Ever have your players mess up your story by winning when they weren't supposed to? Here's a trick I learned in my pirates campaign, so your game can feel a little less like it's you vs. them.
The principle I got to use this session was: don’t let the party’s decisions interrupt what you have to do in this session.
Now, I’m all about letting players innovate and surprise you by taking you off script. That’s one of the things that makes roleplaying such a wonderful hobby. However, you always want to treat player innovations in a way where you’re not at a loss for what comes next.
So they’re on this mystical island of catgirl priestesses, and theyr’e hunting for a witch who’s waiting to hijack a lunar ceremony – it’s tonight – so she can open up a protal to let Pluto through into our world.
The party’s snooping around the witch’s secret laboratory, she catches them, and the room gets catastrophically blown up in the confrontation that follows (spellbooks and potions being the volatile things that they are). They manage to escape out a back door, down some stairs, and into some catacombs. That’s where I wanted them to go, since it had clues for them to find, fights for them to get into, and was sure to delay them until the last minute before the ceremony.
Well, then they decided they wanted to go back out the way they came in, hoping the fires would be out and the witch would be gone. I didn’t want them to go that way, so when they open the door again there’s nothing but a void – the laboratory was a magical construct and it completely collapsed when the explosions went off. This was basically a Bsy way for me to trap them in the catacombs so they could burst out in the nick of time and take the witch by surprise.
Well, they figured out a way around it.
The Players’ Move: Taking us Off-Script
One of the players has, from a previous adventure, a fire demon incarcerated in his soul. And he had gotten my permission at the time to be able to let it out as a one-time supermove on some future date. Second, they have a bunch of mummified skeletons down in the catacombs beneath them – pretty long skeletons too: they were Ophidians. So like a necromantic MacGyver, this player says, “I summon forth my fire demon, inject him into one of the skeletons, and have him carry us across the void!”
That was so priceless I pretty much had to let him do it. So the party grabs on to this monstrostiy and flies across, all in time to warn the high priestess and avert the witch’s casting.
Well, now I have a problem because I still want them to burst out in the nick of time while the witch is doing her thing. Not only is that cooler than averting the whole thing, it’s what I have notes for.
For that very reason, a lot of Game Masters wouldn’t allow the players to fly across the chasm on a ridiculous demon bone creature. That chasm was supposed to be an impassible plot device! But I took a step back and realized that them being trapped in the catacombs wasn’t the important thing – them getting a nick-of-time, save-the-day ending was. So the question was: how do I bring that about after they escape the catacombs and manage to warn the high priestess?
The GM’s Move: Revising the Script
Easy! The witch’s plans simply accelerate: as the party’s warning the high priestess, hundreds of those skeletons wake up and take the temple by storm. (I was easily able to rule that they were buried all over, and the place the players had seen was only one burial spot). The temple is occupied, and the party and the high priestess are forced into the secret passage – whence they can sneak around a bit and then burst out in the nick of time.
This way the player got to do his cool idea, the group got to feel like they triumphed over an obstacle, but my notes went basically undisturbed. And this shouldn’t be seen as a have to lose kind of conflict, where no matter what the players do I'm still going to bring about the same result. No, players succeeded in a way that forced my plan to be bigger and louder and more over the top – more skeletons, sooner, everywhere! All it did was make the stakes higher. And when players succeed at forcing you to raise the stakes, they’re making the game more exciting.
So that’s my technique for the night: players succeeding over an impassible obstacle doesn’t have to mess you up. Really look at why you had that obstacle in place, and find another way to do that.