Recently, Lance, a friend of mine asked me a GMing advice question about something that came up in his Silvervine game. A high fantasy setting with lots of magic and tech, airships are a common way to travel in the world, but are very expensive to own. That meant his players wanted one, but it would be a while before their coffers were full. After an already hectic adventure running from the guards of a city-state in an action scene that would have done Tony Jaa proud, the players wanted to get an airship by stealing it.

[pullquoteright] While my normal go-to advice is to just say yes and go down that path, gleefully led by the players into the game they want to play, sometimes you have to step back as a Game Master and keep the game’s structure in-tact.  [social_warfare] [/pullquoteright]

My friend’s issue with this was that it put them on the path to the exact wrong kind of game he wanted. If airships were common, then stealing one set them outside the governing authorities and right into the scope of being airship pirates. Cool, it’s in line with the genre, but not what he wanted to run. Still, the players were super-keen to get an airship AND to pull off a heist game. My friend asked me what I would do in that situation.

The Problem With Saying Yes

While my normal go-to advice is to just say yes and go down that path, gleefully led by the players into the game they want to play, sometimes you have to step back as a Game Master and keep the game’s structure in-tact. Having access to the airship wasn’t the problem, but having them on the wrong side of the law and no longer able to work within the boundaries of the civilized nations of the world was. In addition, having the players turn to taking in order to solve most problems just reinforces the murder-hobo trope, and that wasn’t quite the feel that was wanted.

My Approach – Say Yes, To What They Really Want

From the minimal facts I got from the facebook message exchange, it sounded to me like the players wanted to pull of the heist game in a big way, but that the airship was the benefit and not really the goal of the heist. That just enabled a different, less hemmed in type of gameplay for them. So, give them their heist with the airship as a reward, but the heist isn’t to steal the airship. Dipping into and using some concepts I’ve written about re:Island Design Theory (and here /end shameless plug), I told Lance what I would do.

Use the same elements, but instead of following the path you had intended, go with the path the players are more interested in. Lance wanted the players to work and get the airship through some quests, but they wanted a heist game for a bit of a change of pace. So, follow the course they are setting in, but let them end up on the same “island” through their preferred non-railroady route (the heist).

In game terms, I suggested having the airship they had their eyes on get impounded by the local authorities and the PCs get approached to help them get evidence from the local mafia boss’s very secure safe. The local authorities needed “outside the law” sort of help, and were willing to provide the airship as a reward, as well as a chunk of the funds acquired from the theft of evidence and money taken from the secure vault.

That provided every goal the players had (Do a heist game, and Get an airship) and kept the game in the boundaries the Game Master wanted (Keep the PCs able to work with civilized countries) without flat out saying no or adhering to railroading.

Your Solution?

That was my advice and I haven’t heard yet how it went off. What would you do in this situation or a similar one? If the PCs were setting up to move far outside the boundaries of your game, how would you satisfy what they wanted without destroying your game concept? How much leeway do you give to players in setting the plot, and does it differ if you are playing more traditional campaign games or one-shot sort of games?


11 replies
  1. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I’d do what you suggest John, but I know from experience and gut-feeling that this campaign is already over. The players have not connected with the GM vision.

    It won’t be long before another “change of pace” and another comes down the pike until the game has been hit with the “Player Shiny Needs” hammer so many times it just looks like bog-standard “die-roller” D&D/Pathfinder.

    Nothing to be done about it.

    I know what I’d want to do: show the players just how hard it is to maintain an airship with no experience, nil tools, nada crew and zip resources.

    That would of course make the players pout and rage quit en masse, so I doubt I’d do it.

    Experience with a different milieu but essentially the same issues also tells me that once the groove has been jumped there’s no re-cueing the game.

    I’ve sat on both sides of the GM screen when this issue arose. Sometimes it can manifest as a bait and switch from a player perspective. Knowing that doesn’t convey any quick-fix wisdom, unfortunately.

    • Corey Smith
      Corey Smith says:

      I wish I had read this comment several weeks ago, then I could have saved myself the time of showing up to continue after the heist that ended the game according to this internet stranger. Learning how to run the airship as a crew has been an exercise in controlled chaos, but its starting to come along. It didn’t help that we used the heist fund to buy the ship off a shady dealer that haunts my nightmares to this day. the first time it fired up we quickly found out just how busted this ship was. Got it fixed up though and the HMS Revengence has had a solid run so far.

      • Roxysteve
        Roxysteve says:

        Wow, so much bile. Sorry I caused you so much angst, even though I wasn’t talking to you.

        1) Everyone on the internet is a stranger.

        2) I’m glad your experience was different to my expectations. The two games I was using for my reference (one from either side of the screen) were driven off-plot to destruction.

        3) Wish I could talk to your GM over beers, not for the reasons you will assume.

        • Corey Smith
          Corey Smith says:

          Cool your jets there turbo, I was poking fun at you for making a silly assumption with no knowledge of the situation. The campaign in question is over a year old, so something like a difference in how something should be done isn’t going to end it. Our GM did in fact show us how hard it would be to run a ship with only one trained crew member being present. Unlike your prediction though we just stepped up to the challenge (mainly because having your own airship is awesome). I wouldn’t play with anyone who rage quit over something so silly.

          • Roxysteve
            Roxysteve says:

            Well how much knowledge of the situation did you expect a commentor to a Gnome Stew article to have? It’s sort of like a court case – the jury can only consider what they’ve been allowed to hear.

            That said, perhaps recent events in my LFGS community colored my response. It seems there’ve been an inordinate number of local campaigns of late that have either exploded or died with a pathetic whine, and in each case a difference between player/GM vision has been cited as “The Problem”.

            And perhaps I’m still pissed at the GM who wanted to run Rise of the Runelords, then began phoning it (and pathos-quit*) in when it became apparent that the entire team wanted an experience richer than on-the-grid, insta-kill dicefests in the final quarter after we’d invested months in his wretched game.

            * The exact opposite of Rage Quitting. The sort of quitting Eyore or Marvin would indulge in.

  2. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Another possible approach would be to let them steal the airship, and then realize how much of a dead albatross a stolen airship is (carefully, of course). Work with them to flip it for a loss or (literally or figuratively) burn it in an adventure. As they say, “Show, don’t tell.”

    For instance, the party steals it, then tries to go elsewhere. The airship is recognized, and while they aren’t arrested, the party is certainly under suspicion. Be open about it, not passive-aggressive. “I’m not trying to railroad y’all, but you did steal a pretty visible, recognizable, and valuable item.”

    Then, they are contacted by a connected political figure who is being blackmailed. She has heard of their predicament, and has an offer. They offer to trade the airship for the blackmail material, and then call the local cops, or maybe the previous owner. The blackmailer goes down, the airship is confiscated, and the party has a wealthy and powerful patron. And a valuable lesson that they learned through experience.

    FWIW, I don’t think the campaign is self-destructing. Without further info, I suspect this is just a conflict of expectations. The party may think this is like stealing a car in the days before computerized licensing, while the GM may think it’s more like stealing a car in the modern era.

  3. Blackjack
    Blackjack says:

    When my group is considering doing something that’s against the style of the story or their stated character types, I’ll warn them of the consequences of their actions. Usually I can couch this in terms of in-character knowledge one or more of them have. For example:

    — Has one of the PCs been involved in a major theft before? S/he would know, “OMG, something like an airship is pretty easy to trace. We’d be on the run constantly whenever we travel in that country and anywhere that cooperates with them.”

    — Does one of the PCs especially value having a squeaky clean reputation, perhaps because s/he has worked jobs where criminal background checks (or your setting’s equivalent thereof) are important? Make sure that player knows committing a felony will burn that part of the character and sees good enough reason to justify going rogue.

    If after these kinds of warnings the players still want to go in an unexpected direction, so be it. But don’t go light on applying the consequences. They’ve been given fair warning.

  4. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    That provided every goal the players had (Do a heist game, and Get an airship) and kept the game in the boundaries the Game Master wanted (Keep the PCs able to work with civilized countries) without flat out saying no or adhering to railroading.

    When you get a chance to step back and analyze a game this way, it’s great when you can find win/wins like this. You’ll want to keep the player feedback in the back of your mind too–if they balked at a series of quests to earn the airship, you should keep an eye out for future plots that have the same feel.

    Basically, keep an eye for frustration points. They’ve given you good feedback about something they’d like to avoid–keep it in mind as the campaign rolls forward.

  5. Silveressa
    Silveressa says:

    Personally, I would have let them swipe the ship from a organised crime syndicate while it was in dry dock for repairs, and then let them sort out how to keep an angry group of ex airship pirates from hunting them down and being mistaken for said airship pirates. (Perhaps with an NPC pointing out such draw backs before they stole it.)

    It can be a pain sometimes when the PC’s decide to take the simple shortcut and steal what they need rather than buy it legitimately.

    Sometimes though it’s because they are impatient for the adventure options the new shiny (like an airship) will provide them, or they just don’t feel they can save up for it in an acceptable amount of time in game and are worried the campaign will come to an end before they get to enjoy using the new shiny bauble if they take the long path of saving up for it.

    With big ticket items (like ships) I’ve often taken the route of letting the players either buy/inherit a used ship in need of TLC (I.e the Serenity from Firefly) or enter into some kind of contract with a corporation or shady syndicate that provides them with the ship they desire in return for regular payments… And a few undefined “favors” along the way. (Which most groups are happy to agree to.)

    But in the campaign mentioned in the article I think it’s perhaps more a failure of the game premise than anything that made the characters decide to steal the airship.

    In any campaign where ships are common (be they air, star or ocean) and feature prominently in the setting, the PC’s are going to naturally want one for themselves, and may assume if the GM doesn’t let them start off with one, or have them earn one during the first three or four adventures, that they’re supposed to acquire one by “alternative means” and ingenuity, which is usually PC speak for “steal/con/blackmail a legitimate owner out of it.”

  6. Redcrow
    Redcrow says:

    If you dangle a reward in front of the players with no clear path to acquiring it that is in line with your vision, then don’t be surprised when the players forge their own path to said reward that is not in line with your vision.

    Also, if the PCs have to jump through too many hoops following your preferred path, they are likely to begin weighing it against the ‘quicker and easier’ path of the Dark Side (as Yoda might say) and consequences be damned.

  7. Justin Alexander
    Justin Alexander says:

    The fear of railroading often leads to the conclusion that GMs are obligated to run whatever game their players are interested in even if they’re not interested in that game. This isn’t the case: If we all agree to play Star Wars there’s an endless variety of directions my players might steer the campaign that I will gleefully follow, but if they declare their intention to settle down and become moisture farmers on Tatooine for the next 20 years I’m going to call timeout and figure out how we’ve fallen out of sync with our interests.

    Same principle applies here: If you can figure out an alternative path that keeps both them and you happy with the campaign, that’s great. But either way, you should almost certainly have a metagame conversation about why their vision of the campaign and your vision of the campaign aren’t matching up. Because there are three possibilities:

    (1) Their vision of the campaign is radically different than yours. If this is the case, then problems like this will continue to crop up (because they will continue trying to invest in moisture farms or looking at egregious grand theft as a solution to their problems). Better to figure out if you can both get back on the same page now rather than just continuing to smash your head into that wall.

    (2) They have misunderstood the consequences of their action (i.e., they thought they could steal the airship and get away with it in a way that wouldn’t make them outlaws). It’s also possible that the GM has misunderstood their plan (i.e., they really DO have a plan that might light them get away with the airship without becoming permanent outlaws). Either way, better to clear that up directly.

    (3) They don’t necessarily want the campaign to go in that direction, but they don’t see any other option. This is the situation where finding an alternative solution like the one you describe can work well.

    It’s also possible for you to frame the undesirable state of affairs as a transitional period: They become moisture farmers, but 20 years later the adopted daughter of the old friend sends them a hologram begging for help. New adventure! Or they steal the airship and become outlaws… and now you’ve got a mini-arc about how they can clear their names or cut a deal with the government.

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