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Rutskarn’s GMinars: Intermission

By Rutskarn
on Saturday May 14, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


This is bad timing, but this week–in between far less pleasant excitements–I’ve become an uncle. The birth has been an all-around happy and uncomplicated one, if much earlier than anybody expected, but I will admit it’s caught me with my buffer down. It’s not that I haven’t written my next post–I actually have–but I haven’t edited and reviewed it properly, and with this series, that takes considerable time. I won’t give badly-phrased or incomplete GMing advice if I can help it; that’s the closest somebody like me can ever get to malpractice.

To make up for the lack of essay, I’ll be showing up for this week’s Diecast and Spoiler Warning recordings (typically I take the second week of the month off). Until then, I leave you with this brief anecdote from the first long-term D&D campaign I ever ran:

It’s high school, and like most high school DMs I’ve got big dramatic plans. Long before I’ve got my players lined up I’ve got this whole winding path of murder, conspiracy, and ritual intrigue planned. I can play it forward in my head like I’m remembering a beloved TV show–they’ll find the cryptic runes on an ancient corpse, dramatically uncover matching, bloody marks on a fresh victim–there’ll be the search for a killer, the trail of bodies, the close encounters with figures in the dark and glimpses of the secret powers that run the world. You know <popular, slightly overrated videogame or film franchise>? I’m not saying it’s a ripoff or anything, but I’m pretty sure it’ll feel exactly like <popular, slightly overrated videogame or film franchise.>

I make up a full map of the main city, a list of custom-tailored Gods, a sketch of the political climate, and even–when I get really bored–some encounters. As the introductory session approaches I sit down with my first player and we play a few brief adventures set in my homemade world–something to stave off my RPG cravings and help me get a handle on my lore. She’s got as much experience gaming as I do and when it comes time to make her character for the full campaign, it’s a painless process. “Pick a class. Pick a race. Pick one of my Gods to worship. Cool. We start in a few weeks.”

A few days later I sit down with my other two players–both eager-but-inexperienced new friends with some CRPG experience but no actual table time. I walk them slowly and patiently through the character creation chapters of the rulebook. “Here are the classes–pick one to take a level in. Here are the races–pick one to be. Here is the list of Gods in the book–pick one to worship. You got all that? Good. Remember, I totally know what I’m doing.

Only later do I realize my mistake. I have one player who already knows my setting and has picked one of my made-up deities, and on the other hand, I have two new players who have just very carefully and with much deliberation picked out premade Gods from the rulebook. The campaign hasn’t even begun and I’m already contradicting myself.

Some secret and not-terribly-subtle rewrites ensue. Suddenly the very first session features religious riots and temple burnings as a war between my made-up Gods and the established Pantheon the old orthodox traditionalists and dangerous upstart cultists reaches a sudden, never-before-mentioned fever pitch. Since I didn’t cover the schism or its source during orientation, this citywide brouhaha raises some questions–so I answer them with events, exposition, and NPCs in the next session. And some more in the next one. Very next thing I know it’s eight months later, the campaign’s over, and it turns out the whole damn thing’s been about this religious war that I invented to cover up a stupid mistake in character creation.

I tell all GMs the same thing–if you can keep your mouth shut and think on your feet, there’s no limit to how often and how hard you can screw up.

Comments (21)

  1. Fast_Fire says:

    A glorious months-long session of “I meant to do that.”

  2. Blue Painted says:

    The biggest trigger for me to do on-the-fly rewrite and messing up is when a player says “I know, he (the GM) is going to do X and so then we will/will have to do Y” … at which point I do not do X, even if it was planned to be the most central plot point.

    • Tohron says:

      That’s not always a good idea. If you’ve been carefully building up to a twist, dropping that twist and doing something completely different because the players saw it coming can weaken the internal consistency of the setting. I know George R.R. Martin tries to avoid reading fan speculation so that he doesn’t fall into this trap.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      I know at least one or two players who know this and are not too shy to meta-game the GM that way, spoiling stories and avoiding uncomfortable situations that way…

    • Decus says:

      It’d be a bad idea to do that if your players were excitedly waiting for X so they could do Y–and their characters were on the same page–but on the other hand if your players are sounding bored with X I guess that’s okay?

      During most games I’ve ever run or been in the players make so many predictions out of session and even during the sessions–pretty much constant predictions–that probability is on their side for guessing the plot/upcoming twists at least once. I’ve never altered anything unless there was an air of boredom around “Oh, let me guess, this is going to happen” and I couldn’t think of a way to really sell it because that’s how done the players were with anything approaching the idea I was going to use.

      • I try to aim my players at figuring out what HAS happened instead of guessing what WILL happen. This isn’t really that hard–you need a LOT of information to be able to make educated guesses about the future. Plus this means that I don’t have to plan that far in advance, myself.

        They’re almost always so bad at anticipating what’s coming (or, if not exactly bad, so RANDOM) that their assumptions lead to disaster–particularly since they get attached to their assumptions and refuse to see any contradictory evidence until it’s too late.

        Granted, in most of my campaigns just *figuring out who the bad guy really is and what the heck he’s doing* is usually next-to-last session or close.

  3. Zaxares says:

    Or… You could have just told your players that both the new and old Gods coexist in this setting. ;) Seems like it all worked out for the best though.

  4. Bropocalypse says:

    GMing is sometimes like if you could MapCrunch in real life.

    • Echo Tango says:

      Good gravy, European roads and towns are hard to navigate! Mapcrunch started me beside a sort of temple built on a cliff, which looks like it might be in the middle of nowhere. Up one curved road, and suddenly I’m in a large town. Then there’s like, nothing but town-looking density for intersection upon intersection, and I have no way of knowing which way the large city is, which I presume the nearest airport to be in. In North America, we might have a similar problem with huge swathes of suburb, or of skyscraper, but at least some of the streets are wider or narrower, and some of them are freeways or highways, which have big signs on them pointing you to the next town, city, or airport. ^^;

  5. Alan says:

    I love this so much. Total derailment RPG.

    Did you ever use the original material you had planned, in a later campaign?

    • Sean Conner says:

      I think a “total derailment” as an abrupt ending to a campaign because of a player.

      So the group I’m in is playing D&D 2nd edition (the GM in this case has all the books for 2nd edition—he’s been playing for a long time). He’s running the group through a trilogy of modules he purchased (and modified slightly to put into his campaign world). I miss the first two sessions and when I join back in, the group is about a third to half way through the first module. Then one of the other players mentions something offhand, and I’m like “What? Why didn’t you tell me we had a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak?” (I should mention that we were a high level group for a D&D game) By the time the session was done, due to my plans, we were done with the entire module trilogy.

      That’s derailment.

  6. NoneCallMeTim says:

    There is a campaign in WFRP called the Enemy Within. The final adventure is called Empire in Flames, where the Warhammer world is on the brink of civil war, and the PCs are sent of to trudge through an inch thick book of an adventure to retreive the Hammer of Sigmar, a legendary artefact to unite the Empire.

    We got hold of it, and for reasons, threw it into a Chaotic Vortex destroying it forever.

    Off to the Dwarf lands to ask them pretty please could they make another one, and whatever side quests we needed to get the materials to make the new one.

  7. katre says:

    I do not know how many times when I’ve been the GM, and I’ve heard my players say something like “That is so great, the NPCs are going to do X, so we’ll do Y” and I think “Huh, X is a great thing for them to do, except they’d really do X-prime” and I do that and everything is great.

    I have actually given up all pretense of planning for RPG sessions. I do my initial worldbuilding, set up some NPCs with their own goals, and then just get out of my players’ way and improv everything around them. Last campaign, I took one of the players (who is the other GM for the group, when I play) and asked which parts he though were pre-planned and which made up. He said, “Hmm, it all fit together so well, I figured it was all pre-planned.”

  8. AdamS says:

    I ran the Song of Ice and Fire RPG with the adventure that comes in the back of the revised edition and boy howdy was it fun. The player running the heir of the noble house had built his character to be a socially-adept political manipulator, at the expense of virtually all of his combat skills. Since the party included a mercenary with more HP than a horse, a Braavosi sellsword capable of killing 1d6 peasants per round, a near unhittable hedge knight, and Sir Wil of Wheaton, the unkillable squire, no problem, right? Well, about halfway through the adventure, someone frames the PCs house for butchering a lot of another house’s peasants, and the scion of that house challenges the heir PC to an honor duel. Heir PC can barely even mount a horse, let alone joust. So he plans to POISON HIMSELF, and make it look like the other house was trying to sabotage his chances in the duel. Only problem is, this is what the guy who was trying to frame the PCs house was already going to do, but to the other guy to further implicate them. I’m sweating, trying to figure out how this goes down, until I realize that they discussed all of this WITH THE GUY WHO FRAMED THEM, since they failed every roll they could’ve made to realize this guy and his family weren’t on the level. (And since they were the first friendly faces the PCs encountered since leaving home, they hadn’t thought to MAKE many such rolls to begin with. It was actually hilarious watching them in and out of character go down their list of associates and specifically reject him as a suspect “because he was nice to us!”) Cue the guy hiring a pickpocket to swap the poison out with something not-poisonous, and the PCs all botch their spot checks (becoming increasingly nervous, since they don’t know what it is they’re supposed to be not-seeing) and they arrive at the arena with a wine-skin full of very-much-not-poisoned wine. Cut to half an hour later, as the PCs start to panic at their leader NOT keeling over from poisonous treachery.

    tl;dr: my PCs almost derailed an entire adventure, but accidentally sabotaged themselves right back into the situation they were trying to avoid.

  9. Cuthalion says:

    Congrats on becoming an uncle!

    I find that, when I try to plan a plot, it’s a coin toss whether the game does anything remotely similar.

  10. Joey245 says:

    So…are we going to be taking bets on how soon Mumbles will be teaching Rutskarn’s newest nephew/niece to call him “Uncle Buttskarn”?

    I give it two weeks.

  11. thebob288 says:

    This is going to seem really stupid and feel free to utterly ignore this comment. That being said…. is there any way you can make the red background in these posts a slightly less bright shade of red? It just hurts to look at.

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