Should there ever be something that is too big or has too much momentum for the PCs to be able to stop?

Ask the gamemasters

In the discussion following a previous Ask The GMs, (Giving Players The Power To Choose), James Carter asked that very question.

We were talking at the time about NPCs making moves and counter-moves in the background, each trying to get themselves into a position to achieve their goals, and about the natures of those actions, some being brief and opportunist, and others subtle, preplanned, and long-term.

In full, James asked,

“Is there such a thing in a campaign where something is simply too big to be stopped? Even if they ‘nip it in the bud’ there, similar [possibly even unrelated] events happening elsewhere bring it about anyways – tho maybe not in the same way I had originally planned? Or is that wholesale cheating on the behalf of the DM?”

At the time, I replied that there were far too many ramifications to the question to answer in the dialogue at hand, but a short and inadequate answer was, “yes, it can be reasonable to have something so big coming that even if the PCs stop one cause of a given change, other causes can produce the same result. But unless the PCs know that other forces are pushing towards the same result, it still feels like a DM’s plot train. So the only time that I would do this (even though it’s unrealistic) is if their victory gave them the necessary information to stop whatever is happening at the 13th hour in one last, desperate, act…”

I also promised that, to give the question the space and attention it deserved, I would earmark it for a future article for CM; this is that article. I’ve listed the question as another Ask-The-GMs topic so that Johnn has the opportunity to weigh in on the subject, as I think he might have a different perspective to offer.

So, here we go….

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

The expanded answer proved to be a lot harder to write than I expected – I knew what I wanted to say, but hard trouble articulating the ideas clearly, and three times had to scrap hundreds of words and start from scratch after writing myself into a literary cul-de-sac. When I was finally getting on a roll, a system crash wiped out the almost complete draft. Why is the subject so hard to discuss? Because the terms of reference actually change as a campaign progresses, and what is the right answer at one point becomes completely the wrong answer at the end. Sounds confusing? It can be – and hence the need for exceptional clarity.

The Early Campaign

In theory, a campaign is quite a straightforward thing – a succession of plotlines of increasing difficulty, to be confronted by the players in sequence. The early campaign will generally consist of a number of plotlines already in progress, with which the players can get involved.

If the campaign were to start with half a dozen potential adventures with which the PCs can get involved, each roughly equal in priority, and each taking about the same length of time to reach maturity (i.e. success unless they’ve been stopped) then it could be summed up in a bar diagram like this one:

The players choose one of these plotlines, get involved, and stop it from happening. Because they got involved early, and are possibly not yet at the power levels needed to put a stop to the opposition once and for all (being only able to put a stop to the immediate plan), the opposition may escape and reappear later in the campaign.

Let’s say, for the sake of example, they stop plots 2 and 4 (in that order), but the perpetrators escape to cause more mischief; they then stop plots 1 and 3, capturing or killing the antagonists responsible or otherwise rendering them helpless. This is what the campaign chart would now show:

You can see that plot 2 was resolved early, but the antagonist has a middle-campaign plotline underway. Plot 4 was resolved next, and fairly easily, but again the antagonist will cause further trouble in the campaign’s future. Plot 1 was also resolved fairly quickly, but plot 3 was about half-way to completion and had acquired a lot of momentum, so it was not as easily dealt with.

The players now have the choice of pursuing plot 5 or plot 6, but whichever they choose will be much tougher than the challenges faced so far; if they experience any sort of delay in resolving it, then by the time it has been dealt with, it’s entirely possible that plot 6 will have acquired too much momentum to be stopped. And even if they succeed, the sequel to plotline number 2 will be approaching fruition, and the sequel to plotline number 4 will be hard on its heels; the campaign enters a breathless phase, with the players lurching from one crisis to another.

In any realistic sequence of events, then, the answer (at least at low character levels) is yes, you can have something underway that is too big for the players to stop, because they have let it get that far. When this happens, the middle or end periods of the campaign are all about undoing what the PCs have permitted to happen. As Bernard Woolsey put it in ‘Yes, Minister,’ when asked why he didn’t stop something from happening during an ‘Economy Drive’ in the ministerial office, “C.B.E., Minister – Can’t Be Everywhere.”

Another way of looking at the early phase of the campaign is one of establishing the themes and style of the campaign in comparative calm, and following that with an avalanche of plotlines exploring those themes and style.

Because there is time to change the situation, there is nothing wrong with a plot that is so big, so far-reaching, or which is being carried out by adversaries that are so powerful, the players have no chance to stop it – so long as the balance of the campaign is all about the PCs gathering the resources and powers to undo the situation.

The Middle Campaign

The middle campaign is generally about dealing with the consequences of the scenarios in the early campaign, while new plots mature, unnoticed. “Dealing with the consequences” can take two specific forms:

  1. Adventuring within the new environment; or,
  2. Struggling to overthrow the new environment.

Often, campaigns will utilise a hybrid form – adventuring within the context of the changes that the characters did not prevent until they find a way to combat the unwanted turn of events.

The middle period of a campaign is different from the early period because it has adventures which precede it, bringing consequences, and time after it for all the plot threads of the campaign to entwine to form a strong rope – the better to hoist the PCs on their own petards with! That makes it, in many ways, the most flexible of the periods in terms of campaign content; it can be treated as a brand-new early period, or it can be a period of consolidation of plotlines, in which the significance of what has already taken place becomes apparent, or any number of variations, alternatives, and combinations.

Since there is inherently going to be an opportunity for the characters to undo any plots they cannot stop, the answer to the question posed remains ‘yes’ in this period; it can even be argued that it is more likely to be the case in the middle phase of a campaign, because of the potential for leftover plotlines from the first phase the PCs have failed to stop.

The Endgame Campaign

The longer a campaign progresses, the less neat and tidy any abstract representation (such as that used earlier) becomes. You have leftovers from earlier campaign phases, consequences, reactions to plots (both failed and successful), counterplots, plots that have gotten out of hand, people attempting to exploit opportunities that have been created in the course of the campaign, and new material, of course, all mixed up and interconnecting!

For the purposes of contemplating this question, however, the most important difference between this phase of the campaign and those which preceded it is that there is no campaign phase that follows it – this is all there is! That means there should be no plot so big the PCs have zero chance of stopping it, though these chances can and should become more and more desperate.

There is only one exception – and that is when the GM, with the full acceptance and cooperation of his players, is setting up the seeds of a sequel campaign. In this case, it is entirely permissible for the campaign to have a plotline that is deliberately beyond the abilities of the current PCs, provided that this plot thread is not the central one of the current campaign.

An example: Fumanor: The Last Deity

I’ve described elements of this campaign before, so I won’t repeat myself. There is a brief (one-paragraph) synopsis of the campaign in A Quality Of Spirit, and in Coinage In Fumanor, I described how the PCs had overlooked clues from prior to the start of the campaign that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was planning an attempt to usurp the throne, until it was too late for them to prevent the war, but not too late to win it – at a tremendous cost. Even then, the PCs were unable to give the war their full attention, because they had discovered that the Chancellor’s ambitions had simply made him a cat’s-paw for Thoth, the corrupted deity. The primary objective of their strategy and conduct of the war was to get the PCs into a position to confront and defeat the fallen Deity; ultimately, that worked to their benefit, as their forces ignored several strategic traps that had been prepared under the assumption that the loyalist forces would have “victory in the war” as their only goal.

But the fact remains that, if necessary, the PCs were prepared to lose the terrestrial war (and deal with the consequences later) if it gave them a better shot at the more important victory. It was a particularly poignant choice on the part of the leader of the party of PCs as she had been raised as a worshipper of Thoth and this decision was about getting the party into the best possible position to slay her god.

This was the big finish to the campaign, one way or another. As it happened, the PCs won on both fronts, were able to institute a number of reforms in the aftermath, and ‘retired’ into positions of authority within the resulting political structure. But I was fully prepared for them to lose the war and be exiled or killed, after winning their fight with Thoth – I expected them to win that confrontation, and they had everything that they needed in order to achieve the task; the only question to be answered was the price that they would have to pay.

Losing the war would have changed the context and background of the sequel campaign, but the major plot threads would have remained undisturbed. So, viewed from one of several possible perspectives, the war was a plot that was too big for the PCs to stop, because they let it get that way (C.B.E., indeed!) and were then distracted by the need to deal with an even bigger problem.

I hope this gives a more satisfactory answer than my brief comments of last year, James!
Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Is there such a thing in a campaign where something is simply too big to be stopped?

In short, yes. There are some circumstances where this is possible.

Test of character

There is a type of campaign that focuses more on characters and their development than fixing the world. The great evil is an anvil against which the strength of PCs is hammered. You might literally test character endurance, but some groups also like to explore the depth of character morals and strength of their beliefs.

In Starship Troopers, for example, your campaign might not be about eradicating all the bugs, but more about defining humanity or experiencing life in a galaxy in conflict. Another example would be Ars Magica where the PCs might not be about getting magic accepted in Europe, but instead they are just trying to keep their covenant alive and growing throughout its seasons.

I think you can assume a default campaign is about facing a powerful enemy and having the opportunity of defeating it. If you decide to run a test of character campaign, best talk with your players first, to ensure everyone’s expectations are different than the default.

Hoist their own petard

As Mike mentioned, actions and consequences during a campaign might make the enemy too difficult to defeat. Good call, Mike, on using this to setup a sequel campaign.

Once players realize they cannot win, take a temperature check.

While blame might fall on the PCs, if the fun has been sucked out of the game, I would have no problem providing a long shot, one more chance, or secret Achilles heel to allow victory once again.

However, another option lets PCs get a minor win while losing the war. In hockey, for example, ruining a goalie’s shutout gives a bit of satisfaction despite losing the game. Likewise, taking down a lieutenant, ruining a villain’s relationship, crippling a power artifact and other partial victories still make a game worth playing, especially if players enjoy being in their current PCs’ skins.

The unstoppable is a sideline

Implied in the question, maybe, is that the plot represents a win condition for the characters. However, keeping a plot running in the sidelines that is unstoppable is fair game, as long as campaign success is not measured against this plot’s outcome.

For example, I’ve run campaigns where god war trickled down into character plots. The war was not the central conflict, so players never felt they had to resolve the war – just deal with the mortal fallout of the ongoing divine conflict.

A dilemma is unstoppable

By definition, a dilemma offers a lose-lose situation. A campaign that builds to a dilemma as its climax is unstoppable in the sense that the option not picked results in negative consequences. Do the PCs save the planet or sacrifice it to score a critical blow against the enemy? Do they let the villain escape in return for the plague cure? Awaken the Prince or the Princess? A loss happens regardless.

Critical mistake: spite

Do not keep the bad guy alive or a plot unstoppable because the players find a way to seemingly win. I would call that cheating, to answer that part of the question.

As Mike illustrated, PCs can resolve plots earlier than expected. If this frustrates you, do not react by robbing the PCs of their victory. Do your best to keep things alive due to player oversight, failing to tie up a loose end, or resurrecting a seed planted earlier. Players will find this believable, and see it as the world against them, not the GM against them. If you prevent plot resolution out of spite though, you’ll lose player respect and perhaps find empty chairs next session.

The majority of my games involve fantasy fulfillment for my players. They can’t win against their boss at work, the car repair bill or the flu, so they arrive ready to kick butt and take names. A winless campaign is not what they’re after. In the past, I’ve had a few campaigns that developed so they became close to being winless, but I allowed player creativity to create new possibilities for victory.

Ask your players what they want

If you opt to run an unstoppable plot, or see a plot becoming such, discuss with your group first before continuing on.

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