The Alexandrian

So You Want to Write a Railroad?

December 31st, 2009

Serpent in the Fold The Serpent and the Scepter The Serpent Citadel

So against all common sense, you find yourself hankering to write up a railroad for your roleplaying group. You dream of a land where the rails are straight, the wheels are locked, and the players submissive.

Well, you’re in luck, because today we’re bringing you — courtesy of the Serpent Amphora trilogy — an educational primer in the Art of the Railroad with a step-by-step breakdown of the track-laying process.


Abandon Failboat

Remember: Your goal is not to design a robust scenario which will ensure that the adventure remains enjoyable and usable despite the players trying to make decisions for themselves. Your goal is to design a Disneyland ride to carry them past all the Exciting and Interesting Things you’ve designed for them to see. If the players try to tamper with their teacup, your adventure should throw up its hands in exasperation, take its ball, and go home.

The PCs decide to quickly check out another lead before abandoning it on the say-so of an NPC? They fail the entire mission.

The PCs decide to attack a group of elves preparing to ambush them? They fail the entire mission.

The PCs decide not to hire a guide and trust to their own Survival skill? They die.

You can earn bonus points by issuing Failboat boarding passes on the basis of die rolls that the players have no control over!

They fail a Diplomacy check to convince someone to help them? They fail the entire mission.

They fail an Intelligence check to remember a key piece of information? They fail the entire mission.

No trip by rail is complete unless the train has a casino car where the only game is craps and the penalty for a bad roll is a bullet to the back of the brain.


Bugs Bunny Cat

It costs a lot of money to offer train service to all the major metropolitan areas. On the other hand, if you don’t offer that kind of service a lot of people won’t ride your trains. Fortunately, the solution is easy enough: You can advertise that your trains will take people to many different places, but the reality is that there’s only one train and it only goes to one place.

This is particularly effective if you replace the “WELCOME TO ALBUQUERQUE” sign with a welcoming message from whatever town the PCs thought they were going to.

For example, the PCs fail the skill check to convince the boat captain to sail through the night so that they can get to their destination faster. When they finally get there, they discover that the villains got there just before them! Now they’ve had time to set ambushes! Oh no! If only they’d made that check or found a faster way!

… what? They made that skill check? Well, it’s a good thing they did, because this way the villains only managed to get there just before them! They’ve had time to set ambushes! Oh no! It’s a good thing they made that (meaningless) check!


Remember that both the train and the railroad tracks are invisible. This will occasionally confuse the PCs, who may forget that they’re on a train and will try to head off in their own direction. The quickest and easiest solution is to hire sock pupp– Err… Conductors. Why bother making it possible for the PCs to figure things out for themselves when you can just speak through your “conductors” and tell them what they should be doing?

It’s important to remember that “providing meaningful assistance” is not in the conductors’ job descriptions. Their job is to make the passengers jump through hoops, not listen to reasonable requests.

To make sure that the PCs understand who’s boss, try to make the conductor’s failure to supply necessary support completely irrational. For example, when a conductor shows up and tells them that the Gods Themselves(TM) have conjured up a coastal tsunami so that the local river will reverse its flow and speed their boat journey, then by god they are going to turn around, get back on their boat, and head upstream.

If the PCs ask why the 16th-level spellcaster telling them this divine message couldn’t just cast a teleport spell and instantly send the entire party to their destination, you might think that the correct answer is, “Shut up! That’s why!” You would be wrong. The correct answer is, “Think you I am sitting by idly? I and many others labor even as you do against the machinations of the Serpent Mother, assisting you in ways you cannot see, on battlefields other than this one.”

If the PCs point out that casting a teleport is surely easier than summoning hurricanes and reversing the flow of entire rivers, then they clearly haven’t learnt their lesson. And since they haven’t learned their lesson…


The PCs respond to the encounter you’ve carefully crafted to show that they’re completely outmatched by your NPCs to conclude that they’re completely outmatched and go for help (despite the fact they aren’t supposed to go for help)? Then you should feel “no guilt” for killing them.

Arrest them, cripple them, or kill them — doesn’t really matter. They’ve been naughty, naughty children and they deserved to be punished for their willful ways.


Railroad Engines

Okay, you’ve done everything right: You’ve created an overwhelming combat encounter that the PCs can’t possibly defeat so that they’ll have no chance of stopping the NPCs from stealing the artifact and kidnapping their friend.

But the passengers have thwarted you by either (a) clever planning or (b) lucky rolling, and now the monsters who were supposed to be stealing the artifact and/or kidnapping their friend have been killed with their mission unfulfilled.

Don’t panic. The solution is simple: Add more monsters.

Should the dragon somehow be stopped from reaching [their friend], don’t worry — the PCs will still have to recover the [artifact]. The results, ultimately, are the same. If it didn’t get the [artifact], though, [their friend] should be captured instead, so that the PCs still have reason to go to the Hornsaw. If the dragon can’t take him, for some reason, and also didn’t get the [artifact], then simply have two more storm hags bear [their friend] away instead.

That didn’t work? Don’t worry. You can just keep adding monsters until it does!


Everybody knows that the best railroad tracks are built with brick walls, right? Trains never run better than when they run into a wall.

To achieve this all-important effect you can make really poor assumptions about what the PCs are likely to do. For example, if you design an adventure in which they need to make a copy of a powerful magical ritual from the walls of an ancient tomb and then return that magical ritual to their employer, it’s probably a safe bet that they won’t spend a few extra hours to make a copy for themselves. That way you can assume that the bad guys will be able to steal the “only copy” of the ritual by kidnapping an NPC and “force them” to pursue the bad guys to get back the “only copy”.

You can score bonus points by making the assumption ludicrously easy for the PCs to overcome. For example, there’s no logical reason for PCs preparing to engage in a long overland journey to buy horses; therefore it’s perfectly reasonable to make the timing of events depend on them definitely not buying horses. And since that’s not ridiculous enough, you should make sure to plan for encounters (mandatory ones, of course) in which the PCs will fight mounted opponents… and still continue to assume that they won’t have any horses to ride after defeating them.


The important thing is that it doesn’t matter what the PCs do. You’ve got a schedule to meet and a story to write, and no one is going to get in your way.

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4 Responses to “So You Want to Write a Railroad?”

  1. Jorgeman says:

    “I and many others labor even as you do against the machinations of the Serpent Mother, assisting you in ways you cannot see, on battlefields other than this one.”

    This I did when I was (slightly) younger. 😀

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    Out of context, I don’t think that particular response is untoward. Just recently I had some PCs approach a very powerful patron to ask him to help out with a problem they were having. His response was basically, “This is minor street gang bullshit. I’m trying to keep the political balance of the city intact during the religious schism involving a false pope while simultaneously preparing defenses against the barbarian army that’s sacking cities and heading this away. Don’t bug me, kids. Go talk to the local guard captain.”

    It’s specifically the context of, “I can’t cast teleport because I’m too busy, but I do have time to raise up hurricanes and reverse the flow of entire rivers.” that leaves me scratching my head. 😉

  3. Joe says:

    I was a player in that module and it stunk. Everything was predetermined for us and any planning on our own part was always thwarted.

  4. Lord Entrials says:

    These sounds amazingly like all of the Dragon Lance modules….

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