Dealing with agency and retcon (in semi sandbox)

ZebraDruid

Villager
(PF E2 although it hardly matters)

I've started DMing for a group of 4 close friends. I'm fairly new to it, but most have experience with TTRPG or at least CRPGs.

We did a goofy one off dungeon (it lasted a few sessions since we were all learning) to get a general grasp of the game. One character jumped into a deep dark hole and essentially died for 80% of the game. (He was fine with it but realized actions have consequences)

A month or so later we're starting a fresh new campaign that is basically a sandbox with an end goal that will eventually shape itself into the game based on their actions.

To not overwhelm them I locked them in a safe orderly large city (Almas) with the intent to give them some quests to help build up their characters personality, wealth, and level up a little, before I let them go all the way to Mwangi Expanse if they wanted to, and die to a tyrannosaur.

It was going decently well, and we were shaping the world details we wanted to see. The exact map of towns, organizations, npcs etc. People were having fun, figuring out more in depth with how the game functions.

I gave them a quest, given to them by a noble to steal the body of his father from a family crypt. He lied and said he was resurrecting his father from his evil brothers clutches who just wanted the inheritance. The young noble was a necromancer whose family had a curse/pact with Asmodeus that basically bound them to him if they were ever resurrected. (A poorly worded deal with a contract devil that the dealer wanted his family lineage to be immortal.) The curse would break if no living members were alive who were still pact bound/resurrected. The younger brother wanted to force his entire family into the deal, and the older brother was trying to abide by his fathers wish to break the curse, without harming his brother and just letting him be.

The party consists of a:
Good Sarenrae redeemer paladin
Evil Asmodeus Cleric
(converted from norgerber)
Neutral Wizard
and Chaotic good Ranger

The overall party story is a struggle between good and evil characters trying to convert each other. Naturally it's a bit chaotic.

They went to the older brother and failed their diplomacy checks to gleam information, so they broke into the family crypt to steal the body, believing the younger brother had good intentions (he lied to them, they could have stolen information from the house and found wills etc, reported it to the guards, so on)

They brought the body to a graveyard late at night as instructed, and the evil cleric and the neutral wizard were curious about how exactly this resurrection ritual of theirs was going to go. The whole group was suspicious of the noble, and his intentions. The cleric tried to convince the group to stay out (because he was pretty sure something evil was about to transpire and didn't want the paladin interfering)

The paladin stayed outside, and at the time I couldn't figure out why (There wasn't even any diplo check to influence it and they knew this), but I figured he had his reasons. I didn't want to force him into anything he didn't want to do. So the necromancers performed the ritual, pact bound the father to Asmodeus through the contract, and once they exited the crypt, paid the group for their efforts, and went off into the night. (To then go to the older brothers home and murder his entire family, resurrecting the older brother and son to also be in the necromantic circle.)

The paladin was not happy about this, especially after finding out the family had been killed, went to his church, and the guard, and the lets call them 'magical FBI' as the group has coined them. And essentially ratted out the entire group to being complicit in the crime of grave robbing, necromancy, theft (the cleric and wizard robbed the home on the way out) and accomplices to murder.

I had intended the paladin to go in with the group and stop the necromancers, but he didn't think that was an option and I wasn't respecting his agency, and that his actions didn't matter. Where as it was actually the exact opposite. I respected his agency as a player so much, that I didn't make the very obvious suggestion that he should go investigate the crypt some shady people just took a body into and find out what they were up to. Thus, evil basically won, and the bad guys triumphed without a fight. The family could have been kept from harm, and he was more or less one of the people who could have stopped it.

Bare in mind. I let a player 'jump into a dark pit to his death' in the last campaign. It was a joke we all laughed about ever since.


Now as a result, everyone is going to prison for various amounts of time (the cleric took part in the ritual and fully devoted himself to Asmodeus). (Also earlier in the campaign they had 'tracker spells' put on them to keep them in the city, so they basically can't hide without literally cutting off their hand, or finding some way to dispel it which just seems a bit convoluted and cheap as a level 2 party.)


I suppose the question is, how much should I be guiding my party, even though I have let them know ahead of time, and many times before, and given them examples and situations where they can do what they want. Do I in this situation say "No, you can't stay out here because it will mess up the story, now get inside and stop the ritual. Why even give them free will and choice at all? Is it really agency if I just direct the story to what 'they' want to have happen, even if it isn't actually their choice? How do I balance agency between good and evil characters motives and goals, especially if one of them refuses to fight back when it matters most?

I've noticed that if I make a suggestion, the player will often do it as if I'm telling them to do it, but other times they will ignore me entirely even if it's good advice, so I realize they have minds of their own, and also do take suggestions, but not always...So often, I just wait to "Yes, And..." "Yes, But..." them

'Yes, you can decide to wait outside and let an evil ritual be performed by suspicious people on a dead body in a graveyard at 1am, but they're going to go kill an innocent family afterwards if you don't stop them.'

Lastly,

-should we just retcon the ratting out of the group that has basically resulted in a TPK of sorts,
-do they roll with the prison time, (The cleric is effectively PK'd because he'll be in wizard prison for a decade)
-do we retcon the entire session so that they can 'do the good thing' and set a precedent that says : "Will anything I do matter this session? Not sure... cause it might get retconned...meh w/e I'll just do some dumb crap and we can retcon it later if so."
-Remake new characters and learn from the experience.


Things to consider:
-No one is shy. I try to interrupt people to let others speak if they've been overshadowed for too long. (But usually people let others speak on their own) everyone has known each other for at least a year, (The wizard is the paladins brother, I've known the cleric for 9 years)
-Everyone has a basic understanding of agency and character growth
-Everyone has experience in rpg style games
-Everyone has mutual respect for each other
-I asked OOC if anyone else wanted to go into the crypt
-We had a 4 hour discussion after session with open communication suggesting the above solutions
-I explained at the start there were at least 3 ways to complete the quest
(that I could imagine at the time)
 
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darkbard

Legend
Alas, this is what comes of thinking agency means the freedom to investigate your story. Rather, agency consists of player decisions actually driving play, replacing GM-authored backstory. Instead of what you decribe above, which consists at best of Participationism (ie, a tacit agreement to follow along with what the GM has cooked up), consider not prepping a story in advance in favor of following PC interests and actions to allow a shared experience to emerge that truly builds from what the players want to do/find interesting (ie, agency).
 

ichabod

Legned
Three things off the top of my head. One, give them a way to break out of prison. Two, have a dirty dozen type thing where they can redeem themselves. Three, have some adventures in prison.

Work on prepping situations rather than stories. And maybe don't be so harsh on the players. You didn't necessarily have to put them all in prison. You could have done a "state's witness" kind of thing, and let the consequence be that they have some evil family as their enemies. But that's for going forward. I don't like retconing things.
 

I figure you're probably better off starting over. Any retconning is going to just nuke whatever meaning the PCs' choices might have had. You might want to suggest the players make characters that will work better together or at least more easily if you want to run a game where the PCs work together.

I'd further suggest not worrying so much about prepping future events or figuring out how you'd "complete the quest." The thing about doing either of those is that when the players do a thing you haven't considered the temptation is there to rationalize what you've prepped as the result.
 


bloodtide

Legend
So, a lot of this goes on to the DM. You. This is exactly why the DM is special and has all the power in the game: You are the one making the game. It's all on YOU. Everything that happens.

A lot of things stand out to me:

*Don't do the "fool the players" type quests. They should be RARE or super obvious. Doing the "haha players, fooled you" is just a bad move. And it make no one happy except the DM. Even if you did an full hour of deep role playing with no dice rolls, the players might not be able to figure out your "clever deception". And if your doing the dull mechanics of "oh you roll and don't see anything wrong...blink, blink" it's even worse.

*When you do most "fool the player plots", even more so with newer players, you must always add in Three Clues. While it's so "tempting" to make the necromancer an all powerful evil demi god that perfectly alters reality to fool the players.....you should NEVER do that. You always want at least three clues that "something is up". And note by "clue" we are talking about a freight train traveling a billion miles an hour hitting the PC. For example: Family member X tells them the 'real plan'. Evil necromancer slips up 25 times saying 'enslave' and not 'save'...then correcting himself. A dark omen, like a raven, crow, or such 'blocks' the PCs path...a bit unnaturally.

*Never, ever, ever make the "Attack the Good Character" plot. Your whole plot is against the Lone Good Guy. You expected them to just STOP and say HEY? Even If they did feel "something is wrong", it's hard for MANY players in nearly ANY group to come out as That Lone Guy. To even have that One Lone Player say "hey" is HARD and really puts the player on the spot. Plus, many or most of the other players won't care...and can often out vote the Lone Good Player. So if the Lone Good Player speaks up....they are risking simply not playing in the game. Why would they risk that?

*Mixing Good and Evil. Lots of problems...but just from the above. You have TWO evil characters that will go along with anything evil...as they are evil. What do you expect that Lone Good Character to do? You have two characters that will "do anything". And the one that will say "um, wait guys...good common sense tells me this is wrong". The game will get nowhere with such PC conflict.

*Rubbing the nose: It's a bit much for the bad guy to go "hahaahah fooled you" and then do evil right then and there. Real face slap to the poor Lone Good Character and player. Guess you got to see a good look on their face? Ok, simply put....don't do this.

*This whole adventure was set up against the good character and player. But...well, sure for the NEXT adventure you had one planned out where the group would be TRICKED into doing a GOOD act, and the evil characters/players would just have to play along and they would of had a problem with all that happening to them. Fair is fair, right?

*The Big One: So....who says the "guards" or whoever jump up and say "we must arrest all these law breakers and take them to a court of law! All hail the Law!" ? Well...it's the DM, of course. So why did you do THAT. You did have at least 12 OTHER options. You could have picked one of them. The point is that the game story does NOT have to be "good guy tattletales, group arrested and send to prison. ANYTHING else could have happened.....don't trap yourself in the One Way Only type of thinking.

In the end, no, don't recon anything. It's a bit of a waste. Just get them out of prison. Have a prison break or have them be a "Dirty Dozen", for example. Then...going forward, don't make all the above mistakes.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I'll just add to and partially repeat what others have said...
A month or so later we're starting a fresh new campaign that is basically a sandbox with an end goal that will eventually shape itself into the game based on their actions.
Why not start with it being a game based on their actions? That's the beating heart of sandbox play. Player agency.
The party consists of a:
Good Sarenrae redeemer paladin
Evil Asmodeus Cleric
(converted from norgerber)
Neutral Wizard
and Chaotic good Ranger
That cleric and paladin pair is going to be a problem. I'd suggest you make absolutely sure that the players are okay with PVP, because that's going to end up with PVP, likely far...far sooner than you expect.
The overall party story is a struggle between good and evil characters trying to convert each other. Naturally it's a bit chaotic.
It also seems inherently antagonistic. As mentioned, PVP should be expected with that set up. Generally you want the party to be a cohesive whole the vast majority of the time. When PCs are at each others' throats, that tends to bleed into the players as well.
The paladin stayed outside, and at the time I couldn't figure out why (There wasn't even any diplo check to influence it and they knew this), but I figured he had his reasons.
Well, good paladin and incredibly suspicious circumstances.
I didn't want to force him into anything he didn't want to do.
That's good. You should never do that. Ever. The only thing the player gets to do is control their one character, you get the whole rest of the universe. Don't take the player's agency away from them.
The paladin was not happy about this, especially after finding out the family had been killed, went to his church, and the guard, and the lets call them 'magical FBI' as the group has coined them. And essentially ratted out the entire group to being complicit in the crime of grave robbing, necromancy, theft (the cleric and wizard robbed the home on the way out) and accomplices to murder.
Well, yeah. Paladin.
I had intended the paladin to...
That's the thing about players having agency, their actions aren't up to you. It sounds like you're planning more of a linear story for them to follow. That's basically the opposite of sandbox play.
but he didn't think that was an option and I wasn't respecting his agency, and that his actions didn't matter.
Well, if you had plans for what the characters would do and tried to enforce that plan in anyway, the player is right. You sticking to your pre-planned story precludes the players having agency. It's either, or...not both.
Where as it was actually the exact opposite. I respected his agency as a player so much, that I didn't make the very obvious suggestion that he should go investigate the crypt some shady people just took a body into and find out what they were up to. Thus, evil basically won, and the bad guys triumphed without a fight. The family could have been kept from harm, and he was more or less one of the people who could have stopped it.
Things look obvious when you have all the info. Not so much if you have little to no info.
Now as a result, everyone is going to prison for various amounts of time (the cleric took part in the ritual and fully devoted himself to Asmodeus).
Except for the paladin who did nothing wrong and reported the crime. He should be rewarded. But the trouble is, you now have most of the group in prison, one PC free, and they're stuck in a town where the powerful NPCs can literally step in at any time and solve their problems. That's all around bad news.
(Also earlier in the campaign they had 'tracker spells' put on them to keep them in the city, so they basically can't hide without literally cutting off their hand, or finding some way to dispel it which just seems a bit convoluted and cheap as a level 2 party.)
Uh...why? Unless the PCs are explicitly evil there's no reason for something like that to happen. If that's you as the referee trying to enforce your limits on where the PCs can go...you need to rethink things.
I suppose the question is, how much should I be guiding my party, even though I have let them know ahead of time, and many times before, and given them examples and situations where they can do what they want.
Zero. You should be guiding them zero. Prep a whole lot of hooks and situations and prep absolutely zero story (as in no pre-defined beginning, middle, and end). There should be zero assumptions on your part about how the PCs act, what they do, or how they progress through a given scenario or hook. That's literally the point of sandbox play. The referee preps a lot and reacts to the players. You're following their lead.
Do I in this situation say "No, you can't stay out here because it will mess up the story, now get inside and stop the ritual.
Nope. That's the worst thing you can do.
Why even give them free will and choice at all? Is it really agency if I just direct the story to what 'they' want to have happen, even if it isn't actually their choice?
You don't "direct" the story either way. There's no story. Something vaguely story-like emerges from 1) your prep, 2) the players' choices, and 3) you reacting to the players' choices.
How do I balance agency between good and evil characters motives and goals, especially if one of them refuses to fight back when it matters most?
You don't. You let keep hold of the notion of player agency being supreme and let go of wanting to dictate how they react to your "good vs evil" theme. One of the PCs refused to fight in the good vs evil battle. That's infinitely more interesting than yet another black and white morality play.
I've noticed that if I make a suggestion, the player will often do it as if I'm telling them to do it, but other times they will ignore me entirely even if it's good advice, so I realize they have minds of their own, and also do take suggestions, but not always...So often, I just wait to "Yes, And..." "Yes, But..." them
Well, don't offer suggestions. It's the referee's job to present problems and obstacles. It's the players' job to figure out how to overcome those problems and obstacles.
'Yes, you can decide to wait outside and let an evil ritual be performed by suspicious people on a dead body in a graveyard at 1am, but they're going to go kill an innocent family afterwards if you don't stop them.'
Don't do that. That's you forcing them to act how you want by giving them knowledge they wouldn't otherwise have.
-should we just retcon the ratting out of the group that has basically resulted in a TPK of sorts,
No. Never retcon. Always move forward with what you have. "Yes, and..." what the players gave you.
-do they roll with the prison time, (The cleric is effectively PK'd because he'll be in wizard prison for a decade)
That's one option, sure. Have the paladin player make a new character since he's the only one out of prison and advance the timeline to when they get out. Or go full Suicide Squad and have the city official now use the PCs as expendable resources to throw at problems.
-do we retcon the entire session so that they can 'do the good thing' and set a precedent that says : "Will anything I do matter this session? Not sure... cause it might get retconned...meh w/e I'll just do some dumb crap and we can retcon it later if so."
Again, nope. Never retcon. Don't negate or deny what's happened. Nothing they do will matter if you retcon things to how "they should have happened" every time they make a choice you don't like. Always let the players' choices stand. No matter the results. Always bring in the logical consequences of those actions. If the players don't want to face the logical consequences of their character's actions, they'll learn to not do terrible stuff.
-Remake new characters and learn from the experience.
Nah. You can salvage this. It's not so bad.
Things to consider:
-No one is shy. I try to interrupt people to let others speak if they've been overshadowed for too long. (But usually people let others speak on their own) everyone has known each other for at least a year, (The wizard is the paladins brother, I've known the cleric for 9 years)
That's going to be an issue. Siblings intentionally playing polar opposite characters knowing it's going to lead to conflict. That's a really bad sign.
-Everyone has a basic understanding of agency and character growth
-Everyone has experience in rpg style games
-Everyone has mutual respect for each other
-I asked OOC if anyone else wanted to go into the crypt
-We had a 4 hour discussion after session with open communication suggesting the above solutions
That seems excessive.
-I explained at the start there were at least 3 ways to complete the quest (that I could imagine at the time)
Don't do that. It's not up to you how they resolve things. When you say things like this you give the impression these are the "right ways" to solve the situation. There shouldn't be a right way. The players can come up with whatever they can imagine. If you think it's reasonable, roll with it. But don't decide ahead of time what the solutions are and force them to guess the "right way" to resolve problems.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I wouldnt have killed the family yet since that is a railroad that takes away agency. (So retcon that part)

What I’d do is let the prior unwise decisions stand and have the party arrested and jailed. The Paladin is told that while the older brother has been murdered, his family is still alive but have has been abducted by the younger brother. The Paladin has gained some leniency due to his confessin and now he (and his crew) can prove himself by saving the family before the younger brother completes his fell ritual.
* The Cleric of Asmodeus might miss out though, ask the player if he wants to create another character who isnt evil!

but yeah everyone else has given advice on how to let player decisions lead outcomes
 

pemerton

Legend
I gave them a quest, given to them by a noble to steal the body of his father from a family crypt. He lied

<snip>

They went to the older brother and failed their diplomacy checks to gleam information, so they broke into the family crypt to steal the body, believing the younger brother had good intentions (he lied to them, they could have stolen information from the house and found wills etc, reported it to the guards, so on)

<snip>

Now as a result, everyone is going to prison for various amounts of time

<snip>

I suppose the question is, how much should I be guiding my part
Just to add to what @darkbard has posted:

What you describe in your OP is a railroad gone wrong - that is, you had a pre-plotted story that would only work if the players declared particular actions for their PCs, but you didn't tell the players what to do, and so the game has broken.

I've quoted some of the key parts of your post that exemplify the break points:

*The situation turns on secret information (the quest-giver is lying) that the players don't know and have to guess about;

*The players had to guess which pathway lets them play the game (eg do they follow the quest; do they tell the guards, which seems to equal not playing the game);

*Related to the preceding point, the players had to guess which illegality on the part of the PCs was expected (eg stealing information from the house) and which was not (eg allowing the ritual to go ahead).​

If you are going to run railroads, make sure you make clear to the players what it is they have to do. Don't make them guess.

Alternatively, as darkbard has suggested, you could look into techniques for running non-railroads. A recent thread about that is here: https://www.enworld.org/threads/advice-for-new-story-now-gms.698281/
 

ZebraDruid

Villager
Thank you for all the responses!

-Keeping them in prison and letting them play out their time in jail, or escaping does seem like an interesting idea. I'll bring it up to them.
-The older brother and son being kidnapped instead of dead is a great idea, as only his wife and their maid/guards were confirmed dead.
-I agree retconning is awful, and no one likes it.
-I agree a good character and evil character causes conflict I didn't want them to have conflict, but this was the players idea and not mine, and I was simply rolling with it and creating what I thought to be a situation where it could go either way.
-I agree solid group cohesion is good, originally we didn't even have a cleric/healer.
-The wizard is actually neutral, not evil. In a party of 4 it's 2 good 1 neutral 1 evil. The two brothers get along very well IC and OOC.
-The 4 hour discussion was excessive, but two of the people in the group love to talk, and I try to lend an open ear. (the other two left after an hour)
-I agree the morally black and white good guy win stories are overdone, but the paladin wanted a story like that.
-I kept the quest ambiguous at first because the paladin/ranger would have refused outright if he knew the truth, and there wouldn't be much to it without group splitting (which they don't want to do) That being said I can see the initial deception being annoying. (They all 4 said they didn't trust him.)


To give more context on the 'quest'

They wanted some kind of low level 'dungeon quest' to do. I don't think I designed it all that well, but at the same time I tried to keep it very open ended and not write in key details before they even acted. The crypt was essentially that low level dungeon. (I had to build basic things in map editors like rooms for them to loot, and a dungeon to fight in, so it had to be at least somewhat pre planned or the dungeon would be boring and random gen, and also unbalanced) Room #3, 2 goblins 1 goblin rat and 1 kobold isn't very inspiring.

I originally only wanted to present them with an offer for a job to steal a body, at the time of that quest I hadn't planned anything beyond that there was a corpse they could retrieve from the crypt/dungeon, and a family that didn't want them to take it.
The wizard said he wanted to see the 'resurrection' ritual that the young brother was going to perform, thus I created an entirely different map and situation where they would go to the crypt where they'd see it performed. This was entirely because of the wizards request to see it.

I do agree that it isn't good to 'trick' your players. I let them know that both brothers didn't seem to be telling the full truth, and I purposefully made the dialogue between them and the young brother shady. (me voicing him) I had him tell them that he had someone who would perform the resurrection without the churches help, which was a red flag for them.

The crypt they robbed also had bloody skulls and demonic insignia, as well as coffins that read 'To serve in life, and in death' Inside the coffins were necromantic symbols, and yes the corpses attacked them. They were all calling it, that they didn't trust the younger brother, but still wanted to go deliver the body to see what would happen.



To answer a few questions.

-Why put tracking spells on their hands? Long answer.
In the beginning they were unwilling experiments in getting teleported by a gnomish contraption powered by a power gem of Desna, they spent some time in the jungle rescuing the gem that powered it when it became lost during transport, before returning it. I let them know this was just an initial prologue story to get them in the general groove that 'something' is occurring in the background, but not to worry about it until later. They didn't want a 'complete' sandbox, and all generally wanted me to homebrew a story that they could also explore around in.

I initially gave them complete freedom as they came back, but the first thing the cleric did was immediately run off with an important artifact connected to the machine that he then delivered, basically to the BBEG, As I said this is semi-sandbox, it has a very loose story for them to explore at their own pace.

The group and even the cleric told me that I shouldn't give them 'that much' freedom if it's going to end up getting them killed. We basically agreed that it would be better to warm up more to total freedom, instead of just going wild. Because most of us are new to 2E, and don't have the world details totally fleshed out. The spell trackers were a temporary story reason to keep them in the city for a couple sessions for them to get used to the game, and generally give them a feeling of accomplishment when they were let off the leash so to speak. (they were being watched by the magical FBI while they investigated why half the market place disappeared around the gnomish contraption)


--------
-Why not make the parties starting situation reflect their actions?
-Initially I did, there was an inventor, he was there showing off his inventions at the city fair. (they had to quit due to schedule conflicts since they could only play 1 day every 2 weeks.) The cleric was a gunslinger assassin originally, who wanted to start the game assassinating someone (the gnome who had the invention mentioned), the paladin was sent there on a dream vision quest by Sarenrae to stop a terrible event (linked to the teleportation machine) The wizard had anmesia, (and asked me to write him a background story to discover on his own). The ranger was fine with just being there, but mainly came to the fair for fun. (He just wanted to explore his story without any prior hooks)

It's a bit convoluted, but no one wanted to just start with some cliche, at a tavern and have a dwarf merchant walk up and say "Hey me lads I need some goblins killed in thar cave who done took me wares."




I'll run these ideas past them, they know they 'can' fail. I'm just worried a TPK will result in a general disinterest in continuing, as most people are attached to their characters after 3 months of on and off play.
 

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