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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Planning for the Unexpected
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?
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.
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.
originally written March 10, 2000
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