As with most of my questions, this is more of a general "how to handle a special situation" and not a plea to solve an existing problem.

What is the best way to handle story deadlocks (as in: The story can't progress as originally planned and possibly even not at all)?

For example:

  • The PCs have killed a crucial NPC, or gotten him killed or "unavailable" through other means (Starting a battle, betraying him to the city guard if he's a criminal, ...)
  • The PCs have made enemies with a faction they need to continue the (original) story
  • ...

Aside from the obvious advice "don't let it come to that", "plan ahead for those situations" and so on, what can I do if I am surprised by an unexpected action of a PC that makes the original arc unviable?

The things I thought about are all pretty boring:

  • Divine intervention. The worst thing you can do as a DM, in my opinion, unless there is absolutely no other way.
  • Adding a new NPC to replace the old one and going on as planned. Will create nasty plot holes (How did that guy find out about what you are doing, why was he never mentioned before, ...). Depending on the situation, this might be viable, but sometimes it makes too big of a plot hole (For example if you accidentally betrayed the local crime lord, who was the only one who had the exact plans you needed).
  • Rollback. Pretty much equals divine intervention, with the added bonus that the PCs now know that the NPC is important, which might give away important plot twists. Depending on how good the players are at seperating player knowledge from character knowledge, this may sometimes be the best solution, but I'm still not satisfied, it feels like cheating to me.
  • Improvising and discarding the original story. Makes for some great adventures, as I know first hand, but can be frustrating if you had an entire campaign planned that has become obsolete in its current form.

I have only been DM for two or three times yet, so I don't feel ready to improvise an entire adventure, like our old GM used to.

So, the question is: what have I missed? What other ways are there to rescue the story without (obvious) cheating?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You've tried to negate the correct answers already in the question. There's a reason the walls of text below are all so similar and ignore your limitations... Because you're trying too hard to stick to a script, and that is absolutely NOT the GM's job. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Mar 20, 2012 at 3:44

15 Answers 15


You have the right answer in your choices.

Being a DM isn't about writing a script and continually nullifying player choices to keep them "on script". If you want to write a story without much outside input, then write fiction. Nothing wrong with that.

A DM is only one participant of the story when role-playing. Sure, typically the DM will set up the initial scenario and make certain decisions that will constrain choice. But you have to accept that once you turn the PC's loose on "your" world, they are likely to take your carefully crafted story, and fold/spindle/mutilate it (or all three!).

You can of course plan an overarching story for the campaign. It can a great idea to do so, it provides direction and focuses the campaign. But if the players make the story no longer possible and you can't come up with a satisfying way to "fix" it, then it's time to adjust.

If the party goes off of the rails, it is likely due to one of three things

  1. They notice the rails and want off! Whether by boredom or active malice they've decided to go left instead of right. Either way, you're getting feedback that your story is not as entertaining to them as you might have thought. Time to make changes!
  2. Player discovery - The players have discovered something cool about your campaign or their characters that you might not have thought about and want to explore it! This is awesome, it will mean that your story should go on the back burner for a bit. When the players show an active interest in the setting, nurture that, don't shut them down. Let it play out, it usually won't be a long detour and the players will rejoin the main plot-line with renewed vigor.
  3. Player Agency - One or more players has their own story that they want to explore. Quite often a player will build a backstory for their character that has some hooks in it. If you don't grab the hooks and work with them (I think we're all guilty of this at some point!) the player may still want to explore their half-dragon ancestry, or why they got kicked out of Star Fleet Academy. Let them run with it, rein them back in if it becomes excessive. In the same way that your story cannot dominate the table you can't allow one player to continually dictate what happens next. However there should always be room for each player to shine for a session now and again.

The last two are sides of the same coin. Both involve letting players "run the show" to a certain extent. One problem that I've seen multiple times is for the GM to plan one scenario after another after another, never giving the players a chance to catch their breath. Instead of plotting things so extensively, ease up occasionally. Let the players know that after the current big boss is killed that there are no immediate plans for the campaign and ask, "What will you want to do?" This can serve as a release valve and free up any building tensions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for keeping the story flexible. If at all possible I always take this approach, and often let players know the impact their decisions/actions have had on the story's direction at the end of the session. This gives the whole thing a sense of joint ownership, and lets them know they I am taking their decisions seriously. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Mar 20, 2012 at 0:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ "one of three things" "1." "2." ..... that's going to bother me all day now. What's the third?! \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21, 2012 at 11:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Getting distracted by something else, apparently! He's communicating it in a very Zen way. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Mar 25, 2012 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given so much in system terms, GMs lose track of the fact that it's collaborative. These are the times that are most rewarding and that I revel in- it reveals part of the story that I didn't know, and at many times the players keep me on the edge of my seat because I have no idea what they're going to do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chuck Dee
    Mar 25, 2012 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Yamikuronue - with all these upvotes for two things, I guess I don't need to reveal the 3rd :) Actually this was a standard case of getting interrupted while crafting the answer. My brain has yet to remind me of the 3rd thing I thought was so obvious when I wrote that. Perhaps, not so obvious...d0h \$\endgroup\$
    – Pat Ludwig
    Mar 25, 2012 at 17:33

Realize it's not a dead end

No storyline ending action is a dead end unless it also kills all the PC's. There is always a new direction to go. Sure, plotline #1 is over because they wiped out it's boss-thing and its psychotic killer henchwomen... and that leaves a power vacuum that will be filled.

Remember that PC's don't actually have the big picture.

The PC's only KNOW what you and the setting books have told them. Even if they think they know the big picture, you can always have the now closed off story pick up with an heir, lieutenant, supervisor, silent partner or lover coming to take their place. Sure they got the man who people thought was the boss. His real boss was Mr. Quiet all along, but they never knew that.

You can replace anyone with a hidden heir, and continue. The players never have all the truth, so you can insert heirs to continue to storyline.

You can have others in that organization take revenge, changing the story. Not quite the same as continuing it, but it allows reuse of the materials in many cases.

You can have the power vacuum filled by someone else with similar motives. Again, not a literal continuation, but very often, from the GM side, it's the exact same module all over again, just changing names and faces. I've done that with D&D modules, AMSH modules, WFRP1E modules, and Traveller modules... I've put the same characters through Research Station Gamma twice... by moving the second time to a different subsector, and changing a few names and the description of the aliens.

Remember that modules are not "stories graven in stone."

A module is a set of resources. They're designed to be sequential, possibly branching... but that doesn't mean you have to use them that way.

I've run The Enemy Within 5 times... and in 4 of those, I've had City of Chaos repeat because they didn't find the clues the first time. (Three of those had repeat players!) The second time, it's a different cult they find, root out, and usually follow to the big-bad plot hook from hell at the end of that module. One of those groups took a third try... they managed to get run out of town twice before even finding the cult. In another, the plot-driving McGuffin's linked PC got killed. The party left the adventure cold... So a fellow cultist had seen him with them, and the cult came after them... which dragged them back onto the plot. Literally kicking and screaming.

I ran Castle Ravenloft once... the PC's got REALLY lucky, and killed off Strahd. So, I have this castle, a few weaker undead and a lot of powerful loot... Time to promote one of them... the rest of the adventure was completely unlike what was in the book, but used the maps and the rooms. And had a group of 3 nasty victims of Strahd trying to take revenge without being seen, because they think the PC's are stronger than them. Turned it into a variation on Tucker's Kobolds. So, while they killed off Strahd in 15 minutes, I still got my 7 player-hours worth out of the module even tho' I actually ran only 4 pages of it.

Even the GM's homegrown modules are resource kits.

In case of derail, call a 10 min smoke break (or make a 10 min head call, or whatever), and think about how the others in the module would react. And then use the rest of the prep as just a pile of NPC's and Maps.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 one for this: "Time to promote one of them." Visions of the GM as Lord Vader dance in my head. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 20, 2012 at 18:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ErikSchmidt "You're in command now, Admiral Piett." \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Feb 25, 2014 at 22:03

So, the question is: what have I missed?

You've missed the idea that in a role-playing game, storytelling is collaborative and improvisational. Not the sole province of the GM, and not heavily scripted in advance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the ballsy and succinct answer! I'd +1 it again for being a fundamental truth, but the system won't let me. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Mar 20, 2012 at 3:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well said, it cannot and should not be too heavily scripted in advance. Still, GMs often benefit from a general plan and having some general techniques to call on when that plan is altered definitely helps. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 20, 2012 at 18:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ The improvisation aspect of the game can be the most fun. I can struggle with improvising on the spot when my story has just been blown out of the water - for those times I ask for a break and the players have always been happy to grant the 15 minutes I ask for. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 21, 2012 at 12:35

First of all, I love when this happens. If it doesn't ever happen then all the fun is creating the story, and running it is dull, unless the players add interest in other ways.

That being said, it can be tough if you laboriously prepared 12 hours of material for an 8 hour session (just in case) and it's all moot in 15 minutes.

I know you said not to tell you "don't let it come to that", but one thing that helps is if you don't have an intricate plot (you will either railroad players or they will break it, almost every time), instead have a situation, characters, and an idea in your head of some of the plots that seem likely to happen.

Now instead of on rails they are at least on a big highway. They will still drive off it, but they have more room.

For me, I can handle the whole campaign taking a turn, at least I'll have time to think about it. The tough part is when I have nothing right now. (I just created an ancient tomb dungeon crawl, and the first thing the players did is hire the local necromancer to create a zombie excavation crew. Hmmm...)

If improvising isn't working out that night, it can be helpful to plan some generic "buy me some time" encounters. These might help you feel more confident about improvising, since you can always throw them in if you can't think of anything.

In many systems combat is slow. If you really need to buy time, throw in a combat. (You got baron Rumschen arrested? Congratulations. The next day on the way to the market you see several thugs robbing an old man...). The players will often have elaborate theories about the random combat, which you can possibly steal.

In short, improvising and discarding the original story is really the only option, but it's a lot more fun anyway. Plus if you design the original story based on interesting characters in an interesting situation you can still use most of your work most of the time. If not, you can run that campaign some other time.


Roll with it - as previously suggested this is why we are GMs not novelists.

Maybe the players did the unfortunate action deliberately, chances are it was pure dumb luck - either way, nullifying the action will probably annoy your players far more than your finely crafted story is likely to entertain them.

This is their free will after all.

So now it's really time to earn your reputation as a ref, how does the universe react to this new set of events:

  • Does the plot simply not happen?
  • Does it run out of control?
  • Does someone else suddenly get embroiled in it?
  • Is the universe simply doomed?

In short - if the players mess up your plot, let them. Your job is simply to follow through with effects.

Having said that there are times when it really is game over if you do leave it alone (E.g. Your plan to have them thwart the summoning of "he who cannot be adequately written down and eats planets for lunch" is foiled as they burnt down the house with the required artefact in it.)

However as master of your universe you have some controls, the player characters are not the only intelligent agents that exist - maybe someone else sorts out the original problem but in doing so a new one appears.

So perhaps some time later they find out that an NPC they met earlier has discovered the site of the summoning and managed to disrupt it enough to hold off the destuction of the earth. But in doing so they have merged with the summoning and are not entirely in control - now the players have a totally different problem to solve but with the same ends.

Either way you must maintain the players sense of control, after all this is their game too - if they feel that they can't fail, then they probably won't feel that they can take the credit any success either.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1. Sometimes its best just to let the universe end. Not every adventuring party is successful after all, and if they really are Our Only Hope then, well, it's over. Just like a TPK this isn't always a bad thing. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 17, 2014 at 6:08

There are a number of generally useful techniques that are worth looking at, but of course a lot of it depends on how they went off course.

  • They made an enemy of someone that needs to be an ally This happens in real life and fiction all the time. One of the most common resolutions is to find a way to work together anyway because there is a need, at least temporarily. The tension can in fact create a lot of interesting dynamics. Drizzt worked with Artemis Entreri more than once because there was a temporary pressing need. In the Star Wars EU, the New Republic and the Remenants of the Empire put aside their difference temporarily during the Yuuzhan Vong war. You might have to ramp up the tension to drive them together, but almost any difference can be put aside at least temporarily if the need is great enough.
  • Killed someone crucial Well, I know you said you don't like "Don't let it come to that" but there is almost always some way to keep someone truly vital alive. They have a cunning escape route preplanned. If you are in a game system (D&D) that allows easy resurrection, they get resurrected. If you do decide it's better to let them die, then replacing them (depending on the situation) might not be so hard. The NPC might have a henchmen/son/daughter/etc. that is ready and willing to continue on the original person's schemes. They would likely know most of the stuff the original knew, and might have the original's notes, records, or (depending on setting) even access to the dead man's soul.
  • Rejected the job If they turn down some sort of job your plan required them to take then you can do a number of things to get them more interested. The most obvious is to up the offered reward, but you could also do something to directly force them. For instance, if the job was to kill someone and they refused, you could later have that someone kill one of their loved ones, and then its personal. Perhaps the people trying to hire them decide they need to gauruntee compliance by taking a captive. If you really want to be ham handed, they could be put under some sort of geas/implanted with a mind control device that directly forces them to take it.
  • Lost an essential item If they lose an essential item, then it might find its way back to them on its own. This is a common trope with magical items, especially cursed ones. But a better way is to reinforce its importance to them and then give them an opportunity to earn it back. This can create its own interesting twists and might become a "MacGuffin".

Now, one thing that I find helps when my plans as a GM get derailed is to let time pass, both in real life and in the game. This gives me time to formulate exactly how to go forward and in game it gives time for the setting to adjust. They killed the main villain too early, I can easily replace him with his own son, but it seems funny that the fully-ready kid is just standing there ready to take up the slack. It seems a lot less funny that the kid was out on his own adventures, but was being kept aprised of the situation by his father. The father dies, the kid travels back to the action and then takes up his place.

The best way to let time pass is to give them some sort of side mission and then come back to the main plot.

Of course, if they really mess up your plans it might be important to make sure the players liked that plot. If they did something really unexpected that ruined the plot, it might be a sign that they don't like that plot and you as the GM should be makings ome major tweaks anyway.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Now, one thing that I find helps when my plans as a GM get derailed is to let time pass, both in real life and in the game." Very good point. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 19, 2012 at 22:46

I often make storyline deadlocks go away in a number of ways;

Chain Gang Approach

In Shadowrun, I made the characters be corporate wage-mercenaries with cranial bombs and all that-they had to do the exact missions I decreed until they opted to break free (which was kinda railroad-ish, but made sense given that it was a consequence of their actions). It worked well because they advanced the plotline I wanted them to move down, and put them in place for an epic finale in which they break free but are lost at sea.

This can be done well, as a consequence of past actions (the party in question was wanted in most every northern hemisphere country and South America), but not so well if it's just a glorified way of railroading.

Unseen Force Approach

I did this for my Vampire campaign after it became clear that the group had no interest whatsoever in Camarilla political intrigue; and I brought in the Sabbat and a group of vampire hunters (during the same in-game night) to ensure that not only do they have a ton of combat to keep them happy, but it also forced them to play ball with the Camarilla to get what they need to keep going.

In theory, this isn't surefire, but now that they could be staked by a random psychotic vampire (well, that may be redundant) or vampire hunter they should be much more interested in protecting their own backsides.

Common Agenda Approach

So the party's totally and wholly made enemies of their intended allies? Make both groups work together, but stifle the party's rewards because they are wanted criminals or the like; their atonement is their reward for their actions. This can work hand-in-hand with the Chain Gang Approach, but does not in and of itself promote any obligation; both sides want to bring down Evil King Zanetio, and they put their hatred aside and build up a friendship while struggling for survival.

This requires a notable common agenda, meaning something like a risk to humanity (or a whole race/nation/planet/solar system), major villain, massive rewards, or the like. If it fails the players will probably wind up in trouble; and if one of the players happens to be anti-alignment compared to the rest of the party the plot will get much more tense.

Anonymous Approach

Maybe the players can convince their new enemies that they actually meant to be friends, change their identities, or find another way to get back in their plot-assigned allies good graces-this works best with a carrot rather than a stick, because it can get pretty close to railroading.

Naturally, this is much more difficult if the party stepped into the throne room and defiled the king and killed his daughter; but if all they did was take out a random patrol it could be pinned on someone else. This also gives wonderful blackmail sources.

Replacing NPC's

This is a more specific way to focus on a single important NPC-

Waterfall Approach

The players didn't manage to kill/betray the NPC entirely-he was in a coma, got resurrected (by magic or technology, if possible), escaped from prison, or was a victim of mistaken identity, so some random sap's lying in a ditch bleeding rather than him.

Naturally, this is pretty specific to the setting in which it occurs, as well as the method of NPC loss. It may be more difficult to justify why the NPC would have anything to do with the players afterward than to explain how he survived.

Bring Him Back Approach

The players are responsible for undoing their action, and are policed by a member of the NPC's faction or a powerful ally of the NPC. They must either resurrect him, pay his medical bills, clear his reputation, or break him from prison based on how they got rid of the NPC.

This requires certain settings for certain approaches, naturally, but it also falls really close to railroading. For a twist, the NPC could have been dead for good, died in the hospital, or been sent to death row, and the players could be forced to live with their actions.


If you REALLY, ABSOLUTELY need to do this "as written", follow the Feng Shui School of Adaptative History.

In Feng Shui, time travellers who go back and kill Hitler generally return to their time and find that World War II still happened, as some guy by the name of Fitler happened to fail art school the very same year.

Your original 200 page wall of text need not be DRAMATICALLY affected by the player's actions. A detail here or there can make all the difference.

  • So, the faction whose support they needed is now an enemy ? Well, another faction just happens to like the fact that they've upset their rivals' plans and will be grateful for their actions.

  • Instead of being a band of heroes sponsored by the now dead King, they become a band of rogue freedom fighters striving in the underground to topple the tyranny. This may even have only precipitated the attack from the neighbor country you had planned for 3 sessions later.

With a little imagination, there should be a way to put your story back on tracks without altering the landscape too much.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't like this method so much because it feels forced-if things happen exactly as they would have, the players may feel that their actions don't result in a change in the world; some plots will break permanently if something important is removed. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 19, 2012 at 21:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Except, of course, they're not supposed to know the original story to begin with. The time-travelling here assumes so, but in the case made by malexmave, only the GM knows his story was broken in the first place. I'm not a fan of railroading to begin with, but I'm trying to give a solution as close to the question as possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nigralbus
    Mar 19, 2012 at 22:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of course they're not supposed to know the original story, but if you make a storyline happen that doesn't lead from the events before it it'll at the very least ruin suspension of belief and could make players feel like their actions lack meaning in the game world. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 19, 2012 at 22:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ A good answer to a badly worded question. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Mar 20, 2012 at 3:41

The timing of your question is interesting to me because three days ago we reached a sort of "stalemate" situation in our Eclipse Phase game. The player characters were pursuing an NPC. They followed him through the Discord Gate and wound up on a splendid exoplanet, where they reached detente with the NPC and decided to hang out for the indefinite future.

It made sense for the PCs. It was also the 11th session in this particular campaign, and the players had come to the realization that it would be OK to retire those characters and move on with a new batch of PCs. The writeup is here if you're interested.

We decided that the initial PCs would become NPCs. The timeline will continue, but with new PCs. The old characters may show up again at some point, but as NPCs. It might also be interesting to give the players the opportunity to play them again as secondary PCs that only appear from time to time. In any event, the campaign moves forward. At least one of the new PCs will have a connection to the old PC group, and you could easily set up a situation in which all of the new PCs are connected in some way to the old group (siblings, old friends, friendly adversaries, etc.).

I've tried this approach in the past and it has worked well. That said, I realize that many game groups might not be drawn to it. In particular, if your players are heavily invested in their characters, it would be a nonstarter for sure. But if everyone's primary goal is campaign continuity, it might work.


This answer is rambly.

This question puts me in mind of the old TV series Babylon 5. The creator, J. Michael Straczynski, outlined a 5-season master story arc, and specifically set up "trap doors" for the most critical characters in the story so that if an actor left the show, the character's major plot functions could be filled by a replacement.

There is no such thing as "too big a plot hole". The empty page you started your campaign with is the biggest hole there is, and you filled it.

So if the PCs kill a crucial NPC, retroactively decide that the NPC did in fact write down the one thing the PCs needed to know after all, or give them a way to get a hold of the NPC's twin brother and hope the guards don't recognize the difference. Let them find out they screwed up and make the solution to the screwup be a complication that deepens the story.

If they made an enemy of the local crime lord who happened to have the plans they need, there are two obvious approaches: find a way to get back on the crime lord's good side (get dirt on a local official and offer the leverage to the crime lord, or foil a rival gang's plot to assassinate him, or...) or find a way to steal the plans.

The first rule of improv is "say yes" - if the players take your story off the rails, don't undo it. No divine intervention, no rollback. Period. The second rule of improv is "say yes, AND..." If the players take your story off the rails, run with it. If you really want them back on the rails, you can loop back to it, but not right away - take the scenic route and have fun with it.


I've +1'd a few answers above but felt the need to make myself heard. In my circles, I am almost always the GM, and part of that is because my players trust in my ability to roll with the punches (and tend to cringe any time the see me roll dice). Usually for me, improvisation is about 80%. My plots aren't railroads but I try to lead them in one direction and they either don't see the hints as clearly as I thought I laid them out (balance of how much to give them is shaky) or just that the path is "too obvious" and I find myself bring out my Carbon Copy NPC's to fill the gaps.

If something critical changes locations, allegiances, and/or states of being, the best thing that can happen is to have a lever to pull to get them back on track or enjoy a rich new side arc.

When the PC's enrage the wrong PC, that's when you need Joe Nobody who saw the whole thing and thought the players were treated unfairly so he'll pull a few strings.

When the PC's manage to sway an NPC to their side that needs to be an enemy, then Competitor X needs to come along for the power vacuum, or Former Ally Y needs to remind them of "who they really are" for some great intrigue.

Rule #1: There are no rules. Rule #2: Cheat anyway - 7th Sea GM Guide

Every game has the penultimate rule referring to what mechanics are(n't) working, but what they don't always emphasize is that the plot works the same way. Someone above mentioned that the players lack the big picture as you see it and won't know when you have to bait-and-switch the plot a little. I've actually had a DM/GM/ST/ad naus. say after a seamless session that we went off the beaten path and he had to make up half of the game because he felt that there was some good character development that shouldn't have been railroaded, and many's the time I've retroactively fudged the plot - notes I had but changed after the fact because they never came into contest (but rest assured, it was not just to give the players the runaround).

In short: You only need to be consistent with what you already gave the players, and even then there's always a hook to exploit. If everyone enjoys the game, the end justifies the means in this type of case.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1: "If everyone enjoys the game, the end justifies the means in this type of case." Amen. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25, 2012 at 4:30

I guess there is no true answer to that question. Obviously it depends on what you and your players like to play.

If they kill an important npc, his death might open the gap for someone else to do his job (summoning the black dragon of apocalypse or whatever...). Or he was just a henchmen for someone else.

If you have a wall of story that wants to be told, just tell it. If necessary the bad guy doesnt sit in town a, but in village b... cause the players decided to go to b instead of a.

If they have made a faction to their enemy, which was necessary it surprisingly turns out, that the heroes were just puppets in a big game and the earlier friend is the true enemy who does all the things the other faction should have done....

and so on...


At the risk of invoking OSR gods, I think many GMs couch their games as story and then go on to emulate a linear storyline; that gets reinforced with how video games work.

Running a living world is more like an interactive simulator. If players go someplace else, kill the clue bearing NPC, then roll with it. If they are missing out on something happening in the world, then instead of railroading them, let them observe the effects of not being there.

If you are running a campaign where you want players to feel like their characters make a difference, let there be consequences for action or inaction.

While i am not knocking the use of modules, modules are written assuming a finite number of paths to whatever ends are possible. A campaign doesn't have to be just a series of linked modules, unless that is your intention.


I think you could greatly benefit from using Adventure Fronts, as suggested in Dungeon World. Fronts are meant to be open-ended, in a way that actually prevents these kinds of situations.

When you realize you have met a dead end due to over-planning, I suggest starting from scratch by converting your adventure into a front.

An adventure front consist of the following:

  • A nifty title that conveys the theme. For example, you could name the adventure "Beyond the Dark Portal", if the adventure would revolve around a Dark Portal.
  • 2 or 3 dangers, which is a faction, NPC or some monster. It can literally be anything that poses a danger to something, hence the name. For example, it could be a Barbarian Horde, threatening to emerge from the Dark Portal.
  • Add an impending doom to each danger, which is something big that the players shouldn't want to happen, but will if they don't intervene. Example for the Barbarian Horde: "The city of Whateverthenameburg is crushed by the barbarian onslaught."
  • Add 2 or 3 grim portents tied to each danger, which is some bad stuff waiting to happen, in case the PC's fail to react. This emulates the flow of time. Example for the Barbarian Horde: "Several smaller villages has been sacked, survivors flees to Whateverthenameburg."
  • List 2 or 3 stake questions for each danger, which are unanswered questions you hope to answer in the game. Example for the Barbarian Horde: "Who is really causing the Barbarians to emerge from the gate?"
  • Make a short list of the cast, the NPC's of crucial importance for each danger. Example for the Barbarian Horde: Chieftain Gobzug, of the Bear Clan.

The important thing here is the notion that you don't plan the adventure, but instead prepare for it. It will evolve as you play, adding more grim portents, stake questions and NPCs to the cast. You may even add entirely new dangers, if appropriate.

You can't really hit dead ends with this method. It is a way of collecting ideas without forcing them upon players, before necessary.

Lets face it; most adventures exist because of deus ex machina, and that's good. Use the Front when you don't know where to go from wherever you've gotten. You have a lot of help in your grim portents.

I summarized the Adventure Front from the example:

Adventure Front: Beyond the Dark Portal

Danger: A Barbarian Horde

Impending Doom: The city of Whateverthenameburg is crushed by the barbarian onslaught!

Grim Portents

  • Several smaller villages has been sacked, survivors flees to Whateverthenameburg.
  • Werewolves prowl the countryside, slaughtering people and cattle alike!
  • The city of Whateverthenameburg declares Martial Law after riots among refugees.

Stake questions

  • What lies on the other side of the Dark Portal?
  • What is Chieftain Gobzug's motive to destroy Whateverthenameburg?
  • How are the werewolves connected to the horde?


  • Chieftain Gobzug, of the Bear Clan.
  • Suntog, the Shaman.
  • One-Eye Longfang, werewolf pack alpha.

This is only a single adventure front. In a campaign, you can roll with several of these at a time, united under a Campaign Front, which is essentially a unifying element to all the adventures. They are made the same way, but the scope of resolving a Campaign Front is much longer than an Adventure Front. Adventure Fronts should be resolved in one or two sessions. Maybe even an hour. Campaign Fronts could be the scope of an entire campaign, as the name implies.


Instead of one single major plot, I fill a world. What I mean by this is that I currently have a world where the players have not yet realized that their world is ending and there are only so many kingdoms that will have a way off, or a way to survive. Do the players realize this yet? NO!

Why you may ask? In the end, it is simple. I am building up interest in the game overall, while having plot hooks that are laying in their backgrounds that tie them to those set areas or kingdoms that allow them to survive. I have also, purposefully put a character in their life that is mysterious but seen as a HUGE ally to them. When things get too slow, the Drunken Dwarf Cleric appears to guide them in a general direction. Do they always take it? No, but when a moon explodes in the sky because of a giant bright light that they were told to go in that general direction earlier... It tends to get them to realize something is up.

As the players "Waste time", then you have earth quakes, explosions and even odd things happening. All to give them the idea that there are larger things going on then they are aware of. If things get too out of hand... As in a player sitting there waiting to die or other non heroic staple, be ready for it. The Drunken Dwarf Cleric is unknowingly lured into a trap by your players due to manipulation, or the Dwarf turns on the characters while laughing how he has wasted their time as his plan has succeeded... In the end, I always have options to swing it.

Before making any plans! Talk to your players, and find out what they are shooting for character and possibly campaign wise. Players who are loot monkeys are not gonna like it when there is little to no loot. Find out what the players want out of the game. Ask them personal short, medium and long term goals. Use these goals as plot hooks, and if you need to give them exactly what they want but not the way they wanted it!

After all, you are running evil. No one said anywhere that you could not be evil in return... As long as everyone is having fun what matters is the experience and not so much the plot like or direction. Work together GM+Players and you will always have a great experience.


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