When the Best Laid Plans Go Awry, You Must be Playing Dungeons and Dragons

The game had been going on for five hours. Poot, the Master Planner, Bus, Biggboy, Thief 1 and 2, Neverwas, Step-up, Baby Momma, Loveless, the Great Big Cat, and the Eternal Virgin had been working their way through a massive cave complex. They had been captured and escaped; hid from a Taint Elemental (Heroes of Horror pg 145); and had walked in on a rather tense series of negotiations between a Lich and a vampire. It was then that the Eternal Virgin did something I had not prepared for: she pulled out her signal whistle and started blowing on the damned thing.

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At a certain point you begin to know your players and how they play their characters. In the Kimber Campaign, where the incident with the Eternal Virgin took place, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on my players after 80 hours of play. I was able to push the right buttons, at the right time, to provide moments that they’re still talking about some five years later. But after all this time I still couldn’t tell you why she did it.

That’s one of the inherent dangers involved in playing the co-operative narrative style of Dungeons and Dragons. There is no set script, so the players can literally do anything that is possible within the frame work of the situation – even to their detriment.

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After thinking about the situation, and others that have occurred in the years since, I started formulating some hypothesizes about why these sort of events happen:

  • It’s an Off Night: Everyone has a bad game, a bad day, and even a bad year. Sometimes these nights result in outlandish behavior, like when the Master Planner got in a fight with a trained boxer – interesting side note, it was a bad idea.
  • The Words May Be the Same, But the Meaning is Completely Different: There are times when I fail at the table in my descriptions. Perhaps I used a word that not everyone is familiar with or I forgot a key piece of information that would change everyone’s actions. Even worse though is when I say one thing and one of the players hears something different.
  • Piss Poor Preparation Always Leads to Failure: While it is rare for me to have a night where I have nothing prepared those nights do occur, and when they happen my players can tell. I fumble with my words and seem lost when I should know right where we are. It’s then that they sense blood in the water and move quickly as they attempt to make a big score before my feet can plant again.
  • I’m Playing with a Bag of Dicks: There are times when the Master Planner, Poot, Step-up, and Kid Icarus get bored. When that happens they will entertain themselves; and it’s then that all my misdeeds in life are called to bear and there’s Hell to pay.

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When it comes to dealing with one of the above situations I’ve found that there are only a few choices available to me:

  • The Fifteen Minute Break: In life and in my game I have found that there are times when we all need a short break. In many cases a fifteen minute break can give me all the time that I need to formulate my action plan. So when things start spiraling beyond my keen I call a time out and allow everyone to stretch their legs. Usually it gives me enough time. 
  • Play Through: There are times when it becomes impossible to break the game (momentum being king and all) and the only thing left to do is just keep going. At these times I tend to react quickly, thinking little of the consequence, only to review the audio of the session and wonder what the fuck I’m going to do next week.
  • The Night’s End: If the situation is far beyond any of our control and is threatening to overtake us all spiraling the campaign down the tubes I will stop the session. This has only happened twice in the ten years that I have been running and both times it was the result of the players going so far along that I completely ran out of places to go and needed a to end the night. 
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Credit where credit is due. I was inspired to write this entry after reading an article over at Gnome Stew. My words are my own as are my thought processes but it would be a disservice to both the reader and myself to pretend that the inspiration came from only within. 

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