Dungeon Masters love creating awesome encounters for our players. We love layering a story, developing unforgettable NPCs, and springing complex traps upon our players. We spend hours lost in thought at our day jobs planning the campaign. We spend late nights behind stacks of books and graph paper, carefully crafting and fitting every piece of the puzzle that the players will have to solve along the way. (Okay…old school guys like me are behind books and graph paper. Most of you are staring bleary eyed at your iPad screens.)
And then sometimes the players don’t want to play along.
I don’t mean they don’t want to play D&D. I mean that they come up with their own way of doing things that you did not think of when spending all that time designing the scenario. Sometimes they want to go an entirely different direction from the one you had planned. This means that, above all of your players, a DM needs to be an improvisational master. There are two things a DM can do at times like these. Well…three, but I’ll save that third option for a different post.
First, let me tell you what you don’t want to do. Above all else, you do not want to railroad your players into following your idea, anyway. As the DM, you really are god in your world. It’s easy to limit your player’s choices until they have no choice at all. This is not what players come to D&D, or any RPG, for. If your players feel like a cog in a machine, if they feel like cattle running down the one-way chute to the slaughterhouse, they are not going to have fun. It doesn’t matter how great you think your idea is; if your players aren’t having fun, they won’t come back. You might think “Well, I’ll just find other players.” You might find other players once or twice, but word will get around that you suck as a DM. You can’t DM without players. Therefore, it is in your own best interest to respond in a way that lets everybody have fun.
There really are ways you can handle the situation which are wins for both you and your players. As the DM, your job will be harder…but that’s why the DM gets the big bucks, right? 😉
- Go With the Flow
The first thing you can do when players depart from your script is try to find a work-around. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, you find ways to adapt, adjust, and overcome. Is there any way you can tweak your idea to make it fit into the direction your players go?
For instance, I had an encounter planned for a group that involved making up a special prop—a wanted poster with one of the player’s pictures on it. This would let the players know that the Bad Guy was onto them. A group of hobgoblins had the poster and were looking to collect the bounty. They knew generally where the group would be–heading south along a forest edge. The hobgoblins wanted to go north along the forest edge until they found the players. As an extra twist, the hobgoblins had an ogre with them whom they used for bait. They had the ogre head north outside of the forest while they followed along just inside the forest. They knew the players were aggressive and would attack the ogre if they spotted it first. While the players were occupied with the ogre, the hobgoblins could get into a good position to ambush the players, hopefully after they had taken damage from the ogre. If the players defeated the hobgoblins, they would find the wanted poster and know that the Bad Guy was onto them.
I was stoked to play out this little scenario. However, the first thing the players did when they started heading south was declare that they were paralleling the forest, but staying about a mile away from it.
Great. This would have them avoid the entire encounter that I had planned for the evening. The key for the encounter was the ogre engaging more or less in the open and distracting the players, while the hobgoblins ambushed from the forest. How could I mesh together my plans with the player actions?
I decided that even as far out from the forest as they were, there was a chance they could see the tall ogre silhouetted against the forest. One player did see the ogre. It worked out that it was the most aggressive player who saw it. Nice. I’ll save time here and avoid all of the details, but this battle started out as long range arrow fire at the ogre. The ogre rushed to attack.
I still could not use the hobgoblins as I had intended–close range ambush from the forest–so I had some decisions to make. What did the hobgoblins see? What did they think?
They saw the ogre rush away from the forest. One of the hobgoblins said “What in the world is Grom doing now?!”
The cautiously left the edge of the forest for the brushy hills. Soon they could see arrows flying through the air towards the ogre. They stayed low and crept forward. They could eventually see the battle, and realized that Grom had indeed found the party they had been looking for. However, the battle was going against their ogre bait.
“Let’s go help him!”
“I don’t think we’d get there in time to make any difference. Now that we know where they are, we could shadow them and attack their camp tonight.”
“Forget that! I wanna kill me a human!”
Seriously…this was the conversation among the hobgoblins I played in my head while fighting the ogre against the players. They decided to sneak up on the players while they were gloating over their ogre kill.
The hobgoblins should have waited until dark. So it goes.
Actually, to show how fluid this was in my mind, if the players had immediately pressed on after defeating the ogre, the hobgoblins would have waited until dark. Because the players took the time to loot the ogre’s body, have a rest, and take the time to talk about Life, the Universe, and Everything, the hobgoblins saw that the party was being inattentive right then and decided to attack. I adapted my plan to the player’s actions every step of the way, so as far as I’m concerned, that particular game session was a win.
The other option you have when players don’t follow your plan is to abandon the plan that you had, or at least postpone it for a more opportune time. This is a far better option than coercing players into jumping through your hoop. It is far better that you go through the challenges of adjusting and adapting than for you to force your players down the slaughterhouse chute. If nobody in the party had spotted that ogre, they would have totally passed that encounter by…and I would have had to be okay with that. This is one of the things that makes DMing tougher than playing, adjusting to these unforeseen left turns.
There are things you can do to lessen the impact of these times. This is why it helps to adventure in a fully fleshed out world. It gives you more options when the game doesn’t go according to plan. This is an advantage to playing in a commercially available world like The Forgotten Realms. Much of that detail is already there for you. If the players had avoided the hobgoblin/ogre ambush above, they simply would have arrived at their destination sooner and the game would have continued. I would have been bummed that I still had an unplayed encounter, but the players wouldn’t have known any different, and they would still have had fun. Mission accomplished.
However, even in a home brew world, you should have more material ready to go than you plan to use in any particular game session. This is why there is no rest for the productive DM with a home brew world. You can never have too many side stories or NPCs in a home brew world. You never know when you might need them.
The bright side to these unused encounters is that they become another tool in your DMs tool box. So you didn’t use that idea today. The day will come when you can use it, and it will be so nice that you have it, and it’s ready to go. See? It’s never for nothing!