Any storyteller will tell you that no matter how hard you try and prepare. Once the game starts everything is out of your hands and the direction the game will take is largely up to your players. Often most games go the way you expect. Resulting in no need to make tweaks to your story as events unfold.
Other times, the players will for whatever reasons of their own, approach the story from a direction that you had never seen coming. It is this moment that your game has gone off the rails. Leaving you to have to make a few quick-thinking decisions to keep the story moving.
The end goal is to guide the players back in the direction of the plot. But how do you go about doing this? Well, there are several ways it can be done. In this blog, we will discuss a few things that you can do to help you get your game back on track. I will also outline a few things that you should avoid doing at all costs when this happens at your table.
Things You Can DO
Improvisation is a wonderful skill and like any skill it requires practice. The good news is the more that you put this skill to use, the stronger your improv game will get. Inevitably the more you run games the more you will find yourself improvising because the two simply go hand in hand.
Many Game Masters are very intimidated by the mere thought of improvising. Yet, when you sit down and think about it you do it all the time. Any time a player talks with an NPC in your world it is likely that on some level you are improvising. The same is true when your players inquire what the Blacksmith has for sale or what the Innkeeper is serving that passes for drinks in the local Pub. Likely none of this ever crosses your mind as improv but it is. You don’t think about it because you have done it so often it has become second nature to you.
Trust in your abilities as a storyteller, your player’s faith in you as a GM, and your knowledge that you know where the stories plot is heading. If you have prepared a strong cast of NPC’s to help move your players in that direction of the story as well as a few side plots planed that can help steer them back to the plot when they wander off script. You will be fine
Run a Prepared Side Plots
I often have one or two side stories going on in the background of my games for situations where the players go off the rails on me. If you have the luxury of being able to introduce one of this side plots instead of a random encounter this may even buy you an entire game session. Giving you ample time to figure out what you are going to do to steer your players back to your main story.
Ideally, you have prepared some of these in advance they should already be in a position to lead the players back to the main story as these side plots wrap up.
NOTE: Do not run a side quest if it does not fit into the moment, It will feel forced and your players will feel like they are being railroaded. Railroading=BAD. Only do this if you can make the transition feel organic.
Run a Random Encounter
If you have the opportunity and are in a situation where a random encounter will not feel forced, this is one of the best things you can do as a GM. The use of a random encounter serves you well on many levels.
- You are providing your player’s with some in-game action.
- You are buying yourself some time to do a little multi-tasking so you can decide how you will address the unexpected direction that the players have taken the story in.
In games like D&D and Pathfinder this option not only will serve to keep the play at the table moving but depending on the level of play and how many players are at your table. This might buy you a considerable amount of time to regroup.
Take a Bathroom/Snack Break
If you find yourself in a place in your story where a Random Encounter would not make much sense and you feel like you only will need a moment or two to collect your thoughts. Call for a bathroom break or hop up and get a drink and a snack. The few moments that it will take for you to step away from the table and get a breath or two of fresh air might be all that you will need to get your creative thoughts going again.
If you find yourself still stumped on the way back to the table, consider a side Plot or a random encounter to give you more time at the table to come up with a plan of action.
Ask your Players For Their Input
There is nothing wrong with asking for the input of your players. They are helping to shape the story with you. This may seem awkward for some old school Game Masters. But many new systems encourage such player input and a few are even build around group storytelling. So if you find yourself stuck ask for some suggestions or party input. You might be surprised at some of the creative ideas your players have floating around on their side of the table.
Politely ask for a few min
Be upfront and honest and tell your players they have thrown you a curve ball. Let them know that you need a moment to look over your notes and figure out just how to proceed from this point. Suggest they take a few min to stretch their legs or grab some snacks while you gather your bearings.
Things Not To DO!!
The following are some things that you should absolutely never do. In my years of gaming, I have seen all of these things take place and they destroy player agency and can be utter fun killers.
Do Not Put Up Invisible Walls
We all know how frustrating they are in video games, but when a game master puts up invisible walls and tells his players that they simply can’t go that way. It is utterly infuriating.
This is one of the quickest ways to see your entire table collectively sigh and lose complete interest in your game. This solution might work once or twice at your table but it will leave your players feeling like they are stuck in a giant hamster cage.
Never Railroad The Story
It might seem like the easiest way to get your story back out of the weeds. But your players will resent it. Do it enough and your players will not only resent it but they will grow unmotivated to find their own creative answers to problems in the game. Instead, they will begin to rely on you to spoon feed them the information you want them to follow from plot point to plot point.
Do Not Call The Game
It may seem like a good option to tell your players that they have taken the story in an unexpected direction and you need to time to plan your next move. But before you pull the kill switch on a session of gaming think about this.
Your players have set aside time to be at your game and calling the game will likely leave some players with sour feelings. Also, you have to admit that whatever changes you make to your story to adjust for WHATEVER the players may have thrown at you. It is highly unlikely that you will need several days to make adjustments to account for what has happened.
I can not urge you enough that if you feel like you need to call the game session to sort out what has happened at the table. PLEASE consider instead taking an extended snack break or order a Pizza go out to lunch and have some food for thought. Then regroup in 30 min to an hour. Calling the game, in my opinion, should never be done if at all avoidable.
Note: There are exceptions to every rule. In the past I have called games when things have gone off the rails. For example due to an unexpected combat about to occur at the end of the night due to players choices. In this example, I can only recommend calling the game and ending it as a cliffhanger, due to the fact that your players may not be able to stay late past your normal game time to deal with an extended combat.
Please feel free to comment and add your own suggestions to both lists here!