When I was first DMing, I spent a lot of time fleshing out every last detail and herding everyone around to each subsequent plot point on the Illusion of Choice Express (woo woo!). I’ve since learned that laying out some probable places to go and things to do is a good plan, and not to panic when they don’t go anywhere near those.
There is a definite balance to be struck, and too little control over things can be bad too. That being said, I’ve come to realize the example I’ve had in my mind for running things completely off-script – the time I decided not to plan anything and simply improvised a surrealist nightmare for the whole session – is not actually a very good example at all. For starters, I’d deliberately placed the party in a nightmare realm where anything could happen for any reason. I had random monsters made out of food, weird body horror, no rules, and both the players and I had no idea what was coming next.
I’ve come to realize that though it works much better when I do my job well, my players will carry the night no matter what. They’re far more responsible for the things that have happened in our campaign than me. They tear my puny plots apart without even thinking about it. I find it endlessly interesting watching them try to put the pieces together. Sometimes they come up with conclusions that are really off-base but I can see why they’re thinking that (which is fun to exploit), other times I’m a little scared at how close they are to unraveling everything. Sometimes they come up with a plan that I didn’t have when the session started but that exists by the time the session ends. I regret nothing.
That got me wondering. What happens if I just nudge a piece of the plot and simply let them do their thing for the rest of the night?
Making Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The villain of the story has been trying to get the PCs to give up these magic items, and my players have been doing a wonderful job thwarting him for weeks on end. He’s tried to kill them. He’s used his political power to take over the city guard that employs the PC’s, and made them wanted criminals. They always find a way out. It’s been the subject of the last few adventures. So it was that I decided to have the bad guy hire the PC’s. They’d get their names cleared, power, more money than they’d ever dreamed of, the works. Enemies converted into allies, problem solved. It was a genuine offer, no traps attached (yet).
I purposely didn’t have much else planned, and I really didn’t know what was going to happen at that point. I just wanted to see what they’d do.
This found them planning how and when to meet, what to do if it’s a trap, and lots of other wonderful stuff even before they met the guy. After it was over, there was plenty of discussion about what they should do about the offer since it’s clearly a trap but also if they should accept the offer — which I am not embarrassed to say made me do a little happydance. I’d wondered about the motives of several of the PC’s, and it was certainly within their character to do such a thing, but it still shocked several at the table including myself.
No matter what happened with meeting the villain, I’d planned to have a 50′ tall gargoyle start destroying the city so they’d have to rush off and take care of it. It seemed like a good way out if things started getting uncontrollable or boring. I had the thing show up just as the discussion was starting to get gridlocked over whether to accept the offer. I thought at the time the unfinished business would cause some interesting in-combat stress, but in retrospect I wish I’d just let them continue. A good half of the session went to discussion and planning, and I’m surprised to say it was really satisfying. I hope it was for my players, but it seemed like it was. Everyone was in-character and the energy level was high at the table. (This, by the way was also an experiment. I wanted to see what plan they came up with, and they rewarded me with grappling hooks, science, a Grease spell, and nearly crushing themselves.)
Other than that, I didn’t really have a direction the night was supposed to go. I didn’t know what they’d do, so I didn’t bother trying to anticipate it. I think this went a lot better than our surrealist foray into Nightmare Junction simply because going off-script is significantly easier when you have material to draw from. I’m always surprised to see how much more creativity happens when people have a few parameters fixed in place — when you can do absolutely anything, it’s surprisingly hard to choose something. In our case, we’re most of the way through a campaign with a setting and characters and locations everyone knows. The players and I had plenty of ideas of places to go and things to try that would fit our game, and it worked well.
Helping Others Help Themselves To Destroy Your Work (Thereby Helping You)
I don’t really recommend trying this every week. It seems like it’d get pretty unfocused and weird within a few sessions. I definitely recommend trying it once in awhile. Depending on what the players decide, there’s potential for our campaign to go in several different directions than the one we started with — and that’s fine with me. First star to the right, and straight on ’til morning.
In the end, your players are going to do whatever they want to your carefully-constructed story and plot anyway. Why not help?