Players Off-Map? How to Get a Wandering Adventure Back On Track
From John Large
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #640
Players wandering off plot or ignoring obvious clues and hooks cause endless frustration. This article will show you how most adventures can be brought back on track again.
There is a school of thought that says any GM attempting to influence the players’ choices is guilty of railroading. But we assume you actively want to bring a wandering adventure on track. To do this, we will be using the: 5 Room Dungeon model.
We are going to use the following 5 Room Dungeon plot:
Entrance And Guardian
An evil desert bandit has stolen the sultan’s daughter and spirited her away to his desert hideout.
Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
The desert is vast and difficult to traverse. However, there are numerous merchants in the city and tribes of desert dwelling nomads who could help locate the bandit’s hideout if they were persuaded to do so.
Trick Or setback
The bandit lord has numerous servants scattered throughout the city. He knows the sultan will attempt a rescue. He has placed minions within the ranks of most of the prominent merchant households throughout the area with orders to ‘take care’ of anyone attempting a rescue.
If the PCs get the location of the hideout from merchants or the desert nomads, then they will be tracked by some of these disguised bandits, who will attempt to kill them before the PCs reach their destination.
The PCs confront the bandit lord in his hideout, a small fortress carved out of an imposing desert rock formation.
The bandit lord has actually been hired by a mage who plans to use the blood of the merchant’s daughter in a ritual to open a sealed enchanted container believed to contain a powerful wish-granting genie. So he has the bandits go out to stall the player characters.
As the PCs dispatch the bandits, the bandit lord with his last gasp says, “You’re already too late” and points at the desert hideout. On top of the mesa, huge clouds gather and the PCs can make out the sound of eerie, arcane chanting.
The PCs must get to the top and stop the sorcerer before he kills his hostage and releases the genie.
Brief Word From Johnn
While sorting through old RPG books in my basement, I found all my 1E books. And that made me recall my Friendly Local Gaming Store while growing up many years ago.
I actually had two stores I went to. There was a small one at the nearby mall. It sold crafts, but there was a small rack for D&D books. I purchased my first RPG book there – the AD&D Dungeon Master’s guide. I thought it was just an extension of the D&D Expert rules I was running, and didn’t understand it was a whole new game. After all, it was called Advanced D&D, not Whole New D&D.
My friend and I quickly absorbed those rules and we played merrily along until I could afford to buy the AD&D Players Handbook about four months later. When we got our hands on that the light bulb went off, and we made new characters (and NPCs) from scratch and started playing actual AD&D.
Anyway, I remember bugging the hell out of the staff at that store because they’d pre-order books for me, and I’d be there every day asking if my books had come in. Good GMs are persistent, right? 🙂
The second gaming store was a real Adventure. It was in the city miles away from my town. My friend and I would get on our 10 speed bikes and cycle there on Saturdays. It was about a 45 minute ride. And this store – I can’t recall its name either – was a *real* gaming store. I mean, it had three half-wall displays of gaming stuff. Three!
My first purchase there was the Dragonlance book, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight. But I’d later go on to get a ton of paints and minis, Car Wars, Combat Law, character sheets, dice, and tons more.
What I remember most about those magical shopping trips, though, was the big damn hill we had to get up on the way home! That bastard made you get off your bike and walk. Every. Time. We’d finally get back home and flop out on one of our front yards until we recovered.
So yeah, kid, when I was your age, I did pedal 20 miles, uphill, both ways, just to get my D&D books. None of this nancy downloading stuff.
Now go roll some dice!
So How Do I Stop Players Going Off-Map?
The truth is, you can’t stop players going off the map. However, crossing your fingers and hoping they stick to the plot will result in panic and your game being de-railed when the PCs do something unexpected.
Follow the steps below to prevent these off-map moments from destroying your game.
Prepare for what will happen if the PCs ignore the plot.
If nothing happens when the PCs ignore signs of a growing darkness or a rising evil, then the players will become complacent and won’t worry so much about pursuing plot (assuming that the GM will never let their campaign world be destroyed or altered too much).
Prepare a list of events that will occur in order if the PCs do nothing. Then have these events occur at intervals, growing in severity, until finally a huge world-shattering event occurs that changes the campaign world forever.
For our example the list is going to be:
- Merchant hires local mercenaries to retrieve his daughter.
- Bandits kill mercenaries and take their equipment.
- Better armed and without mercenary opposition, the bandits become bolder, preying on the caravans that supply the city.
- Strange weather patterns begin to occur (storms, lightning) as the magical ceremony to release the genie begins to reach a climax.
- Denied caravan traffic, the city begins to starve and people begin to leave in droves.
- Desert mage completes ceremony and summons genie.
- With the aid of a massively powerful genie, the mage and his bandits sweep into the city and occupy it, turning it into a cruel, totalitarian state where no-one dare disobey the mage for fear of being dispatched by the power of the genie.
The intervals at which these events occur is determined by the GM but you should make sure that the players see a visible effect occurring so that they know something is going on; should they decide to jump on the plot at a later date then you can simply make a note of where you got to on your list and resume the events later if necessary.
Create a sense of urgency in your players.
If players think they have all the time in the world to complete a mission, then they will dawdle. Create a sense of urgency and give the impression time is running out to have them jumping on the plot train straight away.
There are a few different ways of doing this, such as:
- The villain has to accomplish their aims by a certain, easy to ascertain time. Astrological events and natural occurrences are good for this.
- The player characters’ health relies on them accomplishing the mission in a certain length of time, such as the classic slow acting poison with them being given an antidote upon completion of their mission.
- Completion of their quest will enable the PCs to forestall or prevent a far greater danger that looms on the horizon.
For example, perhaps a large orc force travels towards the city with numbers enough to smash its defence. However, the orcs are superstitious. An ancient orc weapon lies buried in the nearby mountains, and if the PCs can retrieve it and get back to the city before the horde arrives, then the presence of the weapon will discourage the attack.
For our example, I am going to say there is a solar eclipse in a few days and the genie needs to be released during the time when the sun is eclipsed.
To help the PCs find this out, I will have the strange weather patterns increase in potency as the eclipse draws nearer, and I might even have one of the bandits have a crude calendar or diagram of the eclipse on his person.
For each element connected to your plot, prepare a way that they can interact with the PCs even if the players ignore the plot.
If the players do go off-map, then having some ways to bring elements of your plot back into focus can really help. And because you’ve already prepared them in advance, it won’t seem like you are trying to force players back on track.
In our example we have the following elements: the sultan, his daughter, the bandits and their lord, the bandit hideout, the undercover bandit spies, the desert mage and the genie.
The sultan: If the players refuse his initial offer of employment, then later on (after his mercenaries have been killed) he may contact them again offering them positions of importance in the city, or depending on how far things have gone, employing them to defend the city in the mercenaries’ place.
The sultan’s daughter: Perhaps the restless spirit of the daughter begins to haunt the area (or even the PCs in particular) having become twisted by the circumstances of her death and seeking revenge against those who failed to save her. This is one way of showing the players their actions and inaction has consequences.
The bandits and their lord: Eventually, the bandits will start preying on more on merchant caravans and will even try to take the city (as per our event list). The PCs might be hired to protect incoming or outgoing supplies or help defend the city against the bandit horde. Perhaps the PCs are attacked by the bandits whilst in the desert on another mission.
The undercover bandit spies: Assuming they have not been caught by the PCs when they attempt to kill them, then the bandit spies will go to ground within the ranks of whatever mercenaries and merchants remain in the city sowing descent. When their brothers attack the city, they will attempt to assassinate key personnel and make it easier for the takeover to occur.
The desert mage: The ceremony to release the genie might also require other ingredients. Before the mage can send his horde of bandits about freely, he might actually attempt to hire the PCs himself to retrieve the other components of the ritual (perhaps using the bandits or desert nomads as an intermediary). This is an intriguing alternative way for the PCs to become involved in the plotline before discovering they work for the wrong side.
Alternatively, perhaps something the PCs already have in their possession (a magic item or something similar) is one of the components required. The mage might first attempt to barter for it, and then, if the PCs refuse steal it or murder them, to obtain it.
The genie: The genie desires little other than to be free, but at the culmination of the ritual it will be bound to the will of the mage and unable to obey his orders. Perhaps the desert tribes have legends about the genie and attempt to have the PCs prevent its release. Else, the genie might appear in visions, imploring the player characters to prevent the mage binding it and to set it free, offering wishes or treasure as an inducement if necessary.
Using these three methods:
1. Create an event list for if the PCs ignore the plot altogether.
2. Create a sense of urgency.
3. Prepare a way for the major elements of your plot to interact with the PCs even if the original plot is ignored.
You can prepare for these moments when your game goes off-plot. Being prepared will prevent unnecessary panic and will also give the impression the players have not confounded your efforts.
How To Make Over-Searching Fun
From: James Introcaso
Over-searching slows the game. How many dungeon crawls have been turned into dungeon complete stops because players wanted to pore over every room and find the secret doors and treasure hidden by a crafty DM, only to find there really is nothing in that one room with the gray ooze. This isn’t the players’ fault! There’s fun finding something hidden, and that’s sort of the point of many a dungeon crawl.
Still, this method of play becomes monotonous after fruitless searching. I understand this plight. There’s only so much treasure to go around. It’s not like the DM can put objects and areas of interest in every room, right? I mean, that’d be a butt ton of work. Right?!
Say Nay to the Pile
I LOVE big old piles of treasure. I love a sleeping dragon buried beneath a hill of gold that would make even Scrooge McDuck drown. I love a lich hiding her loot in a secret vault, guarded by devious traps and constructs. Who doesn’t want a moment where adventurers run into a glittering cavern of ornate treasures a la Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders or The Mummy?
But does every lair need all its valuables centralized in one place? Wouldn’t the bandits be more likely to split up their booty immediately after a highway robbery rather than hoard it in one room in their cave? Doesn’t the bandit leader have to pay his goons to stop a revolt? Why would an evil cult keep all their artifacts under lock and key? Wouldn’t they hire guards and put the pieces on display as a show of power to remind followers their deity is strong?
Think about your own house. Most of us don’t have a wall safe behind a comically large, hinged self-portrait above our office desk. Your most valuable possessions are spread out all over. The functional things are in the place where you need them most, your art is on display, and your money could be in different places (for instance my wallet is on my person, rolls of quarters are kept next to the laundry detergent in the closet, loose change is thrown into a tin next to the TV, gift cards are on the fridge, and my check book is in a filing cabinet).
I don’t hide all my valuables and I’m guessing you don’t either, because you believe the security measures you have in place (door locks, a dog, a doorman, an alarm system) are more than enough to deter thieves and murderers.
You wouldn’t then also hide all your valuables, because it’d be inconvenient when you needed them.
So wouldn’t it be the same for most fantasy baddies who have henchmen, locks, alarms, and traps of their own?
Next time you make a treasure hoard, think about spreading it out in every room.
Here are the steps I normally take:
Roll Up Or Decide The Grand Total Of Treasure You Want To Put In The Lair
Get a grand total of loot for the adventure. This makes dividing it up a lot easier. Do this after you’ve already created and populated the dungeon you want to use.
Assign Useful Magic Items In The Hoard To NPCs
Magic weapons and armor would be worn by the person running the operation or by his or her most loyal henchmen.
Don’t just leave them as items good for bonking adventurers. Monsters aren’t just waiting around for PCs to show up and kill them. They have just much use for a bag of holding or some dust of dryness as the PCs do.
So make a note next to NPC names to remind yourself the item(s) you’ve redistributed to them.
What good is a gold-framed painting, silver sculpture, or beautiful tapestry if it’s lying in a treasure heap or locked in a chest?
Put them on display.
Make a note next to each room’s description or read aloud text about any art object you’ve put up on display (and possibly warrant extra guards, security, or traps).
In my mind, gems are the big daddies that big baddies keep squirreled away for a big purchase or trade.
That said, there’s no reason why the dungeon’s big boss should hold every single gem. A lowly henchmen might hide one in his or her boot or under a mattress so their co-workers don’t steal it. The ogre mage might give them to his or her favored bodyguard to assure loyalty. A ruined temple’s former caretaker might have hidden a ruby away in an altar during the structure’s heyday.
Again, make notes about the type of gem you’ve added, its worth, and where it might be hidden, next to a room description or NPC.
Figure out where all the various copper, silver, gold, and platinum pieces should go in your dungeon.
Are the dungeon’s henchmen being paid? If so, hand over some gold! Each henchman should have a little something tucked in a belt pouch or in a chest at the foot of a bed.
Are their prisoners hiding away money? Did someone long ago hide a cache of coin beneath the floor? Is the ogre paid more than the orcs?
Remember that most money a person would have on hand would be in a small amount in an easily reachable place (like a pocket or pouch). Large sums of money are more likely to be hidden, locked away, guarded, or trapped.
Make your notes and you’re ready to rock.
This method assures players’ constant searching will be worth it. Rather than slowing down gameplay, it’s a major part of it.
But what if you really like the big treasure pile? Or if your adventure calls for it?
Or what if you don’t have time to parse out all the treasure in the way I listed above?
Fear not! I have ideas below that can still make PCs’ constant searching and ransacking worth it and interesting.
Worldbuiling Through Searching
Players can find interesting stuff that isn’t treasure when they search.
While moving through a ruin, players might find objects and hints about the former life of the structure. While moving through a dragon’s cave, players might evidence of what the dragon eats or the journal of a former adventurer who failed to storm the lair. While moving through an enemy’s castle they might find letters from their enemy’s allies, written plans for villainous schemes old and new, or games of strategy and chance the guards play in their downtime.
All these things might not be of direct monetary value to the PCs, but they tell the story of your world, and that’s the reward for finding them.
You can stock a dungeon with these items, or you could roll on the chart below whenever a player searches a room and you decide there should be something of interest in it.
Randomized Story Objects Table
- Prayer book to a resident’s diety
- Vial of herbs used to soothe joint pain
- Map of an inhabitant’s hometown
- Notes on an inhabitant’s current scheme
- Notes on an inhabitant’s old scheme
- Notes on an inhabitant’s future scheme
- Bag of local candy
- Bottle of local alcohol
- Map of an inhabitant’s dream retirement location
- Letter to an inhabitant from a loved one
- Book of the local government’s laws
- Book of fairy tales for children
- Book of scary stories
- Local herbs used in tea
- Pipe-weed from an exotic location far off
- Bag of bones used to predict the future
- Spell component pouch full of sulfur and guano
- Letter opener with an inhabitant’s family crest
- Fancy undergarments from a nearby city shop
- Board game favored by the locals
- Card game favored by the locals
- Dice game favored by the locals
- Drawing of a local legendary monster done by a child
- Poem written to an inhabitant by a lover
- Small musical intrument wrapped in sheet music of a classic song
- Copper coins from a fallen empire
- Blanket knit with the symbol of a local government or organization
- Darkened glasses used by an inhabitant with a light sensitivity
- Ear trumpet used by an inhabitant with hearing impairment
- Invitation to a party thrown by a local noble
- Signet ring of a local authority
- Coffee grounds from an exotic location
- Sack made out of a local monstrosity’s hide
- Mask made in the likeness of a legendary monster
- Pen and stationary set from an institution of learning
- Text book about the specific ecology of a monster by a well-known sage
- Brass holy symbol of an inhabitant’s deity
- Stuffed doll made in the likeness of local dog breed or pack animal
- Stuffed doll made in the likeness of local monster
- Recipe for an inhabitant’s grandmother’s famous pie
- Recipe for an exotic dish
- Recipe for a local dish
- Tankard from a local tavern or inn
- Preserved corpse of an inhabitant’s pet
- Beast’s preserved head as a hunting trophy
- Floor plan of the closest blacksmith’s shop
- Flask emblazoned with a mercenary group’s symbol
- Pen knife with initials carved in Undercommon
- Stone arrowheads from a nearby primitive civilization
- Hidden engraving of an evil god or cult
- Hidden closet or trapdoor meant for hiding runaway slaves
- Petrified pet rat
- Sword sheath with the crest of a noble family on the other side of the world
- Iron manacles with the preserved hands of a humanoid locked in them
- Dagger with the crest of a city guard on the other side of the world
- Wood box displaying the corpse of extinct insects
- Hit list left behind by an international assassin
- Dull straight razor made for a Huge creature
- White gloves made for a Tiny creature
- Monster training manual written by a now dead eccentric explorer
- Journal of an inhabitant
- Music box which plays an off-beat tune
- Waterskin filled with blood for a ritual
- Calendar with every holy day of a religion circled
- Sundial bearing the name of a long-forgotten sun god
- Saddle for a flying beast of burden
- Notches in the wall noting the passage of time
- Small booties meant for a baby
- Broken miner’s pick bearing the sigil of an Underdark king
- Tiny set of antlers, too small for a deer or moose
- Directions to an inhabitant’s best friend’s house
- Cipher for a secret code which is no longer used
- Bowl made from the wood of an extinct plant
- Belt buckle bearing the symbol of a knightly order
- Set of brass knuckles with a criminal’s initials raised on the points of contact
- Magnifying glass carved with the initials of a dead police inspector
- Work gloves covered in the blood of an aberrant creature
- Iron pot full of humanoid bones
- Small flask full of an inhabitant’s favorite condiment
- Voodoo doll of an inhabitant’s employer
- Paper target with a perfect hole through the bullseye
- Stone statuette of a beast found on the other side of the world
- Wax candle carved into the image of a god
- Map of the world
- Map of a mysterious island
- Notes from an inhabitant’s trip to another plane
- I.O.U. written to an inhabitant
- Notice of debt written to an inhabitant
- Collar and tag made to fit a Large animal
- Sock for a Huge creature
- Scarf bearing the crest of a local artisan guild
- Small wooden box with a secret compartment
- o-yo bearing a child’s name
- Wooden halfling skeleton
- Common to dictionary
- Set of finger puppets resembling a legendary band of heroes
- Steel box containing the leaves of plants from an exotic location
- Homemade political cartoon commenting on local affairs
- Copy of the local news publication
- Warrant for the arrest of a person on the other side of the world
After rolling on the table above, the rest of the object’s story is up to you!
Variant: Ruin Rule
If the PCs are making their way through a ruin formerly inhabited by people other than the current occupants, roll a d10 before rolling on the Randomized Story Objects table.
A roll of 4 or below indicates the object found is older and pertains to the previous occupants, a roll of 5 or higher indicates the object is related to the current occupants.
When All Else Fails… They Gotta Eat!
Maybe you don’t want to give your players treasure, but you don’t want to overload them with story objects either.
Maybe you’re the kind of DM who asks players to track their use of food, water, and ammunition.
Well if that’s the case, when your PCs search, roll on the table below to see what they might find. In certain campaigns, food and water are worth more than gold! For that sort of thing roll a d100 and adjust the rarity of these items based on how often you want them to show up.
- 1 full waterskin
- 1d2 days of rations
- 1 bag of ball bearings
- 1 bag of caltrops
- 1d6 pieces of chalk
- 10d6 feet of hempen rope
- 1d4 flasks of oil
- 1d10 torches
- 1d20 arrows
- 1d20 crossbow bolts
- 1d20 sling bullets
- 1d10 iron spikes
Tables as PDFs
Hey if you like the tables above and want to use them in your game, here’s a Alternative Search Tables PDF for you.