Hello all, and welcome to another installment of “Off the Rails.” This column is dedicated to what a DM can do in those events where players trash their plans. Those times can create some of the most memorable moments in gameplay but they are hard to deal with too. Here I try to provide some advice on what a DM can do to push things forward when things go off the rails.
One thing I’ve had to deal with before is the problem of players acting with sudden violence in situations where I never dreamed they would. When the players insist on fighting in what you were hoping to be a nonviolent encounter, there are a few ways you can deal with it.
- Biting off more than they can chew.
This method comes into play when you want to discourage combat by making a seemingly easy encounter much harder than the players were ready for. A good way to do this is either give the target of the players’ violence resources that the players didn’t know about such as powerful magical items, hidden servants, or something of that sort, make the creature a shapeshifter that is in fact a much more powerful monster than the players expected, or give the creature stats that make it actually much harder than what they think, such as make a merchant caravan guard in fact a champion from Vollo’s guide to monsters, thus making it a much more powerful opponent. Unless it is essential to keep the target alive, I would advise against this tactic because it’s very ham-handed and it’s rather disrespectful to the choices players make. Also, unless the attack is brought on by supreme stupidity of the heroes, you should leave them a way out of the combat since the battle should be in Deadly territory or at the very least upper end hard for the party.
- Let the Wicked Prosper.
This tactic is basically a means to allow the players to commit the violence they intend in spite of the intention of the encounter, only to have it punish them later. One of my favorite moments was surrounding me employing this technique. The players had identified markings of lizardfolk territory and then had barged into it, despite knowing they were probably safe if they didn’t go that way. They had no reason to go that way, nor were lizardfolk bound up in the real enemies in this adventure. They entered the lizardfolk village and began slaughtering everyone in one of the biggest “what the hell Heroes?” moments I have ever seen. Not one to ruin their fun by forbidding this atrocity, I allowed it to happen. However, much later in the game, the heroes could’ve been set upon by a pack of lizardfolk revenants, seeking revenge for their own brutal killings. It was supposed to be a hard encounter but I don’t remember right now if I wound up using it or not. I think the players came close to where I had the revenants waiting, but they didn’t engage them.
- Shooting yourself in the foot.
Sometimes what needs doing means that someone has to stay alive. Unless you’ve got a giant party with pretty much every utility spell at your disposal, there’s always something your characters will not be able to do. If your players act with too much violence, they might actually make a part of an adventure, or perhaps the whole adventure, much more difficult or even impossible. I haven’t had to employ this one, but I have seen a published work really take advantage of this one.
In “Storm King’s Thunder,” there are multiple ways in which the party can acquire a conch of teleportation from a number of giant lords: one for each kind of giant. The cloud giant option plays this deterrent of violence perfectly. The countess Sansuri is an evil cloud giant wizard who keeps her conch in a secret chest. If the party kills her without getting the password to make it appear, they are completely stopped from getting the Conch here and they have to look elsewhere for one, effectively, with the exception of experience point, turning this pivotal point in the adventure into a complete waste of time. Though one could beat Sansuri until she is nearly dead and threaten it out of her, even so, there are more subtle, and far more effective ways to get it. As things stand in that little portion of the story, Sansuri’s a tough fight, and not something players ought to rush into, even if they plan on attacking her directly.
Either way, this’ll probably teach your players to keep the swords sheathed and the spells uncast.
- Powerful friends.
This is sort of a combination of methods 2 and 3. Villains, especially those of playable races, probably have connections in the wider world. Perhaps the merchant, who is trying to swindle the party on a deal, is friends with some nobles. If the adventurers use too much violence, resources could be brought against them. Also, either through bad judgment of character or deep affection and friendship or utility in spite of alignment, even if the players ruthlessly kill an evil npc, this doesn’t mean that the ones who will be coming after them will necessarily be evil. For great story purposes. Good obstacles can make for interesting drama. And the negative effects to the party don’t even have to be actual hostile intent towards them. Even simple withdrawal or refusal to aid can be enough, as long as you, as a DM, make it clear to your players that they’ve made things much harder for themselves.
I hope you liked this little jaunt into how to make sure your players are not a bunch of murdering hobos in your campaign. Of course, if you like a combat-heavy campaign that flows from fight to fight, that’s good too if your players are onboard. See you next time.
About the Author.
Zachary is one of the DMs for “Companions of the Perception check.” He loves classic lit and bad sci-fi and horror flicks. He also enjoys the company of his two rats and two dogs. Despite his advice for peace today, his general policy is “If it can’t be solved with prismatic spray, it’s not solvable.”