Silence. Confusion. Bewilderment. Something just happened at your gaming table; something you were not expecting…really not expecting. Everything seemed to be going fine and then one of those players did something and now your story is spiraling and your campaign is unraveling. What are you going to do next? Red alert! Raise shields! Someone call for the cleric!

I Didn’t Think They Would Stab The King in the Face

As GM’s we tend to become familiar with our players. We know what makes them tick and for the most part we can predict what they will do in most situations. When we write our games, no matter how open we make them, there is a part of our minds that is anticipating what the players are mostly likely going to do, and our prep – be it written or mental – is biased in that direction. That is what an experienced GM is suppose to do; keep your prep flexible enough in case the players don’t do what you thought they would.

That’s not what we are talking about.

What we are talking about are those cases where the players do something that you never thought would happen. Despite the requisite, “Are you sure you want to do that?”, they have taken an action that shakes your assumptions about who the characters are, what the players are doing, and where the campaign is going. The kinds of changes where upon hearing what happened, you stroke your chin, nod slowly and say hmmm, while on the inside your mind is racing to make sense of what happened.

Why Did it happen?

Before you react; stop and think about how this came to be. Your first instinct will be focused on the players being [Insert term: crazy, sick, idiots, etc]. That’s just emotion, so lock that down and lets use some logic. These things happen for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most common:

  • Bad Night- everyone has an off night. Its possible that the player(s) are distracted, tired, hungry, having work issues, fighting with their significant other, etc.
  • Communication Gap- It is possible that what you described and what the players heard was misunderstood. The players are reacting correctly to a different scene.
  • Expectation Gap- It is possible that in your Campaign Framework (from Odyssey) something was missed or misunderstood and you think the campaign goes one way, and they think another.
  • Inadequate Prep- It is possible that you, the GM, missed this possibility during your prep. If you did not do a long enough Review Phase (from Never Unprepared) and did not use the Playtester enough to check for plot holes; you may just be caught off guard.
  • Malicious Intent- This one is rare but not impossible. It is possible that the player is just messing with the game for their own reasons (i.e. Chaotic Stupid, trying to tank the game, etc).

Knowing why it happened is going to help you decide what your next move is going to be.

What do you do next?

Now that it has occurred, you have to do something. How you react, and what you do during this shakeup is going to set the tone for the rest of this session and possibly longer. Here are some tips on what to do…

Player Agency vs. GM Control

It’s worth mentioning that players are in control of their characters and that they have the right, within your social contract, to have their character take actions they desire. The GM may not like that at times, especially at times like this when a story arc could be at risk, but to negate or cancel a characters action by fiat is railroading (in the worst way). The notable exception to this is when a player violates the social contract or is acting maliciously, then do what you must.

The VCR Menu of Options

The choice of actions you take next are not unlike the buttons on my top loading VCR of yesteryear:

  • Pause- Take a break. Use that time to think of your next move when you start playing again. Works best when you have a good idea of what should happen next, and you want to do a little mental prep to get organized. When you are ready, start up again.
  • Rewind- Ask the players if they would like to reconsider their actions. If they do, back up the scene to the point before it happened, and re-start. This works best when you think the action of the players is a session/campaign ender.
  • Fast Forward- Accept the action and terminate this scene quickly and move to the next scene, where you can resume play and prepare future consequences for the action. This works best when you want to focus on the Long Term consequence (see below).
  • Stop- Stop the game early so that you can go and properly create the adequate response and consequences. This is best if your response or campaign is very intricate and care needs to be taken to ensure continuity.
  • Play – Keep the scene going and react to the change by ad-libbing your response. This works best if you have an Initial consequence (below) in mind and have enough prep to keep going.

All In Moderation

No mater what method you take to react, you need to act in moderation. Yes the players may have toppled six months of campaign prep by killing the Duke, but don’t throw the full army at them in response. Break your response into two components:

  • Initial - This is what you are going to do in the current scene and the next scene. The response should be swift and intense but not overpowering: guards can rush in, people can scream and point, alarms go off. Use this response to raise the tension in the game, and put the players on the defensive.
  • Long Term - This is what you are going to do in the next session and the session following. Action should be mostly off-screen and should sustain the initial tension: airports are shut down, wanted posters go up in the town square, bounty hunters are summoned. Then use the response to create complications for the players as they try to do other things. This is the response that should show the players the magnitude of their actions.

They Zigged When They Should Have Zagged

Players are unpredictable, and in most cases that is a good thing, but there are those times when they do something that you never saw coming. They do something that catches you off guard, topples an adventure, or damages the campaign. How we react to these moments will determine how the campaign will survive. By understanding why it happened, and using a measured response to the action, the game can go on. You may have to discard some arcs and might have to build some new ones, but you can keep playing.

Have you ever had a moment where a player took an action so shocking that it caught you totally off guard. What did they do? How did you react? How did the campaign continue?