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I'm not familiar with role-playing games so apologies if this question is poorly worded.

As an example of what I'm thinking of, suppose the player characters are on a ship, which capsizes. While escaping from the shipwreck they find an NPC clinging to flotsam. The players decide they cannot save the NPC, so they leave the NPC to drown. Unfortunately for them, the NPC had a quest-critical item (e.g., an artefact required to slay the BigBadBoss later). Since the item is now permanently lost, the quest will never succeed and the BigBadBoss is going to kill all the player characters. They're dead, they just don't know it yet.

How can a GM continue to progress the campaign if the player characters lose a plot-necessary item like this?

For this particular situation, I imagine the GM could attempt to give the quest-critical item to another NPC, but that might not be feasible (e.g. a player might have tried to examine the drowning NPC, and the GM described the NPC as possessing the artefact). It could also be something more severe as well, e.g. the players could kill a quest-critical NPC, and bringing the NPC back to life would be beyond belief.

I imagine the GM could also do nothing and let the players die, but then it seems like a rather dull game for the GM, since (s)he already knows the end result.

How can a GM continue to progress the campaign if the player characters cause a plot-critical item or NPC to be lost/killed?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking about a specific RPG (and edition)? Different game systems have very different mechanics and narrative structures. I'm not sure this can be answered in a system-agnostic way. In addition, survey-type questions like "what do people do in situations like this" are a poor fit for StackExchange's Q&A format; there's no way to choose a single "best" answer, as all answers are equally valid. If you instead asked about the best way to accomplish a specific goal (e.g. "How can I continue to progress the campaign if the players lose a plot-necessary item?"), that might be answerable. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 10 at 5:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ "How do I avoid this problem," isn't really the same question as "How do I fix this once it happens?" The former can be answered, because there are techniques for avoiding the whole issue; the latter is not, because it would be specific to the instance that caused it and without knowing the specific instance, there is no way to judge the quality of an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jan 10 at 10:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Has the item been introduced to the story yet, and are the players aware of its significance and that the NPC had it on them when they let him die? Or is that all just in the GM's notes? For all intents and purposes in a game, anything the players don't know about never actually happened. \$\endgroup\$ – Seth R Jan 10 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ They wash up on shore, the NPCs body washes up on shore nearby, the item is available. They ignore the body, ok - a day or two later some scavengers attack them, and happen to have looted the body, so the item is still available. Soo many options to keep the item available. The key is being flexible with your pre-conditions. \$\endgroup\$ – railsdog Jan 10 at 17:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very related, possible duplicate. \$\endgroup\$ – JohnP Jan 10 at 18:11
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Allow the characters to learn about the problem and decide on a solution

Maybe they can find a way to retrieve the item despite its "loss". Maybe they can find a way to replace the lost item with something else. Maybe they can find a different way to win that doesn't require the item.

If the item was lost during a shipwreck, that just means the group needs to go adventuring underwater to find it again.

Revise your plot so that it's still possible to win without this item

If you'd previously decided that the villain was completely invulnerable to anyone who didn't have this item, maybe it's time to rethink that. Maybe you can decide that the villain didn't have that invulnerability power after all. Maybe the item was a holy symbol, and you can decide that some other holy symbol will work just as well. Maybe you can decide that there's a lost cleric somewhere who the group can go find, and it's harder than just using the holy symbol would have been, but the cleric is holy enough to perform a ritual that negates the villain's invulnerability.

In some cases it might be necessary to end the game

If the players just aren't trying to win -- if they saw the key artifact and knew it was important and they said: "nope, I let it sink into the ocean, lol" -- then you might start to feel like there was a fundamental problem with the campaign. You might be able to salvage it by finding a different goal for the players -- it sounds like they don't want to kill that original villain guy, but maybe there's something else they want to do instead. Or you might just tell them: "I'm not interested in this story any more, here's what's probably going to happen in the future of this adventure, let's just end the story here."


This sort of thinking -- "I have decided that my villain can only be defeated by someone who has this one specific item" -- is sort of railroady, and it's better if you can avoid having that sort of plot in the first place. It's better to have a villain with some clearly defined weakness, such that you as the DM can think of several ways to defeat the villain, and let the group on their own decide how to attack the villain.

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One uncomfortable answer: Don't write quest structures that are that fragile. If your plot depends on the PCs taking very specific, scripted actions, and not taking such actions results in a complete failure, then that plot is a railroad.

If you decide to have an item that is plot-relevant to such a degree that the PCs are dead if they don't have it and then script a scene in which the artifact can be permanently lost, then you need to make sure it's fair peril: The players need to know at that point that the choice not to take that action will have consequences.

But the choice of having both a have-or-die artifact and a do-this-or-lose situation is a terrible one. You should either not have a singular, all-important, plot-essential artifact, or you should not frame scenes in which the artifact can be lost forever.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Totally this. A good DM adapts to their players' choices \$\endgroup\$ – lucasvw Jan 10 at 12:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree that this is good advice, it doesn't really help OP. Reading "Don't break it" isn't helpful when you ask how to fix something. \$\endgroup\$ – Echox Jan 10 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. \$\endgroup\$ – Eriol Jan 10 at 16:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Echox It's less of "Don't break it" and more of "Don't build something with a single point of failure". \$\endgroup\$ – fyrepenguin Jan 10 at 16:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Echox As I read it, OP is asking about a hypothetical situation (maybe inspired by computer RPG/adventure games, where this is a common situation, intentional or caused by a bug). The solution really is "don't break it", and if you fail at that, "if you do break it, just fix it, you're the GM and above the very gods of your fictional world". \$\endgroup\$ – WakiNadiVellir Jan 10 at 16:32
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Revise your plot off screen

What you say to the players is what their characters perceive. It is not a canon until you confirm it out of the game. Even if you have confirmed it, there are many ways to 'cheat'. This is a powerful tool to shape the story.

If you still want to progress the quest toward a certain direction, overwrite the fact that they've hit dead end. Devise a plot that allows them to continue. Maybe the drowned artifact is actually a fake? The artifact has a twin? Or maybe you can borrow it from alternate timeline? Maybe the dead NPC is not dead? Maybe all of this is not real and just a premonition?

The story continues

The unavoidable happens. Then what? It's the start of another story. The party now face the consequence of their action/inaction. It is not over yet.

If you choose this path, you will also reinforce the idea that your party's decision matters. The world does not revolve around them like in video game RPG.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. The players didn't know this, to them the NPC is just a bit-part; the item can be moved to someone else and they'll never know - keep your stories fluid because players can and will screw up critical things like this. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Jan 10 at 11:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might try to draw attention to what the players didn't do. So the next NPC says "I have the Spear of Success, which will allow you to defeat the enemy. But it will be hard. My brother had the Sword of Success, which is more powerful, but unfortunately he drowned a few days ago." \$\endgroup\$ – DJClayworth Jan 10 at 16:17
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Don't worry about it, work with your players (in game) to find a solution

Roleplaying games are often a collaborative experience in which the DM and players work together to create a story. That story emerges through the world that has been created, and through the players' actions.

Your example was:

The players decide they cannot save the NPC, so they leave the NPC to drown. Unfortunately for them, the NPC had a quest-critical item (e.g., an artefact required to slay the BigBadBoss later). Since the item is now permanently lost, the quest will never succeed and the BigBadBoss is going to kill all the player characters. They're dead, they just don't know it yet.

The players now have a difficult challenge. The best thing about this challenge is that it is the result of their own actions--this wasn't the way the story was supposed to go, but it went that way anyway. Now how do they slay the BigBadBoss without the artefact? Is it possible? Can they retrieve the artefact? Can another be created? Is there something that will substitute? Maybe the BigBadBoss can't be beaten by might anymore, can negotiations work?

Let them come up with their own ideas

The players should be allowed to think up their own solutions, pursue and research them, and ultimately put them to the test:

One player says "well we don't need the artefact, we can just kill the BigBadBoss". How are they going to test that idea? How did they know they needed the artefact in the first place? They are going to have to do a lot of work to discover if that will work.

Another player says "maybe there's another one of those artefacts". How are they going to research the background of the artefact? How can they gather potential leads about a similar artefact?

The last player decides that "it's easiest to go back to the ocean, and search the underwater shipwreck for the artefact". How are they going to find the site? How are they going to locate the artefact?

These ideas all idea to interesting adventures. Maybe they work out, maybe they don't. In the process of investigating one idea, maybe they come up with a better idea. When researching to see if there is another artefact they discover how they were made and decide to make their own. When figuring out how to locate the artefact underwater they discover that the artefact has no magical signature, it was just a normal object without any special power, they can kill the BigBadBoss without it.

As a DM, facilitate their ideas

We both know that originally the BigBadBoss was only killable with the artefact. But why did the PCs think that? The oracle that told them that was a fraud. The wizard who told them that was going off a difficult to interpret prophecy. The ancient primordial djinn was tricking them for their own amusement.

Working with the PCs you can discover how the story plays out. You do not have to approve all their ideas and make their plans work flawlessly, if it's an idea you don't think will work then let it fail. Plant evidence in the world to show them that it's a bad idea. But if it sounds good to you then let your players work towards it.

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While I agree with the advice given elsewhere that you should avoid single-point-of-failure plotting (or even "plotting" RPG campaigns altogether!), I'm going to answer with the assumption that this issue has already come up, and that our hypothetical GM needs a fix, not advice for the campaign after their current one (which is seemingly doomed to fail).

With all that said:

Option 1: Make the plot-critical thing no longer plot-critical

The sword the PCs need to kill the Big Bad? Turns out the bladesmith made another, which she hid for mysterious reasons.

Or, maybe, the copy the PCs lost was a fake.

Perhaps the PCs misinterpreted the prophecy altogether--the "blade" that can undo evil isn't an actual sword, but a poetic term for the People's Army of [FANTASY REPUBLIC]. Only a unified [FANTASY REPUBLIC] can stop the Big Bad!

Option 2: Reveal that the lost/killed plot-thing isn't permanently lost/killed

They dropped the sword in the ocean? Well, better get a diving team together.

They killed the only heir to the throne? Sounds like it's time for a trip to Hades, to reclaim their soul.

Can options like the above seem trite and contrived? Absolutely, if they're executed poorly (or even middlingly). But they're no more or less trite then stories where success hinges on a single item, or on the life of a single character.

Option 3: Roll with it, and let the PCs be clever

They only way to kill the Big Bad just got tossed into the sun? Dang. Guess we'll just have to figure out a different way to win.

Maybe we can trap the Big Bad somewhere--a place where even their immense power wouldn't let them escape?

Or, maybe we can negotiate with the Big Bad? Rather than live under their evil spells, we could threaten to sunder magic from [FANTASY REPUBLIC] entirely!

Discretion, it is said, is the better part of valor. If the Big Bad wants to rule this land, let them. All we need to do is slow their advance long enough for the Free Peoples to flee into neighboring lands.

In short: Be clever, and be open to your players' input

Much of the advice above can be boiled down to "don't prep plots, prep situations." Instead of doing that at the start of your campaign, you're going to try doing it in the middle of your campaign. Maybe it'll be messy, or maybe your players won't even notice.

At the end of the day, though, any solution that the players are excited about is one worth pursuing. Maybe the PCs are back in the War Room, fully aware of how badly they've screwed up. Then, Rango the Ranger says: "Hey, what if we tricked Big Bad into thinking we have the Blade of End Times? He doesn't know that we accidentally dropped it in another dimension."

This is a clever plan. It's also a risky, complicated, and--most importantly--dramatic plan. Roll with it.

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It is pretty rare for an item to be irreparably lost in an RPG, outside of a plot-appropriate "drop it in Mt Doom" situation. In this case, Water Breating is a 3rd level skill (a peer to "Haste," just to help you ballpark), so it isn't like some insurmountably rare thing that the PCs will never encounter. It is plausible that the ring is at the bottom of the ocean right where the ship went down, it is plausible that it drifted somewhere, it is plausible that a monster ate it and the PCs will have to do adventure stuff to get it. The DM can do anything of course, but the good DM picks from the plausible outcomes to make the world feel real, and there's almost always a host of plausible outcomes for item recovery.

Further, there aren't really that many irreplaceable items in the universe. And ones that look irreplaceable often aren't. I mean, take Werewolves. Ok, they're only supposed to be vulnerable to silver swords or whatever, and the PCs tossed the silver sword in a lake because they thought it was cursed (it probably was cursed). Are Werewolves really only vulnerable to silver swords? What about a massive pit of wet cement? Can we use portal hijinks to launch him into space somehow? Sure, it won't be dead, but the quest is solved at that point. And there's a good chance that the PCs were going to use a giant pit of wet concrete or portal hijinks even if they had the sword, because coming up with ridiculous solutions to straightforward problems is like half the fun of being a PC.

The DM's job isn't to make sure there are more silver swords. The DM's job is to make sure the plan falls apart just enough so that the Barbarian has to wrestle the Werewolf into the pit of cement rather than just letting the Werewolf fall in, because that's awesome.

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With a little creativity, there is an easy fix for this. Make the object or information that was lost available from another source, place, or person. The players will have no idea that they discovered the artifact or information in the wrong place. In your example, whatever information the NPC was to divulge could be discovered by the PC's when they later encounter relatives, mourners, or associates of the drowned NPC. Or if NPC X was to play an active role, just give all his stats, functions, lore to NPC Y. The PC's won't know that Y is just a copy of X.

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I would advocate injecting a little humour into it...

  1. Play the "game over" sound from some popular video / console game.

  2. If the failure happened in a fairly early stage of the scenario, just start again, but skip dice rolls and try to follow the same path up to whatever point things diverged from "The Plan™".

or

  1. If it's not too hard to do, simply backtrack a little - effectively like returning to a save point, which fits with the video game theme. Remove recently discovered equipment and loot from inventory, deduct XP for encounters since that point, etc.

Invariably things go "off piste" and avoiding a completely linear gameplay is important, but if you destroy the goal of a quest, What Can You Do?

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What a wonderful chance to make sure the players find out that the 'lost' object was on the person they decided to ignore...leading to an underwater adventure to reclaim it! (...and possibly a penalty for any lawful good character that ignored saving the person in distress/side quest to regain divine powers lost because of this ...maybe even losing some divine power(s) unless the object is retrieved)

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    \$\begingroup\$ The first paragraph seems relevant to the question. I'm not sure what the second has to do with it. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jan 10 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question suggests the players didn't even know the importance of the decision at the time, not that they were just "immature". And when a problem player is immature, there are a lot of better solutions than "tossing them out of the game with no ceremony" (which isn't usually the GM's decision anyway). \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Jan 10 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ This whole situation is an inexperienced DM (nothing wrong with that, this is one of those experience points which can make a truly great DM), not immature players. \$\endgroup\$ – Geoff Atkins Jan 10 at 20:44

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