So, you know how I do that rambly introduction for a couple of paragraphs whenever I’m making a new post? I was set to do one of those here about how I didn’t have the time for any of the larger posts I’ve been wanting to do so here’s a quick bit about what’s been on in my Dungeons and Dragons life. But you know what? That’s not perfectly accurate. It’s true that I haven’t really had the time to do the larger posts I’ve been wanting to do, but honestly, I just want to talk about Dungeons and Dragons today anyway. Even if I had the time, this is what we’d be doing. So let’s do that.
As I mentioned some months ago, I’m a newbie GM with a bunch of much more experienced players. I kind of fell into the role by default, as I was the one to get our group back together after we finished up our last campaign and everyone did their own thing for a while, and nobody else wanted to run the game so it fell to me. But I’ve actually been enjoying it, and I’ve been doing my best to put up a good game. Which has been a bit of a learning process, has required me to pick up a lot of new skills, has seen me through a bunch of missteps, and it takes a good chunk of time, but I think it’s been fulfilling.
I do have a particularly major challenge I’m facing, though. You remember last time we talked about this, how I mentioned that “Your players will follow your lead, easily”? I look at that now. I was such a fool. Such an incredibly sexy, genius fool. How naive was I, then? I imagine any GM with experience was just laughing at me there. What’s the saying, “No plan survives first contact with your players.”? I have been coming to respect that more and more. There was one point that I was thinking on reaching out for help, finding some more experienced GMs and running by them what they think I should do. But as I’m spending more and more time with this, I’m starting to discover, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The game I run is pretty heavy on the roleplaying aspect. Between having some long scenes of interaction and nonviolent conflict, as well as my habit of not calling for a skill check in social situations if the players just roleplay it well enough and it seems like the sort of thing that would reach their goal, sometimes a few hours will go by without anyone rolling any dice. So, the players are getting really into their characters. At least, I think this is where this is coming from. In any case, I assume, because they’re so into their characters, when tight situations (read: combat) come up, they don’t typically act in the most tactically advantageous manner. This group will split up all the time, with some members going off and doing things that I hadn’t even thought of. Which makes it really hard to plan out content for them.
So, we’re in a fantasy post-apocalyptic world. Our PCs are part of a village that a dragon decided to put together that, as far as anyone knows, is the only large gathering of survivors in the known world. And it gets attacked all the time. The world, whatever is left of it, is ruled by some almost omnipotent jerk that wants to torment everyone in it for his own amusement. Someone in the village falls pregnant, evil overlord sends one of his knights to declare he’s going to be taking that baby once its born and raise it in some faraway location for purposes they don’t understand. That’s just his rules. The village leader doesn’t want that to happen, but knows the town can’t stand against the overlord, so he tracks down an out-of-village survivor that has some information on where the overlord takes the babies, and sends out our heroes to go snoop on the place, get some information on it so that if the village needs to plan a big rescue operation later, they’re prepared to do so. Our party sets off, tracks down a boat, beats some monsters using it, then head off to the island that has the location in question. All as intended.
I was really proud of that island. Put a lot of work into it. It was going to delve into the backstory of one of the player characters quite a bit, had some work that was going to progress a subplot involving another character, and the way to get to the building filled with enemies that were demonstrably too strong to take on directly but also very dense which I had assumed would lead to good opportunities for the more stealth-oriented character to do his thing. I had a couple dozen NPCs there, all with their own little backstories and side plots, and a big old web of how they interacted with each other. Had a number of potential allies they could recruit for the village and build up their community’s long term strength. Set up a few magic items there, too, specifically geared toward increasing one character in combat viability and given him similar narrative resources to what all the others had. I had a lot in there for them.
And everything fell apart. The player of the character that I had the subplot going for could not make any session of that adventure, so that ended up getting canned. The character for whom a lot of his backstory was going to get explored on the island got scared by the enemies there and just completely ran away, leading me to have to ad-lib a whole series of encounters for him for which I had prepared absolutely no material for beforehand. The group found the aforementioned loot, but ended up leading the area guards right to it and abandoning the area before they could pick anything up, so no real improvements in the character’s strengths there. The stealth focused character couldn’t figure out the stealth challenge and so mostly served as a distraction for the one character who was slipping inside. And that character, the one for whom I hadn’t written any material around on this part of the adventure, ended up doing everything single-handedly, but was so direct and violent about it that the group missed out on pretty much all the interwoven plots I had built in there, and only one of the potential allies was willing to go back with them, and he wasn’t willing to stick around them on a permanent basis afterwards. At the end, they didn’t even get enough information for a viable mission into the island later. They survived the adventure, but they failed in about every way possible, and they had nothing to show for their time spent doing so.
At the time, I had worried about that. Thought that meant I was a bad GM running a bad game. The the group would split up to the point that they were all essentially on their own adventures that, thanks to the one guy just straight booking it, didn’t even get back together by the time the chapter was done. It was a bit frustrating to me, as my material didn’t end up telling the story I wanted to tell, and I was worried it was leading to a bad experience for them, as they were going through a lot of content I hadn’t planned for. As I’ve been spending time with this though, building my skills and experiences as a GM, I’m learning that moments like those are really the beauty of this sort of interactive storytelling. I think the reason my group splits apart so much and behaves in ways that are mechanically suboptimal is because they get so into their characters and feel that they have the freedom to do that, both of which are things that we should be aiming for in the GM. And the fact that sometimes they fail, and fail hardcore, even if they survive, is a good thing. Both the story and the game are stronger for it.
And as I get more comfortable as a GM, I’m more aware that it’s not like anything is lost when they screw up. All the important bits that they didn’t see can come back later, if I so choose. They completely missed out on that one character’s backstory? Well, they may coincidentally come across a location that also ties into his backstory in the future, and I can use all that stuff then. They just skip over some enemies or an area that I painstakingly built just for them? That stuff can be reflavored and recycled into later encounters. If I want them to go through something, I can make sure they go through something. Just may not always be when I expect them to go through it.
Moreover, I’m starting to learn that I have the skills to still put together a good time, even when I’m pulling things out of my marvelously toned rear end. At least, I think I am. You’ll have to ask my players to be sure. I’ve got a habit of having at least the story bits of the next couple arcs planned out at any given time, so if someone goes way off the planned path? It’s pretty easy to use it as an opportunity to foreshadow something that’ll be coming down the pipe in the future. Some does something I don’t expect with a character? I’m a case manager. I work with the nature of personalities, values, and choices for a living. I can act out a character appropriately in most any circumstance. If I need to change or create a plot on the fly, I’ve got enough amateur fictioning experience to do that and make it seem rather complete. I spent years being into only roleplay writing, so adapting a story to other PCs is a piece of cake.
It’s gotten to the point that recently, one of the players had made a choice that ended up completely derailing things for about a session and a half, and I was able to just roll with it. The village was invaded by forces way too powerful for any of them to stand up against, so they had to punch their way out and evacuate as many as they could. It was clearly established that going back in was a BAD IDEA. However, one of the characters left his gear in there. He wanted to go back in to get it. He convinced one of the others to help him. So the snuck away from the rest of the party and did so. That set off a whole chain of events leading to one of them being trapped in a burning building, the other disappearing and reappearing under suspicious circumstances, and the other two had to go in and rescue them, leading to things getting even messier to the point that one of the PCs died to give the others the chance to flee. All completely unplanned. But I was able to get it together on the fly using maps I already had, creatures I had already created, and groups I already knew the motivations for. And honestly, I’m pretty proud of it.
In GMing, I am telling a story, yes. But it’s not just my story. And it’s wrong to view the main characters as being out of my control. They’re not intended to be in my control. We’re all telling this story together. And some of the best moments can come from the times where we’re all just barely hanging on.