Here’s a question that I hear a lot: As a DM, what do you do when your players don’t do what you expected or have planned? Answer: I beat them ruthlessly with large metal objects.
Thanks, have a good week!
Well okay, maybe I don’t do that, but the thought has crossed my mind! Seriously however, every DM has been in that situation where they think they know exactly how their group is going to handle a situation and they run off in totally different and unexpected direction. I’ve heard these events called “side-quests”, or “unexpected adventures”, or even “chaos content”. I simply call them tangents and they are nothing to be feared.
Tangents are almost always linked to choices that the players have to make in-game. Choices like killing an NPC or keeping them around as a prisoner; or running away from the gang of thugs in the alley or staying to fight; paying the merchant a fair price or stealing what you need; following the rumor you heard at the tavern or ignoring it as gossip. Each of these choices have consequences (or they should) and the DM must be ready to handle any choices the PCs might make. It is a cardinal sin for DMs to assume that they know exactly what choice the PCs will make and only prepare for one decision. If you feel that way, why give them the choice in the first place? It is much better to be open to anything and flexible enough in your planning to adapt for the inevitable tangent.
But how do you do that, you might ask? Well it all comes back to good campaign planning. Personally, my goal for every one of my campaigns is to provide a novel-like storyline for all of my players to run though. However, that doesn't mean that I plan out every scene, action, or event down to the last detail. Doing that would just be inviting disappointment and frustration. Instead, what I generate are plot points I call guideposts. Depending on how long I want my campaign to be, I can set as few as three or four and as many as ten or twelve. These guideposts can really be anything. Some examples are: combats, dungeons, events (such as murders, suicides, invasions, political change, a natural disaster, etc.), the PCs discovering a secret, uncovering a hidden plot, you name it! Once I have my guideposts, all I need do is set them out in order and (eventually) follow them. To give you a better understanding of what I mean, what follows is a detailed example.
So, to begin, I decide that I want to run a campaign that will be played one night a week, three hours a night, for three months. That’s a total playing time of 36 hours. For a campaign of this size I would be planning for three guideposts. That’s three major events I want to see happen in the time I have. Now let’s say that those three events are going to be: 1) a combat that leads to a NPC(s) being taken hostage, 2) a dungeon, and 3) the fight with the final boss. Simple enough and I’m sure you can fill in the details with any number of possibilities.
So now that I have my three guideposts, as a DM I’m capable of handling almost any situation/decision my PCs can make without fear of never getting back to my story. But what if the PCs don’t care about who has been taken hostage and don’t want to give chase? Give them a reason to care! Offer a reward, make the hostage takers old rivals that the PCs are aching to see behind bars, make the NPC(s) important to their background, raise the stakes! But what if the PCs decide that the dungeon can wait for a few days while they level up elsewhere? There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you have the time to spare. And, if you feel like you are running out of time, maybe it’s time for a strong reminder like having some of the hostage takers attack them in the night and steal some of their equipment! But what if they attack the final boss with almost no hit points or spells? Two answers here. Firstly, if you have some time to burn, maybe the boss defeats them the first time around without killing them and they need to run into each other a second time for the “real” fight. Secondly, if time is short, your answer might be cutting your final boss’ hit points down to “easy” level, or perhaps tipping your PCs off to a big weakness in his defenses.
Here’s the main point: there’s nothing wrong with letting the characters go on a little side adventure, or wandering off in a previously unexpected direction, or even taking unexpected and foolish risks as long as the DM can eventually pull them back to the central plot, i.e. the next guidepost. Sometimes, I even find it a challenge to indulge the PCs in their side-quests until I can manufacture a way to integrate what seemed to be a tangent into the main story.
For example, let’s say that your campaign hinges on the PCs tracking down a thief and interrogating him for some vital information. But, when the time comes, the PCs kill the thief before he can give the vital information away. You’re stuck right? Wrong! Embrace the fact that you are about to embark on a tangent and start working on the countless ways that you can bridge the gap between where you wanted to be and where you are. Are you in a hurry? Maybe the thief has the information marked down on a piece of parchment back at his inn room and the PCs have to find a way inside without being seen. Do you have lots of time to spare? Then why not make this unexpected happening a part of the journey and go on an elaborate tangent to find the “only other person in the world” who knows the information you need.
A sudden change of circumstances and patching plot holes on the fly is one of the biggest tests a DM can face. Some are very good at it and can make any tangent appear seamless. Others get very uncomfortable and can bend under the pressure. However, I believe that good planning and easy to follow guideposts can help even the most inexperienced DM stay on the path of good gaming. Open your mind to the possibilities, accept that things are not always going to go to plan, and organize the chaos.