The "Have To Win" Encounters

So last week I did a post about have-to-win fights.  But fights aren’t the only encounters that can succumb to have-to-win lameness.  Every encounter is at risk.
When I was a very new GM, I ran an Arabian Nights game where the PCs were exploring a dungeon and woke up a genie.  My idea was: at first he’d be angry, but then they’d manage to amuse him enough that he’d spare their lives and tell them about a wizard NPC I wanted them to meet.  I realized – too late – that this was assuming a lot.  I can’t remember what the players did, but it didn’t give the genie any realistic reason to help them.  I remember what I did, though – I had the genie tell them about the wizard anyway.  They needed the wizard, and I hadn’t thought of any other ways for them to find out about him, so what was I supposed to do?

I remember the fear that drove the decision, too: the players were missing the boat, and if what was “supposed” to happen didn’t happen, I would have no ideas for what came next and the story would come to a stop.  Even now I’ll sometimes catch myself assuming an outcome:  “Oh no – I never thought about what would happen if they didn’t…”

Good GMing necessitates that we let the players “fail” encounters.  So here is the no-miss tool I use:

When the players goof up an encounter (e.g., when they’re “supposed” to learn some important plot detail, but they’re fooling around instead – or when an NPC is “supposed” to offer them an important quest, but they attack him instead) take a breath.  Let the encounter go.  And as the PCs go on their way, make a mental note of what the encounter was for.

Not what was supposed to happen.  What the encounter was for.  The difference is subtle.  In my genie encounter above, the genie telling them about the wizard was what was supposed to happen.  But the party knowing about the wizard was what the encounter was for.   … and there are lots of other ways the party could come to know about the wizard. 

Once you know this difference, your players don’t have to “win” the encounter.  If they miss the boat, you just come up with another encounter that’s for the same purpose.  In my genie encounter, I should have been confident enough to let the enraged genie attack them.  They could have narrowly escaped and then found something out about the wizard via a book or inscription in the dungeon.  (Or if they had defeated him he could have told them as a peace offering.  Or I could have whipped up some other NPC to tell them.  Or I could have relocated the wizard’s secret lab to this dungeon, and they could have stumbled right into it)  In this scenario, the genie and the book would be for the same purpose – as long as I was willing to let that purpose happen in a different way.

This is just another instance of how there are no failures in RPG.  Every player action just leads to more story!  The only failure is to force the game to stick to your notes in every detail.