Thursday, 11 August 2011

O is for Objectives (Part 1)

“Now what are we supposed to do?” they ask.  And then they sit there, staring across the table, waiting for you to give them some quest, some purpose.  Or perhaps they say, “If we sit here long enough, something’s bound to happen.  The plot will come to us.

Gods of Gaming, protect us from those players, spoon-fed from years of so-called “Adventure Paths”, who only know how to react to what the Game Master tells them is their quest, jumping through whatever hoops the GM may provide like so many trained seals.  I am reminded of an experiment where researchers put food beyond a fence.  There was a trick by which the subjects – wolves, coyotes, and domesticated dogs – could open the gate and get to the food.  By and large, the wild canines quickly parsed it out, and got their reward.  The domesticated dogs?  They whined at the gate and waited for Master to open it for them.

Now, some Game Masters prefer domesticated dogs.  They might have only the third adventure of War of the Burning Sky prepared, and, come hell or high water, that is what tonight’s game will be.  And that’s fine, sometimes, and,  for some, all of the time.  Others would like their players to be a little bit more proactive. 

The key to proactive players is to empower them to, and reward them for, setting objectives.

Such a little thing to do.  Such an obvious thing to do.  And, more and more often as the years go by, such an uncommon thing to do.

Empowering your players to set objectives means that, sometimes, you will not be able to rely on materials written by others.  To put it bluntly, it means that the players don’t have to follow a plot you lay down; they literally “choose their own adventure”.  It might mean that some materials you’ve prepared don’t get used right now.  Perhaps not ever.  It might mean that they choose not to pursue the BBEG, and his schemes – whatever they may be – come to fruition.  Meanwhile, you’re left trying to decide how to deal with your fighter’s romantic advances toward Lady Stark.

For example, imagine that you have decided to run Savage Tide.  But the players don’t “buy in”.  They simply are not interested in sailing toward the Isle of Dread.  They leave their patron’s service.  They would rather find out where the bullywugs came from, or visit Cauldron after hearing about the events which happened there.  The big problem with “The World Will End Unless the PCs Do X” is that the players might rather have their characters do Y.  This goes back to the “C is for Choices, Context, and Consequence” blogs in this series – a Game Master should never set a consequence of failure that he or she is unwilling to accept having to actually play out in-game.

On the other hand, we can have a sandbox game where players can do anything – but cannot think of anything worth doing.  Characters end up sitting in a taproom somewhere, waiting for something…anything…to happen.

One of the keys to running a good game is to allow the players to choose their own objectives.  If one is running an “Adventure Path”, this means either getting the players to buy into the objectives the path lays out for them.  If one is running a sandbox, this means ensuring that there are always obvious objectives that the players can make their own.


  1. One of our best games happened quite like your final few paragraphs. We were in Freeport, and the GM was all set to run adventures there (on the mainland). First game, the GM casually described an orc-run pirate ship in port. It was supposed to be just some additional color.

    Of course, we charged up the gang-plank, and suddenly the GM had a an unplanned combat on his hands.

    An hour later, we were sailing away for parts unknown...and the GM was tossing his well-prepared Freeport modules back on the shelf.

    We never did return to that port.