It’s often very easy for the players to get a bit off track. Talking to a background NPC, running off to do a bit of shopping, or just drifting off into the woods are all good examples of common wanderings that lead off the beaten trail of the information provided by the author. These are easy to take care of with a bit of improvisation. However, every once and a while, the players head off into an entirely unexpected direction. They might kill a vital NPC, leave town without important information, or head down the wrong forest trail. There are usually three different ways for a DM to deal with this dilemma during a Living Greyhawk game.
The first and worst way to deal with this problem is to bring the adventure to a close. The PCs kill the only man who can tell them where the dungeon is so the adventure is now over. The PCs go home never having plundered the deeps that awaited them. This solution should only be reserved for the most extreme circumstances, when the actions of the players leave no other possible option. There are usually ways around this as noted below.
A much better solution to the wandering party is to look for other options to get the story back on track. If the key NPC is killed or ignored, perhaps his henchmen have the information the PCs need or maybe he kept a few notes tucked away in his pouch. If the PCs are meant to find a tribe of goblins hiding in the nearby woods and they instead head away, maybe a local trapper can complain to them about the foul creatures. Making these minor modification can often save an adventure, but must be done with the utmost care so as to not alter the story. If it is vital to the plot for the PCs to find a note in the pocket of a dead friend, it does not serve the story well to have this note simply on the floor waiting to be found, just because the PCs did not find the corpse. Instead, it would be better to give the PCs a small hint in finding the corpse.
Finally, and most drastically, existing adventure elements can be altered to give a better play experience. This should only be done in the most extreme circumstance and where the consequence to the overall story is negligible. For example, if the PCs were meant to fight a bear on the forest path to the mountains and they instead teleport there. Perhaps the bear instead attacks them at night while they camp in the mountains. This is a definite change to the adventure, but nothing that alters the overall story. However, if the bear was under the orders of a powerful druid that lives in the woods and the druid attacks the PCs because of their transgression on his lands, having the bear attack later makes little sense. In this case, it is best to just skip the encounter entirely than to alter the overall storyline.
It cannot be stressed enough that changes to an adventure, be it adding, subtracting, or altering elements must be done with the utmost care. Often times, the author will do things for a specific reason, attempting to deliver a clue or feeling about the overall plot line. Changes to this discovery can drastically alter the perception of an event for the players, and in the case of a series of events, confuse them for a number of encounters. Before making any change, be sure to ask yourself the following couple questions.
- What is the smallest change I can make to get the story back on track?
- Does that change significantly alter the storyline presented by the adventure text?
- If the answer to the last question is yes, then how can I find another way that is less intrusive?
If handled properly, a small change can get an adventure right back on track, despite the player’s best efforts to wander down dead ends, kill their only contact, and burn the book needed to save the day. A small change can turn a side trek into a short diversion before jumping back into the action.