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I'm running a D&D 4e campaign taking place in Forgotten Realms (in 3e timeframe as I'm more familiar with it). My plan for the campaign was for the group of PCs to arrive in Waterdeep, where, as one of the plotlines, several large organisations are vying for complete control, using PCs to further their goals - thus I planned a sidequest or two for every organisation, which they would offer to PCs so that PCs can gain the given organisation's trust.

However my players completely surprised me with abundance of personal quests they gave to me. Including all the personal plotlines we have running now (7 players, at least 5 of them with great plot hooks it would be a shame not to use) and the fact I would like to get somewhere before Christmas on my main plot, as we are having a D&D break over it, I feel very much time constrained. However, most of the sidequests have been already laid out and I can't really retcon them out of existence.

In addition, this is my first time when literally every player provided me with abundance of plot hooks, many of which are quite divergent. Because of this there's quite a lot of inter-party conflict and at least two players basically created very apathetic characters, interested ONLY in their own personal plotline, and can't really justify why are their characters travelling with the party. This creates a very strange dynamic. While we all enjoy inter-party conflicts a lot (even though D&D is in principle a team game), I'm afraid that in the long run it may majorly derail the campaign. This makes keeping the main plots on-track feel more important.

My question is, what would be the best course of action with my sidequests? Should I modify them so that they all link in (in a more major way) with the main plotline and/or the personal quests? Should I just hope the players do not pursue them and sweep them under the metaphorical rug?

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Hello, and welcome to the site. As you clearly realise, this is really two separate questions, and they probably have separate answers. You're likely to receive much better results if you edit this post to ask only the first question, and ask the second as a new question. This lets people address each part of the problem in the depth you need. –  Tynam Dec 4 '13 at 12:37
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Customarily, rather than closing a multi-question question, we edit out the "bonus" question(s) and leave it open since that's less disruptive and more helpful. I've done that now and voted to reopen. @ user988066, the original text is still available, no worries! You can read it here. (Also found by clicking "edited X time ago" at the bottom of the question.) If you still want to ask the second question about player-plot conflict, please do ask it, and feel free to cut-and-paste from that archive. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 4 '13 at 17:59
    
Uh, thanks for fixin ghte Q SSD but the new title is pretty bad though - he's not talking about them ignoring plots in the Q just that they have a lot of divergent ones. Edited... –  mxyzplk Dec 5 '13 at 12:36
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@mxyzplk Really? I read it differently. He describes the players ignoring the "DM plot" quests in favour of their own, and wants to know what to do with the DM quests already kicked off but being ignored. Notice that the "bonus question" was how to handle a lot of divergent personal quests, which I removed and encouraged posting as a separate question. I actually thought this was the new question, from this title. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 5 '13 at 15:18
    
Ah, frankly I thought the thread got deleted as I couldn't find it... Silly me. Thanks for editing and plenty of the answers and my apologies for not exactly following the StackExchange rules! –  user988066 Dec 7 '13 at 13:56
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9 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Plot Issues

1. Play out the sidequests anyway in the back burner

In a way this feels like a Shadowrun situation, and quite frankly if the players are chasing their own (maybe literal) ghosts, the factions are going to hire someone available to do it. Let the party handle their own stuff and a rival party gets the job. You can resolve the quest any way you feel appropriate for where the plot will develop, but now the players need to fight for their reputations. The next player plot hook could be buried in the rival groups.

2. Why not mix it up?

If the party is supposed to be a group of characters with high impact on their world, there is a way to make the character plots intercede with the core plots, even if they happen just a little off kilter from what you need to accomplish like the job is straightforward but Bob's old nemesis just can't see it go well, or George's scorned love demands a favor in exchange for forgiveness, or Nell's long lost sister might be in the mark faction's castle/town/whatever. While they may seem very divergent, the plot device has a setting for looping things together in the strangest of ways such that they all become related and keep the party together.

3. PC the NPC / NPC the PC

Do you have a specific way you want the quests to go? Follow one of the players on their sidequest (and anyone else with reason to be involved) and pre-gen NPCs for the rest of the characters to play - including a core enough personality to keep them involved. Meanwhile, the party does their quest. It might not be the smoothest accomplishment but it would then be up to you as the DM for embellishments but do reward the core party with the quest items for the players performing well in the side arc. This also gives you play room for fuzzy memory parts that you need to ad hoc or retcon.

4. Save this campaign for later

If the players are giving you enough plot to run a full game, it may mean that you should save this campaign for when you have a more attentive party - especially one where you can tell the players what they're in for to make characters in reaction to it. This is my least favorite idea but if they have these in depth characters that run parallel to the world you're running, it may be worth considering.

Motivation Issues

I'm hoping these are not the CN players who just enjoy what I call the Video Game Experience. To me, the Video Game Experience is that to the player, anything in the environment they can interact with needs to be important, monsters are just experience, and the plot itself doesn't necessarily need to matter if they get the levels and the loot. In this case they are almost turning themselves into NPCs if their actions really have nothing to do with the party.
It may be worthwhile to sit down with them to explain that these characters need a few tweaks to make the game harmonic. While a character can be selfish, the fact is that it's hard to run a full party with the truly self indulgent within it. Tell them that they can keep their characters, perhaps even as they are but the player becomes responsible at least up front with why the character is with the group. After encountering a situations where the characters don't mesh or the lone wolf amidst the team, DMs in my area have started telling people that even if they make characters on their own, it's up to them to make party cohesion work. Sometimes it doesn't matter and the DM holds the leash for some major plot hook, but the fact is that in the seemingly sandbox world you have, the party dynamic is player driven.

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I like your point about the Video Game Experience, but there is no reason not to indulge the whims sometimes if that's what they're after. Just a thought. The goal is for everyone to enjoy it since it is just a game. –  ExpatPaul Dec 4 '13 at 14:16
    
"Kick in the Door" play definitely has a place but it seems to conflict with the group overall. –  CatLord Dec 4 '13 at 14:25
    
+1 for number 2, this has served me well on multiple occasions with my group that has similar amounts of personal hooks and character desires to deal with. The best part is that if something suddenly comes up that would fit, it's frequently easy to find little ways to hook it in retroactively that they're only now discovering. –  Lunin Dec 5 '13 at 2:30
    
THanks for such a multi-faceted and complete answer. I do not necessarily agree with all the points, but these are all great advice. Thank you! –  user988066 Dec 7 '13 at 13:58
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I am going to guess that you are running a more-or-less sandbox game. Sandbox games are great at giving the players the ability to write their own future, but are lousy since whenever they decide to go on a tangent, it's almost impossible to get them off of the tangents. I have found that using seed-sprout-bloom-fruit plot lines makes running sandbox games much simpler. Your players want to go in their own directions. I say let them. Yet once their side-quest plots are reaching the bloom and fruit stages, it should be obvious that whatever they are tracking down should lead/point them back to the main plot.

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Thank you very much for this! Great idea! –  user988066 Dec 7 '13 at 13:57
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Bind together as many of the sidequests together as you can (without it being ridiculous). Think Heroes - dozens of characters and stories, somehow they combined to create a single thread.

To do this requires some brainstorming, and is highly dependent on the details of the side quests. However, a lot of quests have a key requirement of being in the right place at the right time. You can merge quite a few of those times and places, especially if they are attached to movable targets like NPCs.

Get some scraps of paper (or post-it notes), and jot down the key stages of the main plot line and the side quests (you can get fancy and add conditional branches etc). Move them around a bit, and see how many you can merge, such that e.g. going to location A and talking to character B progresses main plot plus a couple of the side quests. Once you have an idea of it, jot down a rough plan for next session that should cover the play for that session within reason.

If you play in an open-ended style, where player choice can dynamically affect the plot, don't plan this too far ahead, and repeat the exercise between each session, with the same goal of merging plot opportunities, and trying to be fair that each PC gets some of the personal progression.

To help this work, you should ensure that the players and PCs have clear signals early on that travelling to certain locations, meeting certain people, or defeating specific enemies are probably in their interest. In D&D terms that might just be a rumour that "over there" (about 3 encounters on your main plot plan) is a map that could be the missing clue to their personal quest.


This is copied verbatim from comment by valadil

When you bind sidequests together it can look like a tangled web of too many coincidences that no sane person would find plausible. This is true, from your bird's eye view that sees all the links and connections. The players' POV is different. They see the coincidences one at a time, as you reveal them. That the rogue and fighter shared the same mentor, whose death must be avenged will be the big reveal for a single session. They digest that and then get more next week. Furthermore, the players won't realize all the coincidences you create. tl;dr Go nuts!

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I'd like to add to this answer. When you bind sidequests together it can look like a tangled web of too many coincidences that no sane person would find plausible. This is true, from your bird's eye view that sees all the links and connections. The players' POV is different. They see the coincidences one at a time, as you reveal them. That the rogue and fighter shared the same mentor, whose death must be avenged will be the big reveal for a single session. They digest that and then get more next week. Furthermore, the players won't realize all the coincidences you create. tl;dr Go nuts! –  valadil Dec 5 '13 at 18:16
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@valadil: That's really good, and I wish I said it. With the magic of editing, now I can (it's too good to leave to the comment-deleting elves here) –  Neil Slater Dec 5 '13 at 19:47
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Treat it like a serialized, ensemble Drama.

Everything you describe in your question makes me think that the best approach would not be the traditional, heroic arc, but rather to treat it with the story telling approach a series like Mad Men or Deep Space Nine. Serial dramas have season plots, that tend to be the major developments overtime (main quest), episodic focus and back-story episodes (personal player plot/quests) as well as plot lines that development the theme of the world and possible setup the next season's main plot as well (your faction side quests). This will allow you to give due to the work your players have put into their characters as well as letting you flesh out the work you've done without it all getting lost in a jumble.

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I always use email for side quests in between primary quests. It makes things easier and you can CC people who need to know. I'm doing a DnD Next campaign this way. It also makes people work for cohesion and find ways their characters can work together - this works quite well for the ones who, in person, don't get along.

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While part of a large game of AD&D players frequently did this because the core plot didn't leave much room for personal development. However, this made some people feel left out and ignored because they weren't considered for certain things. –  CatLord Dec 4 '13 at 14:38
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Good point, but that's why I used these side quests to mix people up and everyone gets one that on some level plays to their strengths/likes/habits. –  ExpatPaul Dec 4 '13 at 21:58
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Let the side events play out on their own and find their own resolutions - if the PCs aren't interested and aren't already intimately involved, then I'm sure the organizations behind them can find some NPCs willing to do their dirty work. If not, things can go undone.

Either way, the results will likely be less-desirable than if the PCs took those tasks on, but they should not be absolutely horrible. The point isn't to "punish" the players or the PCs for ignoring them, but rather to a) keep the world moving around them and b) make the players decide which things are important to them and which they can allow to fall by the wayside.

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What you didn't state was the medium in which you play. Is it face-to-face? play-by-post/play-by-email? Or is it an online medium like Roll20 or Google Hangouts? I'll assume that it's face-to-face in your house for my answer.

Dedicate 5 minutes to each side-track and deal with the PC in another room 1-on-1. Do this for up to an hour of game time, rotating players in and out of the private room. This can be a great way to get PC's to wonder about the motivations of each other. A lot can be done this way. Then, after the hour, try to bring it all together. I've done this in the past the key is not to have the 1-on-1's last long. Avoid long combats. Avoid delving into a 10 room dungeon. There should only be a handful of decision points that need to be made to reach a conclusion.

This also works great in play-by-post/play-by-email but not so well in an online chat room environment.

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My apologies, it's a face-to-face game. –  user988066 Dec 7 '13 at 13:55
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I would suggest braiding your divergent story lines together as a general principle, but your situation has some special considerations.

In addition, this is my first time when literally every player provided me with abundance of plot hooks, many of which are quite divergent. Because of this there's quite a lot of inter-party conflict and at least two players basically created very apathetic characters, interested ONLY in their own personal plotline, and can't really justify why are their characters travelling with the party. This creates a very strange dynamic. While we all enjoy inter-party conflicts a lot (even though D&D is in principle a team game), I'm afraid that in the long run it may majorly derail the campaign.

It seems that your problem characters bring some substantial benefit to the table, while simultaneously being a bane of your attempts at organizing an inclusive character-driven plot. The conflict they provide must be fun on some level, and perhaps the cynical lens through which they view your fantasy world and its heroes provides a compelling counterpoint to your other characters. Their players are roleplaying them true-to-form, which means their motivations don't co-align.

It's up to you to make that happen, and you have a few options. You can try to adjust your players' play style with an out-of-game plea, or you can try to craft your personal plot hooks in a way that encourages them to be cooperative. From the way you frame your issue, I think you might prefer the latter.

Their most powerful general motivations are probably going to be ones of self interest: greed, lust for power, vanity, pride. If the characters have an obsession or a weakness, tweak that where possible. Try to involve these motivations even when their specific goals are not being addressed.

But with regards to specific goals, since these are your most difficult characters to motivate, and they are the least likely to follow the rest of the group, you need to motivate them first and compellingly in order to have a chance to forge the camaraderie that binds the party together. Provide a quest hook that uses that character's background, serves that character's self interest and helps achieve a personal goal, but that simultaneously is compatible with the moralities and priorities of the heroic characters.

Revenge can be an excellent theme for this. A difficult-to-motivate character encounters an opportunity to thwart an old enemy in a painful way, enriching himself in the process, and it just so happens that the target is outright villainous, and is engaged in activities that the heroic characters find very difficult to ignore. Drop in a thread of one of the other characters' story lines so that advancing the one also advances another. Maybe the villain happens to have a clue relevant to another character's personal plot, and can provide a segue that motivates the difficult character to go along.

Hero: Why these letters show that the magistrate is in possession of the stolen finger bones of Saint Jarvis the Emancipator, and that he plans to sell them to Thayvian slave traders! The meeting for the sale is in three days! We must stop this sacrilege!

Not Hero: What's in it for me?

Hero: I just helped you dispatch your tormentor's lieutenant, and I'll swear to help you find your kidnapped sister. Plus, returning the finger bones comes with hefty reward.

Not Hero: Done and done!

While focusing on the difficult characters, ensure that the quest engages the specialties of as many characters as possible so that the other players feel that their presence is worthwhile. This also helps build loyalty. If a difficult character has to rely heavily on the other characters to accomplish his own goals, then he may become more cooperative out of gratitude or a sense of continuing reliance.

While focusing on the other characters, give the difficult ones the opportunity to be self-importantly excellent. Showering them with adoration from the grateful masses in exchange for their reluctantly heroic deeds, building unexpected renown as a valiant protector of the people, can be an excellent motivator for further heroism. It can also come with some serious downsides for a character with enemies in high places.

Give your difficult characters some substantial gains. Let them have their victories. Then, if you want to compellingly tie them in to advancing the other characters' plot lines, threaten to take it away unless they act swiftly and decisively. Self interest works in both directions, and threatening it can really make a player squirm. If it's hard-won organizational prestige, then have that be threatened by a corrupting influence within the organization from another player's adversary. Perhaps the difficult character suddenly finds himself framed for a crime and all of his allies (except of course for the party, who know he's innocent) suddenly become his pursuers, with the puppet strings leading back to a well-established foe that sees the difficult character's new prestige as an opportunity to create a potent distraction.

The plots don't all need to link in, but you should try to tie in one or two other characters each time you focus on advancing a plot that spotlights one character, and hopefully the other players will find opportunities to shine along the way. Like braiding individual strands together, you only grasp a few a time, and slowly you make a nice strong rope.

Then you yank the threads rudely in different directions and see what happens. Does it all unravel, or somehow stay together?

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You are the DM. If players aren't interested in following the plot you've laid out then they don't want to play your game. I'm sure inter-party conflict is a valid gaming device, but you are all supposed to be playing the same game.

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It may make running a game inclusive of all players' desires more challenging, but it certainly is not impossible. I'll tell you what's really challenging: forming a group of players who will jive perfectly. I find it's often a lot easier to adapt to the peculiarities of the individual players, the characters they've cooked up and their permutations of interpersonal interactions than it is to find a harmonious group of 4-5 people. –  GBorreson Dec 6 '13 at 17:14
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