March 16, 2020

How to Change Course in Your Tabletop RPG

We’ve all been there worldbuilders: you’ve finished setting up an exciting new arc to your tabletop RPG story and you’ve just hit the players with the last prompt to take the bait to fully dive right in. And that’s when they do pretty much the exact opposite of what you had intended, right? They go off in an unexpected/unintended direction and focus their attention on something else.

Today’s Worldbuilding Monday (#worldbuildingMonday) post is aimed at helping worldbuilders/GMs/DMs both re-frame what “changing course” really means while providing some tools to get the players “back on track.”

What Does Changing Course Really Mean?

The first lesson GMs/DMs need to learn in these types of scenarios is that “changing course” is not a bad thing. Yes, the players aren’t for the moment going down the path you had developed for them. But they are engaging with your story world. And that’s the critical piece here that GMs/DMs often overlook in their initial frustration.

Re-framing this shift in player attention from a bad to a good thing in turn helps improve the GM/DM’s attitude toward the situation. Which, in turn, helps empower them to better improvise what this new path will bring. For those who have played stories for awhile, these scenarios can often bring some of the most joy and laughs in the whole story. So be open to the change! You’re not changing course; you’re taking a detour.

Taking the time to feed into what the players find interesting/engaging about your story world almost always yields great results. Your players will have fun, feel supported, and will come away impressed at your world’s depth – even if it wasn’t planned!

You just need to begin to see these shifts as detours, not dead-ends.

Getting “Back on Track”

All detours do need to come to an end eventually. Your role here as the GM/DM, after investing in this side-track, is to know when to begin to redirect the group’s efforts back to where you had originally intended them to go. There’s no one right answer here but there are numerous milestones you can use to internally trigger yourself to begin that transition:

  1. Each player has had their say/act in the detour
  2. The “laugh” momentum has begun to die-down
  3. A vacuum for what to do next has started to form

As the detour continues, and you’re not being pressed to come up with a slew of things on the spot, begin to internally monitor these three factors. The more you experience these types of scenes, the better feel you’ll get. Ultimately, you’ll be able to get a great feel for when the group has had their fill of the detour they’ve found themselves in.

And at that moment, like an improv comedian, it’s your time to strike: drop a subtle trigger, an incentive to act, on the players. Design this trigger so that, while it obviously captures their attention, more importantly, orients that attention back toward your original intent.

The classic example is you have an epic encounter with a mysterious old man setup in the local tavern. The player characters walk in and, instead of interacting with the old man, start messing around with the goblin waiter. Yes, you’ve got the next section of the story on the tip of your tongue, but you hold on, and have a blast with the players as they make friends with this little goblin.

But as the fun is dying down, and you can tell the players are looking for what’s next, on his way back to the kitchen, you have the goblin accidentally trip over the old man. The players’ attention is diverted back to your original plot thread without having to explicitly force it down anyone’s throats.

It really is the best of both worlds. Think about it, what’s better: the story as you originally intended or a hilarious and fun scene which you didn’t plan which precedes your original plan? Give it a try in your tabletop RPG story!