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I am GM for a group of (mostly) new Pathfinder players who are extremely off-the-rails in their approach. This is fun, but made it nearly impossible to prepare for a session — they are as likely to accept a great quest opportunity as they are to wander off and pillage a small farmhouse. Linear quests simply don't work with them.

So, in order to match their desire for freedom while still keeping things directed enough to actually GM, I've introduced an absurdly powerful NPC (creates dimensional portals within a city undetected, time-travels, etc.) who interferes with the world in order to get the players to follow a certain path. This NPC is more or less my avatar, allowing me to adjust the world, trimming some opportunities, and opening other, more suitable ones. I do this once every 2–5 sessions.

I've become worried that I might take away one of the key elements of RPG games like D&D, the ability of the players to shape the world. This leads to my question:

How much interference by this NPC/GM-avatar is too much? Assuming you think the question requires more nuance, what kinds of interference should be fine, and which ones should I avoid with this NPC in order to preserve player sovereignty?

Some examples of this NPC's interference:

  • He invited them to a different, more interesting city in order to help them join a chaotic-demon cult.
  • He teleported one player to a meeting and requested that they 'cause chaos'.
  • He started a drug war while also summoning an invasion of unnatural creatures to trigger a 3-faction war. I know that sounds huge, but the players are still very low-level, the players haven't yet done much with any faction, and there are 16 major factions in this game world.
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    \$\begingroup\$ An aside: If you are uncomfortable with their approach to the campaign you are running, you can, in another question, ask for advice about how to make your and the players' desires line up better. (I know you said the campaign is fun, but it's easy to forget that it's just as important that the GM have the kind of fun he wants to have, too.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jan 14 '17 at 3:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Basically your avatar is the Dungeon Master from Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, from the 80s... On a pathfinder game... Neat! \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Jan 14 '17 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you do have a team of wild adventurers who are determined to go off in random directions, it might be worth investigating some games that actively encourage that. I know Dungeon World is designed that way and I'm sure the wise here know of many others. \$\endgroup\$ – glenatron Jan 17 '17 at 17:17
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The GM avatar should keep things moving

Wow, this sounds exactly like a game I played in, down to the "teleport somewhere and tell them to cause chaos." I'll give suggestions based on my group, which might be very different from yours.

Players in my group tended to come up with specific plans (host a gala and murder the guests, for example). We generally had fun in the execution of these plans, but there would eventually be a point where that plan was complete. You'll recognize these lulls when players start acting randomly or start looking for new things and places. That's when the GM avatar would step in and give the PCs a bit of a nudge. In that sense, the GM avatar was more of a omnipresent quest giver, rather than a railroader.

Don't interrupt players

Our DM was good at not interrupting us. That is, if we had come up with some ridiculous plan, he wouldn't use the avatar to say, "No, you can't do that," or yank us out of an encounter. Instead, he used the avatar to enable us, and sometimes to guide us in particular directions. For example, we could tell him that we wanted to carry out an assassination, so we'd get teleported into the king's castle.

Importantly, the frequency of appearances doesn't matter. We saw our DM's omnipotent wizard a few times every session, but it didn't interfere with our agency beyond harassing us a bit.

Why use an avatar instead of the world?

One thing to consider is that the entire world is under your control. What if you had messengers deliver quest hooks? What if a dimensional rift just randomly opened, instead of being created? How do you think your players would react to that?

Asking yourself questions like that is a good test to determine whether your avatar is too intrusive. If your players would go, "wow, that's awesome!" then you're good to go. If your players would go, "I'm tired of these random events pushing us around," then you're being too intrusive.

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I'd like to give some general advice on a situation like this, because I have done something similar in the past and it went horribly wrong...

Be careful that the avatar doesn't become "your" character

To make it simple: Having an absurdly powerful NPC in your campaign can work, the GM having an absurdly powerful pseudo-PC cannot. Now, going on your description, I feel like you're already aware of the potential pitfalls here but it's important enough I think to point out.

Because in my experience, players will tend to hate such PCs. Maybe not all of them, and maybe not always, but in my experience with such off-the-rails groups, people will sometimes make it their personal mission to somehow "defeat" such an NPC, to derail their plans, talk back at them and so on. And if the GM considers this NPC their character in the world, things can quickly turn personal and spiral out of control, with said NPC "punishing" PCs for misbehaving, and the players pushing back even harder.

In general, if players ever feel like they're being punished for misbehaving, you've definitely gone too far, this isn't school and the GM is not the strict principal.

Now, my next piece of advice might sound rather trivial, but bear with me...

It becomes too much interference when your players stop having fun

Should be obvious, but that's what it comes down to. Some players really don't like being meddled with, some don't mind, so it's really tough to be specific here. It also really comes back to #1, if your players complain about the NPCs meddling and push back, don't take it personally.

Make him imperfect

This really follows from the other two points. Your avatar might be absurdly powerful, and that's okay, but don't make him omniscient and infallible. To go with the metaphor: If your players like derailing plots, don't put them on rails they can't escape, give them a trainyard to play in where they can jump off the rails if they want to, but where you can still have a wall around the yard so you don't have to be prepared for everything in the world.

Have your avatar transport them around and put them up to stuff, but if they want to do something different, don't just have the avatar pop in and tell them what to do, let them run with it. Make it possible for his schemes to fail and be derailed, so it gives the players the feeling that they're still in control. In my experience, it's always a good idea to give such an NPC a sense of humor, of course depending in the "seriousness level" of your campaign. Being forced back on the rails by a super serious almighty archwizard can be rather boring, but if said archwizard isn't above laughing at himself if something goes wrong and doesn't mind the PCs being snarky that can make players much more willing to go along.

And of course, most of all

Talk to your players

If you're unsure whether you're taking things too far for your players, ask them. If you think them completely derailing stuff makes it too hard for you to prepare, tell them.

I know, again this isn't rocket science or some higher mystery of GM craft, and it doesn't solve every problem (asking players what they want, for example, can lead to mixed results because in my experience, a lot of people are surprisingly bad at identifying and expressing what they actually want), but it's always a good thing to keep in mind.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 I had a GM with an omnipresent 'N' PC (that he loved more than all of our character combined) that wasn't even story related and my group still wanted to destroy it at costs... \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Sep 6 '17 at 20:31

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