There's plenty of questions on here about how to, as a GM, prepare less for sessions and learn to go with the flow your players create rather than railroading them into your plans. I'm interested in the opposite scenario; should I be worried that my lack of planning is unintentionally railroading my players? (and if so, how can I avoid this?)

I feel this is system-agnostic, but for context this is my first time being a GM and I'm running a D&D 5e game for two players. I roughed myself out a general overarching plot to get us all comfortable with the mechanics (player 1 gets a treasure map, player 2 is already enroute to said treasure, they meet up and work out the challenges together) and then essentially left the rest up to chance.

As a storyteller I find I work best when little is planned; it gives me room to adapt to my players and incorporate new ideas the moment they pop up. I'll typically prep (and I use this word loosely) one "puzzle" and one "fight" per session by having a rough idea of the challenge I want them to face and a few different solutions to it, and the stat block for the monster(s) they may run into. This means that no matter where they go and how they approach a problem, I can ensure they end up finding/doing what I need them to to progress the plot.

From my perspective it feels like I'm horribly railroading my players; as an incredibly generic example it, say, doesn't matter if they choose the road or the forest because I'm going to stick the mansion they need to find in front of them either way. I feel like I'm making their choices inconsequential because whatever they pick will lead them where they need to go, just with different flavortext.

I'm decently certain that it doesn't feel railroaded to them, since they don't necessarily know what I have prepped per session, but does anyone have personal experience with what this feels like from the player side? Should I be planning alternate paths and let them get off track or keep my planning loose enough that no matter where they go they are on track?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe this is called the 'illusionist' style of GMing, if searching that helps for anyone writing an answer \$\endgroup\$
    – firedraco
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm tagging this with D&D 5e because that context is a substantially important part of the question: it informs us of the storytelling and planning framework you're working in, and the kinds of things that are expected to happen in the game & what a "good" kind of gameplay is like. Other games, and other games' player cultures, have different expectations on all of that, and will have different experiences of how more or less (or certain types of) planning will unfold. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Understood, thanks for the clarification! \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ A terminology note for the curious or research-inclined: this exact GMing technique (within the illusionist/participationist style) has been nicknamed the “quantum ogre” in online discussions about it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 18:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Strongly related but probably not a duplicate How to get players to do something without them feeling railroaded? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 22:25

8 Answers 8


Possibly, depends on a few specifics

What it sounds like you're doing is a style of railroading "Illusionism" (as pointed out by firedraco in the comments). This is essentially presenting a false choice in front of your players, when no real choice exists.

Why did I say possibly? Because there are a few specifics you can do when you run the game that make this method a time saving preparation tactic that doesn't invalidate choice.

For instance: If your players decide "Hey, that mansion we've found looks boring/scary/whatever, let's go down the other path," do you force them to stay at the mansion? Do you quickly swap fluff differences (Ok, the mansion is now a cave complex, the skeletons inside are now in the cave)? If the answer to these is yes, then you're definitely railroading.

On the other hand, if your players come upon the mansion and then they say "I don't want to go to the mansion" do you instead say "Ok guys, I need ten minutes to prepare the area down the other fork, you caught me with my pants down"? Then you aren't railroading, you're respecting their choice by allowing something meaningfully different to happen.

Blind Choice is no choice at all

That is to say; a choice between a road or a forest doesn't matter if there's no meaningful information about what lies upon the path or at the destination. Since it's a road or forest, you could easily say "Well, the road is well trafficked and speedy, but bandits hit there often. The forest is safer and has basically no risk of bandits, but there are weird creatures there..." Then you've provided the information to make said choice meaningful.

Players know

Oh yeah. Players get a sense for railroading when they're continually presented with blind choices, particularly blind choices that always lead to the next step in the "plot". They may not say anything because they're being polite, or they're enjoying the game anyway, or any other number of reasons. You aren't going to fool them, at least not for very long.

I highly recommend Courtney Campbell's series on the quantum ogre, the first one being here.

How to avoid railroading?

Well, some players don't actually mind railroading, at least not the nice kind that puts them on the plot where they feel involved and not the hamfisted kind that arbitrarily says "you can't do that". If your players are like this, you've really got not too much to worry about (except that they might expect you to provide all the life and effort, which will suck).

On to how to avoid railroading (Macro-Scale): Have an area map. Put a few cool things around the area, along the road, in the forest, whatever. When your group comes to the fork in the road, you'll know there's at least something along both paths to be interesting. Provide information about areas. A lake with an underwater city of evil frog men that invade the nearby villages can be as simple as a paragraph of description or less. Learning to be comfortable improvising off the bit of information linked to each area (and then adding that info to your notes) is one of the best things you can do to improve as a (non-railroady) DM. You don't need (or want) a prepared, defined plotline as a non-railroading DM, since plotlines are often easily destroyed or subverted by the whims of the players. This doesn't mean you can't have a loose plot with characters, just that it's going to get sent in wildly different directions when you let the players play and you'll have to not get attached to any specific direction.

(Mirco-scale): You say you include one puzzle and one combat encounter per area? Try making a small but non-linear dungeon instead. From The Alexandrian's Jaquaying the Dungeon: This is what his house looks like.

The lines are linear paths that can be taken (including lines of rooms + hallways). Note how the paths loop in on themselves, allowing for backtracking, exploration, and the ability to skip stuff. If your players are curious and engaged, they'll appreciate this ability to skip around encounters and puzzles, and they might even backtrack and explore when they don't have to. Don't be surprised if they don't, either, but missing content is part of the risk of free choice. If you need a boss encounter to happen, just put it as a linear path at the back of the dungeon, that all optional paths will connect to.

None of this is comprehensive, but hopefully this helps you out and gets your mind spinning with ideas.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Jaquaying the Dungeon is fascinating. \$\endgroup\$
    – StuperUser
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 10:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I got a lot of excellent answers, but I particularly appreciate your point-out of blind choice not being a choice at all, which actually kept me up last night with a sudden burst of inspiration for the next session to allow more player freedom. Thus, I have awarded you the tick because despite the loss of sleep I found yours most helpful. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 14:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that dungeons need not be geographic. The illusionary dungeon, where the players have a choice between a longer but safe route or a riskier but faster route, can be used. Giving important information that changes what happens is the key bit; the lake with the monsters encounter could be in the forest or behind the mansion if you don't provide them with the choice of "do we go into the lake, there may be monsters there" until after they export the forest or the mansion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 16:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wow, that enclosed encounter diagram is way more efficient than my sprawling mindmaps or cell matrices. +1 for jealousy. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 19:24

Should you be worried? That depends. Some people like being railroaded. They're there for the encounters, they don't want to have to worry too much about the impact of their decisions on the wider world and so forth. It's going to be different for different players. Given that you're working in 5th edition, though, you almost certainly already have a helpful resource for dealing with this. Check out page 6 of your DMG ("Know Your Players"). Show it to your players, and let them tell you what they are. It's a great tool for figuring out what your players actually want and how to give it to them, and it'll help out a lot in figuring out how much railroading is desired/okay, along with a bunch of other things.

How to avoid, if you want to avoid? Given that you're doing minimal prep one session at a time, there's an easy answer. Let the players make their major decisions at the end of each session, rather than during the session or at the beginning. You run through a session, you let them decide roughly what they're doing next, then you have the time between sessions to generate the encounters that will result from their decisions. No railroading involved, and if they decide to do something unexpected, it can be a source of inspiration, rather than frustration.

I ran a 4th ed campaign like that for a few years, and it worked quite nicely.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of making them pick where they'd like to go next at the end of each session. It's a small fix that might alleviate some of the issue. +1! \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 14:53

As an example, Call of Cthulhu modules specifically present ways to achieve this sort of thing. If the players go here then the clue they need is there in this way. If they instead go there then the clue they need is presented like this. If they don't go either way, then this thing happens and they find out about it and that's their clue.

That's not a bad thing. Focus on making worlds where things happen even if no player/player character is there to see it. Because that's how the world is. If there are specific things that the PCs "must" do or see or find or whatever for the overall plot to move, then disconnect those things from specific locations so the story can keep moving. But otherwise, things keep happening "off-camera." The players may not know the specifics until later. Or maybe never.

But if the PCs/Players want to go West and the story has presented clues that explicitly tell them the boss fight is East, then accept that. What happens if the players don't fight the boss? What does the boss do without opposition? Let that happen. Then let the PCs see the repercussions. Do they feel remorse? Do they seek revenge? Do they not care at all?

First rule is always the rule of fun. Are the players (and you) enjoying the methods you use? If so, then GOOD JOB!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the idea that things should be happening off-camera, it's a great point to keep in mind. +1! \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 15:39

Although you are seeking a system agnostic answer, the gamemastering section for Dungeon World offers great advice in this area. It encourages gamemasters to follow certain principles that lead to improvisation and dynamic situations, and these can very much be applied to most systems. It may well be similar to what you're looking for.

It recommends:

  • Draw maps, leave blanks
  • Ask questions and use the answers
  • Begin and end with the fiction
  • Think offscreen, too

In essence, it recommends that your preparation work be things like the broad setting - towns, politics, important people - and then using cause-and-effect for everything else. Let the players do what they will do, and then explain the consequences. You don't need to prepare the details of every little thing; rather, leaving some things unprepared often allows for room and freedom for much more interesting situations.

I recommend reading over how Dungeon World handles this. It seems fairly similar to what you say you've already been doing, and it may help for further embrace and refine it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate your answer but I think this is actually exactly the trap I'm in - I prepare so broadly that it doesn't matter what freedoms they take, they end up at whatever "endgame" I had prepped. Being even looser seems like the wrong direction to take, unless I'm missing something. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 19:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Alex Generally, it is more prep that causes railroading, and less that causes freedom. You may think you're preparing too little, but it might actually be the opposite - that you're preparing too much, or the wrong things. To avoid ending up at an inevitable "endgame", the answer is simply to have no idea what the endgame is even going to be in the first place. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 19:08

I think the issue might stem from a misconception of "preparing less": You can either prepare less depth or less breadth.

Less depth - not figuring out every minute detail of every hovel, tree or person, instead focusing on NPCs and places central to the plot - reduces the risk of you absolutely wanting players to experience what you so carefully prepared, gives you more freedom for improvisation and will, in the long term, teach you to improvise better.

Less breadth - like reducing ways to acquire clues or solve a puzzle, having only a very limited set of places prepared - leads to OP's problem: All you've prepared is important and must be presented, one way or another, to drive the plot forward. Even if it's not obvious to your players that you are doing so.

So, yes, less preparation can lead to railroading, if focussing on the wrong things to prepare.

Therefore, in a plot-driven, non-sandbox campaign, the key to successfully preparing less is identifying key elements of the plot, first. Think these through - do they have to take place in one exact fashion or can you deliver their quint-essence in different ways? Who are the most important NPCs? Prepare these centre-pieces thoroughly, considering likely approaches of your players.

Then, think about ways the PCs can get to these centre-pieces (What clues can they find to identify the villain? How could they find out about and be willing to go to the forest mansion? Under what circumstances could they encounter certain important NPCs?). Have a number of these prepared with a midling amount of detail - have quite a few more than you'll actually need to offer the PCs freedom.

Loosely prepare the rest. Have a general idea about places the players are likely to visit. Have a list of short NPC descriptions ready, names, races, genders, quirks, etc, to draw from whenever you need it. Same goes for small events or encounters you may or may not use. These are generic to a certain degree and can be reused later, but should at least be adapted a bit to fit the current flavor and feel "alive" and meaningful.

(Optional) If your group is into character play, additionally identify moments that lend themselves well to intense roleplaying. Prepare these, too.

And lastly, come game-night, for anything you don't have prepared, just go with the flow. If you feel overwhelmed by the direction it takes, just excuse yourself, suggest a short break or end-of-session for you to prepare something. It's not shameful, and experience will make these moments rarer and rarer.

Obviously, there are still a couple of key moments and places you need your players to get to. But that is not a railroading issue. If you provision for good reasons for them to go there, or do that - your players most likely will, without feeling railroaded. At least, if they're willing to play along - otherwise you're having a whole different problem in your group. Collect feedback how they felt about it after each session.


No, lack of planning will not railroad your players, and you should not worry that it will.

This answer is based on my experience as a DM and on conversations I've had with other experience DM's.

Let's categorize planning into two big-picture aspects for the purpose of this answer: flavor and execution. They are kind of nebulous and sometimes overlap, but here's the idea.

  • Flavor is the kind of stuff you would expect to be central to your campaign even if it were being told as a novel or a movie instead. It's the story, the characterizations, the setting, the epic set pieces, the motivations: the stuff which is evocative, creates a sense of cohesiveness, conveys what is distinct about your world. It's an overview of your campaign, but it can also include an overview of what you would like the players to achieve in the next few sessions to shape that cohesive world.

  • Execution is the kind of stuff you would expect to be central to your campaign world by virtue of it being played as a game. It's the encounters, the monsters, the items, the traps, the dungeon layouts: the stuff which is visceral, creates a play experience, engages your players in manipulating the world. It's the nitty-gritty detail of what happens from session to session.

You absolutely cannot go wrong by planning as much of the flavor as possible. The more flavor you prepare, the better you can envision your world. This should be beneficial for any gaming group. It promotes extemporaneous decisions on your part to fill in the details that your existing concept of the world naturally implies, and it leads to more scenarios where the unexpected actions of your players will intrigue and delight you enough to modify your world and promote a play experience which maximizes moment-to-moment fun.

However, you can plan too much of the execution. If you micromanage what occurs in each session, it directly impedes the ability of the players to interact with the world. The flavor creates a framework in which they can play, but the execution is that which they actually end up playing. If you plan too much of the execution, you will likely be unwilling to deviate from it too much. That is, you will be less intrigued and delighted by how your players interact with your world in unexpected ways and more annoyed by their transgressions and unwitting attempts to deviate from what you thought would be most interesting.

You can strike a balance between not preparing any of the execution and preparing too much of it. The gist of this answer is to get a feel over the course of multiple sessions for how much execution planning correlates to the most fun your group experiences. Don't be afraid to ask your group what they did or didn't like about the session. You can use this to figure out the correlation.

I think it is best to have a pretty good grasp of the flavor of your world. I would not say you need to know everything about that flavor, because it should evolve over time as you discover new ways to improve it. You should prepare enough to feel like your world is a believable, real place, even though you may not know everything that exists in that world. The world exists, but it's a bit blurry until you look up close.

Then prepare just enough of the execution to give yourself an outline of things that you think might be interesting but which you are willing to set aside if something else ends up being more interesting. It can be honestly very hard to run a session without already having some monster stat blocks or dungeon sketches prepared. However, you should be willing to adapt on the fly. This is the act of looking at your world up close to bring it into focus, which should primarily be done with the help of the players and the feel at the table.

As an example, if your players need to gather information in an unfamiliar city to find a group of kidnappers in hiding and rescue the victim, don't write a detailed outline of how to find the hideout. Let it suffice that clues can be found. That's really all your notes need to say: the players can find clues. Trust me, your players will create interesting, feasible, and believable ways to string together enough clues to find the kidnappers as long as you help them suss those details out at the table. Conversely, if you did prepare an outline or flowchart of clues, you're more likely to reject anything that doesn't fit that preordained plan, and that is the railroading you are trying to avoid.


There are different aspects to planning. For the big picture setting and narrative, more planning is probably better. For tonight's session, just enough planning to get yourself thinking is probably good enough. But less planning will absolutely not lead to railroading. It's planning too much of the nitty-gritty details ahead of a session that leads to railroading. If you do plan a lot, the best way to avoid railroading is to put yourself in the mindset that the plans are at best a suggestion and that they can and should be thrown out or adjusted on the fly if a more interesting concept presents itself. And don't be afraid to talk to your players about how they feel about this.


Allow me to edit the question that seems to be at the heart of your concern:

should I be worried that ... [I am] railroading my players?

Let's not worry about the cause until we have determined if the consequence is a problem or not.

Now if the question were "should I be worried that I am boring my players?" then the answer would be an unequivocal "yes" because "boring" is an objectively bad thing in a way that "railroading" isn't. Yet the whole tenor of your post seems to imply that "railroading" is something to be avoided. Why?

Have a look at What is 'railroading', and is it a bad thing? and see if you still feel the same way.

Now, to my mind, the relevant question is: why are you asking your players to make inconsequential decisions? Why even ask the players to choose "the road or the forest" if the decision of consequence is "do you want to go to the fight I've prepared in the mansion, go and solve this puzzle over here or tell me what else you want to do and I'll prepare that for next week and meanwhile we'll play Pandemic tonight?"

Player's know you don't have infinite time and that, in the end, they can only play the encounters that you have, either prepared in advance or improvised on the fly (some DMs can do that: experienced, exceptional DMs - most can't). Just be honest about what's going on.

How to get players to do something without them feeling railroaded? expands on this.


This doesn't sound like railroading to me.

If you present prepared options or opportunities, and they reject them in favor of something else (prepared or otherwise), and then you continue to try to make them follow the plot which you prepared and they avoided, that would be railroading.

There's a trick, though: They might not want to go to that particular mansion for the particular reason you presented to them in the first place, but, you can still use the mansion you prepared if you present a different option and re-skin the prepared mansion to suit the new narrative.

They don't want to burgle and rob the Bishop? OK. But maybe they will want to retrieve an artifact which the Baron stole from their mentor. Same house. They'll never know, since they never saw the Bishop's house.


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