You’ve done it!!
You’ve spent hours, days, weeks even, preparing for your campaign. You’ve created an intricate story to seduce your players with the promise of adventure. You’ve developed lively towns and masterfully-written NPCs with motivations and objectives of their own. Every clue, hook, and plotline is detailed in your notes. You’re ready, from the igniting of the first quest through to that climactic battle with the most evil of villains.
Finally, you begin your game. The party has gathered around you, faces shining with excitement and anticipation for the tale you have toiled over for so long…
…and they do something completely different.
This is probably the most common issue that every DM will face at some point…especially when you are running a game for kids! Is it frustrating? Sure. Disheartening? It can be. Is it the end of the world? Have you failed as a DM? Is it time to hand in your dice and screen to the almighty RPG gods?
Of course it isn’t. Don’t be so dramatic.
So what do you do in this situation? How do you balance your players’ need for agency and creative space with plot progression? You roll with it. You adapt. You stop holding onto the framework so tightly and embrace the change.
Before you dismiss this notion as some silly hippie philosophy, (I happen to consider myself fairly crunchy, so take it as you will) let me explain what I mean…
D&D is a collaborative game.
Dungeons and Dragons is an adventure…a story that you facilitate but weave together with your players. That’s the whole point! Sure, you could be the strict, railroad-style of DM, who permits little deviation from your carefully structured plans…but where’s the fun in that?
If you want a captive audience to listen to your story in silence, gasping and applauding when appropriate, then perhaps you should find a different game. Or write a book! Writing a story is a perfect way to tell the story you want to tell, with minimal audience participation. D&D is not. Your players have a say. They don’t always go along with your plans, but let them surprise you with the creative shenanigans they come up with.
It’s your world…build upon it!
It’s no secret that a fair amount of preparation goes into DM-ing. It is my belief that part of that prep includes a study of the world you are going to use…whether it is a setting of your own creation or the product of someone else’s imagination. Have confidence in your ability to create and improvise! I know it can be intimidating, and that hesitation can be hard to overcome for even the most seasoned of DMs, but you know how the world works. Even if you haven’t written it all down, it’s hiding right there (in case you didn’t feel it, I just tapped your forehead).
The world is yours. You gave it life…the places, the people…it’s all there in your mind. Embrace the opportunity to explore it without training wheels and discover something new! There’s something quite liberating about going “off-script”. If your players take the story somewhere you hadn’t planned for…think about the parameters of your world, and make it up! Your players shouldn’t mind. In fact, some of the greatest D&D moments are those that take the game off-script. There’s something so wonderfully taboo about making something up as you go along…as long as you don’t break any significant “rules” of the world (i.e. introducing a technology that shouldn’t exist), you can make sense of in your notes after the session ends. Look at this as an opportunity to engage in some more “active” worldbuilding!
This is also a chance for you to learn more about your players. Their actions can reveal what they’re interested in, how they want their characters to develop…perhaps they will stumble upon something that you have not considered before. Just take a deep breath, have a pencil ready so you can take notes, and go!
You can still guide them back to the plot.
Ultimately, you are the DM. If your players go too far off the tracks, or if they take advantage of your flexibility, there are ways you can “restore balance to the force” without breaking the narrative.
One of my favorite methods is to use the NPCs. If the party begins to stray or take too long at the town market, have an NPC interrupt them and indirectly remind them of the problem at hand. You can also have the players inadvertently overhear a conversation between townsfolk nearby, discussing the latest rumors that should peak the party’s interest.
Random encounters can be used in a similar fashion. One workshop participant lamented their party’s dependence on resting between each battle, even taking multiple “long rests” in a single session. As a group, we discussed the utility of having random encounters interrupt the “rest period” of a party to get them back on track and prevent them from getting too comfortable.
You can also introduce the passage of time. This is a subtle, but effective, way to instill a sense of urgency. Perhaps an opportunity may escape their grasp if they take too long to progress. This concept is rooted in the idea that actions have repercussions.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I will say it at least a thousand times more: the actions of the players should impact the world with which they interact. If those actions lead them away from the story, you don’t need to break the narrative to bring them back! Instead, you can find ways to keep the story interesting, dynamic, and– above all– adaptable. You have all the information you need, whether in your notes or in your mind, to step back and roll with it 🙂