Great Train Journeys – In Defence of the Railroad

Last weekend, at Grogmeet, I found myself apologising as my One Ring 2e game started –

I’ve adapted this from the Starter Set adventures… it might be a bit linear…

Many of my one-shots are, I realise. Read prep posts here and you’ll find discussions of scenes, pre-planned for trad games, that often take place in a set order. I think I run a lot of railroads at cons. 

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So, should I be apologising? Well, no – because first of all, a good railroad knocks the socks off a poor sandbox – it’s easier to pace and easier to prep if you know where the game is going. Also, there are some ways to make your railroad much less railroady, so your players don’t feel they’ve been shoehorned into a plot. Here are my top tips for making linear one-shots better.

An actual railroad track. Don’t use this.

Multiple Resolutions

If you need scenes to happen in a set order, give each scene a flexible way to resolve it. For example, if your investigators have to find out that the Hell’s Angels were hired to threaten your murder victim, consider how the players can

  • Beat up on them to get their respect
  • Trick the information out of them
  • Negotiate with them for the clue

Come up with three ways to resolve the scene, and make each one exciting – but be open at the table to other reasonable requests; the thinking about different ways will make it easier for you to respond to other unexpected ways at the table.

Be flexible about scene transitions (what Robin Laws in Feng Shui 2 calls ‘connective tissue,’ too – have multiple ways to get to the next set piece scene, that can happen in a few ways. A 13th Age montage, or One Ring’s Journey system, are good approaches for this – as they create unpredictability, either from the players or the dice.

Flexible Ordering and “the Swell”

Another way to mix up the railroad and make it feel less linear is, well, to make it less linear. While you might have a clear idea of the start and end of your session, and possibly a key scene in the middle, intersperse this with scenes that can take place in any order.

So the players encounter the bandits raiding the village and fight them (KEY SCENE), learn of an opposing force massive to strike on the village (CONNECTIVE TISSUE), then recruit allies and prepare the village defenses (FLEXIBLE SCENES), then fight off the attack (KEY SCENE).

For the flexible scenes, it can help to think of them as short challenges, and think of a ‘normal approach’ (which might just be a simple skill check or challenge) that will get it done. Combine this approach with the one above – with multiple approaches for each task likely to be successful. Chain this between three key scenes, and you’ve got yourself an epic adventure. The example above was largely the plot of @the_smart_party ‘s Deadlands game I played at Grogmeet, where we foiled an actual railroad – following the mass battle (Savage Worlds, it turns out, has a great abstracted mass battle system) we tracked the real villain into his cult and fought him as a final key scene. 

Make Them Pop

The truth is, if your scenes are really entertaining, and transitions between them logical, nobody will care that they are linear. In a campaign, yes, you’ll find this unsatisfying after a couple of sessions, but in a one-shot the strong pull of a linear plot will keep everyone engaged.

Make sure each scene has some genuine stakes though – maybe they make subsequent scenes easier or harder, or feed into the final confrontation. Scenes do still need stakes, and you need to find a way to do this when the scenes that follow are pre-determined. And, whatever you do, don’t start the session sharing a map with one road going one way – a literal railroad out for everyone to see.

This was all I did with One Ring – the starter set has 5 adventures, so I stuck together two of them and tried to stick to the best bits and Spend Hope that the players enjoyed themselves – and I think they did.

What are your views on the railroad? Is anyone going to rush to the defense of the sandbox? Either way, let me know in the comments.