Keep Your Campaign on Track: Sidestepping Your D&D Adventure

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Kickstarter Korner for April 2018, Week 1
The Psychology of a Likable RPG Character Part 2: Trust

Every RPG Game Master has been there. You’ve been hard at work preparing the next leg of your campaign, complete with great NPCs, memorable combats and lots of different possibilities depending on how your players choose to progress. You’re super excited to get into it, but your players just… don’t. There are a million ways this could happen, so I’ll begin by sharing something which happened in my Dungeons & Dragons game recently.

RPG D&D adventure
A hobgoblin lair as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Volo’s Guide to Monsters. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

The best laid adventure plans

The party’s next objective was to help a neighbouring faction defend their lands from a hobgoblin invasion – simple stuff. It got more complicated when they arrived to find the hobgoblins had already conquered most of the land. I had designed this to be difficult but possible, with numerous ways the party could undermine the hobgoblins, pick them apart and ultimately achieve a heroic victory against the odds. They were then going to be given a keep to use as their home base, get a whole bunch of loot, and everything was going to work out.

Things got off to a good start as the party meticulously planned an attack on one of the hobgoblin controlled villages and captured it without much trouble, but I had underestimated certain characters’ penchant for diplomatic resolutions. Without a drop more blood being spilled, the characters arranged a peace treaty with the hobgoblin warlord, allowed the hobgoblins to keep all the land they had taken, and even offered them a place as a noble house in the kingdom! In the course of an hour, months of planning and multiple sessions worth of adventure were swept off the table by some savvy (and very generous) roleplaying.

Let’s look at why these situations can arise, and I’m sure this will differ greatly between different playstyles at different tables. Sometimes the content you’ve prepared just isn’t right for the party, or otherwise fails to get them hooked. I expected my party would want to save their neighbour’s lands, drive out the invaders and show the world they were not to be messed with, but I should have realised some of the higher Charisma characters would have other designs. While including content that isn’t specifically aimed at the characters can give the impression of a more realistic, living world, it’s important to remember the characters drive the story and if they aren’t fully invested in the adventure, you can’t force them to be.

Following on from this, GMs should be careful not to fall into “my precious campaign syndrome”, where because of all the time and effort we put into our world and our adventures, we think the party has an obligation to love it as much as we do. It’s disappointing when you think something is awesome and your group doesn’t seem to care, but if the GM is only going to run the game they want rather than the game the players want, why are the players showing up? I thought the idea of engaging in guerrilla warfare to overthrow a hobgoblin army was awesome, and it was hard for me to accept my players obviously weren’t as excited about it as I was – but part of being a good GM is getting yourself excited about what your players want to do so that you can make that experience as great as it can possibly be.

Something easy to overlook when preparing content is a clear incentive for the characters to explore it. While adding a personal stake is usually enough, for example a villain who is a long time nemesis of the group, many characters need to know what’s in it for them before they commit to something.

Learn from my mistakes

I set up the hobgoblin invasion intending to give the party a stronghold and titles at the end of it, but I didn’t telegraph any tangible reward at all. So far as they were concerned, driving the hobgoblins out was an act of charity to their neighbours, which isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. My advice when preparing your game would be to think about each individual member of your group – when presented with the hook, does every single one of them have some reason to be interested? Does at least one of them have such a strong motivation that they’ll want to explore it no matter what? If not, you might need to tailor it a little more.

D&D adventure
A hobgoblin as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]
Let’s consider how we as GMs can respond in a way that keeps the story moving and doesn’t invalidate player agency. It’s easy to panic, especially if you’re a new GM, and do one of two things: shut down the players’ agency and force your story to go on, or go the other way and just allow your players to totally dictate what happens. The former is almost never advisable, as it can really pull your players out of the game and remove their sense of immersion, as they realise their decisions can’t change the campaign. It can also create some contrived situations when you push for what you want even when the players are pushing the other way. For example, when the players in my game offered the hobgoblins an amazing peace deal, the hobgoblin warlord could have just told them to sod off. But why would he? He was given an offer too good to refuse, and as much as I wanted to find a way to keep my adventure going, it just wouldn’t have made sense.

What I’d recommend for any GM faced with a tough choice like this is to not cave to the pressure and make a snap decision. There’s nothing wrong with telling your players you need a moment to consider, having a drinks break, and just thinking through your best course of action. When it comes to a decision which could change the course of the campaign, five minutes isn’t too much to ask.

On the other end of the spectrum, some GMs might be more than happy to allow the players to dictate the flow of the story entirely, making an effort not to get in their way and allow them to resolve any situation in the way they prefer. Ideas you don’t use now can always be recycled and used later on, after all. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it can certainly make your players feel like they have a great deal of control over the game, which can be especially useful when introducing newer players to the infinite possibilities of roleplaying games. However, if done without care it can lead to the game feeling less challenging and oftentimes less rewarding as your players don’t have to work quite as hard to get what they want.

The middle ground

Another option is somewhere in between, finding a compromise to allow the group to circumvent certain parts of the adventure but not others. I could have had the hobgoblins rise up against their leader for making peace and begin a civil war, allowing the party to defeat them much more easily even though their overall plan wasn’t a success. If a group makes a plan and it’s only partially successful, it encourages them to get even more creative with their next plan, which always leads to more fun.

This all comes down to how well you know your group and what vibe you’re getting from them. If they’re really not interested, it’s probably best to let them do their own thing and just move on. If you’re getting mixed messages and you think they might still enjoy it, try coming up with a compromise to get them involved with the adventure in their own way, or play up the incentives and rewards. At the end of the day there’s really no wrong answer, so long as the story goes on in a plausible and interesting way. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the hobgoblin noble house integrates with the rest of the kingdom.

I’d love to hear examples from your games and how you’ve dealt with similar situations in the comments below, feel free to share!

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Follow Tim Sutherland:
I'm Tim Sutherland, a journalism student from Australia, and a huge nerd. I started playing D&D when I was 10, and I've had experience playing and running a number of editions and game systems. I'm also an avid tabletop wargamer and video gamer, and I love using my favorite concepts from other fictions as inspiration for my characters and settings.

2 Responses

  1. Eric W.
    | Reply

    The internet is a wonderful thing for DM/GMs who get stuck. From Nerdarchy’s DM 911 to FB game specific groups, there are lots of ways to get help from more experienced DMs. In the given example about the hobgoblin peace treaty, some of the material might still be saved when the hobgoblin warlord(and now fellow noble) asks for help with an insurgent problem that he has… one which is based in the players’ territory, and threatens the peace. This solution could lead the PCs into territory where the DM wants them to go, and the players may feel railroaded, but the players still have agency to deal with the problem — and I imagine the players will probably find a very inventive solution to their “Maquis” problem– or they may go off and want to do something completely different and let the chips fall where they may*. The important thing to remember is that playing has to be fun for you(singular) and you(plural) in this cooperative storytelling game about overcoming conflict.

    • Eric W.
      | Reply

      *Figuring out what happens if they don’t choose to deal with the insurgency could lead to a whole separate campaign with different PCs–maybe even run by another DM.

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