As a veteran game master, I am well versed in the adage that you can never plan for everything your players are going to throw at you. My players have definitely thrown me some curve balls through the years. Inevitably, those so called “friends” are going to take your game and just turn it on its head. Months of planning and preparation become so much vaporware, because your hard work is definitely not going to see the dimmed, moody lights of the game table.
So what do you do when that happens?
There is no right answer to that question. There exists an entire spectrum of viable options depending on your players and how comfortable you are rolling with the punches.
You could calmly and politely tell your buddies, “No.” I know that sounds like an old-school, draconian kind of response, but it really is a perfectly fine response when your players have sent you into a tale spin. You have spent an immense amount of time preparing the foundation of a great story to tell with your friends, and its not unreasonable to ask the group to stay somewhat on coarse. The dominant philosophy in popular gaming culture right now is to “say yes,” but like many things in life, playing a game with your friends is not always so cut and dry. I think a good GM will say yes most of the time, but knows when to throw that much needed “no” into the mix.
On the other end of the spectrum is the obvious second choice. Yes! Yes, you can do this totally unexpected thing, no matter the cost. Saying yes is the popular choice at the moment, but too many game masters fail to realize you don’t always have to say yes and a culture of abuse is slowly creeping into the gaming community. Don’t get me wrong. I believe saying yes to my players is an important part of ensuring player agency has as much a chance to drive the story as my own. In improv, we always say yes, and it can lead to some pretty interesting and ridiculous moments. Ridiculous, good word. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
Everywhere in between are various levels of compromise that allow the players as well as game masters to move a great story forward without costing too much of one’s sanity or the other’s freedom of choice.
So why am I musing about this topic? Because after over twenty five years of gaming, my current Deadlands Reloaded gaming group got the best of me and I was caught completely off guard. Without getting too deep in the weeds, I tossed them into a classic Bad Future type of scenario. They had already survived some pretty nasty encounters in The Flood plot points campaign by the Pinnacle Entertainment Group (for those who have played through this campaign, you know what I am talking about). Its not the first time I used this trope, and historically, it has worked well for me. This time, not so much.
So the posse is deep in the future, learning more about what the villains have accomplished in their present, and a dice roll was needed to safely send them home. Out come the dice. The dice roll. The dice roll pretty phenomenally. You have no idea, this dice roll is beyond epic. I don’t remember what the player asked but I remember saying, “So, you can send the group back to the exact moment you want.” What I was thinking was, “the exact moment you left.” Of course, that is not what my players heard and they jumped on the opportunity. “Okay, then we want to go back to just before [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS] happened so we can stop that from happening.”
It caught me off guard. I had a choice. On one side of that decision, I saw a lot of prep time going out the window (not to mention the prep time to prepare the new story). On the other, I saw what seemed like a pretty epic idea (even if it isn’t all that original in as far as time traveling stories go). More than anything, I saw my group light up and get crazy excited about the possibilities the new story had to offer. In the end, that is what decided the matter for me. The prep time is important, it really is, but what is more important is the great time we were having playing a game together.
We spent some time planning what the group intended to do next, and then I cut the session an hour short because I needed time to prep the story to come. Was it the right decision? Only time and the dice gods know, but I intend to have fun finding out.