The original DL modules are frequently charged with rampant and egregious railroading -- defined by the RPG Theory Review as the imposition of a predefined set of resolutions onto the choices and conflicts that occur in play by a storyteller or game master. For many of the DL modules, I believe this is an absolutely true observation.
There has been a lot of discussion over the years regarding the evils of railroading. At its worst, railroading breaks player immersion, forcing them to see that their decisions are meaningless, and their characters are simply bit actors in the DM's story.
On the other hand, there has also been some suggestion in discussions about railroading that it might not always be the fun-sapping problem it's often made out to be. I think in any prewritten adventure, except for the most sandbox-y of sandboxes, at least some element of railroading is inevitable -- no author can account for every choice the players may make. I might go so far to say that for some groups and playstyles, a certain amount of railroading is in fact desireable. Some players and groups will prefer to have a clearly presented objective and a clearly presented means of achieving it. This is a social contract between the players of groups with this kind of playstyle -- a desire for the adventure to "take us right to the fun", which, it can be argued, really is the purpose of a prewritten adventure.
I think railroading is at its least intrusive when the rails are made invisible, or at least as transparant as possible, and (to run with the railroad metaphor) a number of switches and junctions are built into the adventure, so that the action is funnelled, but not rigidly forced.
"Dragons of Despair" as originally written by Hickman was, I think, a good example of this. In my mind, the adventure consists of two parts. The first part is the more sandbox-style part: after leaving Solace, the PCs are pretty much allowed to go where they want and do as they wish until they figure out that they're supposed to take the Blue Crystal Staff to Xak Tsaroth. Certain constraints are added by using impassible geography and hostile soldiers to confine the players to the overall region of Abansina. Sure, the DM could improvise adventures for the PCs if they break those faux barriers, but at that point, the PCs aren't really playing "Dragons of Despair" anymore. Once the PCs reach the swamp around Xak Tsaroth, they have begun the second part of the adventure, the "dungeon" portion. Even the outdoor area of the swamp is presented structurally as a dungeon, with encounters keyed to locations on the map, and therefore this second part runs like any other keyed-map adventure. The players still have meaningful choices to make (do they descend via the lift or sneak down the sewer pipe?), but they are ultimately constrained by the "walls of the dungeon".
Because of all this, then, I didn't feel the need to make any large changes to the basic structure of the adventure, leaving it almost exactly as it was in the orginal module. The main change I did make was to alter the location of the beginning of the module. The original module opens in a time-honored and much-beloved fashion -- with combat! I agree that this is a great way to start a D&D adventure, but there was a problem here. Since Goldmoon and Riverwind do not start the adventure with the PCs, I wanted to make their introductions before any tactical encounters took place. Therefore, I moved the beginning of the adventure from the road east of Solace into the Inn of the Last Home itself, and the first encounter is that of Goldmoon and Riverwind meeting the rest of the PCs -- the old "so you meet in an inn" beginning, another classic trope. The concept of the Blue Crystal Staff is then introduced by interactions with the inn patrons and by use of the Streetwise skill, and then expanded on in the first tactical encounter with Toede and his troops. Moving the opening of the adventure to the inn also eliminates the too-opague railroading of "...and after killing the hobgoblins, you all go the Inn of the Last Home."
Beyond that, in my conversion, as in the original module, the PCs are allowed to go where they like within the confines of Abanasinia until they determine that the Staff must go to Xak Tsaroth. I provided a quest ("Appeal to the Seekers") to provide some initial direction and to provide a plausible reason for Goldmoon and Riverwind to wish to join forces with the rest of the heroes. Eventually, the PCs' choices will funnel them to the Forestmaster, who in turn directs them to Xak Tsaroth. This is railroading, but hopefully it is mostly transparant railroading -- after all, the players should be trying to meet the objectives presented in the adventure, trying to succeed in the challenges laid down by the adventure.
The topic for today's post came to me because I have been working on my conversion of DL2, "Dragons of Flame", and it's an entirely different ballgame. DL2 is probably the single most railroad-y of all the original DL modules. I've been working hard to try to get the module "off the rails" as it were (or at least onto more transparent rails) while still hitting all the exposition and character introductions that take place in that adventure (and there's a lot). I think I've found some neat ways to do this, and I'll talk more about DL2 in the future, but in the meantime, I hope this sheds light on why I made some of the (minor) plot alterations that I did in DL1.
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