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I'm planning a Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in a province undergoing a separatist insurrection. I want the theme/shtick of the campaign to be the idea of choices and unintended consequences. The characters are all new recruits of a multi-kingdom/empire/national NGO dedicated to humanitarian relief work in war-torn areas.

One such 'hook' is when the party is being given their orientation when a randomly selected individual is asked to fetch something from the library and hears a knock at one of the doors. They open the door and a clearly distraught mother asks them to save her son, who was last seen being dragged into the nearby marsh by several members of the local garrison. The mother offers to pay the player handsomely if they agree to help her. I'd communicate this to the player in notecard form, also informing them that undertaking this quest will not result in any professional repercussions if they succeed in rescuing her son. The rest of what happens next would be in the form of notecards, die rolls, etc.

Of course, undertaking this quest would be a huge mistake on multiple levels, and would end up creating a world of complications for the rest of the players, who'd have to jump through a lot of hoops bailing out their friend.

Going on this quest is a mistake because: doing something in a highly tense war zone for a complete stranger is already badly thought out. First, disappearing without letting anyone know leaves the rest of the party and the program coordinator in the dark, so they don't know whether you're just screwing around or whether the local security service abducted you. Second, your quest necessarily involves engaging the soldiers who took the son, meaning you risk antagonizing their military unit (i.e. the government occupying the region). Third, you just represented the NGO you work for in the process of what the soldiers reported was apprehending a possible suspect. Fourth, it turns out the son is a lot guiltier than it looked, so now the coordinator has to answer for her employee sticking up for a suspected terrorist.

NOT undertaking it comes with its own hazards.

I'd try to guarantee as much gameplay as possible for both the separated party member and the rest of the people trying to catch up with him-so in other words, I'd have him engage the enemies and execute die rolls for him, and have the rest of the party stay in character without any idea of what's happened or happening to him.

  1. Are 'secret quests' of this sort generally a bad idea?
  2. If they feasible, what's the best way of implementing them?

Points of Clarification:

The campaign is of a choose-your-own-adventure type situation where the story rolls with the players choices. I have several preferred possible endgames in mind, but I also want the players to feel like they can take the story and campaign where-ever they want, especially if they have a particular outlook on the moral and tactical and strategic questions that come up. So there is a way for the players to completely avert or mitigate the disaster I have in mind-it's just really hard to pull off. But if they do it, I'll roll with that.

The quest as presented to the player will be technically worded: go out, follow the mother to the soldiers and son, handle the situation, retrieve the son. How the player handles that interaction dictates how badly it blows up in the rest of the party's face. Handling it non violently will require a persuasion or intimidation check. The violent approach is a good combat tutorial, but results in a lot of bad things. Walking away is also an option, but not an obvious one. In fact, walking away is an option that is always present for any given conundrum I pose the team.

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Bloodcinder, Maiko Chikyu, Szega, Sdjz, KorvinStarmast Mar 29 at 21:39

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll add the detail into the question \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Mar 29 at 20:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Should I explain in the question or in the comments? \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Mar 29 at 20:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ The more I read of your question, revision, and comments on the answer so far, it seems like you have a really rigorous, deterministic, predefined plan for exactly how this will play out. I suspect you've got an XY problem. I'm not convinced that the mechanism of secret quests is really the problem, or at least I'm not convinced answers are primarily going to address that mechanism. I think your real problem is you're concerned with how such a quest will play out, regardless of whether it's secret. I don't know that I have any actionable suggestion to fix it, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Mar 29 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Question 1: "...undertaking this quest will not result in any professional repercussions..." "...you just represented the NGO you work for in the process of what the soldiers reported was apprehending a possible suspect..." The first thing I'd tell the player would technically be true: if you take the mother at her word that she needs to get to her son ASAP or bad things will happen, the coordinator won't get mad at you. IF the player chooses to attack the soldiers or escalates the situation so they attack him, that's a different story, and certainly not what was in the quest description. \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Mar 29 at 20:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Question 2: "...disappearing without letting anyone know...": the mother is saying that this is urgent and the choice must be executed now. I will inform the player that he CAN go back and talk to the rest of the team/etc about it, but that the mother is saying this is incredibly time sensitive. If he doesn't go and tell the team, then the rest of his journey will be communicated in writing and die rolls. The team will only know that he's missing and doing SOMETHING, but not what or why. \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Mar 29 at 20:20
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Just make it a group quest

This is a bad idea for several reasons.

  • As NautArch noted, it's poor policy to split the party, even "just for a short time". Players don't like to be shut out of the action. In this case you're proposing to shut players out of some action which will be really significant even if it is just a short time. They won't like it.
  • Writing updates on notecards is both slow and unnecessary. You could just tell the player what's happening, and let the other players listen in. It would keep them entertained while they're stuck not doing anything, and it would save on recaps later. (I have tried both ways and I found that skipping the notecards was more fun.)
  • If you set up a situation where one character causes a lot of problems for the group, it will lead to the characters being angry at each other, and it could even lead to the players being angry at each other. Is that what you want? Why are you trying to make your players angry at each other?
  • What you've described sounds a lot like railroading. You've told us that you want to run a "choose your own adventure" game where players can make different decisions leading to different consequences. But you're putting a player in a situation where you're trying very hard to make them choose a specific path. If you want to run a game where players can make meaningful choices, you need to actually offer them meaningful choices -- that means no "decide now without talking to the group", and it means you make it clear that choosing not to take the quest is a decision you're prepared for and will support.
  • As described, you're planning to abuse the "out of character message from DM to player" mechanic: you're making a promise to the player that sounds like "nothing bad will happen", and you're playing word games to hide the fact that bad things actually will happen. Your player will feel betrayed. This could damage their trust in you; this could lead to an adversarial relationship between players and DM. You don't want this.

The great thing is that you don't need to do any of this!

Instead, just hand the quest to the whole group at once: a distraught mother knocks at the door, the whole party answers the door, and she makes the pitch to the whole group at once. Let them decide to help, or not, as a group. Make it clear that the players can decide not to help if they don't want to, and don't make any out-of-character promises that sound like you're pushing them in a given direction.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your last bullet point is so on point. two thumbs up +1. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 29 at 22:27
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This is likely a bad idea

It's not that it isn't a cool idea, but at most gaming tables it's generally assumed that when quests are presented by the DM, they aren't done so with an expectation that doing them is the wrong choice. It's literally the only choice and it's what leads to the encounters that a lot of people enjoy .

If your table doesn't understand that some quests will be positive and other negative, then you are basically setting them up for failure - and that's going to lead to some salty players.

In addition, you don't want to create a situation where the DM becomes an untrustworthy narrator. If the players don't trust you, they are very likely to develop decision paralysis which can lead to more unfun. This includes creating situations where an alone party member is forced to make impactful decisions without any player support in making them. Not saying that should never happen, but the player should understand the implications of their decisions that you are forcing on them (and not just making themselves...they'll do that on their own!)

Splitting the party

This is also generally not recommended - both in terms of decisions by the party as well as the DM. When you do this, it creates periods of time where other players are literally doing nothing and can feel left out. That's a scenario that you probably don't want to deal with. It also presents a higher risk of character death if they don't have the party to support them.

Personal Experience

I've been at tables where the DM has purposefully split the party and it's risky. Both from a table-time management and potential player agency perspective. If you've got experience doing this, and your players are on-board with split-time action where they're not participating, then you've got a safer path - but there's still an inherent risk in party splitting.

We did have a member who purposefully moves ahead and out of range of the rest of the party quite often. Even in these very easily accessible to him moments, he nearly always gets taken out and we have to revive him. If you create a situation where they could die alone, the odds greatly increase that rather than finding a party member who needs some healing, you find a party member that needs resurrection.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What if it was an incredibly short term event-i.e. player goes out, fights two soldiers, suddenly situation gets critical, I give the player a way to signal the rest of the party of what's going on and at that point two separate battles occur-the separated player to stay alive, and the rest of the group to get to him. Convergence would be within the same half hour and the rest of the day would be as a united party. \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Mar 29 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bloodcinder Very fair, I made some edits - what do you think? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 29 at 20:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Regress.arg That's a good question to ask separately. But I'll address a point of that in my personal experience. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 29 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I should add that once the separated player gives the signal to alert the rest of his team, that will also alert the garrison as well and that's one of the main triggers for the disaster that starts the real journey. \$\endgroup\$ – Regress.arg Mar 29 at 20:14

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