Hello all, and welcome to a segment we call: “Off the Rails.” This category is largely dedicated to the DM, but players might get a laugh or two, or at least get a good view at what they put us poor dungeon masters through when they do the wonderful and frustrating things they do.
Some of the greatest moments I’ve had at the table have been when I’ve been Dming and my players have done something so unexpected that I have been utterly bewildered at what to do. As a blind DM, It actually requires a bit more planning for me to set up an adventure, which makes dealing with the things I never expect my players to do that much more difficult. Even so I can tell you a few things one can do however.
Today, we are going to talk about slow, “Yes…. But” responses to when players force your hand to create on the fly.
A slow response as I see it is a response to something strange a character does that winds up puputting a spin on what they do later in the campaign. For example, if a player behaves strangely to an npc, that npc or someone close to them either becomes a consequence, or suffers consequences as a result, but not in the adventure in question, or not for a couple sessions at least. The slow “yes…. But” response to erratic player behavior is best used early or mid-campaign, as near the end, it is not nearly as useful and not as practicable.
I now will set out the steps as I see it to the slow “Yes…but” response.
- Say “yes” to what the party wants to do.
Generally creative behavior on the part of the players ought to be rewarded, as long as their choices do not directly fly in the face of logic or common sense. If players find a way to bypass the besiegers without fighting through them as you had planned, don’t force the fights on them. If they want to masquerade or use magic items to get by them, give them a chance.
- Don’t shoehorn if you can help it.
Not only should you facilitate what the players want to do, you should be ready to help them to succeed. If the players can bypass some tough monsters, don’t just move the monsters elsewhere. The exception of course is things like adventure bosses or important NPcs and enemies the adventure depends on the players confronting and defeating. In this case however, you should still be flexible, and if the players do something unusually clever, making the boss weaker or having them fight him or her in a more advantageous situation is better.
- Good thoughts deserve good chances or even certainty.
When you fulfill the first parts of a slow “yes…. But” response to unexpected player behavior, you should reward the players for their quick thinking, especially if their ideas are particularly fun. In many cases, you ought to give them a little help. If you have to come up with checks for them to make, make their DCs rather low for the level or alternatively, if the behavior is in-world unexpected and addresses a challenge in a rather brilliant way, maybe even adding advantage to the party’s checks is a reasonable thing to do. This makes the party feel good and also helps you get the events of their alternate behavior in place for the next step. If the behavior is extremely well-thought out, you might even forego checks entirely.
- Plot on your own.
Between the time of the adventurers’ actions and when you plan to bring up what they did again, think of how what they did could change the game for them. For example, if they made a deal with some devils rather than fighting them as you expected them to do, get ready to bring these devils back at a dramatically-appropriate time, especially one that will draw the players back to the moment when this happened and make them realize how important the behavior they engaged in was. This may not necessarily be a sort of punishment. It can open whole adventures, or when the players do well, get them allies and help when they most need it. I try not to punish my players so I go more for adventure ideas and rewards. Also, letting this sort of thing simmer for a while in your mind makes it easier to plan what you want to do. Because such things are meant to be important, make it good.
If you have several threads going on and you have a coherent, well-thought-out story for your campaign, perhaps there are layers of complexity the players do not see. Perhaps something they did in a random encounter makes the significance of such an encounter far more severe than they realized. And maybe some symbol they found on some goblin banners at level 1 reflects on something they see in the evil archmage’s tower at level 16, so keep track of details and try to keep the little changes your players force you to make ready to make for even more fascinating adventures.
I hope this look at ways to deal with unexpected player behavior is helpful to all you aspiring DMs out there.
About the author:
Zachary is one of the DMs for “Companions of the Perception Check” and is running the “Children of Gith,” campaign for them currently. He loves classic lit, bad sci-fi and horror flicks, and the company of his rats and dogs. His most frustrating off-the-rails moment was when the party charmed the Dragon of Athas.