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Stay on the Path

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"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."
Wyvern, The Sandman (1989), "The Kindly Ones"

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.

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.

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.

If the heroes leave the path because they were told not to leave it, it's also a case of Forbidden Fruit. This trope is a subtrope of Horror Hates a Rulebreaker.


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    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Robin (1993): Tim meets a strange old man named Stephen who can take "shortcuts" through the woods that get him to places faster than a truck going at full speed. Stephen warns Tim that anyone who looses track of Stephen in the woods is be lost there forever. While running through with Stephen to try and save a kidnapped child Tim notes that there are plant and animal species in Stephen's woods that don't belong in North America and he can't hear the cars on what should be the very nearby roadway.
  • The Sandman (1989), "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."
  • Spider-Man: In The Amazing Spider-Man (J. Michael Straczynski) Vol. 2 #46, Doctor Strange sends 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.

    Fairy Tales 

    Films — Animation 
  • In Finding Nemo the School of fish that gives Dory and Marlin directions to Sydney warns the pair to go THROUGH a particular undersea trench, rather than over it. Marlin chose to ignore that warning (on the grounds that it looks like death trap), while Dory did try to persuade otherwise, however, goes along with him anyway due to Marlin distracting her so she would forget she was disagreeing, leading to a near deadly encounter with jellyfish on her end.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • Apocalypse Now has "never get out of the boat" as the guideline for going down the River of Madness. A ferocious man-eating tiger appears when the characters first get ashore.
  • 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).
  • Hoomania is about a boy who gets transported into a board game with a warning that he must stay on the path in order to win the game. He first goes off of the path by taking a shortcut which leads him to two thieves who trick him into helping them steal a treasure chest and then throw him down a hill back onto the path. The second time, he drives a rocket car into a giant pinball machine out of curiosity, which activates and bounces him around, destroying the car and dumping him far away from the path, forcing him to take a row boat back to the path. He almost lets himself get pulled off the path a third time by a bunch of lazy creatures telling him to relax, which would have caused him to lose the game due to it being his third strike, but this time he listens to the warning and runs. The point of the game was to teach him a lesson about making wise choices. This may have been inspired by The Pilgrim's Progress.
  • 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.

  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Famous Five:
    • In Five Fall into Adventure, the Five leave a wheel-rut path in a very dense wood to shelter from a storm, and end up hopelessly lost, walking miles through the wood, without even the sun to guide them.
    • In Five on a Hike Together, the Five have to take a treacherous route through marshes, with strict instructions to stick to the path. Later, their enemies pursue them, and end up stuck in the marshes when they leave the path.
  • Harry Potter:
    • 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.
    • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: In a more minor sense, one of their 3rd year Defense Against the Dark Arts classes is about hinkypunks, who lure travelers off the path with ghost lights, usually to their victims' deaths, and thus how to resist their charms by staying on a given path.
  • The Hobbit has Gandalf give this advice to Bilbo and the dwarves about Mirkwood Forest. Inverted in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf tells Frodo and Sam to stay off the roads, but they run afoul of the Nazgûl as a result of Merry and Pippin not following the rule.
  • 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: The heroes had to journey through a swamp that through some means conjured up illusions of loved ones drowning in the deep mud just off the path. If you rush off to save them you end up drowning in the mud.
  • Rules For Vanishing: One of the rules of the road in the Briar Glen woods is not to leave it while traveling. When Sara briefly runs off the road, a monster is attracted to the group's location.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5:
    • When Ivanova is hooked into the Great Machine in "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 (1967) begins like this, as the protagonist takes a Wrong Turn at Albuquerque while "looking for a shortcut that he never found" and accidentally discovers the Alien Invasion going on...

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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...)


    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Dragon Quest III: In remakes that include the Personality System, one of the scenarios you can be thrown into by the Player Personality Quiz puts you inside a cave filled with signposts. The first one warns you to stay on the path set out for you, ignoring any alternate routes, treasures or other temptations. Naturally, your choices determine which personality you're assigned, with the last decision being a matter of To Be Lawful or Good, as someone is trapped right by the exit.
  • The guards in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion will sometimes advise you to do just this.
  • In Fallout: New Vegas, low-level characters can do quite a bit of exploring in relative safety if they stick to the crumbling roads that will eventually lead the player to New Vegas (as long as they heed any "KEEP OUT" signs they come across). Wander just a little way off the path (or try to go immediately north to New Vegas from Goodsprings) and the restored-to-their-former-magnificence Deathclaws and their adorable new sidekicks, the Cazadores, await you.
  • The Final Fantasy series:
    • Final Fantasy II followed this trope to a T in the early game; despite an open world map that you could actually explore a majority of with a Chocobo, straying from your intended path on foot was an easy trip to the Game Over screen as weak Hornets and Goblins suddenly turned into enemies far beyond your current level, with nothing to indicate you were in instant-death territory. As far as the simple graphics were concerned, the grassy plains tiles that hold meek little beginner's encounters, and the grassy tiles that held imminent death, looked exactly the same. You could even run into this right from the beginning of the game- ignoring your first objective in the north to go take a stroll on the beach to the south? Say hello to murderous mid-game enemies that will drain the life out of your party in seconds. Doubles as a Peninsula of Power Leveling with the aid of a certain White Mage, though.
    • Final Fantasy III decided to do away with the insanely powerful encounters, and simply just kill your party in a cutscene if you wandered off the path to go exploring somewhere before you were meant to at certain points in the game. Trying to take a stroll without certain key items could result in the party sinking to a muddy death, or being zapped into oblivion. And just like II, the simplistic graphics of the time meant you could run into both of these instant death traps purely on accident.
    • 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 Mook Clothing.
  • In Half-Life 2 during the coast section, straying too far into the ocean will result in a swarm of unkillable leeches coming in from the depths to kill you.
  • 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.
  • The Legend of Zelda:
    • The Haunted Wasteland in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 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.)
  • In Monster Girl Quest! Paradox RPG, you're advised to stay on the path when in the world beyond the first Tartarus. On the path there are no Random Encounters, but off the path there are incredible powerful angels who will almost certainly crush you in a single turn.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • This is a critical rule in The Sakabashira Game: Stay on the Cherry Blossoms, and don't take a single step off of them. Otherwise, the Host of the Deadly Game won't be happy with you...
  • Near the last third of SOMA, Simon Jarett has to enter the Abyss, where light barely travels, and the route to station Tau requires following a trail of lights that act as markers. Straying from this path results in being ripped to shreds by rabid sea creatures infused with Structure Gel, which also makes them averse to light. And to make things worse, Simon also has to endure a powerful ocean current, and some of the lights are disabled.
  • 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.


    Visual Novels 
  • Double Homework: Parodied by the fake bus driver (formerly a fake sea captain) who’s driving to Barbarossa. He gives a spiel about how it's "literally illegal" to move, but the protagonist, who’s a man on a mission, insists on cutting across country. The "driver" only halfheartedly tries to stop him.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Zig-zagged in a Monkey Dust skit where Geoff goes to a public Cottager outing somewhere in the murky, dark English countryside. In a nearby pub, a grizzled, toothless old man warns him not to stray too far off the path. Geoff asks him why.
    • Later it turns out that he really should have stayed on the path, after being mauled by a Queer-Wolf.
  • Phineas and Ferb has the half-hour-long episode Wizard of Odd, wherein Candace invokes this trope, but it is ultimately averted in practice. She insists on following the yellow sidewalk as Isabella the Good Witch instructed and ignores Phineas and Ferb's more "fun" travel ideas...only to find she simply missed out on enjoyment and that nothing awful would have happened if she had gone with her brothers. It turns out that Isabella instructs everyone heading to Bustopolis to follow that sidewalk.
  • In the Silly Symphony short The Big Bad Wolf, the Practical Pig advises Little Red Riding Hood and his two giddy brothers to take the long road to Grandma's house, since the shortcut goes through the forest where the Big Bad Wolf lives.

    Real Life 
  • As said on the Don't Go in the Woods page, hiking off-trail is generally advised against, as one has a big chance of being lost and being found too late, as hikers have been found starved or near starving sometimes not 100 feet from a trail. Likewise, in some parts of California, there's a good chance one might stumble into drug cartel and their operation and/or their traps or find the last one who did. People take those warnings very seriously.
    • More mundanely, a trail is a path along which the soil is so eroded and impacted by footsteps that it's too dense for anything to grow. More people going off-trail means more eroded soil, which makes nature just that much less beautiful. Also, more trail means more paths and more confusion for future hikers.