How I got a spy, a possessed warrior, a hedge mage, and a monster hunter on the same track towards the content I had already prepped… instead of off the rails.
How do you get all your players pointed in the right direction?
How do you get a party of happy role-players following their own goals to team up and tackle some challenges with teamwork?
I’m doing something different this week because I had a tough session prep this week and I wanted to share how I solved it.
If you’re familiar with our ideas about proactive roleplaying, you know the secret to keeping players engaged and excited about your game—the secret to keeping them talking and thinking about your game even when they’re away from the table.
You’ve got to flip the traditional script at your table and react to your players instead of making them react to the scenarios you pose.
That means every player’s character needs a clear goal to pursue, and the game becomes about your world and your factions throwing obstacles in their way.
But what do you do when the goals your players want to pursue don’t align with each other, or aren’t very related? How do you keep the party together? How do you weave a story out of all those little separate parts.
Here’s how I tackled that question this week.
What my players wanted to do.
My players had just finished a mini-arc of our campaign, gained a level, and rested up. They were itching to go out there and do something, but they didn’t quite know what that was.
My session notebook just had a blank page for the session, so I knew I need to improvise something. I went around the table and asked the players what their characters’ next goals were.
Here’s what they said:
- Cassius di Valleri: Make friends and allies in the elven capital
- Bellua Arctus: Infiltrate the Occult Order of Xenophonos and gain access to their arcane library in the capital
- Tibby Bain: Prove to his mother that he’s a valuable asset to the family
- Xylo: Make some money
My job as the game master of a proactive roleplaying game is to react to these goals by deciding how my factions and NPCs will pursue goals contrary to the PC goals and create conflict.
The problem is that these goals… have very little in common. I needed a way to tie them all together into one cohesive narrative for our session.
What the factions in the region wanted to do.
The first thing I did was check my factions to see if any of them were already pursuing goals contrary to the PC goals. There were three factions active in that valley near the Court of Stars, our elven capital (actually there are more, but we’re focusing on three to keep things manageable).
The Starfall Confederacy
This is the uneasy alliance made up of the three shards of the elven people. Their politics is complex and plays out over the course of decades, not years, but at the moment their goals are mostly dictated by the whims of the Elf Queen, who wants:
- (Short-term) To build close-to-surface drow lodging and win support among the lower classes
- (Mid-term) Integrate all drow into the slow-moving royal procession through the high woods that is the physical Court of Stars (yes, the city is a slow and and elaborate parade—the drow live in caves and don’t like this)
- (Long-term) Make the Starpact that binds all elves under her rule a permanent enchantment, a contract brought to life via stellar magic
I figured these political aims could interact with Cassius’ goals to make friends in the city. By acting for or against the Elf Queen’s goals, he could make friends with the high elves or the drow.
Tibby’s mother is an advisor to the queen, so she’s very concerned with winning over the hearts and minds of the drow right now—anything Tibby can do to help that process would help convince his mom he’s not a failure.
The Occult Order of Xenophonos
The secret order of wizards that is responsible for the integrity and study of magic. These guys want to :
- (Short-term) Observe the portal to the Feywild that exists near the Court of Stars as it transforms into a hell-hole via some unknown demonic influence… and to do nothing—because they want to see what happens!
- (Mid-term) After figuring out why and how the Feywild portal transforms to a hell-hole, discover how to replicate the process.
They’re mostly interested in gathering knowledge about the transformation process, but it’s dangerous to get close. Bell’s goal directly ties in with these guys, so it was easy to choose this faction to interact with his goal.
The Circle of the Blood Oak
An order of druids that act as the ancestral protectors of the valley near the Court of Stars. It’s their Feywild portal that’s becoming hellified.
- (Short-term) Raise the living henges that dot the valley to act as stony guardians against the demons that keep popping up
- (Mid-term) Collapse the opening hell-hole with a hex of vengeance that will afflict those who opened it
- (Long-term) Restore natural balance to the valley and the elves there by dismantling the Starpact
These druids are powerful, but they aren’t always great combatants. To raise those henges, they need to get close to the developing hell-hole, and they need to not be slain by demons doing it.
That gives me an opportunity to bring in Xylo’s money-making goal, which is easiest to attach when combat is involved because he’s a monster hunter.
And since they’re getting close to closing the rift, their goals interact with the Occult Order’s and cause some friction—therefore putting them at odds with Bell, too.
Where I expected the session to take place.
Next, I needed to figure out which of the locations in our setting the party might visit in pursuit of their goals, and who was active there that might help them or oppose them.
Some of these locations are just things I’ve mentioned but haven’t prepped at all, so I can use this time to quickly decide what’s worth prepping.
Rakta-Cora, woodland stronghold
The forward camp established by the Mahakavya, a wood-elf militia overseeing the response to the demonic threat. It’s a few hours hike from the Court of Stars, much closer to the developing hell-hole, so it’s a dangerous place to hang out.
- Cassius wouldn’t want to spend much time here because it’s too far from the centers of elven power—he needs to be near people with more influence. I’d need a strong reason for him to come out here.
- Bell wants to spend time here because his contact in the Occult Order is living here temporarily, posing as a merchant and quartermaster for the rapidly-growing military camp.
- Tibby is in a tough spot because he wants to prove something to his mom, but she doesn’t want to be around him right now (long story). Rakta-Cora is a great in-between for him, because he can prove useful in the fight against the demons and still be close enough to home that he can get there quickly when mommy calls.
- Xylo is a drifter and a monster hunter. He’s exactly the type of person a makeshift military camp that’s trying to defend a peaceful woodland against a demonic invasion wants around.
So 3/4 isn’t bad. I’d expect them to spend some time here.
The Sleeping Henge
The Blood Oak druids are trying to raise these big enchanted henges that can walk around as big mossy guardians of the forest. Most of them have been awoken, but the last one is still asleep near the hellified portal, so it’s tough to get to.
- Cassius wants to stay the hell away from here.
- Bell is interested in the demonic incursion as a secondary goal, so he might be interested in popping by.
- Tibby thinks he can prove himself a hero to his mother by slaying demons and saving the forest, so I already know he wants to go here.
- Xylo has no reason to go here, but also no reason not to go here…
2/4 is a bit weaker, but I should still prep something for this place.
The Court of Stars
The actual elven capital: an always-roving royal procession that frolics through the forest, mountain slopes, and caverns of the elven mountain ranges. Part of the forest and also constitutes it. Filled with a dreamlike quality of dawn, noon, and dusk all at once.
All the major factions are pulling strings here, jockeying for position at the same time as they’re trying to contain the demonic threat. It’s chaos.
- Cassius wants to be here most of all, since he’s trying to ingratiate himself with the actual ruling court.
- Bell doesn’t want to spend much time here—he’s a tiefling and mostly unwelcome.
- Tibby is from here, and his mom lives here—but their relationship is strained right now.
- Xylo is an outsider, but an elf and therefore welcome as one of the leafblood.
Of all the places to go, this is the one that the fewest party members have direct ties to with their current goals. That surprised me, so I’m glad I checked. Even though the session started here in the Court, I figured it would move away from it pretty quickly.
So there’s the challenge I had to put together: four separate character goals that didn’t have much in common, in a region that we had decided was mostly about this elves vs. demons conflict… but none of the character goals were about that conflict!
We had drifted away from the demonic influence as one of the key points of conflict in the campaign. So I figured I also wanted to draw them back towards that, since I already had some demon stuff prepped.
I also had a few secrets and bits of knowledge I wanted to seed for later in the campaign:
- The true identity of the peddler in Rakta-Cora
- Who was drawing summoning circles in the dark and twisted woods to make the demonic invasion progress faster
- The fact that the Occult Order was capable of stopping the hellification of the Feywild portal, but wasn’t going to do it
- The terrible cost of the reversal hex planned by the Circle of the Blood Oak druids
I figured my biggest problem was getting Cassius’ goals to more closely align with the other players’, or at least keep them together in the same place.
What would you do in this situation? How would you tie all the threads together? Read on to find out what I decided on…
How I tied it all together.
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