As a GM you know this at least theoretically, combats don’t go the way you expect or even don’t happen at all. The changing course of how people interpret information you give them is often seemingly bizarre. Players jump to one conclusion and are unwilling to give up on that idea. I’ve seen players do it time and again. This isn’t a bad thing, but what you do with it can be.
Going back to my Lepskin campaign, the plans I had initially come up with have taken quite a different path once the players have become involved. I have laid out a goal and some leads to acquiring it. They are well on their way to finding what they need, but lack the McGuffin to get to where they need to go. At the moment the B plot is rolling along swimmingly, but it’s the A plots that have gone astray. The players are rightfully poking holes in my setup for events and are drawing their own conclusions.
I’ve found having a plan for the campaign has provided a more consistent level of GMing from me than when I’m just going in without preparation at all. It allows me to fall back onto an idea I had and expand upon it to make a cool scene, or take the whole adventure on a different path. The work of it is getting the plan set up in the first place, and taking the players actions and reintegrating them into the original plan.
Having an end goal in mind allows you to steer the party in the direction you want to go and helps you find interesting moments. However, not having each and every thing planned out allows for players to make fascinating choices you’d never think of. (Go read here for more on this) Throughout a campaign you want to pepper a few of your B plot points in to allow the players to keep sight of it, whether it’s a freighter stealing a village or a mysterious person who keeps on showing up that drives the players to wonder a little too much about why they’re around every time something bad happens.
Having hints at the bigger picture is a great way to move people along the path to finding the puzzles you want them to solve. Each adventure within a campaign allows you to give them a new bit of the overarching experience but also focus in on something specific, sometimes only tangentially related to the campaign plot, and lets the players have fun doing that. Each adventure is contributing to your campaign and will build upon the story you told before it, this is will happen if you have an end goal or not. Creating an ongoing story that you and the players want to explore is why you’re there at the table.
A layered approach to campaign building provides a direction that you’re aiming for by making the story about the characters current actions. The large differences between an unstructured campaign and structured one are the hints being given to the players for long periods before it comes to an end and determines how prepared the conclusion is. A satisfying conclusion can be hard to come by when everything is being tossed at the table to find out what sticks. This usually requires the work to be done for the conclusion at the end of the campaign by pulling the emergent tropes specific to the campaign together.
Having an end point set allows for the game world be changed almost completely, throwing out any starting assets that the players deem too uninteresting or too compromised while still having a place to land the story. The trick I’ve found is not to fight what the players are doing, but to accept it and work it back into the story’s weave that you are trying to show.
In my Lepskin Campaign my players have decided that the rebel cell that is in the game already is too ineffectual and too timid to operate. I could fight and try to bring them inline, but that is something very akin to railroading and I know I’ll lose players for doing it. Instead they’re taking an offhand comment about a location and changing it to something much larger than it was and creating a second rebellion that is much more active in trying to right the wrongs they’re seeing.
While it may not be required for all, I’ve found having an end goal keeps me from spinning out in my immediate response to how my players are acting and lets me take a long view of how the campaign is growing into something much more fun than I came up with a year ago. Dealing with that massive level of change would have left me completely flummoxed and spinning my wheels, but now it allows me to create plots for the original rebellion as well as keeping track of what the new rebellion needs to do as well as play on the paranoia that led to the break with the first rebellion.
Have there been any twists to a campaign that have taken you by surprise to make the campaign better? How have you dealt with them? Please let me know in the comments below.