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colinabrett

How much "rope" do you give your PCs before they hang themselves?

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Hi,

I have a Southern Reaches campaign (currently in lockdown, sadly) where I have allowed the players a great deal of freedom with their characters. Of the five players, only one had extensive RPG experience, the rest were first timers. Most of the team are experienced wargamers.

One character,  for instance, found a polar bear cub, raised to adulthood and now rides it instead of a warhorse. Another has become Dean of the Lashingport school of magic (bizarre story), while a third has started his own cult. The fourth player is looking for one of the enchanted items in the rulebook, and the final player is gravitating towards an elite military unit. As a group, they have broken a slavery ring, a criminal conspiracy and a Fey-influenced cult. Their actions have taken me by surprise on several occasions and I've had to rewrite or ignore parts of the campaign and even write new stuff from scratch.

Now the game is paused, I've had time to reflect a bit. I worry that I've given the players too much leeway and am wondering how to steer things back on track. Or even if I should "let the dice decide" and see where we end up.

So, please, fellow GMs (not just in Magic World but other settings, too), share your stories of "railroading" (hate that term) versus ultimate freedom for the characters. I'd love to hear your ideas and solutions.

Stay safe and well.

Colin

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51 minutes ago, colinabrett said:

One character,  for instance, found a polar bear cub, raised to adulthood and now rides it instead of a warhorse. Another has become Dean of the Lashingport school of magic (bizarre story), while a third has started his own cult. The fourth player is looking for one of the enchanted items in the rulebook, and the final player is gravitating towards an elite military unit. As a group, they have broken a slavery ring, a criminal conspiracy and a Fey-influenced cult. Their actions have taken me by surprise on several occasions and I've had to rewrite or ignore parts of the campaign and even write new stuff from scratch.

Sounds like a really good campaign.

51 minutes ago, colinabrett said:

I worry that I've given the players too much leeway and am wondering how to steer things back on track. Or even if I should "let the dice decide" and see where we end up.

I have always struggled with the idea that a GM gives players too much leeway. sure, I understand what it means, but ...

Are you saying that you would prefer to constantly stop them from doing things with "No, you can't do that" or "No, I don't want you to do that"? Because I don't do that, ever.

  • A PC who rides a polar bear into battle? Great, I've seen the same in Movies.
  • Becoming dean of a school of magic? Great and why not?
  • Starting a cult? What heroes should be doing, if they are religious.
  • Looking for enchanted items? That's what Adventurers do. 
  • Becoming part of an elite military unit? Sure, why not?

Now, I am aware of the Players who try to take advantage of an easy-going GM and say "I want this", "I want that" or "I'm doing this". What I tend to do is let them try something if it is within the rules, or let them narrate how they would do it if it isn't within the rules. My biggest weapon against PCs doing that kind of thing is "Well, if you can do it, they can do it as well", which normally stops any silliness.

 

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12 minutes ago, soltakss said:

Sounds like a really good campaign.

I have always struggled with the idea that a GM gives players too much leeway. sure, I understand what it means, but ...

Are you saying that you would prefer to constantly stop them from doing things with "No, you can't do that" or "No, I don't want you to do that"? Because I don't do that, ever.

  • A PC who rides a polar bear into battle? Great, I've seen the same in Movies.
  • Becoming dean of a school of magic? Great and why not?
  • Starting a cult? What heroes should be doing, if they are religious.
  • Looking for enchanted items? That's what Adventurers do. 
  • Becoming part of an elite military unit? Sure, why not?

Now, I am aware of the Players who try to take advantage of an easy-going GM and say "I want this", "I want that" or "I'm doing this". What I tend to do is let them try something if it is within the rules, or let them narrate how they would do it if it isn't within the rules. My biggest weapon against PCs doing that kind of thing is "Well, if you can do it, they can do it as well", which normally stops any silliness.

This sounds a really fantastic campaign.

Remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Like ... running a cult. Or being a Dean. Don't take things away from them, use them. They are a great double-edged sword because not having power sucks. You can organise campaign threats in and around these interests if you want to interest the characters in a narrative you have.

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Great campaign it seems, I agree.

And I think, as Soltakss and Qizilbashwoma: let them do these and take advantage of what they do :

  • is the polar bear OK in the current climate? And what would happen if he crosses another polar bear? Maybe a female in heat? Or, if the PC's bear is a she, could she cross a male when she's in heat?
  • what are the administration tasks of a school dean? what about the students' pranks he could be victim of?
  • how does the character handle risks of heresy in his new cult? how does he justifies hanging around with the other PCs - such heretics! - in front of his own cult?
  • what if the enchanted item would be the major relic of the new cult?...
  • the elite military unit could be victim of a political coup, becoming a discplinary unit... or be banned... outlawed...

And you can cross-over these: the enchanted item is for sure this relic of the cult. The PCs  realize this at the new cult's temple opening ceremony, where they are of course all invited. That's the moment the worst students of the school decide to have fun with their dean (maybe a "very subtle" revenge against a too much severe dean...). The most fanatical new cultists immediately ask for blood, all non believers being of course suspects - and so guilty. At that very moment, the NEW elite unit begins to clean out the city in search of the so-called traitors of the FORMER elite unit, and they're breaking in the temple! And if your heroes manage to escape, they just discover all the horses slaughtered in the stable (and the stable almost destroyed) by the polar bear trying to escape in order to catch up with the female in heat he smelled. Yes, she's just in front of the temple (a ceremony is always a good occasion for street entertainers), performing her show and dreaming she crushes her tamer...

Oh, I'd love to have such a group... 😈😇

 

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Back on track? It sounds like you have a great group of proactive players. They've created plot lines for themselves - instead of trying to bring them back to your originally conceived plot line, spin new plots off what they've done already.

GM's tend to go from one pole to the other: From "This is my campaign and you are just here to provide dialog and dice rolls. I already know what is going to happen." To "Here's the world, your characters are here. What do you want to do?". 

I stopped trying to lay out a monolithic plot for my players years ago: I hate being railroaded, so I don't railroad. Instead, I create a dozen or so plots at the outset, drop hints and clues, and see which ones the players are interested in. As the players follow plots (or imagine plots that I've never thought of and follow those), I build the game based on what they're doing, not what I think they ought to have done. My current campaign is up to 35 sessions, and is going very well using those principles. But I'm lucky, as are you, I have a group of good players.

As for your lockdown issue: Roll20.net. That's how my group is gaming, and we're very happy with it.

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I think that if you're going to railroad then be honest. And then offer the chance for players to narrate what happens (your bunch seem to be imaginative so why not make use of that and enjoy it?)

I've seen this done really well, and by open and honest you avoid the player's feeling of being cheated when they find out that they cannot actually do anything they want as the rpg-blurb told them they could.

Extreme example, Witch The Road to Lindisfarne - the final scene relies on Eloise being in the cage when the group arrive at Lindisfarne, nothing can change that. But the players (let's be honest Eloise's player) can have all kinds of fun and influence in the intervening stages

More normal example, "chaps at the end of the battle your Vikingrs are going to captured by the Christians, the fun bit of this section is finding how and what kind of havoc they cause in the meantime"

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@colinabrett It sounds like you've achieved the platonic ideal of a campaign. The best fun I ever have as a GM is when I've got just enough details in the background to create some turning wheels (NPCs and factions with their own plans) and then if I do a good enough job of seeding in the hooks then the players pick a direction and run away with it. Once things are kicked off with a fairly structured initial adventure, I "lay track" using a kind of "just in time" method of prep thereafter.

There are a couple of tricks I use to make my life easier:

  1. I kick off a campaign with a pretty well developed adventure that forces some action. I think this helps give some context and tone, and helps set expectations for where the campaign might go. I think it also reduces analysis-paralysis that can dog a sandbox game when there's no clear direction about where to go or what to do (especially when players don't have enough information to act on).
  2. I use a lot of random tables and encounter generators. The old Midkemia (and later Chaosium) Cities book is a good one, the "Bits of the Wilderness" series, and some NBOS generators for quickly generating characters, encounters, weather, etc.
  3. I try to take notes during play of what seems to be gripping players' imaginations and I go over these at the end of the session (when everything is still fresh in my mind) and do not only a quick recap, but try to envision three to six possible consequences of whatever has unfolded during play, and make a few educated guesses about what my players want to do next.

I guess there's probably more to it than that, but that's the meat of it. Frankly, I'm not even sure I could run a linear adventure or module that is carefully plotted, because my brain just doesn't work that way; every "Adventure Path" style adventure or linear module I've attempted to run by the book has always ended up feeling stilted and weird, and deeply unsatisfying. It sounds like you've got it nailed and should just keep letting them run wild.

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On 4/8/2020 at 2:03 PM, soltakss said:

Now, I am aware of the Players who try to take advantage of an easy-going GM and say "I want this", "I want that" or "I'm doing this". What I tend to do is let them try something if it is within the rules, or let them narrate how they would do it if it isn't within the rules. My biggest weapon against PCs doing that kind of thing is "Well, if you can do it, they can do it as well", which normally stops any silliness.

 

@soltakss Thanks for your thoughts on this. I worry about starting an "arms race" between PC and NPC power levels. I don't want to be seen as retaliating.

 

On 4/8/2020 at 2:24 PM, Qizilbashwoman said:

This sounds a really fantastic campaign.

Remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Like ... running a cult. Or being a Dean. Don't take things away from them, use them. They are a great double-edged sword because not having power sucks. You can organise campaign threats in and around these interests if you want to interest the characters in a narrative you have.

@Qizilbashwoman So, to expand on @soltakss point, threats come from within, yes? The Magic School's Head of Alchemy feels aggrieved at being passed over for a promotion? The cultist encounters rivals with a conflicting belief in the same deity? I like where this is going. 🙂  

On 4/8/2020 at 4:18 PM, pachristian said:

Back on track? It sounds like you have a great group of proactive players. They've created plot lines for themselves - instead of trying to bring them back to your originally conceived plot line, spin new plots off what they've done already.

GM's tend to go from one pole to the other: From "This is my campaign and you are just here to provide dialog and dice rolls. I already know what is going to happen." To "Here's the world, your characters are here. What do you want to do?". 

As for your lockdown issue: Roll20.net. That's how my group is gaming, and we're very happy with it.

@pachristian I thought Roll20 was a D&D platform. I will investigate, thanks. As I mentioned in the original post, most of the players are wargamers, not roleplayers. I wanted to steer them away from the "regimented" wargames rulesets towards a more freeform game experience and let them explore rather than order them about. From the comments above, it seems I have hit that nail on the head.

Many thanks for all your suggestions and input. My next post will list some of my ideas for the next stages of the campaign.

Colin

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Okay, as I mentioned up-thread, here are my ideas for a campaign arc.

  • The wards imprisoning the Cruach Dragon are failing.
  • The Broadsword of Heroes is the only weapon that can destroy the Dragon and the PCs are currently looking for the sword in Glimmerwell.
  • Civil war is brewing between House Drum and House Beleghir. Lady Tagia, who left Lord Drum for Lord Beleghir, is actually a Fey in disguise. She will have the old Lord poisoned and take the throne of Belehold. Military escalation happens on both banks of the White River. Now, one of the PCs has been knighted by Lord Drum, so we know where his loyalty will lie, but it's up to the rest of the PCs to decide which side they are on. Two characters have family in Beleghir's territory, for instance. As I said in the earlier posts, 4 of my players are wargamers and I expect this conflict to take place using large scale wargames rules. (Kings Of War, Dragon Rampant or similar. We're all OK with that.)
  • Story-wise, I would love it for the civil war to end with both sides suing for peace, only to have the Dragon break free and the Count of the Mists to raise his own army and bring all out war to the Southern Reaches. Again, more mass combat.

This is the sort of Heroic/Legendary level adventuring I'm aiming for. It's a big ask, I know, but what do you all think of this?

Thanks,

Colin 

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1 hour ago, colinabrett said:

threats come from within, yes?

well, not specifically. lots of valid threats can come from without: cultists are trying to infiltrate and take over the School of Magic, your hero needs to find them and hunt them down, probably with the help of their ally's cult... this is a chance for your ally to get a leg up on growing their cult as well, and defeating an enemy of theirs. maybe the cult has information on the enchanted item so hunting them down is in the interest of the third player.

and so forth.

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2 hours ago, colinabrett said:

This is the sort of Heroic/Legendary level adventuring I'm aiming for. It's a big ask, I know, but what do you all think of this?

Will the adventurers recognise the Broadsword of Heroes now that it's fixed to an ash shaft after generations of sharpening had worn it down to a spear point? 😉

Sorry, that's an idea I cribbed from a novel with an interesting take on Roman/ Germanic/ Celtic mythology (no, I can't remember the name of it). Sounds like an interesting generational/ war game campaign. I'm not familiar with any wargame rules myself but I can see a lo of potential for conflicts using the various factions of the Southern Reaches. There are a few species that could form the basis of mercenary companis, for example. I assume it will be trivial converting them to whatever rules you're using. What sort of army/ battle sizes are you thinking of? Small unit skirmishes or full-on regimental battles?

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How much rope? As much as they want, but I really will let them hang. If a player rushes in to combat against a seriously more powerful opponent, they get seriously hurt, dead or the other PCs need to pay a ransom. If a PC kills the wrong NPC in a town, the PCs pay a wergeld or the local constable hangs the PC. I always felt that MW was rather medieval in feel and have often made consequence to actions the inhibiter to just plain outlandish behaviour . My initial premise has always been that in the big bad world, there are plenty of stronger and more powerful characters around than the PCs, until the PCs have adventured for a very long time. The great thing about MW and BRP in general is that PCs never quite get ridiculously powerful.

Was the character who became the head of a magic school a truly magnificent wizard? If they were and were dedicated to the education of their students, I would consider that good role play. if not, what are going to be your consequences? I'm not sure about the polar bear. 

I find that a good way of keeping things sensible in fantasy RPG is character aka player motivation. If it's their town, their own friends, their magic school, or the mother of a close friend in peril, players generally jump straight in, particularly if they have had a hand in developing PC backstory and actually want to be there, making a difference in the story. 

As A Chronicler you're creating group culture and the story paradigm, which once set is rather hard to change. However if you take the story seriously and there are reasonable consequences to behaviour, eventually the players will see that as how the fantasy world actually works and play accordingly. 

Anyway that's my 2 pence.

 

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