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I'm DM'ing a play-by-post campaign and I'm at a point in the adventure where the group all meets for the first time. They've all had something stolen from them at the same time and saw a creature that took something run into a nearby alley (there's three separate parties within the play group currently, as they've only just started, so there's three separate robbers running into alleys in the marketplace).

Ideally, I want the players to have their PCs all give chase so they end up in the same part of town, all looking for the same thing. However, I don't want to railroad my players into doing this. I know I'm not supposed to take away player agency or narrate their actions for them, but the only way I could think of was to tell them that they start giving chase.

So how would you deal with this situation? And more broadly, how can I stop something like this happening again?

If it matters, we're currently playing D&D 5e.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answer in answers, not comments please. Use comments to clarify and improve the question. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Mar 31 '16 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I revised the post to mention the gaming system used as background context to the problem, but as tags are for describing the the problem in a post I removed [dnd-5e] since it's not the source or location of the problem. It's useful context to know though, since the game played can convey a lot of information about play conventions and assumptions being used, which might impact the problem or the most useful solutions. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 31 '16 at 15:24
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Understand what Player Agency is

This is my definition:

Players making informed meaningful decisions that have reasonable consequences that can be foreseen

To have agency in the first place there must be:

  • a decision of consequence to be made. A T-intersection in a dungeon with no other information is not a decision of consequence and no agency is available or needed. If it has signpost with one arm saying "Ogres" and the other saying "Gnolls"; then there is agency involved.
  • enough information to determine the options that are available to them. One of which might (should) be the option of acquiring more information or determining the veracity of the information they have: are you really going to believe a signpost you see in a dungeon?
  • enough information to determine the likely outcome of those options. A party of total newbs who draws their information about ogres from Shrek and thinks a gnoll is something JFK wasn't shot from does not have enough information.
  • a willingness, on the GM's part to deal with the fact that player agency always, ALWAYS f*&ks up your plans. This is because there is always some pain in the ass wizard who will use Passwall to make the T-intersection into an X-intersection.

The problem you have is that you have tried to allow agency in a situation where the needs of the game require that there shouldn't be any. The player characters have to meet and form a party in order for the players to have any fun. There is no question of allowing in-game agency here - the players have already executed their agency out-of-game by deciding to play the game together in the first place. The only options here are follow the thief and play the game or do anything else (Sleep spell anyone?) and don't play the game.

There is a sin worse than denying a player agency: its pretending they have some when they don't - this is called illusionism. For whole bags of discussion on this see:

I know I'm not supposed to take away player agency or narrate their actions for them

I hope you now see that sometimes its not appropriate to give player's agency. Notwithstanding, I agree that you shouldn't narrate their actions; so don't paint yourself into a corner where you have to. Its perfectly acceptable to narrate the outcome of their actions:

Player: We've decided we want to explore the Tomb of Horrors because we are tired of life.

DM: OK, after several months of researching its location and several more months of arduous travel you are standing at the base of the hill in which it is reputed to lie.

Why did we do this? Because research is no fun, arduous travel is no fun, dying in the Tomb of Horrors is where the fun is and we play games to have fun. Have you denied agency? No, because the decision had been made - this is just the consequence of the decision. If your players feel you are trampling on their agency rely on them to say "Wait a minute! I wanted to X, Y and Z before we got here." You can then decide to say "OK, you did X, Y & Z" or "OK, you did X & Z tell me how you were going to do Y".

Don't equate railroad with bad

Every game is a railroad to some degree.

The player's can only play in the setting I offer. They can only play the game I offer: "No, you can't use your Shadowrun character in my D&D campaign". They can only play using the mechanics that the game system allows. They can only play when I hold sessions. They can only adventure in the sites that I decide exist and interact with the NPCs that I decide are there and who react in the way that I decide they do.

Sure, all of these are big ticket things but they all put constraints on player agency. Furthermore, everyone accepts that these are reasonable constraints within the context of the game.

At a lower level, if you join a campaign that I tell you is based on the Tyranny of Dragons adventure path then you have agreed that you will follow the railroad that is that adventure path. Within that constraint I will do my best to give you all the agency you want but if you decide that you will not move from adventure train stop 1 to adventure train stop 2 then the whole campaign is coming to a shuddering halt because I don't have anything else to offer you.

Even if I offer you a sandbox campaign then you can only adventure in the places where I put the adventure sites. You can even think of a sandbox as a railroad network: sure its not a single line going from A to B to C to D but if A, B, C & D is all that's out there then the only difference between the sandbox and the railroad is which train line you ride first.

As an aside, the sandbox only provides agency if the players know about A, B, C & D and know what the difference between them is. The point here is that you can have a railroad that enables agency and equally you can have a sandbox that denies it. There is noting inherently good or bad about either structure.

How to avoid it

Don't get wedded to a story. Stories emerge from playing the game; in preparing a game focus on situations and motivations of the NPCs and the PCs. Decide what happens next based on what happened before rather than having some pre-conceived idea. Take a look at Don't prep plots for an explanation of what I mean.

As to specifically forming a party, this is not an area where agency is a good thing. The players have agreed to play ergo they must play together: deal with this as a fact. Why the character's are together can be handwaved or backstoried or played out in a boring and insipid fashion because given that everyone knows the characters will form a party there's no source of dramatic tension (no prizes for guessing what I think of this last option).

Within the context of D&D 5e there is no reason at all why other members of your party can't just be a bond or, perhaps more interestingly, a flaw.

Or you can steal ideas more widely, for example, I am thinking of stealing from Technoir (the player's guide is free and this stuff is on page 6) the idea of Connections. Give the players a list of PCs and NPCs with a one or two sentence description and allow them to choose a number of Connections equal to say 3 + Charisma modifier. For example:

  • Adrienne Chao (NPC): The heiress to the Malachite fortune.
  • January Jade (NPC): A smuggler and weapons dealer who gets dwarf forged steel into orcish hands.
  • Arma Winn (PC): A wannabe wizard whose master just died.

And my PC might choose: Adriene (lustful), January (antagonistic), Arma (respectful). How these connections get fleshed out (if at all) will emerge in play.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ going to select this as the answer as to me it seems the most complete and should help other people in the situation, but thank you everyone else! \$\endgroup\$ – Jamie Brace Apr 1 '16 at 7:57
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There are lots of different ways. It all depends on your preference as a GM, on preferences of your group, on the system, on your particular game and so on. But before I give you examples, let's get one thing out of the way first.

I know I'm not supposed to take away player agency or narrate their actions for them

Wrong. You, as a GM, are supposed to do whatever the heck you like or need, as long as it makes the game more interesting to your players. Including taking their agency away from them for short periods of time, and including narrating their characters actions for them. It's a pretty simple, common and good method. Far better one than convoluted attempts to direct your players pretending they have a free will. Until you get more experience I strongly suggest you to use this one, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Like this:

GM: And then thieving creatures run away with your valuables...

Players: We chase them!

GM: So, you chase them, chase them, and eventually run into each other. You immediately realize all of you have the same goal, that is finding the filthy thieves...

Other methods can be much more complicated, or even more straightforward. Using your example of "PCs must meet each other", you can use one or combination of:

Just discuss it OOC: In my games, especially early stages, it's not uncommon for players to just discuss out of character how their characters meet each other, and once they come up with a general idea everyone likes, they roleplay the scene in detail in character. It works well for story and roleplay focused games.

Prepare the scene in advance: come up with a bit better restrictions on their actions, than just chasing a thief. Changing your example a bit, they can be not the victims of the crime but witnesses instead. Police bring them in to question about suspiciously similar crimes they all happened to witness and that's how they meet. Or they all may even be not witnesses but suspects. The usual suspects, if you know what I mean ;) Works well with games not too focused on roleplay and characters

Play into their motivations: if they have well developed characters, you can railroad, err guide them, using the explicit and implicit motivations of their characters. As long as they roleplay them properly. Not a surefire method since their players can interpret their character motivations from a different angle thus surprising you, or they can just decide in this case the motivation is not strong enough. I.e. chasing a thief to take back what's stolen vs being afraid to get lured into some dark alley and then killed, self preservation may win.

Solve it during character creation: You can even tell them beforehand that one of the requirements for their characters for this game is gonna be "have a reason to be in City X Square Y on the 5th of September". Players will come up with all sorts of different reasons making the story more interesting, and it also serves as a starting point for their character creation. Absolutely nothing wrong with this method either.

That's by no means a complete list of methods, every GM has their own tricks, but just some ideas to get you started. Oh, and

I don't want to railroad my players into doing this.

The way you described the problem, it seems to me railroading your players was exactly what you wanted to do. Again, there's nothing wrong about that, but trying to disguise it too hard may leave a bad feeling for your players. Better do it straightforward.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good edit! That sends the same message but clearer, and, as a bonus, much more directly. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 31 '16 at 16:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Character creation is always my choice. The group can't really expect to play individually, so just ask them to come up with reasons. They'll do the DM's work for him and have fun doing it. \$\endgroup\$ – Zan Lynx Mar 31 '16 at 23:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ As it's said here : early stages can easily be set up out of the game to ensure a smooth start. You involve more your player while controlling their characters. \$\endgroup\$ – MakorDal Apr 1 '16 at 6:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ "You, as a GM, are supposed to do whatever the heck you like or need, as long as it makes the game more interesting to your players." That's a common philosophy, but it doesn't hold for every game. Some systems deliberately shape or constrain or even redefine the GM role. Apocalypse World and most of its descendents, for instance, insist that when the GM makes things happen in the game world, they restrict themselves to choosing from the list of "moves" given in the book. GMs are players like any other. Their traditional goals and powers shouldn't be assumed universal. \$\endgroup\$ – SeaWyrm Jun 16 '16 at 19:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeaWyrm that's why I strongly insist against "system agnostic" tags since such questions aren't system agnostic at all. And systems are too different to fit an answer for every one of them into one post. I am thinking about making a meta post on it one day. That said, I believe the text you cited describes the majority of RPG systems pretty well. \$\endgroup\$ – Sejanus Jun 17 '16 at 5:36
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An offer they can't refuse...

In a game where the player has total agency, the best way to force them to do what you want is to make the offer too good or bad to refuse. So for your situation at hand, you would have the thieves take an item from each character that they cannot possibly go on without.

For example, a wizard may have his spellbook taken, or the fighter may have his sword taken, or a cleric's holy symbol, or any number of valuable items any given character might have. If you do that, the character's decision to let the thief go would indeed be a silly one.

Beginnings of campaigns are particularly difficult because at some level, you will railroad them...even the classic 'you all start in a tavern in X town, on X day' is railroading because one of the characters could say 'actually, I wouldn't go to that tavern, I'm much too high class'. The assumption of players is that they are going to play together in the same party, and a situation that gets them together, even if it's railroading, is generally welcomed.

Future Situations

Generally, you want to be prepared for any eventuality. For example, I set up a situation where some lizardfolk were infringing upon human territory because they were removed from their home by giants. My idea was that the party would parlay with the lizardfolk and try to work out the situation. It ultimately played out how I expected, but what if the party had decided to attack the lizardfolk and remove them by force? I had full stat blocks prepared for all the lizardfolk for that posibility.

Be prepared to not have things go the way you planned, and try to make it fun even if they don't go the route you planned. There should be consequences for bad choices, but no punishments for not going according to plan.

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First, don't assume the players are ever going to do things the way you expect them to. You've taken away your options. Now, you have a few options. If you need them all to meet up at a certain place, either start the adventure at that place or, if this is mid-game, place the spot right in their tracks so they won't miss it. Place it inside a narrative.

You're walking along the forest road and night is falling. You come across a run down stone inn. It's the only building you've seen all day. There is music coming through the doorway and the sound of glasses clinking together. A fellow dressed in peasant clothing is just entering the building as you come up. It starts to rain.

Even now, the players may not take the bait, especially the paranoid types (probably abused by a DM in past games). Here's where the three clue technique comes in. I find this rule to be very helpful. It's also a great way to mask railroading. Some characters may choose to follow clue 1, others clue 2 and lastly, there's clue 3. All lead to the same place.

Larry and Moe decide not to follow the thieves. Larry notices that one of the thieves dropped something. It's a key with an imprint of a hooded man. Moe remembers seeing a tavern with that image on the sign over the door...

Preparing these "secondary" paths to the goal in advance will make the game flow smoother and seem less forced.

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So how would you deal with this situation? And more broadly, how can I stop something like this happening again?

I would have thought of the problem you've created for yourself, sooner. You set up a problem by wanting the players to join together in the same cooperative adventuring party, but starting them not knowing each other and only happening to be in the same marketplace, and you're hoping they will bond after they have an extreme forced coincidence occur where they all somehow get robbed by three separate thieves at the same time, who are all going to run to the same place. You also have a quite-possibly-competing wish to let them do whatever they want. You didn't say why this triple robbery happened in the game world, or what you expect to do if they don't give chase, so I'm assuming you didn't think those things through.

I would think those things through, and change the setup and scenario appropriately.

A few different approaches I have used:

  • Get agreement ahead of time for what will bring the players together. If I am just doing the triple-robbery because I think it's fun/clever/cute, I would get at least one player from each of the three sub-groups to agree to go along with the idea that the party will meet due to a strange coincidence, and to please go along with the coincidence phase of the game. If enough players didn't like this idea, though, I would give it up and get agreement on another way to form a party.

  • I would also tend to not like mere coincidence to be the basis for the expected formation of a cooperative adventuring party. I would get the players and characters to agree to have other binding interests and motives that will endure as well as I want the party to be cohesive.

  • I have used a forced coincidence to form a party before, but I usually do it by setting up the PC's plans before the game starts. For example, they are all for whatever reason booking passage with the same caravan, or ship, or joining the same company, or are all part of the same noble household guards, or are all friends of the same people, or are in the same hamlet that is about to be attacked, or something.

  • If I did set up the scenario you describe, it would probably be for a reason. The thieves will have been coordinated to do the simultaneous robberies for a reason, by some other agency that is either a compelling patron or foe, which will designed to be relevant to most or all of the PC's in one or more ways. Or possibly it is because there is some great thing to find, and these are all people looking for that, and mistaking adventuring groups for the carriers of whatever that is. Maybe someone put out a reward for the recovery of something cool or important, and the thieves are all trying to get that. Maybe they all run to the reward-giver, or to an interesting thief's guild house. Something that makes sense and gives the PCs reasons to join forces, and something interesting to do together.

  • When/if players do something unexpected, I generally go with whatever they choose and use that to learn what they are interested in, and create appropriate content for that. I give them more chances to be interested, but don't force it. So for example, if one of your three groups decides that instead of chasing the thief, they're going to make it up to the victim by buying him a round at the nearby beer hall, then I would tend to give them the beer hall experience they want, see what happens to the other groups, and present the opportunity for them to also go to the same beer hall...

Again, "stop[ping] something like this happening again" is about the GM noticing when they are contriving a situation that requires players to do something unnatural. That's naturally not going to tend to work. What naturally tends to work, is to create content that matches the PCs, is interesting for the players, and that can cope with them not doing what you expect.

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As a corollary to some of the other answers here, note that your players might just be on your side.

GM: "You see a thief running towards the marketplace, and-"

Players: "Oh, good! We should chase him! That'll give us a good excuse to meet up with everyone else!"

If you all want the same thing - and in this case, you probably do - there's no need to "get" them to do anything. You're all working together to achieve the desired result. All you need to do as GM is make sure they have a clear opportunity.

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