Thursday, October 10, 2013

GM's Water Cooler: Derailing The Story Line

I've always thought it easier to tell a story when you half of what you know has already happened is been documented...the rest you can make up and personalize for flavor and spontaneity. If the players know the GM, they’re going to anticipate what comes next based on what the GM’s style and recognition of the scenario.

My favorite part or running a game isn't when things go according to plan, it’s when the entire plot line gets derailed when player actions/decisions push the plot line off-kilter, derailing the current situation and causing both the players and GM to rise to occasion and improvise.

Whether or not the outcome was intended (the proverbial bad roll at the wrong time) it almost always makes the story line better, sometimes way better than what than a GM could have possibly anticipated.

A good example of a player’s actions completely undermining the assumed story line is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

During the Zeppelin escape scene, a heated dog fight breaks out over the skies of Germany. The Jones boys are not done in by the evil Nazi fighter pilot, rather by Henry’s poor shooting skills (a critical fumble in this case). Through no real action of the GM, the players did all the damage and put themselves into imminent peril.

“Son, I’m sorry...they got us.”
It’s here where both the GM and PCs have to think on the fly. The air battle is lost, time to bring seats and tray tables to their upright positions and prepare for a crash landing!
At this point, it’s almost always a situation where both the GM and Players have no idea what is coming next. Do the players successfully crash-land the plane or is it a Total Party Kill? Fortunately for our heroes, Indy manages a very good crash-landing roll, the only casualty being a barn and a few unnerved chickens.

The Jones Boys are not out of the woods yet, as the GM circles the Nazi plane back towards our heroes. Completely outgunned and absent any cover. Had the PCs succeeded in taking down the fighter in the air, they’d be halfway to France by now. This is where improvisation happens:

"I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne:
 Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky."

Henry the PC thinks up a quick solution as the Luftwaffe pilot bears down on them in a strafing run on the beach.

Armed with only an umbrella, Henry states his action scaring "the shore birds up into the sky as a makeshift flak battery, attempting to dispatch the pilot in grand fashion.

Is this by the book? Are there even rules written for this? That’s where the GM has to make the decision for the greater good of the game on whether or not it’s possible. The PC’s plan to rile up the birds is a very creative answer to a no-win situation.

This is when I usually smile, look at the player and say, “Gimme a roll.”

Whether or not it’s a good one, this unexpected and unorthodox player action has to be carried out. Now, we know Henry was successful but the dice and Dame Fortune are cruel mistresses.

Here's how we get to the point of players influencing the game, now, how to manage it.

There can be no real expectation of total success like in the movie, but both the GM and PC have to be prepared for the consequences. This is where past GM experience comes in very handy. As GM you need to have a backdoor, side-quests, and random encounters to fill in the gap between where the story line promptly got derailed and when the players finally can get back on the tracks.

In any outcome, you need to reward the players for clever thinking. Perhaps give back the Action Point they spent trying to taking out the fighter plane. Perhaps the pilot managed to land the plane in the water, dying in the crash but leaving precious equipment, maps, etc. to be salvaged by the players.

If there is no chance of gain in heroic actions, you’ll never have your players doing much of anything outside the normal confines of the game; which...quite honestly, is damn boring for GM and PC alike.

The important thing, especially with a new player or players is to let them know that there is reward within risk. Saving all you action points for the boss-fight at the end of adventure may be the safe bet, but it’s not nearly as fun a pushing your luck and having fun along the way. Unlike Vegas, the house doesn't always win and statistically has just a good a chance of prevailing as you do, if not worse.

I have a standing rule that a PC shouldn't die unless the player is also willing to lose the character. Remember that any long running campaign is an investment on both the GM’s part and the player, you have an equal stake.

...that’s not to say that a lucky critical hit or the occasional Power Word: Kill should not be factored into the equation. Sh*t can and does happen.



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