GM Tips: Going off course.

I spend a lot of time reading in my spare time at work, mostly getting ideas for my own adventures and articles. I’m a pretty big fan of Table Titans and love that they have players and game masters constantly giving them experiences to post. As I read over these I’ve seen several “bad” experiences. Experiences that were fun at the moment to the players, but the GM clearly felt undermined or unhappy. I have this happen to me, and have had it happen to fellow game masters on a consistent basis. So, what do you do when your players “one shot” your plans, or derail an adventure, even if it was completely within the rules and alignments?

I fall into under the mindset of, “They’re destroying my plans. That’s fine. That makes them feel awesome and smart. But, I’m the master of the world they’re in. It’s not over yet.” I want to go over two different ways this can happen. The pre-written adventure ending too soon, and your own adventure getting thrown for a loop.

In both examples we have a cast of players whose alignments range from lawful evil to chaotic neutral. Let’s say a rogue, wizard, fighter, and druid. In the pre-written example, players threaten to end the adventure before it starts by killing an important person. In our own creation, they threaten to wipe out the supplies of their enemy before he can fully set up for an attack.

Pre-written let down…

So a game master sent players on a pre-written adventure into a town where strange things were happening. An old hermit greets the players before they reach down and tells them they’re going to die. It is ominous at first, but soon becomes annoying as he decides to follow them to town cackling and acting senile. The players, just before getting into town, decide to retaliate by catching the old man by surprise and killing him. Little do they know, they just beat the adventure. He was the main villain who was going to surprise them at the end and provide a challenging fight. Instead, due to the surprise, he got killed before acting. The end, the players win, and instead of playing D&D for four hours, they played for around thirty minutes. It feels awesome when you pull a stunt like this, but now what do you do for the rest of the night? This is something that happened to actual people, and the game master explained the entire adventure after saying that they won.

To me, that’s just plain being a bad game master. They gathered to play, and depend on you providing a fun and challenging experience till the session comes to an end.

Home-brew stew…

The players have been tailing a small army of orcs for a few sessions now. You were expecting them to go after the leader and fight him to prevent the war that the orcs are about to bring to a kingdom. You prepared for them getting to his tent, only to find that he wasn’t there, and that it’s an ambush instead, this orc sleeps in a different tent, to prevent would be assassins. He’s a smart one, and powerful, having united several tribes to form this warband. Instead, the players go straight for the supplies, hoping to starve the orcs and weaken their power before they can make any attack. Not only is this a well thought out idea on their part, they’re planning to hide themselves and do it in the dead of night. This threatens your next session as you intended on them fighting in an epic scale battle where their actions turn the tide of the fight.

To me, this is just very smart players, with a very good plan. I’d love to see it succeed to its fullest, but it threatens a lot of work I have already done, and prevents an epic fight from even happening.

What to do?

I follow four steps to prevent a pre-mature end to an adventure, or keep the adventure from derailing to the point of no return. It’s different when I wing my campaign, but when planning the next adventure a week or so ahead of time, it’s important to show that the players can do as they wish; but that your work isn’t entirely wasted. It’s a tricky balancing act, and something I’ve been trying to master for over a decade.

Engage, bide time, then act.

In the first example, they wish to surprise attack the old man. Go ahead and start rolling the dice, perception, sense motive, initiative, etc… Engage in combat. In the second example, get their stealth rolls, disguise checks, etc… Engage in their actions. Let them think that their plan is going off perfectly. This is where we reward creative thinking. They’re high fiving because you let them do it, and in the meantime we can…

Bide time. I lean in to the table, or focus on the web camera. I stare at the players. My hands raise up and my fingertips press against each other. Ah, the evil villain pose. I go into my think tank. It’s time to come up with a work-around on the fly. To keep things coherent and believable, I try and make as plausible of a result as possible. This is due to me coming up with some off the wall solutions in the past that left my players very confused. I also, typically, ignore my first three ideas. Normally they are the easy fixes, and most cliché. In the first example; my first three ideas are “He vanishes once struck.”, “He is killed and turns to ash on death.”, and “He uses magic and simply out runs them.” My fourth is more sinister, and memorable…

They hit him, leaving a wound on him that will be a scar that they remember. He summons illusions that target the players. The sound of the fight alerts guards posted on the outside of this town. When the guards arrive, they cannot see the illusions, since they weren’t there when the magic was cast. On top of that, they see that the players seem to be fighting among themselves. When the players look back, they see that the old man used the distraction of the guards to somehow get away. At least, that’s the plan…

This allows the players to get a taste of the enemy. This lets them make their mark, and have a real reason to hunt him down, and him a real reason to want them dead. It also lets out an important adventure secret out early; but it doesn’t end the adventure outright. They will be able to continue on through the adventure, and when the time comes, they have a rival to kill, instead of some enemy from the book that they happened to see at the start of the adventure.

In the second example, we bide time by letting the players set their attack on the supplies up. I don’t have that many ideas here. I look over their stealth checks and let them go on thinking they succeeded. But, one orc saw them near the supplies. Rather than be stupid and attack when outnumbered, this one follows his instructions well and reports the players. The chief gathers those that he can as fast as possible. But, the players get to start demolishing stuff. I won’t take their good idea completely away from them, but I still want an awesome fight next time.

So they torch the supplies. The chief shows his face along with a dozen angry orcs. This will be their chance. Run now, while the orcs try and salvage what they can. Or face the show down here and now.

Act. Pretty simple here. We have our plan, it’s time to stick to it. In the first example, don’t get discouraged by what the players are doing. If they damage him so much that he should have died. He doesn’t. Instead, he knew what they were up to, he was protected by magic. Stick to the plan. They physically scar him in a very visible spot. He expected a band of do goodies, not a rag tag crew of shut the front door. In example two, don’t tell them that they are spotted. Instead, let them get distracted by destroying the supplies. Surprise them with the huge visage of the orc chief stopping his run just outside of flames. Then let them feel fear as you describe over a dozen accompany him. Describe that they’ve damaged and destroyed at least half of the supplies. The orc chief glances back and forth from the remaining supplies to them. They can see he wants to kill them here and now, but he does the wiser thing and commands the others to save what they can. If the players are smart, they’ll escape while they can. If they wait any longer, hells army worth of orcs will descend on them in no time. I would also have the chief send out a small tracking squad to try and hunt them down over the rest of the session until they make it to safety… Where the next session’s war will come; but with only half the force it should have. Enough to tip the scale to a fair fight.

In both cases, the players succeed. In the first one the players are rewarded by learning what they’re after early on, and leaving their mark. In the second one, the players mostly succeed and are allowed to escape. Letting the enemy see who ruined his plans, and building up some hate, for when they get to fight him on the battlefield in the next example. Everyone wins, more immersion happens, and it becomes something awesome to talk about.

Even at the end of the night you can say, congratulations guys, here’s some bonus XP for surprising me and tell them your original plans. After a while, they won’t realize when they surprised you and when they haven’t.

Hope this helps. ~Vexar


2 thoughts on “GM Tips: Going off course.

  1. I always give the Players free reign. If they break the plot, I, like you, use what is left to continue the story. Main NPC dies earlier than planned, throw side plots and “Colonel Sebastian Moran”s at them. Want to destroy the supplies…I love your take. Don’t let the players destroy the game, use what they do to alter the plot. Good post and good thougts.

    1. Thank you! I’ve never been a huge fan of railroading people into one set path. It can happen easily in a pre-made adventure. I always find it more interesting when we go off of that path, at least a bit, and add our own twist and flavor to the adventure.

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