The Problem with Storyline & Plot Driven Campaigns

 Not too long ago, I was part of a D&D campaign where the GM had a storyline/plot point of the campaign that he wanted to see unfold and to do so he robbed the players of all agency. I will call this session the "unwinnable fight" and use it as an example as to why I prefer emergent sandbox campaigns and consider storyline/plot driven campaigns problematic to bad (or at best unsatisfying).

The general setup of this 5-hour session, was that we the PCs were in a town enjoying some downtime. Our PC connections to the town had built up over the course of the campaign. After a short while, the alarm bells were set off in the town and we saw a large force of bugbears and trolls approaching the town to sack it. We were all in different locations and set up to defend the town accordingly. Fighting quickly ensued and as anyone who has played modern d20 D&D can attest, combat can drag a bit at times. 

The PCs were quite powerful at this time and we were cutting down foes left and right. However, they kept coming. Nothing we were doing could stem the flow of attackers. The only point of retreat was a central fortress structure. Even though none of our PCs were in danger of dying, the situation was entirely hopeless. It was at this point that I realized that none of our actions made a difference or mattered. And it wasn't like survival was even at stake. We were wading through the enemy without many issues.

So we pulled back to this secure location only to witness an NPC turning into a demigod and annihilating the attackers in short order. What we couldn't achieve in 4 hours, this NPC did in a matter of a few minutes. When we emerged from the fortress, we could see a blighted spot in the center of town that killed everything it touched. Another NPC examined it and told us it will expand to double the size every 10 days and thus consume the world in 160 days. At this point, the session ended and we knew what was expected of us to solve.

It was an evening of beer, comradery, and rolling dice. Now let me explain why I consider this session a problematic example of why I do not like storyline/plot driven campaigns, especially for a game like Dungeons & Dragons.

It is very clear that the GM wanted us to end up at this point of discovery. He also never intended for us to defeat the attackers and he wanted the NPCs to save the group and explain the mystery (to a point). This storyline/plot point was very important to him in the campaign and he felt compelled to rob the players of all true agency to accomplish this task. Now we could still do whatever we wanted in the session and in defending the town, but the final outcome was predetermined. It was the illusion of choice, when in fact we had no choice at all. Aside from killing ourselves, the result at 11:00pm was already decided before 6:00pm.

This example shows the exact problem with campaigns that are story/plot driven. The GM must shoehorn certain outcomes to progress the story. That is also the big problem with most officially published campaigns: "if X doesn't happen you can't get to Y". While this might be great in a novel, it's bad in an RPG where players want their decisions and actions to matter. It is also why I detest it when GMs refer to themselves as storytellers. If you want to tell a story then write one. But that is a betrayal of the essence of what an RPG experience should be.

To spin this example of why storyline/plot driven campaigns are bad, it will inevitably lead to fudging dice rolls. Another betrayal of the RPG experience. "But the players don't know" is a usual response to this point. Maybe they do not. But you as the GM do know that you have lied to your players and are trying to force an outcome to advance your story. 

This "illusion of choice" and fooling the players into thinking they have made an impact when you the GM have already decided the path before them is one of the greatest sins a GM can make. It's nothing more than "smoke & mirrors".

Now I too have had situations as a GM where the PCs stumbled into a very difficult random encounter, maybe even an unwinnable one. But, unlike in the example above, I always give the players an out and option to retreat completely from the situation at hand. And yes, I have had PCs run into encounters that were far beyond their abilities, but I telegraphed the danger quite explicitly before hand. However, if the players decided to push on regardless and not retreat when they saw it was too difficult then death was the ultimate arbiter.

The session described above was one of the most unsatisfying of my RPG life. I didn't mind the length of the session, but when it became clear that nothing we did mattered, I felt betrayed of my choices and my time.

How could the above scenario have been handled better and still produce the same narrative outcome?

I'm glad you asked (you probably didn't, but humor me).

Our party could have been traveling back to this town when we hear the alarm bells whilst still a few miles away. This is when the first meaningful decision can happen: to help or not to help. If we didn't help of delayed our arrival, the dragon still would have destroyed the attackers and the blight mark appeared. Now we would have to deal with the guilt of not getting there in time to save more lives and would have to investigate the cause of the blight. The identity of the demigod could also have been kept a secret this way and the power of that NPC kept a mystery for us to uncover.

Had we gone to help right away with a solid plan, then we could have rescued many town's people trapped by the attackers and then still witnessed the demigod attack. Maybe even helped to actually defeat the attackers without the NPC's help.

A final option would have been to just hear about the attack and blight mark in another town and asked to investigate who the attackers were and what the blight mark is.

Any of these scenarios would have allowed the players true agency to make meaningful decisions with real consequences. No railroad required. No storyline or plot point needed.

Allow your players to make choices that have real outcomes and consequences, even if they don't advance your story (a good GM shouldn't worry about their story to begin with). If we would've ignored the situation and then discovered the deadly blight mark afterwards, then that would mean even greater urgency to find solutions (and a greater sense of remorse for not helping sooner).

A good GM will let the players guide the campaign in the direction that they want to go. These types of campaigns are more satisfying for the entire table and lead to a memorable experience. Robbing you players of meaningful choices is a betrayal of the "social contract" you have entered as a GM.


  1. I don't like (as a mainstay) random encounters.

    I explain my approach but it doesn't fit in this comment file, so here is it if you wish to see an slightly different sandbox approach:

  2. Good Article. I was running a 6 part quest plot driven game for my crew but after about 3 sessions it's really starting to be pushed because no matter what the party does they're still be funneled to a pre planned ending, although they do have many choices available they know I'm taking them somewhere whether they like it or not, fun for the DM but kind of blah for the PC's. Best games are the ones not scripted, loosely outlined is fine but fill in the blanks as you go.


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