When you present your players with a clear course of action at the start of a session — the adventure, in other words — and they say, “Nope, we’re not doing that — we want to do this instead,” you have an interesting decision to make.
Do you improvise an entire session, or call it a night?
First, decide if you can wing the session or not. This is a crucial decision point, and one that’s based on a variety of factors: your comfort level and experience with improvisation, whether skipping what you had planned will really screw up the game and your group’s social contract, to name three big factors.
If you can wing it, wing it. For whatever reason, your players are more interested in what they came up with than what you came up with. Don’t take that personally, just file it away for consideration after the session — right now, start improvising.
If you need a break to sketch out a new plan for the session, take one (breaks are always good). Remember that you can start by improvising one encounter and seeing how far that gets you.
For better or worse, every GM should improvise an entire session at least once. It’s a major GMing milestone, and it’ll teach you all sorts of thinks about the craft of game mastering. It might be nerve-wracking the first time, but it could also turn out to be a lot of fun.
If you can’t wing it, don’t. There’s a line between getting out of your GMing comfort zone and biting off more than you can chew (and possibly running an un-fun session in the process), and you’re the only one who can decide where that line is for you.
If you decide not to improvise the session, you have two options: stop for the night, or explain the situation to your players (and possibly run the adventure you prepped).
In the first case, you’d say something like, “Awesome — that sounds like a lot of fun, but I’m not prepared to run that tonight. Let’s play board games instead, and I’ll prep that for next week.”
In the second case, it might go like this, “That sounds like fun, but it isn’t what I prepped for tonight. I don’t think I can wing a whole session around that, so if we don’t play what I have prepared, we’ll have to do something else tonight. How should we handle this?”
Personally, I recommend the second option — laying your cards on the table and including your players in the decision process is generally the best choice.
What do you do in this situation?
I have ran campaigns where I explicitly tell the players not to try this, explaining that in this particular campaign I prepare an Adventure of the Week and the choice is to play that adventure or not play. This method seems to work well for lowbrow killing of things and taking of stuff. I wouldn’t recommend such draconian measures in a game with higher dramatic stakes.
I try to do ‘minimal prep’ on everything I can conceive of the players doing. Then go overboard on the one I think is most likely.
If I pick wrong, I still know the names and relative levels of everyone and thing they might meet – which is the part that seems to trip me up in purely impromptu settings. And… the prep I did will probably end up used next week. So I’ll have the time to prep one of the other ‘eventually, they’ll try _this_’ routes.
This is a lot easier when actually inside a ‘scenario’, where there’s a clear goal of some type that the players are actually aiming for. Doing this for ‘Training time’, or any time where the players are fiddling around inside a city instead of aiming for a concrete goal is much more problematic. “I leave town looking for decent horses”, or buying property or… the list of crazy things is just endless. Villages are easier -> “There is no ___ here.”
What I try to do in those situations is use the elements I had planned, but in the direction that the PCs want to go. (especially if I have some plot point that I want to happen) That way, I’ve got some planning to fall back on instead of having to wing absolutely everything.
One thing to keep in mind: the players *always* wing it. They find out what’s going on when they sit down at the table – there might be hints in prior sessions, but they really don’t know much until it’s all going down.
My approach is like Al’s. I try to account for what seem likely decisions are work around those. In my current group, the players seem to follow a social contract implication that they will go along with the plot. Funny thing, though, is that I don’t write a plot. I come up with a problem and try to get ready for how the players will solve it.
Hello, first time poster here. Just wanted to say firstly that I really like this blog already. And oddly enough, this post means something very special to me.
My GMing forte seems to be improvising. Half the time while playing my players will do something I didnt plan for, and then its Improv time. Once, I had a VERY small amount planned, and they wanted to play.
So, I winged it. NPC’s, Encounters, everything, on the fly instantly. And after the session was over, I told em what I did. I said “I just made everything up on the spot. How was it?”
Suprisingly, they couldnt tell what I was doing and thought I had planned it out 0_o
Turns out, I am really good at just coming up with things on the fly that make sense, and work. Sometimes I wonder if I should just sketch out adventure stuff, and just wing it from now on…
The beauty of D&D (or any crunch-heavy game) is that two or three random combat encounters can buy you enough time to get through a session while winging it (giving you time to integrate those random encounters into the new direction).
That said, my players are usually savvy enough to realize when they are “resisting the story” and go in the planned direction, usually after a good-natured jibe or two.
Wing it. Take what you had planned and repackage it if you can, but I think just letting the players tell you what they want will be all that you need to improvise a fun session. Granted, I improvise a lot nowadays and find it to be a lot of fun.
I once ran an entire campaign completely improvised. Not recommended unless you’re very good at looking things up quickly, but it’s a lot of fun if you can pull it off. It’s also interesting to see where the game goes when the players have that much control.
I can appreciate the concept, but in practice I thin the players who do this too often are just being tools. If they want to go a specific direction, at the start of the game is NOT the time to tell you. at the end of last week’s game, or a few days before via a phone call or e-mail is much more appropriate. Sure, the unexpected happens now and again, but for the most part, the characters can afford to do what’s planned and tackle what they wanted to do next week.
I think the key here is to make sure the constraints of the campaign are well established. Within those constraints (or even possibly stretching them just a bit), go with the flow. The constraints may be set for any of a number of reasons.
Jeff – highly constrained games work just fine for games with higher dramatic stakes. Dogs in the Vinyard is a great example. The GM prepares a town and the players play that town. Not much choice. But HOW they play that town? They might come in guns a blazing. Or they might decide the most innocent victim is the sorceror. The GM has to roll with that. But the GM doesn’t have to roll with: “No, we don’t go to Winter Creek, we go back to Superstition Gulch instead.”
As Rick says, players who try and burst outside the constraints are being tools.
Of course the key is to have reasonable constraints. If your constraints are “I’ve already written the story, if you try and play it out wrong I’ll yell and scream,” the game probably won’t work.
What my game group does is we always end the Mission with the very beginning of the next one. We all know what we are going to do next time we play that game (We cycle about 3 games to give the DMs time to prep the next mission). None of us are jerks enough to say “forget it we are just going to ignore the kings request to find his missing daughter,and go to the goblin’s cave instead).
(Sarlax) One thing to keep in mind: the players *always* wing it.
This ties in well with Al’s comment about minimal prep, and it points towards an entire GMing style — one where the GM essentially creates NPCs and relationships in counterpoint to the PCs, and the whole group wings it from there.
Interestingly enough given our game this weekend, this style is part of what Burning Empires is all about (ditto with Burning Wheel): relationship maps driving play.
Clayton: Welcome to TT! It does indeed sound like you should play to your GMing strengths, and sketch out loose adventure structures with big holes for you to improvise in.
(Rick) I can appreciate the concept, but in practice I thin the players who do this too often are just being tools.
I see where you’re coming from. I’d say that if a group of players consistently veers away from the obvious adventure path, then the GM and the players aren’t on the same page about the game — and if they don’t discuss that, something’s going to give.
As some of the others have pointed out, having the key decision point at the beginning of the session can be a problem. The first game of my recently ended campaign, I got wind that the players would reject my intended hook before the game, and made up a list of other adventures for them to pick from (all of whom shared a few initial “random” encounters.) After that, I tried to make the major decision points at the end of sessions or off-line (which means on-line, as in discussion by Internet.) I also prepare a number of options for likely responses, trying to reuse ingredients without limiting choices.
Ending sessions with the first big decision of the next session is a great idea, Alex and Russell — I’ve never thought of doing that. Cool!
I always leave space for players to take the bit in their teeth. I had a game dragging to a dismal conclusion when a player ‘suddenly realized’ that an escaped lackey was THE bad guy! He was wrong, but within a minute, the troupe had concocted a cunningly crafted and disguised plot behind the past several sessions. They were SO wrong! But they already ‘knew’ how to proceed with foiling whatever plan the ‘fake sidekick’ had. I backed off and let them cook and just tried to stay ahead of the tsunami. They told me what they where looking for and I cobbled to keep up. Another dozen games and it all came to a climactic finale aboard a blazing zeflyn (magic airship) that left 3 of 7 (?) characters dead and the whole group exhausted and satisfied. As we broke up that last game, everyone complimented me on me amazing and multilayer plotting. Over 25 years later, none of the players believe I didn’t plan the whole thing from day one!