In the 5e game I run, the players just returned from Stygia, 5th layer of the Nine Hells. They reached 7th level at the end of the session. The players were there to attempt to steal back the soul of one of the group that was in the possession of Prince Levistus, ruler of the 5th layer of the Nine Hells. Levistus had been traded the soul by a coven of sea hags, who had acquired the soul after a player died in battle. When the player was restored to life, there were clues that things were not as they seemed. He spoke in a strange language, with two different voices speaking at once, and his breath smelled of sulfur. When he slept, sometimes Levistus acted through him, though the player didn’t yet know it was him, and one a small portal to Hell opened, and the players fought against lesser devils. The players ultimately tried to have him exorcised. This failed, and they learned it was indeed Levistus, and how he acquired the soul.
Levistus wanted the players to entreat with one of the other antagonistic forces in the campaign, a djinn named Nahas Al-Aizdira, commonly referred to as the Brazier of Contempt, on his behalf. The players already dislike this djinn, and her servants. The players also learned the hags received the Silver Horn of Thyrana in exchange for the soul. Further, they discovered Thyrana was a servant of Lurue the Unicorn Queen, and the hags served Sarula Iliene.
The players traveled to nearest large kahin idol, a giant, but now crumbling, jade statue once dedicated to Ha’Rabar. Their goal was to hopefully run into other kahin on pilgrimage, and consult them on planar travel and learn if they know anything happening on a planar being level, as kahin attain mastery over an element and can plane shift when they become Aged Masters. They encounter an already known Aged Master, who so happened to have mastery over water. He lays out a few further options, such as retrieving an object desired by Sarula Iliene, and granting it to her. As a fey, Sarula would be obligated to give them a boon, and treat them kindly for not belaboring the soul issue. Another option was to seek aid from a genie who would be opposed to the Brazier of Contempt, as any alliance would likely be troublesome. The players already have a relation with a dao, as a result of previous events, and know this dao opposed Nahas Al-Aizdira.
Instead of any of this, the players refused to negotiate with anyone, or ask for assistance in any way, and asked the kahin to plane shift them to Stygia, where the Aged Master had previously been. They wanted to sneak into Stygia, and try and steal the player’s soul back. The general consensus was the soul was a lesser prize, really, and it wouldn’t be under heavy guard. So, off they went, to the teleportation circle in one of the levels of Levistus’ ice fortress.
This is fine, as I support player action. I really don’t care what they ended up doing. I set up criteria for success and failure, just as I would anything else. The two-session adventure did not feature any combat, and was an exercise in utility spells for the purpose of exploration and avoidance, as the players sneaked around that particular level of the ice fortress. It was blind exploration, it’s not like they were given a map, but the player without a soul was able to function as a compass, to give them an idea of what direction they needed to head.
I ran the encounter as a skill challenge, more than anything else. The players needed to reach the goal before achieving X failures. Hitting that number of failures wasn’t an automatic failure. It was just a signal that things started to get back. Creatures became aware of them, alarms sounds, they were being chased, and so on. The players used a great combination of invisibility and pass without trace. They did really well, and didn’t get greedy. Unfortunately, a few things broke bad for them. A few failed checks in a row, coupled with running into a dead end, and having to backtrack through an area they had already failed in a few times.
The players who were invisible remained invis. One player used the declare trait system, and picked up “takes one for the family” as a bond (negative). This got rid of one terrible ice devil. The barbarian, the character with the captured soul, decides to intimidate another ice devil, stating he is the master’s pet and shouldn’t be harmed. The other visible player chimed in with an affirmative. So the players were marched to a projection of Levistus, and ending up wheeling and dealing. The end result was the players having to both deal with the Brazier of Contempt, and go pick up an item on his behalf, and return it to him. He gave the players a time deadline to follow, and sent them on their way. Of course, first he gave the barbarian a magical sword to prove he was the emissary of Levistus. I’m sure it’s fine.
Back home, they immediately started discussing how much they hate that guy, and how they are going to betray him at the first opportunity and so on. They had a great time with it, which is cool. More player investment is never bad.
However, two things popped up during the course of all this. One is a player believing I was railroading them into this conclusion, when I certainly do not feel this was the case. On the backend, they could have totally succeeded. The projection of Levistus didn’t show up until the alarm was triggered and the players captured and escorted. He wasn’t there from the beginning. I would have been fine had they succeeded. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve heard a few players express their belief that I, the GM, want them to go to certain places and do certain things, when that couldn’t be further from the case. I just provide what is going on in the world, how people are reacting, and then present several options to proceed. I don’t care what the players do. I will support whatever their choice is, and run what I believe should happen.
I believe this is largely a result of the players in question not understanding the nature of a more sandbox game. The game has lots of things that are occurring, but the story is of the PCs trying to restore honor to their family name, and regain their lost status. As that story is directly tied to the players, however they want to achieve it is cool with me.
The second point is one more indicative of a wider shift in the gaming community. There is a trend for players to want their players to never need assistance, nor have any modicum of control wrested from them. It’s a little disappointing. Higher powers play a huge part in the worlds of D&D, as is facing powerful foes beyond reach. As players get higher level, they are able to face these challenges without assistance, it’s not like they couldn’t cast plane shift, for example. In a setting filled with genies and other cosmic level beings, dealing and interacting with them is part for the course.
Yet players don’t want to do this.
Instead, they want to never have to ask for assistance. Negotiating or dealing is a sign of weakness that must be only used if everything else fails. I am not talking about only the players in this game. I’ve been co-running a LARP for five years. It’s the same thing there. It’s a growing trend of rigid self-indulgence. Why wouldn’t you want situations where you are able to discuss things with villains, but are not in positions where you can do violence just then? The villain is similarly bound, of course. The idea is to create a greater sense of ownership, as the players can then engage on a personal level.
Unfortunately, people seem to want to do this less and less. They want to only be able to combat the villain with no repercussions or hindrance. It’s largely disappointing.
The players very much enjoyed the two-part session, and seem excited to move forward. I am, too. I just wish the current culture was in a position to shift a little bit, and that trust was a bit better.