This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Player Choice -- Is It Necessary?
In this installment of Save My Game, we examine the issue of player choice. Players might resent being railroaded into undertaking the adventure the DM has prepared, but if left to themselves, they may be unable to find enough interesting adventures to occupy their time. What's a DM to do?
Problem: A Matter of Choice
I have been in games, both as a player and as a DM, in which the players want to pursue their own interests rather than following the storyline. Although they seem to have fun with such adventures, they later complain to the DM that the campaign has no story or is getting boring. And if the DM doesn't let them "do their own thing," they claim he is restricting them because he fears thinking on the fly. -- Adapted from a post made by Gavalicks on the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website
This problem is a very common one. Your players have two desires, both of which are perfectly reasonable. They want to have an interesting and important mission to fulfill, but they also want to feel that they can make their own decisions. You might have created a great and important adventure for your campaign, but if your players don't find it interesting, or don't think it would appeal to their characters, they're likely to resist getting involved with it. Still, if they don't have any better ideas about what they'd like to do, or if their goals are beyond the resources they have available at the moment, they're stuck with open-ended adventuring, which can become pretty dull over time.
I've been in similar situations. In one campaign I played, our characters were in a territory at war. We knew a fair bit about the setting and the world, and we had free rein to do whatever we liked in the city we were using as our base. But we had no way to figure out what was important in the campaign world, so we ended up bouncing around aimlessly into one unimportant dead-end after another. We could find activities to fill the days if we looked hard enough, but none of our adventures seemed to lead anywhere. As low-level PCs, we had neither the connections to get offers of important missions nor the money to undertake our own. Thus, we had very few options when it came to "doing our own thing," and though the campaign was very realistic, it was not terribly heroic or inspiring.
If your players' only option is to do their own thing, they can feel just as restricted as if the campaign had only one plotline from which they could not deviate.
Solution 1: Give Them Freedom of Choice
When it's time for the party to undertake a new adventure, you need to have several options prepared. The range of choices doesn't have to be infinite; you just need enough to convince the players that they are in control of their characters' joint destiny. Try to give them at least two, preferably three, and as many as four or five different avenues for adventure. Some of these options can be tied together -- for example, if the characters investigate the Tower of Wasilla or check out the Slave Pits of Gurinder, they find clues leading to the Tomb of Millares Gavino and information about the Cult of Sembera's plot to revive its ancient high priest. The other choices can be unrelated one-time adventures, or they might lead in entirely different campaign directions. This latter option can really convince players that their choices matter, especially if the adventures not chosen do not wait for the characters' return. For instance, if the characters choose the Expedition to Mozeliak, they may come home to discover that the Cult of Sembera has already succeeded in its dire plot!
As long as you offer more than one option, the players are likely to feel as though the choice of adventure was theirs, not yours. But letting players have choices doesn't mean you have to improvise all the encounters as you go.
Solution 2: Have an Encounter Ready, Just in Case
Before beginning play, prepare a few small, ready-made encounters, NPCs, or locations that you can easily adapt to any place the PCs might want to go. Then when they go off in a direction you didn't expect or decide to abandon their planned adventure in the middle of a session, you can still give them an interesting encounter (see Save My Game #9 on ad-libbing adventures). If you don't have the time or inclination to design some quick side-treks that you may not use for a while, look in Dungeon magazine, or find a large-scale published adventure such as Ruins of Undermountain (and the updated Return to Undermountain rooms) or Ruins of Myth Drannor. Big adventures such as these have lots of interesting bits and pieces that can easily be broken off and dropped into a campaign whenever you need them. Just because all the encounters are in the same area doesn't mean you have to use them that way. Some such encounters are nice set-pieces that offer a bit of depth and can even be connected to larger events in your campaign.
Not every adventure in your campaign has to be related to the main plot or theme (if you have one). Your PCs might get tired of battling the Temple of Elemental Evil and want to take a short break from it. If they break off, but keep running into agents of the temple everywhere they go and having the same encounters they would have faced had they not left, they are likely to get annoyed. From the player's point of view, you're just picking up the adventure and sticking it back in front of them, so that they have to play your scenario, your way, no matter where they go.
It's perfectly fair to have agents of the temple hunt down PCs who have been attacking the place for a while, even if they decide to undertake some other mission. Making sure that PC actions have consequences is just good DMing -- after all, a campaign world with a life of its own is generally more exciting than a dungeon that just waits passively to be pillaged. But once the PCs leave the Temple of Elemental Evil, don't make Caves of the Fire Temple their next adventure. ("Honest, it has no connection to the fire temple in Temple of Elemental Evil!")
Solution 3: Give Them Room to Breathe
Lastly, make sure you structure some time in the campaign for players to do whatever they like, including nothing at all. Heck, real people take vacations, so why shouldn't the PCs? If you like, you can just unilaterally declare some downtime for the party by saying, "Okay, you have fifteen days to rest and recuperate, party hearty, or whatever you like, and we'll pick up the story again on Patchwall the 20th." Such rulings rarely produce gripes and grumbles as long as you don't penalize the PCs for any time lag that you have imposed. So don't pick up the game by saying, "Oops, looks like the Lich-Lord Awasom had time to complete his zombie army while you were on the beach sipping mint juleps!"
Make sure the PCs have time to make magic items, research spells, and buy or build homes, businesses, or castles. Especially at high levels, they will need time to take care of personal business, so make it available. But realize that not all PCs need the same amount of time off -- the fighters may have to take a lot of vacations while the spellcasters are making magic items. So talk to the players whose characters have fewer time demands and see what they might like to do while their comrades are busy. Preparing separate adventures for them may not really be feasible or fair to the players whose characters are busy with off-board activities, so try to find some useful off-board activities for the other characters as well.
It's okay to have a campaign theme that involves a desperate time crunch, but make that situation clear to the players in advance so that they don't get frustrated because they never have time to do what they want to do.
Players have two desires that sometimes seem to conflict -- the desire to be involved in missions that are important in the context of the campaign world, and the desire to follow their own stars. The problem arises when they get bored because they can't find enough to do on their own.
To keep the players engaged and give them a sense of control, you need to provide them with options for different adventures they might undertake. One or more options may be tied together, and may lead to the same subsequent adventure, though the players need not know that in advance. In a dynamic campaign, the storylines not chosen may progress to their logical conclusions without the characters' involvement, thus letting the players know that their choices do make a difference.
Have a few easily adaptable encounters, locations, or NPCs prepared in advance in case the players choose a direction you didn't expect or abandon their current storyline. You can invent these yourself, or pick them up from magazines or larger published adventures. Some can even be woven into your campaign storyline if the players seem interested in continuing those plots.
Plan some downtime in your campaign to let the characters do as they wish. As they attain higher levels, their need for downtime to make magic items, research spells, or operate businesses within the campaign world may increase, so be sure they have enough time available. And make interesting downtime pursuits available to the characters who need less "vacation" than others, so that they remain engaged with the world as well.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.