Tabletop, or pen-and-paper, roleplaying games provide something most games do not – an unparalleled level of freedom for players to take control of their characters and go where they want. This is one of the medium’s strengths, allowing players to influence the direction of the game’s story on the fly, without being restricted to a linear path or multiple choice decisions. Some video games try to create a semblance of this, but they can only ever go so far with the idea before they run into the limitations of a preprogrammed world.
As a GM, I try to give players as much freedom as possible in my campaigns. But the truth is that, at least for most games, some degree of preparation is required to run a good game. So what do you do when your players decide to take their freedom and run amok wherever they choose – going anywhere, except where you intended for them to go?
The first suggestion I would give is this: Just go with it. Seriously, your players probably know better what they want out of the game right now than you do. Also, the ideas of four or five other people combined are probably going to be better than what you had planned at least three quarters of the time. Be ready to improvise, and just let the story go where it may. Aside from that advice, if you really need some specific techniques to help you improvise or cope with having your plans derailed, read on as I consider briefly four such techniques.
Time out is only for when you’re really caught off guard and just totally stumped by what your players have decided that they want to do. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you’re stumped. Ask your players for five minutes to pull things together. They can talk quietly or enjoy snacks away from the gaming space while you review your notes, brainstorm, and get your bearings again. Try not to make this break more than five-to-ten minutes, or the game will lose any momentum it had. If your players have really put you in a tough spot, this call for time out may make them realize this, and they might offer to retract their stated plan for the sake of keeping the story moving. If not, you may find some of these other techniques helpful in getting on with the show.
In video games, the area where players are meant to explore is sometimes cordoned off with invisible walls. In other words, there is some place, like a hill top, where you know your character should technically be able to reach, but when trying to get there you hit an invisible wall and can go no further. Using this method in a tabletop RPG requires more subtlety, but it can still be pretty obvious. It’s generally not the preferred method. For an example, if your players are going off the path you expected them to follow, perhaps they could be ambushed by some enemies that are much stronger than them. These enemies deter them from continuing down this wayward path. Perhaps they could even get captured and dumped right back in the middle of your plot.
Another option is to allow them to go a short distance down their new path, only to find that it doubles back and meets up with the main road again. Perhaps your players become interested in pursuing some minor enemies – such as a gang of bandits that attacked them on the road. These bandits weren’t supposed to be important. The heroes fighting them off was just an excuse for your quest-giver NPC to witness them in action and then higher them to pursue the story’s real villain. But now, for whatever reason, the players are intent on ridding the local area of these dangerous outlaws. OK, let them take that path. Within a session or two, let them find the bandits hideout, duel with the bandit leader, and take care of the problem. As they search the bandit hideout, they find a letter from your real villain, indicating that he had hired the bandits to capture or kill the quest-giver NPC. Now, your players might be more interested in tracking that guy down and listening to what he had to tell them.
In Hollywood they often use green screens instead of filming on location. (When I was a kid these were blue screens. I don’t know why the change.) The idea is that you can film the actors in front of these blank screens, and then use computer effects later to place them wherever you want them to be. In this case, location isn’t too important, just who is there and what they’re doing. You can design encounters like this in your campaign. Don’t put too much importance on where the encounter takes place, just think about who will be there and how they will interact. For example, your players are supposed to storm the villain’s base and fight him in his throne room, but instead they devise a clever plan to lure him out into the open. Let their plan work. Change the setting for the encounter. The action will remain roughly the same, but you can reward your players for their forethought and creativity.
Do you have any thoughts on what to do when your players behave unpredictably in an RPG? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.