What measures and pitfall should I consider when running an especially unstructured narrative in Pathfinder?

In the campaign I am running that has started recently, I am attempting to run a fairly "open" story that avoids blatant railroading. While I wish to present the characters with problems and challenges to deal with, I do not want to strongly guide them toward solutions; rather, I want them to be proactive in coming up with their own creative solutions. I want to provide the stimuli, but I want to avoid dictating their reactions as much as possible.

However, I am not sure if it is problematic narratively, to what extent, or how to best compensate. In the typical D&D structure that I'm used to, the group would have relative confidence over what their current "quest" and goal is, when they can (and "should") rest, and what kind of overall encounter difficulty to expect in an "adventuring day". My plan for GMing throws out most of these expectations.

As an example, the game thus far began with the PCs' shared hometown being attacked by monsters (and successfully defended by them). The details of this attack are largely unknown and mysterious, leaving the players and characters left with uncertainty.

Based on what I know of the players, they will deal with this issue with intelligence and planning, but possibly to the point of paranoia. Since they don't know if they drove off all the attackers or when more will be back, their characters might be always on edge for hours or days following. Since the attack happened in the middle of the night, they may be afraid to sleep, or their sleep schedules might get out of whack. They might become frugal with their spells and resources "just in case" something else happens at any given time. They might avoid taking risky avenues of approaching the situation (such as exploring the nearby countryside for clues) in favor of safer, cautious options (fortifying town defenses and waiting until another attack happens).

Personally, I find this kind of on-edge paranoia over mysterious circumstances to be interesting. It is probably a fairly accurate and realistic model of how a small town of people might react to a sudden and unexpected disaster. However, realism doesn't always make for a good story. Should I be concerned about this possibility of paranoia and overly cautious behavior? What are good ways to help this go smoothly?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you clarify what difference, if any you see between the common RPG style of "sandbox" play and what you're calling an "unstructured narrative"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 17:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage I see a sandbox game as one where the GM does little in terms of causing problems as well, and the players tend to "make their own problems" by causing or looking for trouble. What I am referring to has issues to deal with, but no railroad for dealing with them - trouble still comes to them. And what I see as the common "quest" style has both these things. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 17:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's describing one specific style of sanboxing, but the term isn't exclusive to that one kind of sandboxing. This question's description does fall under the broader definition of sandbox — especially the problem the Q is about — so it merits our tag. I've gone ahead and added it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 18:57

3 Answers 3


The biggest problem you may have is that players simply do not know what to do and don't know where to start.

0- Make sure your players know that this is your goal with the campaign. Don't spring this on them (don't do like I did).

1- Present the NPC and feature interaction with them. Not just "Hi! I'm Bob, I'm your cousin blacksmith, do you want a sword?" But something more meaningful.

2- Make sure the NPCs bring in some of the questions you want the PCs to ask themselves. Ideally, following the rule of three. They will figure it out and take it beyond.

3- Your NPCs should also share some possible avenues of resolving conflict, "You should take care of those Hatfields... they are jerks". Again the rule of three is a good way to start.

4- Avoid the whole thing depending on a Sense Motive check (made or failed). A single check should not unveil everything.

5- Provide the PCs with visuals (or at least a list) of the major suspects. Since they come from town, they should not spend their time exploring and wondering who is who. They WOULD know that Tim sleeps with his neighbors' wife. They WOULD know that Mrs Buttons is the gossip queen. They WOULD know that Father Smitty sleeps in the church on warm afternoons. Etc. All these things are good to provide right off the bat.

6- The NPCs should FEEL like they are doing something. For example, the guards does not sit at the gate all day waiting to charge gate tax. They get called upon for things of various importance: Mrs Buttons' cat in the tree, looking at a murder, fighting off marauding orcs/goblins, breaking up a brawl. This gives the PCs an added reason to talk to the NPCs: What happened today and what did you do about it?

7- The death of such a campaign is when the players don't know what to do because they do not have enough things to do. Ideally, overwhelming them with hooks, stories, avenues of investigation. Why? Because if they can't handle everything, guess what the mayor/lord has to deal with? His hands are tied too.

8- Make sure EVERY PC has some personal story/ plot to deal with. Even the orphan who knows nothing about his past should have something. This may not be immediately obvious, but perhaps the spinster Miss Kara looks longingly at the PC... Every character should have a thread or two that is related to HIM/HER.

9- Split the party... Yes, I said it. There should be time when the party will split. If they do that and you run the two groups separately, that will create some paranoia. When you do that, this leads me to the big one:

10- Make sure everyone has equal time with you. Not everyone is as interested/ capable/ quick thinking in a total sandbox. Make sure they also get their time. The corollary is "don't let one or two players hog the game"

What you ask for is VERY possible and doable. In the early parts of the campaign, provide the PCs with a little guidance: offer a few possible missions and ideas, see if they want to take them.


It is normal for players to be paranoid especially with a GM that is trying to make an open ended game as literally anything can turn out to be a story hook. The thing to beware of is having your players feel like they haven't found everything they could use to their advantage. As a GM i tend to place a non combatant assistant next to my PC's. A smart person from a race players don't know ready to provide them with advise or do things that are monotonous. This allows you to give them advise but have them constantly question why someone knows so much. For extra points you could have your players roll knowledge planes or knowledge arcana to know the NPC's race.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I personally don't like this because of how close it comes to having a GM PC. It's fine to have source(s) of knowledge available, but anyone with that much knowledge should have something keeping them more busy than following your adventurers around. I also don't understand the necessity of having it be an exotic Race. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 19:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ The point is players will ask why she doesn't have a better thing to do and get suspicious. It's like making a deal with the devil. You get the information but you don't know what the other side gets out of it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 20:19

It seems that you have your players trained to expect events to be bad things. That leads to player/character paranoia. If so, you should be concerned.

Try to have events that are opportunities. This is very easy with my group as they will try to turn any event into an opportunity (e.g. "Nails & Scales / Every Dragon should look their Best").

I like to use story hooks that players can accept or bypass. My current campaign (not Pathfinder) has about 8 hooks that are on hold and may expire but that's because the characters are involved in three other hooks and dabbling in a forth.

If you need to train them out of paranoia and purely reactive non-action, start with hooks that are clearly beneficial. Maybe non action or failure will lead to minor bad stuff but no where near what the benefit would be. Then have hooks that can obviously go either way. Eventually, the players will figure out ways to benefit that you never thought of. At that point the game becomes a bit of a roller coaster ride for the GM too. :-)

  • \$\begingroup\$ To be clear, the problem involving paranoia hasn't actually happened yet. It's just my best guess at the most likely problem that could happen, which I am trying to pre-emptively avoid. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare, then just make sure that you make sure to train them to look for opportunities. That will make your life... ...interesting. \$\endgroup\$
    – ShadoCat
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ The example we were given of "The town has been attacked. It may be attacked again." is not a sign of players who have been abused by their GM, it's a completely normal (and realistic!) conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 11:27

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