A little while ago a buddy of mine decided to run an impromptu game. It was his second attempt and he did pretty well. There were only a few newbie GM mistakes and the game went over pretty well for the limited time we had to play. The biggest thing that I saw, and that sparked a thought in my head, was that the game was overpacked with details and sub-plots. There were too many plot lines going on at once, too many things for the players to focus on, and too many details that didn’t end up being relevant. Had we been playing more than a one shot this would have been a good foundation game, but in context of the 4 hours we had to play it was too much. I could see the “Crap, I expected them to go left!” look in his eyes more than once.
In the long walk across the large city where my character was to meet a contact, the Game Master kept dropping things into our path. Knowing that he was new, and these things seeming important, we dutifully picked up what he was putting down and pursued anything he put in front of us. Some of these things were important and some weren’t. We were trying to find the rails to help him out,Â but it wasn’t long before it was hard to tell where the main plot was. I could see that he was working towards be an open Game Master and run a more sandbox style game, but there was one thing he didn’t account for: Players get Tunnel Vision.
Chekov’s Gun Will Appear
Yup. Players focus on the things they think are important and don’t always understand when things are just window dressing, and they usually focus on things the Game Master didn’t intend them to.Â If an NPC even remotely SEEMS like they have a name, they will be hounded until their purpose is discovered – especially if they aren’t at all important to the plot. If an element is described with any kind of detail, it MUST important and examined with an electron microscope. Like Chekov’s gun, if you introduce it then it has to be fired at some point, and the players aren’t going to stop until they get to.
So Let Them Fire it!
If a player is hounding something that seems important but really isn’t, don’t shy away from it or try to turn them back on the rails. Let them fire that plot-gun. They’ll toss it aside once they realize it’s empty AND they will have the satisfaction of achieving a goal. It doesn’t matter if they hovervan over what could be a challenge. If they feel that they have successfully overcome something they will be full of satisfaction and start looking for the next thing to overcome, increasing their immersion into the game.
If they chase a thief who ran from a crowd, but that thief wasn’t really important to anything going on in the story, let them quickly catch him and have him surrender. It could be a very quick two hit combat or no combat at all – the players just need to overcome the challenge and realize the thief wasn’t important. If a player wants to try to hack into a building’s security system before a raid, let them do it. The player doesn’t really want to delay getting to the mission that is coming up, they just want their hacker character to be useful to it. Provide them some information, like a keycode or access to cameras, and they will be all the more ready to jump into the actual raid. The group might have a great idea for a way to increase the selling price of their loot with a little roleplaying, but that doesn’t mean it needs to take a long time. Even though it isn’t the group’s Loot Selling Standing Operating Procedure, let them pursue it and act it out a bit, make a roll to determine if it is successful, and then be done with it. Players hate to try things and be shut down. As the Game Master you have to control the story pacing and make sure they get to everything, but telling a player they can’t try something or actively trying to dissuade them is like shooting the fun level of your game in the foot. Instead, let them try it. If it isn’t majorly important then there is no reason not to give them an easy victory or quick attempt.
Tangential plot-lines crop up all the time, and sometimes they are worth following and playing out and sometimes they aren’t. As Game Masters, both new and old, we don’t always focus on the same things about the game that our players focus on. Knowing when to follow up a plot line or story element is incredibly important, but knowing when and how to end it quickly is also important. Let the character fire that plot gun and hit the target. With a feeling of satisfaction, they’ll drop the empty plot-line and go looking for the next one.
Ever had a situation where the players focused on something that wasn’t important? How did you handle it? Ever been the player in this situation?
I remember a campaign I was running at one point where I had given one of the players a pearl that was pulling them in a certain direction. Rather than reveal that the pearl was doing anything or any such-like, the player holding it instead decided to go see the mayor of the metropolis they were in and pick up a quest that way. So, rather than spend the session dealing with the dungeon I had expected, I winged dealing with a gang that was being a pain in the butt for the Mayor. It also served as a plot hook for the current GM’s campaign as he took over.
Great advice, John. Last summer I committed this very mistake for a one-shot 24 hour game. We had fun, but it would have been a lot better if the various threads had come to conclusion.
I recently ran a session where the players took an avenue of investigation that I was in no way prepared for (namely travelling to a city that I really hadn’t fleshed-out yet). In my efforts to populate the city on-the-fly, I ended up introducing about a dozen random NPCs. The players were especially intrigued by a grizzled old bartender (even though he had no significant role to play in the story). They wouldn’t let up questioning him and his intentions so I had him subtly confess a love interest in one of his barmaids, who I based on a gravel-voiced diner waitress in my neighborhood. It ended up turning in to one of the most ridiculous and fun side quests we’ve had so far, and was totally improvised.
I’m not saying you have to give quest hooks for every single random NPC, but if for some reason they seem particularly interested in one, fueling that interest with some peripheral plot details can help immersion and be incredibly entertaining.
Seriously, they spent the better part of the session working to get those two together.
Usually if my players decide to fly off on a tangent I’ll give them a little hint that it isn’t really related to the main story. Something outside of dialog, like saying “This guy gives you a funny look when you ask about the treasure of Marsaad. He must think you’re speaking a different language.” If that doesn’t work, I let them play out the string they think they’ve found. In the end, if it goes bad, I can always tell them that it was a red herring and they shouldn’t have bothered with it. My players know to expect this (Anton Chekov I am not).
I like the compromise, and agree that letting players do stuff usually has better results than trying to ignore their sidetrek and send them back to the mainplot.
I’ve been bad about this at times, to both extremes. I had one player who took advantage of personal side quests, always drawing them out at the expense of group time. I’d always go in with the intention of handwaving and cutting to the meat… but he always stretched the time out, making everyone else cool their heels for too long. I’ve been merciless the other way too, trying to keep everyone on track– and that’s never as much fun as engaging with a living world.
This article helped out quite a bit.
I’m running a Star Trek TOS campaign and this actually happened to me last week.
Several of the ship’s crew had been replaced with android doppelgangers. At that point in the game, the androids were located and defeated, but the real crew were still missing and awaited rescue.
However, the ship’s captain (my friend Matt) had a slim lead on a major recurring villain. He decided to go tangential and get the big bad. _<
When the PCs warped into the sector, there was the villain's "ship". . .adrift in space. It appeared completely inert. Long-range sensors showed no shields or weapons powered up. In fact, they didn't even appear to have life support.
The PCs were puzzled and quickly became paranoid. The more clues I gave them only made them think it was some sort of an elaborate deathtrap.
By the time they were finally 100% CONVINCED it was an inflatable space decoy*, we didn't have time to resolve the actual plot.
What's worse is the remainder of the adventure wasn't enough to fill the next RPG session. I had to do the dreaded "five minute wrap-up."
So do I still agree with this article? Yes. Even moreso than when I first read it.
I'm just saying that, like all useful GM tools, it has to be utilized carefully.
*Geez, I practically printed "MetLife" across the side of it.