, and move on. “This shot IS going to hurt!”

    @zacharythefirst – I also hate railroading and this event confirms it. I agree that the best way to have railroading is to have multiple routes ending the same result. The best part of that is the route they take can still color the result the way they want it colored — but its still the same (major) end result. Thanks of reminding me to put that back in my toolbox.

    @Scott Martin – You are spot on. The frustration became palpable. They were succeeding albeit very slowly.

    @Sarlax – Your ideas are good, but alas, did not come into my mind at the time. So goes one’s brain late at night sometimes. (Ok, adding more monsters was one of the ideas I had, but they would have been truly demoralized into continuing the adventure).

    @thelesuit – I agree that sounds good on the surface, but not all party groups I’ve worked with are so forth coming and willing to contribute. Some people are not as willing to make tradeoffs when they figure they never had to trade off in the first place. However, I will keep that in mind.

    I would like to point out that if the players had chosen NOT to be captured, I would have toiled to make the result work — somehow. The real problem would have been the loss of momentum the adventure would have taken.

    Again, thanks for the input. I also want to thank my players for being open minded and willing to work with me on a bungled situation. Tomorrow we continue the adventure. Hopefully I will be able to live up to the now hyped up dramatic ending that required such a strong handed turn.

  16. LesInk
    LesInk says:

    Just wanted to leave a quick note to everyone about the outcome of our last game session as it relates to asking the players to play along, and, in this case, fall into enemy hands.

    Was it worth it? In short, yes. All the story elements that had been planted in the lead up came to fruition. Only by being captured could they be confronted with interesting moral decisions and a proper build up to a climatic battle.

    Everyone had fun and I think the take away is simple: “Don’t be afraid to ask.”

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