Image source: Bugbear Surprise by Akeiron (Deviant Art)
The GM of any game is often painted like this evil mastermind that has control over a character’s entire life. Whether they’re cruel, merciful, destructive, or kooky, GMs have this sort of divine air about them in regards to the gaming community. It’s true, not everybody can take on the job. It demands your attention, your precious time, your creativity. As laborious as it can be, it’s awesome; let’s just get that right out of the way.
However, one thing that I feel players often forget is that the GM is usually just as surprised about what happens on the player end of the game as you are about theirs. I always talk about my main campaign, how it’s been my pride and joy for the past four years and the like. Pulling a lot of inspiration from it for my writing, because this is my big game theory experiment essentially, I’m sure you guys can get sick of reading that sentence. But seriously, it’s taught me so much, and inspired me to write yet another article.
Surprise is a bit of a tricky thing when you’re GMing. Usually, it pops up when you don’t want it to. The players can circumvent a cool encounter you had planned, think of a creative yet mildly annoying way to fix a problem that you propose, or bring an idea to the table that is so damn good that you want to alter your story to fit it. It’s just as likely that these are the good kind of surprise as they are the bad kind. The emotion is a bit of a double edged sword for GMs. We like when it happens because it’s a good feeling (well, for some of us) but it always creates more work, no matter how cool the surprise is. So how do we deal with the unexpected? Just like everything, there’s a couple things to do.
Personally, improvisation is my comfortable space when it comes to GMing. Even if what I make up on the spot changes a detail about the story, it’s better for the player input to reign supreme over my own thoughts. Improvisation can be tricky when you’re a person who works better within the guidelines of a module, but it is a part of being a GM. Nurture that skill, and it will serve you well. Sometimes it’ll shake things up so much that it completely changes whatever your group is doing. It can be really fun to let that happen and see where the chips fall, I do recommend it every once in a while. If you had settled on the fact that the High Druid and Elf Queen are actually two parts of the same entity, but your one of your players hints at the truth of their sibling relation, go with the player input. It’ll shake things up, but you can always adjust accordingly. Unless, of course, the entirety of the story hinges on your interpretation of the relationship. Then it’s even better to let the player think that they’re seeing the relationship for what it is and be surprised later down the road! Making that split decision can sometimes be an improvisational choice, it can be a really fun defining moment.
When improv is the imperfect answer, when the action performed is too big a shake-up to take it in full, it’s okay to say you need five minutes. Giving the group a period of time to step out, grab a coffee or a smoke, go for a walk etc. is a useful tool to have in the box. It’s almost like a reset button, and can quickly suck uninterested players back into the game. Players can be like sharks, perking up at the slightest whiff of blood. You having been caught off guard by another player can be exciting for those kind of people. Let it happen, cultivate that interest. Re-purposing those emotions to spur a useful interaction in-game is incredibly helpful. As much as it’s a reset button for them, it can be for you too. When everyone leaves the room and you gain a second of peace to think the situation through, there’s a chance you’ll emerge on the other side of the situation more collected. Having that clarity of mind is a GM’s deadliest weapon. We don’t like to admit it, but we have some physical tells that spoil some cool surprises for the players. I know I grin like a goof during cool moments because it’s so exciting. Hitting that reset button can help you pull yourself together and execute the situation like a boss.
The last option, though I’m not a huge fan, is over-preparation. I feel like this is the most common knee-jerk reaction to unpredictable players. For some people this one works, where it doesn’t for others. I can see the appeal and use, but it’s definitely not for me. Over-preparation allows the GM to carry a sense of security through the entire session, but can also lull them incredibly far into that feeling. If I operated this way, I would probably panic when something unexpected happens because I have a boatload of source material for reference. There is something to be said for it though: Over-preparation can lead to some of the richest environments ever imagined. There’s something going on everywhere at all times, and if something goes neglected, the written material helps you visualize what happened to that situation without the players’ input.
Each method of dealing with surprise behaves drastically different. Like I say all the time, this diversity of theory makes our hobby incredibly unpredictable. Running the same thing at two different tables makes for two very different experiences. It can be frustrating, fun, and scary all at the same time! If you have any thoughts to fuel this fire, let’s keep it going. Post a comment here, on whatever post you found this on, or Tweet at me. Just like a good game, writing these things is the best when your audience interacts with you.
You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?
Stay Metal! \m/