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In the earliest stage of my new duet campaign, I thought I had "rail-roaded" the PC into the first important encounter, one that leads to a major story line for the campaign. Specifically, the PC was meant to sneak onto an NPC's farm, discover the NPC's secret mine, and then get spotted by the NPC while leaving. The NPC grabs his ax and engages the PC in combat. Killing the NPC would result in a series of future events for the PC.

Unfortunately, the PC has become focused on a logging protest, which I only created as rationale for the NPC to leave his farm, opening up the opportunity for the PC to investigate it.

If my PC doesn't kill the NPC, it's going to be very hard to work the associated story-line into the campaign. I can't have them fight to the death at the logging protest because a lot of other townsfolk will be there, which could make for an unpredictable encounter. What if the PC failed a diplomacy check, the entire town turned against him, and hung him? Game over.

Another problem is that I'm going to have to write this logging protest scene, which I hadn't intended. It feels like it's an opportunity to get things back on track, but I can't figure out how.

Specifics of my game aside, what do you do when the PCs choose not to follow an important story-line? There are other story lines. Do I let this one go? The worst part is, killing the NPC actually works in the PCs favor and I really want him to experience those benefits.

Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks.

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I have two questions about motivation. Why did you expect the player to want to have his PC sneak onto the farm? Why does the NPC want to keep his mine secret? –  cr0m May 1 '12 at 23:13
    
The NPC has suspiciously not left his farm in over a year. The NPC is leading the protest against the loggers, ostensibly because it's effecting hunting in the wooded areas, but actually because he doesn't want anyone to log close enough to discover his mine. The PC's motivation (admittedly not strong enough) was his suspicions of the NPC. The NPC was mining in secret because his intention was actually to dig a tunnel into an otherwise unapproachable area and capture a giant spider. If townsfolk knew the NPC was digging a direct path from the spider lair to town, they would not be pleased. –  Lechlerfan May 2 '12 at 6:48
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Are the PCs having fun? Run with it. Especially run with it if there are other plot threads they can pick up later. If they don't deal with the spiderpocalypse, when they come back this way they'll almost certainly discover that something went very badly wrong after they left town… –  SevenSidedDie May 2 '12 at 21:29
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8 Answers 8

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You have an active engaged player. Run with it!

I can tell you from experience that if you railroad them back onto the tracks, they are unlikely to ever be as engaged about your campaign again.

If you want to tell a story without outside input, write fiction. Dungeons & Dragons is a Role Playing game, the player should be allowed to agency to control their actions and see the world react.

It sounds like you've plotted pretty far ahead and have very specific things that you need to have happen in order to tell your story. Relying on a PC to kill a specific NPC is very risky. Players will develop morals at the oddest times throwing your plans into disarray!

Step back and do your planning from a wider scope. Instead of triggering off of the NPCs death, put a clock on the discovery of the secret mine. If it hasn't happened by September 3rd, then something bad happens. If it's discovered and the intrusion is noted, then the PC is confronted by the NPC (Your original line). If the PC accesses the mine and it isn't discovered that should be a very good outcome giving the PC a jump on the next action. (Try to avoid mandating that the PC is discovered, if precautions are taken, they should be rewarded if the dice are favorable).

By doing your plotting a level up like this you can ensure that your campaign moves ahead while giving the PC free reign to go about it as he or she wishes.

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Thanks. I'll give some thought to the ticking clock idea. You're absolutely right that the PC should have the opportunity to access the mine without being detected. I do need take step back a level when planning in order to allow the PC's personality to shine through and direct the story line. –  Lechlerfan May 1 '12 at 22:27
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You answered your own question, I just think you need confidence enough to follow your own advice.

I'll address your points a tad out of order. First off, you're going to have to write the protest scene. This is one of the downsides to red-herrings ... they're there to distract your PC's, and occasionally they do the job too well and turn into main-plots. Bite the bullet and accept it, as there's not much of a way around it.

From there, how to proceed is largely a matter of preference, feel, and experience. I've used all of the following in the past:

  1. Let something in the red-herring give it away as a red-herring and push the PC back on track. In your specific case, maybe the PC hears rumors about the NPC's mine while at the protest. Perhaps another NPC patron hires the PC to investigate the mine while the new NPC patron distracts the farmer/miner at the protest (perhaps the farmer/miner realizes what's going on and hurts/kills the patron NPC, giving the PC even more reason to attack him).
  2. Change the situation. You mentioned this, but said you're scared to do it: Let the NPC and the PC fight at the protest. You don't need to make him even roll diplomacy (never let dice get in the way of a good story). If you do want to roll the dice, make sure the target is low enough to ensure success. If he fails anyway, have more townspeople show up and start an argument over what actually happened so he can roll again ... eventually averages will work and he'll get out of trouble.
  3. Let go of the story line. Yes, there will be others. Perhaps you can even revisit this one at some point in the future (either near or long term).

Which you do depends on many things: your own experience and that of your players, the feel of your campaign, weather you're comfortable playing by the seat of your pants with no plan, etc. Remember: a game is a collaborative effort, so there is actually such a thing as too much preparation. With experience you'll become increasingly comfortable going off the rails, either re-railing the train or building new rails in a new direction.

The last thought I'll leave you with is this: What's going to make it more fun for the player(s)? Do they like to drive or be driven. If they like to drive, be ready for the ride of your life because you're going to be jumping to keep up. I've played games on both ends of the spectrum, and all manner of games in between, and they can all be enjoyable.

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Thanks. Great response. I appreciate the reminder about making it about the player's enjoyment, not about my plans. I actually asked my player what he enjoyed most about being a PC before the game started. He listed several things, two of which were "I like a fairly clear path/direction" and "I like to mess with the DM." So, it's possible he recognizes exactly which way I want him to go and he's just messing with me to see how I react. –  Lechlerfan May 1 '12 at 22:10
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You have a few options here to consider. While the answers will be geared towards your NPC example, it is not hard to extrapolate the style of each into other types of potentially miss-able plot hooks

Let The NPC Live

You could have ran into this issue if the PC in question had decided they had a problem with killing the NPC and went for more non-lethal methods as well, so one thing to consider is if they don't kill the NPC, see if you can move your next event to something happening at the logging protest instead. Perhaps something happens right before or right after. Perhaps you can sidetrack the PC with a different intro to the quest thread all together and just use what you've already got slightly re-flavored.

On the other hand, if it cannot be moved or re-flavored for whatever reason, try to reason out what will happen if the PC does not kill the NPC. In what ways will it harm/help what the PC wants to do? Roll with that and have it effect the things going on realistically. Then if the PC wants to stop/find out what's going on with the effects, you can naturally have their investigation lead them back to the NPC without it feeling like railroading.

Have Someone Else Do The Deed

Do they really need to be the ones to kill the guy, or does it just need to look like they're the ones who did it? Perhaps there is a third party involved who either actively or accidentally frames the PC. If there is a reward or thing that happens when he is killed, perhaps whoever did it passes that thing onto the PC for mysterious reasons of their own.

Give More/Better Reason To Investigate/Kill The NPC

Somewhat of an offshoot of the first one, make the NPC more reprehensible in general. Drop more clues or have the NPC initialize the conflict somewhere other than the logging protest.

Ask The Player To Work With You

I generally recommend wherever possible working with what the PC is doing rather than strong-arming them into a given course of action. If all else fails though and you simply must have this NPC dead by the PC's hand, try simply asking your player to investigate/take a lethal course of action. While this does break immersion somewhat, it allows your player to come up with their own justification for why their PC takes the actions they do and makes it more of a collaborative effort than an attempt to subvert what the player wants to do in order to make them follow a preplanned path.

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I hadn't thought about another intro to this quest. Yes! It's not that I'll plan for that, but the possibility of that will make me feel better if this intro doesn't work out. I'll put some thought into someone else doing to deed, too. Thanks. –  Lechlerfan May 1 '12 at 22:34
    
The framing option seems particularly interesting in this case, especially if your PC is seen arguing with the NPC at the protest. I'm sure you have someone in your story that would be more than willing to do just that ! –  Nigralbus May 2 '12 at 7:54
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As a player, I hate being forced into an adventure. As a GM, my answer is nothing more than just decades of experience. Roll with it.

If the adventure is fun, and you've got it well detailed in your head, you can find other hooks to lead the party back. Make up stuff as you go and provide them with other opportunities to take the bait - mysterious letters, visitors, dreams, priest's god's visions...

A good GM can go outside the plot and scripted material and back without the PC's ever knowing it. Never do this because you are frustrated or angry. The only approach to this is because you have a fun and interesting story to tell and don't want just stupid chance to spoil their opportunity to be a part of it (even if it was good continuity on your side that lead to the 'chance' impact in the first place - never contrive around continuity and immersive experience).

If the PC's don't express interest, despite hints or opportunities, never force them to do anything. As i tell my players - you can always just quit and leave (of course, that too may have repercussions!). Always have in your head angles and subplots you can fall back on and make it up as you go.

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Welcome to the site, temple. I just formatted your answer and fixed a few typos. Glad to have you here. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 2 '12 at 18:35
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You will always be a frustrated GM, with frustrated players, if you constantly impose your own idea of the story on your player(s).

I recommend the excellent answers to How to get out of a story deadlock which basically describes similar situations and asks "how do I make the story happen" - there are some answers to wiggle around it, but the general tenor is "don't."

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This makes me think of the Alexandrian's "Three Clue Rule".

http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

That's a long blog post there. Long story short; if you want to ensure that your players will get to a specific spot in your plot, then make sure that there are three ways to reach it. That way there is a decent chance that the players will bite at least one of your hooks.

Another essay of interest might be his "Don't Prep Plots".

http://thealexandrian.net/creations/misc/prep-scenario.html

This essay relates to what Pat Ludwig said. Though taking another step back, you might prep situations rather than a time line. You know that the NPC is digging this tunnel. You know how the big bad (or whatever) is tied to the NPC. You might have an impression of what the situation is in the town itself (logging protest and so on). If the situation is volatile enough, you could potentially just let things take their natural course, and something interesting would bound to happen, preferably ensnaring the PCs along the way.

Of course, that requires some amount of improvisation. I oftentimes do prep a plot. But I also think a bit about the overall situation and the goals and wants of primary NPCs. This gives me better tools to improvise once the players stray off the plot (which they will inevitably, unless you have constructed a very entertaining and well charted railroad). Then I can either improvise to lead them discreetly back to the plot, or improvise to follow the new path they are charting through the situation.

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If you decide you still want the NPC killed, rather than rewriting your plot... Have someone go stop the PC on the way to the meeting and express his concerns about the NPC. It could even be somebody the PC respects such as a mayor or town representative... "He's hiding something. I tried to visit him and he run me off with an axe. He also has a big dog or something guarding his house. Why would he do that?.... YOU should go check it out."

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I think that if your player is investing in any part of the plot, that's a huge sign, and you can try and roll with it to make your vision converge with a storyline of the player's choosing. You'll have a much more impressed player when he discovers that the direction he wanted to go led to whatever cool thing it led to. The clock idea is certainly a neat way to preserve your existing story (in the case of this specific plot, I imagine if he gets to the spider, he could easily just underestimate the spider, die to it, and loose it own the town, which the hero needs to fix). But again, the essence of the answer is:

Tell the story the player wants to hear, and work on improvising "spurs" back to the main "railroad" when needed.

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