There are many and more guides online to help dungeon masters write interesting campaigns, keep players on track, and follow the storyline as it’s presented in the module you’ve purchased or written. This is not one of those guides.
I’ve written before about modular campaigns and how to organize them so your wandering, murder-minded loot-mongering players can’t derail the game unless they’re utterly hellbound for a total party wipe. For this post I’d like to do something similar, by discussing organizational methods for keeping your party on the rails without them realizing they’re locked into their seats tighter than the fat kids on the rollercoaster.
The goal is to allow the players enough agency to think they’re changing the course of events in the world. To structure the game so they’ll want to follow the quest line you’ve set up, and grant enough freedom during gameplay that the players believe they could ride off into the sunset if they really wanted to, and you’d have a backup plan for it.
In short, you should never have to threaten a player with a lightning bolt up the ass if he deviates from your linear plot, and here are four ways of accomplishing that.
1) Set up world mobility—with hard boundaries
Part of the trick to a linear campaign is keeping the party together and moving as a group. I once had a novice dungeon master sic a hellhound on me out of frustration for wandering away from the party. The hound was meant to herd me back to the group like I was an errant sheep and Fiery Fido was an Australian shepherd. Of course, I ran back to the party, but we were all level 1. The hellhound butchered us to a man.
Plan an environment that motivates the players to continue along the path you’ve set up. Give them a boat, but make the water poisonous, and only update their map with the next island you plan for them to visit. Set them in a desert with sandwyrms, and force them to follow a guide or be devoured. The threat of hostile wildlife or unpredictable weather will often be enough to keep the group together and working as a team to find the next town. Let them know that if they want to stray from the party you won’t mind a bit, but they shouldn’t cry about it when the giant fire-ants are trundling their scorched limbs back to the hive.
2) Design false choices
Videogames have provided me with a tool for making players believe they have a say in world events, without actually changing the outcome of the story. Set up faction choices where the players pick who will rise to power, and who will fall. Let them decide if the old police commissioner will retain his office, or if an up-and-comer who’s gunning for the commissioner’s desk will get it when they’re planting cyber crime evidence. The players will always have opinions about who their favorite Lord or Lady is, or which gang leader they prefer. Force them to vote with their actions.
The beauty of this trick is that it makes the party feel like they’ve scored a coup for their team, and made a difference in the world. But if you’ve planned the campaign correctly, the only difference they’ve made is to advance the story, and to change the color of the banner flying above the castle.
3) Threaten the players with boredom if they stray too far
In the hellhound scenario I mentioned, my character was wandering off alone because he’d had a falling out with the party. I wasn’t angry with the players in real life. My character simply had had enough of their bullshit, and we were in the middle of role-playing a spat. I’ve gamed with dungeon masters who feel the need to solve party rifts as quickly as possible, with threats of divine intervention if necessary. Or if the party strays too far from the intended quest, or starts goofing around at the gaming table, the DM starts doling out damage. If you’re the dungeon master it’s easy to mistake lulls in the action for player disinterest, even if they’re acting out a minor scene.
If you want to get the players back on track, of if they’ve strayed too far from the plot, let them. Let the players go as far afield as they want. If the shaman wants to build a goddamn cabin during a quest, tell him which part of the mountain slope will get less wind in the winter, and where the soil will be good for a garden. Allow the players to wander, to stall the game with their shenanigans, and to dally in the wilderness. All you have to do to bring them back in line is make it clear that there isn’t so much as a parcel to deliver, a goblin to slay, or a horseshoe to mend anywhere in the world except for where your questline is.
If the players trek into the wilderness away from your plot, bore them with details about the loamy soil, and the types of flowers that are blooming, and the content of the topsoil they’re walking on. Make them beg to be back in the action again. Even the rebellious loner of the group who wanders off to pout and teach his party a lesson, will return to the fold after he’s left out of the plot for an hour.
4) Have a plot and a Big Reveal in mind, but implement drastic changes along the way.
Before you begin your campaign, you should have an endgame in mind. Are the players trying to save the princess in a faraway castle? Is the ultimate goal to kill an evil wizard who’s plotting mass genocide against squirrels? Are the players working toward a united coalition to finally wipe out the threat of annual marathon runners? Decide now, that way you can throw curveball after curveball at the players without destroying your grand finale.
While the players work toward the ultimate reveal, invent reasons why their actions have affected the world around them. Start each game with an update. Let them hear a town crier imploring the public to donate to the starving refugee fund after the players help kick off a war. If the party aided a warlord who has gained prominence, or completed enough quests for the local thieves, have an NPC complain about the atrocious rise in organized crime, and how corrupt officials are bringing the city to its knees.
Remember, it only takes a few seconds of storytelling and a little creative innovation to make the players believe your linear story is a blank script waiting to be written, and they’re the ones wielding the pen.