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As a new DM I have had the problem of my players straying way off course to the point where it was not a easy fix problem that where I slowly can guide them back to the objective.

An example of this is when I had my players going through this world that I made that was one way or another going to lead them to the border rift and I would eventually have them close the rift. Instead of going through the huge amount of land that they could traverse through they decided to go into the ocean and sail into nothing but, ocean. This being a Land quest I had no water monsters prepared or anything to hinder them or guide them that would make sense in the context of an ocean. I could have told them that they where not allowed to go into the ocean, but I feel that defeats the purpose of having a world that you can't traverse in like any other.

What can I do in this situation?

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13 Answers 13

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Adjust your "course" to match their "straying".

A DM without players is an arbiter, not an adjudicator.

A DM with players is an adjudicator, not an arbiter, if they are a good DM.

It actually doesn't matter if they did or didn't follow your planned course. If you put an ocean there, expect that it might be traveled. I suggest that you jot a few notes down (not a full treatment, mind), just enough so that if they go that way, you have something to work with.

Those land obstacles aren't going anywhere, you will have an opportunity to recycle and reuse them. Perhaps you could even plant them in front of wherever they happen to land when they get tired of oceanic travel. Keep track of the passage of time, note how events will unfold without the presence of PCs over landward, if that is important to the events. Perhaps remind them from time to time. Or, you could take the land quest and make it an undersea-land quest.

The best way to improvise, is to plan ahead. Be flexible. Make Murphy your best friend, expect the unexpected, and then realize that they will probably do something not covered by either. And never, ever think, "well, that destroys my plans". Ever.

Instead, think, "how can I use this twist to my advantage...."

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    \$\begingroup\$ As to the last sentence, would it not be better to think "How can I use this twist to everyone's advantage?"? \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Dec 20 '16 at 22:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a "good DM with players", your best advantage should mean "for the enjoyment and fun of everyone at the table". Forsooth. Keep in mind that most players will not have "everyone's advantage" as their play goals, so no, let's leave it as phrased. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Dec 20 '16 at 22:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice for experts, but I don't think it's feasible for new GMs. They need prep-time to make things work. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 21 '16 at 16:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik I believe this is one of the reason that many new GMs start with a classic dungeon crawl. If the party is in a room with three exits, it's a lot easier to prep where you think they'll end up (though they will still surprise you from time to time). If the party is in an entire world, you can't prep everything. I think this answer is good advice on how to go from "new GM" to a more advanced GM. \$\endgroup\$ – Ghotir Dec 21 '16 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, isn't that why the Classic Dungeon Crawl was invented? To put a reasonable limit on where the player could go? \$\endgroup\$ – Shawn V. Wilson Dec 21 '16 at 17:48
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Create consequences for their actions

Everything they should be doing should have a strong reason to do so. That may be money, it may be saving lives, or it may be some other objective that fits the character's bonds. If players ignore these reasons let the consequences occur. If they choose to spend 3 days getting drunk at the bar, maybe the goblins they've been hired to track down have moved on, and will be even harder to find. Maybe they'll attack the bar the players are at, or continue their kidnapping spree. Regardless of the circumstance there should be some kind of action occurring in the world as a result of the players straying off course.

Create urgency

Time pressure tends to keep players in line. If they know that they need to make it to Neverwinter by next Monday, else they won't be paid, you can bet that they'll put a higher priority towards getting to Neverwinter than they might otherwise.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In game consequences are always best... however, it is sometimes nice to provide other side objectives that they will need to deal with the opportunity cost of pursuing (helps flesh out the story and characters). This game is not a straight line, there are many paths to each player's perceived victory condition. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Dec 20 '16 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do note that in-game consequences are not always negative things. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Dec 20 '16 at 22:07
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Explain to the players your limitations

If it's the beginning of the session when the players propose Let's go sailing, you as the DM are allowed to say, "Wait! I haven't prepared for that. How about going sailing next week and sticking with the plot for this session?"

Experienced players especially should be understanding about this. First, some of them may have DMed before, and they'll know that even the most diligent and well prepared DM isn't prepared for everything. Further, they may believe (whether or not it's true) that straying from the DM's preferred plot is a good way to irritate the DM, and irritating the DM—like crossing the streams—is bad.

New players may be less understanding, wondering why, with all those books, you can't just whip up something. That requires explaining that you've worked on this—the preferred plot—and they're doing that—something you've not expected (like opting to go sailing). Explain that your campaign world isn't a fully populated where doing anything is an option right now but an unfinished masterpiece that must be adapted to the PCs' choices. If the players want to make choices other than obvious ones, that's totally fine, but you—the DM—must have the same opportunity to prepare for those choices.

If the players demand their PC go sailing anyway, that's weird (so weird, in fact, this fellow DM wonders why you'd continue DMing for such a group unless they were close friends or family), and you've a choice: either make up stuff or cancel the remainder of the RPG session and play board games or watch a film.

Likely the only viable strategy between these two extremes is stonewalling: close the port or destroy all vessels with a freak storm, demand every interaction between PCs and NPCs be role-played, have red tape like union membership or licenses prevent ships from taking on new crew, make religious law forbid outsiders from taking part in ocean voyages, and so on. Frequent use of such tactics will build you a reputation as a DM, but occasional use of such tactics are another (very specialized yet often annoying and clumsy) tool in your DM toolbox.

If it's instead the end of the session and you're running a sandbox that allows the PCs to do whatever they want, then adjust your expectations. Have the plot you'd originally prepared continue to occur in the background while the PCs ignore it and pursue a different seaborne plot that you develop between sessions. I know that's rough, but that happens sometimes: you bait a hook and the players don't bite. (It's a good idea to design your sandbox with multiple plots anyway.)

Note that this DM builds into his sandbox plots the contingency What if the PCs don't get involved? and you should do the same: This can mean Armageddon, but uninvolved PCs could instead mean the PCs see in 3 months another group of adventurers who did subvert that original plot and from it reaped the treasure and glory that could've been theirs, or uninvolved PCs could mean that when the PCs return to port they find the city overrun by beholders… or worse.


Note: As an aside, for my campaigns that meet once per week, I send an email (usually about 20 words) to the players reminding them to attend and asking if anyone's planning anything unusual for the upcoming session so that I can prepare for it. I urge any DM to do the same.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's an annoying fact of life that the DM's view of the story can and will clash with the players'. Simply saying "go sailing next week" may not be an adequate solution when to the characters it it the obviously safer option in contrast with land travel. That said, ending a session early is always better than asking the players to do things they do not want to do. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Dec 21 '16 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree that there will be such clashes, I think the key is to communicate so those clashes don't embitter or burn out the DM. I think the most important part of a role-playing game is the playing, so I view ending a session early as a last resort, not a first choice. It's the DM's game, too, and the players, I think, should tolerate playing through the DM's plot for one more session both to give the DM's prepared material a chance and so that the DM can prepare for the players demands next week. Sorry if I was unclear. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 21 '16 at 15:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this is the best answer so far. It is important to let your players have a sense of empowerment and autonomy from the machinations of the DM, but they also need to understand the limitations. The example given is a good learning moment for a new DM, and players shouldn't begrudge them not being able to adjust plans quickly enough to continue immediately. The DM should also take these learning moments and get better. If the players will allow it, they will nurture an amazing leader for their future games. \$\endgroup\$ – Purplemur Dec 27 '16 at 14:27
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This is one of the most difficult things to deal with, particularly as an inexperienced GM.

A lot of peoples' view is that railroading, where you limit player choice to the extent that there is no choice, should never happen at the table. I tend to think this is a little extreme.

One of the things that varies a lot from group to group and game to game, is how 'sandboxy' a campaign is. A full sandbox game dumps the characters in the world without any signposts at all and lets them decide what to do. At the other end of the spectrum, are heavily plotted campaigns, which can include significant amounts of railroading.

Most games fall somewhere between the two, and the thing is, different players and GMs enjoy different amounts of railroading. This means you need to understand what your players want from the game and what their expectations are of you. Do they want a sandbox where they can do what they want or not? This is a conversation you should definitely have with your players at the start of the next session so everyone understands and agrees how the game is going to work. This is particularly important if your players are as new to roleplaying as you are.

Onto your specific situation. If you're faced with your players going in direction you have nothing planned, the first thing you can do is tell them that you are going to need a short break. This is a perfectly OK thing to do, and gives you time to go and look up monsters for an appropriate encounter or two. If you think its going to be too difficult to come up with something on the fly then be honest and tell your players. Explain to them the problem, and ask them if they mind going in the direction you have stuff planned for. Almost all players in this situation will go along with you as long as it doesn't become a regular thing.

If you're nearing the end of a session, there's also nothing wrong with stopping a little early so you can prepare for the next session. At the end of each session I also always ask my players what their general plans are for the next week. This really helps to avoid too many major suprises, and can give you a general idea of what to prepare. Of course, it isn't a fool-proof system, but it helps.

There are also a few things to help prevent that kind of situation coming up too often.

You can create floating encounters. These are broad, generic encounters that are not tied to a specific location. You can drop them into the game if you're in need of filler or don't have anything specific planned for what the players are doing. It doesn't take too long to build up a collection of these to add to your arsenal as GM. Also, re-purpose and reuse things you have prepared that for whatever reason never came up.

Make sure the big plot you have planned ties into the character motivations that your players have. If you haven't already done so, ask your players why their characters are adventuring. What is it that they are aiming to achieve? Doing this naturally gives more motivation for players to go in the general direction you want.

Make sure the 'main' plot is appropriately signposted. If the players don't know it exists or realise how important is, they won't follow it. This is a difficult one to balance, as if you go too heavy handed then it can feel very rail roady and forced.

When you're designing your campaign, plan situations that go on with or without the players' intervention. Know who the major players are, how they relate to each other, their broad resources and what their aims are. Providing a situation that changes with time will help you work out encounters that might happen based on what the players do. Knowing how the major factions are set up will help you work out the forces involved in any last second encounter.

The last thing to emphasise is that improvisation of any kind when you are a new GM is really, really difficult but it does improve with practice. Take it slow to start with, be honest with your players, and they will most likely be understanding as you learn your trade.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ For that matter, training exercises and practice work could also be thought of as railroading. You practice set patterns that are known to be effective to some degree or another, and then you move on to more complex patterns, before finally breaking free of most of the patterns in order to apply the most appropriate solution to the problem. 'railroading' is simply one of those early steps on the path. It's only a problem when someone enforces such a method when it is no longer needed or appropriate. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Dec 27 '16 at 20:46
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No preparation survives the first contact with the players!

This is an important GMing lesson to learn. Otherwise you would be entices to prepare more when you actually should be preparing smarter.

Preparing smarter

You will often here of amazing experienced GMs who can improvise their way through everything. The trick is: They don't improvise, they are prepared. They might not think that they are but all the "experience" they have gathered is actually just unfocused smart preparation. And it is really the secret to good improvisation: Prepare in such a broad and general way that you'll always have something useful for the situation at hand.

For example: There is this cool improv theater piece about a researcher who taught an animal to play a music instrument. The audience says what animal and what instrument and two actors have an improvised conversation about it, an interview. All the while a third actor translates the interview in humorous fake sign language. You will be surprised, how much the troupe can prepare here. Regardless of animal the main questions will remain the same. Few specific questions will arise from certain categories of animals: Swimming, flying, big, small, swarm. Then you just prepare the signs for most known animals and music instruments and you are done. And if they throw at you something, you didn't prepare for? Use the closest fit! They won't know that you are using the prepared material for "bees playing saxophone" to describe wasps playing an oboe.

Apply this to your GM prep

DON'T prepare rigid locations with set characters. DO prepare locations according to their functionality (a seedy bar, a serene temple, a crestfallen warrior, a crazy drunk). DON'T write whole monologues or scene descriptions. DO write some descriptive adjectives and other important keywords or catchphrases. DON'T force the players to follow your story. DO populate the path they have chosen with the things you prepared. DON'T invalidate their choices by looping it back to the plot. DO honor their choices by altering the coloration of the narrative and having in world consequences. DON'T be afraid to prepare content and then not use it. DO write down details of places you visited in game and reuse them when appropriate.

What to do in your particular situation

So you prepared an overland journey to a rift and an epic showdown for closing the rift. The players want to go sailing. How to bring those together? Well the land encounters you prepared can still be used. Ocean has islands, hasn't it? Just "reskin" the bandits to pirates or buccaneers and the goblins to native parrotman or something else vaguely similar. Leave the stats as is. Maybe add or change a feat or trade a point of to hit bonus for a point of AC if appropriate. Populate the ship and the island stops along the way with the same archetypes of characters you intended your players to meet on land. Have their choice have consequences to the main rift closing adventure. If the boat route was particularly clever move have the closing of the rift be easier or the land not as ravaged by it, when their done. If the sailing was a detour or if they abandon the rift all together have things get worse in the world. And if the rift had to be closed for the world not to be destroyed have another adventurers do it but at a much higher cost of lives and damage to the surrounding area. And also now those other adventurers have the glory.

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There are tools to steer players back, eventually.

Establishing 'ties that bind' will have even the most chaotic heroes coming back to somewhere that a convenient NPC could mention how bad the increase in local monster population (or whatever the effect of the rift, etc) is.

If you don't want players to traverse certain areas of the world, show them that it's too dangerous. At sea, a storm or major monster attack could leave the party and their boat battered and beaten but not dead and sunk, causing them to rethink continuing in that direction. Maybe the sailors comment that they've never seen such a green crew come back alive beforehand.

Different areas will have different dangers, or you could go in a different direction entirely. Tell them their efforts aren't producing results or adventures. If players frequently hear that they didn't find anything, they'll eventually get the hint that the direction they're heading is neither fun nor profitable.

Finally, if all else fails, you feel bad because your content wont work out, or else you just really want to... break the 4th wall. We're players before we're characters, and a little communication out of character can set up expectations. If they're adamant that they want to sail, perhaps you could change your mind and mold the campaign to their expectation. If you're not comfortable with that, maybe instead ask them to 'decide' to head back, but reward them for the experience with... experience. And possibly the ship they own moves on to fishing and sends some profits their way. Or something else. Any half decent player isn't going to let My Guy Syndrome interfere with having a good time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really think your last point should be your first: the gm says they're new, has some idea how they can run a game, and players either aren't aware or don't care. Either way they're having a table-level problem and should use table-level tools (their words!) To fix it. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 20 '16 at 23:01
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Sorry, I don't understand where the adventure is.

Is the adventure "closing the border rift" or "travelling to the border rift"?

If the adventure is "closing the border rift" then you handle the water journey in exactly the same way as you handle the land journey:

After several weeks of harrowing travel during which you were harrowed by several harrowing attacks by sundry harrowing monsters which, despite being harrowed, you beat off without serious inconvenience, you arrive at the rift.

This is because travel in D&D, just like in real life, is no fun at all. For a further detailed dissertation on this see the Angry GM's Getting there is Half the Fun.

If the adventure is "travelling to the border rift" then there most be something they need or someone they need to talk to or something they need to do on the journey that, if they don't do it will make closing the rift much harder or impossible. If this isn't the case then the journey is not part of the adventure and my earlier advice stands.

It is important that they players know (or should have known) that there are places, people and events on the overland journey that are prerequisites to (or at least will greatly assist) closing the rift. You do this by following the advice in the Alexandrian's Three Clue Rule. In essence you always give the players (at least) three clues to every plot significant element on the basis that they will overlook one clue, misinterpret another and need the third to get to where they need to be.

Assuming that you have given them their three clues then you handle it by giving the same harrowing speech above and then adding at the appropriate point:

Having fought your way through the rift's guardians you are confronted by the amethyst lock which will close the portal forever. If occurs to you that it may have been a good idea to get the amethyst key from the forbidden shrine that the innkeeper told you about, and that was whispered to you by the dying paladin and is the main feature of Chapter 3 in the tome "Closing Rifts for Dummies" you hold in your hand. Sadly, it is too late and horrible creatures from between the planes of existence pour from the rift and feast on your brains.

Alternatively ...

You say "I feel that defeats the purpose of having a world that you can traverse in like any other", however, this isn't a world you can traverse like any other.

The real world is well ... real. If you head into the part of the map labelled "Here by Dragons" you will find out what is there and it probably won't be dragons.

In contrast, your world only exists inside your head and the reason that the map says "Here be Dragons" is because you have no idea what is there and if you don't know then it doesn't exist. In response to your players heading into these parts you have several options:

  1. Improvise, that is, just make it up as you go. Now I have been DMing for 35+ years so I am totally comfortable with this, however, it can be scary for neophytes. I'll let you into a secret: if you act with confidence then your players will never know when you are working from the script and when you are pulling stuff out of thin air.

  2. Delay gratification. Tell your players that you didn't think they would travel by sea and you have nothing planned. If they really want to do this then you will have stuff done by next session and today you need to fold up D&D and crack open a board game (Game of Thrones is good).

  3. Railroad. This is not a bad thing provided the player's are aware of what is going on - doing this on the sly sucks. Talk to the players and say: "While your characters could go by sea, the adventure that I've prepped requires you to go by land - if you want to play this adventure then you have to go by land. If not, I have Game of Thrones over here ..."

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There are a number of ways to force your characters to follow a certain path you've laid out for them that don't imo constitute railroading. I don't have a copy of your map or any inkling of your world beyond the dnd-5e, but you could easily re-route players by presenting obstacles that require their attention be redirected to the primary task.

For instance, maybe the oceans have rotten because of the border rift polluting the world, or there are monsters in the ocean, or the party can't find a vessel willing to take them closer to the rift via the ocean, or there aren't any viable ports nearby, or the ones that are are currently under siege, or... the list goes on.

The point of it for me is that the world absolutely should be, as you put it, traverse-able. At the same time, you don't have to make that access easy or simple.

I like Nijineko's answer in regards to trying to find ways to take player agency and turn it into an interesting plot event. Also the point about making sure to have some notes for contingencies, since the one constant in RPGs is that the PCs will never do everything just as planned. Depending on what it is that I wanted the PCs to do and what they actually did, it's sometimes even easier and better than the original plan, and the co-operative aspect of the story becomes even more poignant when the GM doesn't know what's happening next. Sometimes the best stuff happens spontaneously and off the cuff when you're tripping over yourself to catch up.

You also have to be careful how you world-build, since issues like this can crop up specifically because of over-preparation. That is, you put an ocean in a position where it could be used as a shortcut to the destination, but didn't anticipate the PCs taking that route.

To me, it feels like your players are just trying to make the smart/fast/safe choice. While it should be commended in some respects, it makes the game less fun overall if there are no challenges to overcome. Since you don't seem to want to (and rightly so) stymie the will of the PCs and railroad them, you can have an OOC discussion about what you were thinking in regards to their recommended path, or you can take the time between now and next session to prepare for a grand voyage.

To summarize:

  • Prep for land-based game
  • Players want to travel by ocean
  • Not prepped for players travelling by ocean

I'd say prep for ocean adventures if it's not too jarring for your land-prep, and if it is, then force them to stay on land, or make their ocean journey end prematurely for some reason (shipwreck, impassable storms, monsters, etc.)

Because honestly, in the end, if you actually do try to keep them from travelling by ocean using in-game mechanics and they still do it, that's going to be an epic adventure story in and of itself.

Final point: you said you're a new GM - hats off to you and good luck! It's tough but rewarding.

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Creating a world which encompasses everything you can imagine running into as a DM is pretty much impossible. When running large campaign style games it is important to keep a couple things in mind, most importantly... you ARE god.

If you don't want them crossing by ocean you can put the fear of a water demon into the sailors, none are willing to take them out until the next harvest moon sets along the horizon. You've now created a bit of a culture in your newly discovered village while buying yourself enough time to generate a plan on how to handle the direction they want to go in.

You will always have players who want to just go off into the wilderness with reckless abandon; in that case your bestiary should be more than capable of either slowing them down or rending a tear in the fabric of reality unleashing a pit demon from the cave they just couldn't resist hiring the local dwarves to open up for them.

Just stay flexible, and be creative with environmental controls. They might be able to argue the rules to determine what they "can/can't" do, but they cannot limit your ability to determine how the world they are in reacts to them.

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Never expect your players to go in the direction you want them to go. Figure out what the big events going on in your world are, and nudge them towards those goals, but ultimately, they are living out their characters' motivations, not the DM's, so roll with it and have fun.

Let's look at your specific example: Big rift between worlds that is probably doing some damage to this plane of existence, and the players are off sailing.

I would start by having the world itself be affected by the rift. Maybe where the players are, these are limited. Maybe their ship is becalmed by changes in the wind. Or they might run afoul of newly minted pirates who used to be fisherman, but the fish all disappeared. Heck, you can throw weird aberrations and elementals at the party and make where they came from a mystery (let the players make some skill checks to realize they shouldn't be there and would have had to come from another plane of existence). The goal is to get them curious about what could be causing these problems.

Eventually have them run across some refugees, or a new religious cult, that deals directly with the rift. Maybe the rift is causing havoc in the nation that it is in, causing food shortages, wars, something. Banditry is on the rise, trade is difficult, and it becomes hard to find things that they need. Maybe things become so expensive that luxuries they usually expect (like a meal at an inn) become too expensive for what they get (heck, inns could even be short on rooms, as refugees crowd in). The adventurers could also get a cold welcome by the townsfolk, as they look like one more group of vagabonds coming into their once-peaceful town. Maybe these towns start looking more militaristic.

Better yet, have it hit home for the players in their history. Have them visit the hometown of one of the characters, or maybe somewhere they have been before. Before revealing anything about the town, have the player describe what it looked like, and then when they get there, take that description and tone it darker by a few shades. Add in a new wall around a town that didn't have one, and maybe a guard out front that demands to see their papers (maybe someone the character knew, but he still has to see their documents anyway).

The closer they get to the rift the worse things get. Maybe they run across a few new "kingdoms" run by whoever could grab power. Maybe those cults of the rift start trying to stop the party from closing it. Whatever happens, the urgency should increase the closer they get.

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Both you and your group seems to be labouring under the misunderstanding that the sea is an easy option, less dangerous than overland travel. In a world like D&D this is never the case. On top of the banditry that can occur on the high seas just as readily as on the road, there are ship-wrecking storms, hungry sea monsters, vicious freak waves, rogue currents that drag you off course, sandbars/whirlpools/reefs and waterspouts to dodge and other serious perils. Remember, there's a very good reason why we even now lose ships at sea - to cut a long story short - the sea is a harsh mistress, and the best you can hope for when you go up against her is a draw where you get to where you're going after a lot of hard work (particularly in the case of D&D).

For instance, with a quick re-skin the issue you've presented above is quite simply solved - magical storms, pirates, sea monsters or an encounter with an undersea pineapple dweller cause the ship to have to make for shore sooner than they'd planned, and the ship lands on an island desperately in need of food, water and materials for repairs. Then, whilst your group foraging for the bits and bobs the boat needs, the bandits that were going to attack the group on the road are now islanders who don't take kindly to outsiders poking around on the island, the parrot-badger that was going to drop out of an oak-tree now drops out of a palm tree like an oversized and particularly furious coconut, the attacked caravan in need of rescue is now a castaway desperately in need of help. Your group eventually gets back on track, at which point the warlord you were planning on handing out a quest becomes the Lobster-King, Blueclaw, who insists that in exchange for safe passage through this section of ocean you undertake a quest or be dragged to the depths to be used as an impromtu banquet for his subjects.

This doesn't even necessarily come across as "railroading" to your group- it's to be expected IMO that any journey that isn't just "After x amount of time you arrive at y" has some sort of event happening, and when you get right down to it the basic components of an encounter are the same - there's an enemy/friend/obstacle that needs attacking/assistance/overcoming in exchange for xp/shiny things/gold/progression.

Indeed, if you wanted to discourage them from taking the ocean again, you could even make it harder, increasing the number of encounters they face by day and decreasing the available supplies and recuperation time. My personal preference would be to do just this, as in my personal idea of D&D the ocean is dark and full of horrors.

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What motivates the players?

In your example you mention planning an adventure around closing a rift of some kind. When you planned this adventure, how did you plan on getting the players involved in this? What hooks did you put in to motivate them to go along with this story? And what hooks did you put in for the player's characters to go along with the story.

For example, let's say your rift goes to the demon planes of hellish hellness, and hellish demon monsters are spewing forth from the rift. Now Alice might be perfectly happy to go along on the adventure based on the promise of killing lots of demons, and Bob might look forward to the chance to discover more about parts of the game universe that haven't been fleshed out. Unfortunately Carl might have a love of roleplaying that he feels can only be soothed by social encounters, and if you forget to mention that the party will have to negotiate a rift closure warrant with the strict and officious lawyers of the local kingdom, he might not think the adventure sounds much like fun.

You'll need to know what kinds of fun your players enjoy and let them know that the adventure you've got planned has something to push each of their buttons. The Angry GM has a great series of articles on the different kinds of fun, starting with this one.

What motivates the player's characters?

Continuing the same example you probably have no problem persuading Arctus the lawful good paladin who worships the god of demon smiting from going on the adventure. You might, however, have more trouble persuading the Boris, the rogue who only lusts for gold, or Calothulus, the wizard who seeks ancient forbidden knowledge, from going off and closing a portal to potentially large amounts of gold and/or forbidden knowledge.

You might need to give them other reasons for going along on the adventure. Maybe Calothulus will be allowed access to the ancient library of totally forbidden knowledge so he can find the book of demon rift closing rights if he goes along, and maybe the local king of demonriftland really wants the rift closed and will totally pay Boris as much treasure as a Roc can carry if he'll help his friends not get caught out by traps in the dungeons where the ancient rift keys are locked away.

But why did they go sailing?

Work out why your players and their characters are going sailing - what is it that suggests to them that sailing off into the distance will be more fun than whatever was suggested as the first way to go find the rift? If this is what motivates them, then try and use a similar motivation as the reason to go close the rift.

If you were just hoping that they'd happen to leave starterville on the only road it has and that they'd follow it right to the rift and decide to close it for the fun of it all, then you were basically asking them to go off and adventure in the world with no other motivation, so why be surprised when they decided to get a boat to explore instead of walking?

Oh, and don't forget to make it fun for yourself too.

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Railroad

Most people flinch when they hear that (I'm imagining several people hissing with distaste as they read that word already). But hear me out.

There are two kinds of "railroading". The first is the obvious one - denying any kind of interaction with anything outside your setting. "I want to go this way"; "It's a dead end." etc.

The second is to make your events happen regardless of where the players are. This does take a bit of skill, because depending on the situation, you might have to react a little differently. E.g., you don't want to jump the party who are investigating a small alley, and pin them in with the Big Bad. You'll have to create ways for them to escape, or perhaps restrict movement so the Big Bad can't swing his Big Bad Weapon.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ the GM asked implying "how to Railroading", so this is possibly the right answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Dec 21 '16 at 12:58

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