When Your D&D Campaign Goes Off the Rails, Pt 1: Plan to Lose Your Players

The glow of torchlight fills the dungeon walls. Sickly creatures of abyssal origin roam the halls, searching for adventurers foolish enough to step into their domain. Scattered amongst the debris are mechanical traps, far beyond the technological progress of their time. From a collapsed cavern deep within, an ancient evil stirs, awaiting the intrusion of fresh souls.

Souls that will never come. Because the players are busy ignoring your brilliant D&D campaign idea and tracking down a bartender who accidentally overcharged them for mead.

By the way, it’s important to note that the bartender did not overcharge them for the mead. But the group will nonetheless hunt him down and murder him in the night. I’m sorry for your loss. I hope you didn’t waste one of your good names on him.

It is a known fact that for every plot hook you concoct for your D&D campaign idea, your players will find no less than three aspects of your game that will absolutely drive them away from said hook. So what do you do? How do you bring these players back into the story you’ve written?

Well, there are many ways you can do so! Over the next month, I'll share four of the tools I use to adapt when my players go off the rails.

Part 1: Plan To Lose Your Players

Part 1: Plan to Lose Your Players

(Artwork from The Songweave Tapestry campaign from the EMBERWIND TTRPG, which the Nomnivore Games team made available for the Cog Hearts & Steam Souls steampunk booster of The Story Engine Deck.)

The biggest thing I do to make sure that I can recover on the fly from a rails-lost party is to plan for their inevitable plot betrayal. In order to do that, I make sure that there are always four ways to get back onto any given campaign plot point, one of which might surprise you.

For example, let’s say your group has wandered into a nearby village in order to investigate the rumors of a bounty hunter sought out by the Duke of Ellington. You’ve decided the bounty hunter has taken the local florist hostage and is hiding out in her shop, Somewhere That’s Green.

Now, it can be tempting to sit back and see if the group can figure out your clever plan. It’s not uncommon to see GMs revel in watching a group shuffle around trying to figure out where the GM wants them to go. Then, when the players discover a lost puppy the GM improv’d into the scene for flavor, they can become baffled that the players are now opening up an animal rescue clinic and devoting their life to finding forever homes for the village’s forsaken felines and desolate doggos.

How do I avoid this? By coming up with three scenarios that the group can stumble upon for each plot point in the adventure. Each scenario should be designed to inspire the group to head to the plot point you need them to. The key word though, is inspire. It should never feel like you’re giving them an ultimatum. It should intrigue them. In the above example, I would write out the following scenarios:

  • In the local tavern, there’s a forlorn druid who’s sitting with a potted plant, lazily manipulating it. They’re sad because they’ve been hunting for weird and exotic cuttings to take to the local florist, Audrey, but her shop is closed today.
  • In the market, a young boy is trying to convince his father that he saw a monster the night before. The dad will bend down and tell his son to be quiet while looking around the village nervously. The group can attempt to get more information out of the man or the kid. If they get basic information, they’ll learn the kid saw the bounty hunter lurking outside his home before taking off in the direction of the florist’s shop. If they’re incredibly successful, the group might even learn that the bounty hunter was seeking shelter with the family because he’s related to the father.
  • Wandering around the town is a person with an incredibly nervous look on their face. The group might bump into them anywhere. This person discovered a body on the outskirts of the village, but they themselves have a bad reputation. They’re worried that if they report the body, they’ll be blamed for it. When the group investigates the body, they’ll find that a small, rare flower has been placed inside one of the pockets by the local florist, hoping someone will see it as a clue and come to her shop to save her.

By peppering your D&D campaign with multiple paths that lead to the same outcome, you allow your players to approach the game their way, while still ensuring they have several ways to solve the same puzzle.

That's it for Part 1, but we'll be back next week with tips for "shuffling the deck" and reordering the pieces of your story to fit the paths your players choose.

Until then, if your players are keeping you on your toes, consider download the free demo of The Story Engine Deck to come up with new NPCs, encounters, settings, and magic items on the fly.

Get a free demo of The Story Engine Deck of writing prompts and D&D campaign ideas

This was guest blog was written by Pedro Galicia!

Pedro Galicia is a GM with over 20+ years of experience building worlds and running games. He is the creator and GM of the World Walkers D&D podcast. He is also an Emmy Award winning father and husband, which can be confirmed by referencing his bio.

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