Help me un-railroad this!

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I am planning the start to a new campaign, focused heavily on subterfuge and politics of a large metropolitan city. My intro goes like this:
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A fugitive with a large bounty on his head (PC bard) from a foreign kingdom arrives in the city seeking refuge at his uncle's tavern. There he meets his cousin (PC rogue) who has just recieved a mysterious package addressed to the bard. When they open the package (or maybe as they struggle with it's riddle) they are interrupted by a visit by a local 'community organizer' Shodrick McTamerlane (read: neighborhood mob boss) and his gang of thugs, including two of the other PCs (ranger and cleric). Shodrick has recieved a message from the same mysterious source, suggesting that he take interest in the bard for his own political gain, however the large bounty on the bard's head is also appetizing despite Shodrick's disdain for the foreign kingdom. The bard's mysterious package contains information that there is a spy network belonging to the foreign kingdom in the city, as well as a sealed coded letter allegedly containing forged orders that will distract the spymaster. There are instructions to deliver the coded letter to it's target recipient, follow it to locate the spymaster's safehouse, then seek out help from Shodrick's organization to deal with the threat. Shodrick will decide to use this as a test, and to keep the bard from running off or pulling any funny business, assigns the ranger and cleric to keep an eye on him.

Thus the party is put together. They are then supposed to deliver the letter, either through a courier or in disguise, to a courtesean at a brothel that serves as a drop-off. The letter will then change hands several times to end up in a restuarant run by a wealthy street gang. There are multiple clues that lead to this tavern, even if the party loses sight of the letter, so I'm hoping they are able to figure it out (clues: a street orphan running a message back to the tavern from the brothel, a code based off flowers in the window of the brothel that point to a flower shop nearby the tavern, drug trafficking that connects the street gang to the brothel, the courtesean could reveal too much about her clientel, a gang member who goes to pick up the letter). My goal is to give them a lot of flexibility in how they want to do this, but steer them to the tavern. However, the tavern is not the final destination...but I want them to be close by.

My problem is:
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I feel like the party's actions will be extraneous, because the forged letter contains an explosive rune hidden in a secret page, so that when the spy master reads the secret page it will detonate, killing him and revealing his safe house. So basically, nothing that the party does after delivering the message to the brothel will matter in terms of the outcome of the session, and that doesn't sit right with me.

In defense of this railroading, the party's actions will influence the future story, as it's will revolve around dealing with the rest of the spy network and the street gang, and their will definitely be more interactions with the characters and places that they visit. Is this an acceptable level of railroading? What could I do to give the party more meaningful choices? I do want the party to get a sense of being in over their heads, but I also want them to feel like they are active players and their actions matter. Thanks
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I am planning the start to a new campaign, focused heavily on subterfuge and politics of a large metropolitan city. My intro goes like this:
Show

A fugitive with a large bounty on his head (PC bard) from a foreign kingdom arrives in the city seeking refuge at his uncle's tavern. There he meets his cousin (PC rogue) who has just recieved a mysterious package addressed to the bard. When they open the package (or maybe as they struggle with it's riddle) they are interrupted by a visit by a local 'community organizer' Shodrick McTamerlane (read: neighborhood mob boss) and his gang of thugs, including two of the other PCs (ranger and cleric). Shodrick has recieved a message from the same mysterious source, suggesting that he take interest in the bard for his own political gain, however the large bounty on the bard's head is also appetizing despite Shodrick's disdain for the foreign kingdom. The bard's mysterious package contains information that there is a spy network belonging to the foreign kingdom in the city, as well as a sealed coded letter allegedly containing forged orders that will distract the spymaster. There are instructions to deliver the coded letter to it's target recipient, follow it to locate the spymaster's safehouse, then seek out help from Shodrick's organization to deal with the threat. Shodrick will decide to use this as a test, and to keep the bard from running off or pulling any funny business, assigns the ranger and cleric to keep an eye on him.

Thus the party is put together. They are then supposed to deliver the letter, either through a courier or in disguise, to a courtesean at a brothel that serves as a drop-off. The letter will then change hands several times to end up in a restuarant run by a wealthy street gang. There are multiple clues that lead to this tavern, even if the party loses sight of the letter, so I'm hoping they are able to figure it out (clues: a street orphan running a message back to the tavern from the brothel, a code based off flowers in the window of the brothel that point to a flower shop nearby the tavern, drug trafficking that connects the street gang to the brothel, the courtesean could reveal too much about her clientel, a gang member who goes to pick up the letter). My goal is to give them a lot of flexibility in how they want to do this, but steer them to the tavern. However, the tavern is not the final destination...but I want them to be close by.

My problem is:
Show
I feel like the party's actions will be extraneous, because the forged letter contains an explosive rune hidden in a secret page, so that when the spy master reads the secret page it will detonate, killing him and revealing his safe house. So basically, nothing that the party does after delivering the message to the brothel will matter in terms of the outcome of the session, and that doesn't sit right with me.

In defense of this railroading, the party's actions will influence the future story, as it's will revolve around dealing with the rest of the spy network and the street gang, and their will definitely be more interactions with the characters and places that they visit. Is this an acceptable level of railroading? What could I do to give the party more meaningful choices? I do want the party to get a sense of being in over their heads, but I also want them to feel like they are active players and their actions matter. Thanks



In my response, I'm assuming you discussed the premise of the campaign with your players and they worked with you to devise the basic set-up and how their characters know and perceive each other in the context of the story. If that's not the case, stop now and go back and do that. (And be willing to scrap everything.) If you did consult your players before coming up with this idea and they are onboard, good job!

For the most part, everything leading up to the tavern scene is not an adventure - it's a script or prologue. But that's okay! Start the actual adventure in media res with the PCs skulking outside the tavern having just followed the letter here by way of the clues you described. The flower shop next door blows up and takes half the tavern out with it. Innocents come running out of the bar and shop, screaming and on fire. The fire brigade is called up. Constables are hurriedly directing people away from the area.

The PCs' goal? Go into the inferno and ensure the spymaster is dead, gather whatever intelligence might be remaining. That'll be a mix of a skill challenge and a combat (remaining members of the spy ring plus some hazards, maybe some town guards). Maybe they find him, maybe they don't (better, I think). Perhaps someone that looks remarkably like him has been killed, but the real culprit has gotten away. Even more interesting - maybe he knew the PCs (or the PCs' employers) were getting close to him, so he sent the letter to himself and staged his own death! Maybe the PCs discover this during their investigation later on that session...

Doing it this way starts off your thriller with action and sets the mood and tone of the campaign and adventure. It immediately draws your players in and makes them want to keep up the pace. In one scene, you've established a sense of urgency, a compelling hook, and push them in an interesting direction. What they do next you can leave up to them. Railroad-shmailroad.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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In my response, I'm assuming you discussed the premise of the campaign with your players and they worked with you to devise the basic set-up and how their characters know and perceive each other in the context of the story. If that's not the case, stop now and go back and do that. (And be willing to scrap everything.) If you did consult your players before coming up with this idea and they are onboard, good job!

Yep, in all my campaigns character creation is a joint venture between the player and myself, and it's usually my aim to know the character's abilities almost as well as the player.

 For the most part, everything leading up to the tavern scene is not an adventure - it's a script or prologue. But that's okay! Start the actual adventure in media res with the PCs skulking outside the tavern having just followed the letter here by way of the clues you described. The flower shop next door blows up and takes half the tavern out with it. Innocents come running out of the bar and shop, screaming and on fire. The fire brigade is called up. Constables are hurriedly directing people away from the area.

I really like this idea, but I'm kind of committed to having them figure out the clues and do some roleplaying exploring the city (just the tone I want to set). I will try to figure out a way to throw them some immediate action though, because it's always nice to start off with a good fight. Probably be some bounty hunter thugs busting into the uncle's tavern right before Shodrick's gang arrives. That way there can be some additional goodwill between Shodrick's crew and the bard and rogue. 

The PCs' goal? Go into the inferno and ensure the spymaster is dead, gather whatever intelligence might be remaining. That'll be a mix of a skill challenge and a combat (remaining members of the spy ring plus some hazards, maybe some town guards). Maybe they find him, maybe they don't (better, I think). Perhaps someone that looks remarkably like him has been killed, but the real culprit has gotten away. Even more interesting - maybe he knew the PCs (or the PCs' employers) were getting close to him, so he sent the letter to himself and staged his own death! Maybe the PCs discover this during their investigation later on that session...

Excellent idea. I will definitely use this. I imagine they will find an unidentifiable corpse (as one might expect from someone who took an explosive rune to the face). I will have to figure out how best to ensure they go into the burning building since they won't actually know they are delivering a bomb. 

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I really like this idea, but I'm kind of committed to having them figure out the clues and do some roleplaying exploring the city (just the tone I want to set). I will try to figure out a way to throw them some immediate action though, because it's always nice to start off with a good fight. Probably be some bounty hunter thugs busting into the uncle's tavern right before Shodrick's gang arrives. That way there can be some additional goodwill between Shodrick's crew and the bard and rogue.



You can always start with the scene I mentioned, then do a flashback to fill in the details and allow for them to explore and roleplay. Once they find themselves back at the flower shop/tavern area, flash forward. Note that this allows you to have no worries about the clues leading the PCs to the place you need them to go. The players already know where this leads and what happens then. They're just filling in the details to help them understand what led up to the scene they've already played out - the shared storytelling equivalent of boxed text.

But really, even if you don't use that method, there's no reason there shouldn't be plenty of exploration, investigation, and roleplay after the explosion scene, either. You'd just have to take your previous ideas and adjust them to the new starting point of the campaign.

I will have to figure out how best to ensure they go into the burning building since they won't actually know they are delivering a bomb.



That's just a matter of clearly stating the PCs' goals which would logically hold they look into this matter. This is their job after all. Somebody's going to ask them what happened and if they don't have answers, they're easy scapegoats. In fact, that can also be used to your advantage to help you push the PCs along and advance the plot... not only is the spymaster staging his own death, but he's hoping one or more of the PCs end up taking the fall. More impetus for PCs to figure it out.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Dungeon Master 101  |  Session Zero  |  Structure First, Story Last  |  No Myth Roleplaying  |  5e Monster Index & Encounter Calculator
Players: Players 101  |  11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer  |  You Are Not Your Character  |  Pre-Gen D&D 5e PCs

Content I Created: Adventure Scenarios  |  Actual Play Reports  |  Tools  |  Game Transcripts

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

You can always start with the scene I mentioned, then do a flashback to fill in the details and allow for them to explore and roleplay. Once they find themselves back at the flower shop/tavern area, flash forward. Note that this allows you to have no worries about the clues leading the PCs to the place you need them to go. The players already know where this leads and what happens then. They're just filling in the details to help them understand what led up to the scene they've already played out - the shared storytelling equivalent of boxed text.

But really, even if you don't use that method, there's no reason there shouldn't be plenty of exploration, investigation, and roleplay after the explosion scene, either. You'd just have to take your previous ideas and adjust them to the new starting point of the campaign.



Nope, not gonna do it. As you said earlier, this sets the campaign off in a certain tone, one of action and adventure. Which is great. But I don't feel the need to give my players a daily dose of encounters and the like (I have plenty of other campaigns going that provide that). I would rather set a tone of investigation, mystery and conspiracy. If I start with the explosion, I reveal the Ace up my sleeve, when I want it for suprise. I want them to build up a bit of paranoia, a little bit of edge.

Flashbacks are also a clear form of railroading to me, since they assume a certain situation comes to be. Personally, I don't think I could run a flashback to the level that I would feel satisfactory. Thanks for the idea, though.

That's just a matter of clearly stating the PCs' goals which would logically hold they look into this matter. This is their job after all. Somebody's going to ask them what happened and if they don't have answers, they're easy scapegoats. In fact, that can also be used to your advantage to help you push the PCs along and advance the plot... not only is the spymaster staging his own death, but he's hoping one or more of the PCs end up taking the fall. More impetus for PCs to figure it out.

I have some plans for the future already. They may or may not involve the spymaster and he may or may not have staged his own death. But he will be out of the picture for the time being since I have some low level thuggery that needs to be taken care of first.

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Personally this sounds like an acceptable railroading to me. Early in a campaign, I think it fun to do little things that make their actions irrelevent to let them know that they are small fish at the start. Your situation still alloys the players to have some connections for the spy network so it isn't entirely useless.

Of course, my players have been annoyed in my campaign with the introduction of some new plot threads because I haven't resolved any of the existing ones. They still feel like they don't know what is going on. I have given them chance to learn more but them seem to let them slip through their fingers.

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You could hand wave it, and just state that they can follow it without having to make any rolls and that it leads to where they are going, then include all of the different clues as part of the color of your description.  The purpose of this section of the story is exposition, not choice; and exposition tends to go in box text.  The choices begin once the story begins to move, and that happens when the explosion goes off.

If you absolutely want to make them play it out, then make it quick and keep it simple.
i think the general point iserith is trying to make with the "track the letter to it's destination" is the old forum mantra of "if its supposed to happen, why bother rolling? just make it happen"

or, think of it this way:
you have a series of skill checks and such set up to get the party to the right place, correct?

you have two real outcomes here:
the likely option is that the party succeeds, tracks the letter, feels really cool (most likely) and they get to where they're going.

the less likely option is that the party fails, doesn't track the letter and then...what? if they magically find the letter again, then i guess those skill checks didn't mean anything did they?  if they DON'T find the letter, than what on earth are you planning to do with your game?  this big cool plot is completely shut off by a single (or series of) unlucky failed skill check(s).

your campaign will PROBABLY go off with the skill checks without a hitch, but if your players start succeeding on 3s or if they "fail" and then really succeed anyways, or if they just plain fail and nothing else you had going on actually happens, then they're probably gonna feel pretty crappy.

Take that however you want to, i'm just trying to make an observation based on what i'm reading and have seen (and regrettably, run as a DM) before.  I just don't see any REAL choice in the opening - maybe what skills to use, but not any actual path splits where success leads them to X and failure leads them to Y.




now, onto the railroading idea....Even if you just want to add ONE choice....you could have the mob boss tell the party that this is a test of their abilities.  Then when the party finally DOES track down the spymaster....he's nearly all alone with "very little guards and no mode of immediate communication or escape".....queue party to decide whether they stick with the plan, deliver the letter, and discover the mob boss played them and sent them on a worthless mission, or do they take matters into their own hands (after all, they don't know the letter will kill him, they think some other team might come in after them), take out the spy easy but gratifying combat encounter with plenty of dialogue!), and report triumphantly to the mob boss....who then shows his ruthlessness and efficiency by congratulating them, but letting them know about the rune which would kill the spy anyways - after all, this mob boss takes no chances.  (this sets him up as a cool villain later).

EDIT - just read the bit in a later post about you saying the spymaster may stage his own death.  He can still do it if the players "kill" him....just be sure to satisfy them with an explanation (read: monologue) later. ("i'm sure you THOUGHT me dead at the time didn't you?  It's a wonder what some fake blood and a tonic that slows your heart will do in the hands of a master actor...") 
the less likely option is that the party fails, doesn't track the letter and then...what? if they magically find the letter again, then i guess those skill checks didn't mean anything did they?  if they DON'T find the letter, than what on earth are you planning to do with your game?  this big cool plot is completely shut off by a single (or series of) unlucky failed skill check(s).


Desperate to avoid being turned in by Shodrick, the bard makes a deal with a shady wizard to find the letter in return for a favor to be collected later. The explosion has caused increased security which bother Shodrick. This has made him displeased with the people he assigned to look after the other PCs. Alternatively the PCs could spread stories about the discontent of the bard in an attempt to get the spies to recruit him.

It's just like any event in your game. Combat encounters could just as easily end in failure. I don't normally have a backup plan for evey encounter if the party can't handle it. If it happens you makeup another way for events to continue. In one campaign I played the DM expected us to search the dungeon and find a powerful wizard to help us. We affectionately named one section of the dungeon the halls of madness. After searching for a while we decided he must not be there and we needed to get back to the ship before it left. (Besides we already made the situation worse by accidentally releasing a devil.) The DM had to adjust what he had tentatively planned for the future.

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I'm with Tubaman... I still don't see any meaningful choices in what has been discussed.  There's only a choice when it leads to an alternate outcome.  The real issue is that you have a cool idea that you want to happen no matter what, right?  But that's a story, not an adventure.  If your goal is to "un-railroad this" and meaningful choice is important to you, my advice is this: don't be married to a single cool idea that has to happen no matter what - instead come up with an alternate, just as cool idea that could play out instead.

That being said, not every single thing has to be a choice.  But if you are going to make them play it out instead of narrate it, they at least need to have a challenge to overcome that has it's own pass/fail consequences.

 

 

Alright, so I have an idea. Instead of just following the letter, the party is tasked with gathering information from the safehouse about the other clandestine business that the spies are involved with. If the party doesn't successfully follow the trail, they hear an explosion off in the distance and have some other goons to deal with, but if they track the letter, they are in a prime position to investigate when the safehouse blows open, and with the building burning, it's important that they do it quick. However, if they get stuck during some part of following the letter, they will still be able to figure out some of the things the spies are involved with and be able to track that in the future, though they will be at a disadvantage.

Thoughts?

Edit: So here is the breakdown of the session:


  1. Session start - The party gets brought together around the mysterious package and Shodrick. There will probably be a small skirmish with bounty hunters or thugs that will provide a common enemy for the PCs

  2. Shodrick/Mysterious package will task the bard, and thereby the party, with retrieving information on the spy network by locating the spymaster's hideout.




    • This can be accomplished by following the letter included in the mysterious package

    • Or by investigating clues that will point towards an area that the hideout probably is. (There are multiple paths for gathering clues)



3. Once the letter reaches the spymaster it explodes, revealing the hideout. Depending on how close the party is, they will have an opportunity to run into the burning building and gather up information on other safe houses and agents. If they are too far away they will not be able to get into the area before it gets blocked off by constables, but will still get information about what happened secondhand and may be able to pick up some clues. Depending on their investigation path, they may uncover enemy agents or hidden connections that wil be useful later on. If the party is able to rush in, they may be able to find the spy master's body, but if they are forced to come later it will be mysteriously absent. 

4. Either way, Shodrick will likely be impressed that they managed to blow up a hideout, even if it wasn't really their doing. He will be even more impressed if the party brings back information about other safe houses, and will reward the party for their work. Their level of success will determine their leads for future sessions. 

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As I was thining about it last night, the other thing you could do is task complicate the task by adding to it:

  1. Track the letter to the safehouse.

  2. Make sure that it gets there safely.

  3. Don't be seen.

Now add another player to the intrigue who wants to prevent it from reaching the spymaster, perhaps because they want to steal the letter and read it for themselves (and are in for a surprise if they do) or because they know what it is and want to prevent the assassination, but don't want to have their hand in this known.  

This provides oppotunities for combat, and for counter maneuvering as soon as the PCs figure out that they have rivals, and who those rivals are.  However, the possible outcomes then expand-which I suppose is not what you have in mind.  They might be:

  1. The letter blows up the spymaster as intended and the PCs are:


    1. Nearby

    2. Far Away


  2. The letter blows up the wrong person. 

  3. The letter carrier dies but the PCs obtain the letter and now have to figure out a way to get it back on track to where it was going.

Now add another player to the intrigue who wants to prevent it from reaching the spymaster, perhaps because they want to steal the letter and read it for themselves (and are in for a surprise if they do) or because they know what it is and want to prevent the assassination, but don't want to have their hand in this known. 

I like this a lot. I think that I may make it the local city's own intelligence forces or town guard, who perhaps aren't even aware of the spy network, but are instead trying to get information on the drug smuggling of the local gang. This will complicate things a nice amount and can either work out to be allies or enemies depending on the party's interaction. It can go especially wrong if the letter ends up in the hands of the town's head investigator! Thanks for the idea!

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Happy to help. Smile
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