Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How to deal with the unexpected

Every once in awhile as a role player I have come across some situations where the GM paints him/herself in a corner by incorrectly predicting how a character will act.  This is not uncommon and has a tendency to derail a campaign. This is especially the case when the player is not simply being obstinate  but has come to the conclusion that his characters motivations would lead him in a direction that the GM has not predicted.

This can be very tricky to deal with for anyone trying to run a game. The GM must be careful to not override the player’s creativity or stand the chance of alienating that person. What if this completely changes the course of the story? What if the GM is not prepared for that eventuality and it ends up stopping the game? What if you end up having to deal with conflicts between your players and ultimately yourself because of this choice?  This is probably one of the greatest challenges any GM will face, but just like most challenges, if handled with a little courage and wisdom everyone can come out the better for it.

There are a few things that a GM can do in prep to avoid these problems.  First of all, try to keep your plot points from becoming too linear. Try not to think in terms of “dominoes” try to think more in terms of “pitch and draw.” What I mean by this is to write your plot points in such a fashion that there are multiple ways of achieving a goal so if you are thrown a card you don’t want, you can pitch it back and draw another.

This can be achieved simply by not over planning. Instead of designing specific instances that will drive the plot, come up with NPC’s and clues in the environment that the players can discover and interact with.  This gives you several options which the characters can discover organically. When you have a starting point and a goal, it’s far easier to come up with ways for the characters to reach that goal on the fly instead of having a meticulously designed scene that the characters can avoid or disrupt too easily.

“That boy is our last hope.”
“No, there is another.”
-Obi Wan and Yoda. Empire Strikes Back

Sometimes you will need to plan for the unexpected.  The best way to do this with plot points is to design a way for each character to discover information or interact with an NPC that will get you to your goal.  If one character fails to do so, you can move on to the next until you get the desired result. This will take some thought since character motivations are sometimes at odds.

“Having not said anything the first time, it was somehow even more difficult to broach the subject the second time around.” 
-Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

The best thing to do to keep things floating right is to communicate. Having a quick chat with a player whose character has an important role in the plot can save a lot of heartache in the long run. Do not feel like you cannot be in collusion with your players.  This is a cooperative exercise and you will be surprised at how accommodating your players will be if you simply ask them to play along with something. Some might think that is cheating. Just keep in mind that the point here is to tell an interesting story and having the players help you along is never a bad idea.

Here is a good example from a Legend of the Five Rings game I was in a few years back.

The situation:

A samurai is being manipulated by his sensei who just happens to be a member of a secret society bent on destroying the “celestial order.” The GM has basically put this player in a situation where he can

A) Go along with the nefarious plot and loose personal honor but uphold the “face” of his family and clan by keeping some blackmail secret or

B) Stand against his sensei and uphold his personal honor and let the chips fall where they may vis-a-vis the blackmail.

The Conflict:

The player decides that his characters priorities are to his family and clan and cannot force himself to cause any loss in honor to either even at the expense of his own personal honor. This is of course at odds with what the GM believed to be the “Heroic” thing to do, but has to accept that the player has a right to interpret his characters motivations. The GM now has to figure out how to stop the corrupted sensei’s plot and allow his player to retain his characters motivational integrity.

The Resolution:

Amongst the other players are a magistrate (basically a samurai cop) and his personal bodyguard.  They are from another clan. Since one of them is a magistrate and he has some authority, the GM decides to have them find something incriminating act upon it.  So the GM decides to lead them towards the plot and see if they take action.

The other players find things out after a while, but the GM runs into another problem. Since the magistrate is from another clan, this situation is outside his jurisdiction and he could start an all-out war between the two clans if he gets too deeply involved! The magistrate player explains that although concerned about the situation, he cannot see the character risking a war because of it.

The GM then pulls the bodyguard aside and basically deconstructs the situation and asks if there is anything he can think of to fix the situation.  The bodyguard player then confers with the magistrate and after a few minutes come up with the following plan.

Knowing that the blackmailed samurai was being groomed for a very high position within the imperial court, the magistrate had to do something about the situation without causing a war.  The bodyguard also decides that this situation is far more important than their personal honor (a conclusion that the GM originally assumed that the first player would make.)  So the magistrate and bodyguard leave without a trace. They travel to their daimyo’s castle and explain that they must leave their clan and family, renouncing their vows and everything that is held sacred in their culture and religion to become Ronin.  They further explain that they are doing this in order to take actions that are in the best interest of the empire, but cannot be connected to their clan in fear of the repercussions. The GM/diamyo grants them this and excommunicates them from the clan.

The two samurai return with no ties to their former clan, ambush and assassinate the corrupt sensei and promptly commit seppuku.  Case closed.

In this situation we ended up having a fantastic “samurai” ending to the story.  The plot was resolved and everyone ended up in the clear since dying an honorable death is the best thing a samurai can ever achieve.

The GM had to pull out all the stops.  He had to pull characters into a subplot that was malfunctioning and had to basically conspire with characters to get the plot back on track. The conclusion to the story ended up being more spectacular than what the GM had originally anticipated and everyone ended up loving the story overall.

“The price of a Lion Bushi’s honor?
One dark secret.
Ending a Kolat plot in a whirlwind of murder and seppuku?
-Eli “Yojimbo” Basquez

Our GM never panicked and never gave up on his story.  Sure, things got horribly derailed and there were some arguments in between, but in the end it all working out. Sometimes the GM is the one who has to solve the plot puzzles while the players get to watch.