Planning for the Unexpected

by Dru Pagliassotti

Every gamemaster has faced it—that moment where the players suddenly come up with plan that s/he had never dreamed they’d consider … and for which s/he has absolutely no preparation.

One of the hallmarks of an experienced GM is that s/he doesn’t panic and doesn’t say “No, you can’t do that.” But how do those master GMs manage to not panic when all of the sudden they have to run an airplane hijacking when they’d expected a hotel break-in?

The Tricks

  1. Be Prepared: Every GM should have a file of miscellaneous maps and prewritten generic NPCs that can be yanked out at a moment’s notice. Many GMs buy modules and game accessories even if they usually create their own, precisely to have a library of emergency resources. For example, I mostly run AD&D, but I collect maps and modules from many other fantasy gaming companies and systems. A castle map is a castle map, and a description is a description—the mechanics are easy enough to replace from one system to another. I also buy modules I don’t plan to run if they have interesting maps or NPCs. Gaming companies will love this, but it’s true—a GM can’t have too many modules and accessories at hand.

    The prepared GM should develop a Master File that lists where each resource can be found. (For example: “large walled manor, Dungeon 31, p. 63”)

    GMs who run with computers by their sides may want to have a few key websites bookmarked—sites with NPCs, maps, monsters, or other resources they might need to toss in at the last moment.

  2. Listen to the Players: Most players don’t develop a plan out of the blue; they discuss it for some time before agreeing to a strategy. The GM should be listening to the players and noting which ideas are being tossed about. If an idea comes up that the GM hasn’t planned for, s/he should immediately jot it down and start scribbling ideas, pros and cons, and NPC names that can be used should that plan be the one the players choose. An attentive GM will seldom be taken completely by surprise.

    GMs should also pay attention to players when they say things like, “We should explore that asteroid someday” or “You know, it’s time to go to town for some R&R.” Someday the group will sit down to a game and the players will say, “We’ve decided to go into town for a few days.” The prepared GM will simply nod, set the planned adventure aside, and pick up the alternate adventure s/he wrote after hearing the players’ offhand comments last week.

  3. Evaluate the Plan Fairly: A GM shouldn’t nix a plan just because s/he hadn’t thought of it first. Instead, s/he should consider whether or not the plan should work within the logic of the game universe. Have the villains taken any precautious against such a strategy? Will the villains have any warning? Is there a simple way to foil the players to get them back on track, or would it require such a ridiculous sequence of events that the players would know they were being railroaded? If the plan seems reasonable and there’s no immediate way to foil it, then the GM should go ahead and accept it as a gamemastering challenge.
  4. Call a Time-Out: If the scenario is going to require a bit of preparation, the GM should call a 30- or 60-minute time-out. S/he might send the players out on a snack or meal run or tell them to spend the time perfecting their strategy so they can present it when the game begins again. Then the GM should begin rifling through his or her stockpile of maps and jotting down notes. Most players won’t mind the break—they’ll probably be amused and pleased that they caught the GM by surprise. The break shouldn’t last longer than an hour, however; otherwise, the players will get bored and the game’s momentum will be lost.

The key to not panicking when players decide to take the adventure into their own hands is to be flexible and well-prepared. GMs should remember that many minds are better than one—players will come up with plans the GM didn’t think of simply because there are more of them. When it happens—and it will—the GM should just smile, grab a map out of his or her stockpile, and enjoy the chance to run impromptu for a change.

One thought on “Planning for the Unexpected”

  1. Some of the most fun gaming I’ve ever had the honor to play in has been when my players went entirely off the hook. However, that can also be a real pain in the butt, enough so that, when they go completely off the reservation, completely away from the goals they have agreed to accomplish through that unwritten social contract, that it steals the fun of the game. When everyone works together, the GM has no choice, really, but to go where they want to go, but when one player steals the game, all that makes for is arguments.

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