Advice from Experienced GM Needed


Sovereign Court

3 people marked this as a favorite.

Advice from Experienced GM Needed, Please:

Background: 30+ yrs. GM. Having a complex issue designing story threads such that they play with obvious path for players to follow. Sandbox style for so many years, I want to create a compelling story without wracking my brain with 10 possible directions the party can go in after every segment of the game. After years of NON-railroading, I need your advice on how to railroad and get the players on board without overt coercion/railroading [Non-GMs, please cover your ears ;)]

Problem: I want to run my homebrew games more fluidly in an evening's session, getting through several different locales, and having more flowing story content, possibly toward completion of some story threads within an evening's session (approx. 4-5 hrs.). (Similar in some ways to Pathfinder Society Games, but without the overt coercion/railroading.) My current immersive sandbox style causes me too much prep-time (I prep 3-4+ possible storylines for each session currently.)

Question: Is there a GM out there with years of experience running homebrew worlds of extreme immersive complexity, and choice options for players who can advise me with specific techniques to keep my games more coherent, on a track, more modular, and faster paced? [James Jacobs and Sean K Reynolds - I will be looking to ask you this at GENCON.] In fact, perhaps other GMs here on the messageboards can help me craft a more succinct question, as the issues I'm having elude me: I'm feeling like I'm too immersive, too detailed, and the prep time is too lengthy. [Edit: this is not an issue of GM-grandstanding i.e. I don't overwhelm players with detail for my own glory. My games are very player focused, and I am not the cause of slow down, if anything, my background prep for many areas is wasted including my time.] I am even open to hearing about any module design structure templates GMs may be using to keep ideas on a rail-track, rather than feel the burden of prepping all things for all people.

Thanks for any input,

Well, I do have a lot of experience being the GM, but I'm not sure I would classify myself as good yet. I run more of what you would call sandbox games usually, in that I don't bother coercing my players into a plotline, but rather let them do what they want while making sure their actions have consequences. I spend all my prep time on setting building (or reading if I am running a published world) and encounter building. I do simply open a bestiary and flip through until I find something to attack the players with with some regularity. I think of it as a consequence of letting them have free will. I also try to plan encounters of APL +3 out for more interesting fights and look for ways to fit them into the narrative. Planning them at APL +3 gives me time to fit them in as they will still be relevant for 3 or 4 levels. I wait until I know who the characters are before I start writing a main campaign plot. It doesn't always pan out and I have had more than a few campaigns go nowhere and end quickly, but when it has my players have really enjoyed it. Just some rambling trying to be helpful from someone who runs in a style similar to yours.

I vary how I run games. Sometimes I start with a simple module where the players can express their characters and I can assess which sort of story they will enjoy. Other times I have a grand plan or scheme which will form a background to whatever the players do.

Whichever method I'm using, I have a complete feel for pretty much everything that is going on in my world - setting, so the players have a reasonable choice of things to do.

Every plot line, encounter or npc I ever made but wasn't used (along with ones previously used but not by those players) form a bank of stuff to be incorporated in the current adventure, so prep work gets easier every year. This is one of the key basics - don't keep prepping new stuff, there isn't time. Re-use and recycle.

And I've always been good at inventing encounters on the fly. Many of my best campaigns have developed out of things the players have talked about while discussing what they thought was going on, and I simply stole their ideas where they were better than mine. This is not unusual, many GMs do this.

The easiest way to get players to follow a particular plot is to build it into their backgrounds. If the BBEG killed the player's parents, they are more likely to try to kill him.

When designing the campaign, start with the end goal of it all. What is at stake, who pushes in what direction, and why. Then work backward through the campaign and choose what needs to go where. Try to divide it into reasonable chunks of plot, and establish the hooks that will lead them where. For each scenario, the most common structure is * something happens -> * the heroes research why -> * eventually they find the cause and need to deal with it. Railroading is easier if you allow the players more freedom in the research phase. Design encounters for them to handle - but make these flexible enough to be able to insert them in different places. At its core, railroading effectively is about giving them the choice between two different doors and having the same thing behind both. The next thing you must do is add in a few band aids. A band aid is something that allows the heroes to get back on the railroad. If they have lost their way in a murder mystery, an encounter with a wounded city guard can tell them how he was surprised by a group of harpies, and look, they went that way... If you need them to figure something out, put out three or more hints at varying levels of difficulty, or they WILL get stuck. Also remember to add in the various character background plots into your story. In general, though, you need players that don't mind a railroad, or it isn't going to work. It's a slightly different sort of "contract" between the players and the GM.

First of all, askn your players if this change in direction works for them. If they are enjoying the sandboxyness and don't want to change, but you do that's a big problem in itself to deal with.

Railroading depends largely on you making hooks your player fish want to bite on. Oh noes the town of Derpville is in impending danger of a dragon so you better get there quickly! Etc. It usually depends on the malleability and cooperation of players too. Knowing a hook when they see it and even if their chars might do something else, they follow the hook because its still a game and they want to move the narrative of the story.

As was mentioned starting backwards with an idea and filling in points between A and Z as you go is a smart method. Even with this don't get too detailed or rail heavy unless your group really is comfortable following along set tracks. As has been said on here before though: some players don't care if they're on a train so long as it leads to funville. Find out your players' tolerance level for railroading.

Scarab Sages

I've found that writing adventure or session plans as a series of discrete events, scenes or challenges offers the most flexibility, particularly if you don't focus too heavily on how the players might progress from one to another.

Keep each scene on it's own piece of paper (or index cards if you can keep them brief enough), and a note to provide an approximate order of events. If the players jump around then it's far less hassle to find the appropriate scene to run next than in a book.

Don't be afraid to assume a logical order for your scenes, and to have a natural progression between them. For example, one scene might be a rescue of a man being mugged, so it's logical to assume that the next scene to occur will be them escorting him home and learning more about why he was attacked. If the players chose another path, such as mugging him themselves, then maybe they find the plot crucical information on his body instead.

Another point is don't look for too many specifics, sure it might make sense that you need to placacte the rich noble with Diplomacy, but what about if they use Bluff to trick him, or Appraise to show him that they value his sense of taste? Whatever the methods used, overcoming a specific challenge in a scene should lead to the same outcome as much as possible, so as to provide better coherence to the story.

Finally, don't overprepare! An adventure should take no more time to prepare than it does to run. If you find yourself sketching elaborate dungeon maps, or writing scores of background, ask yourself, who'se going to see it? Unless it's relevant to the plot or story, leave it out and wing it if it becomes relevant unexpectedly. Heck, even let the players answer their own questions on occasion by giving them the details that they've asked for, such as small items or trinkets

This is a very helpful thread for me as I too play very sandboxy and my players need a bit more direction than that
Generally I'm dming for two or three people, but they don't really progress very much because they get hung up on little things
I plan on doing a campaign in the far future of a few months to a year so I have time to get the story written a bit
I really do think the tips here are great and I would love to see more

I was pondering the idea of having a thread for DM's to post ideas and such and ask for input and thing like that, or maybe ask for minor help like filling out character descriptions or thing like that

My players love when I dm, but a lot of the time my "big idea" campaigns end up rushed and I give up on them due to player scheduling and/or my inability to get the characters to follow a storyline.

I will say I'm not an amazing dm, but I try hard and it works sometimes.about a year back I ran a game with one player using a guild wars style companion system, where I role played the companions. It went really well and the small storyline (lvl 1-7) was vey easy for the character to follow and pretty interesting

For sandboxy DMs I can recommend letting you mind do most of the work
Get a basic idea of the encounters and when they will occur, and then stop
Drawing out every tree on the map is time consuming, and often times it's more fun to just make up SOME stuff as you go

For major plot stuff, it might be worth it to invest he time in writing down the details of the gold and silver light shining from what you can only presume to be a treasure room, and the startled expression the rogues face twists into when he realizes it's a pair of lightly dozing dragons coiled around each other in the center of a lavishly furnished room

I know that last thing wasn't great but descriptions and details can add a lot to your players immersion in the game, and it's satisfying to see the awe-filled expressions on their faces as you read it out to them.

Sovereign Court

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Bad railroading tends to be a lot about "pushing". Go to X, because it's no longer nice to stay here. Don't go to Y, there's something nasty at Y. Y pushes you away.

Better railroading is all about pulling. You want to find treasure? Well, the townsfolk have stories about a ruined castle over at X...

To pull people effectively, you gotta know what they want. Then just leave a trail that promises to satisfy their desires, in the direction you want them to go.

There's two ways to get to know what people want. One is to ask them; "what do your characters want to achieve?" - and then make that the goal/hook for the adventure.

The other one is to start with the goal, and ask the players to make characters that want that goal. "You'll all be playing treasure-hunting adventurers, but I want you to think about WHY you want treasure. Is it to ransom your father from jail, to start a bar, to fund arcane studies, to give to the poor...?"

Once you know their goals, it's much easier to keep them on track. Just leave clues that whatever they desire is somewhere you want them to go. If they want revenge on a bad guy, then helping out a sage who can give them intel on that bad guy is an interesting quest. No more whining about being railroaded, because the railroad is actually going where the PCs want to go.

Sometimes that may mean having to alter your adventure; if you can't figure out why the PCs would want to go there, it's back to the drawing board. There's plenty of ways to trick people into going on a quest that's not to their benefit. The thing is to make them believe the quest IS relevant to their interests.

So if the orc-hunting PCs are not interested in helping the town wizard find cockatrice feathers, let the wizard offer them clues to an orcbane sword. Suddenly the adventure feels like a good deal to them.

Make clear and simple goals : kill X at Y for reward $. Have the BBEG be more evil than usual : take PC family hostage. Dont be afraid to use coertion vs PC : enchantment, intelligent items taking over, geas. Limit their options: describe only what you want them to see / do. Be pissed when they go on their own.

In short be my last GM. G. G. McController. Personnally, use the best gm tool avail: description of where you want them to go, let them Players believe its their idea. Be a manipulator.

i have an idea of the beginning of the campaign, but no real end of it and that is where my adventures become kinda..meh
i tend to write out a few sessions and then end up rushing plot hooks that iv'e thought about without throwing in any in-between generic adventury stuff

i'm also one to use a graph-paper approach to creating encounters so it can take me days to write down the stuff for a single session, if not more.

i also have issues calculating a reaction without seeing the characters and players in action ahead of time, so maybe i play some generic random quest adventures to get a feel of the characters.

another thing i thought about using was a trait-reward kinda system, where characters gain bonuses over time for reacting certain ways to certain events and such. at first level if you are the first to charge into the tavern brawl and come out victorious, you may gain a +1 damage to unarmed attacks. if you rush to stop it you may gain a +1 to diplomacy to avoid conflicts or something like that. i feel like it rewards players for role-playing their characters and it can be used throughout the entire game, scaling as the adventure gets into later levels.

as for getting the players to follow the story
as stated above, a character(unless they're a fully lawful good party or something ridiculous like that) wont follow paths that don't lead to their goals and ambitions. so being able to mix things up on the spot based on your characters is great, and sandboxy games give you a lot of practice with it

Another tip: Check their character sheets. They always hold clues as to what the players want. If they have lots of non-combat stuff, extra clothes, a drawn image etc, chances are they want to roleplay. If massive amounts of numbers and modifiers in various tables, odd weapons, special cases, lots of combat spells, you have someone aiming for kill XP. If backstory is several pages, give him intrigue and plots. And so on. Narrative gaming is all about GIVING THEM WHAT THEY WANT. You can go so far as to break the session time down by player.

BTW if your having any newer players, MAKE SURE they know that they can come to you for any help or anything they need.

a lot of the times starting your first character is like trying to fly a submarine, blind folded, with both arms tied behind your back

its just too much to take it at once without the support of other players and the DM.

Also, if your having trouble with combat taking up too much time of the sessions or something like that, online dice rollers and stuff can speed that up tremendously, and make sure that you know how your creatures would react, so you don't have to figure it out during combat

My suggestion (and I'm not even the best GM I know) is to be open with your players. 'Folks, we've been playing a lot of freestyle for a while with no particular plotline. I'd like to try something different where there will be more major plotlines running through the campaign. You'll still get to choose what you want to do, but it will be less disjointed. In fact, sometimes clues will stray from one plotline to another...'

I like to let my players have lots of options for a while to find themselves and gel as a group. Once they establish an identity (are they about protecting the innocent? Are they about money? Are they about fulfilling a political goal?), you can incorporate that into a series of plotlines, some lesser and some greater. Continue to give them choices (even if those choices narrow as more information is gleaned), but let some of the lesser plotlines (not all, or the railroad might be too obvious) tie into the bigger one. Also, have mini-arcs cross their paths (e.g. someone from their past, etc.) on a regular basis so the campaign doesn't seem so linear - even if it is.

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Oh, it is also important to listen to your players during play. See what they discuss, and if it sounds like they might want to deal with something, plan for inserting that soon enough. You don't need to improvise as much as with a sandbox, but you can still put things into NEXT session. Also, insert change-of-pace episodes and character-focused episodes. Think of it as more of a TV series.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

ascalphus' advice about pulling (vs. pushing) is good. baiting characters with things they want is generally pretty effective.

and, never underestimate the power of a good recurring villain- whether they've met him/her/it or just it's lackeys, if you can craft a nemesis the players really dislike you can lead/direct them quite a bit by pulling (and even pushing) with opportunities to thwart its plans, pursue revenge, and/or evade its ambushes.

also, if you can identify something that all the players really want (or need) you can lock them into a long term 'rail' by setting up something with elaborate specific conditions.... there's an ancient dungeon in the center of the city that 'everyone knows' contains [the thing all the PCs want/need, or the means to get it] but in order to enter it you have to retrieve the [number] [nouns] of [noun], unfortunately after [amount of time] they fade away/return to origin/whatever (that way they're locked in to those however many adventures pretty much back to back); or, their archenemy has gotten its hands on [terrible thing] and can't possibly be beaten, unless they visit the [number] shrines of [noun] in some specific order and thus become immune to the [terrible thing] for [some period of time]; or, an overwhelming army of [something bad] marches toward [the city in which all the PCs friends/loved ones reside], the only hope people have is the ancient legends of the [some kind of magical city-wide defense] and research tells that if the [magic things] at the [number] security checkpoints around the region are all activated in time the [magical city-wide defenses] will save everyone...

Pax Veritas, in this case I would start with an adventure set-up that is fairly linear. It sounds like you'll have a lot of sandbox elements to it, if I'm reading correctly you'd like to encourage players to play in a preplanned section of the sandbox in a given session. I usually design encounters like a 1980s videogame, with encounters, mini-bosses, and level bosses. I like to have a lot going on in the background (if the PCs are infiltrating a criminal organization or villain's lair some of the henchmen will be double agents working for other villains or major NPCs and actions will affect future storylines). You could let your players know the basic premise of next week's session a week in advance, and ask each for one story element they'd like to see. That keeps a sandbox element and a fair amount of player influence on the story, but hopefully keeps prep time manageable.

Pathfinder Lost Omens Subscriber

if the players generally don't try to bite off intriguing story hooks the best way is to have something happen directly to the party or group. Have them witness something which makes something powerful want them dead. have a thief steal some valuable possession such as a magic item. put things in that will really make the character/player not want to ignore it. make it personal, make it so the player has a stake in the outcome.

I generally deal with people who as players could care less about NPCs, and as such ignore most problems or story hooks(what? an evil army is invading? time to move south). so, they can still do whatever they want, but something is driving the story towards them or pulling them toward some point, they still approach it how they want, but ultimately their drawn to a very specific place in the story.

My players don’t tend to enjoy real sandbox style play. Unless there is a clear goal, I tend to get a lot of “what am I doing? Why am I even here?” Being “adventurers” and just “adventuring” has never made much sense. So my style of railroading has been to make sure the PCs are part of some larger society or organization.

In my favorite longest running homebrew, the PCs were members of a human empire’s legion. They were part of a special unit that was sent on special missions. At low levels this meant reconnaissance, special guard duties, etc. As they gained power, they became more involved in politics, were given more freedom, and eventually led factions of their own against enemies of the empire.

Other groups have been free-mercenary units (like the Black Company), exploration and study teams sent to explore strange lands (Stargate-ish), or scholars from a university (Congo). While this may not seem like a railroad, having everyone start with the idea of being part of a larger goal or organization will make your plot hooks more attractive (if they would be of interest to that group). A rebellion has erupted in a frontier town? The special military unit probably wouldn’t need to be asked to investigate. The paid for hire mercenaries might decide to sit back. The scholars would most likely leave that to others to handle.

Once I know the type of group I’m working with then I plan a rough outline of the campaign, but I don’t plan details much further than 2 or 3 levels above where they are at. I’ve still been thrown by some of the groups decisions. For example, I thought the group would join a movement to lead a section of the empires citizens to safety and kinda had a big arc planned on how they would do it. Instead, they decided they’d rather die than give up territory to the enemy. That may sound minor but it was like rewriting 12 encounters.

Alright, the post designed for me!

I was a storyteller (local/regional/national) for the Camarilla for near a decade. If you are not familiar it is a global spanning game in the World of Darkness franchise that is more open ended and chaotic than any DnD game can ever wish to be.

I would highly suggest looking into game design techniques used in video games. They constantly face this same issue. You don't want to force a player down one path but you can't program for every possibility. The most important part is to give the players a clear plan of action, but leave details of accomplishing in their control. People want to feel in control and will abandon something when they feel "caged". The trick is to place some limit on the control to make the end points more predictable.

Here are some of the best tips I can offer without knowing the details of your game:

1) Make it Personal Make a quest tied to the most important things to the characters. Could be money, background, or goals. The more you can tie it to them and make it personal the more they will stick to it.

2) Outside Drivers Have an group, single or chain of NPCs who dictate the character goals. For example an NPC who wants them to find a specific artifact but all they know is some minor person who has heard rumors. You can string an extremely long to-do list in the middle spanning dozens or more games to get to the end goal. Since they have a single focused goal you can create events that logically flow into the next.

3) Illusion of Control When facing a specific challenge or obstacle present multiple ways of solving the challenge. Perhaps a strait-forward attack, a stealthy infiltration, and a negotiation option. An NPC might even suggest these options to the players. This let's players pick their approach but all approaches end at the same spot which let's you control how that event connects to the next one. Make sure that you've sketched a few ideas for challenges for each of the options so none are too easy. Some options might even share a few challenges in common.

4) Place Logical Blockades Place obstacles that are typically unpassable (but make sense) unless the PCs get help from an Outside Driver (see above) like a specific NPC. Legal things are great for this. Make a trade route require a passport, or place a city under martial law. Only one person has the right friends and contacts to get the PCs past this problem. This shouldn't be the only thing that connects them to the NPC or they will abandon him one past the blockade. It needs to be something ongoing and tied to the reasons in number 1 above.

5) Core Enemies Have two types of main enemies. One is defeatable/killable and is the typical baddie as we think of it. The other which I call "Core" is the type you can only drive them away at best. This includes nobles/royals, hidden masterminds, and types who have a habit of always coming back. These enemies you can defeat their plots and their minions but never the enemy themselves, or at least not permanently. This creates important enemies to come back and create more plots later. With these NPCs the players are already invested and will naturally return to. You see this a lot with supervillians in comic books. (Though hopefully yours are less cheesy)

6) Chain Events Chaining events is making one quest flow into the next. You can have the players follow up on the next obvious step. Once the players have the artifact, what next? Perhaps no one know how to use it. But we've got an entire new quest to learn that. After that we need to actually use the artifact and we learn its to defeat a rival. So we have a quest to find a way to learn about the rival, and another to actually do the deed. Each of these steps can be full of fights, detective work, negotiations, traveling between towns, defeating puzzles, and many game sessions. You can have entire quests required to complete each step and make it a deep and complex adventure.

7) Fixes Create Problems All of Life is one interwoven story. As you solve one problem you create five more. The endings we see in movies aren't real, there is no perfect solution. As the players are working through a quest put in some important events they need to accomplish that are guaranteed to cause more issues later. This let's one quest spawn a new quest later down the road, completely in your control.

* When you infiltrate that palace, who does the king blaim? Whoops, he mistakenly thought it was a rival kingdom and later he starts a war.
* You awoke the ancient spirit to learn of the artifact, but you didn't realize he's free now and the "good" spirit has taken forcing people to obey his strict view of good and evil, against their will.
* The Orc boss you killed to get a secret scroll he had, was the only one holding the tribes together and they fall into a civil war that spills over into nearby lands.

If your players are responsible, they may clean up their own messes. If not, NPCs can hold them accountable. Now that the spirit is controlling people you can't find the important thing you need for a later step in your quest.

8) Friend turned Foe People stick to revenge like crazy. If it turns out the Crucial NPC was playing them for fools and ruins the PCs they will hunt him to the end of the earth. The goal doesn't get more personal than that. Keep in mind, the more the PCs do for him before he turns, the more driven they will be. Get the PCs as deeply involved as possible over tons and tons of sessions. You can also present the rival (who we now know as the real victim) to help them. This new NPC acts as an additional outside force to control PC direction. The trick to making an NPC seem good is to make him a victim of another person or event. You can also tie helping the NPC to helping other people and the characters goals. People don't believe helping an NPC is against them if helping them clearly helps everyone else get out of a bad situation. And don't make them "obviously" evil. Most people believe their goals are really for the best even people not everyone may agree and that ends justify the means. Just keep those means secret. ;)

Sovereign Court

I am actively reading this thread and considering all the suggestions carefully. Just wan folks to know I appreciate the input and look forward to more if possible.


Grand Lodge

I have been running a campaign now for twenty three years and have recently had to make some adjustments along the lines you speak of. My players all tend to enjoy roleplay more than rolling the dice and, in the past, I have even had situations where after setting the scene I could have left the room and not returned for several hours whilst they roleplayed amongst themselves. Now we are getting older, the available time for playing has become more limited and we have adopted the format of a weekend game every few months. Last year, a few of my players asked if I could speed things up a bit plot-wise. It wasn't something they blamed me for, after all this was their style of play, but as the GM I was in the best position to force things to move faster. We agreed that as a target, something significant (beyond roleplay) had to be achieved each weekend. So far, this has worked well, although I am still adjusting things and may well adopt some ideas from this thread.

I am in the fortunate position of having most of the campaign's major NPCs and areas already detailed, so I can react pretty quickly to changes of direction within a single session. To help this along however, I do ask at the end of a session what the group intends to do next (and will remind them what they said next time if necessary, although I would never force them to carry something through against their wishes).

I still have my major plot themes running: the overall campaign one and the long-term goals; but have set the next level down as small bite-sized scenarios aimed at working towards the long-term goals. Failing at something might set the group back, but won't generally completely mess up a longer-term goal, so railroading becomes slightly less important. I can also throw in side-adventures that have nothing to do with the main event (unless it seems to fit later of course...).

I would definitely discourage preparing lots of different things in detail. Better to concentrate on having a drawer-full of background info that can be used to ad-lib whilst the party is cajoled back to the prepared adventure. Never force them back, but usually treading-water in an ad-lib bit, whilst employing some of the "pull" tactics described elsewhere in this thread will work. If it doesn't, prepare another sub-plot adventure for the next session. You win some you lose some, and it is a good bet that there will be opportunity to throw them back at the "de-railed" adventure a few weeks later on.

A reasonably easy tactic for railroading, which may well prompt less resistance than others, is to get an idea what the group wants (e.g. an alliance with a nearby NPC lord), and then offer the means of achieving that via an unrelated adventure. Another NPC has the contacts to set up a meeting with the lord, or maybe has information on something which could be used to bargain with him, but first the group must carry out this little task.....

My biggest advantage is that the players know what I am trying to achieve, as they requested the change in the first place, and I have talked it through with them. As a group, we review progress after or between sessions too, so I keep getting feedback. Others here have said it, and I will echo it: communicate with the players and make sure that they are on board with changes. Some of the best advice on how to do this may well come from them.

As a key note about modularity Pax. The game breaks down as follows:

Adventure The entire game.
Quest Each overarching plot that establishes the current driving goal of the party. The Adventure is a series of Quests.
Step Each quest is composed of multiple steps to reach the intended goal. A step is usually completed in one or two game sessions.
Path One way the players can approach gets past the step. Sometimes there might only be one but ideally their is a few different paths available. Perhaps a strait-forward attack, a stealthy infiltration, and a negotiation option. All paths should have the same end even if the way to get there is different.
Challenge The obstacles encountered for each path, possibly fights, diplomacy, puzzles, or anything that requires player interaction to overcome.

This way, you only need to plan out a few things:

* You need to know the goal of the current quest and possibly the goal of the next (if they are chained). Even if you know the next quest, you don't need to tell your players unless it relevant. Each should be a single sentence.
Ex: Current, find the artifact. Next, learn how to use the artifact.

* In the current quest you need to know the current step and at least the next step if not two or three or an entire series to complete the current quest. Each should be a single sentence.
Current, find obtain the lost manuscript that describes the artifact's location.
Next, Translate the ancient language from the manuscript.
Next, Recover the ancient maps from the Orc Leader's hoard that show the location described in the manuscript.
Next, get into the enchanted forest protected by an ancient curse.
Next, infiltrate with lost civilization sealed in the forest so they don't know you are an outsider.
Next, Retrieve the artifact from the temple protected by the ancient spirit.
Next, Escape the city now chasing the "intruders".

* You need to know the Paths players might take to overcome the current Step and the paths for the next Step (after they overcome the current one). You don't need the paths for every step so you can adjust steps and paths as you go along to fit what the players are doing. But knowing the paths for next Step let's you adjust to make the flow more natural. And if you are short on time to prep one week, half the work is already done.
Path 1, the NPC tells you there are a few rumors that might help. The old bookbinder has a manuscript that describes the artifact but he's tight lipped. Perhaps his son who has been arrested might provide a way to get him to talk.
Path 2, there are frequently ancient books sold on the black market of the city. The master of the thieves guild is know to collect information on ancient treasures. He's quite a collector but you need a way in. Their is a pickpocket who is on bad terms with the guild and might help for a price.
Secret Path 3, Players may realize there is another option (but you can plan for it!). They can also watch the thieves guild directly and try to infiltrate or attack their way in.

* You need a rough idea of the obstacles the players will encounter for each of the paths above. You can tell from my wording that several of the obstacles are pretty obvious. You don't need to worry to much about the next step, having the paths is sufficient detail. Obstacles only matter for the current game so you aren't stuck for "what's next?". You don't need NPC sheets for the paths (though some generic ones are good to have on hand you can quickly adjust). Only thing they are guaranteed to have to deal with (The thief guildmaster who had the book stolen from the bookbinder) are important. As you see all three options all lead to the same place but via different routes. Using different skills and tactics for the same goal.

* Lastly, a quick list of any threads left hanging from "Fixes Create Problems" and a list of "Core NPCs" the player have dealt with. This give you a quick list of ideas to pull from in the future for events and plots.

Sovereign Court

The PCs' motivation is crucial. Why are they adventuring? If you know the answer to that question, you can craft adventure hooks that they'll be certain to bite on. If you don't, there'll be awkward moments...

Fortunately, we're mature happy people, all out to have a fun time. So you can just straight up ask the players, "what does your character want?". (Bonus question in intrigueish games: "why can't he just have that?")

Ask the question regularly. Maybe at the beginning the answers will be crude; "treasure" or even blander "XP". But after a while the answers might become more varied; "still treasure, but also I want to take down that ^#%^#^*$%^^%$^& BBEG that's gotten away from us before, and I want to become chieftain of that tribe we spent time with, because I'm way more qualified than their current chieftain."

The best campaign I played in started with out just basically being junior adventurers. At some point we got more focus though; we had a lot of cleric PCs and narrowed down on "taking down the false gods". Treasure and such were still a motivation of course, and we'd pursue such rumors, because treasure is nice. But our main goal was gathering infomation and finding ways to take down enemies WAY above our pay grade, because allowing a bunch of wizards/techies to pretend to be gods was just intolerable to us. When we finally threw Heaven into a volcano and burned the false gods and their resurrection machines down, that was the end of the campaign.

Lesson here: when the party adopts a Main Goal and achieves it, that may be the moment for a graceful end to the campaign.


Revenge is a great motivation. I'm talking when the players want revenge, not necessarily the PCs. It's amazing how powerful this motivation is. Particularly against bad guys who do the Three Horrible Things: humiliating the PCs (while following all the game rules, and staying within CR; fairly won humiliation is worse humiliation), getting away from the PCs and using the PCs.

Players hate (and love to hate) villains who get away from them. Taking down someone who's gotten away from you before is much sweeter than taking him down once without a hitch. (Although obviously, he has to get away the first time, which can be a sore point. If he gets away entirely within the rules, this works much better than when it reeks of GM fiat.)

If it turns out that some ally was really a villain all along, and used the PCs, that sort of thing really annoys players. Arguably it's just an example of humiliation, but it's an important one. Players will often want to settle that account.


Don't be afraid to challenge the players to make motivated PCs. Sometimes players make unmotivated PCs. They're basically sitting there, waiting for the GM to push them around. Those PCs are frustrating to GMs, because they're hard to hook on a plot.

On the other hand, sometimes players make PCs that go off on their own, pursuing motivations the player came up with. If the GM isn't prepared for that, the player will feel stymied.

The best is somewhere in the middle. Players make motivated PCs, and tell the GM about those motivations. The GM can take it into account when baiting adventure hooks, so that those will actually draw the PCs in. In addition, if a PC sees an (unintentional) hook to pursue his motivations, at least the GM has a clue why the PC is going in that direction.

This last point is important. Sometimes a player will make a neat motivated PC, but the GM just doesn't know what the player is looking for. So the PC is trying all sorts of things, but the GM isn't responding. For example, a PC seeks romance, but the GM hasn't actually included possible romantic interests. The player is looking for an NPC to "catch the eye of his PC" but no such NPC walks on stage, ever. So this PC motivation is going nowhere.

So that's why talking openly with your players is good. It lets you find out what kind of things the players might be interested in. If a player made a PC with little motivation at all (it happens quite a lot), then you can call him on that and ask him to spice it up a bit; to actually add a motivation of some sort.


A key issue in planning ahead: sessions. Between every two game sessions, you have a lot (relatively) of time to reconsider and revise your plans. You don't need to prepare all scenes of the adventure in advance; you just need a vague idea of the ultimate endpoint, and enough scenes to cover today's session.

You have an idea of how the next session will get people closer to the climax, but if the stuff people do today changes all of that, no problem. You can just make up new stuff.

This thread has many great ideas for how to create a guided narrative but they miss one thing; metagaming.

I run railroad game and my players know it. They follow the clue I give them because they know that is where the adventure is. As a DM I have an obligation to provide a hook the PCs will not reject out of hand and the players have an obligation to follow the hook. For example I am not going to use "the town will be burned" with pure merc PCs. If all the PCs worship Pharasma then the everything will relate to that and they will not get an old many joins you in the tavern cliche.

I am just starting skull ans shackles and I flat out told them that they must all have a burning hatred of cheliax. They are also all evil and have embraced it as a philosophy. With those two points I can tailor the AP to pull them along to the conclusion.

The main thing I avoid is telling them how to do something since I dictate the what of the whole thing. Sometimes this can allow then to skip several things or have to deal with things I did not prepare. My players are cool with "Guys this is far outside the scope i need a week to prepare." They know that the game will be far better that way. It turns their auto win (boring) into a challenge equal to what they skip and they get greater narrative rewards. Besides settlers of cattan can fill up a week when things are not planned out.

As long as they have the freedom of how then are fine with giving up the freedom of what.

I have been running several stream-lined campaigns for years now. I don't like to think of it as a rail-road, because that makes me think I am forcing my players down 1 path. Part of my style has come from knowing my players, I give them a little information and I know what they are likely to do.

First, I want to say there is a way to have something that feels and looks like a sandbox, but has a very set number of options and directions.

One way to do this is have several different points that the party needs to go. (You have three items you need to retrieve, and will need to research where they are or talk to a guy or blah blah blah). Each of these 3 places points to the other 2. That way, no matter where they go (you control what leads they get) will eventually get them where you want them to go.

Another way to do this is to set up several options. They need to convince one of several nobles to lend aid to the king. They only have a certain amount of time to do it. The way they do it is to persuade his aides. You can spend a little time on each noble, but his advisors are the same no matter what noble you go to. That way you give an illusion of choice. And there are some differences in how they deal with the noble, but the bulk of your planning time is still used effectively.

Being able to GM with a pre-set plan is really group dependant. If your group is combative and doesn't want to fallow the path before them, you will have a hard time with this. If the party just wants to pick something random, you are going to be kind of out of luck.

Additionally, I try and come up with 3 potential paths to the end point I want. I have an idea for where I want the party to go. I have an NPC provide the information and direction the party needs (a failed assassin, a messenger from a trusted ally, a cryptic note). If your party is pretty normal they will want to look into this stuff. There are only a few ways they can go about this. (1) they ask around - this points them where you want them to go, they get a little extra info. (2) they bust in to the place and take the direct route. (3) they wander off somewhere else - this leads them to a brief encounter that redirects them towards where they should go if they accidentally went the wrong way.

And you basically apply that principle to all parts of your game. Give options, allow the players to have meaningful choice, let their decisions have an impact (NPC's live or die, they get some kind of reward or detriment, they must move when they didn't expect it). That is really what the players want. They don't need a sandbox, just for their choices to matter. You need to be able to improvise and let you plan change and alter to fit the situation, but I think the more streamlined adventure with plot points is a much more enjoyable campaign than a sandbox or a rail-road style campaign.

I usually plot out when the characters will gain levels, plot out the big events, put in the NPC's that they will interact with, and what the stakes they are working with are.

Mechanics aside, the most important thing that you can do to make your job easier is to know your villain. If you know what your villain wants, and why he wants it, then you can tailor everything to work. If the villain has a plan, then the road to the villain becomes a lot more straightforward. And once the players have a feel for what they are trying to get and what they can lose, then you are good to go.

Campaign structure:
Act 1: (levels 1-5/6) Establish what is going on in the world, introduce your NPC's, let them learn what the world is about for their characters. This is the part where you establish what there is to lose in the world and get them to care about the world you have made. You can first introduce the major villain at the end of this act.

Act 2: (5/6-9/10) This is where the players start to see things slipping away. They are dealing with more powerful foes and they must use the connections they have developed to try and overcome the villain. Things should start to be going bad. By the end of this act, things should end on a dour note. The players should have lost something, or it should seem that the villain is on the edge of victory.

Act 3: (9/10-end) The party now has a lead to victory. They have to go on their holy grail style quest, or attack the shield generator on endor, this is where the party has to make a bold move to get them into a position where they can defeat the villain who is on the verge of success.

Just put your plot points into that structure, fill in NPC's that make sense and motivate the characters, and the game should proceed very smoothly.

Sorry, I was kind of all over the place in this response. But I really like running story driven campaigns that take the characters through a journey. And I think my players really feel like they make a difference in the world and that their characters matter - the game would be different with different characters.

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Listen to your players for hints on where they would like to take things.
I use 4-5 different hooks for a single scenario to give the illusion of choice.

Silver Crusade

One thing I do right up front is an alignment check. This isn't "Paladin Lawful Stupid" stuff, but just a quick..."hey, are you guys all on the same side?" question. It's generally a good idea that Evil characters don't go adventuring around with Good characters. Unless you are specifically railroading to an end-game PvP type finale, I'd avoid mixing Good and Evil alignments.

1st - What do the players want to accomplish out of character. ie wanting to try mythic or a concept they've never tried before

2nd. - What do the players want to accomplish in character. ie kingdom building, business building, faith related goals.

3rd.- Their decisions matter for good or ill just be upfront about it

4th.-***********>obligatory south park reference<*************

5th.- Profit

The trick is to let your players decide their own fates, and you, as the GM, design the methods by which they do so. I've run a very immersive homebrew for over 20 years now, and while I design and run the adventures, I pay very close attention to what the individual players want for their characters. It's an absolute truth of gaming that if you run a non-railroading game the players are going to run willy nilly all over the place. Be flexible and be able to wing something on the spot if necessary, because no matter how cool your adventure idea is, someone's going to wander off the map. Cardinal Chunder has the right idea, and it's a trick I've used for years. You can actually nudge them in the direction you want them to go by making them think they decided it all on their own.

One of the biggest tricks for a 'linear' campaign that doesnt feel railroady is simply to remember you can change anything the players havent encountered. Want the players to run into the secret cabal down by the docks, but they decided to head to the warehouse district instead...guess what, they have a lair there too. The players still run into the secret cabal, but they didnt get forced into going to the docks, the goal you wanted for them is just also at the warehouses. Doing that sort of thing can work wonders for a gm that is trying to keep a free feel to the story, without having to literally prep the whole world for the free spirited and chaotic thing that is the lethal group of murder hobos also known as the 'heroes'.

The other thing that I find important is to have a theme for the adventure, and TELL your players about that theme. Eseentially do what paizo does in the players guides for their APs. Hey guys we are running a pirate game, please make characters insterested in being pirates. Or hey we are going to play a game in which the goal is to stop an incursion of evil outsiders through a whole in reality, make characters that would want to participate in that.

Its important as mentioned to make things personal, so that the hooks mean something to the characters, but you can also work the other way, and have the players make characters that match the kinds of hooks you have planned.

Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder First Edition / Advice / Advice from Experienced GM Needed All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.