(This is the thirty-seventh installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
The best-laid plans of mice and GMs oft go astray.
I’ve spent a bunch of posts over the last few months talking about game planning. How I approach it, what tricks I use to pace and steer the game, the units I break my planning up into, the considerations I try to keep in mind as I’m doing all of this . . . so now let’s talk about what happens when my players blow all those plans right out of the water.
It isn’t a purely GM-side issue. I’ve definitely gone into game sessions as a player thinking “I’ll talk to X, and then I’ll convince Y to help me with that thing I’m doing, and then” — only to have little or none of that fall out as planned, or even get off the starting blocks. Because remember: RPGs are collaborative. No one person controls the whole thing, which means the story may at any time hang a screeching turn around a corner you didn’t even see coming.
This can take any number of forms. I’d recently promised my husband a scene outside of game time with an NPC ally of his, because my husband had to leave the previous session early to go pick up my mother (who was staying with us); I expected it to be a nice bit of personal RP, exploring and strengthening the bonds of friendship between those two characters. Instead my husband’s PC dropped the most destructive bombshell he possibly could have, sending the NPC into a fury that not only ended that conversation, but wound up eating the entire following session. Other times you plan for a big combat, only to have the players pull some trick out of their ears that ends the whole thing in the second round, or go off in a direction that bypasses the fight entirely. When my husband and I ran a Dragon Age game, we spent some time trying to figure out how to make a highly suspicious-looking NPC seem innocuous. Nothing we came up with was plausible — it would only cement the players’ conviction that he was sketchy — so finally we said, screw it; let’s just make it obvious that there’s more to this guy than the public story accounts for. Result? They spent three-quarters of the campaign ignoring him. Because clearly anybody with a blinking neon sign over their head saying “INVESTIGATE ME” is a red herring, right?
It’s proverbial in gaming: players will always think of a tactic the GM didn’t anticipate, fail to accept the bait dangled in front of them, go haring off after their personal plots instead of addressing the larger issue, and otherwise derail your carefully-crafted plans. This is true whether you’re a GM, or a player being sent off-course by the GM or the person at your side.
So what do you do when that happens?
It depends a lot on the type of derailment, but to start with, that word right there gives you a hint. All the way back in the second post of this series, I talked about “railroading” as a negative thing; that’s what happens when someone (usually the GM, but honestly, it can be a player, too) refuses to accept any deviation from the narrative they have planned. Answer Number One is, don’t lay down too much track. Be adaptable; follow the flow. Otherwise you’re like that person — we all know at least one example of that person, I suspect — who has a thing they’re going to contribute to the conversation, and by god they will contribute it even if the conversation has long since moved onward and the anecdote is no longer relevant to the topic at hand. Take your cues from the context, and work with it instead of against it.
In some cases this may just mean a temporary delay. You were going to ask an NPC a question, but when you showed up they were dealing with another problem and wanted your help. You could say “I won’t help you until you talk about something completely unrelated” . . . but is that a good idea? You’re probably better off helping, then voicing your query when there’s an opening. (Same as in a real conversation.) Maybe it’s later that scene; maybe it’s a few scenes later, or even next session. This happens to me a lot as a GM, to the point where I regularly expect that whatever I’ve got planned for a session, some of it will get kicked down the road. Doesn’t happen every time, but expecting it means I don’t try to cut things short just to pack everything in. (This approach, of course, only works for ongoing campaigns with a fair bit of time flexibility. If you’re running a three-hour convention one-shot, or everybody has to leave at 4 p.m. and you won’t have another session for a month and you’re in the middle of a thrilling bit of tension, you may need to prod things forward in order to reach a good conclusion in the time allotted.)
Other times, though, it means letting go of your plans entirely. You were going to challenge your arch-nemesis to a public duel, but an opportunity came up to politically ruin them instead, and the proposal for how to do that is really cool. This requires you to keep enough perspective to see when the alternative is worth it, which can be hard when Idea A is your baby and Idea B is somebody else’s, but maintaining that perspective makes you a better gamer. Or maybe there’s no ready alternative; it’s just that your plan hinged on succeeding at a particular thing, and the dice flat-out didn’t cooperate. You came up short; you can’t try again; you have to figure out something else, and deal with the fallout of the first attempt going awry.
A good playing group will leave room for the flexibility required there. You’ll be able to fail forward, or incorporate the change without chucking the whole plot out entirely, or whatever. If you need something to remain fixed, at least try to engineer it in such a fashion that the fixity is plausible and justified. Don’t put the Big Bad in front of the PCs and then tell your players they’re not allowed to attack him because your plot doesn’t call for him to die yet; have him show up in a dream, or when the PCs are unarmed, or when he’s so surrounded by minions that they can’t get close enough to do anything before he escapes. Or else put him there, let the players have a fair shot, and be ready to roll onward if your villain dies in the third session.