Planning to be Flexible

One of the most daunting things that new GM’s have to come to terms with is the ability to handle the unexpected little things (or huge things) that the players bring up as a course of action.  It can be a tricky question to answer when somebody asks how you do it as a GM but I do try to put in place some strategies that address this issue for every game that I run.

The first is the title of this blog.  Plan to be flexible and adaptable.  Expect the unexpected.  Take a long look at what you have planned for the game and think about the players that you have.  Are your players going to be interested in the hooks that you have set for the adventure?  If not sweeten them or allow them to move away from the original hook but have something else ready for them.  Think about the players characters and what is important to them.  Work out some hooks that will involve them and get them interested in the adventure.

Plan to be flexible!

Always try to have some side adventure material prepared so if things go south you can always slip something in to fill the breach.  Even if it is just a source book full of NPC’s and a couple of scrawled notes explaining a small plot that you can expand on then you are golden.  If you can find some random encounter tables at hand then you can run some encounters based off them.

The important thing to do when the players start to go off the rails is to let them.  Do not rail-road them back into the adventure.  Instead, think about ways that you can weave the story back into the path that they have chosen.  Does an NPC at the bar have an interesting rumour that points the players to the abandoned sawmill that they find the next relic at?  Or perhaps the magician’s mentor is after a rare herb that is found in the waters by the mill.  There are always ways to get things back on track that do not force the players to unnaturally change their actions.

For example (and if you are playing the Skull and Shackles adventure path there are spoilers ahead, I have put the sections of spoiler material in green text) my group at the end of our last game had essentially derailed the expected plot path.  Firstly there is a major assumption made by the adventure path (AP) designers that once the party “crack” Tidewater Rock that they will spend a good deal of time there.  My players haven’t.  Though this adventure they got back to Tidewater Rock to find that the Sahuagin had attacked.  I was running off a timeline and they were late so the young shepherd of the piece had died of his wounds and the island was in mourning.  The group then got attacked by another party of sahuagin which they managed to fight back though they lost a couple of guards in the process.

The players then made a connection that I am fairly certain that the AP designers did not expect.  They thought about why the Sahuagin were attacking and got the reason dead to rights.  The players had a rare artefact of the sahuagin chief’s son who they killed earlier in the AP.  To add to the curve ball the players gave me the Necromancer used one of the dead sahuagin’s skin to create a treasure map of where the creature knew of valuables.  Of course it pointed to their home area.  In the module the players are meant to wait a week or so at the Rock and then the sahuagin chief sends a ship with a pirate crew to attempt to take the rock and get back the artefact.  So what I did was roll with the changes.

Skull and Shackles

My players wanted to travel to the island and give back the artefact and hopefully form an alliance.  They set off pretty much immediately so I decided that the players would arrive at the island roughly around the time the chief had negotiated with the pirates for the return of the artefact.  The players sailed toward the island and saw a pirate ship moored with black sails and that is where the game ended for the night.  I need to work around the change of venue and also realise that the players will likely take a different tack to an open confrontation.  Calling it closed for the evening handily gives me the time to plan for the changes.

Also, by doing it that way I am 99% sure that the players had no idea that such a deviation from the main plot existed.  I had thought about what to do with this portion of the plot because I did not think the players would sit long enough at the Rock for things to go as planned but the answers came to me while I was sitting at the table and was listening to what the players had planned.  It became obvious to me that the players plan was a good way of keeping the main plot going with their side quest.

So, the real way to get around those curve ball moments are to plan for them.  It is not a case of if it will happen when you GM, it is a question of when it will happen.  If you have some materials or encounters prepared and in an easy to grab place then you will likely be able to continue without the players suspecting anything.  Also, listen to what the players are doing and where they are going with their own thoughts.  Use that material in your solution.

Finally, do not be afraid to call a break if you need a moment to gather your thoughts and come up with something.  Tell the players that it is time for a drink break and use that break just to get your thoughts in order.  The players will likely be glad to grab a drink and stretch their legs and you will get a five or ten minute break to think about what you need to do.  Players are forgiving creatures too.  Even if they suspect that what you do is not “part of the plan” they will just be happy that they are having a game.

Being a GM can feel like you have to be perfect but in fact that is far from the truth.  I give out a lot of advice to GM’s on this site but I think that is the key message.  I only consider myself an average GM but with a lot of experience.  I am far from a perfect GM.  The thing is having a go.  Each game you will find different challenges and from each of them you will learn a little bit more.  Just give it a go, realise that you don’t need to be perfect and you are capable of handling the game.  Keep rolling!

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