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As an amateur GM, I, like many other new GMs, often find myself having to improvise in the wake of unexpected player action.

In the past, my approach to this has been to rush to think of something on the spot, which often results in a poorly thought out, cheesy/cliche, or just plain boring response.

Would it be bad form if, when thrown a substantial curveball by the players (such as, for example, the party deciding to wait for enemies to push their position, as in this answer) I were to say to the party something like:

Okay guys, give me a minute to figure this out

Or would that be too jarring/immersion breaking for the players as it results in a sudden pause in play?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 3 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ have you tried taking a bio break instead? We did that on our gaming sessions and created a meme that all good ideas are born on the toilet (because it gives you that minute to think). \$\endgroup\$ – Tom May 4 at 8:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very few of us are professional GMs - most of us work for free \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M May 4 at 9:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is -- no kidding -- a fantastic question. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Kiley May 7 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM I meant amateur as in "not very experienced" rather than "not professional" :P \$\endgroup\$ – Skidsdev May 7 at 19:42
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No, it is not bad form

Regardless of how much immersion1 you are trying to achieve, you are still a table full of people playing a game. When you run across a situation that surprises you as GM, or has you thinking "what?" it is most often better to put some thought into the solution, and make a ruling, than allowing yourself to feel rushed. (As with other things in life, snap decisions often have undesirable consequences).

Or would that be too jarring/immersion breaking for the players as it results in a sudden pause in play?

That will depend on the situation. If as the GM you feel that pacing is what needs to be the top priority at that moment, go with your gut and sort it out later.

Sorting it out later

Depending on the game system that you are in, a technique to reverse a quick decision that you made that later looks to become a problem is to (after the session or during a break)

  1. Bring up the decision
  2. Explain why it was a poor one,
  3. Explain "how it works in the future."

    Discuss with the players as needed, since the level of GM authority (between absolute to not much) varies enough among systems to make an absolute recommendation unrealistic. Getting their buy in will be helpful in the long run.


1Immersion: that elusive quality of an RPG
@KyleDoyle points out (rightly, IME) that "immersion" is not something that every player values highly as another will. While an immersive atmosphere can be a great part of an RPG session, particularly in serious dramatic moments, some players are more concerned with other elements of RPG play. Tastes differ by individual and by group in this regard.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I might also add that "immersion" is not something that every player values highly. While an immersive atmosphere can be nice, particularly in serious dramatic moments, there are plenty of players who are more concerned with all the other elements that go into an RPG. \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle Doyle May 3 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KyleDoyle Thank you, and folded in your suggestion. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 3 at 15:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KyleDoyle some of my players very much value Consistency (gained from taking a moment to think about things) over Immersion (not stopping the action). We try to keep Immersed, but would rather take a short (a few seconds to a few minutes) break than force GM and/or players to come up with a "knee-jerk" reaction that may not be appropriate. \$\endgroup\$ – Black Spike May 3 at 16:00
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No, I wouldn't say so at all.

Speaking from a player's perspective, whenever the GM has to take a moment to think it's not too jarring at all.

These things happen!

Players recognise that it's not possible for a GM to have considered and prepared for every and all possibility - even incredibly experienced ones!

If anything it could be compared to a cliffhanger on a TV show - on edge wondering what will happen next?!

Also speaking from a player's perspective, they might even start speculating about that too each other - which depending on you and the situation and the speculations, could even be helpful!

Of course: The exception to this is if you're rude or disparage the players for throwing you for a loop.

As long as you're courteous about it and needing a moment, then it should be fine.

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No, it's not a problem

You can't always be prepared for what your players are going to do. That's part of the fun of RPGs.

In fact, if the time is towards the end of the session anyways, don't be afraid to end it early. I've been in and run many a game where the DM said, "Well, I didn't expect you to do that. So we're going to call it here for the night so I can figure out how this affects things." Doing this is often much better than painting yourself into a corner with a poorly thought-out response.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One problem with this approach might be that it'll provide a disincentive to creative thinking that isn't covered by the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – MrHiTech May 3 at 16:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MrHiTech My experience is it gives the GM time to come up with more creative responses. I'm not saying cancel the game 2 minutes in if anything unexpected happens. But if its within a half hour or so of the usual ending time, and the players took a completely unexpected route, there's nothing wrong with ending it early so the GM think about how their actions affect the game world. \$\endgroup\$ – GrandmasterB May 3 at 16:53
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If it is bad form, that's just too bad.

I do this all the time. Literally, I will often say, "Well, that's something I hadn't planned for. Give me a minute to think this through."

Never had a complaint about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I often combine my need for a "thinking break" with a "comfort break" (i.e. going to the bathroom!). I can take a minute or few to sit and think on what happens next! :D \$\endgroup\$ – Black Spike May 3 at 16:01
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It should be fine, unless your game is particularly fast-paced or reliant on keeping the conversation moving.

Players at your table probably already hold up the action for a minute or five every time their turn comes up. It's normal. The GM/DM/ST doing the same to think through the consequences and possibilities of something they hadn't planned for increases the "liveliness" of the setting by having the world respond to the players, verismilitude by making "retcons" less necessary because you don't have to undo hastily made decisions, and gives players a moment where they get to bask in the glow of having "stumped" the GM. It's fine.

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It's not a problem, but you can hide it if it matters to you

In general this isn't an issue. If the players have an issue with you taking a moment to figure things out, they likely don't understand how hard the job of DM can be sometimes. It's something every DM has done at some point and you shouldn't be concerned about doing it unless it is happening multiple times a session.

If it happens a lot

If you find that you need to do this fairly often, more than once or twice a session then you may have an issue. I say may and this certainly isn't a hard and fast rule, however if you find that it happens more often than you like you may need to change your DM style. It's a good idea to work out why this happens. Either you are not preparing enough and regularly have to figure out what happens next. Or you are preparing too much and aren't ready for when things go off book.

If it is because a lack of preparation, you can either prepare more content ahead of time or improve your improvisation skills. There are a bunch of questions on this site that deal with both.

If you are pausing because you have prepared too much and the players went off script. You may want to change the way you prepare to be more flexible. Working on your improvisation skills will also help here.

How to hide it

Occasionally a pause at particularly intense moments can break the immersion. But you also need time to think to avoid a mistake. In these cases I like to cut away on a cliff-hanger and get the players to have a conversation between themselves to give me time to think.

If they entire party isn't heavily involved in a particular moment you can ask one of the non-involved players what their character is doing in this instant. Or you can ask a player to describe the last time they felt this scared/excited/etc. It can be a good character development moment without breaking the immersion. The goal is to get the players to drive the conversation for a minute or two while you think of what to do next.

Alternatively if that isn't appropriate in the moment or doesn't suit your style of game, you can launch into a descriptive monologue. Spend a minute or two describing the scene in intricate detail. While you are giving the meaningless descriptions your subconscious will be working on how to proceed with the story. Often I find that once I've finished describing the scene I have figured out a solution without really thinking.

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Short answer:

If it's important to plot development take the time you need. If it's not important to plot development take it as an opportunity to throw caution to the wind and witness the fun that ensues.

Taking the time you need

Sometimes the game takes an unexpected turn and even the GM needs a moment to gather themselves. If you feel you need a moment to gather your thoughts so you can determine what should happen, take the time you need to ensure your making the right decisions.

In similar situations I've said to the players, "ok, that was amazing and totally unexpected. I need a sec to figure out what just happened." The more you GM the less you'll find yourself doing this. As a player, I've always felt when GMs do this we the players did something clever and and as a GM I make sure to let the players know that they did something clever.

But it depends on the play style

If you're GMing a long narrative campaign that relies on many characters, intertwining story threads and intricate details (which I do almost exclusively), it makes sense to ensure the narrative is aligning properly with the overall story arch.

In a hack-n-slash campaign, or in a hack-n-slash component of a more intricate campaign, it could be a lot more fun to go with your first inclination and just roll with it. I play with a GM who often runs hack-n-slash campaigns and half the fun is the fast paced nonstop thrill of one thing happening after the next. In this kind of campaign a pause could definitely break the momentum of the game.

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