Thursday, 12 December 2013

Bringing Back The Funk(ing Investigators), part two

Following on from last time, where I set out the problem of PCs having run away from a scenario, let's look at some ways your group might resume play. There will be bullet points, oh yes.


I’m only going to talk about tactics for the last two (and a half) options I mentioned last time, so situations where either:

  • the PCs just don’t know how to proceed or have managed to wander away from their goal, but the players would like to get back on track; or
  • the characters are discouraged because it’s too dangerous, too unpleasant or too much for their frail human minds to handle.

Uninterested players or characters are a very different issue and not something I can deal with here.

There are a few different broad types of tactics that I can think of, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, which I’ll group in three types:

  • bringing the PCs back to the plot
  • bringing the plot back to the PCs
  • letting things lie

The main distinction I'm drawing is how strongly youse enforce the connection between those specific individuals and the events, places, items or people that form the Plot. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages and I'm not saying any of them is right or wrong; it depends a lot on context, on what your group want to do, on whether you used any of those ideas recently, and so on.

Bringing the PCS back to the plot


One option is very simple: you and the players agree that the PCs will change their minds (or even retcon previous events) and continue the investigation. This is straightforward, quick and easy, and those are advantages not to be underestimated.

That being said, the U-turn may feel arbitrary or directly contradict the personalities you’ve established for the characters, and that might undermine your enjoyment of the game. Sometimes it might work fine; maybe the PCs have a chance to calm down, rationalise a bit and work themselves up into a more go-getting frame of mind, or indeed accept their fate and confront the enemy out of sheer contrariness. At other times it’s just going to grate or encourage (unwanted) metagaming. Different PCs (and players) will allow different amounts of leeway for this sort of thing.

This sort of thing is highly genre-dependent. In a Dick Barton-style adventure game, it's odd for the PCs to break and flee at all; only tactical withdrawals are allowed. In something grittier but still heroic, PCs might well be scared off, but only to regroup and return more determined than ever. So the expectations of the game will strongly affect how players feel their characters should behave. The system can also be a factor, but in general a given system can be used to run a variety of genres and moods.

In some games, you might also legitimately have colleagues, superiors or allies straight-up tell the PCs to get back to their mission, either because it's their job damnit!, or because the Prophecy is too important to neglect, the Electric Cowboy too dangerous to be on the loose, or "it's not like you" to give up so easily.

Wait a minute!

A bit more subtly, you can (as a group or as GM) think up in-character reasons for them to take up the original plot again. These might be reasons they’d temporarily forgotten: a lead previously overlooked that suddenly prods someone’s subconscious, remembering that one of the cult knows exactly where you live, or suddenly realising that a plan to release an alien god from its slumber under the mountain will destroy the mines that provide your entire family’s income and leave you a penniless wretch, because nobody will fork out the insurance money. Maybe they read a tome they picked up and realise just how terrible the cult's plans actually are: is being killed by demons as you raid the temple worse than being killed by demons in your own kitchen a week later when the portals to Hell open?

A variation on this approach can be used to restart stalled scenarios, by having a character spot some piece of information they'd overlooked or make a sudden leap of logic. This is perhaps particularly sensible if the players have a good idea how to proceed but their characters are stuck. I don't really want to get too heavily into that stuff here, as it's opening a new can of worms really, like scenario design and GMing techniques. However, if you have wound up with the characters baffled, sudden recollection of an important clue is an absolute classic of fiction: the scrap of paper on the noticeboard, the face glimpsed on the stairwell, the long-forgotten Elvish lessons, any of them is fair game to suddenly well up from the PC's subconscious and get things moving again. Perhaps, wandering frustrated through the palace, they unconsciously count their steps and realise this room is suspiciously short compared to the next... a secret door? A small amount of GM narration can be an acceptable way to shift the logjam.

New motivations

Alternatively, you might think up new reasons to introduce, which cause them to change their minds. This has the advantage of providing in-character motivation, so it avoids the arbitrary feel of just saying the characters change their minds. It's not necessarily difficult to add in some light character development that alters the balance of motivations; personal matters could change their perspective on a situation without necessarily relating directly to the plot.

  • The classic "NPCs remark on how brave and noble you are, cue enormous guilt as you prepare to flee"
  • A shortage of new contracts means this case is the only way you have to keep the loan sharks off your back
  • You learn that the troll shaman defiled the altar of your god; you must seek revenge!
  • An NPC you care about is liable to be harmed by the case, without being directly drawn into it. Maybe they're keen to invest heavily in Innsmouth waterfront properties, or marry their daughter off to the Duke (he seems a decent sort, good prospects).
  • The benefit you expect to get from succeeding turns out to be a heck of a lot bigger than you originally though. Maybe a new bounty is posted, or you learn of a valuable item owned by an antagonist. There could also be major social or personal benefits to be gained - this is partly down to the system and player preferences.
  • A counter-threat appears which forces you to take on the challenge. This has been used in loads of fiction, from the poison implants in Neuromancer to crime bosses holding your family hostage until you deal with some job for them. It doesn't need to be a direct personal threat though, only something that makes the danger posed by the original situation seem worth facing.

However, it might be easier (or more believable in-character) for the PC to feel guilty but keep away, than to go back to face probable horrible death. Also, these could feel rather heavy-handed, even when they're deployed by general consent.

For an indirect option, you might find reasons for the PCs to be exposed to the mystery again, without forcing the investigation itself on them. The doctor has to go to Cultville on an urgent medical case; university high-ups (or worse, funding bodies) want to see the professor’s research progress on that artefact; coming out of the station, you’re convinced you recognise the sorcerer getting into a cab, and hear him give an address. This gives the PCs (and the players) the option to make an in-character decision to get involved again, without being too heavy-handed about it. It could work well as a chance to return to the case after a break playing other scenarios, but if the players don’t really feel like biting, or if it really wouldn’t suit the characters, they can pass up the opportunity and do something else. This may be a sensible approach if you're not sure whether the players actually do want to get involved again, as it can be worked in relatively naturally and give them room to say no. Although you could just ask them!


If the group has simply wandered away by following up red herrings, getting distracted or making a series of decisions that somehow left them dealing with completely different issues, then it's possible to have an in-character discussion about that. There are definitely precedents in fiction for the protagonists giving themselves a good talking-to when they realise they've forgotten the their original purpose (although it often involves realising that an enemy has misled them).

Some of the options I just mentioned above also usable here, since they provide an in-character way for the PCs to regain interest in the original issue.

Bringing the plot back to the PCs

A different approach is to bring the plot to the PCs. Again, this can work whether it’s leads or character motivation that are lacking. The idea here is that youse don't have mess with PC motivation or retcon their decisions, because whatever they decided to do, the plot crops up again and gives them another chance to bite.

The most straightforward option is a blatant chunk of plot.

  • One of the PCs is kidnapped and taken back to Cultville.
  • The alien artefact begins to glow and hum in a deeply disturbing way.
  • The neighbour you're damn sure is a vampire sends one of the group an invitation to a party.
  • People with marks just like the cultists start following the PCs on the streets.
  • Another hook comes up, which turns out to connect back to the abandoned plot.

Again, this sort of thing is simple and obvious, so neither players nor PCs can miss it. On the other hand, it’s heavy-handed and players might find it cheesy or too much for their suspension of disbelief. This is a relatively strong option in more actiony games, since it's easy to accept that if you don't clear out the bandit lair, they grow bolder and begin raiding villages like the one you're staying in. The last option may work well in games with fairly active protagonists (who expect to deal with multiple problems in their careers) and where larger-scale problems are likely (such as conspiracies, enemy alliances, evil influences and so on). In one-shot games with fairly ordinary protagonists, having them encounter two different plots may seem a stretch, at least until the connection is revealed.

For the moderate option, bring the plot back into contact with the PCs, but not in a way that forces them to embrace it.

  • Someone turns up at the university offering to buy the artefact, claiming ownership of it, or on a sabbatical to study it.
  • You were masked when you burst into the temple, so you’re pretty sure your charming new neighbour doesn’t recognise you, but you’ve seen that face over an altar and heard that voice screaming praises to Tsathoggua...
  • A wandering seer stops the party in the street and reveals a vision about the undead stirring in the ruined city; a vision that gives them some clues on how to succeed this time.
  • Information comes onto the market about the EvilCorp project, if you're willing to pay for it.
  • NPCs begin their own preparations to deal with a problem, leaving obvious opportunities for the PCs to support them.

These give the PCs and players an obvious jumping-off point for their investigations to resume, but give them an awful lot of freedom in how to handle the situation.

There are also some light-touch options, though some are genre-dependent.

  • Cryptic dreams (or visions?) are a staple of occult fiction. The sci-fi equivalent might be mysterious signals or data points indicating that something's important, or even the files relating to a situation sitting around on your screen and reminding you that you never resoved it.
  • More or less any setting supports odd news items or bits of gossip that, with what the PCs know, points to more sinister things going on than others realise.
  • Strange people, creatures or goings-on are reported somewhere just off the beaten track.
  • Strangers making cryptic remarks, apparently recognising you, blatantly leaving items for you to pick up, and so on.

These are all things that might lead them to take action, but also leave them plenty of room to stay the heck out of things.

There is a problem with all three of these options that doesn’t apply to the others. Actually, it’s two problems on opposite sides of the same coin, which allows me to summarise it glibly:

  1. You risk making the characters too peripheral
  2. You risk making the characters too central

If the plot relentlessly pursues the characters, their actions and decisions are less important. This is not quite the same as railroading, because you’re not forcing them to fit the plot, but bending the plot around to fit them: a second playthrough might not produce remotely the same story. However, consciously or otherwise, it seems liable to make players feel less involved. In my original forum post, I compared this to playing a computer game with a walkthrough to hand; it’s probably more like playing a classic point-and-click with a hint system turned on. Of course you can work things out on your own, but (if you’re like me) you tend to gravitate towards relying on the hints as soon as things get difficult, rather than taxing your brain too much.

Getting out of the metaphor and back to the topic at hand... If the GM always brings the plot back to the characters, even when they wander off track or get too freaked out to keep investigating, then you don’t need to be as mentally involved in the story because you can’t lose it. Meanwhile, your character’s personality and decisions get subordinated to the plot, which may undermine your involvement again. I feel this is slightly different to the usual tacit agreement that Plot in general happens around PCs, because that's more a case of opportunities occurring around them and players deciding what use to make of them.

On the flipside, if the plot relentlessly pursues the characters, they may become too important. If the PCs are not intrinsic to the plot, and their enemies have no special ability to track them down or no special interest in doing so, it can seem forced.** You can end up with a situation where everything revolves around the PCs, rather than events simply happening and PCs interacting with them, and that can undermine the verisimilitude of the scenario. This can again lead to disengagement with the scenario, because the PCs become so important that whatever they do, the plot will follow them around. Deliberately or not, that tends to invite faffing and doing things that are not really appropriate because you know the plot will accommodate you. Here, the plot gets enslaved to the characters.

** If you are just playing relatively ordinary people (be they adventurers or not) but just happen to stumble across machinations of the Sapphire Cult no matter where you go, it's going to start seeming weird unless the entire setting is based around the Sapphire Cult. What are you, the Famous Five?

Obviously, there are plenty of situations where plot should follow the characters: PCs who have overtly interfered with antagonist activities and are known to be a threat, or who have something that someone wants. In some of situations, it’s appropriate for the terror to be something inescapable, either because that is the whole point, or even because the PCs are intrinsic to the plot. For example, anything involving curses, bloodlines or possession; PCs who’ve read the Revelations of Glaaki, manipulated the Shining Trapezahedron, spoken the name three times, or attracted the attention of the Hounds of Tindalos. If they have acquired certain artefacts or knowledge, they become targets. And of course, you could be playing a game where the PCs are explicitly really important for some reason and everything is all about them. But that's unusual.

Letting things lie

The last pair of options is hands-off. The PCs have given up on the story, either because they just ran out of leads, because they’re injured or in prison or otherwise unable to continue, or because one way or another they’re too scared to carry on.

End of Book One

Firstly, you can accept that as a legitimate end to that particular chapter. Leave the PCs alone to nurse their injured bodies and minds, and (maybe after a break) follow up with a sequel, dealing with the fallout from the situation as it stands, using different PCs. It might be days later, or even overlap the previous scenario if you're all feeling creative. On the other hand, it might be decades or even centuries later. It might take place on a different continent. The previous party might appear as NPCs, or leave cryptic diaries, or artefacts in a Swiss bank vault; they might even be subjects of rumour and myth for the new party to filter for truth.

This has the advantage of supporting and validating the players’ actions, decisions and choices, without insisting that they follow a predetermined plotline. It should encourage roleplaying and be beneficial to the group as a whole (in a nebulous way). You also get to indulge your creativity in seeing how the situation as it stands would progress over time - this could be a lot of fun if you're riffing on a published scenario, but may be a pain if you lovingly wrote it yourself. The players get to see the scenario from a new angle, with the benefit of whatever experience they’ve picked up so far. The adversaries' early success may help inspire both players and PCs to foil them this time.

They can also use their existing knowledge to build PCs that are more appropriate to the scenario, which can be a particular help if it featured problems that the PCs were unsuited to in stats or in fluff. There's no reason a priest can't partake in a crime-heavy scenario, but if you want that character to stay on the level, a swap is a good idea. Ideally a GM will have forseen major mechanical issues, but they aren't always obvious. Depending on the game in question, they might also re-equip to deal with specific threats, or even recruit some hirelings with skills that will help them overcome particular problems. Particularly if an enemy isn't really aware of who they are, the party may be able to set plans in motion to deal with them more indirectly. In a range of games potentially including Call of Cthulhu, they might actually be able to hire assassins to take out an enemy. More subtly, there could be financial or legal machinations that would hamper the antagonists and leave them vulnerable; getting the temple condemned and closed for Health and Safety reasons could set them back for months.

A disadvantage here is that some of the work you’ve done preparing the scenario and creating interesting events may be wasted, if you can’t use it in the sequel. You might run out of new and interesting sinister happenings, or original ways for the antagonist to cause trouble - though to be honest, rehashing the same tactics is fairly likely, especially if they worked before. You might even have to give up on the plot itself, and develop a new one that can evolve from the situation as it stands. Nobody likes to give up on a good story, and that might apply as much to the players as to the GM. They may find they're less sold on the new incarnation of the plot than on the original one.

The Ones That Got Away

Finally, you could stop the scenario right there. The end. Your Investigators have come, they have meddled in things of which man was not meant to know, and they have recoiled in horror. Or, depending on the reason for dropping the investigation, they have found a mystery, been disturbed and baffled by a series of horrific and inexplicable events, and never found the truth behind them. Either of those can actually be a good, satisfying ending. They could also be frustrating for everyone involved, because the Keeper's work on the plot is wasted (unless you can reuse it) and the players don't get to see what would have happened or the pleasure of solving the mystery. For world-spanning conspiracies or doomsday scenarios, it may also be unsatisfying that nobody else tries to intervene.

In other genres, the party might realise that they are not powerful enough to defeat the Iron Queen, and scatter to spread tales of her terrible might, leaving the burning town behind them. The scouting ship may settle for escaping the weird planet rather than resolving any of its weirdness, having seen the cost of trying. In a social game this may be more problematic, depending on the nature of the original plot, because you're likely to keep dealing with the same characters; however, it's still possible for the antagonists to stage a coup, destroy an ally of the party or otherwise wreak irreperable havoc, without ending the whole campaign.

Next and last, I'll briefly (he lies) look at why resuming the scenario might not be the best option.

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