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Snap Decisions and Retconning

As a GM, you’ll often be forced to make snap decisions about an element of the game that might turn out to have lasting consequences — and it’s inevitable that some of those calls will be inconvenient or just plain wrong.

Sometimes you make these decisions because your players surprise you, which is just the nature of the beast (and one of the best things about being a GM). Other times you’ll make a mistake that seems minor at the time, and not discover it until later on.

Depending on your temperament and how important the seemingly-unimportant decision (or mistake) turns out to be, it can be tempting to say “Shit. Now I’m stuck with that” or “Ehhh, I’ll just change it.” When it comes to retconning [1], though, it’s the specifics of the situation that matter.

For example:

In the first case, you can always retcon that decision after the fact. If you start prepping for an adventure involving that building and realize it needs to be much larger or smaller than you said it was originally, just change it — and explain the change to your players at the start of the adventure. No big deal.

In the second case, you’re better off working with the secret that you picked on the spot. There’s probably a way to change something about the NPC or about the story arc you had in mind to incorporate the new twist. I wouldn’t recommend retconning in this situation — chances are good that it will bug at least one of your players. If you absolutely can’t work with what you came up with, retcon it and apologize to your players.

In the third case, your snap decision has changed the course of the game substantially, and the scene itself was probably very satisfying for your players (who came up with a clever idea, executed it and got results). Retconning this one is a terrible idea, and should be avoided at all costs. Just make it work — you might be pleasantly surprised by what emerges from this curveball.

How do you handle situations like this?

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#1 Comment By robustyoungsoul On October 26, 2007 @ 5:21 am

In the second case, if you just keep quiet the players will sometimes come up with a plausible explanation amongst themselves! Just smile slyly the whole time and then steal their explanation.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On October 26, 2007 @ 5:31 am

I tend to go with a mix of 3 and 2. If the players are enjoying it then even if I’ve screwed something up, I’ve also done something right. I’ll more easily change a story point than retcon a player victory. Of course that doesn’t mean I always have to change the story point in favor of the players. Maybe the mafia don does sweep for bugs, and decided to drop some misleading information after finding the player’s bug.

#3 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On October 26, 2007 @ 7:00 am

Don’t forget that often times you can make both what you said and what you SHOULD have said right. For example, let’s say the Mafia boss always sweeps his office for bugs, BUT the PCs heard conversations from the bugs in their office. Maybe he just missed the bugs that day (lucky break for the PCs). Even better, he DIDN’T miss the bugs and the conversation they got was a red herring or a trap, as evidenced that they next time they listen in their bugs are destroyed.

#4 Comment By Walt C On October 26, 2007 @ 7:20 am

Assuming that I have time to catch my breath and consider the possibilities:

1. I don’t have enough facts to comment on why the building is problematic. If it’s too small, add sublevels or a skyway/subway to another building. If it’s too large, part of the building is unoccupied (construction is still going on or part of the building “fronts” as something else).

2. I wouldn’t retcon the secret. In this case preventive measures should be in place. This sounds like a D&D scenario (magic is involved) and I always build trapdoors in case important NPCs are killed. If the secret became problematic, I’d move the NPC offstage and open a trapdoor.

3. This one is the most fun. Yes, the Don always sweeps his apartment, but does he do it himself? Who sabotaged the equipment? Is someone else recording conversations? Maybe the Don himself recorded the conversation in order to have leverage later, so he faked his sweep.


#5 Comment By drow On October 26, 2007 @ 8:31 am

i don’t retcon anything, its more fun to deal with the unintended consequences. secrets don’t always fit with stories. powerful mafia dons get complacent and lazy, or federal agents on the same case sabotaged his bug detector last week. whatever the reason, he didn’t spot the PCs bug, and that would stand in my game.

on the flip side, i don’t always have all the blanks filled in when i create an NPC or situation, and i’m free to further develop things later as long as it doesn’t conflict with established facts.

#6 Comment By Frank Filz On October 26, 2007 @ 8:53 am

Thinking about these examples, and what I more often consider on retconning, I can see there are sort of two general types of oopses that need to be addressed.

The first oops is a mechanical oops (including forgetting something about a character’s mechanical attributes).

The second kind of oops is Martin’s examples above, setting or story oopses.

The two kinds of oopses bear somewhat different consideration, but overall, I think the biggest point to consider is if retconning will take success away from the players. In the case of a mechanical oops, if it’s discovered immediately, it may be ok to take success away from the players so long as doing so is just correcting a mechanical error, and not making player’s choices irrelevant.

In the above examples, it’s pretty clear the only one that might be reasonable to retcon is the building. And then it’s a simple case of looking at what is changed by changing the building? Does your adding a story to the building change the decisions the players would have made? Did they decide not to put scramblers on the roof of their HQ because the neighboring building wasn’t taller than theirs? Did they then spend the money they might have used for the scrambling device for something that isn’t trivial to retcon? It’s also worth asking why does it matter? If it’s because you have a scenario all written up for the building and maps drawn, must that scenario happen in that building?

In the last two examples, the problem is the players were given information they should not have normally gotten. It’s really hard to take back information. And changing the value of the information after the fact is very dangerous. Doing so may make player decisions irrelevant. Of course if the meaning of the information is emergent and not predetermined, then there really isn’t a problem. For example, in Dogs in the Vinyard, the GM has a very small amount of predetermined information, everything else that the GM presents in play is emergent. The interpretation and judging of that information is up to the players, so who cares if you had written one thing in the town description, and accidentally said something else? The only problem is if you screw up the information so badly you break the chain of sin, but even then, really the worst that can happen is the situation isn’t quite as explosive as you thought, but that could happen just because one of your bangs misfires because it didn’t interest the players. In such a case, just toss a new stick of dynamite on the fire.


#7 Comment By Martin On October 29, 2007 @ 8:03 am

Rick & Walt: Yep, I can definitely see how you’d be able to make both what you planned (and screwed up on) and the outcome of your snap decisions true simultaneously — that’s a good suggestion. Mentally sitting on the opposite side of your screen for a few minutes is a good way to see what your players might have seen, and then adjust accordingly after the fact.