CCT Journal 14: Jumping the Rails

We’re playing a published adventure module and everyone knows it. My players are cooperative. They are diving into the storyline and as long as we work together the “rails” of the adventure are fairly invisible beneath us. But sometimes even groups with the best of intentions feel constrained by the narrative of an adventure. Honestly, sometimes the players are better writers than the GM or designers who wrote the plot in the first place.

A couple such instances have popped up in my last two sessions of Curse of the Crimson Throne. Situations were written into the module which while standard D&D fare put the characters at a definite disadvantage and required a bit of willing blindness from the players. My players rightfully started asking questions – why do we have to do it that way? Wouldn’t it make more sense if? I was forced to concede that their way did indeed make more sense even though it presented some problems for me in terms of running the adventure as written.

When Doug runs a game the situations are almost always malleable. His NPC’s react to what the players decide to do. It is character driven all the way. My games are more story driven. There are stronger rails for the PC’s to follow. But no matter what style of GM you are, there are times where you have to be willing to jump the rails. The goal of the game is fun and you will compromise your players fun if you never cooperate with them and their good ideas – even when those ideas upset the applecart a bit.

So when Hrungar the Dwarf started talking sensibly about luring the villain out of his highly defensible lair with a rather cunning ploy and leading him into an ambush – even though it was going to completely change a whole series of encounters, radically reduce the threat to the party and actually skip over some important information they needed – I went along with it. The ploy was clever enough, in my opinion, to actually trick an intelligent villain and you couldn’t argue the basic point that rushing headlong into the bad guy’s lair, though a staple of D&D, is pretty stupid. I rewarded the players by letting their clever ambush succeed (and then I rewarded them with a bit of bonus XP as well to make up for encounters they missed by not charging in). I found alternate ways to make the encounter exciting – this was an intelligent villain after all, he didn’t just walk into a trap without some contingency plan. And I delivered the important information they needed through a different mechanism – instead of overhearing chatty guards they found notes on the villain’s person.

Sometimes this happens and the players have no idea they’ve actually jumped the rails – that’s good. It means you adapted very smoothly and they couldn’t tell the difference between planned encounters and improvised ones. Sometimes you jump the rails and the players are fully aware, as in my situation the other night. This is also good. It lets the players know that the world is responsive to their decisions and gives them incentive to cooperate with the plot in the future since they won’t feel constrained by it. You enhance the illusion that they are following the story by choice, which is a valuable illusion for the sake of fun.

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