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My game system is pathfinder but the setting is entirely of my own creation, with a group that is largely interested in the role-playing aspects of the game; when it's more dynamic to wave away strict rules-lawyering, I generally do so.

The plot largely involves ancient magics and dragons locked away when civilization began, and the gradual splitting of their dimensional cage manifesting as meteors of raw, uncontrollable, magic material. (Think phazon in the game series: Metroid Prime) To conclude my first season of play, my players saw their first meteor impact the city they were staying in after many sessions of investigation of cultists and flailing about the city trying to understand what's going on. My issue is this:

  1. As the magic involved is extremely old, very few people have knowledge of it in the slightest. I have alluded to people that know but have had little success directing.
  2. The cultists they managed to capture and interrogate had previously, willfully lost their humanity for their cause, turning them into abominations. I could not fathom any reason that a villain would tell the heroes what was happening given that they had come so far already.
  3. My players are largely afraid of taking leads up.
  4. My sorcerer was severely wounded and then after the meteor impact, exposed to the influence of the meteor itself, at which point I gave him a compliment of draconic powers and the knowledge that he would die soon (alluding to cracking skin and light shining beneath that they had seen before when an villainous NPC supercharged himself). He ran rampant and allowed the other PCs to escape, but ultimately destroyed his body in the process from excess magic. None of my players seemed to understand possible connections or even what happened at all besides the sorcerer, but his new character should not have his old knowledge.
  5. Lastly, with the meteor finally fallen, my players have more questions than answers, and do not know what they plan to do. Every point I lay out for them to gain knowledge has been thwarted, resulting in a world that has grown drastically beyond what characters at level five should handle.

I need to get a handle on what goes on in the world without giving the impression of railroading and I have a few points laid out for what might happen next, but I need to give my players a mote of hope to guide them. They've discussed travelling to the capital to meet the sorcerer's parents and tell them of their sons demise, maybe find out the truth in his powers, but are now travelling in the wrong direction. I am considering slowing down the pace at which my campaign plot points arrive, but the issue is convincing players that doing little things is worth their time now that all hell has broken loose.

I've created a setting and plot that is at the moment too powerful for the PC party to handle, is there any way to establish that this is the case, but still give the PCs meaningful tasks to accomplish so that they will grow to become capable of trumping the powers at work?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Although you've a question in the title, clarifying that question or even just asking it again in the text is a good idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 7 '14 at 18:16
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You're in quite a difficult situation. Your players don't have information, don't have many leads, have one dead party member, and have been launched into confusion.

  1. Slow down the overarching plot of your game - grind it to a halt for now, if you need to. Your players (and their characters) both are not ready for it and do not have the information they need to process it. The way this game is being played, you have significant control over the plot and pacing of the game. Slow, possibly to a halt, the destruction of the universe and the whole ancient magicks and dragons shindig. Your players know it's an imminent threat, but lack the skills or knowledge they need to confront it in any way - they need time to learn and grow.

    In a lot of ways, this can serve simply to set the scene for whatever else is going on, and contextualize the additional information the players gain from other goals and quests. Let it do so - your players will learn about the overall problem, and potentially be able to connect the dots where others have not. At a later time, once the players have better information, they'll be able to handle the overarching plot. Until then...

  2. Give your players information. Consistently, the examples you've communicated have had a common problem: the players achieve what they in the scene want, but don't get any information about what they want in the broader scope. There are two effects from this: first, the players will grow frustrated; second: the players will quickly run out of leads. The leads they get need to go somewhere.

    Maybe occasionally you can throw in some lead that just doesn't work, but the majority of them should provide some sense of success. The players learn something, or gain something. They don't have to completely understand it, but something needs to happen. Otherwise, all the plot hooks will drop. For instance, while interrogating the cultists, some design element of this scene needs to provide the characters with more information about who and what they want to be pursuing.

  3. Always ask yourself, "Would the players really enjoy this right now?" - and give a more detailed answer than just yes or no. For instance, concerning the meteor falling, ask yourself, "Would the players enjoy the meteor falling right now?" The answer to this question is, as you've retrospectively identified, something along the lines of "No, because the players do not have the information or skill they need to handle the situation."

    You've got a good scene - meteor falls, chaos ensues - but the players aren't prepared to handle it in a way that makes the game fun for them. If the game were run again, this scene should be saved for a time when the players can deal with it in a meaningful way. By answering the "is it fun?" question, you've learned two areas which must be fulfilled before you can safely play out this scene: the players need to be more powerful, and the players need more information. Once the players have achieved this, then you can go and run this scene.

    Obviously, this scene has already been run, and I'm only using it as an example. Short of rolling the game back to before this scene (which may be a completely reasonable course of action, depending), this is part of the game world right now, and is just something the players are going to have to deal with.

This is the core of my advice. But how does it apply to your campaign?

Here's what I'd strongly advise: set aside things the players can't handle for now. They can evolve in the background, but as a general rule, they shouldn't affect the players until they're ready to be drawn into those plot threads.

Come up with some scenes that your players would all want to play, and would all be able to handle, and draw the characters into them. Your players will decide what they want to do next, and it's probably going to be to explore deeper. Through these scenes, you can feed them pieces of information, ideas, thoughts, and leads, which will draw them both a) into more power through the experience system, and b) into greater understanding of the forces at work in your game.

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  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the input, I've decided to switch into a much slower time scale of events to allow some level gain, I knew that the downfall of the city would have a drastic effect on the area so maybe I can play up the effect of the loss rather than the actual magic behind it for now. A neighboring hobgoblin kingdom has been eyeing up the land for ages and coincidentally has had previous interest in the meteor material, my hobgoblin monk has participated in its study unknowingly even. Now might be the best time to pursue those angles whilst the dragons themselves still sleep. \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Sep 7 '14 at 22:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zer0ah Working with something that's very closely related to what the players are dealing with, but isn't explicitly what they'll ultimately deal with, is a great way to feed them information about it. \$\endgroup\$ – Aza Sep 8 '14 at 7:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Huge fat big +1 for #3 fun fun FFUUUUNNN!!! \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Sep 8 '14 at 16:22
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It sounds like you've got the makings of a good campaign already but don't know how to deal with the point you've reached without railroading the players. If that's so, there really is nothing wrong with a tiny bit of railroading, particularly if (as it seems) the players are floundering a bit and don't know where to turn. In these situations, players are usually very glad to be turned around and pointed in the right direction.

Maybe you could have someone show up who has knowledge of how to defeat the bad guys. This person heard about what happened, heard they were involved and came looking for them. They set them on the right track, warning them off confronting the bad guys right now.

If your bad guys are now too powerful for the players to face, send them off on a quest to get the macguffin 'item' (allied armies, ancient spells, magic sword, goddess-trapped-within-a-gemstone, whatever) that they need to defeat the big bad. In the process they'll be up against foes more on their level and when they do finally come back to face the villain, they'll have levelled-up to a point where it doesn't feel unfair.

In short: don't be afraid to directly tell them what to do next, and you don't need what happens next to involve the big bads.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe my issues have largely stemmed from really a large information gap in the area, with time. For now I believe I'll cut down on the complexity, they'll have several days' travel to get to the nearest city, moving along a road likely to be rife with people taking advantage of the refugees of the city. Might direct the party into a temporary stint as caravan guards to ground things back in a bit of regularity \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Sep 7 '14 at 22:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Since you described this as the end of your first season, now is the perfect time to dump a lot of information on them. You can recap and foreshadow the coming season at the same time. I start all of my sessions with a recap and end them with unanswered questions that the players may have forgotten about and let them know where the campaign is headed: 'Why did the orcs attack now? Where is the princess? And what is the meaning of the strange sigil painted in blood on the city wall?' \$\endgroup\$ – Ozymandias Sep 8 '14 at 7:50
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It sounds like you created an Elder Evil of your own and are running it according to the pace at which you set the events to, this is mostly out of the players control as the events are always larger then the players have any clue about.

I suggest you add in the "Notice the Sign" checks to give your players knowledge that they would have no ability or clue to gain from, it's sorta like a six sense of events far and wide the growing problems and coming end of the world they know. In-matter-of-fact the entire book of the Elder Evils from D&D 3.5 should give you lots of advice to handle your current situation you mentioned without considering your game out of control.

You should also always build what happens if the players fail as a continuing living world sometimes evil wins and you have to live in that new world...

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Insurmountable odds

Having had a character in a similar situation, though admittedly on a much smaller scale - it was "only" an overarching secret society, think Illuminati - it played out as follows:

  1. Party was hired to retrieve an item which has been lost/stolen.
  2. During the investigation they run afoul with one lowly minion of said cult. So far so good.
  3. After some 'creative interrogation' they learned the true scope of what they stumbled across. Not good at all.
  4. It was by general consensus amongst the characters to bury the evidence - and the body -, leave quickly for distant shores and never talk of it again.

Of course our GM wasn't happy because it derailed his complete setup. In retrospect it went wrong the moment when further investigation was received as discouraged. One GM wouldn't send a level-4 party into the lower regions of the Abyss, the typical bandit cave would be more than enough.

And that's what the situation your party faces. One of the members already lives on borrowed time, and whatever they poked at, it provoked an even bigger catastrophe or unleashed a greater horror upon the world. Things are going down in a tailspin, regardless what they try to achieve.

So the party decided to keep their proverbial fingers to themselves and stop poking around - thus missing vital clues which would be the road to salvation - and just perform damage control (if they're mostly good) or just saving their own skin (if they're neutral or evil inclined).

So yes, a bit of railroading might be needed

Make it clear in a way of storytelling that the only way out of it is through. Harmful radiation? Any shield they might devise would be just a stopgap measure. Contaminants? Running away doesn't help, they have to find the vaccine.

But, yes, since they may have stopped looking at subtle clues you might need to make them less subtle.

One step at a time

Our wet-behind-the-ears party couldn't be expected to bring down a whole secret society pulling the strings of governments, and your party may see their troubles as impossible to overcome as well.

Rome wasn't built in a day, too. Break down the large problems they cannot (or don't want to) face into smaller ones which may be more palatable to them. Of course, by now it would be a difficult sale to the players because motivation may have already taken a large hit, but it could be possible.

Time out!

It could very much be possible that your party sees the catastrophes as given and the locales (and maybe villages) as a lost cause by now and the only sane option would be tactical retreat.

There is no shame in running away. Running away means to be able to come back and fight on a better day. In an extreme case, you can put up a Gandalf-esque NPC which puts whole swathes of the locale under a time stop field and flings the party across the continent. Make it clear to the players that this is their chance at reprieve - to catch a breather, gather more strength and plan their next option. Maybe put up some more side plots which do allow them to learn more about the "big issues".

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Create a mentor NPC that understands what's going on.

Your players seem unable or disinclined to follow the plot threads, so put them in touch with an NPC who understands what's going on but needs their help to address the problem. This is a great opportunity for the Gandalf or M archetype: a character who has too much on their plate to take care of everything personally, or someone who leads and directs from the background instead of going into the field themselves.

You mentioned that there are NPCs that know; have one of them reach out to the PCs instead of waiting for them to contact her.

The NPC can communicate with the players through a mystical orb or ride along; just make sure that they don't overshadow the players' choices. Have them go, "I noticed you were involved; here's a summary of what's going on, and here are a few ways you could help." A reward for the PCs' assistance would help to motivate them to follow the mentor's guidance.

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