A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

7Dec/11Off

Avoiding the Rails

NOTE: The following post may contain spoilers for the first chapter of my campaign, The Coming Dark.

As I've mentioned to a few people recently, I've been somewhat disillusioned with the fist full length campaign I'd created, The Coming Dark.

For a while, I wasn't sure why... I thought it was simply "DM burnout", or spending too much time in its design, general writer's block, aversion to interacting with the WotC forums, or something else I haven't quite laid my finger on yet. But since that first module I've published two others (The Endless Winter and The Dragon's Master) and am about to publish a third (The Heart of Fire), and during that process I have learned quite a lot about campaign design. And interacting with the Twitter and blogging community has helped me immensely to see the type of game people want or don't want.

I've come to the realization the TCD was, in essense, a campaign on rails. Everything occured in a linear progression, without any opportunity for deviation. Just to give you an idea, here is the chain of events for the first chapter of TCD:

  • Part 1: The Village of Solis.
    • Playes arrive in the village of Solis.
    • Two unavoidable encounters.
    • Extended rest and plot exposition.
    • Two unavoidable encounters.
    • Boss fight. Not the best of bosses, in my opinion.
  • Part 2: Heading Out
    • Leave Solis.
    • Three to four optional encounter areas that are along the way to the destination. The path to the destination is a road, a predetermined path through which there is no other way to get around.
    • Boss fight. Probably my favorite, even though it's gone through at least four different iterations.
  • Part 3: The Tower of Light
    • There is a direct path to the final encounter, which consists of 5 different areas (not counting the final room with the boss). Three of those areas are full on encounters.
    • A lot of secondary rooms that are either completely optional or contain something that the party needs to advance. There is no obvious indication that that is the case. Several of the rooms expand on plot elements integral to the story, and if the players don't go through the effort to inspect these rooms now, they'll never get the chance again and they won't have any idea what's going on in the future.
    • Final boss fight. Once the fight is over you are effectively ejected from the tower and do not have the option to revisit areas you didn't get the chance to.

In looking at all the above, it almost sounds like a season of D&D Encounters... The encounters are not avoidable, come sequentially and there's no way around it all. Just plow through as if you were "on rails".

With The Heart of Fire, I decided to attempt doing something different. I created multiple paths to reach the final destination, some of which are either full on roleplaying or "kill anything that moves" if you are so inclined. There are over thirty distinct encounters and situations, yet you only need to experience a fourth of those to reach the boss. The rest is just filler that the party can explore at their discretion; there is no pressing need for the party to rush to meet the boss (in TCD, there is most definitely a need to reach the boss quickly before he does something "really bad", so much so that one of the groups I'm DM-ing the campaign for is at the end of Part 3 and hasn't taken an extended rest since Part 1), so the players can explore at their discretion.

Also, the main setting of HoF is an island and you know where you have to go on it but you're welcome to work your way there any way you want. There isn't a long, clearly defined road that you must travel and not deviate from. Heck, I even included a random encounter list for the wilderness if the DM and party are so inclined. The party could wander the island, exploring every nook and cranny of it, for *days* if they want to.

In retrospect, I somehow like this system more. It gives the players freedom, and makes them feel like they're not being dragged around by a DM that positively, absolutely, has to get them to the next encounter or else he simply doesn't know what to do.

And even though TCD has less encounters and smaller maps than HoF, it's a good 30 pages longer. I think I wrote too damn much.

So, once I'm done with The Heart of Fire (for which I'm actively creating both D&D 4e and Pathfinder versions!), I'm going to revisit TCD and rework a great deal of it. This includes probably throwing out most of the Tower of Light, and maybe even reworking the continent and the storyline to allow for more diversity and to remove that sense that the campaign is on rails. I don't know how I'm going to do that yet, but I think it's necessary.

Now some of you reading this are part of my current campaigns, and maybe the above will provide a little explanation as to why I haven't been pushing those campaigns along for several months now. It's that simple: in light of what I've learned I've grown to not like my initial design, so soon I intend to rework the whole thing and make it a better experience for everyone, something I can be happy about and something I trust you will enjoy. If anything, you as players have helped me see that, so I ask that you be patient... It'll be for the best in the end, and the game will go on as soon as I feel it is ready.

Until that time, development on The Heart of Fire continues. The 4e version is complete save for two sections (one of which is waiting on me being able to commission a map of the volcano island of Pyrias, which I cannot get until my financial situation improves... Thank the holidays for that), and I've started to create the monsters for the Pathfinder version (which is a heckuva lot of work!). If all goes well, the module should be completed and published by the end of the year.

Be patient and stay tuned.

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  1. i’m running into a similar problem, but one that is kind of unavoidable for me. it’s not for lack of vision/creativity (dm or player), or a lack of willingness to allow things to unfold as they will…but for me, it’s about time constraints. my campaign is on rails for the most part, with unavoidable encounters (but the players find the flexibility in how the encounters go down) but it has to be that way in my campaign. i have a group of 6 guys that play regularly. we started out playing once every couple of months on saturdays (4 hour sessions), and it was always a crap shoot to see if we could actually get at least 3 people to show up due to scheduling conflicts.

    we determined that once every 2 months was not enough, so we decided to start playing every 2 weeks on thursday nights for about 2 hours…maybe 2:15 – 2:30. just so we could keep playing. obviously there isn’t much time for a combination of roleplay and combat…it’s usually we pick one or the other. if you’ve ever played the d&d encounters at your FLGS, then you know that it’s short on story an roleplay and more focused on the combat and mechanics. i try to design encounters that are engaging with some flexibility, but unfortunately it can only be so flexible. at some point during the initial role play (regardless how good it may be going), i’ll have to hurry it along so we can get to the combat, or we’ll have to start halfway through the combat and wait 2 weeks….not good.

    everyone in my group understands this problem, but understands that “at least we are playing”. we’ve been having the bi-weekly sessions now for about a year and it’s going well. we’ve had one session where the planets aligned and i had 4 guys’ schedules open up on a friday night (the wives of 3 of us were out of town) and we had nothing going on. i scheduled a “play until we want to stop” session. we played for about 5 and a half hours and it was awesome. the roleplay and combat just flowed naturally and they even got around one of my planned encounters…but i was OKAY with that. it was probably one of the best sessions we’ve had.

    so all that to say, i agree with what you are saying and i wish i could do the same. time is the unavoidable problem with my campaign, and as a result, it means my storyline, combat encounters, and roleplay suffer. everyone still has fun, but there is always a feeling of “man that one time was awesome”. oh to be 20 years old and in college again. *sigh*


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