Deux Ex Machina And Forcing The Story

Let me first say that I’m not going to address the debate about whether or not it’s ok to railroad your players. I will only say that I don’t think it’s good to constantly force the story to conform to the plot that you have laid out. As I’ve read elsewhere, if you want a plot to go exactly according to your plan, you should write a book, not run a D&D game. However, sometimes it’s ok to do things to the players that they have no control over. (Ok, so maybe I did just address it)
“But D&D is all about choices, and if you take away player choice, what do you have left?”
You know what? I agree. And I still contend that there are times when dropping the proverbial anvil from the proverbial sky is not only acceptable, but appropriate. And I’ll bet your players will even agree with what you did. (Or at least be ok with it)

What follows are two examples of times when I forced a story twist in games that I ran. Hopefully, when you’re done reading, you’ll have two solid rules for when it’s ok to force the players into a plot point.

Enforcing consequences for previous player choices

About six months ago, I ran my players through a short scenario in which they were hired by a bounty hunter to capture a notorious necromancer. Unfortunately for the PCs, the necromancer also kept a flesh golem around as protection against all the pesky bounty hunters that were constantly coming to collect. In the end, the characters did end up catching the necromancer, but in the process released the enraged flesh golem on an unsuspecting populace. And then left. “Ran away” would actually be more accurate. In subsequent months, “I hope we don’t have to go back to Westgate; I can’t imagine they’re too happy about the flesh golem we released” became an often heard sentiment. And the more I thought about the “flesh golem incident,” the more I realized that the people of Westgate probably did have a bone to pick with the interpid adventurers. In fact, why wouldn’t there be a bounty involved? I decided that I would have the characters find a Wanted poster with their pictures on it, and then start throwing bounty hunters at them to drive the point home. I also decided that, come hell or high water, the party was going to be captured and brought back to Westgate to stand trial. As it turned out, the bounty hunter that had originally hired them was the first (and last) to come calling.

I don’t know how many other DMs are guilty of this, but I too often don’t think through the full effect of player decisions. I mean, sure, if a PC murders a child in cold blood in the middle of the market with dozens of witnesses, it’s likely they’ll receive a visit from the town watch, and quite possibly summary execution. But when the choice involves something more subtle or complex, I often just let things slide. After all, I don’t really have the time to figure out the Butterfly Effect.

I suppose that you could argue that this isn’t really forcing the story, per se, and that it’s just enforcing consequences for decisions; perhaps I agree. Sort of. The players did indeed have a choice that they made. It’s just good to have a reminder that sometimes the world and society responds to our choices in a way that we cannot overcome. The choice was made a long time ago, and now the path is set. However, when you, as a DM, decide what that reaction is, you are in fact forcing the plot in a certain direction. As an aside, it might be wise to remind the players of their triggering choice if you receive any flak for their new (untenable) position.

As an unrelated side note, one of the factors that cemented my decision to put a bounty on the party’s collective head was the amount of out-of-game talk that revolved around the flesh golem adventure. Because the group talked about it so much, I thought I would bring back what was originally a very minor side quest. Listen to your players. Even when they’re not overtly telling you what they want, it’s quite possible that there’s a good bit of subtext to the stories they tell of past adventures.

Starting a campaign

Just three weeks ago, I started my new Gamma World campaign, and I wanted to get the party together in a way that made sense and gave them a common goal right from the outset. “Meeting in a tavern” or “we just knew each other already” wasn’t going to cut it. So they started the campaign tied up in a badder warren. They really didn’t have any common history beyond that, but  putting them in a dire position with an obvious common goal was enough to tie them together as a party. There was no explanation given as to why they were in that position to begin with, and as a matter of fact, there are some circumstances surrounding the whole beginning of the campaign that are a complete mystery to the players, such as the fact that they didn’t know each other before the badder warren, and the fact that they don’t remember how they got there. If it’s a line of questioning they’re intent on pursuing, there are answers to be found. I may even drop some hints at some point. Maybe.

I am willing to admit that starting a campaign is a de facto forced plot point, as the characters have to get together somehow. I think the lesson to be learned from this is that campaign starts don’t have to be generic, and they certainly don’t have to be safe. I know I’m not the first to suggest it, and I certainly hope I’m not the last: start your campaign with a bang. Placing the characters in dire straights or mortal danger has a way of setting tone and tying the characters together in a way that meeting in a tavern can’t.

Is what I’ve described above obvious? Perhaps. But I think that sometimes we can be afraid of the “railroading” accusation (accompanied by the obligatory “Hoot hoot” while pulling an imaginary whistle chain) that we shy away from putting characters in difficult and even impossible situations. We forget that oftentimes choices made even 20 sessions earlier could quite possibly have put them on a path to insurmountable odds. Did I give the players who were involved in the “flesh golem incident” an out? Yes, but only after they stood trial for their actions. As for the group captured by the badders, well, the whole point of the play session was getting out!

In the end, under the right circumstances, I have no problem forcing a plot point on my players. And to be honest, I’m pretty sure they don’t mind either. (I’m sure they’ll be commenting just to contradict me though)

What about you? Have you ever forced a plot point on your players?

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4 Responses to Deux Ex Machina And Forcing The Story

  1. clayton says:

    I am a big fan of the forced start to a campaign.
    I ran a WFRP game once for two players, I made the players start tied to a tree held captive by a goblin highway man, and I made them choose which of them had been shot and was badly hurt. 🙂
    It was very gritty, and fun for all of us to play a very tense starting encounter where the two injured and penniless travellers needed to find somewhere safe to spend the night after they escaped.

  2. Steve says:

    I have certainly force a plot point on my group. However, I do my best to make it suit the story they have already built inside the more open play pen the metaplot offers. Like your example, any forcing I tend to do is usually just an interpretation of the consequences of their previous actions.

    I run a pretty typical game. I present an obstacle, I have a loose idea of how it might resolve and I work very hard at planning to improvise with my players’ decisions about how to approach/solve the obstacle. I intentionally avoid too much writing. I enjoy being surprised by my players and I am a firm believer in collectice creativity at the table.

    That being said, I have learned that players don’t really want a lot of creative control when it comes to the larger plot. What they want is choice. It took me a while to understand the difference. I feel that most of the time players want a basic plot ‘forced’ on them(which is to say invented by the DM since that’s ‘our job’)but reserve the right to choose how they approach it. On a good day this leads to group creativity. On a day where people are a little off their game, it tends towards “my character is best at X, I want to solve the problem that way”

    • Steve says:

      I should complete that thought. I guess my point is not to worry so much about dropping plot into your game, as long as you are willing to let the players take ownership of it once you do.

      If they really wanted to have more creative agency, wouldn’t they be running their own game 🙂 Forcing plot is part of the job from time to time and as long as you have a light touch I think most players will thank you for it.

  3. benensky says:

    I am lucky and my players (are under 25 and) learned D&D with me while I ran a prewritten adventures. They also play RPGA which is pre-written adventures. So they naturally follow the plot ques. They all seem to like it too.

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