Search Plotlines: Dealing with the Impossible

PCs have an absolute gift for not quite understanding what the word “impossible” means. If there’s something that can’t be done, it’s a better than even bet a PC has tried it. Sometimes, when they’re taking on impossible challenges, it’s something straightforward, like challenging an enemy who you know is far too strong for them; success (should they manage it) is obvious, failure is obvious, they learn their lesson (hopefully), roll up new characters if necessary, and move on. But some challenges, like a search plotline, are a lot less cut and dried: it’s hard to tell the difficulty from outside, let alone determine whether you’re succeeding or just trying the wrong thing, so a group can wander for hours without having any idea whether they’re on the right path or not. What if someone’s going on a search that they really shouldn’t be able to carry through?

Some people would say, let them fail. It’s just like if a crowd of newly rolled characters tries to take on the tarrasque, right? Only at least this way they aren’t going to have to put together new character sheets. It maintains verisimilitude, at least, but it also leaves the characters bumbling around trying to find something they’ll never quite reach because nobody knows the right magic.

Some might suggest warning them away out of character. They’re going to be wasting their efforts, you haven’t written anything specific but you do know it isn’t going to work, so why not give them a chance to avoid wasting both their time and yours? Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you end up with a player who’s going to try to beat the odds—or one who just can’t find a reason to call it quits.

Then there are those who will give them a distraction. They aren’t ready yet? All right, let’s throw them something urgent to do so they can get a bit closer to being ready. As long as you aren’t dealing with one or more utter obsessives, you can probably even get away with it.

Some would say, just let them succeed. They’re the PCs, and the point is to have fun, right? Unless it’s really important to the plot that they not find it, why not let them have their fun?

Those people, from what I’ve seen, tend to be divided into two camps. The impatient ones, burning to move on to the part of the game they actually want to run, might pay lip service to the difficulty of the search for a little while, then toss them a deus ex machina that makes it a lot easier. Then there are the rest—I’m one of them. They throw Miller’s Law at the situation—all right, let’s assume there is a way this character could succeed. What might this way be? Then they drop in a character who could help and make the challenge determining that the character would be useful and locating her. Or find someone who knows where the objective is and just needs humoring—in sum, they turn the challenge from something that can’t be done into something that can be done with no small amount of effort and possibly a heavy price on top of that.

How do you handle PCs who insist on looking for things outside their skills?

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