Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar

The question of whether a DM should force the party along rails or allow them to stomp around in a sandbox continues to be addressed. The topic was discussed heavily in a blog carnival last year, and most recently this week at Critical Hits. It is not a new concern for DMs, and there are numerous suggestions for how to effectively run a sandbox style game for your PCs. My approach to the campaign I run has been slightly different, and I think other DMs may benefit from the structure I use to balance PC flexibility with central story arcs. The following post is my attempt to describe my structure for running the world and handling the railroad/sandbox situation.

Before 2009, I did not play D&D for over 15 years. I filled in that time with countless hours playing computer and console games – mostly action, RPG and sports titles. It is a major influence in how my brain functions to prepare adventures for my D&D campaign. When I received the opportunity to DM once again, I decided to create my own world for the PCs to inhabit. I leaned on the structure of certain videogame titles to keep my sanity and not have the process of “building a world” become too overwhelming.

Red Dead Redemption
Don't fear the rails. Own them.

Specifically, I relied on a model used by Rockstar Games for titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games offer expansive worlds for the players to explore while participating in a wide variety of activities. However, there is also a primary storyline the player can complete at their leisure. Recently, I took a break from Dragon Age Origins (80+ hours in and still haven’t finished it!?) to play Red Dead Redemption. The game is phenomenal, and I got wrapped up in that for a few weeks while completing the game’s primary storyline. There are several interesting components to the Rockstar titles that translate well into building a D&D campaign.

If you have never played any of the Grand Theft Auto games or Red Dead Redemption, then I will briefly explain how the main storyline progresses. The player is introduced to the world through an introductory cutscene (or seven), and then dropped into the world. At this point, the player can go just about anywhere in the first section of the world, but your equipment and skills are quite limited. An icon on the in-game player map indicates when a mission available. The player can trigger the mission by traveling to the specific destination marked on the map. The player could spend hours roaming around before triggering the story mission, or he or she could skip the exploration and travel immediately to trigger the story mission.

The system in the game works well because it spaces out the story and the areas of the game that can be explored. For example, there are three large areas to explore in the cowboy-centric Red Dead Redemption – the Old West, Mexico, and an area that resembles the Midwest. The player starts in the Old West and cannot travel to the other locations until later in the game. The game limits how much you can explore in the beginning by ensuring that bridges leading over bodies of water to other areas are broken or otherwise out of service (a Rockstar design staple). This basically acts as the DM telling you, “No, you can’t joyride in the Astral Sea at Level 1.”

I built my world, Cydonia, for my PCs but knew that the party would not – and really should not – be able to travel to certain locations right away. Those locations would unlock themselves over time depending on how the PCs interacted with the world.  I created a rough sketch of the map for Cydonia and populated it with several towns – the capital city, two farming communities, an outpost in the wilderness, a coastal resort and a gritty port/docktown. I decided the PCs would start in the docktown, and would be centered there for several levels to start the campaign. As a result, I focused all of my efforts on filling in the details for my first town, Poormina. After deciding on the town the PCs would start the campaign, I borrowed heavily from the information published in the Dungeon Master’s Guide regarding Fallcreast. I re-skinned things and combined other ideas, but Fallcreast basically became Poormina in many ways.

Out of necessity, I decided the details on the rest of the world could wait. I did not have the time or creatively to design the entire world. Also, the PCs actions would give me ideas throughout the early stages of the campaign and help me develop future quests and locations. By not unlocking all areas at once, it continues to give me flexibility to alter the details in each location as the campaign marches forward. Last, it allowed me to focus on a small handful of NPCs to populate the first town.

A primary component I borrowed from the structure in the Rockstar Games titles was the focus on NPCs. In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.

I wanted to create several NPCs that would be available to the players to trigger different quests. According to the plot of my campaign world, I developed a handful of primary NPCs – Brother Laurence, a retired battle cleric working for a religious/military organization; Dorwin Farringwray, a rogue of questionable allegiances; and Hornan Dawntracker, the town’s captain of the guard. Each NPC has his own backstory and personality (and in some cases, their backstory is intertwined). Through roleplaying, the PCs in my group have learned the types of quests that are available through these NPCs.

Brother Laurence is the primary advisor to the group, and advances several story arcs that have been set up since Level 1. Dorwin is a scoundrel that offers clues to treasure and other riches, but the missions are dangerous and filled with great peril. Hornan was designed to offer the party straightforward missions, “Go quell the goblin uprising,” but even he turned into a bigger NPC in my campaign because of the PCs actions. (Quick Tangent: my group first met the quite-injured Hornan when they rescued him from a group of doppelgangers, but the PCs weren’t sure if it was another shapeshifter trick, so two players – without consulting each other – simultaneously rolled Heal and Intimidate checks. The Intimidate was a natural 20, so poor Hornan was beaten silly by the wizard while being healed by the cleric. Hornan has been resentful every since, and interactions with the PCs are always lively when Hornan is in the room!)

To summarize my process in building a campaign, I started from scratch in creating a new world. Borrowing from the design in games like Red Dead Redemption, I created the following information for my world:

  • The name of my world, Cydonia, and a rough sketch of the world’s map
  • The names of a few major cities with the dock-town, Poormina, serving as the PC’s starting point in the campaign
  • Three detailed NPCs for the PC’s to interact with in Poormina to get the adventure started

In addition, I had a two-page document (nothing fancy) that presented a brief history of the kingdom and current affairs. I shared the document with the players, and allowed them to create a background story for their character if they wished. The format has served me well, and I believe I’ve found a good balance between allowing players to dictate quests and developing “set pieces” that I know the party will pass through during the campaign.


Focus your creative efforts on a small group of NPCs. The structure in the Rockstar Games lends itself quite well to DMing. Emphasize the important NPCs close to the PCs in your world, and then let the PCs decide who they want to interact with next. Prepare encounter possibilities for every NPC that can be triggered during your next session. If you want to limit the players’ options, simply reduce the number of NPCs that are available. Perhaps one NPC has left town on business or is otherwise occupied at the moment. This NPC can – and likely will – return in the future to trigger another quest. If you run into a dry spell creatively, dust off a “retired” NPC and bring them back into the campaign. By focusing on creating interesting and dynamic NPCs, the PCs will know who to interact with and have good reason to proceed through the combat encounters you prepare.

Combat encounters can be interchangeable. Another videogame suggestion comes from games such as Mass Effect, which is an action title with RPG elements. The player in the game must make a variety of decisions, and the game does an excellent job of making you feel like those decisions are crucial. However, the player often encounters the same combat environments and action sequences regardless of the decisions they make; there are subtle differences, but the structure is the same. D&D 4e makes it very easy for the DM to throw together an encounter and change things on the fly. If you really wanted to, then you could develop a series of three combat encounters that could be used for the mission triggered by any one of your NPCs. For example, you could reskin monsters, rooms, and traps/devices depending on the NPC the party choices to trigger.

Players can experience more freedom than they really have. If you give the players in your campaign a dynamic set of choices, they may feel like anything is possible. They will probably not think too much about what else they could be doing if you make their interactions with available NPCs compelling. You do not need to prepare for every possible direction the PCs might decide to take. However . . .

Players will continue to challenge the boundaries of your world. It is going to happen, and sometimes in unexpected ways. I have dealt with this in two ways. The first is the “bridge is broken” device mentioned above. You are the DM, and it is acceptable at times to say, “No.” The second is going along with things for a while to determine if there is a way to get the PCs back on the rails. I’ve accomplished this by roleplaying heightened NPC anxiety, determination or angst. I recently funneled my own panic regarding the PCs going way off track into a NPC who started to plead with the party to help him. Is that cheating? Probably, but at least I used a NPC in the game to further the plot, interact with the PCs and find a way to keep the session moving.

Borrow from everywhere. In creating encounters and NPCs for my campaign, I have lifted ideas from everyone – novels, videogames (obviously), comics, movies, television and published adventures. As a DM, you do not need to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down with your group. Use a published adventure or any of the great ideas on available online with your players. Reskin the adventure if needed, or set up an NPC in your world that leads the party directly to that adventure. 

Good luck, and I’m happy to hear your thoughts!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

28 thoughts on “Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar”

  1. I have tried several campaign styles over the years. I tired of writing epic rail-style games only to have them fizzle out when life got in the way of the players, so I moved to sandbox style. The first one was a message board in an inn that the pc’s lived. I made a physical board of form-core board and covered it with posts. Wanted posters, notes left by travelers, etc (it turned into a medieval Craigslist). The players loved it and while it was a big project to create, once I did, my job was easy I had little to no prep for months.

    Good post! (PS- I can’t get over how amazing that header looks.)

  2. Thanks for reading. It sounds lik eyour “medieval Craigslist” functioned in a similiar way to the NPCs in my campaign. It functions as a “hub” for players to learn about possible missions and jumping-off point for quests. The foam-core board is a great idea! I will continue to experiment with different styles of preparation and gameplay, but the system so far seems to be working well for the group and I.

    All credit goes to my cousin-in-law, Grant Gould. You can check out more of his awesome art at http://www.grantgould.com.

  3. The craigslist style sandbox method is a good method, for a while. In my 20 plus years experience as a DM it is best used at low level, or for level bumping. You can play a whole campaign this way and it will work… But if you really want to leave an impression as a DM, epic stories are the most memorable. But here’s the catch.

    As you noted, railroading is the big minus. The trick as a DM is to present the PC’s with enough clues, so that they draw the logical conclusion and move to the next step themselves. Sounds simple, but it’s not. You have to really know your PC’s and players, AND most importantly you can’t run the module as a rigid book. For example, If the PC’s are getting loot hungry and the module is in a dry spell, you need to feed PC’s regardless of what the module says. The food can be in the form of a map (which leads to the next module point), it can be an item deemed from a set of items, (which they find leads to clue about the next module point), or it can be in a reward.

    There’s an old saying, a good DM caters to the players, but a great DM can make the players cater to him,,,, without them knowing it… =)

  4. Nice post. I’m running the adventure that came with the DM Kit right now, but once its over I really want the players to have more say over the adventures. I wish there was a Nentir Vale gazeteer or sourcebook to hand them so they’d know more about the world. I’ve got my own homebrew campaign world as well, but the two settings don’t fit together.

    Also, now I want Rockstar to make Grand Theft Dragon. 🙂

  5. Morgoth, I *know* you have no regrets. I don’t even think the word is in your vocabulary! 😉

    I think your last point was something I was trying to present in the article. I think this method gives the PCs the illusion of more control over the world while also saving you from creating and scrambling all the time. You’re in my group, so you can let me know how that works out; folks seem to be good with it so far.

    Eric, I think you’ve seen this, but you reminded me about it when you talked about the Nentir Vale Gazeteer. I wrote this for NewbieDM a few months back:


    You could do something like this for your party to push them in the “right” direction.

    1. Just think about how you guys are in my campaign. (For visitors, I’m currently running them through the Scales of War saga.) I can honestly say, you guys have always been right where you were supposed to be. From time to time I’ve handed out a little bit more information, but your party has always drawn the right conclusions. Is this railroading? is the module that well written? Are the players just that good? or is the DM one skilled S.O.B.!?

  6. I like a good railroad.

    If you are on a good railroad, you don’t even know it. Sandbox stuff is great, but after a while can be easy to lose focus on what is the important plot to follow.

    Sometimes when it’s too open I have a hard time knowing what is the main plot and what is irrelevant. My notes can become a jumble of names, and knowing which is side quest vs. significant can become difficult over several months.

    Your Dragon Age example is interesting. It feels so linear to me; but I’m ok with it. I can’t remember how it is in the original but in Dragon Age 2 it has the main plot quests kept in a separate entry; it’s impossible to not know where to go to move forward.

    RDR is a great game. I love the open format, but I rarely just rode around. It might as well have been closed and linear; that’s how I played it.

    I guess it’s a matter of preference with your group.

    Nice article with interesting tips.

    1. I think a combination of railroad and sandbox is good. Of course, it is important to gauge where your group is. You might have some players that really want to build and help construct the world. Or those that are happy to have the DM steer the ship.

      RDR was so much fun to play. That game was interesting because of how it ended. Don’t want to post spoilers, but it was very well done.

      My own notes can become jumbled, but I’ve had a better time of it since I started using the MasterPlan program to log everything. I might post about that in the future.

      1. I think, in general, you are correct about a combination of railroading and sandbox. Some players need to be guided more at the beginning (or always lol) and some are either seasoned enough or bold enough to step out and investigate on their own. Also, your point about not over-planning because things can take on a life of their own is typically true with seasoned gamers. They might dig one little thing you toss in and VOILA! a new hook is born.

        Great advice… there are no perfect players of GMs or “worlds”, but any campaign can be “perfect” enough with these principles 🙂

  7. Retro,

    It’s interesting what details players latch onto during any given encounter, session or campaign. For instance, something that I consider “throw-away” information becomes the focus of the PCs’ efforts, and I’ll adjust things accordingly. Although sometimes I have to clarify that what they are focused on is not thier primary concern at the moment. I think this can happen if you throw in something like an altar into a room just for scenery; the PCs may focus on that as some type of special “out” in combat when really it’s just there because you thought it sounded cool. When preparing your encounters, it helps to think as a PC at times!

  8. I like your notes about just designing enough of the world to get the PCs started, leaving the rest of the details to be fleshed out as the campaign progresses. This form of just-in-time world design is a nice antidote to the urge that I always have to write the complete story before the campaign even starts, which not only leads to railroading but results in untold hours of (often unnecessary) prep. I wrote an article a while back on http://www.saveusfromthebrambles.com/ about what DMs could learn from Agile software development techniques, and the approach you describe is right in line with my suggestions there. I think that the key point is that as a DM, you are a storyteller, but you don’t control the actions of your key characters; all you can do is create the opportunity to move the story forward and gently guide the PCs in the right direction, being cognizant of their interests, abilities, and desire for pace.

    The entire thrust of my current campaign revolves around the cult of a dog-headed god named Lumis and its attempts to conquer the world by merging the mortal plane with the Shadowfell. The whole idea came from a throwaway bit of flavor from the first adventure, which had the party exploring an old hunting lodge in the middle of a gnoll-infested forest. I decided that the rich lord had been part of a secret society called the Order of the Loomies, and had angered a local wizard by not inviting him to its annual feast. The party latched onto the secret society idea– seeing a conspiracy where none currently existed– and started doing research, so suddenly I had to create a backstory for the society and the long-ago cult that inspired it (the Order of Lumis). It’s funny that the entire campaign backdrop emerged from a bit of flavor that I dropped in on a whim. As DMs, we have to be flexible enough to allow serendipity to influence the story as well.

    1. Great comment, thanks for stopping by!

      My players latch on to the most interesting throwaway pieces of flavor text or mannerisms. Some of that is fun to use to develop a new storyline, but other times I don’t alter the story. It’s a tough balance to achieve because I want to encourage collaborative world-building, but I don’t have the talents to match *every* hypothesis from the group. Sounds like you did an excellent job of incorporating their thoughts into the campaign!

  9. Awesome advice, and almost exactly how I’m running my (still in the very infant stages) PbP Star Wars game (at http://angille.net/wp/ ).

    The other thing I did was have the players work together on Fiasco-style character relationships, which basically wrote the first adventure for me.

    1. Very cool! That is a goal I have; I’d like to get into a Star Wars RPG at some point. I’m enjoying D&D and just played Next for the first time, but it’d be fun to dive into the Star Wars universe for at least a mini-campaign.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  10. Thank you for sharing this link with me over Twitter. I’m sure I’ll re-read it when it comes time to start a new campaign I have planned: a west marches style that focuses more on exploration and is more sandboxy.

    I’ve not played GTA but I did play Red Dead 1 when it first came out (never finished it), therefore I hadn’t thought of them as “templates” until your tweet and this post.

    Thanks again!

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