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I started a new campaign yesterday for a smaller group of players that are new to pen and paper roll playing games. Before we started actually playing the players and I were talking about how P&PRPGs work. It became clear that a lot of them had this negative preconception about it that they were all like old school 1970s D&D campaigns (as in, the adventurers meet at a tavern, hear about a dungeon that needs a lootin’ or a dragon that needs a slayin’ and… that’s about it for nuanced narrative).

In response I tried to set up a good narrative hook that would start them exactly where they thought it would — in a tavern (actually a Mexican dive bar/motel, but same premise) but then moving ahead with a more tightly wound mystery narrative.

And it worked great!

Players met up, had some drinks, got drunk, talked to some NPCs and did some skill checks to get them used to the system. They woke up the next morning with a killer hangover… and in the process of being arrested for the murder of the good natured NPC they spent most of the night hanging out with.

Long story short, the session ended with them breaking out of their jail cells, finding a mysterious locked box that the murdered NPC was trying to hide and finding video that gave them a clue to the whereabouts of someone who might know more about who framed them.

My players loved it. They all exclaimed loudly that it was way more fun than they thought it would be and that they really liked how strong the narrative came through. They high fived. It was awesome.

Except, as I listened to them all talk about the game afterwards I realized I had missed something. Terribly. I hadn’t considered my PCs’ alignments. The PCs are all anarchist-type alignments. Part of this hook was that while they weren’t “bad guys” (they didn’t hurt good people) they were career criminals (an art thief, a con-man and a memory hacker). All of the players seemed to agree after the game that the logical thing for them all to do was… just leave. Get out of town and disappear into the post-apocalyptic setting.

Which is a problem because I had the whole narrative setup for them to try and go prove their innocence. Or at least try and find out who framed them. But… they looked at the situation and just kind of decided “screw it, I’m out!”

Now, this isn’t their problem. Clearly this was my fault as the GM for not realizing the hole I was leaving for them. But now here we are.

Obviously I want to leave the agency with the players. If they really want to just go off then… okay. That’s their choice and I’m not going to take it away from them. But if I can find a way to incentivize them to follow the plot a bit it would make my life a lot easier. And, frankly, they would probably enjoy it more since they specifically wanted a game with a tighter plot rather than just a sandbox.

How do I steer my players back towards the central plot, which they've said they wanted, when they wander this far off course?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What game system are you playing? Some systems have better tools than others for what you are looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 15 '17 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Um...Palladium Rifts... kinda. House-rulled to hell after 15 years playing it and knowing what I like (the setting and characters) and hate (almost everything about the actual system). \$\endgroup\$ – Jonathan Grant Feb 15 '17 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, I see this is perhaps system agnostic. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 15 '17 at 21:25
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As it stands, they have two parties with a vested interest in their capture/destruction: the one(s) who framed them and the authorities that arrested them. If they don't want to pursue the plot, have the plot pursue them!

Escaping from jail is certainly frowned upon and bounty hunters could easily be employed to run them down and return them to justice. Maybe they're safe for a time but it's clear they're being pursued and will need to do something about that. At the beginning of the campaign, the characters shouldn't have the skills and means to truly disappear, and that will quickly become obvious to the players.

Also, the ones who framed them are, presumably, going to want that box back and to keep the characters from talking about what really happened. They might be targets of theft to recover the box or its contents. If those are stymied long enough, perhaps it becomes assassins instead as the interested party begins to care less and less about subtlety.

To answer more generally, every action the characters take should have some degree of consequence, both good and bad. Those consequences will slowly become the story. When they help people or foil plots, those people will react, and the characters will adjust, and so on.

When I'm plotting out the overall arc of a campaign, between each major piece, I try to anticipate a few very general ways the players might steer the story based on events. Then, I loosely determine the results of those actions, and how to steer it toward the next major plot point. Repeat until the conclusion is reached. This ends up feeling a lot less "railroaded" than strong adherence to the planned narrative and gives the players strong agency in how the story is ultimately told.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are some lawmen who would pursue them relentlessly just for breaking out of jail, but there are a lot more who will pursue because they think they are bringing in legit murderers. Solving the mystery changes the situation from “nationwide manhunt” to “local arrest warrant you can ignore.” \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Feb 16 '17 at 2:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ A lawman like Joe LeFors. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 16 '17 at 13:23
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I'd recommend asking the group two questions.

Is the current narrative something that you (as players, not characters) want to pursue?

If the answer to this is "no," then go back to the drawing board, and start plotting a new story arc. If the answer is yes, continue on to the second question.

What motivates your characters (or group) to stay together and participate in these events?

Because here's the thing. Player characters don't exist on their own. They are created from whole-cloth by the players. As the GM you have some responsibility to craft a world that responds to the desires of the players, but the players also have a responsibility to create characters that will engage with the world.

Don't get me wrong... Work with the players. If they need a payout, hint at one. If they need someone to twist their arms, provide them. But at the end of the day, the motivations for a character rest solely with that character's player.

And as "logical" as just splitting up and leaving may seem, if you think about it you can find any number of reasons why a character might stay and fight back:

  • This is the city with their favorite coffee shop.

  • Maybe this is where the character's favorite people (spouse, boy/girlfriend, best friend, mentor, etc.) are.

  • Maybe the character's invested in some long term plans in this area.

  • Maybe the character is curious at a very fundamental level.

  • Maybe the character just doesn't like being pushed around.

  • Maybe the character feels a bond with their new-found drinking buddies, and the tough times they're experiencing.

Yes, there are plenty of stories where the smartest thing to do is for the ensemble to split up. But we usually don't tell those stories for very long.

You want logical? Han Solo should have left before the Death Star showed up. He should have taken his money, flown straight to Jabba, cleared his debt, and lived out the rest of his life carbonite-free.

But he didn't. Because he had a crush on a princess. Because he didn't want that naive farmboy to get himself killed. Because he owed an old man who gave his life so Han could escape.

And if old "shot-them-first" Han can do it, why can't your PCs?

Recommended reading:

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    \$\begingroup\$ How much will it matter to the Players if they realize you are "coercing" them back to town? If it matters, I'd really think if a unobvious, sneaky reason. Like, create a back story for the real murderer, or a reason for the lawman to be VERY PERSISTENT (maybe victim was a relative/friend?). Maybe victime was very well liked EVERYWHERE the players want to go :) Turns out they are accused of killing that era's David Bowie, or some such. \$\endgroup\$ – Clay Nichols Feb 15 '17 at 23:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 I think this is the strongest answer because it best combines specific advice and general guidance. The core thing here is to get on the same page about what the campaign should be about, and once that's established between participants, it's a lot easier to figure out how to tweak characterization, situation, or setting to make it work in the game's story. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Feb 15 '17 at 23:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ The players may realize that you are coercing them back to the town, and as a DM, you should at least hand wave backstory for why they should be coerced. At some point the players have to suspend their disbelief and pick their favorite excuse to go back. \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Feb 16 '17 at 4:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for this. Being of "chaotic alignment" does not preclude a character from wanting revenge for having been set up. They may not be too concerned about "clearing their names" but there are other reasons to find out why someone screwed you - not the least of which is "so they don't do it again." The players and the GM tell a story together - assuming they WANT to play this game, they have a certain amount of responsibility to keep their characters engaged. (If they actually DON'T WANT to play this game, then start over or come up with a new story, no hard feelings.) \$\endgroup\$ – Steve-O Feb 16 '17 at 16:01
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Your players are a bunch of career criminals, who have just gotten a mysterious box containing a bunch of interesting clues. Just give them enough to know that theres a Really Big Score somewhere in the middle of this mystery. They're already the sort of people who do moderately dangerous things for money, this time there's a chance to get a bit of revenge on the side. It turns it from a mystery plot to a heist (with side of mystery) plot, and it will probably require shifting a few things around so you can fit the payoff in there, but you can likely still use most or all of your set pieces.

If you want to make it more likely to work without major railroading, you might also talk with the players out of character on the subject. Be up-front about the situation and what you plan to do about it, ask them what would get their characters to take the bait, and tweak the plot to fit. You may even get some useful ideas for fleshing things out that much more.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this one. The beautiful part of it is that this fits a pile of tropes you can hook into. Framed -> Maguffin -> Screw this I am out of here -> Oh, a really big score, interesting -> scale goes up from there. They discover a Big Bad is going to do something dastardly enough that some of the PCs aren't ok with it? They end up teaming up with the "law" while their inncence is still fuzzy against the bigger threat, or for the bigger score? \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Feb 17 '17 at 16:25
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As a GM, one good non-railroady way of affecting player behavior is the experience point system. For example, when I'm running a D&D game, if I want my players to go a certain direction, I'll say: "okay, guys, I'm offering a 500xp reward if you manage to prove your innocence here."

This gives them the obvious experience incentive, but it also tells them that I have some interesting plot developments lined up in this direction, and interesting things will happen if they pursue it.

Your question is system-agnostic, and I'm not sure if your houseruled Palladium Rifts system contains something analogous to experience points, but in most systems the GM will have something they can use for this purpose.

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I can see several ways to help the Players "make" their PCs stay around.

Leverage I refer to the TV series by that name. The whole premise was a group of career criminals (each with a specialization, much like an RPG group) who go around doing a Robin Hood style take-down on bad guys hurting innocent people. From a metagaming stand point, perhaps your players want to take their characters down this path and become vigilantes.

Friends and Family Plan Maybe the PCs have friends or family in the town. If the premise is that they grew up in the area, then they surely know some people. And if the PCs vanish, maybe the law, the bounty hunters, and/or the real murderers begin putting pressure on those friends. Or use them to put pressure on the PCs. If there's a threat of this, then there's 1, incentive to stay and fix this and 2, incentive to stay and protect the friends/family. I attended a convention where an author made this point: "Horror isn't the threat of death or injury. It is the threat of death or injury to the ones we love and being helpless to prevent it." (paraphrased) That premise can be used to both ramp up the tension, which is fun for players, and to provide incentive to stick around at least until the friends/family are safe. To do this, you'd need to get a list of people the PCs know and care about/trust. But that's not hard, and is a useful thing to do regardless of whether you use this method.

It's Scary Out There You mentioned this is a post-apocalyptic setting. It is entirely possible that venturing out into the void has serious consequences or risks. If this is a safe haven in the world of Mad Max, I'd think long before venturing out into the desert. Or if there's just a scarcity of resources, then maybe traveling out unprepared is just not safe. Going into the wastes without food may be deadly. Or maybe there are gangs. This could get too heavy handed very quickly, but it might be the kind of thing to give pause. "People usually take a day or two to gather provisions and arm themselves before risking the wilderness. Rushing out like this might not be the safest plan..." Or maybe the PCs just don't know the safe way to get to somewhere else. Or maybe they can't get into somewhere else without some sort of safe passage (a letter of introduction, or a token of safe passage showing they'd been cleared to travel, or... something).

Honor Among Thieves If they run, they're murderers rather than thieves. Maybe that hit to their reputation will make it harder to get work later. Or maybe the allegations will burn their contacts so they can't fence goods anymore. Or maybe they have personal codes of honor/conduct that require some level of vengeance because of either the murder or the frame or both.

Meta! Maybe, from a metagaming stance, the players want to stay because that's the story line. So there's no rationale given. They just do it. This is the weakest from an in-character perspective, but it could be the strongest from an out-of-character stance. Maybe this reason drives them to select some combination of other reasons.

I wonder who's after me now? Bounty hunters are no joke. That's not a fun thing to face for the rest of your lives. Plus, if they run, all their wealth and worldly goods are probably lost forever. Becoming a fugitive should be a hard decision. Paranoia would become a fact of life...

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Put something they want at stake. Find a flaw in your character's backgrounds, and exploit it. Often, these are codified in games like Vampire, L5R, and Shadowrun with some sort of Merits/Flaws system.

The character has the "Dependent" Flaw. Awesome. Their dependent is kidnapped. Might help if you cite edition so we know what kind of character mechanics there are to work with.

More generally, with "Neutral" to "Chaotic Neutral" type alignments, you should give them something they want (gold, power, fame, etc...) to keep them on task. A carrot in other words (eschew the stick, though).

Also, a little meta-gaming can happen here. Ask your players if they (as players) want to continue this route (they seem to have indicated they do). If they do, ask them to come up with reasons why their characters would continue. If they don't, ask them how they see it playing out.

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Don't Prep Plots

Unfortunately, you made the mistake of thinking that your RPG was a novel and you were the author. It doesn't work that way but it doesn't mean that the only solution is a sandbox.

The trick is, stop thinking of your story as a narrative and start thinking of the way things work in the real world. Things that happen that with hindsight look like a play are more like improv. theater: gather a group of actors (PCs & NPCs), give them goals, motivations and resources, put them in a situation and see what happens.

You had a situation: dead guy, PCs in jail for it, they didn't do it, they escaped, stole a box and now want to hide.

You now have a new situation. Who are the actors and what do they want?

  • The PCs want to flee and hide.
  • The person who killed the dead guy wants X and has capability L
  • The person who owns the box wants Y and has capability M
  • The person who owns the prison/justice system wants Z and has capability N

Work out what all the algebra represents and this situation should develop nicely - maybe it will put the players in conflict with one or more of the NPCs or maybe, with the players gone, one or more of the NPCs can accomplish their goals. Either way when this resolves you have a new situation.

Lather, rinse and repeat.

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If the players want to disappear, all you need is a reason why they can't.

It's a lot easier to disappear if you're a random con artist than if you're Public Enemy Number One with your face on every police station wall, a large reward for your capture/killing, and a (faked) video of you laughing whilst shooting a child in the head doing the rounds on the internet. The latter in particular will ensure they can't even go to ground in their usual underworld hideouts, because even criminals have standards.

If the first bar they go into, the TV is on news with that playing, and the barman's eyes flick up to the screen and back to them, they have their incentive. Possibly with a bar-room brawl or gunfight scene for extra spice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I believe that Graham is trying to convey an idea similar to Karelzarath's answer. That is, "If they don't want to pursue the plot, have the plot pursue them!" Though this answer feels a bit like it would work better as a comment on Karelzarath's answer, since it elaborates suggestions on how to make the plot chase them. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Feb 16 '17 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast If the players want to disappear, you need reasons why they can't. I thought this would be too obvious to need stating, especially in light of Karelszarath's answer. Since it clearly isn't obvious enough, I'll add it. \$\endgroup\$ – Graham Feb 16 '17 at 17:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Graham each answer should stand on its own, it's OK if there's a bit of overlap between them. Good idea to flesh the answer out. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 16 '17 at 17:23

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