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This is a follow-up question to I'm at a loss with “Dungeons and Dragons.” How does one play it, anyway? My question is what does a GM do if players try to do something unusual? For example, one scenario I've read went something like this: we'll imagine that the player characters are on their way to a tournament. They happen on an inn, where unknown to them there's a bandit lookout (i.e. person looking for new victims). If they discover the lookout, they can attack the bandits that night; otherwise they're ambushed the next day. The scenario ends after the encounter.

The problem is, in the open-ended world of pen-and-paper, the sky's the limit on what the player characters might do. For example:

  1. They can decide they're not interested in the tournament and turn around.
  2. They can decide to set the inn on fire.
  3. They can fall in love with some of the staff members at the inn and decide to start a family.

What would a GM do when players try to do something outside the scope of the adventure? I've played lots of cRPGs, but those have well-defined possible player actions, and I typically cannot do something that breaks the plot.

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closed as too broad by Miniman, Szega, Trish, doppelgreener Dec 25 '17 at 11:22

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should specify your game, as there might be significant difference between games. It sounds like you're talking about D&D, but we should be sure, \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Dec 24 '17 at 19:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you narrow down the question? "What would a GM do" is very broad. It heavily depends on the GMing style and the adventure itself (is it a sandbox? or a railroaded quest?). In the end of the day it is up to the GM. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 24 '17 at 20:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know how to narrow the question >_< I don't have any intuition on what a sandbox or railroaded quest is either. If you're answering the question, feel free to use whatever assumptions you think is natural. \$\endgroup\$ – Allure Dec 24 '17 at 20:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/662 rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/690 \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 24 '17 at 20:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ How to respond to various unexpected responses varies an awful lot. A way to narrow the question would be to describe what specific game you're playing or preparing to play. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Dec 25 '17 at 11:24
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In the moment, ad-lib something.

This happens to me all the time. Despite all my preparations, my players often completely subvert or circumvent my planned sessions. Just last session, they were at the start of a whole dungeon I planned, but they went "This looks too scary," left, and went to scam some vampires in a city I had barely named.

When something like this happens at your table, in the game, all you can do is make something up. It's not easy, but if you just grab something reasonable-sounding off the top of your head and flesh it out, it might be sufficient to get you through the session. Sure, you're probably not going to blow anyone's minds, but you can still have an entertaining improvised session.

Stuff like that gets much easier with practice, however. You'll eventually get the hang of coming up with what you need to keep the game running, and even have some fun/interesting encounters.

Prepare for the unexpected by fleshing out settings

The long-term solution to this is to have a flexible setting, instead of a single railroaded quest. In addition to planning out specific quests and events, you should also decide specifics of your setting: what are the major industries in the area? How active are the gods? Is there a centralized bandit gang, and do they have weird rituals? If they set that inn on fire, what sort of guards will come after them?

You probably won't use 99% of what you come up with, but thinking about such things ahead of time allows you to ad-lib much more effectively, because you already have foundations and prompts to work off of. It also doesn't hurt your actual session planning, either.

Know your players and your characters

It's true that in a TTRPG, anything is possible. However, the realm of what is likely is a much, much smaller subset of those possibilities. It is important to have a session 0 in order to determine the kind of game and characters your players want to play, and you can prepare around that.

For example, if your party is full of lawful do-gooder paladins, you probably don't have to worry about them committing random acts of evil. Likewise, if you know that your players spend lots of time every session messing around with NPCs, you can spend more time focused on making interesting NPCs instead of planning a ton of combat encounters.

In this way, you can give your players freedom to do what they want, but also be prepared for what they'll likely do.

If all else fails, railroading isn't always bad

Railroading is frequently bad, but it's not always bad. If you've planned for a world-ending cataclysm to happen, then let it happen regardless of what the PCs are doing. For instance, after opening a portal to the Abyss, my players decided to simply leave and do something else. As a result, I had the portal steadily chew up huge swaths of the game world until the PCs decided to do something about it.

For your bandit example, your players can mess around for a day or two, but the town is going to get ambushed regardless of what the PCs do. If the PCs decide to go to a completely different town, you can just reskin your bandit ambush to target that town instead, and the PCs will be none the wiser. After all, the players only see what they play--they won't know that random town A is actually town B in your notes.

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Whatever the GM thinks is reasonable

It can be tough to generalize to all Role-Playing Games, but for those with a single GM, it's generally the case that the GM decides how the environment responds to the players' actions.

Your question has a flawed premise. There is nothing "outside the scope of the adventure", there are just actions outside what the GM is most prepared for. Part of the appeal of RPGs for many is precisely that they aren't limited to a preset set of actions like a video game might be.

Some GMs thrive on the improvisation aspects, and can quickly come up with what should happen next. Others might say, "Wow, I'm really not prepared for that right now. I was expecting you to take action A or B. If you really want to do what you're suggesting instead, we're going to need to take a break here for a few minutes (or the rest of the night, or something in-between) while I figure out what should happen next." And then they might take that break, or the players might decide to do something "expected" instead if they decide they want to follow along the GM's expected adventure after all.

Different groups have different social expectations about how closely to the intended plot the players will go. Some groups like more of a "sandbox" model, where there isn't as much of a predefined adventure, and the stories come out of wherever the characters go and what they do. Some groups really like more of a "railroad" model, where the story is "on rails" and it's expected that the players will mostly be following the intended adventure. And there's a lot of room in-between those extremes, depending on what exactly the group wants out of their game.

As with any game, the intention is for a group of people to have fun playing it. Some have more fun straying from the "intended" path, and some have more fun with a bit more structure. But as long as the group is having fun, they're not playing it "wrong", even if what happens next in the game isn't what any of the people at the table were expecting at the start of the game session.

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This may or may not be a problem.

Some games benefit from a more structured setup, with clear plotlines and progression, with tailored adventures, encounters, and rewards. These are what we call "railroad" games.

Others benefit from a less structured setup, in which there are challenges and points of interest strewn about waiting for the player characters to attempt them, or even for the players to try and create and engineer their own. These are what we call "sandbox" games.

These are often presented as endpoints on a spectrum of railroady to sandboxy (at the far end of "railroad" we have the GM reading a novel to the players, who only sit and listen, while at the far end of "sandbox", the players dictate everything, there may not even be a GM) because every game handles this balance between structure and freedom differently, and almost every game will have some moments that favor one and some that favor the other.

Here's the key; neither is superior! Different players and different GMs will prefer different blends of railroad and sandbox. The easiest way to find out where you and your players stand is a Session Zero, in which you discuss what you all discuss what you're looking for in playing the game (as well as things like table etiquette). Action? Intrigue? Discovery? Knowing what your players are looking for will help you predict and prepare for what they might do.

But if it is...

Going back to your example, if someone does something that's outside the scope of the plot and "breaks" it in some fashion, you'll need to do some thinking to determine how the plot would react:

  1. They don't go to the inn. Maybe the bandits have a second lookout, and find the players a while later? Maybe they don't find the players, and instead the bandits end up preying on townsfolk, giving the players the opportunity to rescue the town?
  2. They set the inn on fire. Some players are jerks, and actively take pleasure in doing random things to derail plots. This isn't fun for the other players or for you. Ask them to leave the table and do not worry about them.
  3. They fall in love with staff members and say screw the tournament. Now they're basically townsfolk; maybe they're there at ground zero when the bandits raid the town. Maybe they specifically raid a love interest; now the character has personal motivation to get revenge!

This gets more difficult the more complex a plot becomes. To some GMs, this is a warning not to let a plot get so complex that one man in the wrong place wrecks everything. To other GMs, the fallout from such can be an interesting adventure in its own right!

It all boils down to, use your judgment. It'll get easier as you get experience GMing or playing. Have fun!

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Depends on the GM

This is a very broad topic, so I'll take a specific example. Let's say you was thinking about the "characters go to the tournament" scenario, but the characters decided to skip the tournament. Instead, they've decided to burn the inn and rob the keeper.

That might indicate a problem — as a GM, you did not understand the characters' motivations. It would be a good idea to talk to the players first. "Wait, guys, I was thinking about noble quests, with knights and chivalry, all these things, and you're just robbing people. Do you want to play another genre, I guess?" When players do something completely out of the genre, it is perfectly normal to make sure you are on the same page.

However, they could do something reasonable, but you just wasn't prepared for that. It will happen, sooner or later, and it is completely normal. For example, they've decided to skip the tournament, because they think they should prove their worth in real battle. Let's say they want to find the bandits' leader and bring him to justice. There are several approaches possible in this situation.

Option 1 — stick to the plan, gently pushing players to the right direction. It would be reasonable, if the tournament is the whole point of the adventure. Let them see that noble knights aren't supposed to chase after filthy bandits. Show them another, bigger problem, delaying the bandits quest. Find other reasons for them to participate the tournament, presumably more appropriate. See this question for more info.

Option 2 — don't depend on a pre-written scenario and write your own story. Make the bandits the main point of your adventure. It is your world, your game — you can't play it wrong, providing your players do have fun. This methods works better when you write your own adventures, though.

Option 3 — ask the players. You write a story through playing a game, it is a collaborative process. "Please remind me, sir Mordred, why do you participate the tournament, exactly?" That might give you a glimpse of the characters' (and players') motivations. Write down their answers and change the story accordingly.

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First of all, good players will want to work with the world, campaign, and adventure you've built for them. Because of this, while they might think to set the inn on fire or to explore something entirely other than the tournament, you probably won't run into the problem of having players fall in love, settle down, and start a family rather than follow your adventure hooks.

Otherwise, though, you really can't ever predict what a player's going to do. I suggest you look at it differently - rather than seeing it as a problem to be fixed or corrected, you should try to embrace the possibilities a TTRPG offers you. If you're so focused on your carefully-crafted plot, you may fall into the trap of railroading your players. This isn't fun for either of you. Instead, just 'roll with' whatever they seem interested in (within reason). If the players decide they're not interested in the tournament, and don't discover the inn, maybe one of the bandits played a role in a PC's past, and they're ambushed the next day anyway. If the players burn down the inn, maybe the remaining bandits regroup with a newfound vendetta against the party. There are a lot of possibilities, and that's not a bad thing!

GMing is first and foremost about thinking on your feet. If this isn't fun for you, I'm not sure I would suggest playing that role long-term.

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 for "railroading isn't fun for you or your players". This is a site for role-players of all playstyles, including the fans of more constrained formats and railroaded adventures. Making assertations about what is fun and what is not without analysis to back it up is just a subjective opinion that are of little use to gamers with different tastes compared to yours. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Dec 25 '17 at 0:12
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Do not bother trying to predict what players will do. You won't, they will think differently from you and will leave you flummoxed.

There is nothing outside the scope of the adventure, you just have to roll with what they do and allow situations to develop as the players (or external plot) make them.

My suggestion is "Don't prepare plans, prepare situations." Set up a situation, don't work out what the players might do ahead of time and see what they come up with, guaranteed it will surprise you.

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