Roll with the Changes

As much as we all like to cover all the bases when we prepare a game for play–be it home brew or otherwise–there is no way to account for all permutations and decisions the group is going to make once it’s in the wild.  Here are a few tips to make certain you’re ready when they decide to take the road less traveled by.

There are four major factors which influence games “gone off the rails”. How these are handled can radically impact how the game, even the exact, same scenario plays out.  We’ll examine each in turn.

Preparation: If you’re running a dungeon crawl and you have every element in loving detail, it is of no use if the characters leave the dungeon (leaving aside the social contract between players & GM) or, worse yet, what happens if they burn through the first level of the dungeon and are now at the stairs to the second level and you have nothing but a blank sheet of graph paper staring you in the face? I’ve been here before (though it has been many long years) and it’s not a place you want to be. The key is preparation. You have to think ahead and precipitate your players. You should have an idea of what’s going down in the next few levels and have, at a minimum, the maps sketched out. Here’s Preston’s Rule of Game Prep: If you have a lot of stuff ready covering every possibility, your group either will surprise you by a) going completely off the reservation or b)burn through it faster than a crack head through meth. An interesting corollary is Heh, I’ve Got Everything Covered But…where the players diligently wish to spend the “in between” days doing things instead of getting to the next stuff you’ve had prepped (which takes us back to the main rule). See where I’m going here?

The best bet for prep is to have the adventure and have the world around–or at least know what’s going around the sphere. For example, A Keg for Dragon is a fleshed out scenario where, at a glance, the GM has the information he needs to know the different NPCs, major locales, and so on. You may not want to spend the time to go into such detail, but it’s an excellent safety net for new GMs, and it takes a lot of guess work out of running the game for the GM. He knows Grog hates dark elves or Kisu has a thing for samurai, and so on. SO remember that: have some detailed NPCs and some details of the world around the adventure itself. While you may not plan on Grog hiring the party to go explore the Silver Fang Caves, if you know that’s where the dark elves hang out, you have an adventure waiting for the characters to fall into with minimal prep.

Some players just want to check your air, and intentionally seek to go off the reservation. This makes you a better GM. Once such players know they can’t catch you out, they generally focus on the main story line or take adventure of your skills to explore the world without feeling confined to a specific zone, but will do so with much more regard for your world and their characters (keeping such things, by and large, within their character’s scope).

Redirect: Sometimes a subtle nudge is all you need. Other times, you need to give your players a love tap. You can have several NPCs mention the same place over and over. You can have documents point to a particular place. Or, you can have Magus the Mage track down the characters, look them in the eye, and say, “Gossamer Swamp is bad. Mmmkay? We need you to get in there and destroy the bubbling cauldron where all the zombie crocodiles come from. And we’ll give you that thing you wanted., too.” The latter approach is admittedly heavy-handed, and this works for some groups, sometimes, but is not for everyone. In that case, you’ll need to follow the next bit and…

Surrender: You heard it right. There are two ways to surrender. The first may seem the scarier, but you will be respected for it (even if razzed for a time) and it is to admit you don’t have the prep needed to maintain the quality of game you’ve had up until now. Take the Dungeon of the Dark Dragon…your group has been exploring for two months, and have made it to level seventy-five, but you have no more than a sketch for the next level. You know if you run it, it is going to fall short of the stellar experience you’ve all had up until now. Do you want to crash your entire campaign upon the jagged rocks of a bad session? I’ve seen this happen. Cowboy up, and tell them. “Folks, we had a great two hours tonight, but we’re going to have to leave it there until next time. Who wants to shoot the breeze/play a board game/ etc?” Your crew understands. Sometimes they’re too good, and sometimes you’re too bad (at least at prep). Alternately, you can surrender in the other sense and discard all your well laid plans, and embrace the entropy of a plan spinning out of control or in unexpected moments, and roll with it. If you do this, you’re most likely going to be leaning heavily on the biggest tool in your arsenal–yourself.

Spontaneity: This is what separates the newbies from the seasoned pros more than anything else. The ability to make things up on the fly is the best asset a GM can have and, despite opinions to the contrary, it is not a talent you are imbued with from birth, though a natural gift for gab or quick thinking is certainly and asset. It is a learned skill like developing the ability to eat with chopsticks or getting used to the flavor of beer or grilling the perfect fillet. Sure, sometimes you’re going to goof, gag, or burn, but you will improve. A great technique for everyone is what I call mirroring…a player asks you a question and you don’t know the answer. You turn the question back on himself or engage another player to see what they come up with. This gives you something to riff off of and can either be something you incorporate immediately, reject later, or any variation thereof. Some players will leap in with words from time to time, such as when one character opens a dresser drawer and another says, “I bet it’s a bunch of old towels caked with dried blood.” You can thank them later. This may be far better than your thoughts, but now with this towel thing in your head, you can hear the synapses firing and you may have everything fall into place in your mind or you may draw a blank and turn to the third, quiet player, and ask…”How do you think the blood got there?” Let their action, questions, and commentary dictate the direction of the game they want to play. If they are helping navigate along, you can be certain they are going to enjoy the scenery.

Now, I return to writing words which may be used in their entirety or serve as a spring board somewhere down the line. I wish you a happy weekend and bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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