Changing the “Going Off the Rails” Mindset

Today’s Friday #GMAdvice is all about how to react when the players inevitably “go off the rails.”

If there is a Golden Rule of being a Game Master of a tabletop role playing game it’s “design and facilitate a player-centric story.” Players are the lifeblood of played stories – without them, no matter what level our preparation, the depth, the beauty, the epicness…none of it exists without invested players.

So as GMs we need to reorient our thinking to a mindset where there is no “going off the rails” – there is just players having fun playing a story together. Many GMs see themselves not just as story facilitators but story tellers. And that’s wonderful, never lose that instinct. But where possible, take Bruce Lee’s sage advice: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

Dynamically reacting in real-time to your player’s input tests the skill of a GM at the highest level. There is no greater challenge. It’s one thing to be completely buttoned up and great players play a great story you design. That’s a wonderful experience, don’t get me wrong. But there needs to be a balance between each person at the table’s creativity, imagination, decision-making, and teamwork. In that way, both GMing and playing stories can be seen more like Jazz and basketball than a modern, one-sided Homeric episode.

To me, it’s a sign of maturity of a Game Master to improvise, adapt, and be a part of the players’ creative fire than its suppressant. There are elegant ways to direct the flow back down the path of the broader tale. But take today’s advice to heart: there is no more going off the rails, only opportunities to tackle challenges in incredibly fun, engaging, and creative ways with your friends and family.

Change the mindset!

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