I have often focused too narrowly on what will happen when the players follow the trails that I have laid out for them. But what do you do when the players don’t want to play with any of the plot you’ve got prepared for them? And what happens with the problems that they’re ignoring?
This post follows my previous post on how I run games, so if you haven’t read that yet I recommend that you do. Not that it’s necessary. After all, if you’ve run a game before you’ve probably already had the experience of watching your players move in completely unexpected directions. But while you’re rapidly shifting gears and trying to stay just one step ahead of your players, what do you do with all of the other material you prepped? You know, the goblin encampment, the orc army, the group of bandits, the corporate investigators or wizard police or what-have-you.
Well, first of all, don’t just get rid of it. It’s still there in the world, right? It’s still something that the players will have to deal with. But it also shouldn’t be static. You spent long enough making sure that you had a handle on what that stuff was all about, you probably have some ideas about what it (whatever it is) might want. So, what will it do to get what it wants?
To borrow terminology I learned from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, let yourself think offscreen. Not everything that happens in the world is happening right in front of the players’ eyes, right?
You can ask yourself several questions when preparing your basic background material to help with this; what are the players doing, what are the players not doing, and what might happen if the players do nothing?
I combine those questions with my minimalist preparation so that I have some idea of what will be going on behind the scenes while the players are busy doing whatever it is that they want to do. In this way, the players’ lack of action is just as important as their action. When players fail to address a given threat, that has consequences too.
You do run the risk of swamping your players when you practice this too aggressively. I often find it worthwhile to talk with my players before the game starts about what their expectations or desires are around such consequences.
Furthermore, it’s important to let the players take the initiative and not simply punish them for their decision-making. If you slug the players in the back of the head with a marauding orcish warband every time they deal with something other than the gathering orcish army, your players will soon learn that they don’t have meaningful agency. It’s far better to slowly ratchet up the tension and clearly broadcast that things are getting worse off-screen than it is to clobber the players endlessly with blunt reminders that they’re ignoring important events.
From a player’s perspective, it’s simultaneously terrifying and rewarding to know that everything will continue to progress around you while you aren’t paying attention to it. It can leave you feeling like you’re trying to put out a wildfire by pissing on it, but when you succeed you feel amazing for having done the impossible.
So, the quick take-away:
- When doing your prep, ask what will happen if the threat is ignored. What is the next stage, what is the final stage?
- Clarify expectations around off-screen events with your players. This is often as simple as saying, “I want to try this out, you down with that?”
- Advance your threats whenever the fiction demands it, either because they’re being ignored or because the PCs have unwittingly furthered the threat themselves.
- Bring the growing peril to your players’ attention with fiction-appropriate signals: burned out villages, injunctions & court summons, a pervasive scent of brimstone.
There’s certainly more to say on this topic. If you have thoughts you’d like to share, please comment!