I’ve never understood why GMs—particularly newbie GMs, who themselves were players not too long ago—assume that a gaming group will only ever make binary decisions: right and wrong. That the group’s best goal is to follow the one road that takes them to The Plot, and that every other avenue leads to Not The Plot. Maybe it’s because D&D has an odd tendency towards binary results—rolls are on pass/fail basis, no degrees of success, nothing gained on a “close but no cigar.” Maybe it’s just the fear of failure, a new-GM mania where players diverting from a specific sequence of choices is a sign of personal failure. Regardless, it should be an expectation at this point: if you give your players the choice between heading North or going South, you really shouldn’t be surprised when three of them pick Left, two of them pick Purple, and one fucker tries to pick Kumquat.
They’re not trying to destroy the GM’s carefully laid-out plot. They’re not trying to cause chaos and negate all the GM’s hard work and planning. They’re trying to engage the GM’s world. This is players going after things that were brought up in-game, things they were interested enough in to pursue.
Really, don’t even bother giving the players options to choose from. That way lies madness. Accept that the results will be random regardless, and most likely be interesting (in that they can lead to Adventure and Danger and Loot and other cool shit), and leave your questions open-ended. Instead of “Do you go North or South?” ask your players “Where do you go from here?” And then just roll with the results. It’s less frustrating for the GM, less frustrating for the players, fun is had, everyone wins.
My regular D&D game is a case study in this, like a horrible documentary of a new DM’s first crude attempts to maintain a campaign. (To the DM’s credit, he runs a pretty decent beer-and-pretzels game for a guy who’s been out of the hobby for around 30 years.) He comes into situations expecting certain outcomes, and I kind of feel bad for the guy when the group never exactly meets them: rather than following the expectations of the plot or GM, they follow what interests them. Shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is what players do. Things that interest me will get more attention; things that don’t, won’t.
I don’t want to get bogged down by details, but both cases (D&D 5th and Edge of the Empire) had the GM leave very strong hints towards what the next plot-point should be—the expected route we should take to visit Location X/NPC Y/Planet Z. Though, the game was left open with many other avenues, other rumors to follow, other plot hooks, and when we took them, the hammer came down. And hard. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but at least one was pretty clearly a case of the players going off-track and the GM wanting to drag them back to where they were supposed to be using force. It signals to me that the game has some issues where we’re given several opportunities to follow one plot and end up punished for trying to do anything else.
I should note that in both cases, we’re playing canned modules; this goes back to some posts I made late last year on the same topic—riding the rails, trying to maintain a balance between letting players go wild in an open world and having some semblance of an overarching plot to tie things together. I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with canned modules—I lean more towards a “structured sandbox” approach, by which I mean “insert hooks and threads to drive the plot along when player-generated random shit isn’t happening, while riffing off whatever content the players (and their character backgrounds) generate.”
At their best, modules provide an excellent framework and are idea mines. In reality, I have yet to run an adventure module “as-is” in my life—there is always something that ends up tweaked, fudged, or overlooked in order for the group and the module to coexist. With 3.x (and I lump Pathfinder in there), it was balancing encounters to challenge the more CharOp’d players while not overwhelming the others and giving them some roleplay encounters during down-time. With Edge of the Empire, it was adding in NPCs and locations that would crop up whenever the players went beyond the confines of the adventure and tried to interact with things the designers didn’t document, or expect. (Pretty sure they weren’t expecting my players to burn down the camp as a distraction in the speeder race scenario.)
Perhaps that’s why my current GM’s frustrations interest me so: he is firmly of the opinion that you can’t play a canned adventure more than once. I’ve played and ran some of the same adventures several times, and only the general setup or setting was ever the same; it’s usually a different experience every time, because each group approaches things differently. (The second time around, I tend to lay low and play more of a support role, since I’m curious to compare how each group tackles the same path). More to the point, I don’t try to railroad players, as that’s part of my big dislike about canned modules—I run them very fast-and-loose and try to adapt them to the group, and if that means sacrificing some of the written word in exchange for fun, so be it. My DM friend instead tries to force the group to adapt to the adventure.
I wouldn’t call myself a “great” GM, but I have enough experience behind the screen that I see this guy’s frustration—that tone in his voice, the fidgeting around away from the table, the curious surprised “really? are you sure?” when someone heads towards another rumor point instead of the one the book specifies should be next. I feel for him. But a big part of becoming a GM is learning how to let the minor things go, and how to play to the table’s interest, and I kinda hope he’s learning Murphy’s law of combat: no plan survives past contact. There’s plenty of tools in the GM toolbox to help out here—improvisation and winging it, pre-planning all possibilities and making notes on them, learning how to make the plot appeal to each player—and usually, “bringing down the hammer” is the least successful option out there.