All GM’s have been there before. The players decided to go through the wrong door, or find an ingenious solution to a problem that you couldn’t have foreseen. Now you have no idea where the session is going, because your logical flow is gone. This is what happens when the player’s change your plans. Time to learn to become adaptable.
Asserting Player Agency
The most important thing to remember when you’re playing tabletop RPG’s is that they are a collaborative storytelling game. Meaning that the story is as much your players as it is yours. Their influence on the game can have huge ramifications to the events that can happen.
Now as a GM, I know as well as you that it’s hard, well no, impossible to plan for every single thing that your players do. You won’t be able to do it, and even if you could, the amount of time that you would need to sink into it would be astronomical. Instead you need to be flexible. When your players are on the ball, follow their lead instead.
Now this doesn’t mean you have to give your players everything they ask for, but it’s important to keep Player Agency in mind. I think the best way I’ve seen this described is in the system Monster of the Week (and likely other Powered by the Apocalypse based games). A golden rule for the Keeper (GM) in this system: play to find out what happens. You can have things going on off screen, villain plots advancing, but ultimately the story is driven by you giving opportunity’s and avenues to your players, and letting them choose their path.
Redirect the Session
As an off-shoot of Asserting Player Agency, is the player’s subtly trying to redirect the campaign. I’ve had a few sessions where the general premise is something that none of the players were interested in. However, in more cases, I’ll have created an NPC that most of the players just hate outright. In these cases, If your players let you know that they don’t like the direction that the session is heading, change it.
This is probably the most difficult thing to do on the fly, because it may invalidate many of your plans, causing you to go off-script for an entire adventure. If you have something else planned you can try running that, but if you’re like me you can’t plan more than the current session because you’re not sure where the player’s are going to take you. In this case, it’s best to have a brief aside with your players to ask them what can I do to make this fun? Sometimes this is as easy as changing one NPC to someone that your players enjoy more, but if it’s an entire session, it may have a bit of a comprimise on both sides.
Remember that TTRPG’s are only a success if everyone at the table has fun. If the players don’t like the way the campaign is shaping up, you can have even more problems. This problem is best fixed out of character, and can largely be avoided with the right steps. For years at the end of every single session, I as my players the following questions:
- Did you have fun?
- Do you like the way the campaign is headed?
- Is there anything that your characters would want to do next?
Out of Spite
Okay, we’ve all heard the horror stories. Tables with a strong player vs GM vibe. GM’s taking delight in purposely frustrating their players, as well as players who only exist to throw wrenches at the GM to see what they can break. Another way this can be defined is if someone regularly does something for the fun at someone’s expense.
However, this is a toxic way to play, eventually leading to hurt feelings and a terrible experience overall. If this is what you’re experiencing, you need to talk to your group on how to resolve these issues. Otherwise you may need to remove yourself from the situation. Sorry, there’s no easy way out of this one.
Meta-knowledge or Golden Opportunities
Your players have meta-knowledge. It’s a fact of life. They know some of the stats, and creatures. However, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. This can be a driving force of players to do certain things. This goes hand-in-hand with creating golden opportunities. Much like how a GM can set up players to really show off their character’s abilities, the players can set you up for golden opportunities for the GM as well.
On the flip side, if your players are anything like mine, when they’re uncovering a mystery, they may talk out of character to try to figure out what’s going on. And with surprising regularity, they will give you a better idea than you had originally. But you don’t need to worry! Remember that you are flexible with your adventures now. Feel free to shamelessly steal their idea. From here you can play dumb and let them think they got the upper hand, or just straight up tell them that they had a better idea.
For the Fun
Most often players will throw you for a loop when they’re just trying to have a bit of fun. Perhaps your players have a bit of a Adventure Zone streak, and really enjoy screwing with the other NPC’s. Or maybe they have a great joke that they want to pull off. There’s nothing wrong with that! This will lead to some of the best moments at your table. And even occasionally, it will impact the story, turning a simple joke into a recurring event, or even a major campaign plot point.
In the beginning of a campaign that I’ve been running for a while, my players came to a fight with a a group of trolls, their first hard fight of the campaign. Of course I always have music running for our sessions, and as their first big battle I thought Dr. Wily’s theme would be perfect. This however, was not… entirely the case. One of my players got a bit caught up in the moment and started to do a bit of a dance, this continued on for a bit. Everyone laughed, and the moment was forever changed.
As he kept dancing, I decided to take a note from him. Three trolls walked in threateningly, snapping their fingers, wearing leather jackets with T. Rolls emblems on the back. Only for a much larger troll to enter. He pulled out a switchblade comb, perfected his pompadour, and an epic dance battle began. Now, the T.Rolls are a reoccurring dance troupe.
Is it stupid? Yes. Is it impressive? No. But you know what, every time they show up, my players become incredibly excited, and it’s a great callback to when they directly affected the story. It’s just a lot of fun