Bad Things

They say bad things happen in threes

I’m currently sitting on a floor in a basement apartment where the oil tank has ruptured… it’s on the other side of the wall from where I sleep. So there’s a wonderful oil smell, a lack of heat, a hole will be cut into my wall tomorrow and there’s a blizzard heading towards the North East. I think that should cover my three for now.

But all those wonderfully annoying things have gotten me to thinking about how we treat inevitable bad things in tabletop role playing games. Do you as a GM leave everything open ended and hope they get kidnapped? Do you railroad them into it? Do you say screw it, give them no chance, read a bit of fluff text, and tell them they wake up in a cell?


Giving you absolutely no choice in the matter.Its happened to me more than enough as a player… we’re going about our business, doing every single thing the GM did not account for when he/she wrote up the encounter, and the clock is ticking. We were supposed to have left and broken into some random blaggard’s home at least an hour ago by the GM’s reckoning but for some reason the mage is literally going through every book on the shelf asking for a title and synopsis, the fighter is breaking off chair and table legs to determine whether the oak or the cedar make a better improvised weapon, and somehow the halfling thief in the group has set the kitchen on fire in game and in real life at the same time.

This is the moment when the GM throws the most obvious hint at us that they can think up. And we’ve taken it… for about 3 seconds but no we’re outside the house and harassing vendors in the city street instead. So the GM throws some minions at us that we polish off in no time just so they can tell us who they were sent by, what building they’re in, the complete directions, a key to the front door, and a souvenir towel. We walk down the road and decide to go left toward the pub for a drink instead of going right. Our GM instead throws at us an empty building, lacking chairs, with every barrel of beer destroyed and a dead bartender with a note stabbed to his chest saying we need to go the other way.

Finally we give in after 3 hours of attempting to force the story in our own direction and wind up at the sprawling mansion the GM spent an entire night devising so we can have our big encounter on the dry erase game mat with the perfectly to scale house interior laid out including drawn out carpets, pillars, vases, positions of painting & torches, marks for the windows and doors, and the best isometric spiral staircase I’ve ever seen. Just so we can finish off every minion, elite, boss monster and BBEM in the room in about 15 minutes. [Screw you and your fancy schedule and time table of events :P ]

Railroading can be hard or it can be soft. A gentle nudging here and there can keep certain groups in line and moving forward. Other groups literally need you to take a wiffle ball bat to their heads in order to get things straight. The above actually happen (though I’m probably forgetting some of the worst parts) in a game I had played but I honestly think we had all burned out at that point and rightfully didn’t care where the GM wanted us to go anymore. Suffice to say we were all killed off not long after that and the game ended.

Free Will

Watch as I, the player, destroy all your well laid plans. ::Mwah ha ha::So you have a big encounter planned, want to introduce a new important bad guy, or would love for the table to finally save that kidnapped girl that they learned about in a prior session 4 months ago? Maybe you could force the table to finally get there and make the players complete at least the first part of the story arc that you wrote 3 years ago when the game started that they somehow still haven’t gotten up to. Or you could continue to leave them to their own devices.

Okay, this group of mine was bad at using Free Will to force the GM to play the game we wanted and we took our sweet time with things unless we needed it done for the purposes of hilarity. This was a long running Mage game I had been playing in (And my old GM/Storyteller actually reads this blog so I want you to know I’m not badmouthing you at all here and please don’t take it that way).

More often than not we would find the best ways to take the story in the completely wrong direction and extend things waaaaay too much. We drove things so much that we somehow created completely inane reasons why there wouldn’t be any traffic on the major thoroughfares between the Long Island Pine Barrens and NYC despite us all living in the region, knowing how bad the L.I.E. is, and having all dealt with the horror of bridge toll booth backups in our lives… and we’d be allowed to shoehorn what should have been a day trip of a session into about 2 hours of game world time. In fact, I believe during the 2 and a half years I was playing in this game we only advanced the storyline maybe two week of in-game time.

Once the GM even tried to put us into what was possible the most ingenious clusterf*ck you could imagine. It was an amazing array of we’re all screwed. But instead of choosing to railroad us in, she gave us the freewill to at least “try” to figure out a way out of the inevitable horror. Being a new World of Darkness Mage game, we had a Fate Mage at the table with incredibly high dice pools for some of the strangest things and the ability to make her rolls pretty much never fail. What ensued was a player figuring out a way to completely invalidate the entire session by shunting herself back in time about a week, prepping the area for the ambush during that week, leaving herself a note to explain what happened so her past self would ensure it continued to happen the correct way, and then appeared back in the fight through the doorway behind us immediately after vanishing in order to give us the most absurd edge in the battle. The GM and everyone at the table lost a small bit of sanity in real life thanks to that and the characters had to roll to determine if the ripples in time made them sick or not.

This is why allowing players to go about their business anyway they choose can lead to some amazing headaches. Right? ;)

Determinism, or: Screw You, I’m the GM.

Here’s a favorite of mine but it can really piss off some players. Don’t give them an option.

Now I’m not talking railroading them into a situation… that’s too much choice. I’m saying that sometimes, even if the last session had the players safe in their beds in the most secured castle in all of southern Gamelandia, you just need to put them into the problem immediately and not beat around the bush.

This is very similar to that tactic that gets used in the beginning of the game – You All Meet in an Inn. Did you give them a choice at the start of everything? No. Or you did give them a choice and either got lucky or realize you shouldn’t have.

Have them wake up in the dungeon. Have the session start off like Skyrim’s take on The Hangover. Have them wake up in a jail cell. Have the wake up with {insert important NPC} completely missing. Have them locked in and unable to leave at all until they figure out what’s happening. It’s not Railroading, It’s Final Fantasy 13 (that’s a jab at linearity if that wasn’t immediately apparent). There’s actualy a trope for this one as well – You All Meet In A Cell. Yup, nothing’s original anymore.

How do you handle things?

Those GMs out there that feel like answering, tell us in the comments how you handle things or let us know some horror stories that have come from these options. Players, tell us about some of the best (or worst) examples of these in the comments too. Hopefully we can get some good responses to this one. You can also email us at if you prefer,

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One comment

  1. Don’t worry, no offense taken.

    Now, where was Arrow when we last left off…? That’s right! He was asleep at home in bed next to his ruptured oil tank. He is suddenly woken up by the sound of 15 WereMages breaking through what is left of the wall. Roll for initiative! (After I give them their surprise round, of course.)

    Hope the oil tank gets fixed quickly. (I think you need a Matter Mage!)

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