All aboard the Railroading Express or Story-boarding: A GM’s friend and duty.
I’m currently running “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” at my local game emporium and as many have already realized with this adventure, there is a lot of “open-endedness” to much of the content. RPGs by their nature have an unpredictable nature to them that makes every single session different. It’s similar to a sporting event; the rules are in place but one never knows where the ball is going to bounce or who is going to step up and make a big play. Every group of players going through this adventure will have a different experience based on the GM’s style, experience and interpretation of the adventure. Then you have the infinite variety of players and what they bring to the table and then all the choices of classes, races, backgrounds, etc. It’s a beautiful thing.
However, RPGs are also equally about story-telling. Sprinkling encounters together without purpose is not story-telling. A GM should know where he wants his PCs to end up and he should also have a good idea on how they will get there and what they might encounter along the way. A GM should think of himself as equal parts editor and author. You’re all writing a story and it’s the GM’s job to weave it all together in a believable fashion. Too many rescues from NPCs/? the story becomes unbelievable and all tension is drained away. “We’re always going to be saved!” will be the refrain from your players and then you have players taking ridiculous risks with their characters as there is no worry about death or loss. Make things impossible and watch your table lose heart if beloved characters are slain. Avoid TPKs as much as possible because they are story-killers. Only George R.R. Martin can get away with a TPK now and then.
While running HotDQ, the adventure warns the GM that there is a strong chance that the PCs might get captured. Sure enough, my group did get themselves captured, but not all of them. The adventure does not mention this as a possibility nor should it. How can there be an answer to every potential possible outcome? This is where the GM has to be prepared to “fill in the blanks” and keep the story moving. Do you spend time thinking about possible outcomes? You should as it makes your job as GM infinitely easier.
Midway through the adventure the PCs are supposed to be hired on as caravan guards and there are a variety of “encounters” provided. However, the order in which they are presented is up to the GM to decide. I took a look at them, opted to skip a few and add in some of my own instead and then story-boarded out how they will be encountered. This could be construed as “railroading” by some, but in truth it’s just making sure the story works in a logical fashion.
Take a few index cards and note what encounters will happen in what particular order. Make some notes on each encounter to speed up your session so you’re not continually flipping back to the book and reading box text or checking on the contents of the room. Your players will remain focused on the game if you’re organized and your pacing is steady. Slow down too much and their phones will come out. If I see players with their phones out, I know I’m losing the table. Sure, things will crop up and the order may change slightly, but ultimately you will get your PCs to the destination, next chapter, goal.
So when you’re prepping and planning for each session don’t think of what you’re doing as railroading, it’s story-boarding and it’s what all authors and directors do.