(or Tips to Avoid the TTRPG Railroad)
An essential part of hosting a fun TTRPG campaign is making your players feel like their decisions matter. If you’ve ever heard people talk about feeling ‘railroaded’ its because they feel like no matter what they choose to do the story will continue in one direction and one direction only.
How do we as game masters ensure that our players feel their agency? There are a few ways and today we focus on what to do when players are trying to make a decision:
1- Give Them Silence
It might seem odd at times, or you might be eager to let the story progress and help your players out but try to hold off. If your players are trying to figure something out let them talk amongst themselves. Sometimes going quiet or refusing to offer information their characters haven’t sought out will immerse them in the world of their characters and use their own resources and motivations to further the story.
This works best for players with some amount of experience but for players at any TTRPG experience level there's always option:
2- Give Them Options
If your players get stuck, instead of pushing them in one direction, remind them of their options. Try and do this through in world interactions if possible, but if your players tend to need outside direction more than others I like implementing a board with listed items of interest that the players decide on. This communal list of plot hooks and points of interest will allow the group to decide where their priorities lie and what approach they want to take.
3- Let The World React
Your world isn’t static. Like our own everything is always changing, and every action has a reaction. When your players choose to do something let the world react to that. Let your townsfolk hear tales of these adventurers from the neighboring kingdom before they reach its’ gates, or let some NPCs shun the player characters because they wronged his best friend when they chose to steal his life savings.
These reactions no matter how small will also prime your players for larger reactions or consequences down the line. When players understand that their decisions create long term changes they tend to feel more immersed in the world and each triumph becomes more satisfying.
4- Don't Warn Them
(This doesn't mean never warn them!)
Don’t warn your players about things their characters don’t know about. If you think your players are about to make a decision that they might regret but it makes perfect sense to their characters and they haven’t encountered a situation like it before, let them make that mistake!
Usually the players know there’s a risk to any big decision and playing their characters faithfully means accepting that risk and the storytelling possibilities that might come out of it even if it goes wrong. Plus players will always surprise you with how they come up with ways to get out of trouble, which can be just as fun, if not more, for everyone involved as an initial success.
5- Consequences First and Always
Following the previous points, don’t warn your players about a risk if they have no way of knowing it to be a risk in character, instead impose a consequence.
Now, when I talk about consequences it can be immediate, like a bunch more guards arriving at the sight of a fight due to the PCs lighting a building on fire, but I prefer delayed consequences. These can be anything from a group of villagers being exiled due to the PCs exposing their secret worship practices, or an underground organization rising to power after their rivals are eliminated by the PCs.
This doesn't mean punishing your players for their bad decisions, just allow for realistic reactions even if they come as setbacks or obstacles to the party. Only give warnings to your players if they've made the same mistake in the past and are simply forgetting something their character has known and should have learned from.
Treating your world this way, as an environment that is constantly shaped by the PCs and not only shaping them, forming a world where obstacles pop up based on previous character actions, these treatments make the players feel like every decision they make matters, because they do.
Implementing this into your GM style will lead to deeper player engagement and investment no only in their characters but also in the ever changing world you build.