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Meeting in the Middle: When Your Players Need to Adapt to You

Over in Le Pote du Suggestiones [1], Gnome Stew reader gustavovp asked us a great question. As I was typing up a response that began “I don’t think there’s an article in this, because…” I realized that there was — and that many of our readers may not know about the Suggestion Pot [2] at all.

The Suggestion What, Now?

Given that close to 4,000 of you read the Stew via RSS or email while around 1,000 of you visit the site itself, there’s a good chance that 80% of our readers may not even know the Pot exists. Which is a shame, because we think it’s pretty cool.

Here’s how it works. You suggest an article idea, or ask a question, and we do one of three things: write an article in response (generally when your suggestion has good applicability for other GMs, too), shoot you a quick response in the comments (when we don’t see full article potential, but want to help — we love helping!), or explain why we won’t write that article (generally because the request has nothing to do with GMing).

Not every site does this, but we love doing it and we think it’s a cool service to offer our readers. We’re not always prompt, but we’ve gotten better about that — and we dig writing articles around reader suggestions. We’ve written on the order of 40 or so since the site launched 2.5 years ago, and I’d love to see that number go up.

Anyway, in case it’s new to you here’s a short article responding to an excellent reader question — thanks for the suggestion, Gustav!

Unpredictable Players?

Here’s Gustav’s request:

Hello fellow gnomes,

I would like an article on unpredictable players.

I just can’t predict anything my players will do in any given roleplaying session. They’re often unpredictable to the point where they email me the day before the session saying they will follow a path and then they do the exact opposite when session begins.

Real life example: I run a Star Wars campaign where the players were a group of fringe characters stuck in Naboo when the invasion in Episode 1 begun. The group told me (by email) that they would stay and fight the bad guys. When session 1 begun, they wanted to escape the planet. Then, they made up a plan and arranged a escape that would be executed next session. When next session (2) began, they decided to stay on the planet and search for the McGuffin, what took the whole session. Before session 3, they told me they would fight the Trade Federation and look for the McGuffin later. Session 3 began and they kept searching for the McGuffin while hiding from the Trade Federation (not fighting!). They spend the whole session hiding from Trade Federation and discovered the place where the McGuffin was, cleary (at least to my point of view) showing that they would face an important fight to recover it, but only on next session. Next session(4) begun and they abandoned the McGuffin without even considering entering the fight and managed to escape from Naboo using the old plan they made.

I gave up making huge prep plans and I’m running mostly improv sessions but i am still not comfortable with this situation. I love my players creativity and I would hate to railroad them. Also, I am not an experienced GM. What do you suggest I do?

PS: Sorry for the bad english, it’s not my primary language.

First off, your English rocks!

On to the meat and potatoes: While technically the problem here is unpredictable players, the real problem is actually players who don’t understand part of their side of the gaming equation.

Yep, there’s an equation. Well, maybe not an actual equation, but a principle that’s kind of like an equation: We’re all in this together.

Which means: We all contribute to each others’ fun.

In this case (taking your comment at face value, Gustav, which we always do), you’re being a good GM — rolling with the punches, being adaptable, and showing great willingness to shift your play style in a direction you’re perhaps not so comfortable with in order to accommodate your players. All good things.

So how about your players? Well, they’re surprising you, which is a good thing; surprises are fun for GMs. They also sound invested in the game and the setting, which is excellent. But man are they falling down in one area: understanding what being a GM is like.

I’m not saying that they’re dicks, or even that they’re doing this intentionally, but they’re not respecting your time or your fun.

Changing their minds or surprising you during play is one thing — that’s great. Even saying they’re going to do X and actually doing Y instead is fine, provided they don’t do it constantly.

But saying “We’re going to do X next session,” which leads you to spend all your prep time on X, and then doing Y next session — repeatedly — isn’t respectful of the time you, the GM, invest in the game.

It’s also not respectful of your fun: You’d like to improv less, and right now you can’t. No fun for you.

What to Do

1. Explain the problem to your players. Don’t be a douche about it, and don’t blame them — I doubt they’re deliberately messing with you, and I’m willing to bet that they’re not GMs themselves (GMs know what it’s like to GM). They don’t know that this behavior creates problems for you — so tell them, politely.

2. Ask them point-blank to stick to their guns between sessions. Specifically, ask them to follow through on what they say they’re going to follow through on. Help them see things from your perspective.

3. Find out if there’s a problem with the adventures themselves. My hunch is that your adventures are fine, but ask anyway — maybe your players are less engaged than they seem, and that’s why they’re changing their minds all the time.

4. Follow through yourself: Take back some of your fun. Let your players know that you understand that a large part of the pleasure of RPGs is the sense of an open, do-anything world, but that you want to use your limited prep time wisely. And let them know that if they tell you to plan for X and then do Y, you’ll probably postpone the session so that you can prep for Y — not as a punishment, but so you’ll have more fun prepping and GMing, and they’ll have more fun because you’re better-prepared.

That’s Just Me

Even as I was writing this article, I was thinking of all the other ways that Gustav’s question could have been answered. My proposal is firmly rooted in my deep-seated belief that players and GMs need to meet in the middle and help each other ensure that everyone at the table is having a good time — no one’s fun is more important than anyone else’s.

But that’s just one philosophy — what do you think Gustav should do?

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Meeting in the Middle: When Your Players Need to Adapt to You"

#1 Comment By XonImmortal On November 18, 2010 @ 5:33 am

Well, I can be a very nasty, vindictive GM when players ruin my fun. I’m going to be nice at this moment, and not share the various ways a modified (for optimum discharge) electric cattle prod, or how to *deliberately* misunderstand everything the players tell you, or even give out acting advice for those “gee I didn’t stat out that NPC who happens to be the only being on the planet who can implant the replacement heart for your character” moments.

I would say give Martin’s advice a try.

But, just in case, Gustav, the schematics for the optimized cattle-prod are only $29.95, and almost all the parts can be found in any old defibrillator you have lying around…

#2 Comment By Nevynxxx On November 18, 2010 @ 6:12 am

On a totally different note, is it just me, or do *every single one* of the U-Turns stem from the players avoiding a fight? Are your players actually just afraid of a TPK?

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On November 18, 2010 @ 9:53 am

Two suggestions have I, Gustav:

1) Stop reading e-mail between games, at least, e-mail from these people.

I said that because it is crystal clear from the posting that nothing useful is being achieved by reading the players’ mailings to you, and because long experience has taught me that nothing can disrupt a campaign faster than e-mail storms between sessions.

2) Your players may be thinking of the game as a “players-vs-GM” situation (or being led that way by one player in the group).

Don’t join in. Don’t tell them how hard they make you work. Deal with everything as you have been doing by skillful improvisation, but keep front and center in you mind the old Stage Magician’s Creed: “never tell the audience how the trick is done”.

Soon the players will begin to enjoy the story for its own sake and then you can work on your “hook” technique – the way you herd the players the way you’d like to see them go without them knowing they’re being steered.

#4 Comment By paddirn On November 18, 2010 @ 11:37 am

Maybe it’s just me and the people I game with, but we never really discuss what’s going to happen in the next game. It’s understood that the GM probably has some plan as to what’s going to happen and is probably trying to railroad us, but we don’t arrange the railroading beforehand. It could be that while in your mind you’re just trying to prep & arrange the story for the next session, the players see it as you trying to control their actions. If somebody summarizes a movie plot to you before you see it, are you still going to be as interested in seeing it?

Don’t talk to them about what’s going to happen or if they ask, drop vague hints and laugh maniacally.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 18, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

When the players become unpredictable I throw in a disaster bigger than the current situations faced. A meteor hits the planet, a hurricane develops, a volcano erupts, a dam burts, etc. I throw in an event that cannot be ignored, but that can be dealt with in a number of ways.

Now I will drop hints that this event is going to happen. Cracks appear in the dam, the meteor is spotted before impact, or whatever is appropriate to give the PCs a chance to prevent the disaster. But the PCs do not have to prevent the disaster. The PCs can work on escaping the disaster or taking advantage of it in some way, but they just can’t ignore it.

The benefit of using a disaster type situation is that you may not know what the players are going to do, but you know that they cannot ignore the problem.

Some say “That is railroading!” but it definitely is not. Railroading is scripting the solution, but throwing challenges at the PCs that are risky but not insurmountable is a big part of the GM’s job.

Hope that helps!

#6 Comment By gustavovp On November 18, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

Thanks for answering me so fast, guys!!!

I don’t think my players think they are in some kind of competition.

I like the idea of not asking the players about what they are doing or reading their emails.

And I really like the disaster solution.

It seems that the problem with my players may be that they like to explore every tiny opportunity they have, so if there is a chance of escaping, they never give up on that. But they also never give up the fight solution or the search for the McGuffin or any other plot that comes up in the campaign.

Maybe i will have to narrow down options in the future and I will also have some talk with them to see if they think there is anything wrong with the game.

Many thanks!!!

#7 Comment By BryanB On November 18, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

[3] – I get what you are saying about not wanting the whole plot spoiled ahead of time, but I see nothing wrong with asking players what some of their plans might be. This helps me focus my prep on what is important to them.

I like the e-mail discussions between games. I reveal nothing that would spoil the game. I also answer any questions the PCs might have and I have them discuss their general approach to the next session unless we happened to end on a cliffhanger. More importantly, the plans the PCs decide upon are not set in stone. Nor do I use my knowledge of these plans to railroad them towards a different outcome. In fact, I never know how things will turn out and I like that.

I do expect my players to be pro-active and they don’t usually disappoint me. I still have to improvise a lot because plans change, game situations change, and players are still prone to throw GMs a curve ball now and again. That’s what breaks are for. 🙂

#8 Comment By Razjah On November 18, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

A flow chart could be helpful. You can get some guided mini-prep. For example if the PCs stay and fight you have path A but if they run for it they take path B if they hide path C and so on. You can at least set up a frame work for the sessions even if they are very heavy on the improv.

I’m a big fan of talking to your players. They may not even realize that they are driving your nuts by changing their minds so often. Just let them know what is happening and see why. They may forget the original plan, someone may be controling the group and deciding last minute that thye run instead of fight as previously discussed, or something entirely different.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 18, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

The sheer variety of answers for Gustav is part of what I love about the Stew. 🙂

#10 Comment By Redcrow On November 18, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

It sounds like you handle game-prep somewhat similar to the way I do it. At the end of each game session I will ask the players where they want to go and what they want to do during the next session and then prep based on their responses. That way the game is fairly pre-planned, but I’m not really leading them down the path.

It sounds like the only difference between us in that regard is that your players don’t seem to want to stick to their own plan. And its ok if that happens occasionally as it sounds like you are good at rolling with the punches. However its not ok if it happens frequently.

All I can offer is to reiterate what others have said about talking to your players and helping them understand the work you put into prep work for the game. If that doesn’t work, then I might suggest giving each player the chance to GM a session or two.

#11 Comment By Katana_Geldar On November 20, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

Gustav, there’s nothing wrong with taking ideas into condisderation from your players and then shelving them until another time. It’s fantastic that your players are so creative, but you need to put a few boundaries around them.

What I love about Star Wars is that yo can play all sorts of different kinds of games with the system.

#12 Comment By dmscorpio On November 21, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

I used to have a lot of trouble with unpredictable PCs changing their minds suddenly and abruptly, spoiling all the plans I had prepared. I’ve found that the PCs are at their most unpredictable when they do not have anyone else depending on them. If you design your adventures so that the PCs know their decisions have larger ramifications besides what happens to them. It is a lot harder to change your plans to escape when you’ve picked up a few refugees who want to come with you. If the PCs choose to search for the MacGuffin after telling you that they plan on fighting back against the enemy, then maybe after they have the MacGuffin, the PCs learn that an important NPC died during the assault they would have been there to defend against.

#13 Comment By Bercilac On December 20, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

Disasters always work. The more grandiose and terrifying the better. Combine a flood with mutant dinosaurs and a narco-terrorist gang threatening to blow up the planet. Then the hyperdrive breaks.