View Full Version : Story vs. Rules

2008-06-17, 05:25 PM
I DM'ed a campaign a while back; it initially intended to run a while, but I decided that I would only do it for a short time.

Anyways, the PCs got this artifact and they didn't realize that it was an artifact. Anyways, they went on a quest and came back to the artifact-involving plot. They went to the location of my endgame, beat the final boss (the barbarian killed him before he said a few crucial lines), but they took too long and the artifact, while at this location, permanently merged two planes. In other words, they didn't save the world. They were level 2.

Now, mind you, all of these encounters were level appropriate (the highest being CR 4). The players hold a grudge against me, however, because they had a "world destroying artifact" at level 2. They believe that they should not have owned such a powerful item at such a low level.

My point is: Do the rules of the game limit what happens in the world? What equipment people own? Who is allowed to do what? Or, as I believe, are the rules of the game a tool to tell your story? While this seems like a silly question, the players of my game seem to believe that the rules of the game limit what happens in the world. How can I get my point across to them?

Azerian Kelimon
2008-06-17, 05:34 PM
IMO, the players were right. Artifacts are items of POWER, protected by many wards and with many people interested in them, like the Eye and Hand of Vecna. Giving the players an artifact at level 2 doesn't make sense, and gives them too much power and too dangerous enemies. It's like walking down the street and finding the Genie's Lamp and Ring, it's nonsensical.

2008-06-17, 06:02 PM
I agree with AK.

To me, this is more of a problem of Story vs. Players Expectations. Nobody expects to have a powerful artifact at level 2 (unless you're playing LotR or something). Artifacts should always have powerful people chasing after them, enough that your players should have been able to realize that something was up. You said yourself that the players didn't know it was an artifact, the BBEG didn't get to say his crucial line, and the world was destroyed mainly through the players' ignorance of these things. Personally, I would hold a grudge based on that alone.

2008-06-17, 06:02 PM
I see no real problem with this. It is a bit strange, sure, but there is no real reason that level two characters could not be called upon to save the world, given that they are at the right place at the right time. As long as there is a reasonable chance of the players successfully completing the adventure, the stakes are not all that important (in the sense of adventure design). I would have no problem dropping a Balor on a party of level two characters (pretty much done it before, as it happens), as long as it wasn't just an excuse to kill them off.

2008-06-17, 06:16 PM
Rules won't stop you from doing pretty much whatever you want, including giving level 2 characters a ridiculously powerful artifact.

Common sense, on the other hand...

2008-06-17, 06:37 PM
The stakes should never be so high at Level 2; at best, you should be saving towns and cities, not worlds. That sort of stuff is why we have Epic levels.

But you're right: there's nothing in the rules preventing your characters from getting such a powerful artifact at any stage of the game.

2008-06-17, 06:49 PM
The only thing stopping you is the idea that other beings are also interested in the artifact... Other beings being far superior. I personally do not feel bad that they obtained such an item, it has happened in my games as well, but they should definitely get some other beings interest walking around with a world destroying item.

On the plus side the campaign could continue (and would be a great intro). They just need to go to [insert exotic location here] to find [insert special artifact here] in order to clear there name as world destroyers, before the [insert lawful good orginization(s)] do [insert incredibly bad things] to the PCs.:smallredface:

2008-06-17, 08:00 PM
The artifact itself was not very powerful at all; it gave no abilities to the bearer itself. Perhaps, I admit, I was overambitious in giving such characters such an item, but they did have a rather reasonable chance of completing the adventure.

Also: In my defense, Bilbo Baggins had the ring. :smalltongue:

2008-06-17, 09:03 PM
I fail to see a problem. I really doubt Frodo and Bilbo would have been above level 1 in D&D terms when they set out on their respective journeys, being that they had never adventured before. Other similar stories abound.

So what's wrong with your players?

2008-06-17, 09:09 PM
Since second level characters are nowhere close to the power necessary to create such an artifact, it is a bit strange for them to come across one. There could be a story explanation, but that's still kind of strained. It would be easier if they were 8th or 9th level (still too low to make such an artifact, but you could figure they got lucky beating a level 12 guy who got lucky beating a level 15 guy who was keeping the artifact for his god).

2008-06-17, 09:16 PM
The difference between this and LotR is character knowledge.

Frodo knew how important that ring was from almost the very begining, and knew the scope of the stakes and the importance of the artifact explicitly soon thereafter (council of Elrond).

In comparison, your players had no idea what they had or what they were doing with it, and thus did something catastrophic completely by accident. This is the part that's stupid.

If you want your campaign to begin at level 1 and end at level 2, it should still involve letting your players know what's going on and thus have some way of "winning" aside from pure happenstance.

2008-06-17, 10:33 PM
I would have made it more clear of the stakes, but I think there is nothing wrong with subverting player expectations. Really, it's a counter to their metagame thoughts ("getting the McGuffin doesn't matter in the long run, we're only lvl 2!").

That said, it sounds like they killed the BBEG before he managed to give the cruciality of the plot away...in which case, you tried to let them know what was going on and player action screwed it up. In which case, that's their fault.

I support, in general, your idea. Story over expectations. Woot.

2008-06-17, 10:46 PM
i don't think this is a story vs. rules situation, more common sense vs. expectations.

2008-06-18, 07:56 AM
Or, as I believe, are the rules of the game a tool to tell your story? While this seems like a silly question, the players of my game seem to believe that the rules of the game limit what happens in the world. How can I get my point across to them?Frankly this is the issue you ran into. You attempted to tell "your" story. You appear to have had at least one single point of failure - when the BBEG couldn't monologue your entire plot crashed. In other words, your plot wasn't robust enough to handle being derailed by the PCs. Remember, only the plot is yours. The details - the story - belongs to the players. Intentional or not, the result was the equivalent of "rocks fall, everyone dies" initiated simply because the PCs didn't follow your script.

In the future, I'd recommend dropping clues all over (at least twice as many as you expect the players to catch) and leave endings open for easy revision. Don't have any 'must happen here' scenarios. Instead create scenarios you can insert, adjust, or even discard as it fits the game.

Good luck!

2008-06-18, 08:52 AM
My point is: Do the rules of the game limit what happens in the world? What equipment people own? Who is allowed to do what? Or, as I believe, are the rules of the game a tool to tell your story? While this seems like a silly question, the players of my game seem to believe that the rules of the game limit what happens in the world. How can I get my point across to them?

For consistancy's sake you should apply the rules that you agree with and keep to them except in very special circumstances. Wealth by level and that sort of thing, which is what I think you're talking about, can be discarded along with level-appropriate encounters as soon as you are comfortable with DMing-they're the equivilent of training wheels on a push bike.

Having said that, throwing a world-shattering artifact into a group of any level characters is a difficult thing to pull off. In particular, if the game's to be fun, you need to give the players a chance to understand what is going on and to do something about it. After all, you would never dream of starting a gaming session with the words

"It turns out that your fireplace is an entrance to Hell and during the night you were all killed and the world ended; roll up new characters."

Yet, that's not really far off what you described!

Scenarios with artifacts in the hands of low-level characters can work, not least because a high level character may not be any worse at handling it than a high level charatcer. To take an extreme example: a private can press a big red "cancel" button on the side of a nuke just as well as a field-marshal and neither would survive the explosion. Artifacts can be like that too.

If you make it make sense and make it fun, then even if everyone dies you've not done anything wrong.

2008-06-18, 09:34 AM
i think the subject here is storytelling, when doing these types of campiagns or any campiagn you should treat your PC's like how a director treats his audience, YES the storyarc may so easy for you, the DM to understand, but you've been thinking it up for a while and preparing it where as your PC's where throw into this storyarc. Some times they need prodes, clues, and good resources (including NPC's) in order to unveil the story. like a trail of breadcumbs.

2008-06-18, 01:58 PM
This is something that's fascinated me about GMing. There are a number of priorities that each GM sets, consciously or otherwise, and they help determine what sort of game you'll have. It's kind of like the roleplay triangle that compares players based on their preference for story, frockery (acting/dressing up), and mechanics.

The facets of GMing I've identified are story, rules (though I call it mechanics), roleplay, and combat. I subdivide story into long and short term too, but that's beyond the scope of this discussion. Roleplay is distinct from story, as it is more about how the game is acted out, than what story is told. Some GMs narrate the story and let the players only join in for fights. Rules and combat are different because there are important mechanics outside of combat. Also some players just want to win fights and don't really care how it happens.

Everyone prioritizes these items. The other important priority is keeping your players happy. That should always be number one, and then these options can be sorted. I go with story, roleplay, combat, rules. Roleplay and combat are pretty close in my book, but story is way ahead of them. I don't do random encounters, each one has to be meaningful.

As a fellow story GM, I sympathize with your players taking exception to an otherwise good story. I had a similar game in mind for a one shot. I wanted to have a bunch of characters with really strong motivations (probably religious motivation) stumble across a ring of 1 or n-1 wishes (where n is the number of players), and let them roleplay it out. With strongly defined characters being played by good roleplayers, you could have an interesting little session right there. Never bothered running it though.

I recently did run a game that put story over rules a little too much. I was trying to establish some new villains. The PCs entered themselves into an adventurers tournament. Every group had to ante up some loot and the winning team got half. The tournament was rigged by another group so that they'd win, and if anyone from the tourney opposed them, they'd point out that they just won all the group's good gear and would beat them even harder this time.

I thought this was a good way to introduce some petty scum, who the PCs will have a vendetta against, and who they will also fear. Players make it to the last round of the tournament, and because it's horribly rigged things start going against their favor. They actually do a lot better than I expected, but they were still disappointed with the game because from their point of view they lost to GM fiat. In retrospect I can't blame them for that, and I probably could have done a better job making it clear that that combat wasn't a fair fight, but part of the story. In my defense, I did this to them at the beginning of the session and they got revenge by killing the leader of the other party by the end of that game.

Anyway, the problem in this case and in your case comes from a disparity in your GM priorities and what your players expect. My players thought they were in a fair fight. Instead I put them in a story about getting ripped off and getting revenge later. Even if they did win the fight, it still would have felt like a bait and switch. In your case, you have players who expect the world to work in a specific way. It didn't. Even if it was a good story they felt ripped off because it wasn't what they signed up for.

I've been pretty good about letting my players know what they're in for when they sign up for a game with me. This actually helps weed out the roll players who just want to test out a new build and it gets players ready for more roleplay than they're used to. I haven't been so good at telling them that certain sessions may be eventful in ways they don't expect. I don't really know what I could have said before that arena fight to lessen the blow without removing it completely. I do believe in beating up the characters for the sake of the story. 2 losses and then a win against the BBEG is more meaningful than beating 2 minions and then a boss. The problem is making those losses meaningful to the characters without hurting the players. So far the best tool for this that I've come up with is session management. Beat up the players early in the game, but let them go home happy at the end of the night. It's not perfect, and too much beating will make for an unfun session, but by the end they're usually happy.

2008-06-18, 02:46 PM
Off-Topic: You're ring of wishes idea reminds me of an event that happened in one of our games. Premise of the campaign was we were playing ourselves but got sucked into Ravenloft when one of our friends went postal (his wife had recently died in our back story), and started shooting up the office where we worked. Us, as a group, got sucked in and started trying to adapt the new world and our postal friend had amnesia. Eventually we stumbled upon a trap that summoned a noble djinn that was willing to give us 3 wishes (random traps are awesome). The rest of the session was spent with us debating what to use the wishes on. (It ended up with one of our more evil players getting an intelligent magic item to help guide him back to being good and recreating our postal friend's wife's body and a random lingering spirit being stuck in to it). Overall that was one of my favorite campaigns.

2008-06-18, 03:00 PM
My stance on story vs rules: if breaking the rules makes a more interesting and, most importantly, fun story, do so without hesitation.

However, this is not the case here. WBL isn't a rule, but a guideline. You are guilty of a big DMing mistake: the players failed not because they did something wrong, but because they didn't do something arbitrary. This is not good and I understand that they are pissed.