Zombie Murder Mystery

Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #3: Those Meddling PCs

Written by Keith Baker - Published on June 28, 2011

When all you have is a hammer...

We’re proud to present the 3rd in a series of monthly articles by Keith Baker.  Best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom he’s also worked on at least five games that you’ve never heard of.  Yet.


What should be done if a player does something that destroys the plot?   (Like the person that sent the PCs on a mission is evil but before they even go on the adventure they just kill him) It just happened in one of my campaigns. Has this ever happened to you? If so please tell me how you handled it. -MH {waiting to hear back from MH}

To me, choice is one of the vital elements that defines the RPG experience. If you watch a slasher film, you can shout “DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!” at the screen—but the hapless teen is still going to open the door and die horribly. An RPG puts the player in the starring role and gives them the power to choose where the story leads.

Of course, there still needs to BE a story… and as DM, it’s your job to create it. You need to come up with the mysteries and the puzzles, the reasons for people to go on quests and the challenges they must overcome.

In the process, you may encounter players who take a perverse pleasure in undermining the story—taking actions that are obviously going to ruin your plans. Perhaps the fighter shoots the mysterious old man as he starts to tell his tale. Maybe the rogue refuses to enter the Tomb of Hadora, and goes back to the inn to play cards. If this is intentionally disruptive—if the player knows that his actions are going to needlessly upset the story—this is an appropriate time to talk to the player and tell him to alter his behavior or find a different group. The excuse that “My character is a sociopath who hates old men, and I was just roleplaying that” doesn’t hold water with me. If the player has intentionally made a character who will regularly disrupt the story and interfere with other players’ enjoyment of the game, I’ll tell them to come up with another idea. An RPG is a communal experience, and the fun of the many should outweigh the destructive desires of the one.

With that said, as DM it’s your job to gauge what your players actually enjoy. If ALL of your players would rather play cards at the inn than go to the Tomb of Hadora, than you should probably have more poker tournaments and fewer dungeon crawls. As long as the players are excited about the story, you shouldn’t have to deal with people intentionally wrecking the game.

But… what do you do when they wreck it UNintentionally? I’ve seen all of the following things happen:

  1. Those Meddling Kids. The party has been hired by a disguised villain to do their dirty work. They pick up on unexpected clues and realize they shouldn’t complete the job. Now what?
  2. Red Herring’s Revenge. The party is investigating a murder. By misinterpreting clues, they come to the wrong conclusion, but they are very excited that they have “solved the mystery” and consider the case closed.
  3. Kobayashi Maru. The adventurers are surrounded by an overwhelming force and called upon to surrender a treasure. They are hopelessly outnumbered and there is no chance for victory: However, the characters refuse to surrender and instead choose to fight.
  4. An Explosive Situation. The adventurers are threatened by a villain with a powerful bomb tied to a deadman switch. The plan for the adventure is that the players will have to do some negotiations and figure out a way to talk the villain down and safely dispose of the explosive. Instead, they attack the villain, with no plans whatsoever for dealing with the bomb.

In examples one and two, it’s the story that falls apart. You were trusting that the adventurers wouldn’t realize their employer was a bad guy, and the adventure was supposed to end with a big reveal as they hand over the Wand of Schmorkus and he says “HAHAHA! YOU FOOLS!” only they weren’t so foolish. I’d say that the best way to avoid this is never to rely on your players being stupid, but there are times when this is an excellent story. So instead, my advice is to be prepared to be flexible. The PCs are supposed to hand over the Wand of Schmorkus. If they figure it out, have an encounter prepped where the employer shows up with another gang of mercenary thugs and says “You’re smarter than I thought. But now you know too much, and I’m afraid you have to die.” It means you need to prep a backup encounter that you hope you won’t have to actually use, so it’s potentially wasted time… but it gives the players full control of their destiny.

In the case of example two, I had a choice. The players had studied the evidence and come to the wrong conclusion. They were thrilled with their sleuthing. So, I could have just stuck with my plan, revealed the villain and had them all say “It was THAT guy? I don’t get it.” Instead, I changed the final villain to fit their deductions – and when they saw that they’d been right, there were cheers and high-fives all around. It wasn’t the story I’d planned, but it was the story they all wanted it to be… and again, one of the advantages an RPG has over a book or movie is that it is the story about YOU. Of course, one of the reasons I did this is because they had thought things through. If they were just being lazy, I would have tried to push them to delve deeper. But as it was, they’d done a good job. They’d found all the clues I’d set out for them. They’d just come to a different conclusion than I had… but one that made for a solid story on its own.

Examples three and four are more difficult. In both cases, the party should simply be killed if they engage the enemy. This is a simple common sense “You cannot win this fight with brute force” situation. So what do you do if they stubbornly resort to brute force? Do you wipe out the party to prove a point? Do you let them win the impossible fight and thus set their expectations even higher next time?

One option is to punish the players in other ways for their hubris. Let them live but suffer some other loss: a treasured item is sundered, a beloved NPC is slain (whether as collateral damage or in reprisal). Rather than killing a character who’s dropped to negative hit points in the battle, maim him; have him lose a hand or an eye, or suffer a disfiguring injury. He’ll live, and someday he can get that would healed or replaced with a spiffy magical prosthetic – but maybe he won’t be so rash next time.

The problem with that answer is that it’s not the story the players wanted. Both these situations actually came up in my campaigns. In my view, example #3 was like the initial encounter between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. There was no shame in the defeat because there was no chance for victory; it served to establish the long term villain and to give the players a reason to want him dead. But that particular group of players simply didn’t want their characters to be humiliated, even if there would be a chance for revenge down the line. My chopping off hands and poking out eyes wouldn’t teach them a valuable lesson about humility; it would simply frustrate them even more. I needed to learn that this just wasn’t a group to back against a wall. They wanted to be challenged in combat, but they’d rather die than surrender. If I wanted them to have fun, I needed to design future adventures with that in mind.

So the short answer: If a player is INTENTIONALLY wrecking the game, tell him the shape up or find another game. If the fault lies with the players either being smarter than you anticipated or simply preferring a different sort of story than you had in mind, my advice is to do the best you can to design the adventure with wiggle room. Try to predict your players’ desires and actions, but always have a trick in your back pocket for when they don’t do what you expect.

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Written by Keith Baker

Creator of Eberron, Gloom, and awesome snickerdoodles.

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Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #3: Those Meddling PCs, 4.4 out of 5 based on 9 ratings

38 Responses to “Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #3: Those Meddling PCs”

Zombie Murder Mystery
  1. Roger3 Says:

    The problem here, of course, is that you’re trying to enforce roles that aren’t natural upon a system set up explicitly for precisely the opposite of what you’re trying to enforce.

    You can save yourself a whole heap of trouble and heartache by not setting up both DMs and players for failure.

    What, specifically, is going wrong here? Easy:

    1. The WORLD belongs to the DM.

    2. The STORY belongs to the players.

    Repeat after me: The DM is not a storyteller. The Players are not actors in a play. An RPG is not a play.

    Thinking that the DM is a storyteller causes problems – “My story got derailed!!!1one”. It wasn’t the DM’s story to begin with. It’s the players’ story.

    Thinking that the players are there to advance ‘the plot’ also causes problems. There is no plot in an RPG that the PLAYERS did not put there. There are actions and reactions ‘behind the scenes,’ there are adventure seeds, but these are not plot.

    Thinking that an RPG is ‘like a play’ causes problems. An RPG is like a play only in the same sense that a movie is like a painting – both are visual mediums. Plays have built-in narrative structure; RPGs do not. Plays have a well-defined beginning, middle and end; RPGs do not. Plays have scripts; RPGs do not. Plays have actors with well defined lines; RPGs do not. RPGs are nothing at all like plays.

    Let your players create the action, and the rest follows naturally from there. Go back over your four examples with the idea in mind that the DM just reacts to the players’ actions and the answers become obvious. Try it. You’ll reach many of the same conclusions but from a completely different path – AND you’ll do it much, much faster. There’s no need to deliberate ‘how to rescue my carefully crafted plans’, because you don’t have any! Build the world, let the players play in it.

  2. Firesickle Says:

    @Kieth Excelent article! Thank you, 6/5 stars!! I have had “that guy” in almost every single game I have run and played in. There is always some wiseguy who thinks it’s funny to derail plot points. I often view that as some of the fun (even when it’s highly annoying).

    @Roger3 I disagree. I spend hours thinking of how my players might react to situations. Spend hours working on details for things they will encounter. Spend hours ensuring that information fed to them will drive them along a story. If they choose to consistently go left when I planned on right, so be it, it is as you say their Story, but without the DM there is no story. As a player, my favorite part of the game is uncovering world lore and experiencing the story set forth by our DM. I would agree that the DM shouldn’t look at the story as a static thing that doesn’t change with the players actions, and that the RPG is certainly not a scripted play, but without a plan/story on the DM’s part, you are basically just randomly dungeon/town crawling without any real direction. Hell some players love that, and I certainly would not mocking it. I guess what I am saying is that to some DM’s and players, an overall plot with grand revelations is wanted or expected, and in these cases even though the players dictate how a story unfolds, the story itself was designed and in my opinion owned by the DM… And like Kieth says, for the sake of your players’ enjoyment, sometimes the story changes to appease the PCs.

  3. Roger3 Says:

    As long as you continue to erroneously believe this:

    “…but without a plan/story on the DM’s part, you are basically just randomly dungeon/town crawling without any real direction.”

    You’re always going to be confounded by players acting against expectations. It’s just that simple. The players will provide plenty of direction provided you’ve given them the rope to do so.

    The solution is to stop having expectations. STOP over-planning. STOP over-thinking. Let the players tell the story. Your job is to facilitate that. If the players get fooled by the bad guy sending them off on a quest, great! If they don’t get fooled and doublecross him, great! Let THEM tell the story. You are not a storyteller. You are not a stage director. Your job is to paint the background and as much and ONLY as much of the foreground as the PLAYERS allow you to have.

    Believe what you like, but do try and learn something. You missed the ENTIRE point of my post. By a country mile.

  4. Gerald Says:

    @Roger: It must be comforting to believe in the absolutes of black and white. The way Firesickle plays the game is simply wrong. The way you play the game is right.

    Which I guess explains why there are no published modules in the RPG industry. That level of planning and storytelling simply doesn’t work, right?

    I think you need to broaden your thought process a little and accept the fact that different players will enjoy the game different ways. Clearly you prefer a sandbox style game – a setting with locales and encounters but no direction. But there is a very large community of players who prefer a different style of play, one driven by plot and story.

    No one says that you have to play that way.

  5. Keith Baker Says:

    Some players want intrigue and mystery. Others want combat. Some players want to be tragic heroes and are only happy when they’re suffering; others hate it and never want their characters to fail in any way. The first major rule is “Know your players.”

    This is the key to examples #3 and #4. I’ve run for groups that LOVE those scenarios – who would enjoy #4 precisely because they need to outwit the bomber, and can’t solve the problem with fists alone. The problem in the example was that I sprang it on a group that wanted simple high energy action, and a problem that they couldn’t solve with their fists didn’t work for them. This ties to what I say in paragraph four; if your players would rather play cards than explore a dungeon, give them more poker tournaments than ruined temples. So #3 and #4 are examples where player action derailed the plot I had planned, which was the original question: but if I’d known my players better, I wouldn’t have presented such such a situation in the first place. And as was the case, I let the players in #4 get away with their victory (toning down the power of the explosion, so it did devastate the inn but not with the threatened force). Because at the end of the day, what’s important is that everyone has fun… and saying “Wrong decision. You all die.” isn’t fun for anyone.

    Number #2 is similar. I created a murder mystery. The group really enjoyed following up on the clues, and they were REALLY EXCITED when they figured out the answer. And the fact of the matter was that their answer was a reasonable conclusion. It wasn’t that they were lazy; it was that I hadn’t considered how things might look from a particular perspective. I could have stuck with my original plot, and they would have been frustrated and disappointed. Instead, when they got to the conclusion and the killer was revealed, it was the person they’d guessed it to be and there were hoots and hollers of joy. They WANTED the mystery to solve, and appreciated my work to that end; but their enjoyment of the game experience was more important than solving it in the way I’d originally planned. And the point, of course, is that they never knew that they were “wrong”. Because it was a better STORY if they were right.

    As for story and play, it’s a matter of semantics, Roger. I agree wholeheartedly that the strength of a tabletop RPG over a computer game or a movie is that as a player, you can influence the action. This is the point of my first paragraph. Watching the slasher movie, you know going through the door is wrong, but you can’t stop the heroine from doing it. In an RPG, if you know going through the door is wrong, you have the power to say “Forget it! I’m not going through that door!” It’s COLLABORATIVE storytelling, where both player and DM have equal power. The DM doesn’t write a *script*, but he sets the stage and creates the supporting cast. he provides the players with the tools for them to create the story they want. Looking to example #1, the players may have surprised me by spotting the villain’s plan, but that wasn’t WRONG; I just needed to have a flexible plan in place to bring an end to the scenario. Same with example #2; the players enjoyed the mystery I’d created, but came to a different conclusion. Their satisfaction was the piece that mattered. If they had said “It looks like it’s Colonel Mustard, but that seems stupid” or “I have no idea whatsoever” I might have thrown more clues at them to help them reach a point where they were satisfied with the answer. As it was, they WERE satisfied with the answer. They felt like they were master detectives. At which point, everyone wins – and there was no reason not to let them have their victory.

    In the case of examples #3 and #4, the point is that once I came to understand those groups, I could see that those situations were elements not to put on the table with these players. They wanted me to create a story, but they didn’t want to be forced into situations they didn’t enjoy.

    With that said – I’ve had groups of players who actually enjoy defeat or failure, as long as it seems justified and builds to a more satisfying long term conclusion. Again, the point of presenting #3 is because in the long run, the defeat of the villain can be more satisfying if the players have a strong in-game reason to hate his guts. But it’s all about knowing the players. If they are willing to surrender the treasure, than that’s great, and they should FEEL like it was the right thing – that they couldn’t have won if they fought. On the other hand, if they are a never-surrender group and they choose to fight… well, that’s when you have to decide if the right answer is to give them scars or to have them triumph over the impossible odds. And the question to me is which will be the most fun in the long run. If there is never a risk of failure, there’s no real triumph in success; it’s a matter of finding the balance that works for your group.

    I have an adventure that I’ve run 53 times. I’ve never had a point at which any group has “destroyed the plot”, because the scenario is designed to accommodate different styles of play – there’s no one “You must surrender or die” moment that only works with a certain style of player. People can solve problems with their swords or with their wits – and in the 53 times I’ve run it, it’s never gone the exact same way twice. I’d still call it a story. It has a beginning and an end. But the path to that end is flexible enough that any group of players can find a route that feels satisfying for them. And as a DM, THAT’S my goal – to help the players feel like heroes and for us all to have fun for five hours. Whether or not you call it a story, the key word is “collaborative”; understand your players and work with them to create something everyone enjoys. Which is why I will talk to that single problem player: if one person is *intentionally* interfering with everyone else’s fun, I will discuss the situation with him privately and see if there’s a way to address this or if he needs to find a different group. Because my goal is for everyone to enjoy themselves.

    @Roger: “Believe what you like, but do try and learn something.”
    I’d rather not see this devolve into a flame war, so please keep it civil. With that said…

    “Your job is to facilitate that. If the players get fooled by the bad guy sending them off on a quest, great! If they don’t get fooled and doublecross him, great! ”

    That’s precisely what I was saying about examples #1 and #2. Be prepared to deal with any way the situation could go. The adventure I’ve run 53 times has never gone exactly the same way twice; it works because it adapts well to a wide range of approaches and solutions. If a player is INTENTIONALLY doing something that is going to screw up the experience for the other players, that’s a problem. If the players simply go in a different direction that you expected, that’s NOT a problem; that’s where as a gamemaster you should try to support them in having the experience they want to have.

  6. Keith Baker Says:

    “I think you need to broaden your thought process a little and accept the fact that different players will enjoy the game different ways. Clearly you prefer a sandbox style game – a setting with locales and encounters but no direction. But there is a very large community of players who prefer a different style of play, one driven by plot and story.”

    QFT. As a gamemaster, the most important thing is to get to know your players and what they enjoy. This may seem at odds with my “I won’t accept the sociopathic old man killer” – but even there, my point is that I won’t accept him if he’s intentionally screwing the game up for everyone else. If the entire group feels that way, than if I’m a good gamemaster, I’ll send them to the nursing home instead of the labyrinth, because that’s the game they want to play. Mind you, I’ve dropped an entire group before because what they wanted from the game was simply radically different from what I wanted. But no one was at fault there; it was simply the case that if I ran a game that was fun for them (“Nursing Home On The Borderlands”) *I* didn’t enjoy it. And if everything is going right, EVERYONE should be having fun. I wasn’t the right DM for that group; I know there’s other DMs out there that are perfect for them.

  7. Roger3 Says:


    Not sure where you got that idea. Firesickle made a patently false statement. No big deal, we all believe things that aren’t true, for any number of reasons. I showed him that his belief wasn’t in accord with reality. Further, I let him know that he’d misread what I wrote and that by looking at things from a different perspective, one where the DM isn’t trying to direct a play, these ‘problems’ cease to be remarkable at all. None of this should be terribly shocking to anyone really. I’m confused as to why you would think otherwise.

    As for players who like stories in their games, that’s hardly a controversial stance – that includes just about everybody. But really, can you call it role-playing when all you’re doing is following along towards the GM’s predetermined destination? Sure, you make some rolls here and there, but if your duty is to ‘discover’ the GM’s ‘plot’, are you playing a game or just playing along? That’s a rhetorical question, btw. I know you disagree. However, look at all the ‘New Age’ RPGs, with their Fate points and their player narrative control mechanics, aren’t what they’re trying to do is just return narrative control to precisely where it belongs – in the hands of the players. There’s a lesson there that people should be learning, but aren’t. Narrative control works best in the hands of the players. When you put narrative control in the hands of the GM, you get railroads and sentences like “No matter what the PC’s do…” like in this criticism from the ENWorld forums last year:

    “Consider Scales of War:
    No matter what the PC’s do, Bahamut dies. No matter what the PC’s do, Amyra brings him back to life. No matter what the PC’s do, the rebel Efreet agree to help them.
    Or consider E3:
    The PC’s stay one step behind Orcus the whole way, and no matter what they do, Orcus is going to mortally wound the Raven Queen.”

    How is stuff like that roleplaying? I genuinely want to know. That’s not roleplaying, that’s acting IN a play.

    I get that you think differently. What I want to know is why you think it’s worth the cost of what you’re losing because of it. From where I sit, you’ve gotten the very, very short end of the stick when you cede narrative control to the GM.

  8. Jonathon Side Says:

    I think you’re missing the point that’s being made, and I’m wondering if that’s being done wilfully.

    You’re essentially saying the same thing everyone else is, but you’re locked into this view that if the GM has ANY control over the story/game, then the players will get railroaded.

    And that’s precisely what everyone else is saying should not happen.

  9. DeificDesign Says:

    “The PC’s stay one step behind Orcus the whole way, and no matter what they do, Orcus is going to mortally wound the Raven Queen.”

    The Raven Queen should have been a DungeonMastering.com reader:

  10. Firesickle Says:

    I think Jonathon Side said it right… I like to think that I am not patently wrong, I have fun doing what I do, my players have a blast every game night and let me know each time… Am I doing something wrong with my way? Nope…

  11. dave Says:

    I love the four scenarios. Although to me I would be tempted to let the heroes fail occasionally. Even if it is just a minor setback, failing puts a hint of doubt in their future actions. Heroes should feel heroic, not invincible.

    1. is by far my favorite. Although having an encounter ready corrects the immediate problem, you will still have some dead space to fill. One solution might be for the quest giver to immediately leave to seek the “Wand of Plot” for himself, which could re-purpose the adventure into a race against him.

    2. I think I would have done the same as you, no reason to OOC explain how they were supposed to read the clues, they came to a reasonable end, let them have it.

    3. The attackers might take the loot at some point during the encounter and escape. So the players chose to resist, but ultimately didn’t have to die or be maimed for their choice. But if the players do manage to outgun some no win situation you put them in, they should get the spoils.

    4. I think the players should win the encounter, but attacking instead of having any plan whatsoever with the bomb is a bad plan, and thus should have some negative reinforcement, maybe the bomb blows up some innocent bystanders or (to some much more importantly) a chest that had loot.

  12. Keith Baker Says:

    @Firesickle – If people are having fun, that’s the only thing that matters. For me, the most important rule is to understand your players and know what they enjoy. Again, the problem with example #3 in the article is that it was the wrong situation for that group of players; a different group might have been happy to surrender the treasure and swear vengeance. But there’s no “patently wrong” here, because every group is different.

    With that said, Jonathan Side is absolutely right. I don’t think anyone here is supporting railroading players; certainly the point of the original article is to say that the best way to avoid players “ruining the plot” is to be prepared to deal with any outcome as opposed to being locked on a single path. If I were to put example #3 into a game today, I’d make sure to have a contingency in mind for the group that didn’t surrender; it would be a dangerous path to take, but I’d be prepared for it as an option. In any case, there is an enormous difference between railroading and designing a story. “The PC’s stay one step behind Orcus the whole way, and no matter what they do, Orcus is going to mortally wound the Raven Queen” – that’s bad design. A good game is a collaboration between DM and players. “If the players get fooled by the bad guy sending them off on a quest, great! If they don’t get fooled and doublecross him, great!” Great! But who’s this bad guy? Why do we care? What’s the quest? What are the consequences of success or failure? Unless you’re playing a game like Fiasco, the players look to the GM to set this stage. Looking again to my example, if my players all want to play cards it makes more sense for me to introduce a poker tournament than a tomb… but I’m still the one who comes up with the intrigues going on at the tournament, the other competitors, the stakes of the game, and so on. I’m not going to decide the outcome of the tournament; that’s in the hands of the players. But I might say “Orcus will always have a full house with Aces over Queens”. Will the PCs expose his cheating? Cheat even more successfully? Play honestly and hope for the best? Start a fight instead of finishing the tournament? Play honestly? And equally important, what are the consequences of success or failure? I’m not going to set the outcome, which means I’m not going to assume the players WILL win. If they come up with an absolutely brilliant plan, I may shift the odds in their favor because it makes a good story. But it is collaborative – I set the stage; they decide what to do; I determine the consequences of those choices.

    If you want a game that is entirely in the hands of the players and needs no GM at all, Fiasco is brilliant. But otherwise, GM and players both have roles to play.

  13. Keith Baker Says:

    @Dave I agree. Failure is important. If players believe they will succeed no matter what they do, than success has no meaning. As I’ve said above, the reason I let them succeed in #2 was because they’d done good work; the conclusion wasn’t what *I’D* thought of, but that’s because I hadn’t realized you could read the clues the way they read them. They weren’t lazy. They tried to solve the mystery. They just came up with a different but perfectly logical conclusion… so I decided to make it the right one.

    In the case of #3, yes, the correct answer was to let them fight if they wanted to; it just needed to be the case that victory was POSSIBLE. It might be extremely dangerous. It might be the case that one or more of the PCs could die, and they should be aware of those consequences. If knowing that they wanted to take the risk, they should have some chance of victory.

    One rule I’ve learned is never to ask for a die roll if you’re not prepared for the consequences of both success and failure. When there is a choice, it needs to be able to go both ways. In the case of #3 or #4, I offered the players a choice. It was a choice with an obvious answer – but as GM, I still needed to be prepared for the group to choose the other path.

    Again: If it’s ONE player intentionally screwing things up for the others, that’s one thing. But if the group as a whole is a “never surrender” group… well, I COULD force them to surrender or die just to prove a point, but if the goal is for all of us to have fun, better to give them that choice but make it a fight they can potentially win – even if it’s brutally difficult – so they can have a moment of “Ha! Never surrender!” when they succeed.

    But yes: If there’s no risk of failure, success has no meaning.

  14. Roger3 Says:


    I’m trying to point out politely that the sentence “…but without a plan/story on the DM’s part, you are basically just randomly dungeon/town crawling without any real direction.” is indefensible. It is simply not true. In fact, it is easily proved false – just ask anyone who’s ever played w/ Gygax or Arneson or MAR Barker.


    No, what I’m doing is observing that the entire article is only half a solution. It’s a solution to a particular set of ‘problems’ that come up when DMs try to assert narrative control. Compounding the error, it provides specific resolutions to specific problems. Great. However, there’s a general framework that avoids those problems and every other related problem altogether. That’s probably worth discussing, don’t you think? I certainly do.

    A better solution to the problems is to not have those problems occur at all. Look, we can all agree that RPGs are a shared experience. But the roles and the role-playing extend out further than just “Bob plays an Elf Warlock of the Doomed Woods.” There are roles within the structure of the game too – DM is one. Player is another. Caller is an older one that still sees some use.

    What’s the role of the DM? With few exceptions, it’s to create a world and populate it with people and interesting things to explore. There’s some guidance necessary too, but that’s just it, guidance, not control. What’s the role of a player? Primarily, it’s to be willing to suspend disbelief in the face of the DM’s descriptions of a fantasy world. Also, to affect /change/ on that world through the actions of a character.

    When a DM starts affecting change on his own world, he’s directly undermining the reason for being of the player. Why have players if the DM is going to do their job for them? Is there some room for leeway? Of course there is. All DMs need a DMPC or two to act the role of Mythic Gatekeeper/Expositionist Extraordinaire once in awhile. But the 4 problems we’re discussing here are precisely and only ‘problems’ for people who think that large amounts of narrative control belong in the hands of the DM.

    Are people having BadWrongFun playing that way? Of course not. But what they are doing is setting themselves up for inevitable – and as I’m trying to point out – unnecessary conflict when two people both expect narrative control over the same object/person at the same time. Let your players create the story. There are many systems where narrative control is designed to be shared. Fiasco was mentioned. IIRC, 3:16 is one too. Burning Wheel is very definitely one. D&D is not natively one of those systems.

    RPGs are like sonnets – it’s what you can do within the strictures of the format given that creates the art, not just the content itself. Saying different people play in different ways does very little to acknowledge that fact. No iteration of D&D has rules for explicitly sharing narrative control, certainly nothing like Burning Wheel does. That’s one of the strictures imposed. You can change that, sure, house rules are an integral part of the game, but this post isn’t about house rules, it’s about expectations. The answer to the general question of “What do you do when your players do the unexpected?” is much more likely to be “Why are you expecting particular resolutions from your players?” than “Here’s a list of things you can do in this particular situation.”

  15. Hamburger Mary Says:

    “There are many systems where narrative control is designed to be shared. Fiasco was mentioned. IIRC, 3:16 is one too. Burning Wheel is very definitely one. D&D is not natively one of those systems.”

    Right. And I got the impression this article was about RUNNING D&D. It’s a Q&A column, and the person asked a specific question: “What do I do when the PCs kill the bad guy who sends them on the mission?” I don’t think the answer the OP was looking for was “Put away your DM screen and play Fiasco instead.”

    Not every player WANTS to play Fiasco. Some of us specifically play because we have a DM who is amazingly creative – who we have chosen as DM because he’s the best storyteller among us, and we want to see what stories he comes up with. There’s a vast range of difference between Fiasco’s we all equally create the story and the “Orcus will always kill the Raven Queen” railroaded game. I want to be surprised by my DM. I want to have twists in the story I’d never have thought of. I WANT to be betrayed by an ally. I even want to have to surrender the treasure when I’m treacherously ambushed. If our group of players was making the entire story I doubt we’d say “Hey, maybe our boss is betraying us!” or “Maybe we could get ambushed here!” Even if we did, what makes these things a good story is that they ARE unexpected.

    I love Fiasco. And when that’s the experience I want, I PLAY FIASCO. I’ve never played D&D for that experience. I don’t want the Orcus-Can’t-Lose game either; that’s just a bad adventure. But there’s a lot of other choices out there.

    “Compounding the error, it provides specific resolutions to specific problems.”

    True. But some of those “specific” solutions are actually fairly broad… “It wasn’t the story I’d planned, but it was the story they all wanted it to be… and again, one of the advantages an RPG has over a book or movie is that it is the story about YOU.” I’m hardly saying it’s perfect, but reading it as “This is what to do if your players pick the wrong murderer” seems to me to be willfully ignoring the point, as Jonathan Side suggests.

    As for “RPGs are like sonnets…” – it’s not as simple as saying an RPG is a sonnet and the words within the structure define the art. Because Fiasco and D&D aren’t two sonnets. D&D is a sonnet and Fiasco is a haiku. They are both roleplaying games. But they are entirely different in form and in the experience they seek to provide the participants. Five different games of Fiasco can be as different as five different haiku… but because the form is so different from the D&D sonnet, I don’t expect them to overlap.

  16. Keith Baker Says:

    @Roger3 – It’s certainly a topic worth discussing.

    I used those four examples because HM asked “Has this ever happened to you? If so please tell me how you handled it.” My point in examples three and four is that those things happened once, and won’t happen again – because I did realize that I shouldn’t try to force a conclusion on a group. Essentially, example #3 was a situation where I said “Here, the party is forced to surrender the treasure” – and in a novel, that’s fine. In an RPG, the players always have a choice. Doing it again, I’d make sure to let the players have that choice, and be prepared for the outcome. And I’m fine for one choice to be much harder than the others. But the intended takeaway on #3 was “is that it’s not the story the players wanted. ”

    I enjoy RPGs as collaborative stories – shaped by both DM and player. Perhaps I could have been clearer in my answer above, but the intention was simple: Players can’t ruin the plot if the plot evolves with the actions of the players. If the boss is a traitor, be ready for them to find that out. If the players are called upon to surrender, be ready for them to fight. If the building they’re in is set on fire, be ready for them to come up with a way to extinguish the fire you never thought of – and let them extinguish it. So I could have said that more plainly. But I don’t agree with a stance that says the one true way to play every RPG is for the DM to entirely abandon all narrative control. It’s A way to play. It’s a method that some games use to great effect. But it’s not the only way. I’m quite happy to say that railroading is wrong: if players have no choice whatsoever, why play a game instead of reading a book? But I also believe that a GM can craft a story that is more interesting than a story crafted by group consensus precisely because of the ability to introduce elements none of the players know about; it’s simply the case that the players should always be in control of their characters. Used sparingly, the Unexpected Traitor is a great dramatic element. But if the players spot the traitor ahead of time, switch from “Unexpected Traitor” to “Catch/Expose/Fight the Traitor”. They haven’t ruined the game, they’ve just changed it.

    My answer above was directly addressing the question “Has this happened in your game” by using examples from my game. It may be that I should have addressed the question specifically as opposed to the broader philosophical question behind it, so I’m glad to be having the conversation now.

  17. RPG News from Around the Net: 1-JUL-2011 | Game Knight Reviews Says:

    […] Do you have players who occasionally mess up the plot of your game? Maybe deliberately, mostly not – this can happen when metagaming takes a front seat to gaming. Keith Baker tries to offer some suggestions about dealing with that very situation in Dungeon Master’s article – “Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #3: Those Meddling PCs.“ […]

  18. Keith Baker Says:

    Just continuing to think on this, I will say that as a GM, what I enjoy is seeing my players have fun. So yes: whatever story I create exists purely as a tool to facilitate the players having a good time. Thus, the only way the players can “ruin” a plot is if an unanticipated action creates a situation where they WON’T have fun – which is my point about the problem player who intentionally ruins things for everyone else. Again, if the players all want to play poker instead of kill orcs, I’ll run a poker tournament; I shouldn’t force them to kill orcs.

    WITH THAT SAID: As the GM, I’m part of the group as well. I do this because *I* want to have fun. And again, generally what’s fun for me is my players having fun. But I have had that one time when I simply came to the conclusion that the things my players enjoyed weren’t things I enjoyed. I didn’t like facilitating the story they wanted. I didn’t try to force MY story on them; I saw the session through following the lead. But I did drop the group. There were other DMs who would happily run what they wanted. The GM is a part of the group, and if things are running as they should, EVERYONE in the group should be enjoying themselves. I think what I disliked about your earlier posts, Roger3, is that I felt you were setting up an antagonistic relationship between Player and GM – “Back off, DM, *WE’RE* running this game. This is OUR story, not yours.” It’s not the DM’s story or the players’ story: ideally, they are all working together to create something they ALL enjoy.

  19. buzz Says:

    The original question itself is flawed. If you, as a GM, have a “plot”, then you’ve already failed. And using terms like “story” is just going to lead to disaster.

    You’re not building a “story” together. You’re playing a game. Depending on the RPG, that game may be about: tactical acumen, exploration, character investment, addressing a premise, or indulging in genre. Regardless, the GM’s job (if the game has a GM) is to facilitate play and challenge the players. The players’ jobs are to facilitate play, react to the GM’s contributions, and in turn make their own contributions.

    If the GM has a “plot” that can be “derailed”, that means they have basically shut down the players’ ability to make meaningful choices before the game has even started.

    What the GM should be doing is presenting compelling situations that the players are eager to address. How they are addressed and what the outcomes may be are what gets determined in play.

    If the GM has a story in mind with a beginning, middle, and end, they should go write a novel.

    And this doesn’t mean that your only option is sandbox/dungeon play—though, if you are playing D&D, that’s the kind of play it was ideally designed for. Someone mentioned Fiasco above, which is a perfect example of zero-prep play that will produce compelling Cohen-Brothers-like results every time, no “plot” necessary.

    I will grant that some people enjoy simply led through a predetermined plot (“participationism”), but I find that kind of play extremely unsatisfying. When players are UNAWARE they are being led through a plot (“illusionism”), IME bad feelings inevitably arise, and the group fractures.

    What’s really unfortunate is that this sort of deprotagonizing GM’ing style has been institutionalized in so many RPGs that people assume it’s just how RPGs work. Thankfully, these sorts of RPGs are finally dying like flies.

    @Hamburger Mary: “I want to be surprised by my DM. I want to have twists in the story I’d never have thought of.”

    As a GM, I want to be surprised by my players, too. That doesn’t mean we need to be playing Fiasco. It’s not all-or-nothing. You don’t need a linear plot to play D&D.

  20. buzz Says:

    Sorry, one last thought, a little kinder than my last.

    This all comes down to expectations.

    If it has been made plain to the group that your campaign is going to be the kind of “DM drives all the plot” play that Hamburger Mary and Keith seem to enjoy, then none of the players should be detecting Evil on patrons or randomly stabbing NPCs in the face. They should be sitting back and enjoying the ride, as was agreed to at the outset.

    If they are not, the players are obviously not on board with just sitting back and watching your plot go by. That’s when you need to have a talk with the group.

    “Hey, some of you seem to be uncomfortable with the type of play we discussed at the start of the campaign. What’s going on? Is this maybe not the kind of game you guys want to play?”

    Which of course begs the question: You DID all talk about what kind of campaign you wanted to play before you started, right?

    This all comes back to the Sons of Kryos’ old standby: “Talk to your players.” This is not a problem you solve in-game by punishing or railroading characters. YOU SOLVE IT BY TALKING TO THE PEOPLE SITTING AT THE TABLE.

  21. Keith Baker Says:

    @Buzz either I did a really crappy job of answering the question, or you’re just not getting what I’m trying to say… because “the DM drives all the plot” is the absolute last thing I enjoy. From the very beginning of the article, my point is that in a slasher film the actor WILL go through that door, whether they want to or not – while in an RPG, the player always has the choice of whether or not to go through the door. Regarding your “you did talk to your players, right?” comment, that’s exactly my point with examples #3 and #4 – that these things weren’t the fault of the PLAYERS, but my fault as a DM for failing to understand the experience of play that my group was looking for. You say “If the GM has a story in mind with a beginning, middle, and end, they should go write a novel”… when just a few messages up, I say of Example #3 “and in a novel, that’s fine. In an RPG, the players always have a choice.”

    The LAST thing I want is for the players to “be sitting back and enjoying the ride, as was agreed to at the outset” – where are you remotely getting that? In the response right before your first post, I said “I enjoy RPGs as collaborative stories – shaped by both DM and player. Perhaps I could have been clearer in my answer above, but the intention was simple: Players can’t ruin the plot if the plot evolves with the actions of the players.”

    As I said, I have an adventure I’ve run 53 times, for groups around the world. The challenge in this is that I know nothing about the groups I am running for. I don’t know what they like. And so the advenutre is designed for maximum flexibility – so problems can be solved with force or cunning, or avoided completely; so NPCs can be allies or enemies; and that any unexpected action – a PC killing an NPC because they didn’t like his face – can’t ruin the experience for the other players. Because again, my concern isn’t if the game is ruined for ME: I am happy if the players are happy. But if I can’t respond to a player action – if the players figure out they shouldn’t work for the bad guy, I simply wasn’t prepared for that, and action just stops – no one has fun. It’s not about player and DM in opposition: it’s about collaboration to create an experience that everyone enjoys.

    I can’t talk about the adventure in detail, because I expect to run it another 50 times before I’m done. But it does have a beginning that sets the stage; an end that conclude it; and a point that is effectively the “middle”, because it is a required point to reaching the end. However, in starting the game, I never know how players will get to that middle, or how it will turn out. They may not make it to the end, if things don’t go well; and if they do, the outcome or approach to that see can vary dramatically based on the choices they have made to that point. Often it’s a fight; but some groups have come up with other solutions. I HAVE created a “story”. There are supporting characters; a driving motivation towards the end, albeit one that has emotional hooks for all of the players; interesting locations. But I don’t know which locations any one group of players will go to. I don’t know which NPCs they will encounter and how they will approach them. I don’t know how it will end. To make the analogy, the STORY is “Save the Raven Queen from Orcus” – but I DON’T know if Bahamut will die. I don’t know if Bahamut will even appear in the story, or if they’ll ignore him completely and try to get help from Tiamat. Perhaps THEY’LL kill Bahamut – the equivalent has happened. I’ve laid the pieces of the story – but how the players move across the pages is entirely up to them. And after running this game 53 times, I still enjoy it just as much as ever precisely because I never know what a new group of players will do with it.

    So if I’ve failed to make my point clear, I suppose the fault is mine. But the LAST thing I would ever want in a game is for the players to “sit back and enjoy the ride” – I thought that the very first paragraph of the article made that point clear.

  22. Hamburger Mary Says:

    It’s like we’re speaking a different language, Buzz.

    Example: In a recent session I was in, our party went to a gala ball. We’d known about it in advance. We’d arranged dates. One of the party members even made outfits. So first, this wasn’t something the DM forced on us: it was part of the ongoing storyline, and we were looking forward to it.

    At the ball, we had fun mingling for a while, and then there was a surprise: the royal heir made an unexpected appearance. This truly was unexpected; we hadn’t had any connection to royal politics before. It was entirely up to us how to respond. Talk to the heir? Make a pass at her? Ask her for a job? Punch her? Kill her? All entirely in our hands.

    A little later, an assassin attempts to kill her. Again, what do we do? Save her? Let her die? The choice is entirely ours.

    The DM certainly had expectations based on the choices that our characters had made on the past and the stories that had evolved around us. It was LIKELY that we would approach the heir in a friendly manner and try to protect her from the assassin. But we didn’t HAVE to, and if we didn’t, she would have died and that would have had consequences.

    On our own, I wouldn’t have added heir or assassin. These weren’t plots I had in mind when I planned for the dance. But I enjoyed them all the more because they were unexpected. Likewise, I could have punched the heir or killed her myself. That’s the control -I- have. And then I expect the DM to determine the consequences of those actions.

    You say “story” like it’s a dirty word, like a story has to be linear and locked in. An RPG isn’t a novel or a movie, because I have control of my character and thus a voice in the story. But part of why I enjoy it is because I don’t have FULL control. My character faces challenges I don’t expect. Her actions have consequences I haven’t always considered. And that makes it different from ME writing my own story. As Hellcow has said a number of times, it’s a collaboration between me and my DM. He presents the building blocks: I determine the final shape. What keeps me coming back week after week is the way in which our characters grow in depth and connection to the world and one another. Because I want to see the consequences of our choices. Because it’s a STORY.

    So no. I don’t sit by and let the DM make all the decisions. If I want to cast detect evil, I do. You’ve completely misunderstood what I enjoy and the point I was making.

    Fiasco is a great game. But one of the key differences is that it’s not persistent. There is no long term arc. What I enjoy about D&D is long term story development – and again, that’s where I don’t WANT to know every detail. The DM knows if there are forces massing in the Underdark or treaties being made between ancient enemies. He knows that the heir being killed will cause the kingdom to fall into chaos. I can figure these things out if I work at it – or I can just kill the heir and see what happens. I’ve got the control, but he determines the consequences.

  23. Keith Baker Says:

    To some degree, I think we’re in violent agreement here. I don’t think anyone is advocating railroading or taking choice away from the player. I don’t think anyone on this thread has tried to defend the “Orcus always kills the Raven Queen” as a good style of play. Buzz and Roger3, you seem to have read that in other people’s responses, but I don’t think it’s what anyone is actually promoting – and it certainly wasn’t the point of my original answer.

    “…Then none of the players should be detecting Evil on patrons or randomly stabbing NPCs in the face.”

    Just to look at this: I approach RPGs as a form of collaborative, interactive storytelling. I want players to have difficult choices. This is born out by Eberron’s approach to alignment. Go ahead! Cast detect evil on your patron. Maybe he’s evil. Maybe he’s not. In my game, that’s NOT going to tell you if he’s going to betray you or if he’s a villain… because if that’s all it takes, it’s a really, really boring two-dimensional story. If you have the capability to detect evil, then I as the DM know about it. I’m going to have prepared the story with that in mind. If the patron is evil, it’s not because I just didn’t think you’d use the spell… it’s because I want you to ask yourself “Does this change anything? Look at the job that he’s asked us to do. Can we see anything wrong with the deal?” If you look to my novel City of Towers, Alina Lorridan Lyrris is absolutely an evil character; that has nothing to do with the job she hires Daine and company to do.

    So on the contrary, in such a situation I HOPE the PCs cast detect evil on the patron, because it’s going to make the choice more interesting. Of course, having set that situation up, I have to be prepared for the fact that they might say “We don’t trust her and won’t work for her” or even “We attack her”. As PCs, they can make that choice – and as DM, it’s my job to figure out the results of the choice.

    However… “None of the players… should be randomly stabbing NPCs in the face.”

    That’s correct: in MY game, none of them should. Because as I said, it’s a collaboration between Player and DM. As a player, you have the right to say “I want this game to be about randomly stabbing people in the face” – and as DM I have the right to say “Good for you. Find another DM to run that for you.”

    Which isn’t to say that players couldn’t sell me on a ruthless assassination/intrigue game in which they played evil characters and plotted murders… but randomly stabbing people in the face? No thanks.

    I did say that you should figure out what your players enjoy, and you’re right, the best way to do that is to TALK TO THEM. Figure out what you all like. Make sure you’re on common ground. Again, you’ve got every right to play your sociopath, provided he’s not going to make the game miserable for the other players. But *I* don’t want to run for the group of sociopaths, and that’s a choice I get to make.

    Of course, if during the course of the game you’re just hit by the urge and do it? I won’t STOP you. As we’re all saying, that’s not the role of the DM. If you want to suddenly murder the king and ruin five adventures worth of build-up, that’s your choice. Again, as far as I can tell, everyone here agrees that railroading is bad. I’m just saying that I don’t want to be part of a group that does that sort of a thing on a regular basis; if it becomes clear that it’s the way you want your games to go, we’ll talk about it outside of the game, and either things will change or one of us will find a different group.

  24. Jonathon Side Says:

    All of this reminds me of a couple of stories told by Thunt. (For anyone who just went ‘who?’, he does a webcomic called Goblins, and he has on several occasions claimed to have DM’d for something like… 25 years, I think).

    Anyways, he has told a couple of stories about the worst parties he ever dealt with. These were not groups where everyone was stupid, or trying to wreck the game. It was more that they were the ‘worst’ because they managed to die en masse before reaching level 2.

    Because the adventurers went in a direction he did not expect, and he allowed it.

    He tells it better than I could here. So have some links (warning, the visuals are just of him drawing).

    The thing of it is, if he didn’t have the details in the game that he did, the players couldn’t have gone off the way they did. That’s what Firesickle and Keith are saying. Be prepared for unexpected reactions. Adapt.

    Easier to do that if you go in prepared.

    A good game IS a story, unless you’re playing something along the lines of a random dungeon crawl without any backstory or goal… which they made into a computer game called Dungeon Hack.

  25. Roger3 Says:

    How does one prepare for when their party goes completely off the reservation? One day they’re happily crunching along in your Megadungeon of DOOOM when BAM! they decide that a life of piracy on the high-seas is what’s right for them. True story. Had this actually happen.

    Now, that’s a rhetorical question. It’s supposed to stand in for a whole lot of actions that your players can tell you that they’re doing – from the most banal to the most unexpected. It’s supposed to illustrate that you can’t prepare for everything. You can’t prepare for MOST things. Your example glows with praise for an instance where the DM essentially got lucky in that the players went off in a direction that, while unexpected, he had done some prep-work for.

    You can’t prepare for most things your players are going to try.

    So don’t.

    Make up your background material – as much as you like! Create some NPCs with some conflicting motivations, create some nice wandering monster tables for the various zones around which the players generally operate and then… stop. Sure you want to detail somewhat what the players say that they’re going to do next, but don’t do too much work.

    You don’t adapt by doing more work. You adapt by doing more creative work – at the table.

    Reuse the stuff you’ve got. Rename the NPCs, rejigger the encounters, reskin the monsters. On the fly. Don’t change stats, don’t change motivations – change the scenery, the window dressing. Make it up. Connect the dots afterwards.

    I just don’t understand at all where this love for over preparation comes from. All of these suggestions, all of these tips and tricks – look from my perspective like more work. I think it comes from an unwillingness to connect the dots afterwards, thinking that everything has to be pre-planned as much as possible. It doesn’t. I promise.

    I do, however feel the need to point out exactly where the difference between us is. You said, “…If you want to suddenly murder the king and ruin five adventures worth of build-up, that’s your choice.”

    Look at your choice of words there: “…ruin…” As in ‘ruin my five adventures worth of build up’. As in that’s exactly the sort of DM’s narrative privilege that other people in this thread are pointing out rather hurts the roles of the players. If the Players suddenly murder the king, they haven’t ‘ruined’ five adventures worth of build up, they’ve changed five adventures worth of build up. Ruin. I’m going to go out on a limb here and actually call that BadWrongFun. Ruin. You players ‘ruined’ my goal as to where the story was heading. That you’re couching this in terms of player whimsy just further shows that you’re not taking the argument as seriously as it deserves.

    A serious argument would be about Players unexpectedly reaching a conclusion that you hadn’t anticipated and then they took action accordingly (like your murder mystery example). A serious argument wouldn’t couch the ‘opposition’ in terms of random maniacal player psychosis arbitrarily mete’ing out death, doom and destruction upon a DM’s carefully laid out plans. We all know how to handle that: Take the player aside and ask them if they’re having a hard time with their suspension of disbelief and what you can do to help re-immerse them. Formulate your arguments seriously please. Nobody appreciates their arguments being strawmanned. Thanks.

  26. Keith Baker Says:

    “One day they’re happily crunching along in your Megadungeon of DOOOM when BAM! they decide that a life of piracy on the high-seas is what’s right for them.”
    … meet…
    “If ALL of your players would rather play cards at the inn than go to the Tomb of Hadora, than you should probably have more poker tournaments and fewer dungeon crawls.”

    Which is to say, from the beginning of this discussion the point has always been that the players should be able to do the thing that makes them happy. I’ve had players stop adventuring mid-story because a random spur of the moment comment I’d made about the environment inspired them to start a company that produced and sold fireproof clothing… so that’s where we went from there, and I came up with challenges for their new clothing company.

    Ideally, this is the sort of thing one prepares for by knowing one’s players – and as Buzz says, if you’re not sure what they want, the best thing to do is to ask them. In starting any new campaign, I’ll talk to the group and to each player about the overall vision for the campaign and for their character. But looking to this example, the players didn’t KNOW they wanted to start a clothing company until all the pieces suddenly came together – and so we dropped the previous story and had a clothing adventure. Again, I don’t think we’re arguing as much as you think we are, Roger. My main issue is if ONE player does something that’s going to screw with the enjoyment of the rest of the group. If the entire group wants to do something, then that’s why we’re here. Hopefully, if DM and Players have a good bond, the clothes-instead-of-adventure scenarios won’t happen that often. On that note…

    “Look at your choice of words there: “…ruin…” As in ‘ruin my five adventures worth of build up’.”

    Come on, Roger. You bring up straw man arguments and then say this? I never said it was *MY* five adventures worth of build up, and it was never my intention. Because I don’t railroad my players, as I’ve said about fifty times in this thread. If I’m running a political campaign, I have no idea where it’s going to go. If there’s been five adventures worth of build up, it’s the PLAYERS who have been doing that building – the players who have decided to back the king instead of the cardinal; the players who have been working on behalf of the king and undermining the cardinal’s schemes; the players who have been making connections and gaining influence. When we started, they could have just as easily chosen to work for the Cardinal; I didn’t make that choice for them, and would have happily run with them in the other direction. And if, after five adventures, they want to throw all that away and kill the king, that is their choice. And I say “throw all that away”, as a possible example of a chaotic action taken without a plan. Because another option is that the players would have spent those five adventures building that trust precisely so they could assassinate the king and seize the throne… or because they decided to sell the king out for the cardinal. In the message you quote I specifically said “You’re just hit by the urge and you do it” – and my point was that you have the right to throw away any previous work YOU, the player, have done. It’s not MY five adventures of build-up; it’s yours. And if you decide it’s not what you wanted, throw it out and start a clothing company. The groups I enjoy playing with the most aren’t usually so wildly unpredictable; they may very well kill the king after working for him for five adventures, but if they do so, it’s because they have a plan. And as DM, I want to support that plan and challenge them – not force them to serve the king somehow.

    You seem to want to squeeze me into a railroading-DM-this-is-MY-story mold. From the start, my point has been that the defining element of an RPG is that the players have the choice and that a story that seeks to force a particular choice upon them is flawed. The examples I gave were in response to the specific question “has this happened in your game” – just like you bringing up your example of the “let’s leave the dungeon and become pirates”. But the point of those examples was that as a DM, you shouldn’t force a plot on the players; understand what they want and work with them.

  27. Keith Baker Says:

    “A serious argument wouldn’t couch the ‘opposition’ in terms of random maniacal player psychosis arbitrarily mete’ing out death, doom and destruction upon a DM’s carefully laid out plans.”

    I want to revisit this from a different direction.

    First, Roger, as I said before: You took my statement entirely out of context and overreacted to a single word. My use of “ruin” referred not to players ruining MY plans, but rather ruining the fruits of their own labors. I said “five adventures worth of build-up”, but because I’ve NEVER supported railroading in this thread, that’s not five adventures of MY build-up, it’s five adventures of their efforts. Essentially, if you want to work at something, achieve success, and then throw that success away, as DM it’s not my place to stop you because it’s your story. So please, if you’re going to complain about straw man arguments, don’t do it with a straw man argument.

    But this does raise an important point: “random maniacal player psychosis.” I’m going to ignore the second part of the sentence because I’ve never been arguing that the DM’s “carefully laid plans” are more important than the PC’s desires; again, the FIRST SENTENCE OF THE OP IS ABOUT CHOICE. But throughout my responses here I have repeatedly said that the one time I will challenge this is when a single player intentionally takes actions that he knows will ruin the game for everyone. My rule in roleplaying is “if you’re having fun you’re doing it right” – but there’s a definite footnote, which is “unless your fun directly stops everyone else from having fun.”

    The classic example of this is the chaotic neutral rogue who pickpockets all the other players in the party because “he’s just roleplaying his character.” In another game I was a player in, the DM established that it was starting off in wartime and that we should design our characters to be members of a military unit – people with a long history and strong bond. We put our heads together and defined our roles. We decided on the character who was going to be our charismatic leader, who had all our trust and respect. And then, when we started playing, he decided that he was going to be a huge human-supremacy racist… in a party where he was the only human. We tried to run with it for two adventures; after all, in the army you don’t get to pick your CO, and he was just roleplaying his character. But ultimately, it was impossible for us to realistically roleplay OUR characters and have fun with them while somehow trying to justify respecting and supporting this guy. The only reason we put up with it was the same reason most people put up with the pickpocket: we had an arbitrary constraint that the five of us were playing in a game together.

    In the end, we got together as a group and said that we understood he was just trying to roleplay his character… but that if WE roleplayed our characters honestly, we’d frag him in his foxhole. Was that what he wanted, or did he want to come up with a character we’d legitimately respect? We talked it out, came to a common ground we were all happy with, and things went well from there.

    That particular example didn’t even involve the DM. But the same principle applies. If the whole party wants to stab people in the face, that’s great (as I said, I myself won’t run that campaign for them because I wouldn’t have fun with it – but it doesn’t make them bad players). However, if a group wants an interesting intrigue-laden campaign, works hard to build up influence and connections, and then one player – who’s never quite shared the interest – spontaneously decides to take an action that spoil the work OF THE OTHER PLAYERS – that is a point at which I may pause to say “Are you sure about this?” Because if he is and if the other players can’t stop him, I WILL play it out. Again, I don’t condone railroading. I’ll never have that adventure in which Bahamut will always die. But If that one player is doing something that will be fun for him but ruin the game FOR THE OTHER PLAYERS, it’s worth taking a moment to try to resolve things.

    Communication is the key here – between the DM and the players, and between the players themselves. If everyone agrees on what they enjoy, then hopefully everyone will have fun, whether the path takes them to a dungeon, a clothing factory, or a poker tournament.

  28. Jonathon Side Says:

    Why do you contradict yourself? You say ‘don’t over prepare’, you say ‘don’t do too much work’, then you say ‘create as much detail as you like!’

    The preparation I was talking about IS having a detailed world. I didn’t say anything, ever, about dictating the actions of your players.

    But if you know that, for example, the shop the players just entered has a powerful magic weapon on the wall, you can tell them that. Maybe they’ll try to buy it. Maybe they’ll ask to use it.

    Maybe they’ll try to steal it and end up slaughtering the young girl who owns it, and try to hide her body under the floorboards of her own shop.

    But you won’t know unless you have details about what is where, and then let them choose their course. In the above example, the weapon isn’t even part of the actual adventure. It’s just backstory for the town.

    It’s just detail.

    But it’s a detail that your players can use, or ignore, as they wish.

  29. Jonathon Side Says:

    Another example:

    Draw a map of a castle. Fill in all the rooms. There’s the ballroom, the princess’s bedroom, the armory…

    In one room, the king was murdered. The treasury was ransacked. Someone stole a horse from the royal stables and escaped.

    Somewhere in the castle, there may be an intersection of corridors. The main storyline, about the king and the treasury, is to the left. But your characters want to go right.

    What happens next?

    If you filled in all the rooms of the castle, not just the ones required for the ‘king killer’ storyline, then you know who they will meet by going right, what places they will see. Maybe one of them tries to seduce the princess. Maybe someone visits the armory.

    Maybe the story works better if the princess is the one who ransacked the treasury… but she’s not the assassin.

    You won’t know what they will meet if you don’t have details. You don’t know what alternatives there will be if you don’t have details.

  30. Jonathon Side Says:

    Also, I would like to add that Thunt in no way did any prep work for the actions his players took. The only prep work he did was making sure he had something there besides an empty room.

    If you think that the point of the example was he prepared the townsfolk to lynch the PCs, you missed the point.

  31. Phil M Says:

    Well, I have never met a player more disruptive than me. One of my DMs once told me, “I design a dungeon for my other players then I have to re-design it for you, Phil.” Another said that my problem is that when I play, I keep my DM’s hat on. It is not that I go out of my way to be disruptive, it is just that most DMs (including me) over think a problem and forget that there are easier solutions to their challenges. Here are two occasions that have happened to me. First, I set up a dungeon based on Toon where they had to find the General of Madness. Halfway through, one of the players decided that the easiest way to do this was to take a piece of chalk, draw a door on the wall with the notice “To the General of Madness”. He then opened it and walked through circumventing the second half of my design and work. Second, I recently gave my group the opportunity to combat some animated armour. Their solution: find a rust monster and use that. I live for such times like these when I am a DM because it is fun not knowing what is coming next and having to think on your feet.

    All I can say is: more disruptive players, please

  32. Keith Baker Says:

    “I live for such times like these when I am a DM because it is fun not knowing what is coming next and having to think on your feet.”

    Agreed. As I said, I’ve got the adventure I’ve run 53 times and I can’t wait until I have a chance to run it again – precisely because every group finds its own answers, and even on run 53 the players came up with something no other group had ever thought of.

    Players not doing what the DM expects isn’t a problem; it’s the fundamental nature of the game. As almost everyone here has said in some form or another, if the story goes exactly as the DM expects start to finish, he might as well be reading the story to the players. What makes RPGs different from watching a movie is the ability of the players to make decisions and to take unexpected paths. Again, example #3 in the original article isn’t an example of fault on the part of the players – but rather my fault as a DM for creating a situation that assumed the players would take a particular path. The key is to be prepared to be flexible and not be tied to any one outcome.

    With that said, I maintain that disruptive players are good if he disrupts things in a way that adds to the groups overall enjoyment of the experience. But he’s bad if he is just literally a disruptive player: someone who spoils things for everyone else. In your examples, Phil, I assume the rest of the group was thrilled with whoever came up with the clever solutions to the problems you’d created, right? That’s different from one player intentionally throwing a monkeywrench into something the rest of the party has been working hard to accomplish, and doing so in such a way that the players themselves don’t laugh about it but rather feel angry and frustrated.

    There are times when PvP is entirely appropriate, and there’s groups and campaigns that thrive on it; if that’s your game, you should know it. Again, as long as players are having fun, that’s all that matters. But when one player is making the game a miserable experience for everyone else, that’s when I feel it’s important to address the situation.

  33. LanJemWezz Says:

    Well now, this topic has certainly become quite the watershed in regards to DM/player relations at the table!

    It reminds me of a game awhile back where I was playing a low-level psychic warrior with about 7 other PCs in the party. It was a simple one-shot; a one-and-done adventure intended to be played out in one sitting. It was the classic we-all-happen-to-be-lounging-in-the-local-tavern setup, and shortly before we set out on our first quest together, two of the PCs got into a brief verbal scuffle over a chair which nearly developed into a full-on brawl. (The players themselves were very competitive, so that may have contributed to their little spat.) The more brutish half-orc character took the road less traveled and opted to sit at the bar away from the rest of us, whereas the dwarf character proudly went on about how he had scared the half-orc off. Afterward, we met our benefactor, did a bit of role-play, then went about town prepping to leave. I realized the still simmering half-orc hadn’t been a part of the party plans, but had obviously overheard everything. I opted to sidle up next to him and offer him a split of my portion of the party treasure and a chance to prove the dwarf wrong about his mettle if he joined us. There was no overt reason for my character to do that; he wasn’t a facilitator per se; though he certainly didn’t mind having another meat shield around, and the half-orc did look thick enough….

    The point of all this: sometimes players need to be flexible and allow their characters to be shaped by the game presented to them, even just a little bit, in order that everyone has fun and the game isn’t “derailed” for the sake of what I want to do. Maybe my character is a bit of a closet coward, needing big beefy guys around to make him feel secure? Maybe my character has a thing for half-orcs? The DM hadn’t prompted my behavior, nor planned for such a schism to happen, but neither were any of the PCs obligated to insure that everyone was included and the game could continue on without any hiccups. We all understand the basics of what makes a D&D game work–a decent DM and interested players, (okay, you got me! Dice and some paper and pencils help too!)–but none of that is worth a hill of beans if the there’s no cooperation between the players themselves and between them and the DM.

    I figure, if all you want to do is play for yourself, there’s a lot of other things you could be doing instead. Like Parcheesi, or competitive hot dog eating.

  34. Phil Says:


    You are absolutely correct, those solutions did add to everyone’s enjoyment and I thank you for clarifying the point you were making about what makes a player disruptive.

    In that case, maybe I am not the most disruptive player I know because I do know many players who actively seek amusement by creating the kind of mayhem you refer to. It is the nature of the game that people who play it have egos – after all, why play a hero unless you have a hero’s ego – and there are those who must be the centre of attention in the game regardless to whether their actions help or hinder the group. In a game with 1 DM and 4 players, you will have 5 egos – some larger than others. So it is inevitable that there will be some clashes and bruised egos especially as the game goes on. Now it may be old age, but I cannot remember a single occasion as a DM that I have had a disruptive player in one of my games. I can remember many instances as a player where I have had my plans trampled on by disruptive players but as a DM, never – even though I have had those same disruptive players in my game. Now it could be that I am just an insensitve b*stard who is oblvious to the misery of his players. But it could also have something to do with my Law of High Level Characters vs High Level Players which states:
    No matter how powerful a character is or how many magic items and enhancements they have, the player will always play down to their ability.
    In other words, if you give someone a 25th level character with more magic items than they can carry and they are just a 1st level player in their heads, they will play the character like a 1st level character. In practice, this means that I have been incredibly generous to my players when they wanted to bring high level characters into my games and I have also given out some amazingly powerful items only to sit back and watch them NOT use them. Then, a long time after the game has finished, I like to taunt them by reminding them of what they had and what they could have done. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine.

  35. Brad Einarsen Says:

    @Keith: Thanks for a great answer to the question.

    The lawyers are out in full force on this comment thread. I have the advantage of natural adult ADD so I can’t read posts deeply enough to find suitable quotes to support my arguments. :-)

    What I do want to do is provide a couple of examples that illustrate that you need both an overarching plot and the flexibility to let the PCs get there on their own terms.

    In my campaign world, Yalarad, there is an Eastern and a Western continent. In one campaign my PCs decided that the most fun thing to do would be to hire a skyship and head over to the Eastern continent. You know, the one we never play in… the one I hadn’t really fleshed out yet. Oh boy.

    Did I stop them because it was more work? No. I played that session to it’s conclusion (these players are the UN of parties, with much discussion before action, so it wasn’t that hard to wing it for a while) and then set about detailing the Dwarven capital and environs.

    All the while I knew my plot arc was safe because it had to do with the Gods creating an Aeon event (bad for PM life forms) and the PCs would be instrumental in thwarting it. How they got there would develop as the game progressed. It sure was a butt-load of work for what turned out to be a side trip :-)

    I think that my PCs enjoy my campaigns because there is that background plot arc. The one after that was the destruction of magic as they knew it and the replacement of a new type of magic, which the players had a hand in.

    I use the term “my campaign” with forethought. It is my campaign, the PCs each play a part and they each get to the plot points in their own ways, but guess what, those plot points don’t really change. They could alienate the Emperor, they could refuse to help with the Orc menace, they could turn double-agent and join with the enemy… but they don’t. They want their place in the grand story, not just a small part in their own story. It really is communal storytelling, but with a plot that is revealed piecemeal to increase the dramatic tension and to provide a sense of discovery, of wonder, and of heavy heavy responsibility (you mean my actions will decide if all life survives? Gulp.)

    The idea is that they want to be larger than life when they play. They want to be the heroes. They want the stories to be about them. And they should, that’s really the whole point. They like picking up on the plot elements as they surface through the different episodes, culminating in an all-out do-or-die adventure.

    Oh, and there was that one time when I had to invent an alternate ending when every single character jumped into the portal of annihilation in the Tome of Horrors … sheesh.

    P.S. It’s always fun when the overwhelming enemy decides that selling the PCs into slavery is more profitable than just killing them :-)

    Great thread, great site. Bye for now….


  36. Leah Says:

    It seems Roger may have taken a step back from this thread, but I still want to add my perspective. I was fortunate enough to know Keith in college, where I had the opportunity to play in one of his early adventures through the campaign he has now run 53 times. I was deeply impressed by the level of detail he brought to the table in local scenario we played in. As I see it, the story he tells as a GM is comprised of the setting, the NPC characters who populate that setting, and those characters’ interests and actions. It is from the 2 later traits that the storyline itself evolves, and how the GM can be a storyteller while remaining fully open to the players’ ideas and potentially unexpected actions.

    Keith’s 53x adventure is an excellent example of how the players and the GM work together. The “basic story” is about something a group of NPCs are working towards, and at the start the players know nothing about it, and thus would be hard pressed to influence it substantially. As the players learn more about the NPCs and what they are up to, it is up to them to decide what to do with that information. There is no “right” answer, though, and as the players’ story becomes entwined in that of the NPCs, they become increasingly capable of changing the trajectory of events in the core storyline. As a player, it is critical for me to know that my choices can change the storyline in a significant way, but I have no illusions that I am the whole storyline. Keith reliably creates NPCs with complex motivations and relationships, and those NPCs drive a certain portion of the storyline in his games. The players drive the rest, and after his preparatory work, Keith’s job is to determine what the result is when the players and NPC’s interact. He isn’t dictating the course of events, but he knows who the hierarchy of NPCs are in his world when we start an adventure, what schemes those NPC’s are in the middle of, and how they may engage & involve the adventure party along the way. The flexibility comes in when the players become entangled in the NPC’s plotlines, and take control of their reins to interact with the NPCs. Then Keith’s job is to make sense – and a cohesive, compelling story – out of the resulting web of actions!

  37. MH Says:

    Thanks for the advice and opinions everyone. I’m glad I’m not the only one with these problems. My problem ended up like example 3 but the party fought and won. So far I haven’t successfully had PCs see a arch villain and not attack him unless they are knee deep in minions, then they only sometimes attack. Thanks again, never thought you would answer.

  38. Question Keith #5: Death and the Master Villain | Dungeon Mastering Says:

    […] addressed a similar question a few months back – What do you do when player actions clash with the outcome you expected in the story? I suggest you read that and the discussion that follows, as the point was explored in more detail […]

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