I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons 4e game called “Urgo” for almost five years. All of my original five players have been replaced except one. It was always a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods, and it’s escalated from there. The player characters are level 16 of 30 and we’ve reached a point in the game where it takes some effort to maintain the tone and even more effort to properly prepare. For some background, here’s the current situation:
The party has just returned from the depths of the Abyss, where they sought the original sword of Tharizdun that created the realm of the demons. There they encountered avatars of Vecna and Erathis, who asked them to resolve a dispute over the proper method to stop the baleful stars descending from the Far Realm toward the world. They’ve got a potential task to hunt down demigods to maybe turn them into a weapon. They have an airship that can travel through teleportation portals, some to other planes. Meanwhile, Nihal the Serpent Star will arrive in a matter of weeks as a herald of dread Allabar, Opener of the Way.
This isn’t a problem of overescalation: this campaign was always meant to be large-scale and the players can handle it. It does, however, make preparation more complicated. The players have reliable ways to get to the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the Elemental Chaos. They can travel to anywhere in the known world in a matter of a few days. There are any number of characters they know and plot threads to pursue.
There is, in essence, an overchoice or analysis paralysis problem. I don’t know what to prepare because the players could do anything next. The players don’t know what to pick because they have differing priorities. The solution to this is clear to me, although I dislike it: railroading.
Railroading is a classic roleplaying term describing when you force the players onto a single course of action despite their desires to go elsewhere. It’s infuriating and goes against what’s cool about tabletop RPGs: infinite choice. However, railroading methods can be handy to guide players into a groove where you’ve prepared material and away from places you haven’t.
I’m going to use tools like quest-pushing NPCs, time-limited threats, and quick responses of “that won’t work” or “there’s not anything to find there right now” to limit the solution space to something manageable. I’ll restate the players’ options as a set of multiple choices instead of asking the open-ended “What do you do next?”
I have confidence in my players that if they strongly want to follow a course of action that they’ll do it despite my guidance, and if they do I’ll go there with them (perhaps with a short break for hurried preparation). But until that happens I intend to relieve them of some of the burden of choice.
Have you run into similar situations in your games? How did you resolve them?