Putting the Story on Rails

I sometimes stumble over this when running a game. I’ve sketched out the events for a session. I have the plans laid out with specific decision points. I have consequences and issues that come up based on which path the players choose. Then I run the game and the players just go all over the place. It’s fine and that is one of the joys of playing D&D. Players should be keeping the DM on his (or her) toes.

But sometimes I still push the story on a rail. I construct a situation that nudges (sometimes seemingly like a linebacker pounding a tackle dummy) the players in a direction that I want them to go. It’s bad DMing and it bums me out when I do it.

Typically it is because I’m thrown for a loop with some of the decisions that players make. Where I envision outcome A or B from a RP encounter, the players come up with something that needs an outcome C (or even sometimes outcomes D, E, and F). At times I just run dry on improvised ideas.

I’m a huge fan of the ‘say Yes’ DMing style. If players are thinking of creative ideas to tackle a problem, I want to reward them. I want to encourage unusual solutions if the players are thinking. While it may not work, or be incredibly difficult to pull off, I like giving them a chance to try. But sometimes I just say, “No, that isn’t going to fly”, and then I push the players along the story rail.

As a quick example, the players are on an errand. They don’t really know their employer much, but are taking the job because it pays well. They get the item of unknown function. Returning to their employer, they are intercepted by a NPC group that wants the item. No way in Hades are they going to let the players take it back to the employer, and are ready to take it by force if needed.

So the players have a choice. Hand over the item or fight them. The guys that intercepted them definitely seem shady, but they really don’t know the motivation of their employer either. It is a simple dilemma and I’ve thought out story lines for either decision they make. Then the players come up with a plan C.

They are willing to have a representative of the party go with the NPC group, speak with head boss of the NPCs, and they won’t hand over the item to their employer just yet till they hear more on their offer. I hem and haw a little and say the offer is not acceptable. The players want to negotiate this deal a bit more. Finally, I tell them to roll initiative as the NPC group has done enough talking and ready to take the item by force from the players.

I hated doing it. Given a little time I could have gotten a side adventure together. The players read the NPCs right. They are bad guys. I could have had one player out of the action, being held hostage. Had the rest of the party try and do a bold rescue and escape. In short, try to run a grand adventure, but the reality of completely winging it settled in.

It was early in the session and the story was way off what direction I expected it to go. I needed more time to fill out some details and think about how the events could unfold. I simply was not up to par with running the game enough to pull off that much improvisation. It’s a shame too as 4ED really has a lot of tools and rules to cover those weird actions that players come up with. Making encounters really is a breeze. I’m going to have to work at designing more monsters and especially NPCs. Plus I need to give the ‘Additional Rules’ section in the DM another few reads to familiarize myself with it. I need to improve how I DM a game.

Putting the story on rails isn’t fun for the players. If folks have some tips to keep from that happening, feel free to add something.Half-OrcWillingham


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