Now I know that railroading is one of the cardinal sins of DM-ing, along with hard rules changes to fit your needs, and sloppily homebrewing every other custom rule. However, right now I feel like my game needs a bit of railroading.

You need to understand the situation I'm in before this makes much sense. Right now, my players are in a bit of a "starting area" - a small continent where they get their first few levels. However, now's about the time where I'm starting to run out of pre-planned events in said continent, and I was hoping that they'd start exploring outside it, but they really don't seem to go for it.

To be a bit more specific, I basically unleashed a Lich (as usual) and because they were low level I figured they'd want to get as far away as possible, but so far they're treating it like it's just another Thursday. You aren't interested in that though.

TLDR: Need players to leave starting continent. How do I convince them to do so without hard railroading them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why exactly do you need your players to move to another continent? \$\endgroup\$
    – Icyfire
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I looked at the linked question and while obviously related, I don't think they are true duplicates. I had started typing an answer which addressed this case in a way that would not have been appropriate in the other question when it was closed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 18:50

6 Answers 6


Explaining what characters would understand in context is not the same thing as railroading.

If the revelation of the lich is so stunning that residents of the starter area in general would be frightened enough to leave for the other continent, then that's something the characters themselves would know. If these characters would naturally have enough fear to consider leaving the continent, just make sure the players know what the characters already know.

Railroading is deciding and implementing a course of action for the characters without allowing players the agency to influence that. It's not railroading to tell the players information about what their characters would already know and present them a choice based on that information.

For example, you might tell them something like the following: "Most people are fleeing the continent to get away from the huge, serious, deadly threat of the lich. I think your characters would strongly consider fleeing for now as well. They would be aware that they are simply not strong enough yet to deal with this kind of threat and the resources they need wouldn't be found in an isolated area like this. You can try to struggle against the lich here, but if your characters are being rational they would know that's an uphill battle. The fear and need for better resources are pretty motivating. Do you want to stay and take the risk or do you want to leave for the continent with the other evacuees?"

Giving leading information to a question isn't railroading. Sometimes there is only one rational decision to make. As long as you leave them the option to choose to stay when you prompt them, you're not robbing the players of their agency. If they choose to stay then they must have some really brave or irrational characters, and they will face whatever the consequences would be (not that you have to manufacture punishment, just that things will be tough because that's what makes sense in context). If they choose to leave then it will probably be because they agreed it makes the most sense from a character perspective based on the information given.

As an analogy, telling the players "there is a thief on the loose and your neighbors are all locking their doors, you characters probably should too" does not mean the characters have to lock their doors... but they would be silly not to. The players can still decide for themselves, and you can come up with sensible events to follow up on either decision.


Give them a quest which leads them to another continent.

Many newbie DMs try to drive away PCs with danger. This rarely works because RPG characters are the heroes of the story. Their default approach to danger is facing it. Give them opponents who are too strong to beat and they will see it as a challenge to find a clever way to beat them anyway.

A tried and true method which works better is to attract them with promise of an interesting adventure. There are lots of proven stock plot-hooks I used as a DM or followed as a player over many games in many different game systems. Which one will succeed in getting the attention of your player-characters depends on what motivates their personalities. So here is just a list of some common tropes:

  • Someone sympathetic on the current continent needs something which can only be found on the other continent
  • Someone sympathetic from a different continent needs their help
  • The heroes learn that there is some shiny treasure on a different continent
  • The heroes learn that the evil plan of their arch-nemesis is based on a different continent and can only be stopped by attacking them there

And if the in-character approach fails, try an out-of-character approach. Talk to your players between sessions and tell them about your plan to move the campaign onto a different continent. You can use that as an opportunity to ask them for what they expect from the game in the future and integrate their expectations into your future campaign plans.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If they are steeped in computer RPGs and sword-and-sorcery books they may feel a seemingly unbeatable foe who can either be beaten by clever means or for whom there is a clear "ladder" that will strengthen the characters before they reach the final fight is a genre staple... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 18:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ "he wouldn't have given us this lich if we weren't meant to be able to do something, but what?" could be what they are thinking \$\endgroup\$
    – WendyG
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 10:09

People start talking about the mighty and dangerous Lich

It seems like you didn't communicate the danger enough. The players will probably not know how to gauge the Lich if they didn't read the Monster Manual or think you may help them in some way. Show that the Lich started somewhere far away, on the other end of the continent and basically slaughtered a big nest of hundreds of [insert generic little starting monster like Goblin/Kobold/Orc or any combination thereof] and local populace to create an army of undead minions.

This will make them fear the enemy. They know how difficult one or two or maybe half a dozen of those critters are - but dozens or hundreds? They will take the hint that this is not someone they want to fight.

You don't convince them - you just show them that not-so-nice things will happen if they stay where they are.

If they don't listen the Lich will proclaim that he wants to take over the continent and make everyone his undead minion as a starting point for world-domination. Big nations on other continents won't listen - it's just a crazy wizard playing Big Bad Boss again. But your adventurers are near. Do they want to become brainless undead minions? Probably not. (If they want to this might become a slightly different campaign than you have planned, but it will nevertheless be very entertaining, though I'd talk about the brainless part in that case.)

The world has to react and show the danger that makes them want to run away. And that danger is getting closer by the minute.

To cite experience with this technique:

I let my players fight against a bunch of Orcs on their way to a town and then let the mayor of the town mention how others have reported regular Orc attacks in the past. Based on the experience of the mayor he judged the numbers to be around 50 in the Orc camp. My players wouldn't go near that Orc camp and decided to do something in the other direction because the bunch of Orcs they fought was already pretty hard for them. I then proceeded to let the mayor later raise a little army and attack the Orcs to decimate their numbers, while asking the players to attack the probably two dozen Orcs that should be left in the camp to get them in there.

I also remember that something similar is used in the Lost Mines of Phandelver (though they are not supposed to run away in this case):

The dragon Venomfang is setting up a lair in an abandoned tower. The players see multiple big spiders torn apart just outside the tower. Right before they get to the tower they are supposed to fight one such spider that is waiting for prey on the path that leads up to the tower. The spider is supposed to be a hard fight and showing multiple mutilated spider bodies is supposed to telegraph the danger.

By taking this to the extreme your players would realize that it's too much for them, leading to them seeking other things to do - getting more equipment, magic items, information about tactics, advantageous terrain, NPC friends that can help them, ...

Telegraph the danger appropriately and have a look at How can I make my PCs flee?.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used a method like this yourself, or seen it used, and how did it go? Alternately, is there someone else's experience you can cite that demonstrates how it works? We need Good Subjective answers to be backed up by experience of how things have worked out. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 12:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Yes, I let my players fight against a bunch of Orcs on their way to a town and then let the mayor of the town mention how others have reported regular Orc attacks in the past. Based on the experience of the mayor he judged the numbers to be around 50 in the camp. My players wouldn't go near that Orc camp and decided to do something in the other direction. I then proceeded to let the mayor later raise a little army and attack the Orcs to decimate their numbers, while asking the players to attack the probably two dozen Orcs that should be left in the camp to get them in there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I edited my answer and added something I remembered from the Lost Mine of Phandelver where something similar is used. I might look up the details later when I have access to my books. Is this answer now okay? \$\endgroup\$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 12:54

The problem is, that simply the appearance of a powerful enemy is generally not an incentive to leave for the players or the characters. For the players, you just dangled a nice juicy plot hook before them, something long-term like a powerful lich is a thing you can build a campaign around. For the characters they presumably have connected on some level to the starter area and the NPCs around, so leaving it behind when it is in danger would go against the heroic instincts of the usual adventurer. Boredom is the thing that sends people away, not the chance of death (because that comes with heroics, loot and adventure).

Use the hook

Your players will most likely want to do something about the lich, or at east they are liable to at least try. Give them the opportunity. The locals could send them to ask for help from the other continent. They could find information, that the lich's phylactery is on that other continent. If I understand correctly, they are small scale local heroes in the area, it is fully understandable, the people ask them to help out in a situation like this.

Grab them with another hook

Downsize the local threat (the lich), make the place peaceful and give the party some incentive to leave. Maybe the lich decided to go look for something, and locals asked the heroes to follow it. Maybe some wandering high-level adventurer party (future mentor/questgiver/ally/enemy) decided to step in, kill the lich and keep the peace around here. Maybe something else happened. Give them something to do elsewhere, preferably in multiple places. They are adventurers, somebody will find them with some job they can do. The important thing is to both give them an incentive to be elsewhere and make sure there isn't an incentive for them to stay in the starter area.

Burn it to the ground

This one may or may not fit with the tone of your campaign, and has a very good chance of setting up the lich as a long term goal for the party. Simply put, let the lich win. Have it bring the kind of overwhelming force only an undead wizard can use to decimate the continent and turn it into his fief. Have people run away from their homes, and let them start an exodus to continent two. Make it clear to the party, that they stand little to no chance on fighting back directly, but give them a chance to do something helpful, like defending the refugees and such.

The final solution

Just talk to your players. Tell them, you have some plans outside this continent, and/or give them an explicit warning about the danger. Outright telling stuff is klunky and inelegant method, but RPGs are a communal game, and sometimes a little talk can go a long way to smooth things out in the group.


Sometimes you have to provide some straight and powerful incentives for your players to move one way or the other. It is not railroading for the party to get offers they would be hard-pressed to refuse, if it is consistent with the world and comes as a result of their action. Make sure you have a reasonable explanation for things (or that you can think one up if it comes up in the future) and you are usually golden. Don't be afraid to make some changes to the pre-planned world, so the reality fits your explanation, because ultimately the whole thing exists for your and your players enjoyment.


Dangle plot hooks to lead them somewhere else

If your goal is to get them to leave, you could give them incentives to go somewhere specific. They could learn of something worth pursuing somewhere else in any number of ways. They could hear rumors of a threat that needs to be dealt with or of somewhere a specific item they already want is available. If you are willing to be a bit more direct you could have them find a literal treasure map or having someone directly offer them a job in the area you want them to be in.

Give them a more personal reason to flee

You suggest you expected them to flee the region because of the lich, but even if they do not feel like they can confront the lich directly they may feel the lich is not currently a threat to them. If you look at history, in many conquests the day to day lives of the average citizen is often fairly minimally affected. If they are low level, they may reasonably expect the lich to ignore them and they can keep going about their normal business and eventually start confronting the lich's minions.

So, if you really want them to flee give them a personal reason to do so. Perhaps the lich has a reason to target at least one of them personally and is ready to throw overwhelming resources at them to eliminate that one. Now they need to flee and hide. Perhaps the lich is nearly genocidal and will kill nearly everyone in the region. In that case, nearly everyone needs to flee. If they are the heroic type, they may decide to be some of the last ones out so they can cover the retreat of the civilians, but they then will almost certainly retreat.

Talk to them about your expectations

In this case, I list talking to them as your last choice rather than your first. Talking to them out of character about this will almost certainly feel heavy-handed.

Nonetheless, as far as last resorts go, talking to them directly is probably better than having your plot ruined and you seem to have a bit of a mis-match in what you expect out of the current campaign. You expect them to see this threat and flee. They probably expect you to start laying out a roadmap of minions and minor plots they can foil as they grow in power themselves and weaken the lich so that they can then attack him directly later...that is after all not uncommon in fantasy fiction and extremely common in fantasy video games.

A word on railroading and adaptability.

This is a side note, but a relevant one. You said that railroading is a cardinal sin. While there are certainly people that feel that way, it is not universal. It is also important to remember that it is not "no rails" vs. "entirely railroading" but much more of a spectrum. People that want a mostly tactical game with just enough story to explain why they are fighting might be comfortable with pretty sturdy rails to shuttle them between one dungeon/encounter and the next. Others, especially those heavily invested in the story side will want more player agency between combat but may be willing to trade away some of that in exchange for giving the gamemaster incentive to create richly detailed plot.

You may want to talk to your players about where on this spectrum they want this game to be. If they prefer some rails then you can safely use somewhat more direct measures to indicate where you prefer they go. If they want a true open world system then you should continue giving them intel on which to make their own decisions, but only when truly appropriate for the setting and if they ignore it or simply interpret it differently than you do then you should be ready to let them act that way and let the dice fall where they may. That is part of the fun of a true open world, but it requires an adaptable and flexible GM and may result in more player death.


Create a Glacier...

If the party is big enough, you can go ahead and abuse the "danger rule." Don't be afraid to kill a few PCs if the players get pushy. I would slowly escalate the Lich's control over the continent, first destroying a few towns with undead blight, slowly taking over the whole small continent, making it unlivable. Healing, supplies and food will slowly become impossible to obtain, as town after town disintegrates into fighting against increasing hordes of darkling foes.

The PC party dynamics will change as survival skills become more important than day-to-day knowhow. Eventually there will be nothing left for the PCs to explore except blighted towns and dying people. Make the Lich unreachable. No real creativity required. You can even turn this into a series of funnish mini-adventures, culminating in a Game-of-Thrones-esque Hopeless Epic Final Battle. Let them play it out, you don't need to fight your players.

Then provide a convenient excuse to leave

Introduce them to a bridge NPC at the moment that All Is Lost (fearless airship captain assists with hopeless battle, drags the PCs on a rope from snapping ghoul jaws) that obligatorily takes them to a new area.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi, and welcome to RPG Stack Exchange. Check out our tour to see how we work here. Have you used this kind of method in person? How has it worked out? Did it drive players to another location effectively in your experience? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 11:59

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