# Is making characters who go off the rails unlucky a good technique for keeping the plot moving?

I will soon be the GM of a 4 players party. It will be my very first game as a GM, and one thing that terrifies me is to let players make the choices they want and lose them far away from the plot.

I read How to recover when players go the "wrong" way? and I found it very useful. It made me think of a technique to keep players on the right way, but I feel it could be frustrating or punishing, which I don't want it to be.

Here's what I thought: could I make the PCs unlucky if they aren't following the plot?

One example would be falling in the mud. Another example would be to never succeed in your task (like a mage that definitely can't make that awesome potion no matter what he tries, and can't figure out why). I feel like I would be punishing them, and in the same time, it could give them hints to stay in the plot. Is it something I could try?

• In which universe are you playing? Which system? – Anne Aunyme May 12 '16 at 8:59
• @AnneAunyme It's a universe I made, without any system. We're roleplaying on a forum, so I "just" need to guide them through the plot. – Keker May 12 '16 at 9:06
• @corsiKa To echo that comment, it sounds like you need a reminder to answer in answers. – SevenSidedDie May 13 '16 at 3:18
• Unlucky as in "The party wanders in an area well known for its falling rocks..."? – MKII May 13 '16 at 7:06
• No, nothing that could kill them. But I had in mind some situations where they could be pretty pathetic, before I realize it could indeed be really mean to them. The second idea was to prevent them from doing super duper cool stuff if they were too far away from the plot. – Keker May 13 '16 at 7:11

No

Roleplay should be about having fun. When you start to punish your players, it is very possible that they will quit your campaign. Even if your players are doing it just to pull your leg, you shouldn't make the game painful as noone will enjoy it.

I would reccomend following options:

• Speak with them face to face after the game.

It happens, that friends tend to talk about other things or fool around. It is fine, but they should not overdo it. Explain them that you have spent some time on preperations and it is a little crass of them. If it does not help it may be hard, but you should probably look for properly brought up people who respect each other a little more.

• Reward them for following the plot.

Give them something that will be really useful in nondistant future.

• Give them a slight hint.

Sometimes player get lost even with simple information. They might overinterpret. Be more or less direct, depending on for how long are they stuck. E.g. a player found some markings on a wall, but they have no clue it could be a message. On the same day they "accidentally" meet two mute people who use sign language. Impressed that simple gesture could mean a variety of things, they resemble something something familiar in it...

• Make sure that you did not mess something up, if you did fix it.

It happens, that we GM's also make mistakes. Be disposed to apologise and correct your mistakes.

• I often lose track of what I'm doing or what I said, and will use a lot of notes. But I'm pretty sure I'll forget anyway so yeah, I'm prepared to make mistakes and apologise for them! :') I already have a rewarding system (by giving them points for their skills). For hints, I guess that will be my major weakness. I'm terrible at giving hints without giving the entire plot in the process. – Keker May 12 '16 at 13:30
• +1 for Reward them for following the plot. The old adage: Catch more flies with honey.. something something dark side. RIGHT? Anyway, people will respond better to positive reinforcement. – Ethan The Brave May 12 '16 at 19:39
• Try watching detective movies, series or reading books. It should inspire you a little. – Momonga-sama May 13 '16 at 4:54
• I'm reading a lot, and as an adult and an amateur writer, I analyze them with a whole new eye. And I learn a ton of different ways to make the plot interesting, and that I can use some techniques that I considered too obvious but were and are used by famous writers anyway. – Keker May 13 '16 at 6:58

No such good techniques exist and neither should you try to use them.

What you are asking about is how to best rail road the players. This is generally considered a bad thing(TM) as it robs players of their freedom. However, you can do something about your fears: set expectations.

Tell your players what you just told us in your question and ask for their help. This can take the form of meta games discussions to see if they are following the plot or not. Your players can set their PCs' motivations in such a way that they will want to follow your plot.

The same page tool might well help there and is a good thing to use to make sure that you all play the game that you want to play.

One thing you should definitely never do is to punish players or characters for not doing what you want them to do. You are all there to have fun, and being bullied1 is no fun.

Finally, if they do deviate from the plot, improvise and adapt to the player's reactions. After all, no plan survives contact with the enemy and written adventures, just like the pirate code, should be taken as guidelines not hard rules. This, in my not so humble opinion, is the hardest thing about running a game: You have to constantly adapt your world, plots, and NPCs to whatever the players are doing.

1: This case clearly by-passes the physical aspect of bullying but is right on point in influencing someone to force them to do something. Most of the time, railroading is RPG is done out of fear by a new GM and does not have the underlying maliciousness that we associate with bullying.

• I never saw that as bullying, but I guess I'd be frustrated if I was in the same situation... And yes, all the railroad thing was bothering me, as my players can (and will) come up with great ideas. – Keker May 12 '16 at 13:26
• +1 because this is the first answer to actually point to what to say during the "talk to your players" advice. "Guys, I actually don't have that prepared--I hadn't anticipated that you'd ____, You can do that, but then I'm going to need to end the session so that I can spend the week fleshing things out in that direction." – nitsua60 May 12 '16 at 14:18
• Extending @nitsua60 's comment, it helps to have some rather generic encounters that you can "plug in" to any situation, enabling you to extend or buffer the plot flow. Just don't overdo the interruptions, players can lose the plot surprisingly easily. – David Wilkins May 13 '16 at 3:42
• @DavidWilkins This is what I am alluding to in my last paragraph: do more improvisation. There are way to help with that (your suggestion amongst them) but it's out of scope for this question. – Sardathrion - against SE abuse May 13 '16 at 8:04
• @Keker: I added a link to the definition of bullying. This case clearly by-passes the physical aspect but is right on point in influencing someone to force them to do something. Most of the time, railroading is RPG is done out of fear by new GMs and does not have the underlying maliciousness that we associate with bullying. – Sardathrion - against SE abuse May 13 '16 at 8:08

You aren't the first to have that thought - there are these legends of GMs who, after getting fed up with constantly derailed plotlines, decides to kill off their party with an abrupt rockslide.

Overall, though, I think you're facing the problem the wrong way. You're thinking about how you can prevent players from ignoring the plot you give them - instead, you should focus on why the players are ignoring the plotline, and hopefully mend the source of the problem, not just the effects. If you have to force them to do things your way through punishment, they're not going to have fun.

So why would they ignore your plot? Some possibilities:

• Simply put, they don't like it. This is nothing to be ashamed of - writing good fiction is hard, and RPG isn't the easiest format to do it because it requires the active participation of others. One of the easiest ways to lose your players' interest in the plot is to overcomplicate it - start with something simple.
• They expect a free-form adventure, and treat any plot-hooks you leave as suggestions while you expect them to roll with them. This needs to be discussed with your party - just rolling with the GM's plot can be a fun game for some, but others would prefer a more freeroam-style game.
• They are simply clueless - this happens surprisingly often. The clue you thought was obvious flew right past the player's heads, and they need further reinforcement to stay on-path.

## Talk to your players

Most of the time it's a matter of conflicting expectations, and the best way you can deal with this is to make it clear to your players how you expect your game to work and allow them to digest it. Be open to their suggesions, too. It's important to bear in mind that there's dozens of ways to play RPGs, and while there's no right and wrong way, having two conflicting good ideas around the table can result in a bad experience. Ultimately, since you're the one running the game, it's your choice how you want the game to be.

## When re-railing, be gentle

Even if your game is to follow a single plotline, forcing actions on your players either directly or indirectly makes the entire point of role-playing null - it's not a novel. Instead, when your players veer off-course, that's a cue for you to grow your plot - tie whatever course they're taking into the grand scheme.

## Reinforce good ideas

The players will occasionally follow your clues and plot - that's good, reward them for it. Occasionally they'll come up with something else entirely - but it might be an excellent idea. Reward that too, and tie that into your plot. As an example, in one of my groups the players decided to found a "troubleshootin'" company instead of pursuing the mystery - and the GM used the company as a device to provide us further clues and action.

## Keep it simple

Can't really stress this one enough: complex plots may sound good in your head, but at least for starters, it's a safe bet to take something simple like a stolen artifact of doom or a kidnapped member of royalty. Drowning the players in lore can detract from the real heart of the story: the protagonists (=the PCs). As the game advances, you'll get a feel on what elements the players like and build more complex stories upon that.

## The goal is to have fun

That's your agenda as a GM, and bearing that in mind, feel free to scrap any loyalty to the plot and fictional universe you're working with if that provides a better experience. If the players have good ideas or you have sudden inspiration, alter anything that's not been established to the players yet. They'll never know!

• The origin of “Rocks fall! Everyone dies!” is actually the punchline of a Something*Positive strip. Less legendary and more apocryphal, then. :) – SevenSidedDie May 13 '16 at 3:27
• The phrase was in use years before that site began, man. – The Nate May 15 '16 at 23:51

I think everyone who has started GMing has had the same concerns.

My personal recommendation regarding your idea of making players unlucky when not following the main plot is to do the opposite:

• A wizard wants to brew the greatest potion? An alchemist in league with the BBG has years of research that could be vital to their task.
• A warrior wishes to slay a dragon that destroyed his home? Perhaps the dragon is in possession of a relic that can help the party in the main plot.

What I'm trying to say here is that the motivations of the player characters will always be more important to them than the main plot (unless by some chance the main plot is their motivation). Nobody likes it when they're being stopped from pursuing or achieving their goals.

I've found the best way to keep everything running smoothly is to tie everything nicely together. Not everything the PCs does has to relate to the main plot (the BBG might be laying low or a side quest might come up) but by rewarding the players for following it, and making it easier to achieve their personal goals, you not only gain more variety for your quests and adventures but you also make it more fun for everybody.

I'd recommend asking your party before the campaign what these personal goals are and how they plan to achieve them. Not everyone will have one and some may not know how they will reach their goal but this means the players can work with the GM and not against them.

• Thank you! This is indeed something I never thought of, for whatever reason. It's, in my opinion, a really great answer. I'll follow your advices! – Keker May 12 '16 at 13:14

I agree with all of the answers here, but they fail to address another reason this is a bad idea:

Not only will your players not like it once they figure out what's happening, there is no good guarantee that they will even understand that they are experiencing bad luck because they are wandering off script. The message you are sending with this technique is not as obvious as you think it is.

So you're not having fun while you're doing this, waiting for the clue to sink in. They're not having fun while everything they do tries to go wrong. Then when they figure it out, they're having even less fun because they just realized (as the other answers address in various measure) that they have no real agency.

• +1 for pointing out that punishment will only encourage people to act differently if they A) know that they're receiving it and B) know why they're being punished. Of course, if you're going to tell your players not to do a thing, you might as well just do that and skip punishing them for it. – GMJoe May 13 '16 at 0:49
• Yes, that was one of my concerns... And that's probably why I felt like I would be frustrated in the same situation. – Keker May 13 '16 at 6:55

Friend, never do that

Gornemant of Gohort, Perceval, The Story of the Grail

The problem with players going off the rails is the rails.

The advantage traditional role-playing has over video games is the shared storytelling. Lean into that advantage whenever you can.

If the players "go the wrong way," or refuse to take hints, you might be tempted force the characters into the action you want, or whinge at the players that they're making it hard on you as a DM. One is railroading the characters, the other railroading the players. Neither is fun for anybody.

You provide the plot. The players, the twists.

Players really can't "go the wrong way" and move away from the plot, because they can't control what happens next, you do. Instead of forcing the characters to the action, move the action to where the characters want to be.

Those Reluctant Heroes

Let's say your NPC King bestows a quest on the party to strike out into the Forsaken Wastes to find the Lost Caverns of Desolation, your awesome dungeon for the next phase of you campaign. But your party decides they love life in the big city. What's worse, they want to join the thieves guild.

So instead of a few wilderness encounters on the way through the Forsaken Wastes, they commit a few challenging property crimes, and become respected members of the guild. Then the old guild master tells them about a grave threat the guild faces, that has set up a stronghold in the sewers or crypts below the city. (Maybe, if the party can neutralize the threat, the old guild master will retire and give them mastery of the guild.)

D&D plots, like any fiction, are written to be rewritten

It just so happens the layout of the underground complex they discover looks a lot like the map for the Caverns of Desolation you had drawn up. Just replace the hobgoblin hillbillies with wererat hipsters, and you are all set. You might even find the new setting is more compelling - and count on it that your players will.

Vested Players are easy to guide

If you've given the party a chance to make a place of their own choosing in a world, they will be much more likely to accept a quest to defend the things they've chosen and worked for.

Plot details are constraints only for as long as you choose

Sometimes it's a little tricker, taking @Anne Aunyme's example from the comments:

If there is a villain who will destroy the world in exactly one year if nobody stops him and the only clue that can bring the PC to him is in one specific dungeon, you can't let them completely skip it.

All these details are defined by the campaign and can be "rewritten" by the GM.

"The only clue" is a motif in mystery campaigns - it sounds cool, but it's a symptom of railroading. Add another clue that lets the players proceed through the plot in a way better fitting with their character stories.

"One specific dungeon" - again, when there's only one thing the party can do, that's when they are most likely to rebel and reject. But, if you must get them to a particular place, let them pursue their interests for a bit, get them really mad at some villian, and then let said villian disappear through an Irresistably Tempting Blue Portal™ to your dungeon. See if they don't follow him. (But typically, you can just move the dungeon to the setting of the player's choosing.)

"Exactly one year" - unless other heroes, or the gods themselves, intervene to buy the world a little more time. Or the characters dawdle, and the world is destroyed, but the party is transported back in time to try again. Or the villian was wrong, the world isn't destroyed, just drastically changed - the party now needs to proceed through the plot to bring it back.

Giving the players a little latitude will almost always get them back on board, pretty quickly.

• This is true in a sandbox campaign, less true if that is not the case. If there is a villain who will destroy the world in exactly one year if nobody stops him and the only clue that can bring the PC to him is in one specific dungeon, you can't let them completely skip it. – Anne Aunyme May 13 '16 at 8:56
• Hi @Anne Aunyme, I incorporated the example from your comment into my answer. Let me know if you'd rather I did not, and I'll take that out. – Tim Grant May 13 '16 at 11:41
• I don't mind, it's your answer ! :) – Anne Aunyme May 13 '16 at 12:10
• The added last part of your answer is really interesting. My villain will appear and disappear, creating chaos or leaving minions to do it. I think I have this advantage to let my players wander a bit after launching the main plot, then coming back to it. – Keker May 13 '16 at 12:21

For me, the answer is no. I do not see my job as GM as one of creating plotlines for the characters to follow. My job is to create the world for them to inhabit. I create antagonists whom they may choose to oppose. I create mysteries they may choose to investigate. I create sites they may choose to explore. I create hooks to suggest goals to PCs that may not have their own.

Once the campaign starts, I figure out how the NPCs react to the PCs’ actions. I figure out what obstacles would be between the PCs and their goals. And I figure out what NPCs are doing that might impact the PCs.

And a key here is to only create as much as I might need for the next session. I have to prep wide instead of deep—at least at first. Once they’ve become committed to a particular direction, I can prep deep in that direction while still having my previous wide-prep there if they choose to change course during the next session. And while I may prep a lot of material that never gets used, I just stow it away to be recycled later.

Some players—I am told—enjoy it when the GM provides plotlines. If that works for your group, fine. But I can only give advice from my experience, and my experience is that my players and myself enjoyed the hobby a lot more when I stopped creating plotlines and trying to manipulate them into following those plotlines.

Finally, the piece of advice I like to always give new GMs: You are going to make mistakes. Accept it now. Don’t let it bother you too much when it happens. Because making mistakes is how you get better. Even the most experienced GM is still making mistakes and still learning.

• I'd love to play one of your quests. – Richard Young May 13 '16 at 19:48

It depends on what you want your game to look like.

There are different kinds of roleplaying games, but what matters here is how much you want to world to be realistic.

If the world is very realistic you can't "cheat" to make them follow the plot. The plot will have to be strong enough for the PC not to derail from them. Here I call realistic worlds that have a detailed setting and if there is magic it is often pretty well defined. In these worlds there is nothing as a luck stat, if someone lacked luck it was because of random, not because of his unlucky nature or any curse.

At the opposite if the world is very unrealistic, it is normal to guide the PC, and giving them bad luck if they don't follow the plot is an acceptable method. However try not make it look too much like a punition as nobody like to be punished. Unrealistic worlds are the ones where things like rule of cool applies and not following the plot is (can be) not cool.

Of course there are worlds that have both realistic and unrealistic traits (often when they are designed by many people), but as you designed it alone it should be obvious in which category yours is.

I understand it can frustrating to have your players deviate from your well-planned story, but nothing prevents you from tweeking it a bit so it fits the players' choices and advancements, without forcing them into doing anything.

For example, if the party decides to go to the left instead of the right, you could just switch the rooms around, and they'd still end up with the encounter you planned, but they'd still be free to make the choice.

What also helps with our group is to set goals, and extra loot, such as XP or cool weapons or armor, if they investigate and/or complete a quest.

We keep track of the quests via social network, and it seems to motivate the players into diving a bit more into the story, instead of going full diablo (unless that's the kind of game you'd want to run, which is also fine).

Finally, working with your players, agreeing with their choices, and being flexible with your plot will make the whole game a lot more enjoyable. It can be very irritating for players to be constantly told "no, you can't go there, or do this", and they'll most likely just give up at some point.

To be honest, often enough the players will make your already "pretty good plot" into something even more epic. Good luck!

• Thanks a lot :) I do have a rewarding system, with points for their skills. I didn't really think about gold or stuff, though. Maybe I should make a little database of stuff worth mentioning. – Keker May 12 '16 at 14:09

Yes, with some caveats

First, you're going to need player buy-in if you want to use fate/fortune to guide the PC's towards the story as you have it imagined. The option to play a game 'on the rails' can be enjoyable, assuming everyone involved is willing.

Second, the fact that fortune is getting in their way needs to be known to the players, if not to the characters. This will put your players on the lookout for those more subtle signs that they've started going away from where your adventure is meant to lead. I would also be willing to use more obvious signs that fate is interfering - if they go off in their own direction, fate discourages it by tossing out disadvantage when it might really matter, trying to guide them back to their fate.

Third, there needs to be a flipside to the punishment. When they're following their fate, you should also be rewarding them by giving them advantage, having luck work in their favor, etc.

Personally, this kind of game sounds like it could be very fun to play in as well as run. It has a very specific 'fated heroes' feel, but that's a pretty standard fantasy trope.

TL;DR This game could work with the right group of people and by having Luck play an almost active role in guiding the PC's towards 'where they need to be.'

• That's an interesting point of view, I must say. And by adding the rewards when they're doing it right, it does give this very specific 'fated heroes' feel, and it's nearly what the players will be: fated heroes. I'll try that, maybe! – Keker May 13 '16 at 6:41

I had a play experience where I personally elected to make my character unlucky. Statistically, they were designed to always fail every luck-based role, and always get the worst of every situation, for no other reason than 'it would help move things along and make things interesting'.

The important thing to note here is that all of this was my decision as a player. And because of that, it was enjoyable for me.

By trying to enforce 'bad luck' on the players yourself, you're taking away the player's agency, which is never a good thing to be doing as a GM, even in an effort to get them 'back on the tracks'.

Unless you're playing something like Paranoia where bad luck is expected for everyone, you should not unduly punish the players for getting off the beaten track.

As most others have said, bad idea.

But there can be cases where this can work, and be a good idea. Specifically, where there are in-world reasons for this punishment.

But, be careful. If the witch has put a curse on the party to perform the quest or face ill luck, then they might rebel harder, and go off questing for a way to reverse the curse. They might well be willing to run an entire lengthy campaign of hard-fought adventure just to avoid the mini quest she wanted them to do, because they don't like to be railroaded.

Of course, no reputable GM would use that to guide them into the "lifting the curse" campaign he'd created.

Of course.

I agree with everyone who told you it's a very bad idea, and especially with those who advised you to let the players make the story. Personally, I always think Pen&Paper RPGs should be MMORPGs in most of the cases. As in MMO with story, like you know it from PC games like MineCraft, where you can play whatever strategy you want, in order to get into the End and defeat the Ender Dragon: You can go the standard way of collecting Blaze Rods and Ender Pearls, or you can start into Creative and build your Ender Portal out of Frames and Ender Eyes from the Creative inventory, or you can go for mods and launch a Final Gate TNT, which can be crafted out of Mossy Cobblestone, Mushrooms, Redstone, Gold and an Emerald (just an example, no idea if there's such a TNT in any mod), or... Well, I think it should be clear. Give your players this very same flexibility. Wherever they go, they should discover yet another way to send the Final Boss back to hell. No need to make these ways too easy, but if there's no easy way you should make that clear.

Sure, it's not necessary to make it flexible up to such a degree. But react towards your players' actions, even if that means rewriting the planned story from scratch. You can make a good game without, but if you do this it will be simply awesome.

• "Wherever they go, they should discover yet another way to send the Final Boss back to hell." -> For whatever reason, that rang a bell to me. I should only create ways to make the story rather than a scenario to follow. Creating artefacts, events, rather than "they should be here at X time with X thing to kill this particular peon". Thank you :) – Keker May 13 '16 at 12:25

I have had troublesome players in my games. The worst example would intentionally rebel against anything he perceived as plot. This made running games with the guy a hassle. (Plenty of people simply didn't invite him to their games) The answer I used was essentially the same thing as my normal approach: all roads lead to plot.

This does not mean that choices are irrelevant, just that the plot adapts to their choices without ending.

(EG. Dude figured out that the strangeness in the north, where they were, was a plot hook, so he pushed the party to go south for a few months, hitting the southern adventure early and wasting a bunch of the time the party had had as a buffer. Thus, when the time limit showed up and they had to rush to complete their quest, it was a consequence of character choice.)

I write a scenario as a bunch of characters with their relationship, goals, and resources (including knowledge). I also decide what's required to do whatever thing I've come up with as the main plot and, critically, why any characters care.

This usually happens before I even collect any players, but I consider what sorts of characters they might want to make and the plot needs. (Players might surprise you and want to play a character you assumed would be an NPC. That's great, when it happens. They usually start off hooked.) This helps players make characters that fit the story.

Also, after characters are completed, I run through plot again and sanity-check it for reasons to become invested in various plot hooks, suceptibility to distractions, et alis.

One of the difficulties in coming up with a compelling plot is figuring out why the players are the ones who can do it and the established heroes and states cannot. The other biggie is figuring out why the player characters care. (the former is easy if the players are the only ones who care about a goal.) Don't underestimate the importance of respect as a motivator. (that of others towards them or the PCs towards NPCs) Dialogues can create bonds that matter. I've had entire romantic interludes I'd only intended as filler chat. PCs helped a shopkeeper woo a woman in town simply because they liked him and it struck a nerve... a Podunk town they were just passing through and only ever thought about again because of that exchange.

Players care about things like any person does. Characters that care about something have built-in plot hooks... well bait. Give them things to care about. Make some of the plot hook characters the likeable ones. (Don't always do this, mind. Mix up likable, hateable, and boring or you become predictable.)

When writing your plot, you need to take some time to make hooks that draw in your players' characters, specifically. If the player cares about the character at all, there are some.

If the characters don't care about your plot, your plot is at fault. If they don't care about a specific plot hook, either punch it up, make and use another, or abandon the plotline and write another... Or kill the game.

I like to cast a wide net of different plot hooks. They missed a clue in town and run down the bandits that pissed them off? That just pulls them towards the lost scroll or captured sage the bandits took. (you can plan this stuff ahead of time, or come up with it on the fly. Helps if your plans are somewhat flexible, though, either way.) Let them choose any of multiple paths, but allow all of them to lead to the good stuff... and make their choices matter.

Hard work to find out the mystery that you really, truly, wanted them to figure out is a player victory... as well as yours. Hard choices are memorable. Consequences that make sense can make the game awesome. You win when the players have a great game, but forcing them down one path or feeding them answers degrade the experience.