[The following question is about avoiding to railroad the players, and has nothing to do with breaking or following rules.]

I am playing a campaign of my own with my friends, and the thing is that I don't want to bust anyone's balls, telling them what to do etc. I can't remember where I read about the following quote: "No matter how many options you have in mind, a player will always think of one you haven't thought about.", but it seems to be quite true.

I want them to be free, and give them clues to follow but unfortunately I am not that creative, and this leads to me being pushy and not leaving them too many choices.

example #1 : They might go to a place I haven't yet thought of and I get blocked because I don't know what to tell them about itg.
example #2 : They want magic items etc which I think they should get later in the story, thus making the items a little more unique, and I get yelled at because I have a "low drop-rate".

To conclude, I want help to become more loose, so that my players and I will enjoy the game more.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Hi and welcome. If you're unfamiliar with SE or this site, the tour page can help get you up to speed with how we do things around here. Right now, this question is not very specific, and we're looking for specific questions and answers. You've got several things going on here, it might help to ask about them in a series rather than individually, and there is a lot of great DMing advice in the gm-techniques and new-gm tags that you should check out first. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking for advice in being more flexible with making up content on the fly? Or are you looking for ways to be prepared better? \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:15
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Can you include specific at-the-table examples of the problems you're attempting to address? And tell us what's keeping you with 4e and whether that's important. \$\endgroup\$
    – clweeks
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I got all the way to "help being more loose" thinking that the title said "loser." \$\endgroup\$
    – dlras2
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 21:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also note that fourth edition has some rather strict balance requirements constraining the drop rate of magic items; Your players may have a legitimate concern. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 5:11

4 Answers 4


Disclaimer: As always, make sure you and your players are on the same page in what you want from the game. There is a tool here to help with that. You should use it or something like it before you try to change yourself, in case what you really need is a different game.

Now, assuming you want to adjust your GM skills in the direction your players favor, there's a couple of elements that may help you loosen up a bit:

Railroading 101

As you've noted in your question, players almost never approach a problem in the way you think they will. If you're not a brilliant ad-libber, this can lead to a heavy-handed GM style to keep the game "on track" and the campaign from collapsing into incoherency. Of course then the players feel like their choices either don't matter, or are getting over-ruled. They feel like the game is on "rails"; they can't change it's direction. You'll also find that your hooks and clues sail right over their heads and you have to spoon-feed information to them when they miss it in the game. This is frustrating for you and often condescending and insulting to them, even when you don't mean it to be.

Here are a few tools/techniques that can help you change the way you craft your adventures, both from the perspective of how you envision the storyline, and mechanically how you lay out information for them to discover. I have found that they can give you a better foundation to react smoothly to unexpected player zigs.

Focus On What's Important

For small divergences, where they do something you aren't prepared for that clashes with your planned storyline, consider whether the result in question is really critical to the greater narrative. For instance, let's say you envisioned that a particular henchman of your Big Bad Villain would escape your heroes, shouting a cryptic message as he flees, which they would then use to track to the next hook in your campaign. Unfortunately, they have a clever idea, or a lucky roll, and if you don't intervene with your DM powers, the henchman will get taken out, ruining your plot flow.

Try to separate the key element for going forward from the unnecessary specifics you have in mind. It's tough, because often you have to be strong enough to let go of a "really cool scene" idea and let something less cool happen, but don't confuse cool with necessary. In this hypothetical case, the only truly necessary bit is getting the cryptic message to them. Since he didn't escape, I can get the info to them as his dying whisper to them, or the barely legible bits on a blood soaked parchment in his breast pocket, or any number of other ways.

Let Them Be Awesome

Another common clash in which the GM may be tempted to use their powers to intervene (and piss off their players) is the unexpected victory. You set up a cool "boss" encounter that is supposed to really challenge the team, or a terrible monster that should force them to flee, and they kick butt instead. Again here you have the sobering responsibility as GM to (in some cases) let the story go their way and sideline your carefully prepared ending. Although you spend a lot of time as "the enemy" because you control all the opposition forces in their world, never forget that these are your heroes. Sometimes it's OK to let them have a grand and easy victory in an unexpected case. Players love to tell stories about how they thoroughly trounced a Big Bad, especially if they did it in some clever or really lucky way. Try to make sure your storylines don't have any single points of failure, so that you have the option to let them have an unexpected victory without rendering the rest of your prepared material useless. (The adventure design techniques I linked to above can help with that.)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree with everything here, but I sincerely endorse the point of "Let Them Be Awesome." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:26

Something that I've done in the past in this kind of situation is to bring my players into the decision making process.

  • Players go somewhere you don't expect? Ask them, "What do you find there?"
  • Players attempt something you haven't prepared for? Ask them, "What do you expect to happen?"

You don't have to use what they say verbatim, but try to incorporate what you can.

In my experience, the players have enjoyed this kind of involvement. Additionally, this will help you understand the experiences the players are expecting and hoping for, which will help you with planning and thinking on your feet in the future.


Let your players read the map themselves.

If the player's don't want to follow a clue, don't make them, but provide them with plenty of incentive to do so. Introduce friends and allies that may be in danger or killed, and make sure that there's some gleaming hope (even if "hope" is a +3 Bastard Sword) on the horizon to drive them toward.

If they don't want to follow the map, I'd suggest working on planning some general lead-up activities. For instance, plan a tavern brawl. Come up with some possible outcomes; impressing a local crime boss, getting arrested, having to pay to repair the bar, or such. Once this is done you've got a few high-value activities you can drop into almost any context.

Consider their possibilities.

If you're worried about them coming up with things that you don't think of, look over their characters to get an idea of what they'll be considering. I'm willing to bet that about ninety percent of the times my players have surprised me they've just asked themselves "Can I apply my X to this situation?". Do that for them and you'll have less of an adjustment time.

Another nice thing about D&D is that you do have the advantage of an easily-balanced system; skill checks and such are usually pretty predictable, so you can think ahead and say "this DC is for an easy action in this adventure, this DC is for a normal action, and this DC is for a difficult action", scaling the DC appropriately for the characters' levels. This allows you to quickly say "Well, that sounds like it would be easy" and roll with the punches a little better.

Remember that you're the GM.

They shouldn't be yelling at you. I'm not a fan of using GM authority as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but if the players say "I don't feel unique", point out ways they are unique. If they're just doing it to get a magic item, tell them explicitly that you set the pace. You can also give them the opportunity to go on a quest to get one, which adds delayed gratification.

Point out that your job as a GM is not to give them power trips, but to tell a story. If they are powerful in the story, then they're going to get a few ego boosts, but it's your call.


If you mean rules loose, Know why the rules exist before bending and breaking some in the name of fun. Otherwise, it will bite you later.

If you mean session story loose, have a general idea for the night for possible paths, some likely monsters prepped and then run the game like night at the improv. When in doubt, ask your players a question. Why is the windmill in this town abandoned despite being in the center? Who was the man who gave a wink and a nod at you as he slit the mayors throat, [player]? Why do the nearby cats seem to all meow when one particular dog goes by and follow single file?

Be random, be creative. And have just the barest inkling of a plan. Because you will be using the players as the means of telling their story. And eventually you will see a pattern of what they are looking for and you can hone your skills in that direction.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .