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My current roleplaying group has a problem in which the GM will plan an awesome setpiece, only for one of the players to accidentally and unknowingly derail it by performing what seems like a reasonable action.

For example: We are fighting a low-power undead enemy and his much more powerful summon. We know that the undead is the leader of the plot we have been investigating, but we seem to have run him to ground. The druid realizes that she can hit both of them with a Wall of Fire, and does so. The undead dies. We later discover that he was supposed to become a much more powerful sea monster, who we would have to fight in an awesome nautical battle.

I can't call it an issue with My Guy, since it wasn't at all apparent that what she was doing would ruin anyone's fun- and in fact,the battle given as an example was a lot of fun, it just...could have had sea monsters. It's also not an issue with one player; the druid was the most recent example, but we've all done it at some point. However, it has the same result as My Guy Syndrome in that the players feel cheated, the GM doesn't get to use the cool setpieces, and it feels unsatisfying.

How do I help my group/GM stop cheating ourselves out of plot?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note: this style of play (where you like the rails planned by the GM) is in some places called “Participationism”. I've tagged it with that instead of [railroading] because it's slightly different and has much more positive connotations than “railroading”, which is usually considered something to avoid. In any case, good first question, and welcome to RPG.se! (If you haven't yet, check out our tour for a primer and a shiny badge.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 8 '15 at 17:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a particular reason why you feel that your group did something wrong? You ask how you can help not derail the plot, but it seems to me like your group did exactly what any half-decent strategist would have done, go for the guy in the robes. Any group would have made this "mistake" because the squishy summoner is the juicy target, why do you feel it is you guys who failed and not your GM? \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jul 9 '15 at 7:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ My example was one of the clearer cases, where there really wasn't any way to know what would happen. There have been cases that edge closer to My Guy, for example pushing the arc villain off a roof while he was monologuing. Logical in character, and the rest of the party thought it was hilarious. Then we realized he had no way to get back onto the roof. \$\endgroup\$ – user23518 Jul 9 '15 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user23518 Can you clarify what part of all this is actually bothering you? It seems clear to me that you're unhappy but others here seem to think its a minor style issue. This new example is just confusing me further - do you wish you hadn't push the villain off, or do you wish that the GM had prevented it affecting the game, or what? Can you say what you would have preferred to have happened? \$\endgroup\$ – Nagora Jul 10 '15 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it just me or did anyone else imagine the DM saying something like The Big Bad tries to dodge your attack *rolls 1* he trips over a rock and dies \$\endgroup\$ – kylie.a Jul 13 '15 at 13:52

13 Answers 13

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How do I help my group/GM stop cheating ourselves out of plot?

The only person that is cheating you out of a cool plot is your GM. Because he told you. If he had not told you, you would not feel cheated and more importantly, you would not know the plot. So your GM could recycle it into a future adventure and still use it to good effect.

There is no reason that the undead that was killed cannot still be bound to this plane by his avengening spirit and will return in the body of a sea monster leading to a great nautical battle. Or whatever other story hook you can find to make your ideas come to life.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ And there's always the option to work together to find alternatives to still resolve the plot once it's been spoiled. This same process of overhauling the plot that has been done in the answer can also be done by the players and the game master together. \$\endgroup\$ – Mr. Sandman Jul 8 '15 at 20:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 to this. The GM can learn to save the set piece for another opportunity. Having a few generic set piece ideas in your back pocket is a great way to improvise. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Jul 8 '15 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed. Gamers are fond of saying that the DM can do anything. So when the Undead reappears and the players wonder what happened, ask what they think and go along with the best answer. \$\endgroup\$ – committed hero Jul 12 '15 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dokebibul That's actually exactly what we've done in a few other situations, including the one I commented about. Enemy backup plans are the best. \$\endgroup\$ – user23518 Jul 13 '15 at 15:20
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My current playgroup has a very similar effect, but that's mostly intentional, as we tend to get distracted and wander into weird places.

From what you've said I don't think this is something that can be addressed by the players, since when you're attacked by a bad guy, it's only reasonable that you would fight back, especially when you don't know the character is supposed to be important.

From a GM perspective, he needs to have more resiliency in his plot. What I mean is, if you want a character to escape and come back later, you need to give him a way to do that. Making a weak character that can die in 1 good hit a big bad guy doesn't make much sense. You can tell him (in a friendly, constructive manner of course) to plan out his encounters better, to make sure what he wants to happen CAN happen. If the plot can't survive a character dying, don't send him into combat, or make him run away quickly, or resurrect him, etc.

Another option is to have a back up in place, maybe this undead doesn't turn into a sea monster, but his associate does in order to get revenge.

That being said, PCs finding unexpected solutions and totally changing what the GM had planned is a fun part of the game, but if it keeps happening the GM needs to change how he is planning.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "the GM needs to change how he is planning." This is a GM problem, not a player problem, and it's on the GM to not make setpieces that can be undone by a completely reasonable action by the players. \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Jul 8 '15 at 21:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ This reminds me of an anecdote in one of the Uncle Figgy's guides where the GM needed his players to find an enchanted knife in the kitchen but the players just weren't interested in looking there. Rather than tip his hand out of game, after a few minutes he put the knife in the hand of a zombie and shambled it out of the kitchen. Players fought it, and found the knife for his story. The GM is responsible for keeping the story on the rails, but not the characters. When the characters go off-track, move the track back to the characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Sloloem Jul 9 '15 at 13:21
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Bearing in mind the Participationism tag, I still don't think there is much that you as a player do to help directly in this situation. I'm not 100% convinced it is your job, and even if it is, I don't think you have the tools and perspective to help in this situation.

In this case, you knew that the bad guy might be an important bad guy, but it seems clear that you did not know whether or not he was at the planned end of his arc, nor was it clear that the druid's attack would be sufficiently devastating as to end the arc prematurely.

This is on the GM, in my opinion, and his or her range of solutions includes things like:

  • Foreshadowing: This can be subtle (and therefore easily overlooked) or obviously (such as a prophecy, or constant references to being at a certain place and time.)

  • Social or genre conventions: In Amber games, there is often the convention that one does not kill a hated enemy if that hated enemy is a family member... and all the best enemies in Amber are related to you.

  • Script immunity: This can also be subtle or obvious, but if the villain (or some other NPC) absolutely positively has to be somewhere later, they may have a certain amount of script immunity. Some genres are famous for, "Don't believe they're dead if you don't have a body." Some are famous for, "No one ever stays dead." These are forms of script immunity that are a little subtler than giving people infinite hit points, or similar.

  • Plot redundancy: Every GM with lynchpin NPCs, locations, or situations, should be actively considering what could go wrong and how the plot will recover. Your GM may have been doing that without telling you. Sure, the villain might have been a sea monster later if he survived, but now that he's dead this other cool thing will happen instead.

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Your GM can just tell you. GMs can indicate an NPC’s future importance either with in-game foreshadowing, or by just telling you outright:

Hey, this guy here? I have plans for him. Plans I know you’ll like. Do what you will, but keep that in mind.

Foreshadowing is obviously a neater, cleaner way to accomplish the same thing, which is how it might be done in a TV show or movie. Improving their foreshadowing skills — and all you improving your sensitivity to foreshadowing — is something that the GM and the group can work on, of course.

But foreshadowing in RPGs is a difficult skill to master and much harder to pull off successfully (it’s too easy, as you’ve found, for the players who are “co-writing” this epic to miss such signals, and the timing is very tricky), so in the meantime just conveying the information in an out-of-game aside as if you’re all discussing this in a writers’ meeting is quick and effective.

Foreshadowing and asides can also be combined even once everyone has good foreshadowing skills, since sometimes one tool is better than the other for a particular situation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for an answer that actually addresses the question within the querents playstyle. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 10 '15 at 14:54
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This is an issue on the GM side

As players you should never know about the almost recurring antagonist that you snuffed out. Your GM should have backup plots and NPCs waiting in the wings to step in should you have too much success as players.

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I would suggest that you point your GM at Don't prep plots.

It is an enormously liberating way to GM and it puts the decisions that the players make at the centre of the stage.

Applying the advice in the article to your specific example, here is the plot:

Bad guy A with minion B will summon Sea Monster C

Here are the same circumstances as situations:

Bad guy A wants X, he can do E, F & G, there are at least 3 clues linking him to B & C.

Minion B wants Y, he can do H, I & J, there are at least 3 clues linking him to A & C.

Sea Monster C wants Z, he can do K, L & M, there are at least 3 clues linking him to A & B

Phrased this way, instead of a fragile plot with multiple points of failure (e.g. the players quite reasonably kill A & B before C gets involved), you have 3 stand-alone encounters which the players can engage in any order and with natural paths leading from one to any of the others. In addition, the antagonists have goals that they will pursue and achieve if the PCs do not interfere and these will lead to natural responses when the PCs do interfere.

I am also extremely fond of putting in redundant NPC bad guys without deciding in advance who the BBEG is. This emerges with play - the one who survives and the players come to utterly despise because of their cockroach like invulnerability becomes the BBEG. Practical example, in my current campaign, the party have put on hold all of their personal objectives to hunt down and kill an evil mage who, in 3 encounters, has never once succeeded in affecting any member of the party with a spell or causing a single point of damage - he is, in fact, the most ineffectual villain I have ever seen but he is also one of the most hated.

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Many game systems have mechanics for this built-in. For example, in Numenera, the GM could say: "I'm offering a GM intrusion. If you accept this intrusion, the undead guy dodges your Wall Of Fire, and you get two experience points. If you decline the intrusion, you have to give me one experience point..." That way, the players get rewarded for doing something clever, but the plot can still continue.

(I think Fate has a similar mechanic but I don't recall the details.)

I've tried using this mechanic occasionally in my Pathfinder game. The players did some extremely clever research and found out about a secret entrance into the dungeon -- but the dungeon was really large and not very well-indexed, and I had only prepared for the front entrance, and I didn't know where the secret entrance led. So I said: "Guys: I want to reward you for your cleverness in finding the secret entrance, but if you actually go that way it will cause problems I can't talk about. So I'll give you two thousand experience points if you go for the front entrance instead." They seemed to take that pretty well.


Having said that: props to your DM for (1) tolerating you killing his plot monster, rather than just altering reality to give it a bunch more hit points, and (2) giving you a fun combat even after you did that.

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What you need here is (to quote TVTropes) Contractual Boss Immunity. I would consider this as 100% GM responsibility.

The top-level bosses in a game will be immune to the player's most effective or strongest attacks.

You might have noticed this in any RPG, where main bosses are unaffected by spells such as "Zombify", "Death", or the like. The main explanation for this is simple: OHKOing the boss, therefore preventing it from Turning Red, prevents the plot from advancing properly, therefore wasting the efforts of the GM in planning all these setpiece battles.

If the GM truly wishes his effort spent planning to not go to waste, some form of special abilities should be given to the boss to prevent such events from occurring.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh god, TVTropes. \$\endgroup\$ – user23518 Jul 9 '15 at 17:40
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Railroading: Embrace It Or Give It Up

It seems to me that the players and GM are not all on the same page as to how they want the game to play.

Maybe you want "participationism" and desire for him to railroad you into the larger setpieces regardless of what you do. It does seem like when you hear about how a fight or plot might have developed without your intervention, you feel cheated.

This may or may not be what the other players and GM want, however. Note other recent question How to deal with a GM who does not tell us everything? which could be interpreted as the GM fudging to make a cool scene happen, and the poster and many of the answerers there are clearly not on board with that playstyle.

And really, it may be you psyching yourself out. Any time you nip something in the bud, then that thing can't grow - but that can just be choosing not to kill a local guardsman and then escalating the violence till you are "setpiecing" the king, or stopping the demon summoner before the world is covered with demons and you are "setpiecing" Demogorgon. Do you really want everything to get to its ultimate, most Michael Bay CGI-inducing all the time? That would tend to militate against you ever succeeding, don't you think?

And it doesn't mean something else cool isn't going to happen. There's a good chance that there's nothing going wrong on the GM side here, and he is just telling you what could/would have developed if y'all hadn't stopped it, but has just as many cool things lined up for your future. In this case, you're just talking yourself into buyer's (murderer's?) regret. Usually, GM's have a place where the plot is going to develop to if you don't stop it. You can't have "all possible futures," if you are sad at the loss of a given future - you'll always be sad.

Now, it's also possible your GM does have a problem, and it's that he does get derailed from cool things and doesn't know how to adapt - but I don't actually see any evidence of that in your question.

Your solution options are:

  1. Determine that there's no real problem besides your own psychology, and either get your head right or ask the GM not to tell you about "what might have been" because it tempts you into sadness.

  2. Get your group (players and GM) to agree that they should try not to derail/railroad around derailments to get to "fun content" regardless of what y'all do as a playstyle choice.

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To consider your second example, given in comments:

"Pushing the villain off the roof while monologuing" is a subversion of the fictional conventions that the GM expected. Put simply, it is not realistic for the villain to stand around completely defenceless grandstanding (at least, not if he's supposed to be a genuine threat), so you can either have a game that adheres to the convention of the villain doing exactly that for no discernable in-character reason, or you can have a game in which the PCs pursue every possible advantage, but not both. Some RPG systems address more directly than others, the fact that much fiction is not "realistic" in every sense.

We can argue all day, to no effect, which is better, but if both you and the GM want a game in which the former thing happens (and, conversely, the players can get a causality break or a brief time-out when they think of something to do or say that's dramatically interesting but tactically very weak), and your system doesn't constrain you with rules that enforce a particular set of genre conventions, then you both have to play along to the convention. If you want to play the latter game, OK, but it cuts both ways, and expect the GM to time anything you say in character during combat. If it takes longer than the number of seconds in a combat round, well, apparently now you're monologuing, and we've already established that apparently there's a house-rule that says your opponent can shove you off a roof. Oops ;-) Not that I think the GM should actually do that, because it'd be a rubbish house-rule, it's that both the players and the GMs should only be attempting and allowing actions that actually make sense in whatever terms your game is played. That's not necessarily a gritty realism that ruthlessly punishes dramatic exposition.

However, I agree with other answers which state that the GM should make the bad guys more robust to this kind of interference. The root problem here isn't that you didn't get to see all the cool stuff the GM thought off, that's the just the effect. The problem is that the bad guys were too weak to be interesting, and the players can't solve that problem without the GM doing something.

Basically, the villain doesn't need to be insta-killed just because he happened to be speaking at the time the PCs attacked him, but the GM has probably decided in the moment (and perhaps thought better of it later), that playing along with the convention-subverting joke was a better option than either enforcing the convention ("villain is immune to all attacks until speech is over") or else making plausible-in-character responses to your plausible-in-character attack ("villain defends himself -- what, you think you can just push people off roofs as an automatic success? Give me a break")

Going back to the sea monster, there are a lot of computer games where end bosses automatically convert into bigger, cooler monsters when they take a certain amount of damage. If that's the effect the GM wants to achieve, then he needs to work with the system of whatever game you're playing to get where he wants to go. Or, if it's a game with the GM as auteur, change the system. Invent a "triggers on serious injury or death" condition for summoning the sea monster. One single spell should not be enough to kill the bad guy before he gets a chance to do the most interesting thing he can do. It's on the GM, not the players, to stat the bad guys, and it's not railroading to choose/invent bad guys that can survive one round of combat, or bad guys where the consequence of killing them is more bad guys!

I contend that with a bit of communication (traditionally initiated by the GM) about what style of fiction you're building, most players are smart enough to recognise the "villain's speech" convention if they try, and to play along. The speech is "allowed" to harm the villain in the sense that it gives the heroes time to recover from some inconvenience, escape from being tied up, when the villain "should" have ruthlessly killed them ASAP. But it isn't "allowed" to harm the villain to the extent of making him vulnerable to an insta-kill. The sea monster is pretty much entirely a GM error, because once the fight starts the PCs should be expected to fight, and these bad guys just weren't tough enough to take them on. One of the responsibilities of the GM is to understand the rules well enough not to be surprised if the players' listed abilities can wipe out the plot in a single blow. If a player does something spectacularly clever to end the fight before it starts, that's another matter, and shouldn't just be railroaded away. But "fire off my best damage spell" is not that.

So, if you want to play to a particular set of conventions, then both players and GM need to resist the temptation of making jokes that discard the conventions, or tactical decisions that ruthlessly exploit them. The villain doesn't hunt down and kill the PCs' parents in a light-hearted comedy game and say that's what "his guy" would do, and the players don't take too much advantage of a villain's exposition of the plot and say that's what "their guy" would do. If you want to do it by the book, not by "unrealistically" playing along, then the GM needs to know the book better.

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As the GM, if the undead was that important to the story I can immediately see two on-the fly fixes:

1 Have the attack severely wound it, then have the summon launch some sort of all-out assault/flurry to cover his retreat (assuming the sea monster fight was a later-in-the-campaign thing)

2 (if the sea-monster fight was to happen back-to-back) It would have been an easy one to have the transformation spell triggered by the undead dying/getting close to death

If this is a regular issue the above style of fudge would grow old fast, I would suggest either not letting the PC's encounter the big-bad until he's ready to be unleashed, or if it's important that they have to meet him before the final scene, put it in a scenario where combat isn't an option (in his throne room outnumbered 100:1, across a canyon they can only taunt each other across etc.)

If none of the above will suit, the GM may want to consider pre-preparing a basic get-out-of-jail-free strategy before each encounter like putting a wicked trap in the encounter area (I mean, if I was some sort of super evil creature I'd want to have some tricks up my sleeve)

Wow this went long, anyway that's my $0.02

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It's one of the hardest things to do as a DM, to adapt to the players actions when they don't do stuff you have planned for. But that's the fun of DMing. My key tools are:

  • NOT telling the players what might have happened, it's like explaining a joke, don't do it (unless it's funny and doesn't undermine the storytelling).
  • "cheat" when it makes the game better, NOT when it makes you look cooler. But be subtle and don't create "victims". When the enemy archer needs to make that shot to hit the bell to raise the alarm, to make the story "right", then roll the dice behind your screen and ignore the result. USE THIS VERY SPARINGLY OR ITS OBVIOUS. And actually the DM can never cheat by the rules (they are in charge of them), they can only cheat the players of a good story.
  • Another "cheat" is to modify the enemies on the fly. In the example above a fix could be that the lesser undead's spirit was released by it's death and as a result possessed a sea monster. If the players want an epic battle and find it just to damn easy, add something to the mix. A dying curse summoning something horrible, a magic item to be used only once that creates an elemental/summons a demon/etc. Just because it is written in your notes or in the scenario doesn't make it the LAW.
  • Not worrying about it. The players can't "spoil" a game unless the DM is too rigid to adapt and the players to unforgiving to let the DM wing it.

Get all the players to recognise the storytelling aspect of all this and it will all be better. I remember a few times when the players decided to do something completely different from what I had prepared, so I asked them for 20 mins to make some notes and to think about it and then we played a very different story line. And actually it was probably better as it what they had decided to do was a great idea idea.

A key thing is that it is NOT the players against the DM game, its a game where everybody works together to make a great and enjoyable story. With dome great fights!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Down voting without and explanation is pointless and rude. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 16 '15 at 13:20
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"My current roleplaying group has a problem in which the GM will plan an awesome setpiece, only for one of the players to accidentally and unknowingly derail it by performing what seems like a reasonable action." [my bold]

The players are roleplaying, the GM is trying to write a book. I'd strongly suggest picking someone else to GM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is more to this than "you want to play a different game than your gm." The players obivously want to play that game, and there are many other ways to fix this, but most are (as pointed out by most other answers) in the hands of the gm. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 9 '15 at 11:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ The players do not want to play that game, in fact. Unless you think they want to feel cheated and unsatisfied. Or, alternatively, that they don't want to be able to make choices that their character would reasonably make for fear of upsetting the GM. They in fact want to play a different game where they and the GM are having fun. They're not going to get there from where they are now. \$\endgroup\$ – Nagora Jul 9 '15 at 11:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, no, they want to play that game the same way the gm wants to play it, the gm just needs to learn to prep in a different way (see the other answers for that), and it will be fine. This is not an issue of "walk away or suffer and don't have fun". \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 9 '15 at 11:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think a lot of those answers boil down to the GM pretending that the player's choices are real. Eventually they're cotton onto the fact that they're not. Will they still be having fun then? I understand what you're saying but I think there is an inherent clash here between roleplay and railroad and papering over the crack will only last so long. \$\endgroup\$ – Nagora Jul 9 '15 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I get that, totally, but don't think it will apply to this group, as they want to be "railroaded" (railroading is not the best word as it is an implied negative word, but I hope you get what I mean) \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 9 '15 at 12:55

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