[RPG] How to get out of a story deadlock


As with most of my questions, this is more of a general "how to handle a special situation" and not a plea to solve an existing problem.

What is the best way to handle story deadlocks (as in: The story can't progress as originally planned and possibly even not at all)?

For example:

  • The PCs have killed a crucial NPC, or gotten him killed or "unavailable" through other means (Starting a battle, betraying him to the city guard if he's a criminal, …)
  • The PCs have made enemies with a faction they need to continue the (original) story

Aside from the obvious advice "don't let it come to that", "plan ahead for those situations" and so on, what can I do if I am surprised by an unexpected action of a PC that makes the original arc unviable?

The things I thought about are all pretty boring:

  • Divine intervention. The worst thing you can do as a DM, in my opinion, unless there is absolutely no other way.
  • Adding a new NPC to replace the old one and going on as planned. Will create nasty plot holes (How did that guy find out about what you are doing, why was he never mentioned before, …). Depending on the situation, this might be viable, but sometimes it makes too big of a plot hole (For example if you accidentally betrayed the local crime lord, who was the only one who had the exact plans you needed).
  • Rollback. Pretty much equals divine intervention, with the added bonus that the PCs now know that the NPC is important, which might give away important plot twists. Depending on how good the players are at seperating player knowledge from character knowledge, this may sometimes be the best solution, but I'm still not satisfied, it feels like cheating to me.
  • Improvising and discarding the original story. Makes for some great adventures, as I know first hand, but can be frustrating if you had an entire campaign planned that has become obsolete in its current form.

I have only been DM for two or three times yet, so I don't feel ready to improvise an entire adventure, like our old GM used to.

So, the question is: what have I missed? What other ways are there to rescue the story without (obvious) cheating?

Best Answer

You have the right answer in your choices.

Being a DM isn't about writing a script and continually nullifying player choices to keep them "on script". If you want to write a story without much outside input, then write fiction. Nothing wrong with that.

A DM is only one participant of the story when role-playing. Sure, typically the DM will set up the initial scenario and make certain decisions that will constrain choice. But you have to accept that once you turn the PC's loose on "your" world, they are likely to take your carefully crafted story, and fold/spindle/mutilate it (or all three!).

You can of course plan an overarching story for the campaign. It can a great idea to do so, it provides direction and focuses the campaign. But if the players make the story no longer possible and you can't come up with a satisfying way to "fix" it, then it's time to adjust.

If the party goes off of the rails, it is likely due to one of three things

  1. They notice the rails and want off! Whether by boredom or active malice they've decided to go left instead of right. Either way, you're getting feedback that your story is not as entertaining to them as you might have thought. Time to make changes!
  2. Player discovery - The players have discovered something cool about your campaign or their characters that you might not have thought about and want to explore it! This is awesome, it will mean that your story should go on the back burner for a bit. When the players show an active interest in the setting, nurture that, don't shut them down. Let it play out, it usually won't be a long detour and the players will rejoin the main plot-line with renewed vigor.
  3. Player Agency - One or more players has their own story that they want to explore. Quite often a player will build a backstory for their character that has some hooks in it. If you don't grab the hooks and work with them (I think we're all guilty of this at some point!) the player may still want to explore their half-dragon ancestry, or why they got kicked out of Star Fleet Academy. Let them run with it, rein them back in if it becomes excessive. In the same way that your story cannot dominate the table you can't allow one player to continually dictate what happens next. However there should always be room for each player to shine for a session now and again.

The last two are sides of the same coin. Both involve letting players "run the show" to a certain extent. One problem that I've seen multiple times is for the GM to plan one scenario after another after another, never giving the players a chance to catch their breath. Instead of plotting things so extensively, ease up occasionally. Let the players know that after the current big boss is killed that there are no immediate plans for the campaign and ask, "What will you want to do?" This can serve as a release valve and free up any building tensions.