Problems and Oppurtunities: Controling your Players

How do I make people do what I want them to do?

This is not only a question that Game Masters have asked the cold unfeeling void of dark basements for decades. This is a question that made the heads that where the crown heavy, that cause middle managers to pop ambien like PEZ, that cause grown men and women to weep in the middle of the floor whilst their children wreck havoc, invincible because their parents love them.
What should give GM's hope though is that, unlike Kings and Managers and Parents, tight fine control over the people under them in not nearly as critical to the mission. Also, the very strategies and tactics used by kings and parents alike can be helpful.

In my experience, direct control is impossible to achieve fully in any roleplaying game. Let me play dictionary though: Direct Control, by my reckoning, is a state in which you can predict with 100% certainty that a person will act in a way that moves your story in a direction you deem positive.

I could say Direct Control is "I tell the players what to do and they do it", but that is a useless definition because even the Train Conductors of our hobby don't really want that. Their playstyle may be such that their stories implode if that condition is not fulfilled, but they still don't want puppets. They want people to do decide to do exactly what they want independently.

Also, even partial Direct Control is not only difficult to achieve, but undesirable. Its alot of work for the Game Master, and what they gain is mostly butt-hurt and bored players. Player agency has been a somewhat touchy word in these climes, but barring the chatter, it really just means that when a player is presented with a problem, they feel as though they have a say in how to handle it.

And that last sentence is critical. "When the players are presented with a problem..."

Being presented with problems is the very basis of all storytelling. Books, movies, video games and roleplaying games all present Human(ish) characters with problems. Characters act on those problems, generating action, suspense, excitement, insight, profundity, comedy, drama, and horror. Sometimes the problem is framed as an opportunity (which happens alot in Grand Olde D&D): the characters hear rumors of a hug bounty being offered for the head of Kalabrax Vainogre, the handsomest Ogre Mage Pirate of the Acid Seas. The characters react by going to the local sheriff and signing up for the quest.

Or... really they don't. For some reason, some smart ass character makes a comment that they would rather ride WITH the pretty boy Ogre, because he has such an awesome sounding outfit. And yes, the players are all ostensibly good aligned and Kalabrax is a rapey, murdery kind of pirate not a fun loving plucky one and the DM has planned huge naval battles and treasure hunts and getting the players deserted on an island filled with native with alot of magic and very little understanding of Common and now is breathing into a paper sack.

However, in this scenario, nothing is lost. At all in fact.

The Dm did their job: They presented a problem/oppurtunity (problotunity? Oppurblem?). And that's all you ever really need to do as a DM: present Problotunities.

Some Problotunities will be just flatly ignored, and that can be within a DMs control to a point. If you present a problem that the character have no reason to care about or they feel they can't solve, that's a sucky problem. If you present an opportunity that is too difficult for the pay or just not rewarding enough or is a bit too on the nose with prizes without good reason, then it tends to be ignored.

But lets just say that the players already expressed an interest in doing a piratey game (they just didn't tell you that they wanted to BE pirates...or you weren't listening....), so this oppurtunity is one they are interested, and are taking it a completely different way then you intended.

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Can't beat em...

Again, when the smart ass said "Let's join Kalabrax instead of turning him in", the DM lost absolutely nothing. Even the possibility of getting stranded on an island full of angry natives is actually still fairly likely.

As a dungeon master, if you take it into your mind that you are a professional problem maker, then you will be prepared. These problems you make up do not disappear as soon as the PCs do. Kalabrax does not give one farthing about your PCs existence, not when there are merchant boats to plunder and seawitches to bed. That distant maritime empire that wants to blockade the Island Elves until the king gives up his Daughter in marriage is still going to tap Kalabrax to weaken the Island's navy. That hurricane off the coast is still going to tear ass through the trading lanes and sink a few boats. The sheriff of whatever is still going to put up Royal Warrants for Kalabrax's arrest. Kalabrax would only care in two very general scenarios, 1), if the PCs become an enemy or 2) if the PCs become an ally.

So what if they chose ally? I say run with it.

The PCs get on the boat, and Kalabrax assuages them that the terrible tales that the party has heard of them are exaggerations and propaganda, and plies them with ale and food and TREASURE! Scrolls for th mage, new weapons for the fighter, missionary opportunities for the cleric, smuggling contacts for the rouge and gold for all! Yaaaargh piracy!

But they are good aligned you say! If there is a Paladin in the bunch, he may be like F this crap and try to attack. Play out the combat however you like, but if your Paladin is casting about for excuse to go, let his God tell him that there are ways he can minister goodness and light even on a filthy pirate ship, and to be watchful. And guess what, the god will be right.

They have not lost their good cards yet: they are in bed with the pirate but they haven't bumped uglies yet.

The players are going along an its time for you to present a problem. You look in the world you created. You have a few geopolitical tensions to play with: that distant empire may send some mail via wyvern or boat to the captain, asking in cloaked (or uncloaked) terms for him to sink a huge gunship that is being donated to the elven island nation by the Good Empire or whoever. Kalabrax orders his men to chart a course to intercept her fat gunny ass, and tells his first mate to retrieve Stormmaker, a great big trident that blasts a shit load of lightning.

First mate says: "Cap'n! She ain't got the power!" and indeed, there are fewer charges in the staff than they were expecting! It can only mean that 1), the staff is leaking power, 2) someone managed to use the staff without his knowledge or 3) someone stole power directly from the staff.

Kalabrax shows some of his true colors by accusing the mage directly, in front of everyone, with maternal insults for flavor. Already, we have an interesting problem for the supposed Pirate Loyalists to deal with? Does the party defend the mage or leave him hanging? Does the mage roll Knowledge Arcana to see any obvious evidence or tampering? Here's the Paladin's opportunity to smite evil if he can provoke them to attack, or maybe the Paladin has already discovered innocents on the ship and wants to give diplomacy a try for once to save them.  And, are your players starting to wonder what the weapon is for? Is the rouge wondering which side to be on now, or is he just going to Use Magic device to blow the captain away and take over the ship?

What if you tried to force this line of decision making though? A DM would mostly likely show their hand when they were setting up the game, maybe just in the way they present the wanted poster, they would unintentionally signal to the players that they WANTED them to join Kalabrax (and the contrarian player would be like "lets smash him instead", which is the opposite problem of the first scenario, where the DM was trying to MAKE the players choose to smash the pirate, but they joined up instead.

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More moving parts, more to break

Instead, if you present opportunities and problems, you have more options in how to handle how your players react. After this confrontation regarding Stormmaker, the players could decide that Kalabrax is the asshole people have been saying he is. Or, they could assuage him and help him, and become more loyal and beloved crew members. Maybe their kindness will change Kalabrax, maybe his evil will change the players, and maybe a stray harpoon will stab Kalabrax through the eye and the crew will pick the Cleric to be captain because he or she is an awesome cook. Whatever happens, so long as your just creating problems and opportunities you will keep your players moving, and you can keep reacting, and they can react to you!

How to make problems

You need only two ingredients to make a problem: a resource and people willing to exploit it.

Coming up with problems comes with practice, but I always start with the foundations of human sentient behavior. There are hundreds of these little bonbons of why people do what they do, but these six come to mind in this discussion.

1. Sentient always want more than they have.
2. The higher up in the food chain a sentient is, the more willing they are to compromise their morals
3. The higher up in the food chain a sentient is, the more they HAVE to compromise their morals
4. Sentient priorities tend to be, in order of greatest to least: Themselves; Their children and Spouse; Their friends; their social group; their nation; others of their species; other sentients ; everything else.
5. Plenty of people however have completely different orders. Some have the above priorities but put themselves at the bottom. Some have something more like God; nation; unit; family; self. Some are just Self; Self; More self. Rearrange for fun and profit.

I say "sentient" because I assume that elves, elder gods, and being that exist outside linear time have the same motivations. Maybe yours don't, but mine tend not to, for now at least. I may look into different motivations in the future. Again, mix and match for fun and profit: maybe an extraplanar being knows better than to worry about temporal power and material possessions but if you so much look at its chosen copulation partner you are its mortal enemy.

Lets put some people and resources together and see what we get.

A small list of people
1. A large, distant empire
2. An island full of elves
3. an underwater nation of magic users
4. Pirates
5. A middling, mostly peaceful nation full of land-based exports

A small list of resources
1. A well of infinite magical power that is on the Island of the Island Elves
2. An empire with vast amounts of gold and tiny amounts of scruples
3. A sea full of pirates with alot of gold, alot of guns, alot of guts, but not alot of scruples
4. A nation with not as much gold, but still a contender in world politics
5. An underwater nation of Sea Witches, Ocean Druids, and Abyssal Necromancers
6. Magical artifacts created by above sea nation over the millennia of their histories

You notice than some of the people are resources, and some of the resources are people. This is usually true in life: that's why they call it that department at work Human Resources afterall.

Let's put 1 and 1 together. The empire is large and already has alot of gold, so it needs nothing. So thats means it would not want a well of infinite magical power right? Fuck no of course it wants it. So, it will do anything and everything to get it (afterall, the cost analysis of going after a well of infinite power is nothing but positive. They are almost obligated to grab it.) One of their ideas on how to get it might to be to force Island elves to give it up through marriage. Princess don't want to marry Evil Empire's old ass King, so they plan pretend to want an alliance while secretly using pirates to destroy and eventually blockade the island nation. 

This creates a bit of intrigue: why aren't the island elves a nation of incredible power themselves? Why don't they just crank up a fireball to the size of the Evil Nation's capital city and drop it on them? Is this well "really" infinite afterall...

Lets put 5 and 3 together. This nation doesn't have deep pockets, so they can't have a huge standing navy, nor can they keep bribing pirates. They need to either get rid of the pirates or make their navy so mighty that they can protect the merchant ships that bring them their stuff, and they need to do it cheap. Maybe if they can get their kindly Prince to woo the Princess of the underwater nation, then the underwater people will help them sink the pirates, in return for stuff Ocean people can't have like cotton or gold or land magic or something.
It doesn't take long to come up with more and more twisty scenarios. All you need to do after make these situations up is make not of them and find one or two that they players can get involved in. Remember, just because the PCs don't care that the Island Elves are getting bamboozled by Evil Empire doesn't mean that the Evil Empire will stop its bamboozling. Maybe they hear the Prince needs an escort to the Sea Nation and ignore the call to destroy Kalabrax and go help the Prince woo his lady love. They may never encounter Kalabrax at all, but I would not throw away his stat blocks of backstory, not even if the campaign is over to be honest because you can always reuse him for another game. Because you don't have control over your player's actions, you don't know if, maybe one day they may make all the right choices to encounter the evil pirate. And still decide to run with him...

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Mind you, its also pretty easy to get carried away with too many scenarios. Don't come up with too many, and dont expose your players to even HALF of what you come up with.


Direct Control is impossible, and not really profitable. Better, in my experience, is to create a world full of problems and opportunity, and know how they are interconnected and how they operate independent of the players. Your players will react to one or more of the problems/opportunities, and then you have them involved in the plot of their own volition. To create a problotunity, simply come up with a person or group of people, come up with a resource, and come up with why the person/people would want to exploit the resource and how. Then create an opportunity for the players to affect that exploitation.

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