2017-06-22 04:01:11 UTC
time - as player or as game-master - has had this happen to them at
least once. The players are running through the adventure and
everything seems to be going smoothly - following clues and plot,
slaying all the right monsters and sacking all the right dungeons -
until Bam! Everything goes off the rails. Whether it is because the
adventure was poorly balanced, or the characters missed a vital clue,
or whatever, all of a sudden the PCs are heading off in a completely
different direction, essentially having abandoned the planned
adventure to go off and do their own thing.
As a DM, this is one of the most frightening, frustrating and - oddly
enough - exciting parts of being a game-master.
It starts with that moment of terror when you realize the characters
AREN'T going to find the magic widget that is so necessary to defeat
the Evil Foozle and ohmigod what-am-I-going-to-do-now
the-whole-story-is-in-tatters I-don't-have-anything-planned and oh
damn that part of the map isn't even filled in yet!
This is followed by the sour realization that all your hard work -
creating the dungeons, the intricate characterizations and
backgrounds, the clever set-pieces - is going to go to waste, never to
be seen. Worse, because of the abstinence of the players you are now
going to have to rush to create new material, which probably won't be
as good as what you had planned because you are going to have to churn
it out in a hurry.
But it's the third emotion that is the salve, although it usually
takes several weeks before I experience it. That's the delight as the
player's sudden change of course results in a brand new - and
unexpected - direction to the story. It is the exact thing that makes
role-playing such a fulfilling hobby. Without these accidents, the
game is just the DM walking his players through his story. It's fun
and imaginative, but somewhat hollow. But these diversions are what
make the story truly alive, as the players help shape the direction of
the game and the fantastical world that their characters inhabit.
I bring this up because my players went off the rails recently.
Actually, this happens to me a lot. It's not every adventure but it's
not uncommon. I tend to blame myself when this happens - Was my
adventure poorly written? Did I forget a vital clue? Did I misjudge my
players? - but in balance I think the players aren't completely
innocent either. Even the best players can sometimes make a bad roll,
ignore the obvious hint, or just act unexpectedly out of character.
Deep down I secret believe it is the duty of a good DM to predict and
smooth out these sorts of roadblocks, but intellectually I realize
that sort of perfection is impossible.
Still, I can't help but feel this one was my fault. The adventure was
fairly simple: sent out on a mission to a farming village (a punitive
raid on some peasants who weren't paying their taxes) the adventurers
find the hamlet all but deserted. The few survivors speak of plague,
and madness, and strange happenings. Attempting to leave town, the
characters find the escape blocked by flood. The clues spoke of
recently discovered artifacts, evil spirits, and of men who meddled
with things that were better left un-meddled with. The characters even
had a good idea where the villains were to be found - a nearby ruined
hill-fort, which was to be the climax of the adventure. Everything
seemed to be going swimmingly.
And they threw up their hands and said, "enough of this, we're heading
back to the city and letting somebody else deal with this mess." It
was actually a rather sensible decision but it did leave me somewhat
in a lurch.
Looking back, it shouldn't have been that unexpected. Players tend to
be risk averse, and I realize now I hadn't provided them much
motivation to keep them headed towards danger. The tone of the
adventure was somewhat Lovecraftian, and - while the players seemed to
enjoy the spooky vibe - I've concluded that it was my actions that led
to their decision. I failed to provide enough hope of reward (e.g.,
treasure!) and that too many of the clues on how to defeat the Big
Evil were buried in the latter half of the adventure. I was, I
realize, expecting the ideals of heroism and adventure to keep the
players on course. Unfortunately, in this particular campaign their
characters are most definitely /not/ heroic and - given it's an
extremely poor and low-magic campaign - practical decisions are
usually the correct one.
I have to admit, I was tempted to force the characters back onto the
path. It would have been easy to prevent their escape (another flood,
a fire, an avalanche) had I really wanted to, but that felt that sort
of obvious railroading was unfair to the players. I could have had an
NPC suddenly appear and drop a ton of useful exposition on them, but
that felt unrealistic. I even considered appealing to the players
directly by telling them that the expected course was to go to the
hill-fort, but then their characters would be acting out of character,
something for which I normally chastise them. So - not without some
grumbling - I let them have their way. If I threw some rough
encounters at them as they beat their hasty retreat, it was only to
keep them entertained and not spiteful revenge on the part of the DM,
So the characters bailed on the mission and it was probably the wiser
course of action; think of how many Cthulhu investigators might still
be alive or sane if they'd followed a similar course as my players.
They'll go back to town and report their findings; I expect they'll
get chewed out for not finishing their assigned mission /and/ for not
handling the new problem, but that will probably be the extent of
their loss. Of course, the Big Bad of this adventure did get away; I
suspect he'll wreak havoc in the cities to the east, probably
upsetting the political balance their and ultimately sabotaging the
intended end-game of this campaign, but oh the joy when I get to
spring the villain on my heroes again sometime in the future. I'll
have to start seeding in clues about his activities over the next few
sessions; the players will not only need to know he's coming, but also
that it's because of their failure that he's still out-and-about.
Fortunately, I have another adventure planned. Oh, I'll probably have
to shim in a quickie adventure first; it shouldn't be too hard as the
PCs are basically town guardsmen so a few "random" encounters should
suffice. I am not even too upset that half my adventure went unused.
After all these years, it's not unexpected; I've learned to write in
"escape routes" for the players, and while my adventures tend to be
long (50+ pages for this one) a lot of the material is world-building
for me to flesh out the setting. It's almost certain I'll never re-use
the dungeon and fairly likely that we'll not re-visit that town, but
creating both helped me get a better feel for the architecture,
culture and history of the region. This will come in handy because -
as I said - I think their failure is going to have long-term
ramifications for the region.
But that's just the sort of unexpected twist that makes role-playing
so much fun.