Fixing GM Mistakes: 3 Ways To RetCon Without Breaking Your Game
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1047
I call one of the most destructive events that can break your campaign the Time Bomb.
It’s an inconsistent detail that breaks your game’s logic:
- Forgotten fact from a previous session
- Contradictory world detail
- Wrong name, NPC, or location
- Missed rule
- Bad rule interpretation
Authors and screenwriters have it easy. They can go back and fix errors before publication.
But for we poor GMs, time moves onward without relent. If we make a mistake, and our game breaks, we’re screwed — in real-time.
For example, three sessions ago the PCs got a quest to visit Mount Gloom to recover dwarven artefacts to help win the war. But you got mixed up during tonight’s session. The PCs are actually headed towards Mount Limbo. A different place. A different spot on the map. A whole different dungeon.
- Or maybe a character would have succeeded if Rule B had been used.
- Or perhaps you forgot it was dark and the bad guys could not have been so deadly accurate with their shots?
I call this the Time Bomb. And when it happens I get a cold feeling in my gut from fear-triggered adrenaline.
So first thing to do is take a deep breath. Fear and panic funnel blood to torso and limbs and away from your brain as ancient survival mechanisms.
A deep, calming breath gets that blood and oxygen back to the noggin so you can think better.
Next, consider your options.
Do you press forward or stop everything and do it all again?
Murphy’s Law says when this situation occurs you face a lose-lose dilemma.
For example, if you carry forward regardless of the mistake, players might feel you’re being unfair.
But if you do it all over again, then that monster’s secret ability or your awesome plot twist has been revealed. And the players can’t ignore that the second time around.
You often have three choices, each with pros and cons.
Stop and Redo
Halt the game. Explain what you’ve just realized. Rewind and replay.
“Hey gang, let’s pause because I’ve just noticed something terrible. I’ve got you going to the wrong place on the map. Crap. Let’s begin again.”
It sucks that good rolls, reveals, and great outcomes get scrubbed.
But in some cases, this choice is fairest, saves you a ton of re-work, and resets so facts stay straight.
If you take responsibility and are honest, your players will respect you in the long-run for making a tough call in the name of fairness and your stress levels.
Stop and Redo is my least favourite option. It’s the most intrusive. And entanglements like character sheet changes and plot developments present hard rewinds.
Choose Stop and Redo if the Time Bomb is big enough and you can reset without too many issues.
Crowdsource an Adjustment
Same deal here as the first option, but you enlist the help of your friends for a fix.
I like this option because it involves players collaborating on a solution with you.
“Hey gang, I’ve just noticed something terrible. I’ve got you going to the wrong place on the map. Crap. Do you mind if we pause the game and talk it out? What’s the least disruptive way to fix this?”
You might end up with a solution where some players win and some lose, thus handing you a tough call.
Transparency again helps you out.
“Ok, I like the idea of Roghan misreading the trail and sending the party off-course. It was my fault as GM, so thank you Sandy for letting your character take the heat on this one.
“It means the troll encounter never happened, the random treasure roll of 100 did not occur, and Templeton did not find that killer holy relic. Again, that’s on me.
“However, I like your idea, Robbie, that the relic could still be found later. The gods will not forget.
“Also, good call Terry on giving Roghan a bonus survival skill point next level for a big lesson learned.
“Thanks everyone. It sucks to do a rewind, so I appreciate the support. Last call — is everyone ok with this approach? Or, if not ok, at least not at the table-flipping level of barbarian game rage?”
Change the Fiction in Secret
In this case, you don the t-shirt that says, “All Mistakes Are Final.”
Changing the Fiction in Secret means I come up with a way to correct things without derailing gameplay or penalizing anyone while staying true to the game rules and social contract.
I fudge it.
This is my preferred option, if I can swing it.
I might call a pause in the game to brainstorm, or I might play through and keep my mind open for opportunities to fix the situation.
For example, I could have the NPC who gave the party directions be misinformed or have a good reason to lie.
Assuming nothing in that roleplay encounter would foil this solution (the wizard cast a detect thoughts, for example) I’ll run with it.
I like Changing the Fiction in Secret because it often gives you new gameplay options. You turn an error into a boon.
In our example:
- The NPC becomes more important in a future encounter
- PCs now know there’s Mount Limbo and have another adventure hook
- The reason for the NPC’s lie becomes a new plot hook
Best of all, you keep the game going. No one needs to keep two versions straight. You don’t waste time on a replay. And players stay immersed.
Choose this option if:
- You can think of a way to fix things without causing consistency issues with past gameplay
- You want to gamble and hope a solution comes later (you are a brave soul)
- It does not break the social contract in any way
The Choice Is Yours
Once you realize there’s been a gaffe big enough to derail game logic, the main takeaway from these tips is to not panic.
Understand you’ve got three good options to make lemonade out of this dire lemon.
Instead of succumbing to the stress and fear, do a quick checkdown:
Can I Change the Fiction in Secret?
Should I Crowdsource an Adjustment?
Ok. Let’s Stop and Redo.
No need to panic. Shift your thinking from flailing in a void to choosing one of the three options. And move forward with confidence.