Always Expect The Unexpected

Players have a way of sneaking up on you and causing you to go hmmmm….  Even more so, the random nature of games coupled to the (apparently) random nature of players can make things go awry just when you thought that you had a handle on everything that was going on.  If you have read my last post you know where I am coming from at the moment. I got sideswiped as a GM last night.  It was OK because it was around the time I normally call the game but if it had happened earlier I am not exactly sure how I would of handled it.

Last night I was literally stunned by the complete about turn the game took with a standard random roll of the dice for a skill check.  The game was Traveller and of course bad things can happen in space so it shouldn’t come as an unexpected surprise.  But last night I got caught napping.  I did not expect the unexpected and so I thought I would share my thoughts on the matter.

Where have they gotten to?

I will relate most of this material to my Traveller experience of last night BUT it is important to understand one thing about most role playing games (there are a few that break this rule).  They are games based on statistics.  Sometimes heavy levels of statistics.  Game designers spend a lot of time making sure that the method they use to resolve random possibility fit into a set structure statistically.  What would Dungeons and Dragons be if statistically a 1st level mage could kill a dragon with a single attack 50% of the time.  To make sure that these things don’t happen game designers spend a lot of time working out the statistics.

So last nights error was statistically unlikely BUT certainly possible and it is this idea that I want to talk to today.  As a GM it is your job to look at the game system and understand it enough to be able to pick out the probabilities of some of this material and expect that at some time it will happen in game and have a contingency plan in place for the occurrence.

Of course it is more important to have in mind contingencies for the most common things.  So really I should have thought out ideas on how to run zero-g combat as well as ship to ship combat.  I should also have thought out things around how my players tend to run their characters and attempt to anticipate decisions that they might make when compared to the plot hooks that I offer up in the game.  This can be a bit trickier as understanding player motivations can be a difficult thing to anticipate.

Funnily enough we had a bit of a precursor discussion about this mid game last night.  We were talking about the transport of passengers in “low-berth” capsules (in essence a deep freeze) and that the medic makes a roll per berth (9 in total on their new ship) and they need to get 5+ on 2d6 throw.  The medic on board (a Doctor Tyson) gets a plus 1 to this roll so in essence I need to know the % chance on 2d6 to roll above 4.  The Dark Fortress blog has a great table explaining just this that you can access here.  So in essence the chance is 8.3% that someone will die on a voyage.  That is roughly one in ten chance that a passenger is going to die which is why the tickets are so cheap I suppose! 

Will the rescuers make it on time?

Now, the least likely roll is a double one or a double 6 happening around 3 in every hundred rolls.  These are the stellar successes and the depressing epic failures that can be the highlight or ruination of a character’s career in Traveller.  Last nights side swipe came from a navigation skill roll when trying to send the ship to the correct system.  This is a roll that comes up often and I should have been a good enough GM to realize that rolls that occur often are the ones where it is more likely that these dizzying failures will occur and at some stage I should have thought: What will I do?

It would have been forgivable had the characters discovered a new life-form on an unexplored planet and failed a xenobiology skill roll for me to have been a little stumped.  Why?  Because the likelihood of this occurring in my game is so minute that it is unlikely that I should have a prepared response.  But for the failure of navigation I should have known better.

So what do we need to do to make sure that we are prepared in these circumstances?  I really suggest as a GM that you take some time you would normally spend in designing to grab a notebook or some kind of word processing document and start to work through what businesses call a risk assessment.  It can be a fun thing to do in an RPG!  Trust me.

What you do is think about all of the things that can go wrong.  Anything that can happen from the players perspective and your own perspective that could cause problems to your game.  Brainstorm it, and go nuts.  Think of the most obscure stuff you can but also make sure that you also spend a good deal of time thinking about the common ones as well.

The rescue craft

Once you have a brainstormed list of issues in front of you it is time to rate them for how likely that they are to happen.  E.g. the starship could be struck by a meteor.  Highly unlikely based on the system so I discard it as not worth thinking about.  Mis-jump in the starship is more statistically likely so I list it under the space travel section of things to think about for later.  Once you are done categorizing and rating your brainstormed events you will have an almost complete risk assessment of things that could happen to derail the game.  I am specifically talking about in game elements here but you might find that doing a risk assessment of outside influences is also a handy thing to do (people dropping out of game, people not understanding the system, meteor striking your house as you game!).

The final step in this path is to work out what you can do about the issue should it arise.  Once you have done that you should at least be saved the embarrassment of being caught flat footed (that way the rogue can’t backstab you).  I should have been prepared for this chance that the players ended up in empty space, adrift with no fuel to get them out of danger.  Once I had ten minutes to think about it I came back with a brilliant idea to keep the game going so you see, thinking about these things help.

I am not letting the players know what has happened to their characters yet.  What I intend to do to turn this event from a disaster to a success for my game is having the players take on the role of their rescuers.  The ship would be missed by the company that created it so six weeks in the future after the events the players will take on a new set of characters who are sent out to solve this dilemma.  It is a brilliant solution that builds the tension for the players.  Are their characters dead?  Is this new character I am running what I will be expected to play from now on?  What really happened to the crew?

I can see this playing out over two to three games.  Probably three in my mind.  The first will be the build up and travel of the rescuers to the space that the ship disappeared in.  That will likely take a further three to four weeks of travel taking it out to about ten weeks since the characters jumped into that point of space.  Game 1 done!  Game 2 will be another episodic game where I switch back to the characters and play out what actually happens to them.  Do they live through the ordeal?  Do they eat the navigator for his ineptitude?  Is there enough scout brew left if they lived?  Game 3 could be the rescuers and what they find.

Are they in an uninhabitable area?

I hope this helps someone out there manage to appear spontaneous when something big happens.  It is a great exercise to do maybe once or twice a year in a long term campaign as the risks and dangers can change over time.  For example, if my Traveller players are alive and they landed on a formerly unknown planet with some vicious wildlife being its only inhabitants it is going to be a much different game and the risk assessment may have a different result as the Traveller game shifts more into a survival type style game.  Land of the Giants or Planet of the Apes!

You may not need to do it formally like I have laid out here (I would make notes as I find it helps stick stuff in my head) and you may just think about it every now and again.  Just realise that this is a very handy tool as a GM to use as it does save you being caught unprepared!  Until next time keep rolling.

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