View Full Version : DM Help How do you prepare for the unexpected?

2015-11-07, 07:52 PM
We all know that sometimes, players will do something unexpected. As GMs we make lots of plans, but sometimes the players do something you didn't account for. I've seen a lot of comments that a good GM can respond to these situations in such a way that everyone has fun. So my question for skilled GMs is, how do you prepare for these situations? Do you have any tips or tricks for preparing for these situations, to ensure that you have some way to react?

2015-11-07, 08:06 PM
An easy thing to do is adjust your adjusted outcomes (yes, plural outcomes) to the one that best fits the situation. If one doesn't exist, then it comes down to the situation, but just jumping ahead to the most logical consequences is a fairly reliable method. Which can be good, bad, or somewhere in between for the players.

That being said, it's OKAY to take a short break to organize your thoughts if they do something truly outrageous. They'll probably spend most of that time talking gleefully about how they broke the DM. If it happens a lot and you start to feel bad about it, try placing a couple logical, reasonable outcomes for their antics that THEY don't see coming. It requires a bit of subtlety, but I couldn't tell you the number of times my group has forgotten to account for what, in retrospect, should have been painfully obvious.

Fable Wright
2015-11-07, 08:24 PM
Generally, I don't plan outcomes. What I plan are for villains to have personality and objectives. They'll advance along their intended goal as planned until the players knock them off track. In that case, I still know what the villains are trying to do, and I've got a pretty good idea of how they'd try to proceed. XYZ Artifact is critical to villain's long-term plans and the players smash it unexpectedly? Alright, time to have the villain switch to a different plan to get to the same goal. In terms of long-term planning, I know what the effects of the villains' actions will be if they succeed, and I know the weak points in the villain's plan to drop them on the PCs if they did them up. But having definite end goals in mind just doesn't work for me, because the PCs won't ever go along with that quietly.

2015-11-07, 08:43 PM
You can't plan for the unexpected — that would be an Oxymoron.

If you planned for it, then it must have been expected — even if the probability is low.

Personally I just ad-lib, making sure that I make notes about any new part of the milieux they encounter.

Encounters will generally be monsters from the book, unless I can quickly re-work an old NPC.

Occasionally I may take a break to think about things, but I prefer to carry on without a delay.

2015-11-08, 02:11 AM
Be less attached to your plans.

2015-11-08, 03:15 AM
De-rails are the best part of being a DM. I treat derailments as opportunities to ignore CR.

If I have an adventure penned out and you decide that you would rather burn down the thieves guild, good for you. I think of a million crazy ideas on what the reaction to that is. And some of it will be really petty 1st level commoners kind of stuff. And some of it will be some ECL+10 compared to the group kind of stuff. And the PCs now have to be very careful about throwing their might around.

On the other hand, if you think you could do a better caravan heist than the people who just attacked you. I would love to have a campaign flavor of a heist a week. We'll split the session after I give you juicy details about the next place to strike. You got a week to figure out how to plan it.

2015-11-09, 06:02 AM
It depends on the level of unexpectedness of the Party

If its - we want to go East rather than West then it funny how the Dungeon, Castle, interaction is now in the East maybe with a slight veneer over it to change it

If it’s a major change “Rather than protect the King we will join the assassins and kill the King” then I will either
a) Throw my toys out of the pram, have the King surrounded by invincible guards and kill the party (not happened yet)
b) Ask for a 10 min recess, think of the immediate ramifications, frantically scribble down some ideas and then re-start the session

2015-11-09, 06:30 AM
People plan in different ways, and some methods are a lot more fragile than others. For example, a lot of DMs think 'this happens, then that happens, then ...', but then when the PCs interfere with one of those things happening, the entire chain of logic falls apart. A little better is to think in terms of what the agents in the world do: 'the villain does X, then Y, then ...' but this can become nonsensical when those actions are rendered meaningless by something the PCs do.

I think the best way is to think about things in terms of 'why' instead of 'what'. If something is going to happen, why was it going to happen - what is the reason behind it? Now that things have changed, given that reason, you should be able to think of what will happen instead. The PCs can do all sorts of stuff to change the details of the situation, but the reasons behind things should mostly remain the same - the PCs drove off the BBEG's forces that were going to conquer this one city, so that gambit failed, but the reason the BBEG sent his armies there rather than wherever else hasn't changed. If its because there's some artifact stored within which will grant them immortality, maybe the BBEG sends spies to infiltrate and steal it; or maybe they try to get a hostage so they can negotiate for the artifact; or maybe they just change gears and pursue some other road to immortality entirely.

Its even better when you can layer the why's several deep. Why does the BBEG need immortality? Well, it could be because they just want to not die, but maybe it would be more interesting if there is some other individual who is nearing the end of their natural lifespan who holds the key to something that will happen in 50 years, and if they die then the key will go to a new body/be captured by forces in the afterlife/etc. And then, why is there this thing with the timed event and the key? Maybe there's even an underlying reason there - someone created the key for a reason that made sense to them at the time - so if the PCs were to destroy the key or something like that, you could figure out what the consequences are and go from there. And so on.

2015-11-09, 06:58 AM
It depends a bit. For example, I prefer the "Combat as Sports" approach when I gm. I clearly communicate that and see agreement on that issue as part of the social contract.

Now, if something unexpected happens that is, for example, based on "Combat as War" behaviour, I use my vetoing right to reign that in.
I do that bevause I've also the task to keep everything on the same "level" and prevent breaches to the social contract.

Example: We agree to a dungeon crawl with a heavy focus on combat. Now someone wants to change that agreement by using social skills and stealth to circumvent combat. Not going to happen until we all agree to change the original agreement.

Other things, I happily go along with and reward creativ thinking. I'm always delighted to see how the game will evolve.

2015-11-09, 07:19 AM
Generally, I don't plan outcomes. What I plan are for villains to have personality and objectives. They'll advance along their intended goal as planned until the players knock them off track.

This, except I also make a chart of all factions and NPCs in the campaign, their goals, their relations and their methods. I update this chart after each session. I'd like to highlight the "all factions" part especially, because I think often people don't let the friendly factions do anything. They just sit there and give quests. Giving them as much attention as the villains makes the game more interesting and lets you create new conflicts and villains from ex-allies.

Generally, I don't have a proper plan when I start a session. I plan an initial event for the session's start, then a few events that are likely happen right afterwards regardless of player input (e.g. an NPC tries to make contact) and the rest is a loose list of possible events, ideas and encounters.

In heavyweight systems like D&D, it's usually better to use premade encounters, so I write up some faction-based fights that can take place anywhere. For example, a bunch of ninjas from the Thieves' Guild may ambush the PCs, or may aid them in the battle against the Fighters' Guild, or may show up to defend the Thieves' Guild base, or may visit the PCs at night and attempt to negotiate a deal. Either way, it's the same group mechanically and the encounter can probably be easily tweaked to be used elsewhere.

2015-11-09, 08:17 AM
I also make a chart of all factions and NPCs in the campaign, their goals, their relations and their methods. I update this chart after each session. I'd like to highlight the "all factions" part especially, because I think often people don't let the friendly factions do anything. They just sit there and give quests. Giving them as much attention as the villains makes the game more interesting and lets you create new conflicts and villains from ex-allies.

I do this as well - I try to have a time-line of what is / will happen if the PCs just sit in the pub and drank for the adventure. Good and Bad NPCs will carry on with their plans. Its up to the PC's to help / thwart those plans

2015-11-09, 10:49 AM
I'm not sure how "skilled" of a GM I am, but I have experience with players breaking things.

First thing I do is plan my adventures like rough outlines. I prepare some events that I want to happen, but the things between those events I don't fill in until during the session. If I have a fight at a warehouse planned, I'll try to get the players in the warehouse at some point, but I make it so the whole adventure doesn't fall apart if one thing gets missed.

The second thing is just don't be afraid of losing things. Heroes stop your villains escape plans, let them have that win. Heroes turn off course and go a completely different direction than planned? You won't be doing that adventure you had planned. The sooner you expect that, the better.

The final thing I do i just don't plan ahead. If you have a great idea for an adventure, don't plan an epic 10 session story leading up to it, just do it. Putting off good storys is a recipe for disaster, find a way to make them work now. Not saying you can't have an overarching story, but you can let it build organically over time.

Micah Watt
2015-11-09, 08:49 PM
Happens all the time - you plan for X possible outcomes the players will always find another way.

You can't plan. Just adjust as you go and above all be fair in your rulings as they try strange stuff. Don't be so attached to an outcome or NPC that you stifle the players.

Run with it. Some of the best stories my group has are from things that 'shouldn't have happened' 😉

2015-11-09, 10:39 PM

2015-11-09, 10:48 PM
And sometimes explosions.

But usually I plan a situation without an outcome or resolution, and see what happens. From there I devise another situation. If there is a time where I need to do a couple of these for the one session (as in I don't have time to think inbetween) I will either stall for time, ensure the subsequent situations are not totally reliant on the first and/or guess the most likely things that will leads to the situation.

When trying to guess your player's actions, use the rule of three. There are usually 3 likely outcomes or courses of action, and if there are less than that you need to make some more (except for certain circumstances). From there you can continue branching out until you are happy with how much you have to work with.
And then after that always have in the back of your mind the possibility that there is a fourth option that has eluded you. That way you will not be surprised when the 4th option ends up being the one happening.

2015-11-10, 12:48 AM
Prepare for the unexpected by embracing it. It's my favorite part of running a game. Otherwise, what do I need players for?

I specifically try to find encounters, challenges, etc, where I don't know how the party will react, don't know how they will handle it. If I feel an encounter will produce a very predictable outcome, I try to save it for a party that will produce a more entertaining result.

2015-11-10, 03:46 AM
Like others have said, don't write a plot or a narrative. Write characters and situations. Have your NPCs proactively seek goals of their own while reacting to the PCs actions. Set up an adventure such that it is a tragedy waiting to happen, or a deadlock in need of an outside force. And keep a good mental image of what springs will be sprung if the PCs steal the cheese.

2015-11-11, 04:20 PM
The most useful tools for when your players do something unexpected are:

1: A set of percentile dice.

2: A copy of the Rules Cyclopedia.

Roll the percentile dice several times behind your screen, preferably on a hard surface, then frown thoughtfully and page through the Rules Cyclopedia, pretending to consult sundry tables. This will give you time to improvise something.

2015-11-11, 08:07 PM
Premake some monsters, npcs, or encounters and events. This way when the characters suddenly abandon the city and try to explore a jungle temple you don't spend fifteen or twenty minutes trying to get an appropriate enemy or monster for them.

Also what planning I do tends to be more like causation mapping. Event A can lead to events B or C, person D will do X if Y and probably Z if the players are at plot point B.

Darth Ultron
2015-11-11, 10:47 PM
Create lots of NPCs, monsters, traps, encounters and such. You can also grab them from books, articles and such. Try to have a lot of different types. The idea is to have anything ready to drop in and use in a second.

Should something unexpected really happen, it is easy to toss out a 'game delay'. The idea is simple, delay the advancement of the plot or story or events of the game until next time when your more ready. Greed is an easy one for most players. Toss out something of value and the players will go after it.

It works best for a DM to leave most things vague. Things can't be disrupted if there is nothing to disrupt.

And, there is always Railroading. Should the players be heading down a wrong path, the DM can always lay down some tracks to put the game back on the rails.