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I want to put the players in a challenging spot by putting them in a no win situation and having them captured and stripped of their equipment (assuming they might get it back as they make their escape, so as not to complete make the players mad.)

In crafting this no win situation, I did not foresee a way out that the players found through some creative genius. Something like instead of focusing their efforts on attacking the huge army in front of them the focus their efforts on luring them into a forest and bringing down the trees to crush them, or focusing on creating a rock slide again to crush them or at least block their path. (maybe not good examples but hopefully you get the point.)

Do you rearrange your story arc for creative thinking? Or do you crush their hopes and force them into the story arc you had originally prepared? Or probably the best route, as a GM hope they don't see a way out but prepare a secondary story arc if they manage to wiggle their way out?

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Not really an answer, but can I just say that this kind of thing is my best-case scenario? Being thrown massive curveballs is one of my favorite things about DMing. – Numenetics Aug 24 '10 at 17:29
This question smells wrong on so many levels... (1) railroading sucks hard, so you shouldn't be doing that anyway; especially the "you can't win, they capture you, you have to escape" is one of the worst and most misused clichés in the whole RPG world; (2) yes, of course if the players find a way out you don't cheat to crush them anyway!! – o0'. Jan 31 '11 at 17:46

14 Answers 14

up vote 35 down vote accepted

Let's say I have a campaign where I want to put the players in a challenging spot by putting them in a no win situation and having them captured and stripped of their equipment (assuming they might get it back as they make their escape, so as not to complete make the players mad.)

If this is not a natural consequence of previous actions then you are exercising referee fiat over the player's actions which annoys players to no end.

Let's also say that in crafting this no win situation, I did not foresee a way out that the players found through some creative genius. Something like instead of focusing their efforts on attacking the huge army in front of them the focus their efforts on luring them into a forest and bringing down the trees to crush them, or focusing on creating a rock slide again to crush them or at least block their path. (maybe not good examples but hopefully you get the point.)

The nature of roleplaying game means that the players are always doing unexpected things. Where the referee creativity comes in is planning out the consequences of what the players do given the circumstances and the NPC's motivations. Not in writing a story that the players ride along with.

So it doesn't matter what the results of the encounter is before it happens. What important is afterwards when you decide how the NPCs and the environment react and change. So the question here what are the consequences of the army's survival and what are the consequences of it's destruction.

Your story arc needs to be a plot arc and it is a plan of actions that will change after the PCs interact with each encounter. You have to think of your setting, NPCS, and locale as a bag of stuff. What mix get put out depends on where your PCs are, and what they did. Do this and you don't have to worry that a specific outcome must occur at a specific time.

The easiest way of planning the plot is to think of it as series of What Ifs. What if Darkon the Lich gets killed here, what if he survives? You need to do this down the line.

While it appears to be daunting in practices these series of what if turn out to be somewhat limited because of interests of the players, how they play, and what they would reasonably do. You can use this knowledge to manipulate the players as well to narrow the range of possibilities you have to prepare for.

Remember not everything is fluid either. For example if you had an natural eruption volcano planned for two months into the campaign then it will generally go off. It going to be your call as to which part of the plot's timeline is like this. Also no wins are fine, if the players have plenty of warning. If two sessions in a 13th century campaign about medieval europe they decide to go and get Genghis Khan's head then it going to be highly probable it is the PC's heads that will wind up on the heap. But the saving grace of the situation is that likely the PCs will hear about the size of Mongol army and the nature of the Khan's guard well before they get to the point of no return. Put out the information and if they ignore it, let the dice fall where they roll.

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Player creativity should always be rewarded!

Adding on to what RS Conley has written (and it is an excellent response), as a player of a campaign, you never, ever want to feel like you're non-participatory. As the master of the campaign, it's your responsibility to adapt to good, solid role-playing.

If the players are clever enough to outfox a given set of traps, then they've done so. Congratulate them, celebrate their ingeniousness, and adapt and determine a new way to get them on your arc.

If they continue avoid getting on your arc, it's your responsibility to continue to adapt. Part of role-playing is doing the unexpected. Sometimes it's little: in my first session as a player for years, I had a character toss a lit cigar into an opponent's eye before attacking; everyone was amused and said opponent had a combat penalty due to partial blindness.

Sometimes it's big: In a session of this same campaign which I'd missed as a player, the party apparently attacked a menacing but otherwise-non-hostile white dragon, which presumably should have wiped us out. They won through sheer brass-ballery.

Sometimes it's really big: In the old days when I was a DM, I had player intentionally try the oddest things just to see what would happen. They'd get sucked into Ravenloft and decide to side with the Lord of the Domain instead of the "good guys" for that module. Instead of avoiding the dragon's cave, they'd stake it out, wait for the dragon to leave for feeding, and steal its eggs to sell in town as pets. Basically, anything they could do to keep everyone entertained and on their toes.

If your players avoided it, again, congratulate them and adapt. Be prepared! Anyway, there's probably still some opening to get them into your campaign -- perhaps, just not completely unequipped. (Which, frankly, as a player -- no matter how short-term it is -- would tick me off. I even get ticked when CRPGs do that to me, and they usually give me back my stuff!)

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Heavily seconded. The very first campaign I DMed had two instances like this. The first one, a player got around a boss monster by cramming a grenade in its throat. Two successful grapple checks: Instant Kill (but I had everyone do a Reflex check to avoid being damaged by skull shrapnel). Another time a sorcerer decided to fend off a giant whale by climbing on its back and casting Snowball Storm in its blowhole. He got sneezed across the bay but the whale high-tailed it. People are STILL talking about it. – Logan MacRae Aug 25 '10 at 12:49

If it is really the entry point for a story explain that to your players and ask for their help in getting shanghaied. Appeal to their sense of what tells a good story and go from there.

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I would say it depends on the level of screw-up they perform.

If they outsmart me a bit, but with no concrete and logical chance to get away with it, I would push them and railroad them into the same outcome. Another platoon from a different side, or a ravine making their escape too hard to perform in a short amount of time.

If they outsmart me considerably and with wit, I would grant them the chance of reworking the story arc introduction for them, possibly to re-enter the same idea a bit differently. Just remember one thing. If you rework on the spot, take quick notes on your notebook on what you changed, otherwise you risk to introduce inconsistency later on, if you forget some detail.

If they outsmart me totally, it was my mistake not to think about such a huge cavity in the setup. In such a situation, improvise, but do not punish them because it's definitely the DM fault.

Remember, you setup the scenario. They cannot lure an army in the forest if there's no forest. If there's one, the army can have professional scouts that can track you down. Rocks falling down a hill are difficult to perform without explosives, and if you sense this issues during metagaming, you can put some challenges such as a lot of climbing.

It is very rare a whole arc gets broken due to players outwitting the master. Of course, it's always possible they decide to kill the old wise and only person knowing the formula of an ancient potion they will desperately need in three weeks, but it can be into a book as well. They can start a brawl and get thrown to jail when the half-orc decides to break a chair onto the back of the obnoxious bard, while they were supposed to save the city from violent pirates robbing the village once a month, but it can always be that a pirate was accidentally involved in the brawl and will start planning his vengeance bringing all his comrades in a later fight.

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Revise your story arc to accommodate their creativity.

I cannot think of many situations in which a creative bunch of people want their input to be cast aside. I think a game master needs an extremely compelling reason to railroad a group through "the story." When the players leave for the evening, they should not be thinking, "Why did we bother to show up? If the game master is just going to tell his story, what were we needed for, anyway?"

That said, some players just want to be entertained. They want to sit in the seat of the rollercoaster and hang on for dear life as you weave a tale that takes them up and down and side to side. Ask them if that's what they want. No one expects you to be a mind reader. Ask them.

However, even these players want to be part of a story where their characters perform cool, heroic, and creative deeds. If you squash their creative solution because you're too entrenched in "your story," they will feel defeated, not entertained.

Last, give up the idea of "your" story arc. You should not come to the game knowing what is going to happen. You might know some of the key events that occur, but not how important conflicts turn out. No matter what style of game you play, the players want to have an impact on its events, and that cannot happen if you have predetermined the outcomes.

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This article, Don't Prep Plots, was enormously helpful for my DMing, especially when trying to balance my idea for a cool, albeit pre-determined series of events with the players exercising free will and creativity.

The short version is: don't prepare story arcs, prepare opposition. That way when the players throw you a curve ball, you already know what the bad guys have at their disposal to deal with it.

Unfortunately, this means you may not get the outcome you wanted (ie capture). On the other hand, if you prepare opposition that's very good at capturing people, who knows?

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It depends on what you can make believable.

If you can quickly and believably close the character's loop hole, do so, and continue on with your planned campaign.

If you think you can't come up with a solution that won't force a break in suspension of disbelief, or overly anger your players, roll with the change. If you're the type that needs to plan, let the players escape, then ask for a short break to reorder your notes.

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Always, always reward the players for clever thinking. Playing outside-the-box is a rare talent and one that, as a DM, I always try to encourage. As I said on JohnRudy's answer, I've had two game-changing instances where this happened, and I've managed to roll with it (as it were).

What's more, the players themselves will enjoy it a lot more if they're able to out-think impossible situations, and they'll remember it for years to come. A friend of mine once was assaulting a vampire lord's castle, and came across a chamber with stained-glass windows and a metric crapload of coffins. This was intended to be a huge fight, one that the players possibly couldn't win. Unfortunately for the DM, the players came across it during the daytime, when all the vampires were asleep, so what did they do? Smash the stained-glass window, open the coffins, and tip the contents over the cliffside.

This is the example I use when teaching new players how to play, and it really gets the point across that this is not Final Fantasy, and the possibilities are endless. If a solution could reasonably make sense, why discourage it?

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Honestly, I think planning out a story arc is a mistake in the first place. As a GM, no matter what White Wolf implies with its choice of terminology, you are not telling a story. Or rather, you are not telling a story alone.

The story that emerges out of a roleplaying game is a message spelled out on a Ouija board: the result of varied input from a group of participants. The results might be a little more coherent when everybody's got the same ideal, but if you find you're not getting the message you want, you do not tear the planchette our of your friends' hands and start sliding it around by yourself. Roll with whatever unexpected message you get, and continue in a direction that makes sense.

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It's going to depend a lot on your group. Some groups are okay with being along for the ride, but most groups never want to feel that there was nothing they could have done. As a player, I'd be happier if there was a potential, long-shot out from a bad situation, than simply having to lay down arms or die.

As others have said, you need to be prepared for contingencies. No-win situations do happen, but the reaction of your group is only knowable to you. Some games are designed in a way that almost completely discourages the idea of the 'no-win situtation',and if players are used to usually being able to come out on top, they might respond in an unrealistic (and potentially unreasonable) way to your situation.

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Acceptable: "These things will happen, regardless of what the players will do."

Not acceptable: "These things will happen to the characters, regardless of what the players do."

It's alright to not allow the players to foil the madman's evil plot, or stop the volcano from erupting, or be voted homecoming queen, no matter how hard they try. It's better if you give them a chance to impact their world, but it doesn't generally inspire a feeling of total helplessness. But if you are going to back them into a corner, at least get it over with quickly. No one wants to spend 30 minutes trying to stop the volcano only to realize that they could have spent that time going on a snack run and nothing would have turned out differently.

But it's not alright to force characters already in play to be captured, or trapped by the eruption, or go to detention. You can stack the odds against them, but when they genuinely outsmart you, and you overrule them, it defeats the purpose of allowing them to make decisions in the first place. Players should always be able to at least impact their own fate. If you absolutely must place the characters in a certain position, handle it as a cut scene, or explain to the players in advance where they need to end up and then play the scene out.

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I think that it really depends on the game and the group that determines what is acceptable and unacceptable. I've played and gm'ed in games were horrible things happen to characters and then the players go from there. – anon186 Aug 27 '10 at 16:08
I'm not against horrible things happening to the players. I've just never had the experience of it being fun when the GM has decided that the players are going to end up in a particular situation no matter what they do. If the GM is just going to keep rewriting the scenario until the godforsaken players finally give in and get captured by pirates, why not let them know up front "this scenario isn't going to end until you're captured by pirates?" instead of letting them struggle unwittingly against the pre-ordained outcome? – kodi Aug 27 '10 at 17:51

If the players came up with a way around it, give them a system appropriate reward, and revise your plans.

If you arbitrarily rob players of ability to impact the plot, you've just made them actors, not roleplayers.

To be blunt, the GM should never let his "plotline" trump player-driven story directions. Sure, if not prepped, tell them, and offer them a mulligan on going there or the option to stop early and let you prep for that direction... but the real attraction of table top RPGing is that you are not tied to some designer's plot, but that the GM can flex the plot and make it respond outside the bounds of some algorithm.

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Building on Jeremiah Genest's answer:

I wanted to do this recently to introduce a plot point and when it become obvious to the PC's that they were on the wrong side of a fight and were about to succumb to tear gas and knockout darts I said: "It's OK, nobody's going to die tonight - I need to do this for the plot."

They were sort of OK with that. Then I promised that they weren't going to lose all their stuff and it was all good.

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I'm not a GM, but it seems to me that you would go narrative. "While walking through the field of poppies, every becomes lethargic and falls asleep. When you wake up, you find..." A little warning at the the beginning of the campaign would go a long way to quell the "I'm immune to sleep spells!" objections. Explain to them that they will be put in certain situations and will get to exercise their creativity to overcome some disadvantages.

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-1, as your answer contradicts itself: The question specifically states that 'going narrative' necessarily prevents the players from exercising their creativity. – GMJoe Mar 5 '12 at 5:36

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