Dungeons & Dragons is one of those activities that by design is wildly unpredictable. Game Masters do have a tremendous amount of leeway in what happens to a storyline of course, but whenever the players decide upon a course of action it is best to let their designs flow to their natural conclusion and adjust the story accordingly to take into account this new direction. Frequently these changes are for the better. A well-adjusted group can work wonders with a storyline by finding unforeseen solutions to problems or by combining their talents and creative energy to conjure up even more exciting directions for a story to go. Or they can just blindly screw everything up so hard that the Game Master is placed in a position of rebuilding the plot from a smoldering pile of ashes.
It is this latter category that our game has been wrestling with the most. Bless their little hearts, the players in my game have the most devilish time not choosing the absolute worst course of action in any given scenario. From a purely outside perspective it is probably excruciatingly hilarious. But from behind the GM’s screen it is just the other side of hell. Months ago I gave them a little plot twist that gave them a potential ally in the form of a non-player character on a silver platter. They took the bait immediately and I was optimistic that they would eventually put the pieces of the puzzle together and realize what a valuable asset they had. Oh for fun, of course they didn’t. They ignored the puzzle altogether and went zooming off onto another tangent. I kept gently steering them back to the potential ally puzzle and they continued to ignore it. I remained hopeful. Then without warning during the last game they decided as a group to go ahead and just kill the non-player character because they had determined it was too much of a threat to keep around anymore. Having spent twenty minutes staring at the puzzle pieces they had basically given up and opted to kick over the card table and have a beer instead. The NPC was subsequently slaughtered and as a group they merrily moved on to another portion of the story that they apparently deemed more intriguing.
So now what. This NPC was somebody I had spent months developing and who had the potential for not only helping the party with an almost limitless number of problems they had and are going to have, but who was going to be positively hilarious in ways they never imagined. Am I going to just toss it all out of the window and give up? Not by a long shot. Because here is the trick every Game Master needs to have going in every single game they oversee: The players might be driving the story in front of the camera, but behind the scenes there is more story that isn’t necessarily revealed. In the case of my campaign there are multiple points of view. The first is obviously whatever the players are doing. This is where most of the planning goes into making sure they are having fun and moving forward. The second is whatever the villains are up to, either trying to defeat the players or avoid being defeated themselves. But the third is the point of view of the NPCs that are just trying to avoid being obliterated by the players or the villains. In my campaign there are innumerable non-player characters actively working to help the players albeit with their own unique perspectives and agendas. The shenanigans that these folks get up to are much more easily controlled because as the GM I call the shots as to what they will or will not do. Unlike the players who might give up on or forget a loose thread in the story the NPCs have the ability to remain focused on such trivial things until such time as they might solve it themselves. Usually this happens after the players have painted themselves into a corner and then set the room on fire. In ride the friendly NPCs who can announce that after doing their own bit of adventuring they have discovered some nugget of information that the players overlooked, threw away, or savagely murdered.
This is where we are now. Another loose thread has been tossed into the “let the NPCs figure this out” pile. This is perfectly acceptable. In fact the players made it so deliciously easy on me as the Game Master that I am nearly flabbergasted with the possibilities going forward. Not only have they allowed me to reveal more and more of the hidden secrets of the game, but they removed all possibility of any of them getting any of the credit for these discoveries. The whole of D&D runs on the currency of Experience Points, or as we refer to them “XP”. You earn XP for figuring out puzzles, finding creative solutions to problems, defeating monsters, and doing stuff in the game that advances the plot. But you do NOT get any XP for letting the NPCs solve the problems, defeat the monsters, figure out the puzzles, and advance the plot. And if your group decides to kill an NPC that can potentially help them out they don’t get any XP for that either. What they do get is a steady trickle of information that does help them see what it happening more clearly in the game, and might even lead them to eventual victory over their foes, but doesn’t give them a single point of experience. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Could they have gotten XP if they had chosen to harness the abilities of the NPC instead of killing it? Oh dear me yes. Probably enough over several months of gaming to see them rise in levels multiple times just for using that NPC as it was meant to be used in the story. But that didn’t happen. Now an enormous amount of plot leverage has been tossed right into the hands of the rest of the NPCs. And unlike the players, these guys know precisely what to do with that power.
*Insert sinister cackle here*