The heroes are journeying through some dangerous area—nearly always a dark and mysterious forest
. A wizard or other such guide has sent them on their way with one piece of advice: Stay on the Path. Straying from the path will lead to "something" bad.
The heroes will nearly always
leave the path at some point. Expect danger to ensue; they may also find that Short Cuts Make Long Delays
. If they truly have
to come back to the path to progress, see Yellow Brick Road
, or Rail Roading
when it's a result of game design or Game Master
Frequently a metaphor for "keeping on the straight and narrow path" of moral behaviour, and ignoring distractions that look more inviting or interesting than the path ahead.
The reasons given for doings so are often that it will be worth it.
If the heroes leave the path because they were told not to leave it, it's also a case of Forbidden Fruit
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- One JMS' Spider-Man story involves Doctor Strange sending Peter to the Astral Plane to fight a villain, with a warning not to leave the designated path. He strays off after seeing some random giant spider-shaped thingie, and accidentally unleashes a spider-eating Wasp spirit named Shathra who makes his life miserable for a while afterward.
- The Sandman, "The Kindly Ones":
- Cluracan comes to visit his sister Nuala in Dream's castle, and out of curiosity, disregards the doorkeeper's warning to stay on the path. As a result, he ends up creating his own nemesis.
- On another occasion:
"I have spoken to the lord of this realm. He has given you permission to enter the castle, and will grant you audience. I am honour-bound to warn you to stay on the path through the castle. Straying from the path could mean your destruction. You killed my friend, woman. Stray from your path."
- In the original The Books of Magic, Tim Hunter and Doctor Occult take a trip into Fairyland. Occult gives the warning; Tim actually stays on the path fairly well, until Baba Yaga uses an illusion of the Doctor to convince him to step off it...and then tries to eat him.
- The hero of An American Werewolf in London and his wing-man are given the warning "Stay on the road, and beware of the moon!" They ignore the first, and don't understand the second. As a result, one of them dies, and the other becomes a werewolf.
- The Company of Wolves: Granny tells Rosaleen not to stray from the path. She does and finds a werewolf.
- The Golden Child: Before undergoing a test, Eddie Murphy's character is warned to (among other things) "Stay on the path". During the test, the path he's on suddenly explodes, and he angrily demands to know what's going on. A voice tells him that he has to know when to break the rules (an important clue for completing the Secret Test of Character).
- Psycho: Marion discovers that she has missed her exit while driving in the dark and the rain, and gotten off the main road onto the old road. This was in 1960, when the highway system was new, and she made a very common mistake people made then, which would have made the audience nod in recognition. She stops at the Bates Motel to ask directions, and decides to stay the night before trying to find her way back in the dark. After being spooked by an essentially harmless, but seemingly menacing, policeman when she tried sleeping in her car the night before. She feels sorry for Norman, who is lonely, hasn't rented a room in a long time, and seems so harmless.
- The Pilgrim's Progress used this as a metaphor for staying faithful to Christianity. The characters constantly persist in straying off the path.
- Rowan of Rin: they were in a swamp that through some means conjured up images of loved ones drowning just off the path. If you rush off to save them....
- The Hobbit has Gandalf give this advice. Inverted in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf tells Frodo and Sam to stay off the roads and meet up with the Nazgūl as a result of Merry and Pippin not following the rule.
- Stardust: Neil Gaiman is a fan of this trope, as seen in the Comic Books folder. Anyone who strays from the path through the Serewood will fall victim to murderous plants.
- Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder justifies this trope: leaving the path while on a hunting trip in the past could lead to Temporal Mutability problems a la Butterfly of Doom. A character messes up, leaves the path and steps on a butterfly. Dystopia ensues.
- In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Hagrid warns Harry not to leave the path in the Forbidden Forest. Off the path he finds life-threatening peril and a creep drinking unicorn blood.
- David from The Book of Lost Things is warned to stay off the road; when he strays to pick an apple, he is captured by a hunter.
- In Dream Park, visitors at the Chamber of Horrors attraction are warned to stay on the green glowing path, as they pass through a holographic diorama of underwater terrors. One woman steps off the path anyway, and is instantly snatched away and torn to pieces by a shark and an aquatic zombie! Lucky for Dream Park's liability insurance, she turns out to be a hologram too.
- One of the main themes in the first book of the The Edge Chronicles, mainly because it's set in the Deepwoods, where Everything Is Trying to Kill You. This mentality even extends to children's sports in the woodtroll villages - when protagonist Twig "strays from the path" during a game, he's beaten up by the other kids even though there's technically no rule against it. No-one strays from the path.
- In the Dragaera universe, if you're in the world of the dead and you leave the path, you'll never be able to find it again, wandering for all eternity even if you're very much alive.
- Xanth features "magic paths" which are designated safe travelling points. Said paths are sometimes one-way such that if you step off of it it disappears. The trope is played with half the time where the protagonists lose the path, find the path is no longer safe, or leave the path. The other half of the time, it's used as a convenient shorthand for "nothing exciting happened between here and there because they were walking on the enchanted path".
- In one of Jack Vance's Dying Earth novellas, a traveler's father gives him a charm, which will protect him so long as he remains on the road.
- When traveling the Nevernever in The Dresden Files, wizards usually stick to the safer Ways, lest they wander off into an area that is horrifyingly dangerous. In the Nevernever, quite literally anything can happen.
- Babylon 5:
- When Ivanova is hooked into the Great Machine ("Voices of Authority"), she is advised by Draal to "stay on the path" when the Eye of Z'ha'dum somehow detects her probing and almost succeeds in mentally compelling her to go towards it. The "path" was a mental visualization given by the machine as a guide away from this Eye.
- When traveling in hyperspace, it is important to follow the hyperspace beacons, and stay in range of their signals, so as not to become permanently lost in hyperspace—something that almost happens to an explorer ship in the episode "A Distant Star".
- The Invaders: The old TV series began like this, as the protagonist took a wrong turn somewhere and accidentally discovered the alien invasion going on...
- Changeling: The Lost makes it very clear that wandering off the path in The Hedge can be a very, very bad thing. Not only do the Thorns that make up most of the Hedge drink a Changeling's power (or a human's soul), but hobgoblins lurk in some of the deeper parts. The Gentry occasionally take their strolls through it as well.
- Changeling The Dreaming, has elements of this, despite being Lighter and Softer. Wandering off the Silver Path while wandering the Dreaming is a very good way to get lost in some of the deeper delusions of the collective unconsciousness.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- Module I5 Lost Tomb of Martek. Before entering the Crystal Prism the PCs read runes that say "Walk that path straight and narrow". If they don't do so, the Iron Phoenix's powerful attacks will probably destroy them.
- Module I12 Egg of the Phoenix. In one section of the adventure the PCs are told "If a path is given, do not stray from it". They really need to follow this advice. If they don't, not only will they not be able to complete the mission and possibly get lost 200 million years in the past, but if they stray off the Platinum Path in the Black Forest they'll end up getting massively energy drained and almost certainly die.
- Subverted in the adventure Tomb of Horrors, where following the mosaic path on a hallway's floor will lead you past a couple of pit traps, then directly into another one. Not that anyone who so much as considers tackling the Tomb of Horrors has any excuse for not testing the floor (and the walls, the ceiling, the air, the doors, the doorlatches...)
- A meta-example. Video games are built on budgets, no matter what, so a smart dev team will cheat where they can. One cheat is to highlight a path that they intend for the player to follow. The highlights don't have to be obvious - just lights, warm colors, convenient approaches to an objective, the infamous chest-high walls, and so on. It allows the player the illusion of freedom when they really can't get too far from the game's set pieces. The devs can then devote less time to things "off the path." The cost of leaving the path? Wasting time, ruining your immersion by taking nonsensical actions just to "see if the world is real," being exposed to the second-rate textures, sky boxes, and objects which are pure filler, losing your immersion and time by blundering into the Insurmountable Waist High Fence, expending more resources fighting pointless enemies, and worst of all - finding nothing of interest and growing bored.
- Valve's Developer Commentary in Left 4 Dead pointed out a few ways they used this trope, for those who are interested. Everything from car headlights to color schemes are chosen so players can intuit their way through the level. This is important because a little exploration can be very helpful, but a lot of it guarantees more enemies will spawn and possibly overwhelm the players.
- No shortage of games invert this trope, rewarding the player for when they do NOT Stay on the Path, or zig-zag it, cluing the player in subtly when it might be a good idea to stray from the path.
- Justified in Alan Wake. The enemies are immune to attacks if not exposed to brilliant light first, and they are powerless in bright light. Gameplay consists of a run and gun from light to light. When things go south, following the path from light to light is the best way to progress.
- As alluded to in the trope description, you have to stay on the path in order to progress through The Lost Woods in many games.
- Racing games with open areas will often respawn you should you leave the area, for obvious reasons.
- This is the idea of the game The Path: The player must stray the girl from the path and meet their wolf in order to succeed in the girl's route in the story, rather than following the game's instructions to stay on the path. Following the path gets you a failure screen.
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- The Haunted Wasteland forces you to follow the flags; going off-route will cause you to be swallowed by the desert winds (and teleported back to a checkpoint). A similar puzzle occurs near Pinnacle Rock in the western ocean of Majora's Mask.
- Zelda II The Adventure Of Link: Staying on roads neutralizes enemy encounters. While you're on it, no encounters pop up, and if you spawn some then move back onto the path, the "battle" is a barren plain devoid of enemies you can just walk out of. Naturally, there are many places you can't get to by staying on the path. Early in the game, you'll want these encounters (free Experience Points) but as the game begins to go from Nintendo Hard to "Miyamoto, you sadist!" they become great ways to die horribly (and naturally, at this point, much harder to avoid.)
- World of Warcraft: One of the loading screen tips is that players are much less likely to encounter monsters when following a path. Generally true, but there are also some regions where particularly deadly enemies follow the roads, and some roads lead directly to dungeons or the cities of the opposite faction. Pre-expanion Rexxar followed a very long path through Durotar and Feralas, and was death to any Alliance character who didn't see him coming in time.
- In Neverwinter Nights, a village has been suspended out of time by Lathander. When you get to the castle you have 3 paths to choose from. If you stay on the correct path, then you get a note from Lathander complementing you on your choice of the middle balanced way. In the others you get attacked by deamon or devils and appropriately chastied by Lathander.
- In Black Sigil, you must cross a desert. You are told to follow the path (marked by specific plants), else you will encounter Sand Worms, which are rather tough for you at that point. Straying from the path also means interesting items.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, low-level characters can do quite a bit of exploring in relative safety if they stick to the crumbling roads (as long as they heed any "KEEP OUT" signs they come across). Wander just a little way off the path and the restored-to-their-former-magnificence Deathclaws and their adorable new sidekicks, the Cazadores, await you.
- In Final Fantasy V, a moogle shows you the way to the moogle village. He walks into a patch of desert, shakes his head "no", and avoids the desert all the rest of the way. When you take control, walking on the path will result in no Random Encounters, while the encounters in the desert are, at least for your likely current level, likely to spawn a Boss In Mooks Clothing.
- The guards in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion will sometimes advise you to do just this.
- After entering a dark cellar in Amnesia: The Dark Descent Daniel has a flashback to the first time he went through the area. He questions why it's kept so dark, but Alexander insists that he not stray from the lighted path. Since the only monsters in the castle at the time were the ones under Alexander's control, it's not clear what he thought would happen if Daniel didn't follow him.
- At the beginning of Afraid Of Monsters, David is told to "follow the red." What follows is a trip through a surreal nightmare realm, which changes from pitch black walls and floors to insane, tilted rooms. Colored dots lead your way, and if you don't follow the red, you'll end up at the bottom of the pit.