All storytellers come across problems in their work, but roleplaying has the extra wrinkle of happening in real time and dealing with real people. Players don’t always do what you expect, schedules don’t always line up, and sometimes you’re faced with a nightmare scenario. But you cannot shirk, for you are the game master! The social contract puts the responsibility for solving these problems on your shoulders; that’s what you signed up for. Most GMs will face these six situations.
1. Unexpected Absence
No matter how much they love your campaign,* players have their own lives, and those lives will sometimes get in the way of game night. This is fine if they warn you about it in advance, but sometimes that’s not possible. An hour before start time, you get the call that someone can’t make it because their dog is graduating or what have you. If that player doesn’t feature heavily in your session plans this week, then no big deal. But what if the session was all about them?
Your plan for tonight is to have Benna the Wise lead a revolution in the Mage Conclave, but Benna’s player is the one who can’t make it. Uh oh. Canceling the session is always an option, but it should be a last resort. For one thing, canceling the game means you don’t get to roleplay that evening, and that’s lame! Plus, the more often you cancel a session, the more likely your campaign will start to lose momentum. You want to keep that to an absolute minimum.
Instead, examine your notes and see if there are any side issues your remaining PCs can address. These can serve as buildup for when the missing player returns. If you ever made any offhand comments about the current storyline, now is the time to explore them. While Benna is off gathering support, the rest of the party might have to deal with agents of the King. A few sessions back, you mentioned that His Majesty had a vested interest in who ran the Mage Conclave, and now he’s sending his agents to interfere.
If you don’t have such a plot thread handy, you can make one up and treat it as a reveal you were planning all along. If you’ve got a decent stable of NPCs, it shouldn’t be hard to make one of them invested in the current state of affairs. The Party didn’t know that the High Priest of Thaleron had an interest in mage politics, but what are they going to do now that they’ve found out?
If you’re really ambitious, you can have your original scenario go ahead without the missing player. Concoct a reason for the PC’s absence, then imagine what happens next. With Benna’s sudden abduction, Sulus the Bright takes control of the revolution. Sulus is, of course, Benna’s arch nemesis. Now the remaining PCs have to deal with a revolution they might support, but that’s headed by one of their enemies.
This tactic should always be used to build anticipation for the missing player’s triumphant return, never to make them unnecessary. You can have all kinds of fun when Benna shows up next week to find her fellow party members supporting her sworn enemy.
This kind of jury-rigged session will likely be shorter than normal, because you had less time to create content. That’s fine so long as you have some kind of session to maintain the campaign’s continuity. Play a board game for the rest of the night.
2. Unwanted PVP
PVP is a lot like romance. It can be a blast, but it absolutely has to be consensual. Most of us know that, but sometimes things can go wrong. You can be peacefully minding your GM business, preparing elaborate death traps and such, when suddenly one PC is drawing steel on another. It could be over a piece of loot or a major plot point. One player thought they should have the Sword of Plus Five Infighting, while another wanted to establish an autonomous collective instead of putting the king back in charge.* It’s even possible that one of your players just had a bad day and is taking it out at the table.
Regardless, you’ve got to resolve the situation, or it’ll be hurt feelings and bad memories all round. First thing is to figure out what each player involved wants. Not what they’re doing, but what they hope to get out of it. Once you’ve got that, it’s time to see if everyone can come away with what they want. It’s possible that the belligerent player has a legitimate grievance, even if they’re expressing it in a bad way. Perhaps they really have been passed over for loot, and they’d like their fair share. If that’s the case, the rest of the party might be amenable to donating some gold so the aggrieved player can pick up a new piece of gear next time they visit town.
If the difference is over a plot point, it’s a bit more complicated. Story results don’t have exact gold piece numbers or game mechanics to judge how valuable they are. If you’re good at your job as GM,* players can get really passionate about which way the plot goes. This is when it’s time to talk things out. Every player should have input on the story and a way to express it without trying to kill their fellows. Find out what the disputing players want from the story, and see if there’s a way to accommodate both of them. Would they be satisfied with an elected council being set up to advise the king, for example? If the two points of view are truly irreconcilable, then make an executive decision and promise the aggrieved player more input on the next story event.* If they’re at all reasonable, they’ll agree.
It’s even possible that once everyone’s cards are on the table, the players involved might decide that an opposed dice roll is a good way to resolve the issue. Generally, they’ll both want to use abilities that their characters are good at, and they’ll want to seem like badasses doing it. This is great, but make sure both players can still have fun with a losing result.
The worst case scenario is when one player is just acting like a jerk. Something has put them in a bad mood,* and they’re letting off steam by ruining someone else’s fun. In this case, it’s your job to intervene. The social contract gives you great power, and with it comes great responsibility. You don’t need to be aggressive, but you do need to be firm. No bullying in your game. If the belligerent player refuses to back down, pause the game until things have a chance to cool off.
3. Sudden NPC Death
Without NPCs, most plots would be impossible. They’re your most versatile storytelling tools, and sometimes you end up with NPCs that the campaign cannot do without. In an ideal world, these loadbearing NPCs would never die before the plot demanded it, but roleplaying games rarely work that way. Sometimes you get careless, or the PCs are super determined to eliminate a villain you planned to use later. You might not realize how important an NPC is until they’re gone. Villains are the obvious example, but it can happen with critical mentor, ally, or foil characters as well. Lord of the Rings would have some serious problems if Gandalf was killed by Saruman in the first book.
So what do you do when Olbate the Terrible, Warlord of the mountain kingdoms, takes an unexpected arrow to the throat? He was supposed to be your campaign’s main villain, rallying an alliance of powerful armies and marching down into the unprepared lowlands. The first option is to deploy an emergency backup NPC. Did Olbate have a spouse, a sibling, or a really good friend? Someone solidly connected to him who might be able to step in? An especially clever GM may have already set up such a connection in advance, but for us mere mortals, even an offhand comment will suffice.
Give the replacement NPC something that easily distinguishes them from their predecessor. This can be as simple as contrasting mannerisms. If Olbate was cool and reserved, his widow should be loud and boisterous. This will feel less artificial, even if the widow is following the exact same plan. Oh, and she can have a personal grudge against the PCs, which’ll be great fun!
This method is a bit trickier for friendly NPCs. Players can easily accept a replacement villain as someone they have to fight, but it will be very strange if a long time mentor is suddenly replaced by their sister. When a friendly NPC unexpectedly buys the farm, it can be better to play out how the PCs feel about the loss than to attempt a replacement. If the relationship was especially close, maybe it’s time for some Battlestar Galactica-style hallucinations of the deceased.
Alternatively, don’t replace a fallen NPC at all. Instead use their death to take the plot in an unexpected direction. Olbate’s story may be unsalvageable, but without him there’s nothing to keep the Northern Empire from expanding south over the mountains. The PCs think they’ve triumphed by killing the villain two sessions in, but just wait until they see what they’ve unleashed. To do this, you’ll need a really good grip on what’s going on in your world. It’s difficult but rewarding if you can pull it off.
4. Sudden PC Death
PCs are similar to NPCs, except they’re more ornery, and you keep having to roll damage against them. Is it really your fault they die so often? We’ve talked before about what a bad idea random PC death is, but sometimes it just happens. You might have a player who won’t stop pushing the limit until they face serious consequences. You might run out of reasons why the ogre’s third critical hit in a row doesn’t crush a PC dead. You might even have a player who insists you kill their character when the dice say to. Stranger things have happened.
When a PC dies unexpectedly, it creates a whole host of problems. All the plot threads you weaved for them are left hanging. The player will be discouraged if they liked their character at all. And now you have to figure out how to insert a replacement. Fear not, there are solutions.
The first is quite similar to what you would do at the loss of an NPC. If the character had any serious connections, they can serve as a good replacement. This works especially well if the connection was an ally or mentor the deceased character paid points for. If the character represented any kind of larger group, be it clan or corporation, they can be another source for the replacement. The CEO of Player Characters Incorporated would almost certainly dispatch a replacement agent to see that all the company’s commitments were met.
This replacement character can take up some of their predecessor’s responsibilities and story lines. Not all of them,* but enough so that they can be integrated into the story. Depending on how the original PC died, you can also have fun avenging them/bringing their killer to justice.
However, sometimes there’s just no credible way to bring in a connection to replace the dead PC. Perhaps you’re playing Hunter, where everyone the character knew is a normal civilian. Or maybe the player never established any such connections. Either way, slotting in their sibling or best friend won’t work. Is all hope lost? Of course not! Your other option is to tie the new character directly into whatever the next bit of plot is.
Let’s say* your elf monk gets fireballed to death while the party’s going to visit a drow city. If you offer the grieving player a chance to play a major figure in drow politics, it gives them an immediate role in the next story arc. They don’t risk being sidelined by characters who have been in the group longer. It also gives the player something new to get excited about, rather than just being sad their last character is dead.
5. Extreme Player Tangent
Small tangents are expected in any roleplaying campaign. This side effect of players having free will normally isn’t a problem. PCs will go off exploring something you didn’t plan for, and you either let them continue until they’re bored or gently guide them back to the main plot. Sometimes, however, a tangent will go too far. You may have set up a raid on Evil Megacorp headquarters, full of traps and the like, only to have your players realize they could just get the information they need from an executive they rescued two sessions ago. Or they might not find the well fortified corporate tower interesting and decide to take down a den of human traffickers instead.
Suddenly, all the content you’ve generated is useless. Short of obvious railroading, you can’t force PCs to go on an adventure. In this case, recycling is your friend. You don’t need to invent entirely new stats; just flavor them as something else. Your players won’t notice when you use those corporate security drone stats to represent a trafficker’s hired muscle.
This trick works for more than just stats, believe it or not. If you’ve got a bit of time to plan,* go over your prepared NPCs, scenes, dialogue, and other narrative tools. In most cases, it won’t take long to retool them for whatever the players are doing now. In our example, let’s say your plan was for the PCs to uncover a trove of top secret company documents. This information would lead the PCs to an entire network of corporate skullduggery, keeping them busy for the next three or four sessions.
With a few quick keystrokes, you can change that story to fit the players’ new direction. Instead of documents, some of the people they rescue from the traffickers’ lair tell them of similar operations happening all over the city/world/hell dimension. So long as your new story hits similar beats to the old one, the precise details don’t matter very much.
A riskier option, one that requires very active players, is to hand over control completely. Don’t plan anything; just react as the players go on a self-motivated quest. You have to know your world really well and be good at thinking on your feet, but sliding out of the driver’s seat for a session or two can be fun.
If the worst should happen, and the players go on a tangent with no direction and no potential story value, then you’ve got to break out a Running Man. If your PCs are milling around not doing much of anything, have an NPC suddenly run away from them. They will almost certainly give chase. This method has been tested on multiple groups under controlled conditions by the Mythcreants team, and it has yet to fail. While your PCs are chasing the runner, you can subtly lead them back into the story.
6. Plot Failure
Sometimes you’re half a dozen sessions into a campaign when you realize some important part of the story doesn’t work. Two plotlines can’t be reconciled, or your premise is based on a fallacy you didn’t see until now. The main villain’s motivation makes no sense when you stop to think about it. An author would go back and make revisions until the story worked,* but short of some timey-wimey shenanigans, GMs don’t have that option. A big chunk of your story has already been told; you can’t go back and edit it.
Let’s say you have a story about powerful spirits influencing human politics for some mysterious end to be revealed in the final session. You’ve also been foreshadowing that a solar eclipse will be a game changer in the final session because of how it affects human magic users.* Problem: you realize the spirits have no established reason to care about the solar eclipse, and soon your players will realize it too. We’d all like to think this won’t happen to us, but it will, so what can you do about it?
Your first option is to wallpaper the whole thing over and hope the players don’t notice. Pretend there’s no contradiction. Get through any scenes involving the spirits and the eclipse as quickly as possible. A healthy dose of handwavium is also your friend here. If your players ask about the discrepancy, wave your hands and say something about how spirits work in mysterious ways, then get on to a distracting action scene ASAP. This advice may sound cynical, but when a problem like this pops up super late in the campaign, it can be the only option you have.
There is a better way, but it requires more work. Possibly a lot more work. Instead of hoping no one notices the plot hole, you can use it to take the story in a new direction. Reveal the inconsistency to your players, and then challenge them to find out what it means. Yes, the spirits don’t care about the solar eclipse, so why are they so concerned with the day it happens? Of course, you’ll need an answer for them, which needs to work with everything else you’ve established. If this happens near the conclusion of a campaign, think about adding a session or two at the end so you can give it the attention it deserves.
Anyone serious about being a game master is certain to run into each of the problems on this list sooner or later. They’re hard to deal with because everything about GMing is hard. It’s a storytelling art form, different from prose work, but no less difficult. If you want to be good at it, you’ve got to put in the work. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.