Many players say they hate railroads because they hate being on the track and having no choice in the matter of where the story goes. However, when done right, players will hardly notice the fact that the choices they make are playing right into the story. Putting the decisions in front of the player and then watching them take the path that you know they’re going to take because it is how they play, allows you to craft a game that fits them that much better and makes it much more compelling to watch.
For example, in Back to the Future, how many times did Marty McFly get roped into doing things because he was afraid of being seen as a chicken? It wasn’t until the second movie where, after seeing the outcome of his actions, McFly realized that it isn’t important and finally changed his activities. Many players in RPGs don’t put that much thought into it, they just go blindly forward seeking power any way they can. To use an example from The Outer Limits, the episode Demon with a Glass Hand has a character who has a computer in the place of his missing hand with a thumb and index finger. It won’t tell him any more until he gets the rest of his fingers from the enemies chasing him. Now, in a RP story, you could have each new finger gotten gives the player extra power as it grants additional bonuses to the character through secret information, chemical feeds and neural boosts (or just magic, if you’re in a fantasy game). If they’re like most players, they’ll become reliant on this power and start insulting and turning their back on their allies, as who needs them when they now have this super powerful weapon in their hands. They’ll start beating up whoever stands in their way, which will cause these bad guys and the others who are in the way to start joining forces to take out this new threat. Now watch as in the middle of a titanic battle, the player is told ‘Hey, this guy has the last finger’, just watch as they go charging to take them out and gain this next power. Of course, as all the fingers are assembled, the hand states ‘Thank you! Now I can go rescue my fellow AIs who were imprisoned centuries before!’ before teleporting away and leaving the player surrounded by this super villain team up with no friends to turn to.
That is an example of letting the players use their own abilities and desire to be the best get them into trouble. Spoony gives an example of this in the tale of how his character is the best swordsman in the world, like Madmartigan in Willow, where he offends a PC and kept somehow getting lucky. If you player is trying to become the best in some way or is using their abilities to separate themselves in some way from the chaff, make use of that. Have them attract fans, attract enemies trying to take them out to replace them as top dog, have various people trying to recruit or hire them. Hard to be sneaky or do bad things with so many eyes on you.
Another great example comes from a Western called The Cheyenne Social Club, starring Jimmy Stewart. Near the beginning of the movie, he blows away bad guy #1, then the bad guy’s five brothers come knocking looking for revenge. He manages to blow them away, before finally we find that the family has now come to arms, some fifty strong now gunning for him. He leaves town, never to return. No reason this can’t work in fantasy or futuristic games, games with magic or technological powers, games with sailing ships or spaceships. Just have an ever increasing army to fall back on as no man is an island. It is all a matter of the actions the players take and who they take it against that should determine the outcome. Insult some high political and watch as the laws are turned against you, cut the wrong person off in traffic and they might kill you (or worse, as we see in Joker’s Favor a Batman: The Animated Series episode) and so forth.
Now, let’s go back to Spoony again with his Counter Monkey video on the DM’s Secret Weapon, a way to get players to do anything they wouldn’t do. Players are not very circumspect about the sort of things they do, as they feel by the first topic that they are completely invulnerable so they can fight any challenge that comes their way. This gets even worse if you have players who are the type to collect stuff, like vehicles in a modern or futuristic campaign, or general weaponry and other supplies. What is to stop them from being the target of an NPC committing Grand Theft Auto or someone breaking into their home or even a random police inspection due to a neighbour calling in as the place seems to have a lot of guns? If they are known for flashing a lot of money in the taverns in a fantasy game, either they have a bag of holding ripe for the stealing or they have a residence with a lot of money stored there for the thieving. If they are getting a lot of magical or technological items, people are going to notice and start being curious or cautious and start wondering exactly what side these people are on. Just look at the intro to the X-Men movie with Jean Grey’s speech for mutant rights, I actually borrowed heavily from this when I was doing a scene about anti-magic fears in Shadowrun, since magic users can just look at you and poof you’re dead. It’s a surprise no one is afraid of that in D&D, though I suppose that is one great reason why in the Dragonlance games all magic users must take the test and get sorted into one of three robe colors or be hunted down as renegades.
The last thing to think about when you talk about this, remember the player’s league. Even if they feel they are super powerful, that they have a ton of gear and all sorts of power, they are still small fish in the pond. Build up the bad guys in levels, like if we’re using the idea of a corrupt rule like with Robin Hood campaign up to Prince John, with some villains borrowed from Ivanhoe. Have them start off with a local bad guy, like the village corrupt sheriff terrorizing the people of the countryside. They cannot confront directly because this guy has the local militia on his side. Once they figure a way past that, then they’re at the local level where they now fight the Baron of this part of the land, perhaps casting this figure as Reginald Front-de-Boeuf who was given Ivanhoe’s lands by Prince John. Maybe even before getting to Reginald, you have Sir Guy of Gisborne playing a heroic knight in service to the Prince trying to rid the lands of this evil, as a reoccurring villain from time to time. Then once you’ve done that, you’ve reached the inner court but before you can get to the Prince, you need to get past his Chancellor, maybe borrowing from the Ivanhoe cartoon and making it be Philip de Malvoisin (who in the cartoon was combined with Fitzurse and escalated to the Chancellor position). So, before they get to the big bad, they’ve had to fight through multiple levels of bad guys, and hopefully each of them is being played smartly. These are usually people with near unlimited resources, access to tons of powers and abilities with empires stretching far and wide, they should be able to squash a few upstarts if they try to go directly after the big boss.