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The Players Just Gutted Your Plans, Now What Do You Do?

Posted By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 8:58 am In GMing Advice | 42 Comments

Usually we Gnomes are the ones dishing up the advice, but some of the best tips come from our readers in the comments section.  Well today we want to take advantage of our greatest asset (our fans) and hear how you would handle the following scenario:

After a week of prep work you have your adventure ready.  It is dastardly!  It is challenging!  It is fun!  The PCs will need to navigate a dangerous and winding maze of traps and creatures in order to reach their goal.  You can barely contain your glee as you wait for the mayhem to begin.

The players arrive, the adventure begins.  In game the PCs are at the entrance to the maze and you hear those dreaded words.

“Hey!  We don’t have to go through this maze.  My PC has the MacGuffin!  Plus remember what the GM told us about the hidden ruins having secret passages that were lined with trace particles of radium?  Why we can bypass this maze completely by simply…”

In mere minutes the players devise a brilliant way to side step all of your challenges.  Now what do you do?

Before commenting keep in mind that answers like “I would have made sure that the PCs would not have been able to…” or “I do not plan my adventures like that, so this would not happen because…” are not what we are looking for here.  The hypothetical scenario described above is what happens, so how do you use your GMing noggin to save the session and still have a good time?

Do you know how you would handle this scenario?  Have you found yourself in this type of situation before?  If so, what did you do?  I look forward to reading your solutions!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




42 Comments (Open | Close)

42 Comments To "The Players Just Gutted Your Plans, Now What Do You Do?"

#1 Comment By Kenderama On October 29, 2010 @ 9:04 am

Sometimes, the only thing you can do is stand back and applaud.

I once ran an epic, world-ending campaign that had demons, artifacts, arch-nemeses, betrayal, the whole nine yards. It came down to a ritual to empower the artifact and send the world into hell that required the sacrifice of this one child’s life via the artifact. The only thing stopping the players was a legion of lesser demons between them and the ritual-casters.. could they fight their way through in time?

No, the ranger pulled out his bow and in a surprise round – at extreme range, rolled a 20 – putting an arrow into the child and killing him instantly… and saving the world.

All I could do was applaud.

#2 Comment By DrummingDM On October 29, 2010 @ 9:19 am

Something very like this happened to me a few years back. I had a GREAT adventure built – I was about to put my PCs through a dungeon with a central monster that would track them, haunt them from the shadows, and terrify them. I had traps built that would whittle them away, and I had a story laid out to be revealed piece by piece throughout the dungeon that would explain the whole them and bring the sense of dread to a final chilling climax.

And then, after encounter the first room of the “abandoned” subterranean temple complex, the party simply decided that it wasn’t worth it.

I was dumbfounded. Stymied. How could they…ignore the adventure? How could they simply turn around and leave?

I scrambled. I put together some shamble of an overland travel adventure with random encounters, and after realizing how poorly it was going over, I simply apologized for not having a stronger hook for the party to brave the dungeon and for not being better prepared for the PCs going “off the rails.”

We played a board game for the remainder of the night, if I remember correctly.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 9:22 am

@Kenderama – I applaud your GMing style.

As for applauding the PCs killing a child, umm, yeah…

(Awkward silence.)

I’m sure that isn’t what you were expecting though, and it is a solution that works given the circumstances. You are absolutely correct that some times the players have earned the victory, so why fight it?

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 9:25 am

@DrummingDM – Another good point! There is nothing wrong with telling the players that you are stumped for the night and to move onto something else that is fun. Good call on recognizing how the session was going bad and ending it!

#5 Comment By ekb On October 29, 2010 @ 9:26 am

I don’t see it as a bad thing at all. In fact, I see it as something to be rewarded… (disclaimer: I’m one of those hippie story-gamer people)

I can really only see this as being a problem when there’s a lack of balance in power between “the players” and GM – basically, they’re just pawns to be pushed around the board by the GM and dice rolls. So why not roll with “the players” bringing The Awesome to the table? Take a bathroom break to collect yourself if needed, but definitely roll on with it.

If it’s the climax of the campaign (cf Kenderama), yeah – it’s done. If it’s not, just call scene and move on to the next act. Not even a thing, as long as you’re not attaching too much personally to the plot you’ve created…

You and your players all deserve to have fun, so have fun – regardless of faulty assumptions of the time things should take.

#6 Comment By Kenderama On October 29, 2010 @ 9:28 am

@Patrick Benson – Exactly. I actually considered dinging his alignment a bit (CG ranger) but … well, needs of the many (the whole darn world) versus one child?

Made sense to me. (Plus I was stunned. :D)

What I noticed is that when those moments happen, if you handle them well or badly… they tend to be “one of those stories” that the players retell over and over.

#7 Comment By ekb On October 29, 2010 @ 9:33 am

@Patrick Benson & killing a child to save the world – Idunno: sounds like it’d be a good character-building moment and more than a bit gruesome, not that I advocate killing children by any means. Yes, the world is saved – but at what cost? Malone is totally shredded personally and professionally at the end of “Horror at red Hook,” so it even fits some of the genre material.

In a private one-shot horror-themed game where degradation and becoming a monster while fighting monsters, sure – I’d roll with it, along with the concurrent consequences. Casual game at the FLGS? Hellnaw!

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 9:40 am

@ekb – Understood, but what in the hypothetical situation suggests that the players aren’t already bringing the awesome to the table? :)

You make a great point about how being personally attached to a plot can influence your judgment. I don’t know if a GM should not be attached to their plot, but a GM should be aware of what that attachment may do to the game and the group’s fun.

@Kenderama – It is awesome to have those moments that turn into favorite stories. If that occurs, how could you have failed?

#9 Comment By BluSponge On October 29, 2010 @ 9:44 am

I’ve had this happen to me many, many, many times. Sometimes its easier to roll with the punches than others.

Telling the players you’re stumped for the night and to please pass the chips, in my experience, only leads to disdain and ridicule. If you’re not prepared to take it on the chin, it never hurts to have a backup plan.

So at the risk of falling into the “I don’t plan my adventures that way” camp (I do, for the record), here’s what usually works for me:

1) Know your players! Don’t spend all your energy setting the hook on the introvert in the corner who only speaks when spoken too. If you hook the extrovert player, or one of the “social leaders”, you’ll get a lot farther along.

2) Subplots. Always have a subplot or two cooking in the background. If your group turns up their nose at your big plot idea, then turn up the heat on the side-burners.

3) Trust your players. A strong group of players can make the game for you if you just let them off the leash.

4) Always keep a dungeon in your back pocket (and a tough one!). One of the last times this scenario happened to me, one of the players friendly ribbed me for not keeping a dungeon adventure around I could just wipe out at a moments notice. I didn’t then. I do now. A couple of them in fact. Keep it as generic as possible so that you can fill in the details on the fly. Keep it short but tough, and have a nice reward at the end.

Anyway, that’s my battleplan these days.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On October 29, 2010 @ 9:53 am

@DrummingDM – Well, it could be argued that adventurers that walk away from adventure deserve to be bored, but I see your dilemma.

I think the “walk away” only happens in trad D&D games, where there is an expectation of a not overly hard fight to unlikely amounts of treasure left there for incomprehensible reasons. You know, a by-the-DM-Guide design. Younger players in particular sometimes just want to sandbox in a dungeon like this because to them the goal is to fight and get loot. Horses for courses.

The “game over, let’s play something else” solution is the one I’d go for if it happened to me, I think, since if people walk away from one of my Call of Cthulhu challenges the least that will happen is that some isolated town will be obliterated, and the whole world could end if we are in episode 7 of a campaign. In fact, from now on I am going to keep a copy of “Arkham Horror” close at hand for just such an eventuality. Thanks for the suggestion.

When I run D20 games like Conan or Delta Green I *have* had many moments when the Boss Monster, intended to give the players a damned good hiding before dying in a suitably cinematic manner, is undone by a terminally unlucky roll by me followed by an astronomically unlikely good roll by one of the players. My D20 motto is “”My NPCs hate me”.

Tower of the Elephant ended half an hour early for example when the Evil Sorcerer, 500 years old and cunning enough to have magically enslaved a King, dropped a fire grenade at his own feet, allowing a borderer to stride over and wallop him in the head (twice), and a Delta Green scenario in which the players were trapped in an isolated structure – unknown now to anyone but three Cajun men – deep in the Louisiana bayous, surrounded by kill-screen numbers of Deep Ones just waiting for nightfall to attack, ended when one player asked if he could attempt an unlikely mod to a hand-held radio, which worked spectacularly, and then used it to ask the store-minding field agent in a city several miles away if he knew where this super-secret place was forcing me to roll – a natural 20. Rescue in time for tea, and medals all round. Bah.

What else can you do under these circumstances but grimace (so the players can have fun at your expense) then laugh at the absurdity of it all?

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 10:00 am

@BluSponge – Excellent points, but what would you do if your backup plans failed? You have nothing prepared. What now?

I’m not disagreeing with you here, I’m just curious of how GMs handle such situations.

I myself go straight to improvising the session. I’ll wing the entire night and just throw the PCs into a maelstrom of epic confrontations. Why? Because it is fun! Let the PCs have their moment and then push them even farther with the next challenge. The players have already proven that they are ready for whatever I throw at them, so I can use that as fuel for the fire.

I just make sure to reward the PCs with epic moments of cool though, so that it isn’t an arms race between me and the players.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 10:08 am

@Roxysteve – I see these situations occur across many types of game systems. It just happens, and that is fine. Even Ali lost a fight now and then.

Letting the players have a moment at the GM’s expense is nothing to be bothered by either. Just as you described you can laugh about it later with a smile.

#13 Comment By drow On October 29, 2010 @ 10:29 am

random. dungeon. generator.

#14 Comment By Clawfoot On October 29, 2010 @ 10:40 am

This is what has become known in my gaming circle as “Option Pi.” The phrase came about one session where I thought I was prepared for anything: an NPC was going to go fight some trolls for the PCs. He invited them to come along. I was prepared for them to say “no thanks” (option a), “sure” (option b) or some to say yes and some no (option c). I was NOT expecting Option Pi: THEY ATTACKED THE NPC in some sort of misguided attempt at protecting him by preventing him from going off to fight the trolls.

I had to roll with the punches and do some quick thinking. To this day, it remains one of my very favourite game sessions.

So how would I respond to the proposed scenario? I would improvise the rest of the session. I’m pretty good with that.

I would be candid about it, though. I’d tell my players, “Wow, you guys brilliantly avoided the entire session I prepared. Let’s call a dinner break so I can think on this for a few minutes and we’ll get to see what happens next.”

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 11:12 am

@drow – Like this one written by some guy named Drow?

http://donjon.bin.sh/4e/dungeon/

Wait a minute… ;)

@Clawfoot – “We must save him! ATTACK!!!” Yeah, that sounds like a lot of PCs I’ve had in my games too. :)

Excellent call on calling a break and gathering up your wits in order to carry on for the evening. Sometimes you just need a moment to see how what you have prepared can be reassembled into a whole new adventure, or maybe you just wing it once you have an idea.

#16 Comment By BishopOfBattle On October 29, 2010 @ 11:30 am

As has been mentioned, sometimes the players deserve to get ahead by outthinking the GM. You can’t punish them for being smart (well, you can, but it makes you a jerk).

At the same time, you can’t just skip all the “challenge” or “game” for a session just because they’re smart. It’d make for a rather boring four hours (or whatever your session length is) or a very short night. No body is going to want to keep coming back for a game where them being smart means they don’t get to do anything fun (that’s kind of like being punished for being smart).

I am reminded of the GMing advice, “It doesn’t exist until your players see it.”

So you planned out this crazy maze / dungeon to get to this item? They skipped that and got the item, awesome, now where do they have to take it? Well, to the alter of a particular god in an old abandoned Dwarven Fortress! What a coincidence, to get to the Dwarven Fortress, the party must navigate a mess of underground tunnels. Tunnels that have been inhabited by certain monsters in the mean time and where traps have been built (either by the dwarves to stomp said monsters, or by the monsters themselves).

If your players knew everything about how you planned your sessions, they would note that the maze to get the MacGuffin looks exactly like and has all the same traps as the maze to get to the Dwarf Fortress. But they’re players, and they’re not privy to your notes or planning sessions, so they don’t know that.

One of my favorite things about D&D 4e (and I think this can be applied to many other games) is how easily pre-planned encounters can be reskinned. If you planned for them to encounter groups of minotaurs in that maze and they circumvented the maze, you can still use those minotaur stats for the burley, undead, dwarven berzerkers they encounter in the ruins of the Dwarf Fortress.

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

@BishopOfBattle – If the players are out smarting you every session step down as the GM. You have other problems to deal with. :)

I get what you are saying, and I should be clear that the situation given was conceived as a rare occurrence and not the normal routine. My bad.

And it is amazing how challenges relocate in the blink of an eye!

#18 Comment By BluSponge On October 29, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

@Patrick – On improved game session, absolutely. That’s what I meant about trusting your players. Just let them off the leash and see where they go. Chances are, they’ll create just as many problems for themselves and provide you with a dozen plot ideas for future development.

@Roxy – I’ve had it happen with 7th Sea and Savage Worlds, so it’s not isolated to trad D&D games. One of these was a murder mystery set in Cairo, Egypt. Instead of investigating the activity of a sinister cult, the players grabbed the plot hook (a young orphan), drug him across the Mediterranean and dropped him off at the first temple they came across. In hindsight, there was a ton of potential in where they decided to take the adventure. But at the time, I was too married to my original concept to see it. Live and learn.

#19 Comment By unwinder On October 29, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

In the scenario you gave, I probably wouldn’t be able to get away with putting the maze in front of the players wherever they go. I think they’d get pretty suspicious if they ran into two mazes in one night, plus with my luck they’d probably gut the second maze, and then decide to go back and check out the first maze.

In the past, my solution has always been to improvise. Typically I get more whimsical than I probably should, and end up making things a lot harder than necessary.

Me: “Uh, there’s a house on the bridge.”
Player: “Weird. I try to go inside of it.”
Me: “The house shakes to life. A massive red head with thick antennae and a pair of claws pop out from underneath. It’s some sort of giant hermit crab. (here I am improvising purely based on shock value, and am still kind of hoping to scare the players into turning back.”
Player: “Sweet, let’s fight this thing. This thing is awesome.”
Me: [Some sort of dry description of the area as I set up the board and try to figure out what kind of AC bonus a house would provide]

As for the old maze, usually I can find another place for it, and a more compelling motivator to send people into it a month or so later. Typically when I don’t have a lot of planning time.

#20 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On October 29, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

I had a moment like this in the Earthdawn game I am running. The players stumble upon an important item in Parlainth, ruined city of wonder, and were contacted by a wealthy and suspicious merchant. Said merchant was said to have ties to Thera, a hostile empire, but he was very wealthy, very important, and very generous, so they decided to hear him out.

After listening to his offer for purchasing the item, the veiled threats leveled their way should they not part with the item, and his assertion that they would be “handsomely rewarded” with favors should they accept, the Thief in the group decided to attack him. In the merchant’s own home. Surrounded by his guards. And defenses. And hidden allies.

I had to move quick to keep an important NPC alive. I just threw a bodyguard in front of the blow, and had the merchant use an item he “just happened to have on his person” to turn invisible and escape. The bodyguard put some hurt on them, but they beat him (bad dice rolling from me that night) handily, then beat feet out of town before the reprisals could come.

Which had the effect of removing them ENTIRELY from the adventures and storyline I had cooked up for their stay in the Forgotten City. I took the next weekend off (not entirely voluntarily) from ED to cook up what happened next (travel adventures). The PC’s have yet to feel the full effects of what happened.

#21 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

@The_Gun_Nut & @unwinder – Quick thinking can lead to some excellent improvised encounters, but it can also bite the GM in the ass for the longterm campaign arc. Thank you both for the great examples!

#22 Comment By BryanB On October 29, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

I love it when players gut my plans. I really do!

The adjustments on the fly combined with the possible reactions of the opposition just make for some the most exciting “fly by the seat of your pants” gaming that there can be.

As a GM, I like to have a good idea of where things might go or how things might develop. I like having a solid foundation of back story and NPC motives or purpose, but it gets pretty awesome when PCs change everything and flip the plot arc on its head.

At worst, I’ll need a five minute break to figure out what to do next. Collecting myself after a major NPC got killed three sessions too early isn’t too hard, but I sometimes need a thought break on how things are going to change by the unexpected event.

This tends to be why I run less scripted games. In my 25+ years as a GM, I’ve come to know that if I give players five courses of action, they will come up with course of action number six at least 50 percent of the time! So flex them improvisation muscles and roll with it. :D

#23 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 29, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

@BryanB – I’m at the 20 year mark for GMing myself now, and I too love to improvise. In fact, if the players break away from what I had planned I tend to enjoy the session more.

But I have been shifting away from completely improvising a session to minimum prep-work. This is working out better for me, because now with the additional structure I’m able to foreshadow and incorporate more of what the players suggest. That middle ground between minor prep work and totally improvising is the sweet spot for me.

#24 Comment By E-l337 On October 29, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

It’s saturday night. I’ve spent the last three months dreaming up this encounter scenario, hoping that this moment would finally come – when the players enter that Dastardly Dungeon.

In mere minutes, the PCs have managed to find a way to circumvent EVERYTHING. So what do I do?

I fall on my backup-plan, and improvise.

Over the last year and a half, I have really begun to experiment with new types of tabletop design. Thanks to a lot of things I’ve read here on the Stew, I’ve even managed to improve upon the formulae to find something that works quite well at this point. My latest attempt at preparing for this literally took me maybe a few hours of prep work to plan out the entire plot arc.

But that’s the secret. Planning out the entire arc with just bullet points.

It begins with a simple goal: Find X. I give myself three different options where they can find this X, and each has at least three different outcomes. From there, it branches, until they all converge to the final point at the end.

So the players have just circumvented the entire dungeon? Okay, I kick things up a notch. I reward them, as they ought to be rewarded – they found what they were looking for, and with a little ingenuity, they’ve even earned a bit of completion XP for it all. Kudos to them. So now we move onto the next stage.

Additionally, I force them to deal with the consequences of ‘skipping’ the dungeon. Maybe there was something else important they were supposed to find they didn’t? That’ll come back to bite them later. Maybe their ingenious solution of finding their way in didn’t account for a way *out*. So now they have to take on the entire dungeon. Alone. Except now, they can’t retreat!

My solution is simple: Improvise, look at what is supposed to come next, and pull from material I already had prepared to see what comes next. Maybe the PCs are lucky, and it’s near the end of the arc. In that case, we just roll onto the end credits, with a bit of exposition as they leave that hints at all the fun things they missed out on.

Either way, I don’t think everyone should be able to walk away without being able to smile. You presented a challenge, and the PCs just walked around it. Come up with a better plan next time, and see if you can learn from it.

Best example I have? The PCs managed to easily defeat a boss encounter I had in a future game. The idea was pretty simple: A space station’s power generator was transmitting energy wirelessly. The boss had a regeneration factor so long as it could draw power (which was always). In short, they could only get rid of him by cutting off his power. The idea was to trap the boss within a ‘faraday cage’ so that it could no longer regenerate itself. What did the players do instead?

They used some glue grenades to trap the boss in thick glue, and due to some poor rolls on the boss’ part, they dragged him to a nearby airlock, and vented tossed him off the station. What was I to do?

I gave the boss a couple of rounds. He broke out, and managed to actually return to the station. Where the PC with the mech walked outside, and punched him in the face, sending the boss reeling planet side.

It is one of those infamous encounters that the Players still talk about quite a lot these days. And they always fear his return someday, because it was a badass boss.

I like when my PCs think outside the box and find a solution, because it means they are thinking. That’s why I try to plan for OTB thinking with a fairly loose game structure – to allow plenty of wiggle room for the players to pleasantly surprise me.

#25 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 29, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

I’d congratulate the group, call a 15 minute break, pull out my handy-dandy copy of Eureka (this totally awesome book written by these really cool dudes with like 500 plots in it), and get crackin’.

#26 Comment By rocketlettuce On October 30, 2010 @ 2:02 am

I would just still use the same dungeon. A simplified example follows:

PCS: We can bypass the dungeon of fire mountain!

DM: Very good! You bypass the dungeon of fire mountain. Up ahead is an icy tundra with a system of caves beneath it…

#27 Comment By drummy On October 30, 2010 @ 9:09 am

I’ve had this happen more than a few times in my years of GM’ing, and I try to see it more as a challenge than a pain in the butt (which it can be). Sometimes the players “earn it” differently than you expect, and they should be rewarded for their ingenuity/artifice/skill, or what have you. They’ll love the opportunity and dread your eventual vengeance as well…

Maybe it’s because I have created the “world” in which we adventure and always have lots of plot hooks in the works from previous encounters, but I generally lean on the subplots to carry an evening if the more linear prep is sidestepped rather than call it a night or “move” the previous prep to a new location.

We played last night, for example, and I had planned for the party to stumble across a wounded goblin who spoke of a “wyrm” in the mountains that had scattered its tribe into the valleys, causing some consternation for the authorities in the nearest major city (which the PC’s had just left and had heard about from the King’s Men). If they had simply left the goblin and continued on to the south, most of my 2-3 hour prep work would have been on the shelf.

They didn’t skip it, but if they had I had other plots in the works to grab onto (thankfully). Since they were on their way to another city to look for a ring in the hands of some insidious cultists, that could have easily carried the night. Also, the leader of the PC’s party had just lost a duel to an obnoxious noble from that same city, and they were trying to track him and his companions to get some revenge. Not to mention the border crossing and the forest between the PC’s and the city could have been prime ground for some improvised adventure…

I try not to end the night early if possible. If the campaign is designed with some layers — obviously tricky in a one-shot or “next step only” type of campaign — then I can just grab another set of layers and ask myself, “What would have happened while the PC’s were doing X?” and run with it.

Well, try to run with it. If they let me.

Dan

#28 Comment By Harald On October 31, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

Something like this happened to me in one of my first sessions as a GM. I had the Temple of Doom mapped out, and detailed notes prepared on every contingency. 32 hand-written pages.

The bastards have a look at the place, decide there’s no way they’re entering that hell-hole, then head out to hunt orcs. That changed the way I plan my games for ever.

Since then I’ve been striving to hone my game as much as I can. The method I use for prepping these days can be summed up in the following questions:

-Where are we now?
This covers both geography and chronology. The first is the easiest, but I still make a point of going through the local factors and factions. The latter covers what’s happened previously, based on the players actions (or lack thereof), and developments in the world at large.

-Who are the NPCs?
This covers both antagonists and allies. Here I’m interested in their motives, their resources, and how far they are willing to go to achieve their goals.

-What kind of power-level is involved?
Are we talking global conspiracies, Cthulhu, marauding goblin tribes, or the outbreak of war? Is the fate of the world in the PC’s hands, or are we just talking recreational slaughter and pillage?

-What will happen if this is not dealt with?
If the objective is to stop the mad scientist from getting hold of the ounce of Evilium he needs to get his World Stomper operational, this probably has more direct consequences than not securing the artifact hidden in the vampire’s lair.

-What have the PC’s neglected to sort out previously?
Most groups discard hooks every now and again, and I love hitting them with the consequences of their last such stunt when they’ve just done it again.

-Which other plots are brewing at the moment?
I love complex plot-lines, and at any given time, I like to have at least a couple active. The remaining are kept simmering in the back of my mind.

-How many red herrings have I thrown onto the table recently?
I love red herrings. Some are false leads, but most often they can be played into the plot from a different angle. These loose plot-hooks are most often ideas I’ve not thought through properly, and so the players get to define more of them as they look into them. This is the tool that’s saved the most nights from dead-ending.

-How do I bait the hook?
If the plot I want them to run with isn’t prepared and served right, it will be ignored. So I try to come up with a way to sell the adventure to the players.

I tend to marinate on these questions between sessions, and then perhaps make a few notes before we play. I also use my blog actively to plant seeds and pave the way for the game. Once the dice are let out of the bag, I improvise most of what happens.

So, if the heroes decide not to enter the Labyrinth, I usually let them sandbox a little before tossing out a new hook. Sometimes this second hook is baited with live sharks, just to make sure ignoring it is not an option.

And to clarify, I do not subscribe to either the sandbox- or the rail-road school. Both are viable techniques as far as I’m concerned.

This is the first time I’ve actually written down the steps I use for planning a game. Now I’ll start thinking about how to refine my technique, I think.

#29 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 31, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

@E-l337 – Now that is taking a tragedy and turning it into a triumph! Yeah they blew your plan apart, but now they live in fear of having done so! Excellent work!

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Congratulations! You have unlocked the “Shameless Self-Promotion Award!” A collection of 1d12 worth of dire weasels, the official corporate gift basket of choice for Gnome Stew, is being packaged and sent your way! ;)

@rocketlettuce – Re-skinning the prepared materials is a great way to keep things moving for the night. I tend to abandon the whole and re-skin the parts, but either way works.

@drummy – Subplots can always take center stage for a single night, and your players often appreciate a slight break from the big campaign if it allows them to wrap up loose ends.

@Harald – Good for you! Refinement and risk taking are what makes us better GMs. When you find something that works you break it down into the simplest solution that it can be. Once you have mastered that you need to go and step out of your comfort zone to try out new techniques. That is how you build an impressive bag of tricks!

#30 Comment By DarknessLord On October 31, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

It really depends on how prep-heavy the system I am running is, my GMing prep consists of “Think about the game between games, then do whatever system prep is required the day before.” For D&D, this can be quite a lot as I need monsters and maps, but for when I was running WoD, it was just making sure that I had the folder with the major NPC stats that I stated up session 1.

When the players ruin my plans for the night, I do a mini-version of my prep right there, I take a bathroom break to do my thinking (I take bathroom breaks a lot in general so sometimes my players don’t noticed), then if the system says I need to I flip through whatever book I need to in order to find challenges that fit what I just thought up.

It is an advantage to not doing much prep that it is easier to re-prep on the spot when the non-GMs (inevitably) force you to do so.

#31 Comment By Katana_Geldar On November 1, 2010 @ 12:46 am

There is no plan that survives five minutes contact with your players, and your players “killing the plot” depends on how much you’ve planned in advance and how good you are at improv.

Sometimes I just ask my players what they want to do next, out of character. And then I think myself into a position where I am approximately three steps ahead of them and keep moving from there.

And sometimes it can be entirely your own fault, early encounters with big baddies that exit stage left are wonderfully cinematic, but if there’s the SLIGHTEST chance the players can kill him before its time don’t introduce him without an escape plan.

Last game I played, we cleaned through the DM’s plot in about an hour and he was at loss of what to do, so he asked us for ideas. We threw a few out there and then gave him a little time to prep to get the stats. And it was great!

However, if I am running my players through a module they understand there will be slightly less freedom than in a campaign I have done myself, and that’s because I pitched the module to them and they go along with it. Sometimes if they want to play what’s written down, they need to remember there isn’t as much freedom.

And even with placing high level baddies too early, the blokes at Wizards of the Coast realise players have good days with dice.

#32 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 8:36 am

@DarknessLord – I agree that systems which require less prep, or perhaps just less complex prep work, do make it easier to handle the unexpected plot shift.

@Katana_Geldar – I like your point about the module, and how the players agreed to play it after you have it pitched it to them.

This is always a tough one for me. I believe that the GM’s story is like the player’s character. Most gamers want the GM to not interfere with how they play a PC. Yet it is okay to gut the GM’s story? Hmm. No, no it isn’t.

Now brilliant play that circumvents parts of the story is fine. That I am okay with, but when the PCs decide “Let’s go fight orcs instead. I don’t want to bother with this plot.” for a game that I pitched a plot to them for then I pause the game.

Why? Is the game bad? Is the challenge too much? What is the reason? When I ran a supers game once this happened and two of the five players did not want to stop the bank robbers threatening the city. I asked why and they said “We would rather be the villains.”

I asked them to leave the group for this game. When I pitched the game I made it clear that everyone would be playing heroes. Three of the players really wanted to be the classic super team fighting for good, and I had no interest in running a game for super villains (there really is no challenge to GMing bad guys in such settings). One player left, another changed his mind, and we had a great time. Later the player that left asked to come back, and then pulled the same crap. I booted him and would not let him back in again. If you agree to certain terms stick by them. He could of sat out of the supers game and come back for the next game, but if you just come in wanting to break your promise, well then I have no desire to play a game with you.

That is why group communication is so important. There are no consequences in the game world that impact the real world, but there are consequences for bad behavior in the real world.

#33 Comment By motionmatrix On November 1, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

Flexibility is the key here. I would make sure whatever method they use to bypass the issue at hand didn’t mean that they automatically failed to see the problem as they moved by it, giving them places to insert themselves. Since they avoid the problem rather than solve it, they receive whatever award the system gives (exp. points, etc)just less of it.

In effect, I turn their by-pass into more of a difficulty/exp. slider at the players hands.

I still get to use what I wrote, but they get more control of how to insert themselves.

Second point: Don’t forget, they may have a map of the place, or scouted it, or access to the teleport pads, whatever the scenario may be; you are still in control, you can change the environment as you see fit, and ultimately make them feel like they are in control at the same time.

#34 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

@motionmatrix – That is a good point that their plan may not work either, or at least that it will not be a complete success. You can always give them a reward for what they did bypass, and still retain some challenges to run the rest of the session with.

#35 Comment By raistlin50201 On November 2, 2010 @ 9:55 am

While I do fall into the don’t plan that way camp, mostly from running by the seat of my pants a lot, if this did happen to me I would just have to follow it up as best as I can.

To start I would change the dungeon a little on the fly. Their MacGuffin might not completely fix everything now, because I know how it works, I can just change the creatures inside a little so that the first few encounters are a breeze because of it, so as to not cheat the players out of good thinking, but the later ones knew it was coming and have a simple counter for the short term. As for bypassing all the areas with their excellent thinking. Well, turns out the second level of the dungeon, which looks a lot like the first on paper but with a few minor modifications, doesn’t have this problem.

They managed to bypass a lot of things, and I would give a nice xp bonus for clever thinking. This as a basic plan would salvage the night hopefully while still giving my players the satisfaction of pulling one over on me.

If the situation is such that I can’t change the dungeon or effect the MacGuffin then things get more interesting. My first step is to make sure I can still throw something at the players that the MacGuffin can’t stop by nature. If so, sudden plot twist can occur at the final fight. While the PC’s are dealing with the BBEG or whatever is at the end, the sudden use of the MacGuffin in an unstable place, unknown to the PC’s before but they can now identify in the future, caused this powerful entity to begin to appear. The final fight will get more dramatic as various monsters from the dungeon come in to attack the PC’s while this new creature slowly makes its arrival. These interruptions will be easy if the players use the MacGuffin but that may cause the arrival to quicken. After a fight or two, this new creature will arrive now able ot fight the PC’s who have to make a choice, use the MacGuffin again and risk more or another thing to appear, or fight it without. The PC’s will be better off than having gone through the dungeon but that just means you can put in something a little tougher.

This is my off the top of my head solution, took me maybe 5-10 minutes of thinking and writing. The most important thing is to afterwards tell the PC’s that their ideas were great and give them that bonus so that they will continue to come up with good ideas in the future. Also, as a GM, come away with a good lesson on how to make sure to be prepared for such things.

#36 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 4, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

@raistlin50201 – I really like how you point out that telling the players that their ideas were great and rewarding them for those ideas, regardless of what happens in the game, is the most important part. Bravo!

#37 Comment By TheRPGrrl On November 6, 2010 @ 4:41 am

This happened to me on my very first official GMing night! My husband calls it “Going East.” As in, all the planned adventure depends on the players agreeing to go West, but instead they choose East. I blogged about it over at my blog. I’d prepared an entire campaign based on my initial hook, and the party went the completely opposite direction from where I had intended for them to take the story! I was able to run that night’s adventure more-or-less as intended, but was faced with having to rework my entire campaign setting. I decided to roll with it, and maintain the world I’d created, and just let them adventure in it their way. I look forward to seeing what else they do!

#38 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 6, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

@TheRPGrrl – Excellent approach for handling the situation! Kudos to you!

#39 Comment By Bercilac On November 17, 2010 @ 1:12 am

First of all, this is a cool kind of article to write. I’d really like to see more of this sort of thing. The writers on this blog are great, but so is the community.

Regarding this scenario, I’d grab one reasonably time-consuming and interesting encounter I had planned for the dungeon. Chances are, the dungeon was just a delivery vehicle for cool encounters anyway. Rework it so that the dragon/ogre/pit-trap isn’t in the dungeon, but in the side entrance (why not? a free pass isn’t always free). Have them play it out, and drop a plot-hook at the end. Preferably, something both important-looking and cryptic. The players will need a few minutes to discuss what they think it means and how to deal with it. Whatever they think it is, make them right. Listen to their discussions, and let them write the session for you. Just throw in a few curveballs and they may not even notice what you’re doing. They’ll just think they have good deductive skills.

#40 Comment By Bercilac On November 17, 2010 @ 1:15 am

Examples:

Having just defeated the dragon which you relocated from level 9 of the dungeon, the players find the cultist’s robe.

“Hmm. It seems we’re too late. Let’s try and head him off at the pass!”
Okay. A quick chase scene. Some skill rolls for travel, maybe a random encounter along the way (animals are always fun and easy, since you needn’t generate any treasure). Then, if they do well, they can lay an ambush. If they do poorly, they’re too late, but they find evidence of where their quarry has fled to.

“The cult has been here! Clearly they’re training dragons.”
Coolest. Game. Ever.

“Ah, the cultist has been eaten by dragons. Let’s go home.”
Bastard players. Have them attacked by cultist assassins so they’re forced to come up with a new plot for you.

#41 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 17, 2010 @ 9:54 am

@Bercilac – Thank you for the compliment on the article style. We’ll have more of these types of articles in the future.

And your tactic to try and entice the players into the dungeon is a creative one. As long as you don’t railroad the players to search the dungeon and they truly are intrigued by the clues that is a great way to salvage the game session.

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