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I have come up with a plot twist to create a "wrong person, wrong place, wrong time" situation. That part is important, and I don't want to change it. However this obviously causes a potential conflict with the players deciding "this obviously isn't for us", or "I don't want to get tied up in someone else's business", and therefore leave a plot essential thing behind.

Note: this is going to be used in a cyber-punk setting, but I don't have a system for this yet, so I can't rely on any system rulings at this point.

Basically, I want the players to feel like they need to take a Macguffin, even though the setup is that it is clearly meant for someone else. E.g. a recording talking to a "Dave" when the party doesn't have a "Dave" in it, and likely never will. E.g.:

Dave, we found it. We've managed to get it this far, but you need to finish the job. This was meant for you, and only you can finish the job.

Obviously, there is a full potential for the party to think this is some kind of trap, and may need some reassurance from the DM that "no, this isn't a trap" (which is fine), but I don't want the player(s) to not take the Macguffin.

What techniques should I employ to force the party to take the Macguffin, effectively making this a "Press 'A' to continue" situation, without having to straight out tell them that it's plot centric, in a Cyber-Punk setting?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it necessary to so specifically call out that the message isn't for them? "This was meant for you, and only you can finish the job." This doesn't even sound like something that would be said ("Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" notwithstanding) \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Dec 2 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Imagine if Luke had just shrugged off the whole message in a tin can bit... Star Wars just became a one-off short story. \$\endgroup\$ – CGCampbell Dec 2 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CGCampbell Luke did shrug it off. That's why Uncle Owen had to die. \$\endgroup\$ – candied_orange Dec 2 at 15:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it necessary for players to get the message that this MacGuffin is intended for Dave before they decide whether or not to take it? \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Dec 2 at 19:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AlexM It's an expression that means the player characters will be swept up into events simply by being in a specific place at a specific time when, coincidentally, events intended for Dave take place. The associated events will become directly relevant for them only because of that coincidence. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica 2 days ago

12 Answers 12

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To me it sounds like this is the start of the campaign, so simply do that - start it off with this scene of them getting that thing, maybe even before character creation, so that they know they need to make a character that would make such a decision.

Or talk to your players. For a more concrete answer we would probably need information like

  1. who are your players,

  2. who makes the decisions in the party,

  3. what motivates them

    But honestly, if you give them the freedom of choice there is no way for sure that they follow your path. If you railroad them you do just that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But the question didn't say it was the start of a campaign. It says it's a "plot twist". That sounds like definitely not the start of a campaign.. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex M 2 days ago
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thats why I wrote that it sounds to me like the start of a campaign. But yeah could also be a coming plot hook in that case with my players I would describe it a lot because my players would understand that that means I would like them to take this plot hook. \$\endgroup\$ – ChoTimberwolf yesterday
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0. Nobody can force players to do anything.

Unless it's part of the campaign premise, anyway. No matter what you drop in front of them, if they have a choice in the matter, they can take it. Whatever approach you take, keep this in mind - they might just decide to pass on this, and there's nothing you can do about it.

1. Make it look appealing.

If your players aren't the type who would steal something valuable because it's valuable, appeal to the things they might value. Especially if this thing is sitting out where anybody might conceivably nab it, it's fine to make something look good and just say they're not going to have time to 100% ironclad crosscheck it.

If they've got a bit more of a moral compass, you can make this thing into, say, a dead man's switch. Your MacGuffin, bearing Dave's last will and testament - anybody with a sophisticated enough rig to decode this shortwave broadcast, deliver it to the Friends of Dave and you'll be rewarded.

2. Be honest with them.

Once they've secured the thing, and if they decide to embark on something closer to the 100% ironclad crosschecking, be honest with them about what they find.

So if your plan goes about like this: they have Dave's last will and testament but then they go to meet the Friends of Dave where the dead drop says and what's this? There's Dave, live as anything! (Little does anyone suspect it's actually a CyberDave, infiltrating the Friends of Dave at the behest of the sinister CyberMax corporation.)

Well, CyberDave's been out there. The Friends of Dave exist. There's probably some traces somewhere of what CyberMax did to Dave. What could the players find? Probably something. Probably not everything. Even if they show up knowing as much as they can, how much are the Friends of Dave really going to believe? And it's not like they can just drop this MacGuffin down a deep hole and it'll stop mattering.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking of the dead man's switch idea, too. Wait to play the 'help me Dave!' recording until the party have already picked up the MacGuffin (to examine it or whatever) and have the recording say that now that it's been possessed, it has to exit the building within 60 seconds or the whole thing blows, etc. You could actually even have the recording include a conditional instruction for anybody finding the MacGuffin that's not Dave, promising dire consequence if they don't help anyway, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex M 2 days ago
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Provide clues and context

As you have described this set up, what is currently lacking is the combination of context and clues.

Context

Based on the overall structure of your adventure or mission, there are a variety of things that the PCs are currently aware of, and things they are currently not aware of. If you want the players to be moved to take this item and "act like Dave" then your description / taped message is insufficient. That thing, that is for Dave, has to be described with a linkage to something the Characters are at least vaguely aware of. For example, a rival faction or the evil minions of (insert BBEG equivalent here) are mentioned in the message as either 'being after it' or ' we got if from them and they want it back.' Something cryptic like "they want it but we have it" may or may not suffice. That depends on your players.

Clues

The three clue rule can be used in a case like this, but somewhat modified. You need to seed the clues ahead of this encounter. The clues will be somewhat disconnected until this moment - so what you are doing mechanically here is using this "message for Dave" as The Reveal.

This can be tricky to do without railroading / meta discussion

I have seen DM's / GM's try to do this, and I've tried to do this. Very often, the DM / GM ends up having to go through some contortions if the Players do not take the bait, or if player wariness makes them unwilling to take on something that comes as a surprise. How this plays out really depends on the mind set of your player group. A few things I have seen work when they don't take the bait:

  • Dream Sequence: during the next rest/sleep interval, GM drops a clue in a character's mind by use of a vivid dream or premonition. (The Game System's mechanics can impact how this plays out). A GM used this on our party when we'd left a key like this 'Dave Message' behind. It's a little meta, sort of a "nudge nudge," but it can be narratively successful.
  • Oh, nuts, we needed that. The party runs into an obstacle that "needs a thing like {this thing we ignored} to get past" This creates a retracing of steps and a potential for mission failure. Those minions mentioned above? They may get the thing first. You now have a time-pressure scenario. (Party working against the clock). If you are not willing to meta game this and hint OOC about "are you sure?" if the bait is not taken, then you need to plan for this happening and set up the serial to that decision (not to bite) ahead of time! It becomes integral to your arc / plot / plan.

    • Yes, you need a contingency to account for the players not riding the rails on their own volition. As the other answers have pointed out, There Is No Easy Button. You can't make them think a certain way, unless you are going to ignore player agency.

    And when you realize that your plans never survive contact with the players, the need for those backup plans becomes clear. ~ Justin Alexander, from The Three Clue Rule

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Play to the party's motivators

If one party member is a greedy fella and another is a do-gooder then if "the job" is blowing up some evil corp, then the party may be on board. If the job is stealing billions of credits, then the party may want to join in for a cut.

Have the party know that Dave can't do it

For example, if the party just saw Dave as he was being carried away in a medivac with his legs chopped off then they know that Dave is out of commission and it's up to them.

Have the party think that it would be neato to be involved

For example, if the job involves working with some really cool super weapons or some secretive organisation then perhaps the party will be inclined to steal the job from "Dave" even if they aren't involved.

Make taking the macguffin the easier choice

For example if the party are being chased by some hired goons, perhaps they can take the macguffin as a bargaining chip. If the party know the evil mega corp will be coming to this place any minute then they might be inclined to take it just so the corp don't find it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The last point can also be called "Make them desperate" so the choice isn't really one. If the PCs just botched a job, or thought they would find something valuable, because they are in debt, or they promised to deliver something which they don't have - they will most likely take anything that looks valuable to get somehow out of the debt they owe. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco 2 days ago
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Provide some other motivation to take it

Your players don't see a need right now to get involved in Dave's business or quest. Fair enough, most people don't get involved with everything. There are plenty more reasons why a party might take a device other than any particular concern over Dave and his goals.

  • The device appears to be valuable, and substantial money could be made selling it on the black market.
  • This device has practical use to the party. Perhaps this is a QR-2000 Standardized Recording Device XR Plus. Those are really handy for all sorts of tasks, and they broke their old one and lost the ability to uplink to the Grand Matrix without visiting a Cybercron Dish Station.
  • The device could be disassembled for useful parts.
  • The BBEG is believed to be heading this way, and the party knows that he is on a quest to gather miscellaneous devices to power his Evil Plan (TM).

Once the party takes one of these alternate hooks, find some way to use it to present the quest data. For example,

You take the device down to the Broken Space Bar Tavern where Skript Kitty the fence is hanging out. She takes one look at it and tells you, "This belongs to the Cypher Knights, it's way too hot for me to handle. They would hunt me down to the ends of the Net and you too, get out of here! It probably has a tracing signal leading the Knights here right now.". Kitty motions toward the exit, from which you hear what sounds like the rumble of an R-33 tank in the distance.

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It's always a bit of lost work, but this calls for some backup plans. Think of the possibilities of them not taking it and design some countermeasures. You should not thuggishly force them to take the Macguffin, but you can send a group of thugs in the game to do so. Say they get delivered the Macguffin somehow. If they take it and swallow the plot-bait, fine, continue with your story. If not, they are likely trying one of a few things:

  • Leave it/throw it away: A short time later, they'll encounter a group of thugs who look for the Macguffin and who'll offer some reward but won't take no for an answer. Make it certain to the player's that if they do anything except procuring the item, they'll get attacked. If they deliver the item, they'll also get attacked, because the thugs don't want witnesses. (Note that the only way the thugs will end up with the Macguffin is by killing the players, which said players hopefully will prevent)

  • Find Dave to give it to him: They arrive just in time to see him getting killed by some thugs looking for the Macguffin. If the player's intervene, they get attacked. If the player's offer the Macguffin, the thugs take it and then still attack them as before.

  • Sell it: Whoever they ask doesn't want it. If they insist and ask around, they'll get pointed to a potential buyer. This is of course an ambush by some thugs. Repeat as before.

  • Return it to sender: That one you can remove, there is no identifiable sender and whoever delivered it is already gone.

It may look like railroading from the outside, but you are giving the players lots of choices each of them with different in themselves consistent and logical outcomes. And since they never know your full plan, they hopefully won't notice that nearly all of those outcomes end with them in possession of the Macguffin. Also if they are not convinced by themselves, any of those events will hopefully convince them that it is important.

Should they still insist in throwing it away, carefully file away your notes and overarching plot for a future group and run a free form, open world game instead as this group seems incapable of anything else. And should they insist in giving it to the baddies again, kill them off and run a different game, as they are clearly to naive for Cyberpunk...

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Have the party decide between two pointers that reference towards the same MacGuffin.

Either they decide to take over Dave's role and follow your original plan, or they skip it and you make sure that skipping it somehow leads them into the same situation. Of course, don't make it obvious, they don't need to know that this was just another path to the same destination. When things get hard they should still think back about the time they rejected the invitation to pretend to be Dave.

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Metagame

So look, you want the illusion of choice, but you want to force the players to do something. Those two are directly in opposition. While there are some good suggestions here to increase the likelyhood of success your best bet is just tell the players (not the characters) that they need to take the McGuffin for you story to work properly.

If you don't want to entirely give up the surprise/wow factor, figure out ahead of time which of your players is the most forceful player (aka The Leader), and secretly ask them to help you make your plot work. If the party leader thinks they should take it, everyone else will probably fall in line. And while you'll have given that one player some minor spoilers, the knowledge that they're helping the plot will more than likely compensate. People love having important roles, especially the type of person who tends to be the "choice maker" aka leader in an RPG group.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Why the downvote? \$\endgroup\$ – aslum 2 days ago
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You have close to zero say in what players do, so telling them what they do is out of the question.

However, the consequences of what they do (or don't do) are almost entirely your jurisdiction.

You have an idea about what happens if they go your way. Also try to formulate some ideas about what happens if they do something else instead. Just rest assured that they will most probably pick a route you haven't thought of already, and be prepared to improvise on the spot about how everything else in the world reacts to their actions/inaction.

What happens if they don't take it? Probably somebody else does, and this has consequences. If they have an idea about those consequences, they may be inclined to take it. Or they may go another way entirely. That's when you should feel free to have any consequences manifest as they make sense in your fiction.

You may also want to give them a second way in, after some consequences manifest, but they may still go other ways. It's their call and there's not much you can do about it.

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Follow the Breadcrumbs

This should be a fairly simple scenario to setup, assuming your players are reasonably interested in the story you are telling and following obvious narrative signs. Any time I have a plot hook or scene I really want to play out, I always start with the scene and then work backwards one step at a time to figure out how to get my players there.

Step 1: Your players discover a dead body with a Macguffin and a message to a stranger. The best reason to take the Macguffin or look for the stranger is if they had some kind of a tie to the dead body, so let's figure out what that is.

Step 2: Finding a random dead body in an alley doesn't have any kind of narrative draw, so the players are going to need some kind of connection to the scene. Maybe they were being blackmailed and were told to meet someone in that alley for a handoff. Or the PCs finally found someone with knowledge of the local crime lord who was willing to talk for a price. Or an established NPC asked the party to meet them in the alley while acting scared.

Step 3: Keep following the chain if you need to. If the players are being blackmailed, make sure that there is a credible threat based on their previous actions. If there isn't, manufacture one in your next session. If the dead body is an NPC that had asked for help, make sure you give them enough screen time that the players actually care they are dead.

Remember, the whole point of the Macguffin is that it is a meaningless item that kicks off the actual story. So if you are going to introduce one that way you need to make sure you know where you are going with it, and not just how you got there. The setup you need is going to depend on the kind of story you are telling. If this is a revenge story then you want that dead body to be someone the PCs care about. If you are doing a noir thriller then give your PCs a shadowy enemy and have the Macguffin be the first clue to finding them.

Just think about the overall story you are trying to tell, and then hit the most common and obvious beats to it. Lean in on tropes because the more familiar the story is the more likely your players will do what you expect in that situation. Once you know what the overall shape of the story is you can start to play around with the details more, and react to your players' actions while keeping your overall goal in mind.

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Use "in medias res"

Start the players out where they already have the Macguffin. They are already on the quest. They are in the middle of the action. Present them with the situation and then ask them how they got there. What actions/mistakes did their character make that got the Black Crow Gang shooting at them in a dark alley while the Hacker is frantically trying to gain access to the backdoor of an exclusive nightclub they need to get into.

This allows you to railroad them to the degree that you need, then they come up with the motivations that would work for their character (that way you don't need to guess). This gives them some actual choice (increasing their involvement) and relieves you of having to come up with a, possibly contrived, situation where they may or may not take the bait. It can also be more fun for you, as your players are given some freedom in guiding the story, allowing you to be a spectator for a moment. Then use what they give you. The arch nemesis of the Street Samurai in the party? He's a member of that gang. The younger sister of the Hacker is being held "hostage" at the nightclub.

Starting a session in the middle of action can be a lot of fun. You can interject flashbacks (either in the middle of the action or after it is over) to help tell the characters a little more about how they got the Macguffin. Use the answers they gave before while explaining the situation. Now you have players that just had an intense action scene, a chance to show more about their character's background or advance their interests, and a Macguffin that they need to figure what to do with when they already know it isn't in their best interest to get rid of it but also aren't the right people for the job.

This can work even for an already existing campaign, to start a new adventure (or even an already existing adventure, to move things along).

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Firstly, you ought to remove the word "Force" from your dictionary. You can "strongly motivate" players to do something, but to "force" them to do anything goes strongly against the collaborative storytelling experience that tabletop RPGs are supposed to be. They control their characters, they get the final say in what they do.

That said, you control the rest of the world. If they don't take it, look at it as an opportunity to explore interesting alternative narrative threads. Maybe another character comes across the MacGuffin and brings it to the party. Maybe that character is good, maybe they're evil. Ideally, your world should be able to fluidly respond to the decisions of the players - otherwise the chance that you're railroading them is very high. When I write campaigns I'm very careful to avoid assuming what the players will do - I just detail the locations, lore, npcs and their goals, etc.

Anyway, you'll probably be fine. In my experience, players grab every half-important-looking unattended item they find :)

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