I run a story driven game, as opposed to a sandbox. It is the type of game I like to run as DM, and my players agree to play in it and seem to enjoy it. Some might view any story driven game as a railroad, as opposed to the 'complete' freedom of a sandbox style game. I do not see it that way at all. I do not see a sandbox as complete freedom, nor do I see a story game as a railroad.
I do want the players to make the story within the boundaries of the environment I create. This has often been referred to as player agency. I want my players actions to have significant and meaningful interaction with the world, and their actions have consequences and alter the world.
RPG bloggers have debated story driven vs. sandbox and railroad vs. player agency many times, and my intention is not to revisit it all here but rather share my latest experience. If you want to read about the debates, search for those terms - you will get lots of hits on lots of blogs with thoughtful and insightful commentary on the differences, pros and cons.
We play in a homebrew world, and most of the adventures are of my own design - though I am not above tossing in adventures/encounters from published sources. The characters are part of a team which have pledged service to a human king, have called themselves Justice Crusaders, and generally go about doing good in the name of king and kingdom. The latest story arc has the characters defending the kingdom from invasion by an unfriendly island kingdom. Though clearly the oppressors, the invaders feel they are in the right and their cause is just.
Recent Campaign Events
The Justice Crusaders discovered the enemy plan to wipe out a small elven kingdom which had the potential to be an ally in repulsing the enemy. The enemy created some diversions with mercenaries to make it look like the primary invasion when in fact the enemy main force was to land, and with the support of two local orc tribes, march on the elves. With the orcs coming from the east and south, and the main enemy army from the west, they intended to slay every last elf.
The human king has directed the Justice Crusaders to enlist the help of the elves, which means, the Justice Crusaders need to save the elves first. As part of saving the elves, the Justice Crusaders:
- successfully reclaimed a human village from an orc subjugation, and discovered more of the plan
- rescuing captured villagers who were being marched to a life of brutal slavery with the orcs
- made a daring raid inside an orc stronghold which housed over a thousand orcs to remove the enemy provided incentive for those orcs to march on the elves
The last item was at the request of the elven leaders, who made it a requirement for getting some help from the elves to repulse the imminent invasion and for further help in fighting the enemy. So far so good.
No Adventure Survives An Encounter With Your Players
Here is the summary of the events as I planned it out. (note to my players: there are no spoilers here, you already lived through all this)
- The enemy invasion happens on a fixed date/time, and the characters do NOT know the date/time but only that it is imminent
- The characters have a series of challenges to overcome to get to the invasion site in time to attempt to prevent it which included the items noted above which were successfully navigated
- The characters have a choice of priorities, and need to make a choice between breaking the siege of a small human city low on food or preventing the invasion
- The invasion is from three heavy ships on three different beaches at the same time and each consists of about 100 well trained and armed soldiers and 40 war clerics
- The characters by themselves would be insufficient to stop all three simultaneous landings by simple use of force, some additional help or subterfuge would be required
- Potential resources were provided in the adventures if they could convince them to join the cause, elves and an enemy mercenary company
So what happened?
About that enemy mercenary company... The Justice Crusaders did intimidate it into surrendering rather than destroy it, setting up the possibility of getting them to change sides. Then they pretended to guard the mercenary company while they and the elves scouted the landing sites. Hours go by, and the mercenary company discovers it is no longer guarded by its captors, so it peacefully retakes the town it gave up when they surrendered. Some hours later, the Justice Crusaders return to find the town is again in the control of the mercenaries, and the Justice Crusaders are livid (some good role playing here) that the mercenaries, after finding themselves unguarded would find it necessary to do what they were paid to do. More intimidating, some battering around of the mercenary leader, and many harsh words later, the mercenary company is now back as captains but this time with a decidedly unfriendly view of our heros. Now in order to scout the landing site again (they do not know the landing time), they need to leave the elven unit behind to guard the mercenaries.
Scouting this time they encounter an enemy hobgoblin unit with worgs and a giant. Dispatching them after a good fight yields a rescued elf prisoner who has information regarding the landing site, and a good place to listen in to the plan. The heroes take advantage of the listen, learn the plan, and are nearby when the enemy advanced landing party is ready to give the signal to start the landing. There hiding spot is close enough to attempt to interrupt the signal, but awkward enough getting out of and into the combat to make it a challenging encounter.
So what happened?
The heroes decided it was too risky and retreated from their hiding spot to a more advantageous attack position. The result? They steam rolled the encounter, absolutely crushing the enemy advanced landing party... several rounds after they gave the landing signal.
Low on resources, the Justice Crusaders by themselves decide they are not in a position to thwart all three landing groups, so they rush back to town to get the elves and to recruit the mercenary company. You know, the one where they just created a hostile relationship.
I let them role play it, gave them some rolls and all that, but they just couldn't make the connection. There is now an invading army on the ground in a place where I was not prepared to have one.
The Story Continues
Though not prepared, I will go forward with this because it is what the player actions ultimately decided. It does create work for me as DM, but hey - it is what I signed up for when I created this epic story where the players really do decide what happens next.
Now excuse me while I figure out exactly what the enemy thinks of all this and would do. I am sure it will be epic, and I am equally sure the players will surprise me again.
The dice never lie.