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

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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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. @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….


  4. @Keith

    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.

  5. 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.

  6. “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.

  7. 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

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