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Here's the issue: some of the players in my group tend to be pragmatic...a little too pragmatic. They are the type who'll figure out the most efficient and cleanest way to take care of any problems, who rather to nuke it from the orbit to play things safe rather than taking on risks.

My current campaign is heroic fantasy, and I have taken pains to emphasis that while it is not 'heroic stupid', the players are to be the heroes. We used the Same Page Tool to ensure we all knew what that meant. However, one or two of the players still frequently come up with brilliant plans that negate them adventuring. For instance, if there is a brigand stronghold in town, the player will rather spread rumours to neighbouring lords that exaggerate the amount of wealth and atrocity of those brigands as to entice them to attack the stronghold, instead of venturing in themselves. And they would suggest heading back for reinforcements and so on.

There are a few reasons why I would rather them not do it. First, it's not about them adventuring any more. Some other people will step into the limelight. Second, in case of reinforcements, it's more combatants and that drag things out. Third, if I say "yes, but," anything I do may come across as vindictive. Fourth, we agreed not to play those kinds of stories.

I have tried, the last time this happens, to say, "Look guys, this isn't the genre of adventure we agree on. Don't do this. I won't enjoy GMing this type of game." but I rather not do that a second time. (Meta-railroading, how low can I go?). Or, how I can accept such solutions, but still keep the PCs in the limelight?

It's not that I don't want creative solutions, but I want to—and we've agreed to—play dramatic stories. The specific kind of creative solution that results in a humdrum "safe" course of action is not a good fit as it doesn't create a dramatic story.

We're playing 13th Age, a narrative-centric variant of d20, which has this topical advice to players about creative solutions:

Create Dramatic Stories
In traditional roleplaying games, players try to invent the smartest, best or most efficient solutions... the worst approach is to come up with the safest solutions... We encourage you to be exciting rather than prudent. When inventing a solution to an open-ended problem, approach the issue the way a good writer approaches a plot point... Think about what would generate fun.

I am also looking for ways to work with the PCs' solutions, as long as they remain the focus of the game. How do I encourage players to contribute drama to the narrative instead of playing it safe all the time?

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8 Answers

up vote 35 down vote accepted

Lying to people about brigands is not pragmatic in the long run. Neighboring lords will have their soldiers killed and injured, and for what? Not for vast piles of loot, and the captives paint a much less barbaric picture than the PCs and have evidence on their side. Thus, the PCs will end up as the boy who cried wolf: next time they face a major threat, they won't be taken seriously. ("Ah, that's what you say. I'm thinkin' I could find a dozen others who would say the opposite.") Disguises or other dodges may work at first, but soon the authorities would start being a lot more intrusive in terms of identity verification and follow-up.

Worse still, if the local leaders were not taking care of the brigand problem because e.g. an evil lord was attempting to take their territory, the PCs may end up contributing to the downfall of one or more of those leaders (and that will go badly for them on multiple levels).

So even if you can't reasonably ward off all of the players' attempts to get others to be the heroes for them, you should (especially after a while) be able to get around most:

  1. People won't trust that the PCs are telling the truth
  2. People are busy with their own issues
  3. People are afraid of stirring up trouble
  4. There may not be time to go back and get help (be sure to play out just how long this takes!)
  5. Whatever is going wrong may matter to the PCs and not so much to others

It does take some effort to set up scenarios where it's clear what the PCs should do but it's not clear or not in the interests of other powers that be to get involved, but you have lots of real-world examples to draw from.

SevenSidedDie has the best summary: When the players get creative with solving problems via realistic, sensible alternatives, the GM should reward them by making their choices have realistic, sensible impacts on the world, good and bad.

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Roll with it and skim over it

I've had parties hire assassins, send in the army, the police and everything - what you need to focus on to draw the party back in is rewards, fallout and that your plans and dungeon isn't wasted:

  • Skim over it; you don't need to roll for everyone going in - it's not what you want to happen, decide what happens - perhaps the local lord falls into a trap and all his men get massacred, perhaps he wipes them all out, roll a few dice for it if you want to and then move on quickly - you don't need to linger. When the parties not in the limelight you don't need to roll every single attack.
  • The party got another group to do it? They get the prestige, they get the loot, the local lord gets more influence, rumours abound about the amazing new sword he's found and the fact that he's got a lot more magical protections and followers now. Some of their contacts leave for the lord, the power changes.
  • XP downer, they didn't clear it? They probably get less XP. I certainly advocate players getting XP for getting around problems with diplomacy; but it's likely a lot less of a challenge and danger for convincing someone else to go in and do the butchery than doing it themselves.
  • Don't throw it away - If the players convince another lord to attack somewhere then roll with it; they've never gone into your dungeon so it's not lost, you can reuse it if you just change a few things, a few names and you've got it for somewhere else.
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Well, I'm thinking you're asking the wrong question.

You're asking us how to prevent players from using solution X, but why do you actually want to prevent that? Because it eliminates some of the obstacles you wanted them to conquer hero-style? Well, we could provide you with tons of suggestions why this or that particular solution the players thought of wouldn't work, and most probably this will be the second most common answer - right behind "talk to your players".

Still, I'm not sure if it's a real issue. If the players crippled your plot and solved their problem, good for them! Just make sure to complicate their lives in some way afterward. Don't treat that as a punishment! It's just another challenge for them, maybe one that can't be "nuked from orbit", or one that would be simply boring to overcome in such manner.

If they keep nuking things, then you AREN'T on the same page and you DO have an expectation problem. You kind of admitted it yourself in your question. They want to win and overcome obstacles the most efficient and clever way, you want to make a story about heric deeds. Just be more forceful in saying so out loud, and act if there is no improvement. Trying to outsmart all your players and maneuvering them to play something they clearly dont want to play aint gonna work well. You told them once, tell them once more, and warn them that the third time its going to be your way or the high way. If you can't agree on what are you wanting to play, why even bother looking for tricks to make them play your game the way you want it?

By the way, you might want to check out this question - it's pretty similar.

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Ichoran's answer is fantastic, but it mostly prevents them from using solutions like that repeatedly. If you want to prevent them from using it right now in this particular instance look at MacGuffins.

In other words, add in reasons they need to go and do it personally. Your title made me think of Aliens. If you find out a settlement is infested by Aliens (or zombies for that matter) the pragmagic, logical answer is "Nuke it from Orbit". Wipe out the scourge and call it a day. Unless...there is something in the infected zone that absolutely must be retrieved safely. That could be a person that must be rescued, an artifact that needs to be retrieved, etc. It almost doesn't matter what the item is, and that is part of what makes it a MacGuffin.

If there is a MacGuffin in there that the heroes need to recover, they can't just blow it up remotely, they have to approach with at least some level of finesse. And they also can't easily get someone else to retrieve it becuase then that someone else will have the MacGuffin and not the player.

Sure, you can probably convince other local Lords to eliminate your bandit problem through deception (you might also get them to lend support and aid through negotiation without deception...) But only if you can just wipe them out. If you need to interrogate the leader, rescue a prince, or retrieve a piece of evidence that incriminates an enemy of yours you need to go in, and you probably need to do it personally. MacGuffins exist to advance plots, and they can work very well.

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Honestly, Extrakun, I would love to play with your team, or DM them!

Most people who start off playing tend to be the 'kick-in-the-door' types that get a little old after a while. You would think that the Barbarian would blow out his knee after a few castles and dungeons (and I've kicked in doors in real life, it gets old after you're hobbling around with a slightly fractured foot). I've always credited my players with the use of crativity, flair, and intelligence. Normally, you're lucky if you've got a player or two who generally, as oppose to occasionally, think outside the box. You sound more like the meatshield kind of guy; nothing wrong with that. But the simple idea is to have fun! If your players are enjoying themselves, and they are 'accomplishing' what you wanted them to do (albeit in unusualy ways) then you are a success story.

I never really agree with DM's 'limiting' players, but DM's are forever trying to keep players on course. The better you can wing it, the easier it is. You can change a cyrpt into a house, or a dungeon into a castle on the fly without changing much; is it so hard that you can't wing this, too? So your players whip out the 'USS Lets-Make-Some-$#!t-Up' card. Congratulate them. That's generally what makes good movies, books, TV shows, and stories. Don't be afraid to return the favor at times, though. They go to the local lord for help? Have a local lord bring out a milita against them! Or throw out something that makes it rather implausible. I had a villain seriously run away in the first evermade blimp, negating my party's lack of a magic-user. They literally had to stand there stupidly as the villain got away, laughing maniacally. The rest of the story was them trying to reinvent a skyboat to chase him... which wasn't at all where the story was suppose to go, but ended up being a rather epic quest as it boiled down into a medieval space race. (The answer? Enchanted brooms, really large kites, and one very pissed-off sorcerer)

Rule #1: Be flexible.

When I DM, I bend rules. Sometimes beyond the point of breaking. I've saved my team from a TPK by making them all unconscious, captured by a Dread Necromancer, and having to wake up stark naked in seperate cells. As one of the PCs pointed out 'well, at least we infiltrated the crypt...' and made it even harder for them, as they had to escape and fight with no weapons or armor. If they hit a slump (or a lucky streak) boons and curses could and did happen (as my NPC was the Goddess of Luck). If they needed steering, I tailored the game in a way that I knew they would take the bait (like something shiny) and if it was getting too far off course, I would dump a traveling merchant who would be all to willing to hire extra muscle that would just happen to be going the direction that they needed to be (face it, we've all gotten bogged down, lost, confused, and forgetful).

I think your players are being rather heroic, if not meatshields and tanks. There's nothing wrong with that. If you want to discourage such things, have it not work out in their favor (riddles and traps work great). What if the local lord wants to be paid to do it, as he doesn't want to work on rumors? What if the bandits in question are actually Robin Hood and his Merry Band, and its probably better that you didn't slaughter them all. Make a damsel in distress a wicked witch. Make a troll a prince cursed with trollism. If you players don't know your fudging the chips your/their way, but you do it for the sakes of making the game harder/more entertaining/better, they'll probably appreciate what you do, and even listen to suggestions.

Rule #2: Just because you're the DM, doesn't mean you're running the game.

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If you want a game of heroic combat and action, and (some) players want a game of figuring out smart solutions to problems, and you want to play in the same game, then you need to design the game so that smart solutions to problems involve heroic action sequences.

One popular way of doing this is to increase player character power level - if the armies of lords are less powerful than a single PC, then they probably can't do much in the situation. A method with more finesse involves giving the player characters an ability or item that is the only way to fight at least some of the threats they encounter. Dragonlances, for example.

Another general solution is to make the game about nuking stuff from the orbit. Politics, court intrigue, assassination attempts as your mandatory action sequences and monsters in disguise for even more action. Running a political game requires a different set of skills when compared to action games, since you need to make the politics actually substantial if the players are going to use them with consequences.

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Unintended consequences. Lets take your example of the brigands, and spreading the rumors for a lord to take them out instead of the players doing it.

The brigands may not have all the wealth and not be as bad as made out, but one thing they did have in their possession was a certain book/map/manuscript that the party really needed to be able to get from plot point B to plot point C.

Now it's in the hand of a wealthy lord with retainers, men at arms, etc., and the players have to get the item before the lord realizes what he has.

If you do it this way the players get what they want (mostly), you get the battle you want (No reinforcements, nobody wants to cross the lord), and you show them why it's not always good to go around the obstacle. Alternatively, they can go to a different lord for support, but now they are on the hook for splitting up the treasure, etc. There are a ton of ways to spin this.

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While I like the other answers that have been presented, I feel like they focus too much on questioning why you as the DM intend for the encounter to go a certain way. Sometimes the plot you've developed simply requires for a specific encounter to happen a specific way, and despite their best intentions especially if you have smart players who play powerful characters, they can ruin a plan like that.

It seems to be based on your question that your problem is twofold: (A) you have cowardly players, and (B) you also have clever players.

To solve the problem of your clever players weaseling out of your intricate scenarios, simply manufacture a reason why the clever plans fail from time to time. This is a prime example of when it is a good idea to exercise some DM fiat. You don't want to do this too often though. In general it's good to encourage creative solutions that don't involve combat, at least in my humble opinion.

Example: A PC faces a group of enemies near a city's aqueduct. Instead of facing them in combat as you intend, which is crucial to the plot of the module or campaign, he/she figures out a way to release the water and wipe them out without breaking a sweat. However, instead of succeeding he/she gets zapped by a magical security system installed by the city's archmage. If the PC is clever enough to Search for traps and Disable Device first, just make it a ridiculously high DC that you know they cannot possibly hit.

To solve the problem of your cowardly players, use a similar technique but this time tailor the manufactured reason to be focused on encouraging them to act bravely.

Example: A group of PCs has entered a dungeon and reached an ominous sight: the large corpse of a fearsome beast. Instead of soldiering on to see what killed it, a PC suggests that the group turn back for reinforcements. The group agrees. As they turn back, they realize that they have walked further to get out than they did to get in. A curse on the labyrinth that (presumably) won't be lifted until they accomplish some goal is keeping them trapped within. The length of the hallway returning to the entryway stretches infinitely while the curse is in effect.

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The question mentions that they want to avoid railroading, though. Is there any way you can address that in your answer? (Even if how you address it is "don't bother avoiding it" or "you can't avoid it", it shows better attention to detail.) –  SevenSidedDie Apr 11 at 19:44
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