Photograph of a derailed train

“No plot survives the first contact with your players.”

Your recurring villain appeared right on schedule, but through a string of lucky crits, they’re now on the ground bleeding out.

The players completed the dungeon, but in the process destroyed the McGuffin that you had planned to have aid them on their quest. In their defense, they thought it was evil.

The carefully laid encounter that would introduce them to their next plot arc was circumvented. Why? Because the party flipped a coin and chose to go south instead of north.

Once you’ve DMed long enough, you will run into cases of your carefully laid out plot becoming undone. Sometimes our players just out-think, outmaneuver, or just out-luck us. Since we’re all in it for the fun shared story (and as non-omniscient beings)… that’s okay. Perhaps frustrating, but okay. Of course, we should plan for our plans to become unplanned, and have contingencies for our plans, but sometimes we just can’t plan enough and things don’t go according to ANY plan we put down.

Whatever the reason, this article is going to cover four strategies of what to do once the dust of a plot upset has settled, and what kinds of groups the strategies work best (and worst) with.

Strategy One: Open Discourse

We are all playing games to have fun together. One of the easiest ways to get things back on track is appealing to that common goal by explaining what’s going on behind the scenes.

If in your game:

  • The players are there to slay demons
  • Demon slaying is fun to the players
  • There are demons in the hills

And they are heading towards the forest with a stubbornness that no NPC can sway? Maybe just let them know, “There’s demons in them thar hills.”

This strategy works really well for newer DMs who may not have as much experience in pivoting plot points and is especially true for certain more rigidly structured pre-written modules. If the module or your original prep doesn’t cover the great big city the players want to go to instead of the small town that the module is based in, it can be difficult to rework.

Same goes for knocked off NPCs, missed McGuffins, etc.

Photograph of a knight lying on their back on the ground, looking defeated.

Here lies Sir Ouchibald, who you wrote way too much backstory for so little playtime.

This strategy consists of sitting down with your players and explaining what’s going on. You can frame this discussion as, “I don’t want to undermine your achievements or your choices…,” and then lead into what’s going on.

Try to avoid spoilers and lean on the side of vague. There’s no need to explain why the item was important or the many plot points of the city, but a simple, “It’s important to the plot” can give enough information, and even lead to more investment. Then lean on your players to help you come up with a reason to get back on course, or any modifications that can be made to be able to keep the game going smoothly.

This can be through just complete retconning or through massaging of the story, but getting your players’ opinions helps keep their engagement and also allows them to have a say in what they want to see. This keeps their engagement as well, which is definitely always a plus.

If you have a bit more flexibility, you can also use this to solicit player input for modifications to the plot. You can ask why they did what they did, what interested them, and use their suggestions to give them what they want to see. While you can get a lot of that information from a good Session 0, keeping conversation open to your players’ wants and needs is never a bad thing.

Who does this strategy work well with?

This strategy sees the best results in parties where players are more flexible, or parties in pre-written modules where there is a tacit understanding of pre-planned direction.

If you have a group whose players are less likely to react well to any perception of railroading or who don’t enjoy seeing how the hotdog is made, this may not work as well.

Strategy Two: Reskinning

Before we get into reskinning, there is a very important disclaimer to this strategy. Reskin only if the players did something unintentionally. If your players deliberately chose not to pursue something, forcing plot onto them that they probably don’t want isn’t respecting their choices as players. And trust me, no one wants that.

So what do I mean by reskinning?

Photograph of a person without a face holding their temples

Okay, maybe not like this…

They killed a plot relevant NPC? Assign that role to another NPC they will meet later. They go to Boringburg instead of Plottingtown? Well, just have the quest in Boringburg. They avoided an ambush where they would save the princess? Oh look, the bandit camp was somewhere else. Those demons I mentioned earlier? Forest demons now.

This strategy has an inherent risk involved though when it comes to player autonomy. If the location of the bandit camp was known and they were trying to specifically avoid it (or they weren’t a huge fan of the princess in the first place), it won’t be much fun for them if it magically teleports. There is a fine line when using this strategy when it comes to respecting the players’ choices.

Also be sure to avoid trivializing their achievements. If they thought they had slaughtered the big bad (and honestly, they had before you reskinned), only to learn it was just a measly bandit in disguise, that doesn’t feel good. Make it a powerful lieutenant, a clone, someone else who, even though it turned out it wasn’t the final boss, makes an impact that respects what they did. Don’t just make this a detour, make this an accomplishment for them.

But again, as with my previous point, it’s imperative to respect their choices. If they went through the hoops of sneaking into the final boss’s castle, having the person they beat there suddenly not be the final boss can lead to some not-so-great feelings, no matter how important you make them.

Sometimes, you just have to find something new.

Who does this strategy work well with?

This strategy works well for games with less out loud world-building or lower player engagement. If any of your players are super into the details of every town on the map, the backstory of the bandit camp, etc., it becomes harder to do this reasonably without raising some eyebrows (and potentially some hackles). The more they know, the harder it is to obfuscate things.

For groups more focused on the here and now however, especially combat heavy groups, this tends to work well. What they don’t know can’t hurt them. Though again, use this strategy with care and respect.

Strategy Three: Buy Time and Dig for More Plot!

Sometimes, your best option is to just acknowledge your players’ victory or decisions and move forward. The big bad is dead early? Good job! They didn’t go after the McGuffin? Okay, that’s shelved. They decided to become a ragtag band of pirates and sail the seven seas? Well, your royal intrigue arc probably is probably going to be a bit delayed.

Sometimes it works to just realize, “Hey, they did the thing and they’re having fun.” The plot may be out of the window, but that’s okay! Time to make a new one.

Sometimes our players just out-think, outmaneuver, or just out-luck us. Since we’re all in it for the fun shared story (and as non-omniscient beings)… that’s okay.

But you only have so many days before your next game, and the clock is now ticking. So what now?

If someone, anyone, has a backstory, see how you can bring that into the game. Their home town needs some help, their family is in trouble, etc. If someone mentioned they wanted to do something, bring that into the game. Work on helping them find that long lost book. If they had an NPC that they really liked that was a one-off, drag them kicking and screaming back into the limelight.

Oh no, “Unexpected Backstory” the kobold is in trouble! You have to go save him! Or maybe the kobold wants to go see his family and needs an escort if you don’t feel like damseling the little sweetheart.

This strategy involves focusing on what your players and their characters have shown interest in and reforming it into plot. Now, keep in mind, this doesn’t have to be the be-all end-all of the campaign. This can just be fishing for side quests to keep them busy until you work on something new. But by leaning on the experiences you’ve already had with your players or their interests, you can get some good buy-in.

And don’t think this is just limited to story-driven players. If your players are a huge fan of slashing their way through swarms of enemies and find enjoyment through combat? Hello random encounter tables!

Who does this strategy work well with?

This strategy obviously really works well on an engaged party, regardless of the direction of the engagement. If you have a party that shows less excitement about things or is more reserved, it may be harder to suss out things they want to see. But if your party has ever shown excitement about something as a group, leaning on that hard can either buy you some time or just completely replace your plot with something they already showed interest in.

Strategy Four: Take a Break

But what if none of that works?

What if there is no way to reskin or retcon in a way that is satisfying? And what if the amount of time it would take to draw on players’ backstory for more would result in week-by-week struggle to plan without any ability to catch up? What if the idea of coming up with something on such short notice is just sapping your very will to be behind the DM screen?

There are three words we don’t hear nearly enough when it comes to DMing (especially for DMs in more frequent campaigns).

Take a break.

I know that losing scheduling and momentum is the bane of any tabletop RPG, but swap out. It doesn’t mean you have to stop playing, or even stop DMing. Ask if someone else wants to run a few one shots or see if people are interested in trying a pre-written module. Switch it out to once every other week for a bit to give you more time. Try something new. Your game doesn’t have to reach the “until further notice” state by doing this.

If you don’t feel like you’re going to do as good a job as you’d like? Give yourself the time you need to make something you want to make, not just something to satisfy the urge to game every week.

Worried about losing the game to scheduling concerns? Give your players an estimated time of return. This gives them expectations and you a deadline. People are less likely to vanish off the face of the earth if you say you’ll return in 3 weeks and more likely to keep their calendars open with a solid date rather than, “Some vague point in the future.”

Who does this strategy work well with?

In a perfect world? All groups should be willing to let their DM take a break and then be raring to come back.

In a world where time is limited and other interests abound, this tends to do better with groups that have another DM in their midst to take the reins, or older groups that have a lot of rapport already with the idea that a certain day of the week or month is permanently claimed. If you have a newer group, or a group with newer members, the likelihood of losing momentum is much higher and you risk losing a player or two to conflicting schedules.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a break though. You need to be kind to yourself.

Wrapping Up

And there you have it! Four ways to deal with a plot upset. Keep in mind, this article is not all-encompassing, and there are plenty of other ways to deal with a banged-up plot. I’m sure that there are books written on how to successfully pull each one of these four strategies off even.

But hopefully these four will at least spark some thought on what to do next if something goes wrong and your players do the unexpected, even if it’s to the detriment of your planning.

What are some creative ways that you’ve turned around a plot upset?