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I am going to just start out by acknowledging that this is the best possible 'problem' a GM can ever have. My players are awesome, I just didn't know how awesome. They solved months of combat, before any indication that there would be combat, with role-play.

The 'Problem'

I am running a high-role-play game where the characters are teens, and they are solving mysteries. Think Scooby-Doo, but with murder, drugs, et cetera. We are currently between major story arcs.

I introduced an NPC to the group, for the purpose of getting the party at least interested in the character. The plan was to kill the NPC off to start the plot, however, my awesome players have pretty much improved this NPC's life to the point where I cannot use them in the plot.

Details

Originally, I was going to have the NPC die of what is essentially a drug overdose, and appear in an afterlife (that had not previously existed in this game, a ghost). The plot would have involved both investigating this afterlife, and the drugs that killed the NPC to send them there.

The characters have essentially started to rehab the NPC before I could even get to that point.

My Options

I can force the issue, and kill off the NPC as planned, but this has the penalty of being obvious, out of character, and immersion breaking.

I can add another character, which would be a near clone of the first NPC, and kill them off. This too would be rather obvious, and a lot of work on my part.

I can abandon the entire plot and do something else entirely. This is my least favorite option, but probably the least intrusive.

What I would really like to know, though, is when things like this happen, what are effective tools for furthering the game without having to rewrite the universe when plot makes contact with players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please don't leave "lite" answers in the comments. If you feel you have material that should be preserved for the ages, either make a comment on an answer suggesting its addition or forge it into a proper answer — even a short one. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 22 '15 at 20:52

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You've run into one of the dangers of pre-planning a plot. I'll give some ideas at the end about how to plan campaigns so this doesn't happen as much in the future, but first we have to deal with the current situation. Other answers have dealt nicely with the "stay on the rails" and "take a short detour" options, so I'd like to talk about a third choice:

Take a new path through the bush. Forget the plot you had lined up. You've got interesting people and conflicts already present in the world and waiting in the wings, but you can let go of exactly how you expect it to play out. Go along with the PCs' choices and look for opportunities to introduce the interesting people and ideas you have prepared. Instead of killing off this NPC and negating the PCs' hard work, use the NPC as a gateway to new adventures which will incorporate your ideas in new, interesting ways.

It shouldn't be too hard for, e.g., someone connected with the NPC to kick the bucket in a ghost-inducing way, so the NPC drags the party in for the ride and you get a ghost investigation on the party's terms rather than on your own. Players tend to be more engaged with plots that arise from PC agency than plots which are thrust upon them.


Now lets talk briefly about avoiding this kind of situation in the future. For me, the key lies not in how I plan, but in what I plan. Instead of creating interesting stories to walk my players through, I need to create interesting people, situations, and conflicts which are happening when the game starts.

My favourite kind of game prep is to set up a complex set of NPC/faction/world interactions and then watch my players roll through them like a lopsided bowling ball. This way, my players can engage with a world and have their choices matter because they're interacting with dynamic processes. As the party acts and makes choices, I'm free to have the world react: NPCs change their plans based on PC action, natural events occur when it's most dramatic, and so forth.

An RPG story is about the PCs, so I like to give them a chance to really make the world sit up and notice their choices. The best way I've found to do this is to avoid planning stories that hinge on the players making certain choices.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this. The befriended NPC certainly knows and cares for someone who could act in the role initially intended for the NPC. Since the PCs are emotionally invested in the NPC, they'll feel a desire to investigate the death of the friend of their friend. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall Apr 24 '15 at 23:08
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You ask about tools you can use in this and similar situations. Other answers have alluded to or mentioned these tools, but I think it would be useful to name them here so you can understand more clearly what your options are. I'll also give the advantages and disadvantages of each tool as I see them.

Tool 1: Railroading

You push ahead with your planned plot regardless of the PCs' decisions. Various versions of this have been suggested in answers and comments (e.g. the NPC relapses).

Advantages

  • Your planning time is not wasted.
  • Your players get to explore your cool plot idea.

Disadvantages

  • You take player agency away.
  • You threaten the suspension of disbelief of your setting.

This sounds very negative, but it can work if your players as your friends decide to support you in this way and amend their PCs' actions accordingly.

Tool 2: Sandboxing

You accept what the PCs have done, wait to see what they do next and react more or less spontaneously to this.

Advantages

  • Your players have ultimate agency and invest in the plot.
  • Your planning time dramatically decreases.
  • You never know, your players might walk into a situation which screams 'evil drugs' and 'ghosts' and you can dust off your planned material.

Disadvantages

  • Not all GMs (including me!) can come up with excellent story ideas, NPCs etc on the spot.
  • This can also damage suspension of disbelief.
  • You might well lose all of your pre-planned material as the PCs might go off in a totally different direction.

Note: I am aware I have given a pretty 'extreme' form of sandboxing here, and it is possible to put a potentially infinite amount of planning into a sandbox, but for the scenario described, a spontaneous sandbox seems to best fit the bill.

Tool 3: Collaborative Storytelling

This is the approach championed by games like Fate. In this case you can share your dilemma with your players and decide together what to do next. Your players may come up with many of the ideas which have been put forward in other answers here, but the best thing is you came up with it together so everyone is invested in it.

Advantages

  • Reduces pressure on GM to come up with all the ideas.
  • Ensures player buy-in on further plot developments.
  • Is a way to test the players even want what you were cooking up (e.g. ghosts in the game).
  • Conversely, your players can help to salvage the best parts of your pre-planned ideas if they like them.

Disadvantages

  • You as GM lose authorial control over your setting. I know this can be a real problem for some people, though personally I find it liberating.
  • Some players may find it difficult to separate between themselves as players and their PC.

You can probably guess from what I've said that I personally prefer the last option, but none of them involve you having to rewrite the universe and plot. With railroading, you keep things as you planned them, with sandboxing the universe and plot develop spontaneously and with collaborative storytelling you develop the universe and plot together with your players. And like any tool there's no need to only ever use one of them - I've certainly used all three in games which I've GMed and you might find a mixed approach works best for your situation.

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Players miss plot hooks because they don't know they're plot hooks.

For all they know, this is how the whole thing was supposed to go down! You can't force players to bite on the hooks; they might or might not, but either way you have to have a plan ready to deal with it. If you want to continue with that storyline, you can either dangle the hook again in a different way, offer another hook to bite on later, or send in an event that brings them into the story whether they want to be in it or not. Here are some options:

Dangle the hook again, in a different way

Experienced players might see through this if you lay it on too thick, but if you're subtle, this could be a very emotionally tragic and touching moment.

  • A relapse or revelation that they were never really going through with the rehab as planned might work, and the NPC could die of an overdose as planned.
  • Maybe the NPC is clean and never goes back in, but he owes a dealer money and the dealer is tired of waiting. When he tries to collect (while the party is elsewhere), the NPC ends up dead.
  • Being clean doesn't mean your fortunes have improved overnight. If he still lives in a bad part of town as a result of his former addiction, it's not tough to have his apartment building or flophouse burn down, killing the NPC in the process.

Offer another hook for the players to bite on later

If you're careful with these, it won't be obvious that you're trying to force them back onto your path. It'll seem like it was your plan all along.

  • A friend or family member of the NPC, who is still a druggie, turns up dead; the NPC begs the players to help avenge or investigate his death.
  • Through a misunderstanding, the players are assumed to be a part of the drug ring who was supplying the NPC, and they must find the real perpetrators in order to clear their names.
  • Take the entire storyline you had planned for this druggie, and give it to a bookie NPC who has fallen into a lot of gambling debt that he'll never repay. Make sure you kill him sooner. (That's a sentence I wasn't expecting to say when I woke up this morning...)

Send them an event that forces them into the story

This is called "railroading" and can be very clunky if done clumsily. Exercise caution!

  • A police raid captures the players. They are accused of being a part of the whole thing, much like the second option in "other hook later," and must clear their name.
  • One of the players fails a will save and becomes addicted himself, being attacked and left for dead during his drugged haze. After he's detoxed, the team must come together to find out who beat him up and why.
  • Upon leaving the city, a group of thugs capture the players. They're part of the drug ring, and they want their money from NPC. Since he doesn't have it, the players must either fight their way out, or pay and then fight their way out.

There are plenty of different ways to approach this without being too obvious. Pick whichever one works best for your story, characters, players, and DM style. Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ My first thought on hearing this scenario, is that it’s an excellent situation to showcase the evils of addiction by having the NPC fall off the wagon, keeping it a secret from the people who helped him, to avoid letting them down or being judged by them. Done poorly, that’s railroading, but done well it’s good pathos. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Apr 23 '15 at 0:47
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In their answer, BESW advocates to "Go along with the PCs' choices and look for opportunities to introduce the interesting people and ideas you have". This is what I would recommend also: work with your player's ideas to craft the story.

One such idea sprang to mind in this particular case. It is taken from A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick. Sadly, if you have not read the book, the suggestion will spoil it massively and thus I recommend reading the book first.

The main character gets addicted and is send to rehab. Turns out that the "rehab" is where the drug is manufactured.

This sounds like a perfect opportunity for you as the GM to add another layer to your plot.

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This was the right path all along.

Imagine as if you had plotted this out where the players where supposed to attach to this character, and get them to clean up their life, and generally improve this character's life.

Now write that story. You can reuse other parts of your story, but don't do so slavishly. Creating a "clone" of the NPC that dies is a bad idea, as it isn't the kind of thing that would have happened in this other story.

It is tempting to threaten or kill a character that the players have hooked onto. Avoid it. Especially avoid it immediately after they hook onto a character in your world. Using such hooks in order to force players down a railroad is so easy and so common that there are myriads of players damaged by exactly that plan. They build characters with no in-world connections, and react to in-world connections with indifference or violence, simply as a reasonable response to those connections being used as railroads reliably by prior (or current) DMs.

Unless your game is grimdark, you don't need to make the NPC's life hell (and by proxy, the PC's).

I'd instead treat the NPC they have befriended and invested in as someone who turns out to be a valuable resource to solve their problems, not a source of problems. They now have a connection to someone who knows the drug trade in their area really well, and has all kinds of personal connections.

If you want to get it "back on the rails" (ie, reuse your plot), the ghost drug thing could show up from a completely different angle. The lucky fact that they have someone with lots of knowledge of the drug situation is now an asset, not a source of new problems. Ghosts should be enough to hook your players without threatening the NPC they have invested in.

Have some other NPC they have some connection to (they should have lots of those) come to the players with information about the "haunting" problem. It can be oblique or direct (the other NPC is being haunted, or maybe they just know someone who is being haunted). If the mechanism of being haunted (ie, the players ignoring the dead person led to them being haunted) doesn't line up with that kind of plot, change the mechanism.

Or make it less direct. Maybe they get involved in a murder/death investigation, and get in contact with the dead person's blood, which causes them to be haunted by the ghost, who had drug problems, which makes their connection to the person they rescued useful.

When players invest in your game world, don't use that as an excuse to torture them. Have investment in the game world pay off instead of being a source of problems. Only after the various investments have payed off (in total) should you start using some of them as a source of problems or adventures. Reward attachment to your shared world, don't abuse it.

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It all depends on how you "force" the issue. A couple of quick options might be

  • He was never following the plan all along. Maybe the NPC (let's call him Bob) was never actually following the rehabilitation plan at all, and was just doing what the PC's asked to keep them happy - but behind closed doors, he was still, "drugging up" shall we say. This could then be used to off Bob as planned

  • He relapsed. This seems like a smoother option, if less exciting. Depending on Bob's mental health (since you were planning to off him, this seems likely he wasn't too stable), a relapse overdose might seem like a viable path.

Additionally, these events could also have an effect on the PC's as well. Knowing that the person you were trying to help either a) never wanted help or b) wasn't strong enough to resist can also have an adverse effect on the people trying to help, so this could also assist on the immersion factor.

If you wanted to follow a different route, instead of killing off the recovering Bob, perhaps introduce them to the events by revealing an already dead NPC, (Dave), that perhaps Bob may or may not have known.

  • Bob and Dave were friends. One way to go might be that Bob, after receiving help from the PC's, attempted to pass on the favour by helping Dave, but to no avail. This could be revealed to the PC's on their next visit to Bob - where he revels Dave has died , and is now apparently a "ghost". This way, Bob might then join them on their adventure as a reward for helping him recover.

  • Dave was just a poor unfortunate soul. Perhaps Bob heard through the grapevine, that someone died, and is hearing strange rumours about "ghosts". Upon investigation, the PC's find that this is caused by the drug (as planned).

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I am going to give an answer to your specific situation, because I don't think I could give a better one than some of the above answers for the generic question of how to handle players missing plot hooks.

A Golden Opportunity

Seriously, your players have handed you an amazing plot hook. You introduced a character and they proceeded to make that character's life so much better that your original plan of killing them off just won't work. Or will it....

My suggestion would be to kill the character off anyways, and incorporate that into the plot. Now your players not only need to investigate the drugs that killed the NPC, and why the NPC is a ghost, but also why the NPC relapsed. You say that it would be obvious and character breaking, but I say that is only true if you can't think of a believable reason for it.

All Aboard the Fun Train

Railroading gets a bad rap a lot of the time. Mostly because when it is done poorly it is obvious and frustrating to players. No one usually talks about good railroading because good railroading shouldn't be noticeable. This sounds exactly like the kind of situation.

You have an NPC who your players are personally invested in, that they have gone out of their way to help. If you kill that NPC now your players are going to naturally want to know why. This is the ultimate plot hook, because you can pretty much guarantee that your players will go through all of the other hoops you have set up for this arc to try to solve the mystery.

They are going to want to know what this drug is, who the NPC got it from, and who is making it. Meeting the ghost of the NPC will go from an interesting encounter to an emotionally deeper encounter. On top of that, you now get PCs that are deeply invested in why an event happened, on all of the little things that lead up to it, instead of just the consequences of the event itself.

The hard part here is going to be coming up with a compelling reason why your NPC has relapsed. Done poorly and your players will probably be dissatisfied with it. But done well and you can have a situation where your players, not just their characters, are personally invested in your story. What more could a GM ask for?

  • PS - If this premise sounds familiar, you should check out the book Go Ask Alice. It is written as the diary of a young teen who has problems with drugs and sex. She eventually manages to start to turn her life around and get things together. The epilogue is a note saying that three weeks after finishing the diary, Alice was found dead from an overdose.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Killing or threatening things that the players "attach" on to in the world in order to "lead" players down a particular road is classic railroading. So much so that there are many many damaged players who, as a result of the above, make characters who have no in-world attachments, and react to anything that looks like it could be an attachment with dismissal or violence. The players have hooked onto a character in the world: destroying that character is (unless done really, really well) harmful to both the game and to the players playing. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Apr 22 '15 at 20:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk I partly agree. If your players don’t enjoy pathos in the game, or if you use it as a cheap trick, yeah that’s terrible. With the right group and the right handling, though, this is good tragedy. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Apr 23 '15 at 0:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk I agree with your point, which is why I emphasized that this should only be done if the OP can come up with a really compelling reason to kill the character. I will say that this case is a little special since the setting is based on solving mysteries. Investigating a stranger's death is strictly less gripping than investigating the death of someone the PCs have an attachment to. \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Apr 24 '15 at 20:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @D.Spetz agreed: but before I kill the NPC, I'd first make sure that the NPC is more utility than problem. Befriending someone (helping them), then that befriending leading to a railroad, is a really tempting pattern and a really common one and a really cheap one. I'd shy away from using it. If you must, put this story in the back pocket, make the NPC useful in a completely new story line or 2, have 1 or 2 other story lines (unconnected), then pull the "the NPC relapsed and died and became a ghost while you where busy elsewhere" if you must. Then, have the ghost be an asset after. ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Apr 24 '15 at 20:19
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This started as a comment but I'd like it to persist, so I'll expand it to an answer.

Lot's of great advice presented here, but I'll refer particularly to @BESW 's answer. Contrast the 2nd paragraph there with some of the discussions of railroading across the other answers.

"...look for opportunities to introduce the interesting people and ideas you have prepared..."

He's talking about adding additional NPCs and staging to make the situational material you've create available. It's not railroading to manipulate scenery to reveal a plot hook or situation. As long as you're not actively manipulating the world to oppose player intent for the purposes of engineering specific plot resolutions or to ensure particular scenes you've envisioned, you're fine. You're just opening doors and inviting them in.

Plus, if you do get a little clumsy and things seem too contrived to the point that the players feel like someone is manipulating events, then perhaps they are. No reason their suspicions can't be fodder for you to add a new element to the campaign. Some of my best dramatic villains have started as nothing more than player paranoia...

I'm getting a little predictable here, but once again I'll recommend reading Justin Alexander's Don't Prep Plots blog series, as well as the more recent Railroading Manifesto series. Lot's of helpful exploration of concepts, along with techniques for improving your prep.

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As much of a railroad this seems to sound like, you can always perform a problem from an external locus. The character having a good life isn't like leveling up and kept stalwart. Things can happen to them.

  • Perhaps an old dealer uses some goons to force a dose of Chemical X on your NPC, and gives him too much because he's clean. The dose was meant to get him to relapse and get back into the game.

  • Goons from a rival gang think that NPC is still in the game (but hiding it well if necessary) and do a raid looking for Chemical X, killing the NPC in the process.

  • NPC is out for a night on the town and some sleazebag spikes them with the drug a la slipping a Mickey

  • NPC plays the noble sacrifice card and is somehow in a position to take a dose of the drug to save some kid(s) from doing it themselves. It keeps the players' choices valuable but it can happen off screen. The would be victim(s) can become new allies to reward the party's hard work.

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Totally agree with answers suggesting you just get creative with your original plot. Remember you are also role playing for these NPCs which hopefully makes it more fun for you as a DM.

People relapse all the time. Introduce a cause for this to happen. Better yet, make the players and NPC responsible for it. Maybe they are forced to fight and kill another NPC whose identity is concealed only to find out after that it was their NPC's brother. He gets depressed and resentful causing a rift between himself the party, relapses and overdoses.

The players who worked so hard to save the NPC will probably be too busy feeling guilty or justifying being responsible for the death of an NPC they've become so attached to that they won't know what to think about what's going to happen next.

The way it has played out sounds like it could become more immersive for the players than you anticipated. Just use your poker face and remember you can make things up on the fly and they will be none the wiser.

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I realise this answer is probably too late for the original poster, but fr others in similar situations, I would suggest looking towards 'twisty' TV shows (Think: Revenge, Twisted, Gossip Girl, etc) as inspiration.

In this case the NPC is playing the character of the bad guy/girl who cleaned up their act. In the process, they've redeemed themselves in the eyes of the protagonists (the PCs) and become a friend to some extent, and more to the point, someone the protagonists trust, confide in and rely on to some extent to take care of minor issues/problems.

Thus ends the first season, and the NPC comes in as a breakout regular character in the second season, but someone from their dark past comes back into town to elevate the drama.

In the OP's particular situation, an old friend arrives on the NPCs doorstep. Many of these situations have been alluded to already in other answers, but I think they actually all work especially well in combination. The old friend is a corrupting influence on the NPC, and the NPC isn't up to dealing with the old friend appropriately for a variety of reasons

  1. "Old bonds": The NPC and the old friend go way back and the NPC can't let the old friend down. The NPC genuinely wants to help, but keeps getting into trouble when they do so
  2. "Moral Obligation": the old friend helped out, helped raised, or in some other did something the NPC feels they will forever be in debt for. Nothing the old friend does will ever be so bad that the debt is wiped out. Particularly manipulative "old friends" will point out this debt as a manipulation technique.
  3. "The slippery slope": the old friend is back in town, and wants to relive the good old days or parties, booze, girls, and drugs. It starts with a drink just to catch up, next a night out. No single step seems like it's a huge deal. The NPC is thinking, sure I can handle one drink, or "it's just dinner", and "if I don't look out for my friend at this party, things could get bad, like they did in the old days, but I'm responsible now, and I can take care of him".
  4. there are more, many more

Of course all of this is happening behind the scenes from the perpective of the PCs. All they see is their new friend starting to behave erraticly, become less reliable (because they're always off dealing some issues the old friend is causing), and eventually distrustful because they are being manipulated by theold friend. Presumably, the PCs will also get distrustful in return. Given you're description of them though, chances are they will make a sincere effort to figure out what's wrong but

  1. The old friend is in town for **the last big con to get out of the game*, and needs the NPC's help, of course it has to be kept a secret
  2. The old friend means bringing some deeply embarrasing, even incriminating, to light, so the NPC tries to keep the PCs far away until they can get they're old friend to move on
  3. The old friend is laying low (from the cops, a former criminal associated, a gang boss they screwed over, whatever). Of course the NPC won't tell anyone the old friend is crashing at thier place, " just until the heat is of, of course"
  4. there are more, many more, you get the idea

With this setup, you can keep to your orginal storyline and not waste all the planning, because the NPC just gets drawn back into his old life. It also sets up a new villian for you, or at least side-villian. You know, the kind who somehow always survies, and manages to weasel out of any kind of comeuppance, because they always have the upper hand in the negotiation; they know something the PCs need to know, or they've planned ahead such that just the PCs think they have him they have to make a terrible choice (save the innocent girl/boy, or chase after the "old friend"). in other words, the character everyone loves to hate.

Alternatively, if the PCs can really manage to get the hooks out, and save the NPC, that is already a compelling exploration of redemption as a continuous choice rather thana single action (for the NPC) and how redemption requires help (in the form of forgiveness/acceptance) from others (the PCs), and as a bonus, the old friend could become the tragic figure, i.e. end up dead despite the NPCs best efforts. Broken and defeated, the NPC turns to the PC, reveals all; the dark past, the wild parties, the temptation of using again with the old friend, ; maybe they did actually use? Up to you the GM. Either way, you still get to use your storyline and planning.

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People are answering from the point of view of the relapse, and not so much from the point of view of the ghost.

In your physics, what makes someone into a ghost?

a. level of tragedy They die of something else entirely... maybe even Utterly Red Herring, I mean um wink unrelated, like, say, batman's parents don't get murdered because this sad shlub tried to save one or both of them.

But the poor guy whose life barely got turned around wanted better, and it's not really any less tragic. In the magic of the world, the amount of sorrow has been retained, but handed to your PCs instead of batman.

b. is it hunger? an aching need? They stay with your PCs while other adventures Unrelated go on, then get killed by something else (just barely past the dotted line of Aw Man What A Bummer, not quite so bad as ZOMG But Bob)

...and then continue to help with their other case, because in the living world just as in the afterlife, apparently Bob has literally nowhere else to go. Nothing he believes in at all - except them. snif

c. tripped over real magic?

Et cetera.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not exactly sure how this answers the OP's question? \$\endgroup\$ – JohnP May 4 '15 at 16:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ The question is not asking how to play the NPC, the question is asking what to do when players bypass or in fact, unexpectedly change the outcome of a plot hook. You appear to be correcting the other answers, rather than contributing to answer the quedtion. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Aug 20 '15 at 21:31

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