RPG: Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Rails

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Sooner or later your players will figure out how to derail your meticulously crafted plot. We’re here to help…

Whether you’re a player or a GM, we’ve all had that moment when the game just sort of jumps the tracks. You were on course a minute ago, there was a plot with adventure hooks that have been carefully laid out, and then BAM, next thing you know some random, insignificant detail wormed its way into your players’ psyches and now instead of figuring out who is plotting to assassinate the king, they want to help a random cabbage merchant make his business more profitable.


Today we’re going to talk about some quick tricks you can use to try and either get things back on track–or–to embrace the chaos. Whatever option you choose, this article will help make sure that choice is made on your terms.

Be Prepared

We’ve all seen that deer-in-the-headlights look where the players decide to go off on a random tangent and the GM is sitting there, scrambling desperately for what happens next. One of the best things you can do to try and stop those moments is to have a backup plan in mind. Now, this can be something as elaborate as planning out a few specific encounters and sticking them on the backburner. You might have heard of Chandler’s Law, which states: when in doubt, have a man come in with a loaded gun. Which is where those backburnered encounters come in–you’re building your “man with the loaded gun.” Have a few assassin/rogue types who you can use as either mysterious assailants or maybe just a hungry monster that you can use without having to spend the next few minutes desperately putting together an encounter on the fly.

Don’t worry too much about it making sense. For the moment you’re just running this to try and give yourself a little time to figure out where the players are headed. And often times your players might enjoy trying to figure out why there were four Dire Wolves waiting in the Cabbage Merchant’s home. Which brings me to the next point…

Listen to what they’re into

Now that you’ve bought yourself a little breathing room, and given yourself a chance to run an encounter or two, it’s time to check in with your players. Hopefully these encounters have given them a few things to puzzle over. Maybe they’re wondering who the assassins are–or better still, they are convinced they know. “Oh, obviously these guys were sent by the Serpent-Lord Szagath.” At that point, all you have to do is let them be right, and you’ll have them basically putting themselves back on track.

Because whatever your players talk about is what they’re interested in. It may not exactly be what you had in mind, but they’ll tell you what they want to see more of. If they’ve latched onto a Cabbage Merchant, say, you’re getting the players to admit: “hey we like cabbage guy and want to see more of him.” So while they’re talking, you can work out how to flavor an encounter or role-playing scene with more of the thing they like.

This has the added bonus of showing your players that it’s okay to take the reins every now and then–and player engagement like that is a gift unto itself.

Borg it up

Another good option to keep in mind is to be like the Borg. They have adaptive shields that let them learn to defend against attacks. You too can have encounters that you can easily adapt to fit whatever the new situation is. Take a look at what you have planned. Now try and figure out other ways your players might come across the adversaries you’ve planned out.

There are a few good ways to adapt an encounter. First change the location of the encounter (if your goal was the players would go to a goblin lair and fight the shaman, but instead they went on a boat–hey guess what, attacked by goblin pirates is good). This way you don’t have to throw out a ton of what’s already been prepared.

Second, you could change the NPCs involved. If they’ve latched on to someone, make the next encounter be about them. Or maybe have them need something form what you have prepared already. Take that goblin lair example–the players have befriended Cabbage Merchant against all odds, and it turns out that Cabbage Guy needs something from the woods nearby the goblin lair. Or deep within it.

Finally you can try and figure out how your prepared material can be a barrier to what your characters want to do. If they want to help out Cabbage Merchant or go track down famous treasure, it can be easy to keep that impetus going–the “side character” can ask for help… or the strange rumors they heard about all lead back to the main adventure you prepped.

Ask with Results in Mind

The question, “so what do you do?” is one of the most basic ways you get your player interacting with the world. You can also vary that question a little bit–ask instead “what are you trying to accomplish,” or something like that. Keep the focus on getting your players to state the results they’d like to see, and you’ll have all the ammunition you need to get them back on the plan–or at least to help you satisfy their curiosity enough to get back to saving the world or collecting the crystal shards or helping to run a cabbage-based trading consortium.

Anyway these are just a few tricks you can keep up your sleeve to try and be a little more flexible when your players decide to go off-roading in your campaign.

What are some of the ways you keep things on track in your game?

  • euansmith

    Another cool article. Having the players’ choices drive the narrative is always fun. I’ve not GM’d 5e, but, in 3e it was fun to just stick to a three act structure comprising three settings, each with 3 encounters, and then drop in a 4th encounter in to one act to make that “the big fight”. You could just come up with a starting point and then wing it from there.

  • Drew

    I’ve found one of the best ways to keep players from getting frustrated is your final point: ask what they’re TRYING to do rather than what they ARE doing. They may not know how to get that critical piece of intel to make the plot all come together, but you do- and if you know they the players want to look for it, then you can figure out how to get it to them.

  • EnTyme

    The single most important skill for a DM to have is improvisation. No matter how carefully you plan out a campaign, the party will (often intentionally) take it in a new direction. You really have to be able to roll with the punches.

  • Ronin

    Expect the unexpected when it comes to roleplay games. Improvising and thinking ahead of multiple possibilities are required skills for effective DMing. That’s why my players decided it was a great idea to try to take on 3 adult dragons even though they were suggested not to.

  • Malevengion

    This article made a lot of good suggestions. My rpg group has a wonderful knack for going off to explore some hither to unknown corner of my realm or want to mess with some snotty nobleman who was to just be a throwaway npc for color. Therefore, I keep my main plot to scenes rather that a script and move the scenes around as needed to get to the ending. Also, it’s important to roll with it and see where it goes. There’s been a number fo times where my plots or villains have become infinitely better because the players inadvertently fed me ideas.

  • Old zogwort

    Let them help the salesman or create their cabbage empire if they want to. It will get them
    involved in the world. This is one of be best things that can happen to you as a DM, since it opens up a whole new world of possibilities to interact with the players. It
    seems to me that the only thing that is needed to get them interested
    again in the assassination of the king is the introduction of a
    successor who is bad for cabbage business and an unpleasant person in general.

  • Mike X (Official)

    My players: “We’re looking for an evil dragon nearby.”
    NPC: “I’d be willing to help you locate the dragon but first I need herbs gathered for a potion.”
    My players: “Tell us where the dragon is or we’ll kill you.”
    NPC: “Surely you could help an old man with a quick side quest before tangling with a mighty dragon?”
    *My players tie down NPC and begin to torture him for information until he dies, then take all his stuff*

  • KnightShift

    Stil have a copy of the Star Wars RPG rules from West End Games somewhere. Within its pages it addressed this very issue. It said that there WOULD be times when the players would drive into a dead end despite everything you designed with your scenario.

    The recommended course of action was to simply “tell them”, then call for a break as you figured out what to do from there.