Ask The GM: Big Bad In Absentia

By John Serpico on


Mike J. asks – I’m running a Traveller campaign, and the party is the crew of a spaceship. I had planned to have them get involved in a big interplanetary war and eventually come face to face with the big bad of the campaign. Unfortunately, the party has no interest in joining this war or fighting evil. Should I force the issue or let them jump around the galaxy trading things and getting involved with minor NPCs.

Mike, you let your players loose in a great big galaxy. And they decided that their favorite corner of space is different than yours. That means you’ve really only got two options – to coral them towards the war or reshape your narrative to allow them to build towards something else.

When building a campaign, GMs often have a climax in mind. That could be vanquishing a mighty foe or saving the world from a magical apocalypse or wrestling the throne away from a treacherous aunt, but whatever it is, the GM would want the story to build in that direction. That build-up would, ideally, feel smooth and natural. Hopefully, the GM designed a big bad and a road leading to that big bad with character motivations and player preferences in mind. The thief, warrior and sorcerer from the village destroyed by Baron Facepunch would want revenge on Baron Facepunch. Or the hacker, wheelman and heavy that want to break the cycle of cyberpunk poverty would want to take down Allied Conglomocorp. In other words, character creation should lead to character motivation and character motivation should inspire the GM’s narrative arc.

But we’re all human, even GMs, and sometimes a GM misinterprets a party’s wants. Or the party’s wants may simply change once the players are immersed in a big sandbox of a world. So regardless of how the migration away from the story happened, the GM’s choice remains – rope them back in or redesign.

There’s no absolute right answer, though in the spirit of collective storytelling, I generally recommend having the GM go to where the players are instead of forcing the players to go to where the GM is. In your case, the party is enamored with exploring the open galaxy, packing the cargo bay with trade goods and getting embroiled in local politics. To drag them away from that and putting them into a war-focused campaign would be a pretty big shift away from what they’re doing… and presumably enjoying.

So if you do that, it needs to be for a very good reason. If you don’t have a reason, then the easiest thing for you to do would be to think of a new big bad, or a new cabal that they’ll need to deal with during their freewheeling space opera. Take one of those existing NPCs and make her an agent of a larger organization. Make that large organization reach out with a job. And put them into a job that goes south and make them head out on the run. They’ll still be exploring and trading, only now there’s a new ramp towards a different climax.

The alternative is that you swing a heavy hammer and knock them back on to your pre-ordained storyline. If you chose to do that, try to keep it in the theme of the game so far. Maybe a planet they’re en route to is under blockade and someone they need to talk to is on the other side. Maybe they see the horrors of war up close and their desire to be virtuous magically kicks on.

Whatever you decide to do, do it deliberately and with player enjoyment in mind.

Happy GMing!

Have a role-playing question? Send it to and your friends at GeeklyInc will help!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *