Split from: How do I deal with players who make friends with goblins?

I want to run a campaign "from the book" for a group of new players (played RPGs before, but stuff much much lighter then D&D, and I've not DMed this edition before. I DMed D&D 4e once: over prepared in some areas, under prepared in others, so the pacing was horrible and off putting. I didn't run it again (although the players seemed happy to try again).

My concern: by trying to run it "from the book" I might accidentally railroad them too much, That changing events too far from the module will cause errors in continuity, that will force me to improvise too much for my first game.

I've flicked through both the Tomb of Annihilation where this could be fun with the hex-crawl random encounter portion without too much continuity problems, as well as Waterdeep: Dragon Heist which seems more reliant on knowing the lore of the town, and even though it's modular, certain events still unfolding in a given manner.

What happens if avoiding a direct fight or encounter runs counter to the published adventures? i.e. making friends with the goblins throws out a future plot point of the adventure that I'm not yet familiar with? Or they completely miss and don't find a clue.


5 Answers 5


You will have to improvise, to prevent de-railings.

When that fails, you may have to sit down and have a frank discussion with your party.

There are a lot of things that can be done to both allow for creative play and help keep a module on track. The longer you DM and the more practice you get the easier it will naturally become. So take a deep breath and dive in.

The first technique is to try and localize the impact of creative play. Your players are trying to make friends with the goblins so that they can gain some continuing tactical advantage. Localize the goblins, or in other worse, limit the scope of the goblins they do impact.

For example, you allow your party to make friends with some goblins. These goblins are part of a smaller tribe, and as soon as their defection becomes known, other goblin tribes are warned against defection and the goblins they did make friends with are now hunted. This could explain a hostility increase and refusal of future goblins to even speak with the party in encounters down the road as the pressure from other tribes / evil overlords make it very apparent that tribes seen talking to pink-skins will be dealt with harshly.

This could allow the party to gain a tactical or limited information advantage on a single encounter (like the known whereabouts of a lair, or the name of a bad guy) and then that information source is cut off. The localization also means that once the party leaves the immediate area of that small tribe, they would have to backtrack for their information source. Clans and tribes. D&D is not an industrialized homogeneous society. The feudal system is very modular and broken down into smaller squabbling factions held together by systematically larger and larger military powers.

But that's only one example of how to solve a specific problem. In my head I've divided adventure sourcebooks into two categories: Campaign sourcebooks and Module Packs. It is very easy to de-rail a Campaign sourcebook-style adventure, because of the open-ended nature of player choice of where to go and what do to. In these types of adventures, it's easy to go off-script. But there is a wealth of information about what else is going on in the world to help you recover or make a secondary plan.

The best course of action is to, rather than let your players run amok, allow the game to progress organically. Or, in other words: Let things play out as they would, rather than what your players want or how you think the adventure should go. You have time between adventures to play chess with the adventures with the other factions (and their responses) to things happening in the game. Danger, and the threat of danger, can do a lot to keep a player group tied down geographically.

If the Big Bad Evil guys hears about a new party of adventurers causing issues, what is to keep him from sending groups to counter and attack the support system of that party - to help wear them down? Or send a raid against the players' home-base town if they wander too far out of the area? Now the party will be more likely to stick closer to the designated area to protect the town. Or you can tie in the idea they need to do a favor for NPC X to help the villagers. This NPC just so happens to be the key NPC on the next module adventure, so it should work out.

But if the players don't buy your hooks or subtle nudges, you have only two choices: (a) Let them play out (Poor village gets nuked, and the monsters sent out 4 parties to raid the other 4 tombs simultaneously), or (b) stop the game and say honestly "Guys, were going to far off base here and I don't know how to handle it." I've had many DMs (myself included) do this, and the lengthy open discussion about where we want the game to go and kind of what needs to happen has done a lot to improve the quality of time at the table.

In situations like these, communication about the game the players want to play and the game the DM has prepared can go a long way to getting everyone on the same page. Sometimes letting the players in on a future basic plot summary can do a LOT to help keep players interested and playing along. Usually this is handled with foreshadowing, but that's not a skill every DM is good at. A little out-of-game knowledge can go a long way in this case.

The other thing that can come of this discussion is your campaign genuinely starts to move in a new direction. You just created a writers' circle for your campaign story. 5-6 heads are better than one, and now all the pressure you feel to solve this problem is being worked on by other people who care about the storyline.

Another thing that you can do is just say, "Hey, doing this will break my game at the moment and I don't know how to handle this. What can we do to marginalize this in a way that's acceptable, and then we can move forward with what I have prepared?" This is another common discussion I've had with other DMs. Good players should work with you on it. They care about the story too.


Simply be honest. "I'm going to run a pre-made adventure, so there will be railroad rides past scenery. Is everyone ok with this?"

It doesn't have to be more complicated than that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically a big neon sign saying “This way to adventure” \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 5:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep. It's amazing how many problems "Just talk it over." solves. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 6:13

Know your adventure

I know this isn't always easy but one of the first bits of advice given to me when I ran the starter campaign (The first RPG of any kind I had ever DM'd) was to read the campaign book, then read it again.

The idea is that you familiarise yourself with what can happen and what should happen. If it is critical for those goblins to attack the party in chapter 3 but they try and make friends in chapter 1 then as long as you know it is coming you can either come up with a reason for betrayal (Be careful with betrayal, it can create trust issues) or simply stop them making friends.

In this way as long as the players follow your adventure hooks then you can stop them from doing things that break the adventure.

The players missed a clue!

So they ran straight past the map in the locked box in the cave of secrets? Maybe the enemies that were in said cave leave the cave, ambush the party in the night and drop the map!

Essentially just because an adventure says something is in one location it doesn't make it so, and as long as you know what is critical and what is optional you can make sure the critical stuff somehow falls into the path of the party.

The players are not following my adventure hooks!

There are a few techniques here.

The quantum ogre, as I believe it is know, involves putting the adventure location in front of them no matter where they go. Goblin cave is following the right fork but the party go left - the goblin cave was there all along and the party don't know any better.

You need to be careful with this, because it is secretly stealing agency from players and sometimes they recognise and dislike it.

Session zero is a session (Or even just a conversation) that takes place before the campaign starts, where the expectations are laid out. If you say "This adventure relies on you to pick up on the story hooks" you can get the players to agree and they will understand that following the story is key.

Character backgrounds are something often agreed in session 0, where you give each character a motivation to follow the plot hooks laid out before them. The pregenerated characters in bought modules often have friendships with the townsfolk or enmities with the bad guys to ensure that anyone properly role playing a character will at least think about the plot hooks and not catch the nearest ship to far-far-away.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the "quantum ogre" scenario is the most useful for tasteful railroading. Typically players will miss it. It might be worth mentioning that a way to avoid stealing all player agency is to let them wander for a bit before getting them back on track. Let them go left, but all they find is an empty goblin outpost with very minimal treasure and a path that quickly fades to thick underbrush. They discover a discrete path off to the side which leads directly to the mouth of the goblin cave. Now they think they have found a secret path way, rather than luckily taking the correct fork. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Newbie12345 While I haven't had to do anything similar myself I really like your idea. You give them agency which still keeping them on the rails, and small encounters like that aren't too tricky to make up on the fly. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ “In fact, the mere act of choosing a fork will determine the state of the ogre, although in this case there are three determinate states the ogre could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.” -- with apologies to Pratchett. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ To supplement he Quantum Ogre; I even engage in this for entire areas, dungeon designs, etc. Parts of it (the Landmarks or important areas) may be static, but filled between those paths may be Quantum-Ogre-type paths . Here is a link to an answer I did about htat: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/68277/… \$\endgroup\$
    – blurry
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 19:51

Get the players on board before you start

No one gets on a rollercoaster and expects to make decisions about where the 'coaster goes. Published adventures often have some fair amount of wiggle room, but largely they tend to be "on rails". Before you start, you and the players should do a little meta-gaming, and decide if they're okay with getting on the "train" and if you want to use any sort of Out Of Character communication to let them know when they're straying too far from the tracks.

Railroading is only really an issue when the players are promised choice and not given it.


It is acceptable

It is very acceptable, and in fact, I recommend railroading for new players. Nothing is worse when they start off than to be presented with not knowing what to do. The railroading helps players understand the game and have a reason to move forward.

This is called paralysis of choice where people are afraid of "making the wrong choice" or "Doing something stupid". By guiding them through their first adventures, they get to understand the game, your style of GMing, what their character is expected to do, what their abilities are, and such.

Someone else did say that you should tell your players "I am running something from a book so let's try and follow the plot" and that is a great idea. Tell them and move forward.

Allow them to settle and discover the game.

Word of Caution

Now if, as you said, your group is new, do not expect all of them will agree to stick around for 12-18 months to finish the full book. I would run a few shorter adventures to introduce them to the game before, give them a feel for it and to ask questions.

Ideally, use those intros as segways into the main quest by dropping hints. Tease the main plot a little.


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