Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for July 1st, 2014. Today’s article is an Author Anecdote; the topic is GM flexibility.
As a GM, one of the biggest “problems” that you will have to deal with is flexibility. There’s an old GM saying that states, “If you plan it, your PCs will totally ignore it and ruin all of your hard work because they’re all jerks.” The best way to prepare for this inevitable outcome is to not prepare for it at all: instead, learn the game and your world well enough to be flexible.
Today’s author anecdotes are all about flexibility. Today I’m going to share some stories with you about how my players messed up all of my plans and I simply had to throw out my notes and “wing it.” Hope you enjoy my suffering and are inspired to do the same!
Into the Heart of Leng
I ran a kingdom building game a few years back for a mostly-evil party. Very interesting game. The fact that we had five players who were all varying degrees of evil who were effectively running a government says a lot about lawmakers, I think. Anyway, so one day while my PCs are doing their leadership duties a strange, black barge floats into town. Out walk several denizens of Leng, which the sorcerer identifies immediately. The PCs and the denizens talk for some time; the denizens are willing to trade rubies for slaves and the PCs are actually debating about which NPCs in the settlement would be good to sell to the denizens. Of course, the paranoid rogue figures out that the denizens are whispering to themselves about something and a quick tongues extract from the alchemist revealed that the denizens weren’t interested in the villages; they were debating about whether or not it would be worth trying to kidnap the party cleric, who would have made an excellent mule with his Strength of 17.
That was enough to start a fight, of course.
So the party starts battling the team of denizens of Leng. It’s a fairly difficult encounter because it’s four on four and averages out to a CR +3 encounter. So the party buffs and the denizens move in to strike. The rogue goes … and she elects to run for cover and Stealth around behind the denizens of Leng’s ship to sneak inside. The players are all screaming, “What are you doing, rogue?!” but she goes inside anyway and starts poking around the ship while everyone else is in the middle of a big encounter.
So, what do I as the GM do? On one hand, the player isn’t actively participating in the combat, which is a problem. Her exiting through stage left makes the encounter all the more difficult for her allies, but at the same time you want to allow your players to make mistakes like this so they learn why its not a good idea to run away from the group, right?
I decided to give her something to find within the ship. She found the organic, heart-like mass whose pumping moved the somewhat sentient ship. It was gross and it was not pleased about the stowaway, so I flipped through my book, found a creature with the same CR as a denizen of leng (I think I chose some type of ooze) and I had it immediately start attacking her. Boy, was she in trouble! Her sneak attack wasn’t useful against the blob-like heart and she was alone within the ship. One of the denizens of Leng left the battle to inspect the commotion and died upon entering the room, showing the rogue the danger she was in. Instead of fleeing, she stays and fights the giant heart monster and through a lucky string of critical hits, manages to destroy the damn thing just as the PCs finish mopping up the last of the denizens of Leng outside the ship. When the heart died, the rogue learned why the denizens of Leng were so eager to trade their rubies: their ship created naturally and used the gemstones like blood. The PCs got an awesome chunk of treasure out of it (I think I gave them a few BP for their trouble) and the rogue got to feel awesome. So much for me curbing that behavior, though!
Crouching Dragon, Leaping Rogue
“Rogues who make my life miserable” is going to end up as a common theme in this article. (Not really, this is my last rogue-based story.) In the same campaign that I listed above, the PCs discovered a forest dragon that was defending a hex that they sought to claim for their kingdom. The PCs had brutally murdered his greater cyclops servant and were now coming for him. Of course, the dragon is perched up on a cliff high above the range of the melee-oriented party and their group gunslinger. The sorcerer and cleric cast some buffs as the sits around waiting; the dragon is beyond his firearm’s fifth range increment, so he can’t shoot at it. The rogue, being herself, decides that instead of waiting for the dragon to descend and engage the party in melee, she was going to climb up the cliff.
I cannot tell you how hard the party facepalmed at this poor rogue.
That is, until the dragon swooped down and unleashed its devastating breath weapon upon everyone who had stood there nice and perfectly arranged in a row. The rogue was spared from the dragon’s fury while everyone else took oodles of slashing and piercing damage. Huzzah! The rogue is victorious! Right?
Wrong. The rogue does something that I would have never in a million years predict. On her next turn, as the dragon is flying around using his hit and run tactics on the melee party and their gunslinger, the rogue leaps off of the cliff and tries to jump on the dragon’s back. It sounds pretty cool, I guess. Of course, she rolls a natural 1 on her Acrobatics check.
So, what do I do? A natural 1 on this check is pretty bad: she shouldn’t get off easy. But a fall from this height could kill her, and the party is doing terribly thus far. This combat was designed to be a hard CR +4 encounter, but it is clear that it is probably going to decimate the party.
So, I do the only humane thing: the rogue’s skill check fails miserably, so she doesn’t get what she wants. Instead of hitting his back, she latches onto the dragon’s tail. The dragon proceeds to whip is tail away; she slips and flies through the air. She’s 50 feet up so I have her make an Acrobatics check to reduce the damage. She succeeds and covers about half of her total (2d6 of 5d6) into nonlethal damage. She rolls something like a 34 on her second Acrobatics check (its one of her best skills), so I have her thrown about 150 feet away from the party. The rest of the party took the hint and bolted for it away from the dragon. Ultimately, the PCs got a solid beating but no one died from it. From there on out, the PCs started building up their supplies and resources to take care of the dragon.
The Tragedy at Westmark
This was my most recent “impromptu” moment, though it happened about half a year ago. My players had travelled to a city called Westmark with an ally in search of a Harrow Deck of Many Things. When the PCs got to Westmark, they found that the entire city was on shutdown for various reasons. The PCs sought the help of the a college located outside of the city’s walls, but it was little help to the PCs because he was overcome by grief: his wife had been kidnapped by goblin ‘blues,’ a fact that the PCs had learned prior at a banquet they had attended with him a week earlier. The PCs decide that the only way to get the headmaster’s help is to learn what happened to his wife (and it certainly helps that he begged them to find out for him!).
So the players find the goblin layer and fight through wave after wave of goblin. They battle the final “boss,” a massive fire-breathing hydra, and they defeat it. Around the final chamber, the “cooking chamber” are a number of emaciated people that are near death. The PCs grab who they can (about six people) and help them back to the college. The headmaster’s wife is fine, but the party cleric is equally concerned about everyone so she spends a few days working with the college’s doctors in order to help get as many people as possible back on their feet.
Now, I had brief backstories for all six of the “survivors” if they were saved. Two of them were star-crossed lovers who ran away from the city in order to be together. It was a throw-away reason for them to have gotten caught in by the goblins, but let me tell you that the cleric LOVED them and their story. Originally, the NPCs were going to just fade away, but it was clear that at least two of the PCs were invested in these characters that I had barely introduced or had done any real writing for. What to do?
Naturally, this was the perfect sort of moment to get my players invested in the game. I went back and tied both lovers and their plight to the reason why Westmark’s gates wer closed: one was the son of one of the city’s leaders, who had cast the winning vote on the city council to bar the walls shut in hopes that he would find his runaway son within the city walls. With the son in tow, the PCs had discovered their own way to get the gates of the city open, which was where I had wanted them to be anyway, and now they had felt like they had accomplished something great because they had opened the gates in a non-linear fashion. It didn’t feel like they needed to do the headmaster’s quest to get inside, rather they had done what he asked and felt rewarded for going above and beyond his call of duty.
And that’s all the anecdotes I have time for today. What did you think of this article? Care to share any stories you have of a time that you were flexible for your PCs? How did that flexibility turn out for you? What other sort of stories would you like to hear from me? Leave your answers, comments, and questions below and I’ll just sit back and look forward to the next time that I can to chat with you on the next Gibbering Mouth article. Stay tuned!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune honorguard, and his favorite thing to do is to ‘flip the table’ on all his hard work and wing his campaigns! … yeah, you got me. That’s a big fat lie. It usually feels pretty lame. That is, until all of your PCs are grinning like fools at you for feeling as though they contributed heavily to the story being told!