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When It All Goes Wrong: DMing on the Fly

by Deacon Rayne

Warning: This article represents a certain ruthless type of gameplay that, while still friendly between DM and Players, may be better suited for good friends who know not to take whatever cutthroat tactics their DM may use personally.

In a perfect world, you, the DM, create an awesome story. Your awesome players go from point A to B to C, thoroughly enjoying themselves until they reach the climax and rescue the royalty or slay the beastie. If this was all true, anyone could DM. One of the DM’s biggest tests is when the players don’t follow the yellow brick road. Sometimes they veer a little, sometimes they completely go off the beaten path, and sometimes they’ve left the planet. You can’t control WHEN this happens; what you CAN control is how you handle it.

  1. Don’t panic: remember it’s just a game. Life happens and you can handle it. Your players have faith in you; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be playing in your game. They won’t slaughter your firstborn if you need to take a breather and step back. When the unexpected happens, roll with it, keep your cool, and you’ll see that the major disaster can be dealt with.
  2. Never FORCE the players back into the plot that you’ve written. Players don’t like feeling like puppets. Leading is fine, but strip their characters’ free will and they will resent it. Better to scrap a story than lose a group of players.
  3. When in doubt, call a time out. Many DMs are resistant to the notion of telling players, “I don’t know what to do right now, give me a second.” For some, it’s a matter of pride. No one likes to cop to the fact that they’ve been derailed. GET OVER IT! You aren’t trying to outwit each other, you are trying to entertain one another. While taking a break isn’t thrillsville, steamrolling forward and forcing the issue is a hell of a lot less fun. For other DMs, it’s breaking suspension of disbelief. This is a more valid argument, as most of us play to escape, and being taken out of the moment is a little jarring. But it’s still the lesser of two evils. Fifteen minutes of reality is far less destructive to the fantasy atmosphere than freaking out and having it all come down.
  4. Calmly and objectively determine how much trouble are you in. Is the story sprained, broken, or demolished? First we’ll cover the minor stuff: sprains. Sprains are “whoopsies” that, with a little work, the storyline can be rescued.Did the PCs miss a piece of information? Did they not talk to someone they were supposed to or kill them? This is not a big deal. First off, determine how important the information is:
    • Crucial; something to do with getting to the next story point?
    • Moderate; something to do with a side plot or character plot?
    • Minor; background info about the setting, fleshing out a current or past plot point, or something for an entirely different storyline?

    If it’s crucial that the PCs get this information FOR THE STORY TO CONTINUE, remember that how they get it is usually less important than if they get it. If they gutted the blacksmith who was going to tell them the secret of the bad guy’s weapon of doom, then give the info to the barkeep, or a waitress. If the players wonder ho the tavern wench knows to destroy the Black Sword of Unholy Smiting +12, let them wonder. Don’t feel limited to using people to convey information either: plaques, books, graves, something scratched into a table, or something depicted in a painting or sculpture can get a crucial bit of information back into the players’ hands.

    If it’s a moderate or minor piece of information, you have some choices. If the wizard in town A didn’t get a chance to tell one of the characters that someone was asking around for them because the players never bothered to MEET the wizard, then the priest in town B can get the job done just as well.

    However, if the information is location sensitive, say the information belongs only to a specific wizard of a specific town, determine if it’s time sensitive. Do the players need to know NOW that a one-armed man was asking about the wizard? If not, save it for the next game. If you’re concerned that the PCs might not swing by this location again, remember that people do travel and there is no reason the PCs can’t encounter this specific wizard somewhere else down the line. Just because it has to be the Wizard of Undrogoth telling the PCs something doesn’t mean the PCs have to be in Undrogoth to hear it.

    The same goes for missing items. Stuff turns up in the darndest places and if they failed to collect the third piece of the puzzle in the warehouse, stick it in the barracks and none will be the wiser. Remember: assess, adapt, and improve. If it can be moved, in either time or space, do it. If it can’t, then upgrade to “crucial” and go from there.

    Next we address “Broken,” the next step up from “Sprained.” This is usually people who were supposed to be rescued but weren’t, and monsters that were supposed to die but didn’t. If your players neglected to rescue (or felt the need to do away with) the veteran dragon slayer, they are going to have a pretty tough time when Smaug comes barreling down the mountain looking for quality time. On the other hand, if they’re out demon hunting and forgot to slay his 20th level high priest, chances are the two of them combined are going to make sushi out of your party.

    Now we are entering time-out territory. At this point, the main storyline still could be saved, but consider saving it for another time and focusing on character plots, side plots, or “splices.” Here are some more tricks for guiding (remember: never drag) a story back on track.

    • When the cavalry doesn’t arrive: Do the players NEED to have Sir Reginald, the 14th level wyrm-slayer, to deal with the dragon? If so, then you’ve already made a mistake. An NPC should never have to bail the PCs out of the climax. This is the PCs’ story, they are the stars. If they stand absolutely no chance, reconsider your story. When it comes time for the big showdown, the NPC is fire-support only, not a coup-de-grace deliverer. So, scale it down a bit. For instance, while a great red wyrm is too much for your PCs to handle, a Juvenile wyrm who hasn’t been keeping up on his magic studies, a badly wounded adult dragon that doesn’t have full capabilities, or even a wyvern, are all perfectly acceptable substitutions.Everything’s mutable. If the terrified villagers swear they saw a great big red dragon, remember that illusion magic, panic, dragon fear, smoke, and other factors can confuse eyewitness descriptions. And if all else fails, witnesses can lie or just plain be wrong. Same goes for myths, rumors, prophecies, the works. (“I swear the fish was THIS big!”)
    • Divide & Conquer: This situation is the reverse of the one above. In this case, the party did NOT kill something that needs doing away with and now the enemy has an overwhelming advantage. This situation is a little less dire. In this case, you didn’t rely on an NPC to bail out your players, but instead you relied on the players being thorough enough to deal with the minions before attempting to wipe out the head honcho. Creating encounters that require the PCs to have substantial NPC help is a bad idea. Creating encounters in which the PCs must divide and conquer is fair game.In addition to playing with the stats, here are some things you can do when the PCs insist on doing things the hard way (as they are wont to do).
      • Thin the ranks. This is pretty simple. If the full strength of the climax is too much for the PCs, without them having first done a little skirmishing, thin the ranks. Instead of the demon being guarded by 20 8th level worshippers, try 10 6th level acolytes.
      • The booby-trap. Everything from the clichéd “chandelier falling on the guards” trick to a weak pillar that if destroyed, brings down the entire roof on their heads and evens the odds to something more survivable.
      • Dumb ‘em up. Enemies that do not have overwhelming numbers tend to be cleverer than the swarm. If you had planned for a few very canny opponents facing the party and are now faced with a whole swarm of them, dumb them up. Stupidity can range from casting spells poorly, to getting into each other’s way, to the old “This is my plan, Mr. Bond.” Overconfidence can happen to anyone, and having the numbers on your side against the “doomed” players can turn even the cleverest antihero into a “mustache twirler.”

      The first or second time they charge in, feel free to use the steps above to keep them intact if you are so inclined. Be sure to mention that it would be wise in the future to be more cautious. If they still insist on charging up the middle, well, you did your best. Sometimes the only way to cure “breaks” of this nature is to give them exactly what they are after: an overwhelming fight against impossible odds. If they’re smart, they will realize they are in over their heads and beat a hasty retreat. If not, well, there are few learning experiences as profound as a dead PC. This should be used as a LAST resort. Be sure to mention that to any indignant players.

    Finally, we address “Demolished,” when the game has completely gone to hell. Signs that things are going badly include an excessive amount of dead NPCs, a lot of in- and out-of-game bickering either with you or each other, and a stubborn refusal to simply follow the bloody story. If it’s hit this point, take a time out NOW. This is a prime time to do something stupid; usually panicking and MAKING the players do something, which results in broken trusts, a demolished game, and can lead to the end of the gaming group entirely. If you’ve tried everything listed above to get things back on track and it’s not happening, here are some last-ditch ploys that may save the story.

    • Splicing: the art of changing one thing in the game plot in the hopes of keeping it on track. It is very hard to do seamlessly and you are guaranteed that you and your group will NOT end up where you had originally planned. At this point, you are monkeying around with the DNA of the story, hence “splicing.” For more information about splicing and patches, read “Be Prepared” below.
    • Side Quests: Now is a good time to explore character quests; goals and tasks that focus on the character’s background as opposed to your story. This is why it’s important that your players write up detailed backgrounds filled with plot hooks that can be built into “character patches.” If the cool story you came up with doesn’t appeal to your players, do one that’s guaranteed to appeal to at least one of them since it’s their character. If the others complain about being relegated to supporting cast, remind them they had a chance to play a story in which they could all be the star, and they weren’t interested.
    • Call it off: A last ditch effort, but it trades short term losses for potential disaster. Tell your players, “It’s pretty clear you don’t want to play the story I’ve written up, I don’t have anything else right now, so we’re going to call it quits for the day.” Explain that this is a better choice than forcing them to play a plot they have no interest in and they will appreciate your commitment to maintaining some semblance of PC free will which should offset any grumblings of disappointment. Use this time to learn about what exactly bothered your players.
  5. Be Prepared. Ironically, a lot of being able to DM on the fly is preparation. Anticipate that somehow, someday, your players are NOT going to stick to the program you’ve so generously concocted and laid out. The balance in most games is that you control where the players end up, but they control how they get there. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. So here are a few things you can do to plan ahead for those times when your players are making life difficult.
    • Know your game system. Some game systems are forgiving and lend themselves to on-the-fly DMing (Star Wars). This kind of setting doesn’t rely on continuity, mega plot, or structure. Some systems are highly structured (White Wolf’s Vampire), dealing with interconnected plots, multitudes of three dimensional characters, an overreaching mega plot, side plots, and character consistency. Systems like D&D fit nicely in the middle where structure is nice, but ad-libbing is possible. The system you’re running will let you gauge how much prep you need.
    • Motivational therapy. Sometimes players decide that they are not going to participate in a given storyline. If things are not yet at the meltdown point, sometimes a new form of motivation is required.

    For instance, if your players show absolutely NO interest in going forth to kill the demon, that’s cool. Let them wander around town, kill a few low level beasties, and get bored. Then bring in one of your story patches. Say the town is attacked by hill giants who tear the place up. Knock the PCs around a little too, you’ll feel better. When it’s time to pick up the pieces, have the surviving NPCs relate how “the evil demon has been stirring up giants to raid towns”. Forget gold and maidens, you want to motivate your PCs? Hurt them. NOTHING motivates like revenge, and the players who thumbed their noses at demon-smiting will now be howling for as much hell-spawn blood as they can get. If the players (rightly) accuse you of being heavy-handed, explain to them that the world does not revolve around them and what they DON’T do can impact their lives as much as what they do.

    If disaster is not an option, (and it soon won’t be) try greed and envy. If the players don’t want to follow your story, have NPCs do it, succeed, and be rewarded. Have them return to town rich and be treated to a hero’s welcome. Meanwhile, let the PCs sulk and stew as now they have trouble getting into their favorite tavern “because of the new celebrities,” or not be able to buy anything because someone else has been doing a lot of heavy spending. Two wonderful titles to motivate players: “has beens” and “wannabes.”

    Or try despair and guilt. Say a favorite NPC of the players quests in their stead and gets killed. Now the PCs are indirectly responsible for the death of the NPC and if the PCs don’t hold themselves responsible, you can bet that OTHERS sure will. The PCs find themselves accused of being lazy or selfish and just might be run out of town. If they are really unfortunate, local bards may spread stories, not only of their competitor’s successes but of the PCs’ failures, making it that much harder for the PCs to find any work. “Yeah, I heard about you guys. You’re the ones who were chicken to take on that tribe of ogres. I don’t have any coin for cowards. Now them OTHER fellas….”). If enough unpleasant things happen to the players when they don’t participate, sooner or later they’ll get the hint and become more amicable.

    Splicing & patches. These are quick fixes to keep the game running long enough for you to finish up a session, hand out the rewards, and then sit down and figure out what the hell went wrong. It’s a little chicanery, some noise and flash to help distract the players from realizing they are still heading towards what you want them to do.

    Sit down and come up with a few, simple, generic events that could be inserted into any story at any time. Some examples include:

    • Something gets stolen (art, money, gem, magic)
    • Someone gets kidnapped/murdered
    • A spell goes awry
    • A nearby town gets raided (bandits, monsters, etc.)
    • Animal attacks (wolves, locusts, fire ants)
    • A natural disaster occurs (flood, fire, famine, plague)
    • A prisoner escapes (POW, political, heretic)
    • A preacher of a new religion arrives into town
    • Ruins are discovered
    • Treasure is discovered (gold, relics, gems, magic)

    Once you’ve got a decent list of story patches written up, hang on to them and wait. The next time your story goes off track, call a timeout, pick a patch or two to flesh out, and drop them in.

    For instance, the PCs have decided looking around for a demon’s temple isn’t what they want to do. Call a timeout and select two patches: a preacher arriving into town and ruins being discovered. Select two in case the players don’t bite at the first. If they players don’t bite at either, it’s time to consider scrapping the storyline and calling it a day.

    Patch 1: the Preacher. The preacher is a servant of said demon. (Another way to go would be the preacher is a servant of an enemy of the demon, either a rival demon or perhaps a good or neutral aligned god.) This demonic preacher goes to work converting the local townspeople. He may even try to convert the PCs. Should he fail to convert them, he may send his recent converts out to attack them, either through assassination or, if he’s managed to convert the majority of the population, a good, old fashioned mob assault involving lynching and burning at the stake.

    Perhaps a relative of an NPC favored by the group is converted and the PCs must now attempt to rescue said convert (“Please rescue my son from those horrid cultists!”). You can bet that if players’ favorite priest (you know, the one they go to get healed up all the time) suddenly converts to demon worship, it WILL get the players attention. They start investigating the cultists, they rescue their friend, they confront the preacher, and all of a sudden somebody wants to go check out a demonic temple.

    Sometimes you need to switch bait. In this case, patch 2: the Ruins. Bear in mind that if you have to use your plan B, this should be a big ol’ warning flag that your players might not be in the mood to play along with your stories today and you may have to scrap the storyline or the entire session.

    Patch 2: the Ruins: Welcome to plan B. If you’re here, it means the preacher did not do his job well. I suggest a suitable punishment (“You have failed me for the last time, preacher *insert choking sound*”). So now we have ruins that have just been discovered. The most obvious choice is they’re an old demonic temple (this could also be a temple of a rival demon or a good/neutral aligned god). You decide that this is an ancient temple of the demon now abandoned.

    If the players show no interest in going to the current demonic temple, how would introducing an old one change their minds? This is where you can get really evil. What happens when someone not terribly bright goes poking around a location of old evil? Haunted, cursed, tainted, and, my personal favorite, infected, are wonderful terms. Amityville, the Marsten House, Turkana, Kenya; places where bad things happen to all kinds of people make for great stories, and if the Exorcist films have taught us anything, it’s that demon worship is a no-no and demon temples are a BIG no-no.

    So, let’s say that a few hapless townsfolk wander into the temple ruins. What happens to them? Well, there’s demonic possession, some sort of hell plague, or raving insanity. Perhaps a few people wander in and wake something up, let something out, or BRING SOMETHING BACK. My personal favorite is a combination of all of the above: a townsperson discovers these ruins, wanders in, becomes infected with demonic taint (results may vary, consult Book of Vile Darkness for some helpful suggestions), discovers the tomb of something very bad, goes back to town, infects a few others, takes them back to the temple. They lug whatever is down there back to town and then open it, and wackiness ensues.

    The PCs may not care about rumors or preachers, but when a 14th level lich is unleashed in the middle of town square, surrounded by rabid cannibalistic villagers howling in demonic frenzy, they’ll notice. If nothing else, the PCs will have to relocate (if they manage to get out with their skins and souls intact). Thus, with a one or two sentence patch, a story can be brought back on track; or at least offer some entertainment.

    Another form of patch is the character patch. This is identical to a story patch except you’re working with character plot. These are good if you’ve had to scrap your primary storyline and are instead running side plots and character plots. The only extra step is customizing each patch to fit the particular character, which if your players did their job of creating detailed backgrounds, will be a piece of cake.

  6. Prevention. You learn more from failure than from success; when the game has just not worked and you are now scratching your head in wonder as to what went wrong.
    • Gather Information: If you managed to end the game amicably (or at least civilly), call up your players and ask them what they didn’t like about the storyline. Maybe everyone had just had a really bad week. Life happens and most people do bring it to the table. If it was an issue of plot: find out what exactly. Were they bored? Sick of damsel rescuing? Tired of the monster du jour? Did they feel overwhelmed, like they couldn’t succeed, or did they feel under-challenged? Find out, and see if you can change accordingly. Remember both you and your players WANT to have a good time. Help each other and you’ll see things work out much easier.
    • Keep them informed. The best way to avoid an accident is to see it coming. Ask them, “Are you interested in a story about demon hunting?” “How do you feel about a dungeon crawl?” Ask them what they want to do throughout the campaign, and meet them halfway. If you find out they, to a man, hate political games, you’ll feel much better knowing that BEFORE you try to run a Machiavellian campaign.
    • Take a break. A lot of problems stem from DM burnout. Playing past the point of fun can result in holding on too tight, getting frustrated, bored, or angry. When the game’s no fun, stop. Let someone else run. In time, you’ll regain your interest in the game and more player-perspective can only help when you’re back behind the DM screen.
  • josh

    Very thorough and well written piece! Lots of excellent ideas. I like to remember that it is in times like these… when things get off track, that having a good party of role players who actually care about the game is important. if your players actually care about storytelling, then having things go unexpectedly can often end up making the story more epic. Also, that is sometimes the fun of role playing itself. As a DM, we like to think that we have ideas and plans, but in the end they can only take you so far. Sometimes, all you can do as a DM is set up the situation, but it is up to the PCs to decide how everything turns out.

    Sometimes in the past when we played, the characters would exclaim… “OMG, i think that we are all going to die”. Little did they know, I was thinking the same thing… I was thinking, “How are they going to get out of this situation without dying?”. But, everything alwways worked out for the best, meaning the story was told… and if the characters went down, they went down in true glorified style :) I am lucky to play with gamers who truly care about the story as a whole, and when you have great players like that I think you just need to trust yourself, and them, to make the best decisions, and then let the situations play out as they may.

    Also remember that you might like the new direction better than your old one! That has happened to me a lot of times.

  • Silveressa

    So true, and sometimes the players unexpected directions can provide for some of the most memorable anecdotes to retell months or years down the road.