Welcome to another installment of The Gamemaster, where I take you through the things I’m doing in my Pathfinder campaign. As a writer and a new GM, I’ve been coming at things from a slightly different angle and have been encouraged to put these things down in hopes that they might inspire you in your games.
I’d like to talk today about throwing curve balls to the players.
I can see how easy it is to catch yourself in the pattern of a rut. Benevolent NPC has a job or mission, players take the mission, come back for reward, NPC has new mission. It’s easy, it makes sense, and once they’ve established a relationship with that NPC the natural inclination is to stick with him. But then the game gets competitive. Thankfully, I haven’t fallen into this sort of thing (which isn’t to say I won’t, but I don’t see it likely.) Part of it comes from my knack for saying things without thinking about them, simply because it will make a better story.
For instance, in one of my games, the players are part of a resistance cell in a massive city, working to establish a rebellion in the early days after a coup in the kingdom by a man in league with forces of the Underworld. There’s an alchemist they’ve been dealing with who has set them up on a mission or two and helping them craft their resistance cell. At the end of the last session, as they were coming back to report to him, I blurted something that seemed to be a natural complication to a story. “He’s not there.”
I had no idea why he wasn’t there. I simply said it. When they started asking questions of those who might now, my mind raced quickly to come up with the reason he would have left. “You were gone for so long, he went out after you.”
Has something terrible happened? Is this something for the characters to worry about?
They aren’t sure, because it happened right at the end of the session and gives me a chance to work out if this is something sinister or not. But the instincts of story told me that having them come back and having him just be there, waiting for them, as though time stopped while they were gone, would be bad storytelling. This way is much more interesting and gives me more time to work out what the complications really are.
This goes both ways, too. My players have thrown me curve balls that had my head scratching, but the best I can do is roll with it. At the end of our first session, every single one of them left behind the goal of their mission and an enemy mid-fight to chase another enemy with a map through a portal to parts unknown. Fortunately, it was the last encounter of the game and it gave me a good couple of weeks to figure out what the hell was in the portal, but in either case, I think the game was better because it took natural turns that made the story interesting and satisfied the characters.
So, my advice is this: Don’t be afraid to blurt things you don’t have a plan for as long as you think it would make a better story and a more fun situation for the characters. That’s the great thing about writing and the same is true for roleplaying: you have to put characters through the most horrible things so that we can see what they are made of. How boring would Peter Parker be if his life wasn’t so overly complicated on every level? Every time he came home or found himself coming to rest he would discover that things were far worse than he could have ever imagined.
Try to keep your characters on their toes in the same way. You can’t plan every complication and plot twist, sometimes, they just have to be blurted without much thought.
I think everyone will enjoy the game better that way. And if you throw these curve balls at your players right at the end of the session, it keeps the game percolating in their brain. Like reading a good story and coming to a cliffhanger, they’ll want to keep playing just to see what’s going to happens next. And that’s good for everybody.