Turning Surprises into Opportunities
We’ve all be there. The PCs kill your villain in Act II instead of Act V. The players ignore all your tasty plot hooks and instead head into the forest you haven’t detailed to see if they can catch a pseudodragon to keep as a pet. You planned for them go left and they go right. When surprises come up in your game how can you save the session?
Surprises like these might seem like headaches which destroy your prep time, but I’m here to tell you they’re actually gifts that make your sessions and campaigns memorable. In this post I’ll show you how to take advantage of the opportunities these unexpected turns have to offer. Read on!
First Things First: Throw Nothing Away and Expect the Unexpected
If you do a lot of prep work for a session and then end up not using any of it, don’t tear out those notes and burn them in frustration! Save those notes because you might be able to use them in a future session, even if it’s for another campaign.
It also helps to have some improvisation resources ready to go just in case something pops up. This way you’ll have monsters, NPCs, encounters, and maybe even whole dungeons ready to drop-in at a moment’s notice. I did a whole post on these a while back so check it out.
Speaking of posts I’ve written on this subject it’s ok to take some time to prep when the players throw you for a loop. Check out my blog post that gives you a neat technique of asking players questions to keep them in the game while you prep.
Change in Mindset
Now that you’ve saved your prep work for future sessions and created a safety net of improvisation resources, it’s time to tackle the problem at hand – how can you turn this upset into an event that makes your campaign more layered? The first thing you have to do is not get frustrated. Great improvisers like Stephen Colbert never get frustrated during a scene or an interview, even if the person they’re interacting with is throwing up walls and blocking their every question and suggestion. In fact some of Colbert’s greatest interviews are with his most difficult guests. He can definitely turn surprises into opportunities and that’s because he’s not letting himself get frustrated.
For many people this is easier said than done. In the moment the upset happens, forget about what you planned and focus on moving the story forward. Many of us have heard of the, “Yes and…” technique and that comes out of this mindset. Accept the action of the players. That’s your “Yes.” Then it’s time to build on those actions. That’s your “and…”
When players go off the rails I can usually figure out where to take the story next by asking myself one of the following questions.
Who Cares? This is a big one that can solve a lot of your problems without asking anything else. Which NPCs and villains will care about the actions of the PCs. For instance if the PCs are asked by a noble to rescue her son from the orcs who kidnapped him and the PCs instead decide to perform a caper to steal potions from the apothecary, who cares? Well probably the apothecary and anybody who works for him, the city guards, and the mother of the child who was snubbed by the PCs in her time of need. Now that you have those three elements you can think up a quick adventure from there.
The apothecary (an NPC mage with stats quickly pulled from your improvisation resources) has a few devious traps ready for any intruders and he also can teleport back to the place in a moment’s notice if an alarm is tripped thanks to a scroll he carries with him at all times. After being robbed the town guard comes looking for the PCs or they might come to the place in the middle of the night if the PCs set off a noisy trap or battle the apothecary. If the PCs pull the caper off without a hitch, there’s still one surprise for them – the mother of the child followed them in the night to beg for help one last time. She instead saw them break into the apothecary and reports them to the town guard who come and confront the PCs the next morning. Blam – a whole session planned just like that by asking a single question, staying cool, and having my improvisation resources at the ready.
What Are the NPCs Doing? While the PCs go off on their own or take an unexpected action, what are the other NPCs up to? If they decide to ignore the quest for a red dragon’s hoard offered by a patron and instead go off in search of magical components for a new spell the wizard is researching, what does the patron do in that time? And the dragon? Maybe they easily find the wizard’s components only to return to town to find the patron hired less-skilled adventurers to go after the hoard only to awaken and anger the dragon who is now burning everything in sight.
This question works for NPCs that the players might have forgotten about or haven’t met. So the PCs want to run off in a random direction to delve into a big complex and you need time to prepare? No problem. Maybe that kobold who got away 10 sessions ago returns with some bigger, badder troll friends which begins a thrilling chase sequence. Maybe the a bunch of bandits stop the PCs on the road and using a handy pre-made map you have a wilderness dungeon brawl. Maybe the PCs kill your villain earlier than you think and the fiend’s mother, brother, friend, or lover attacks during the celebratory feast.
What Else Have I Got? If the PCs throw a wrench in your plans, turn to your published modules or previously unplayed-but-prepared scenarios. Can they be easily adjusted on the fly to fit in your current session? Do they work with the new direction the players have taken the story? If you can pull an adventure right out of a book, PDF, or some old notes then steer the story that way.
You might even consider blowing things up to buy yourself some time. Maybe the ground splits open and they find themselves in one of Princes of the Apocalypse‘s many dungeons or the inn where they decide to stay on the road is actually The Wererat Den and they get wrapped up in an adventure no one realized was happening tonight.
What’s The Most Interesting Event That Could Happen Next? When all else fails this is an excellent question to ask yourself. The players have left you totally stumped with their zig so it’s time for you to really turn this campaign on its head and zag. Did they kill your big bad way too early? Guess who immediately rises as a lich, death knight, vampire, or something else undead and teleports away ominously. Or maybe this big bad’s death serves as a sacrifice to call forth an even bigger bad that begins chasing the characters. PCs galavanting away from a quest you prepared? Throw something entirely new and unexpected in their path like a white dragon wearing a ring of fire elemental command living in a volcano who scoops one of them up as a meal. Feel free to take the story in off on a short side quest for the session while you figure things out. You’ll probably even find a way to tie the side quest into your main campaign story after the session when you’ve had some time to think on it.
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September 15, 2015 @ 10:55 am
Excellent advice as always. Being a DM is more about being flexible than telling a sweeping story that you’ve laid out before hand. It’s a collaborative experience, so you have to roll with the punches just as much as the players do, and everyone will enjoy it all the more.
It’s a matter of DM philosophy to know that you can’t hang an entire session or campaign on a few details, because there is no guarantee that the players will notice the clue, solve the riddle, or break the glowing orb when you want them to. I really wish that I could post the article though it is really only in print, but there was a bit of advice from the late Erick Wujcik that is relevant; you can have a giant dungeon with lots of intricate details, but the players will only really enjoy the parts that they see.
I love the idea of having dungeons to drop on your players, as I have definitely had situations where a whole planned session is dashed, but my group is always down for a good dungeon crawl, provided that it has the proper context. Thankfully, there is never a bad time for a well placed dungeon.
So far, I’m doing my best to keep my current group so busy that there are things on the horizon that they can look forward to, making the eventual payoff even better.
As a bit of an aside, the place for details seems to be better invested in random tables, as embraced by the current 5th edition design method. I’d rather the trinkets and minor but interesting NPC’s tell the story that a puzzle or suddenly dead villain cannot. That having been said, I try to let the dying villains add their bit of flavor too, they are good for a few last words that make the party pause and think.
September 15, 2015 @ 9:30 pm
Yes to all of this. I agree with everything, especially your last two paragraphs. Thread the needle to keep them coming back. Anytime there’s a random table… sign me up!