How to Avoid Herding
Posted by: Jendor -- September 18, 2014


By Dru Pagliassotti ;

One of my friends asked, "How do you keep adventurers on track without forcing them to do something?" It's a good question, and one every GM has had to face at one time or another.

Every GM who has been running games for a few years has a handful of adventures that were ignored by the PCs, or that the PCs abandoned for one reason or another. Sometimes the PCs don't accept the mission. Sometimes the PCs don't realize they are supposed to take the mission. Sometimes the PCs are distracted by red herrings. Sometimes the PCs decide they want to do something else entirely.

The PCs Don't Accept The Mission

The old "you see a sign in the Adventurer's Guild" or "A mysterious cloaked stranger approaches you in the alley and offers you a job" adventure beginnings have, fortunately, been going out of style, at least in published adventures.

Although the flat offer of a job is a useful way to start a game when running for brand-new players or starting a brand-new campaign, it runs the risk of being turned down. This is especially true when there is a mix of moralities in the party; for example, my burnt-out-mage in Shadowrun once turned down a lucrative job because it involved working for the Mafia, and although my mage was on the skids, he wasn't that corrupt! The other PCs whined and moaned a little bit before deciding not to take the job, either. (Or at least, they didn't while my character was around!)

One way to avoid having the PCs turn down an offer is to set up the campaign so that the PCs simply cannot turn it down; for example, they are members of the military who do whatever their commanding officer tells them. This requires informing the players in advance that their characters will all belong to a military force or other strict organization (like the Yakuza, for example, or a cult.)

Another way to avoid this is to set up the offer so that the PCs run a risk if they turn it down; for example, they earn a reputation as cowards, or a dark secret from their past is made public, or their dearly beloved little brother gets thrown into jail. This works best in a gritty, noiresque game, such as the cyberpunk genre, when the person making the offer is ruthless and desperate.

The best way to avoid having the PCs turn down an offer, however, is to link it to their backgrounds or weaknesses in some way. Is there a bleeding heart in the group? Make it a sob story of injustice and corruption. A romantic? Make the supplicant a desperate, gorgeous object of desire. Has one of the characters been striving after a certain goal for a long time? Make sure it's clear that carrying out the mission will help the character get closer to that goal. Do any of the characters have family or friends in town? Have one of those friends or family members making the offer.

PCs will be most interested in taking a job offer when they can see how it immediately affects them. Money, believe it or not, is not always—or even usually—the best motivation.

The PCs Don't Realize They Are Supposed To Take The Mission

Often a GM will try to nudge the PCs into an adventure without spelling it out for them. A series of events happen that the GM hopes the PCs will investigate. But often the players just ignore the events, not realizing they have any significance at all. Or, alternatively, the players realize the events might have significance but their characters simply wouldn't be interested in them, so in the interests of good roleplaying, the events go ignored. This happened in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game I played in once, when my character, an arrogant and amoral noble, ignored a scream in a dark alley in the bad part of town his carriage was passing through. If it weren't for the meddling PC riding in the carriage with him, I would have had Mikhael ignore the entire set-up. In fact, Mikhael kept trying to persuade the other PCs to ignore the adventure and let the city guard deal with it until it became clear that the guard commander was on the side of the villain.

One way for the GM to deal with ignored events is to finally make them obvious enough to catch the PCs' attention. Perhaps someone who has been following them finally approaches them. A series of petty mishaps escalates into serious accidents. Or, as a last resort, an NPC finally points out how strange all these events are!

A better way to clue in the PCs is to gradually make the events relevant to them. My character objected to meddling in a series of murders because the police force was supposed to handle such things. In this case, the GM needs to make sure the police force is otherwise occupied, or obviously corrupt; the GM has to make the crime affect the PC directly. Once again, bringing in the PC's family and friends is a good way to make sure the events don't get ignored—even seeing one's local grocer being shaken down by a gang will tend to motivate most PCs into action. After all, they know that grocer; it's not a stranger being harmed anymore, it's personal.

The PCs Are Distracted By Red Herrings

Adventures often include red herrings, clues that lead nowhere and are intended to slow down the investigation. The problem is, sometimes those red herrings can get out of hand. Players often develop far more complicated and dastardly theories about the underlying plot than the GM ever imagined. If they convince themselves that their theory is correct, they may very well go off on another tangent entirely, chasing down false clues for days. This can be a real problem, especially if the GM has a timeline of events. While the adventurers are tracing false leads, the villains may be carrying out their crime!

The best way to avoid this problem is to minimize the use of red herrings. False clues may abound in real life, but who'd want to watch a movie or read a book in which the protagonists did nothing but chase down dead ends? RPGs are like good action movies and books; they should be exciting and entertaining. (Okay, some RPGs are like soap operas and romantic dramas, but those, too, are exciting and entertaining in their own right.) I personally try to avoid sending PCs on a tangent for very long, and I try to make it obvious that they are at a dead end before they waste too much time questioning the wrong NPCs.

Another way is to describe an event that makes it clear to the PCs that they've miscalculated. Perhaps while they're chasing down their red herrings the villain sets a bomb off elsewhere—and the PCs must scramble to figure out why and realize they made a mistake somewhere along the line. Perhaps an NPC blows a hole in the theory. ("Naw, he's a long-time friend. Why, we were playing cards together just last Tuesday. All night? Yup. I remember 'cause we had the TV on and we watched the news about that big kidnapping together ... hey, where are you going?")

Truly hard-core GMs may choose to exercise no mercy whatsoever in these cases, of course. If the PCs get distracted, they fail. The villain wins. Sometimes the GM may allow an eleventh-hour rescue (the super heroes race back to combat the villains when they hear about the hijacking), but other times the PCs may just have to live with their failure. This darkens the mood of the campaign and the players and should only occur when either the PCs made a very stupid mistake or the campaign lends itself to that sort of gritty realism.

The PCs Decide They Want To Do Something Else Entirely

Every once in a while the GM has an adventure prepared but never gets to it because the characters decide they want a wild night on the town, instead. Or they finally decide to go off to deal with some old enemy the GM hadn't intended to bring back in so soon, or one PC proposes to another and they decide to have a wedding, instead. The GM shouldn't be upset when things like this happen (as long as they don't happen so frequently that the campaign collapses). They're a sign of good roleplaying and satisfaction with the campaign. Still, what does the GM do?

First, if the GM expects something like this to happen, s/he can prepare in advance. For example, an old enemy that survived an adventure should be tucked away someplace safe, and every once in a while the GM should sit down and adjust the enemy for time—making the enemy more powerful, perhaps. If the GM has based the campaign in a town or city, s/he should have some maps and NPCs on hand—a few bars, a restaurant, the city jail; generic police officers, thieves, and thugs. (Most published city campaigns will provide these for you; my general rule is to buy any good RPG supplement that describes a city and its denizens, regardless of the game system. Maps are maps and personalities are personalities—it's not hard to adapt one game system's city to another game system! If that's too expensive, check out Irony Games On-Web RPG Tools for instant map makers.)

Second, even if unprepared, the GM should sit back and enjoy. The players realize the GM may need a few minutes to prepare; they'll wait, if asked. The GM should keep track of any names made up on the spot, so that they can be used in a later game if necessary. The GM should avoid bringing in any major adventure, confining combat to brawls, duels or attempted muggings in the city, random encounters in the wilderness. If the PCs intend to face an old enemy, the GM might want to bring them up to the point of discovering the old enemy's fortress or lair, and then end the game. That gives the PCs a chance to plan and the GM a chance to prepare the adventure for the next session! If the PCs are engaged in romance, throw in an old rival, a family curse, or a series of comedic problems to liven the session up, depending on the tastes of the players. The main point is to relax and go with the flow.

After all, the adventure that didn't get run during that session can always be run later, right?
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