Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When Players Attack

I think by now it's pretty well established that, in a sandbox-style campaign, referees need to be prepared for players wandering off to do something or go somewhere you hadn't expected. Judicious use of random tables, swiping ideas from pre-made modules, and good old fashioned quick thinking all help in this regard, as does jotting down germs of ideas to which you can turn for inspiration all help in this regard. I've used all of these techniques in my Dwimmermount campaign and there are many others too, depending on how much preparation the referee is prepared to put into his campaign. (I veer toward a very low-prep style, so nearly everything my players do unexpectedly is met with an extemporaneous response rather than something I'd thought deeply about beforehand, though there are exceptions)

A question I don't often see discussed, though, is how to deal with players who show complete disinterest in what you've placed before them. Even diligent, well-prepared sandbox referees (i.e. not me) have limits to how many lairs, encounters, clues, rumors, treasure maps, and hooks they can place before the players. After a certain point, a referee is being reasonable to expect that at least one of the things he's created will generate some interest in his players and thus provide a segue to adventure.

I suppose I've been lucky in that I've never encountered such intransigence from my players, but I have observed it in action several times. In most cases, the players are not so much disinterested in the obvious options placed before them but rather unhappy that the options placed before them all seem to take them to the same place. In my experience, players dig in their heels when it looks like the all their choices are false ones intended to lead them back toward something the referee really wants them to do see or do. I recall one memorable failed campaign where the characters became so unhappy with an NPC whose answers were so clearly designed to get them to take up a course of action they didn't like that they trapped him, along with many other innocent bystanders, in an inn and burned the place down. So great was the players' unhappiness that even the player of the paladin looked the other way while his comrades committed mass murder.

In the Dwimmermount campaign, there was only one thing I planned extensively beforehand and that was the mystery behind the cult of Turms Termax. In planning the game, I'd hit upon an idea I really like and thought would make a great MacGuffin, something that would encourage the players, through their characters, to delve more deeply into both the dungeon and the world of which it's a part. To my pleasure, it's largely worked and, while I continue to add and subtract elements from my original idea in response to events in our sessions, the core idea has remained the same.

Now, if the players had not responded as I'd hoped they might, what would I have done? I can't say for sure, because, as I've said, I've never experienced a case where the players wholly rejected what I set before them. I'd like to think, though, that I'd either have reworked my idea so that it'd have become more attractive to the players (this is a practice I've used before) or that, if they really demonstrated an utter disregard for the mystery of Turms Termax, I'd have dropped it and found something else to engage their interest.

The willingness to drop elements from a campaign (or at least diminish their importance) is, I think, an important trait in running a successful old school sandbox campaign. No matter how good I think my ideas are, it's ultimately the opinions of my players that matter most. If they're not interested, there's little to be gained -- and much to be lost -- by forcing something on them. I try to remember that ideas are cheap, but player interest is often priceless. For some, it can be a hard lesson to learn, but, once understood, it more than repays the time and effort spent acquiring it.


  1. A question I don't often see discussed, though, is how to deal with players who show complete disinterest in what you've placed before them.

    Get new players.

    If you've gone to the trouble and effort of preparing a banquet, then the very least your guests can do is pick at it and make polite noises.

  2. I run into this a few times. It ultimately either results in the character not being a driver in the campaign as other characters pursue their interests. Or something sticks and the characters finds his niche.

    In the interim I rely on simulating the world. The character just responding to various events as they occurs. Usually greed is the main driver during this. The desire for more money and stuff.

    Again while this is happening you are hoping that some sticks to spark the player's interest.

    The worst case is that you wind up with a local NPC (after the campaign is over) that somewhat wealthy has a bit of a reputation but hasn't done anything really notable.

    This assumes that there isn't any underlying out of game issue that causes the player's disinterest.

  3. You first have to discern whether it's the whole campaign or just elements of it that have failed to take, I guess. At least your player mutiny wasn't as bad as the time one frustrated player began chanting the name of Asmodeus, hoping for a TPK on 5%. (I actually rolled for it, but ruled that the big guy only sent a threatening demon face when the inevitable happened. This shows you how much I followed the rules in my campaign then, which may have been the problem to begin with.)

    Roll with the punches and try new things constantly. Don't invest too much in preparation or system. If you prepare something that's never used, let it go or recycle it. Just think - how many dungeons did you write up when you weren't actively Gming that you never ran people through? Just consider your failed opportunities one of those.

  4. Just stop running a sandbox campaign. Just run adventures, that's what you really want to do or else you wouldn't be trying to lead your players by the nose into the adventure you already had planned.

    Sandbox games aren't fun for anyone because they are a big giant invitation to go off the rails and force the DM to improvise a half-assed adventure that won't be nearly as fun as the one he had planned.

  5. @ Roger: Asmodeus shoudl have shown up and just taken the chanter :P

    @ Johnny: A "sandbox" or a "railroad" are just two extremes on the same axis. James talks about the referee who wants to lead his players into one outcome, and suggests that's not the way to go. James appears to have only one point where that was the case, with this TT cult.

    A secondary point is that an improvised adventure doesn't need to end up half-assed. Some of them turn out to be pretty awesome. Part of getting to that point is being a good, experienced DM. But another is having bits and pieces floating around in your head, so you can make some random table rolls and precipitate your unused ideas out into something that's surprisingly solid.

    I'm running a frontier wilderness / scattered dungeons sandbox right now, and I've developed several dungeons as the PCs went through them. Not room-by-room, but as a quick overview and then shaking out the details of each thing as they come to it.

    You can get a surprising adventure out of a very skimpy outline. Just some connected boxes and lines for a map, with notes on creatures / traps / tricks / interesting features, rolling and/or placing treasure as they go. 20 minutes can get you an evening or two of dungeoneering. So if the PCs decide to not investigate the dungeon, oh well, you're ony out 20 minutes. You have another 10 or 15 prepared.

  6. Oh and, I'd just like to mention that at least one DM and his players are having an absolute blast with a sandbox game ;P

  7. My current Night Below campaign started out with players on a caravan to the south, most of them wanting to get to a famous dungeon to loot. After a year or so of various side tracking and little adventures, the entire dungeon idea was scrapped in order to assault the Night Below. the players found the hooks, and took the bait fully by their own choice.

    I think it is good to find that middle place, where you have a planned adventure, but are open enough to let the players possibly change your game plan.

  8. What Roger said is very true You got to roll with the punches and be ready for the unexpected --and even more important- thinking ahead of the players even when they pull off the most insane antics you would never imagine them doing in a lifetime. There's a great story over at Dwarvenforge told by the guy who ran a congame and took what was basically a "ruined" adventure and turned it into a memorable event. Maybe not for the players but most certainly for the GM!


  9. I usually ran a middle ground between planned and sandbox campaigns (My WFRP campaign was an exception, as I was running The Enemy Within campaign as written), so there would be pre-planned adventures, but also emergency drop-ins should the players decide to strike out on their own, as it were. The key, I learned, was listening to their table banter (in character and out) for what they would find tempting, and then use that later to hook them. Usually that worked. At least, I don't recall facing a total refusal to investigate anything.

    security word: "pingest," the most perfect ping on the Internet.

  10. How about this . . .

    GM: Your future relatives wants you to go back to the place where you left your fiancee's father for dead and at least bring back his armor. This priest will go with to say a prayer for his soul.

    Player: I don't remember how to get there. We had a guide and he's gone now.

    And so we spent the session picking pockets at The House of Lucky Dragon

  11. Players only turn bad when they are bored or resentful.

    NPCs must always EARN the PCs interest/respect - you can't expect PCs to regard an NPC in the way you planned.

    I always plan that my favorite NPCs will die like losers and my favorite game elements will be utterly ignored by the PCs.

    This doesn't mean they will - but it prepares you for everything.

    Thinking in this way opens you up for the fantastic opposite - where the PCs ADOPT a favorite NPC or game element and make it bigger than you expected.

  12. Chris: "Get new players."

    Yes, how dare anyone exhibit tastes differing from the GM. You'd think they have an equal stake in the game, the way some carry on.

    "If you've gone to the trouble and effort of preparing a banquet, then the very least your guests can do is pick at it and make polite noises."

    So, to stick with the analogy, the host should never wonder if maybe perhaps he should have asked what the quests wanted to eat first? Or if the wanted a full banquet at all? Sheer effort always justifies itself, no matter the context?

  13. I think we spend a lot of time agonizing over "problems" that can be solved using basic communication.

    Player: I'm not interested.
    GM: So what do you want to do?

    Problem solved.

    There's really no need to study body language, play scenario hook roulette, peer at their bookshelves, or hold a seance. Just ask them what they'd like to be doing or what they're planning to do and then prep accordingly.

  14. always plan that my favorite NPCs will die like losers and my favorite game elements will be utterly ignored by the PCs<

    I gotta start thinking like that to save some heartbreak.

  15. I really play this way - its the only practical way to plan when running a real sandbox.

    When you get used to planning this, preparing to still run a great game no matter wha, you can handle everything and any unexpect player deviation only results in a better outcome.

  16. I usually like to set up why characters are adventuring at the start (the infamous Campbellian "Call to Adventure"). After all, the question of why they are setting out to do so will show you the direction they want to go. Then you provide opportunities to hook into campaign events.

    Otherwise the events of the world roll on regardless. Although many of these events will be player triggered.

    A more difficult problem is where players will want to go in different directions (from the gamemaster and the rest of the party). In a long running Runequest game my character had the opportunity to join the retinue of a Storm Kahn and receive the final training for Rune Lord status, so it was necessary to semi-retire the character. Because it is what he would have done.

    [Many of my friends tend to run individual players in the same campaign world independently. This seriously changes the dynamic of the campaign. Players can respond to events triggered by other players.]

    I do remember annoying one gamemaster enough by playing a truly chaotic-random cleric of the Demon of Entropy that I was eventually impressed into the army to halt my semi-random travels around the landscape (the nation at the time being invaded by an army led by another player character, so that is fair enough).

    It did, however, leave me in the situation to save the other player character though, partially because the "good guys" had the temerity to impress me, but mainly because that other character was doing good things about increasing the overall level of randomness in the world. That single cure light wounds ended up being one of the most damaging spells in the history of the campaign. <grin>

  17. I remember taking over as DM with a group of friends who were novice players.

    Another friend had started off as the DM but he'd created a world that was just weird and bizarre for no reason...and, worse, nothing ever happened. There was never any combat, never any "adventuring"...it was just a big trip into his ego-centric rabbit hole.

    So, in taking over...rather than a reboot (since I didn't want to bruise my friend who had started as the DM), I planned a very cinematic transition--a chase that would lead the characters into a "Land of the Lost" style world transition...down a waterfall to a world where more traditional D&D action awaited.

    Only, the players dug in their heels at the whole idea of the chase (which I'd never considered as a potential problem, as I was quickly working up the campaign that they were being chased towards.)

    They slaughtered the innkeeper and family that were supposed to hide them from the big bad that was chasing them (in hindsight, they were so desperate for combat that they weren't interested in stealth tension), they sent the rafts meant to carry them to the waterfall downriver as a diversion and fought to the death on the riverbanks...and then they quit D&D forever.

    As a DM, I thought I understood what was going on but I misread the situation because I was thinking more about what I wanted to do as the new DM than what their waning interest in the game would allow.

    The chase, rather than getting them caught up in the drama, made them feel even more helpless than they were when there was nothing much to do.

    We all make the best choices that we can. Sometimes, we get 'em wrong.

  18. Each new sandbox I lay before my players is filled with lore, multiple quests (usually a big overshadowing one and many more related or unrelated to that big one), interesting NPCs/monsters or alluring locations. If they don't pick up the big quest, they usually get winded up in any of these other things.

    It is with great joy, that I watch them interweave all the elements I have roughly sketched out in the sandbox for them and thus creating an adventure on their own.

  19. For me player deviation has generally contributed to and not defeated the campaign. Onced the players are no longer sitting around wiaitng for you to throw them a huge hook for the dungoen you've prepared, but actively trying to shape the world somehow, you've hit this whole sandbox thing on the head as a group.

    In my offline D&D campaign I have a recent example of this. I prepared the sort of frontier hex-crawl with which many of us would be familair. I sprinkled it with dungeons, set up some NPCs and possible conflicts in town ala Village of Hommlett and let the players loose.

    The short story is after discovering one of the major dungeons (and taking a bloody nose from it) they statrted to get involved somewhat in the goins-on in town but mostly sort of puttered around the hex map. Then one day they all up and decided to leave the wilderness for the city that I mentioned once in passing, a week's journey to the south.

    The next two sessions I winged entirely and it invloved a ducal envoy ambushed by what were ostensibly bandits, a catoblepas terrorizing a swamp on the ir route and arrival in the city amidst a scrape with the law over some loot the party actually tried to return (go figure!).

    Now, in the city, they're actively making contacts with important patrons and have a long-term plan to set up shop officially as free-booting merchants and swords-for-hire under the moniker Olyphant Goods and Services (must be my other Traveller campaign infecting them through osmosis). All of this driven by them.

    My point is, despite all of my preperation and maps and random tables pre-gen hooks and NPCs and however clever and grand i thought it all was... the campaign wasn't "ours" and wans't truly a sandbox until the players took it over. It made for a lot of work on my part, but NOW we're finally playing the game... as a result of player "intransigence".

  20. "the characters became so unhappy with an NPC whose answers were so clearly designed to get them to take up a course of action they didn't like that they trapped him, along with many other innocent bystanders, in an inn and burned the place down."