GM Tips: Dealing with the Unexpected from Your Players

Anyone who has been GMing for any length of time understands how difficult it can be to predict the actions of your players.

This is a problem in campaigns that take place in vast complicated worlds where the options before the PCs is nearly limitless. Of course, “problem” might not be the right word. It is, rather, a feature that must be accounted for. Typically, players don’t like games where they are compelled by the GM on a particular course of action regardless of how they feel.

That’s not a good way to GM.

The Problem of Free Will

The PCs can go north, south, east, or west. They can go investigate the ruined citadel or explore the deadly dessert of the East. That broad scope of options creates problems for the GM.

How do you prepare an adventure when you don’t know what the players will do?

The Floating Encounter

One solution, that I mentioned previously, is the idea of the “Floating Encounter.” Basically, the idea is to create an adventure that you can just drop in anywhere on the map and go from there. Is the ruined tower on the north road? Or in the heart of the forest? For your purposes, it lies in whatever direction the PCs decide to take.

But there are issues besides simply getting players enmeshed in the adventure you want. There are the surprise instances of PC ingenuity. As well as the reverse: instances of PC stupidity. How do you react?

Dealing with PC Ingenuity and Creativity

Consider this example drawn from my own experience. In this situation, I was not the GM, but a player. And I think I had a particularly good idea in a particularly difficult situation. I was playing a low-level cleric. Our party of, like, four 2nd level characters engaged a group of Sahuagin who were attacking a boat captain (our ride off an island we were exploring). The boat captain was pretty formidable – probably a couple levels higher than any of us PCs.

Anyway, we heard the sounds of the battle when the Sahuagin engaged the boat captain and we rushed to help him. We arrived on the scene just as the boat captain fell down unconscious/dead/whatever. Before falling, he had taken out two of the five Sahuagin leaving us with three to deal with.

So, we engaged the Sahuagin.

The Battle Begins

We were pretty evenly matched, but then I had a spark of genius, if I do say so myself 😊 . In the midst of the combat, I cast Healing Word (a long distance healing spell), not on any of the party members, but on the boat captain. He’d only been down one round, so, he was technically unconscious – not dead. The spell brought him up to like 9 hps.

I reasoned that, the captain was pretty formidable as he had held his own against five Sahuagin and managed to take down two in the battle. I figured, even if he just held back and attacked from a distance with his crossbow, he could really turn the tide of the battle.

A PC Action Thwarted

Unfortunately, the GM had different ideas. The boat captain stayed out of the battle entirely. Although I saved his life and preserved our ride off the island, we didn’t gain any tactical advantage against the Sahuagin.

I kind of suspect that the boat captain’s assistance would have turned a difficult encounter into a really easy one. And the GM did not want that. He wanted the encounter to be a little more hair-raising and difficult. In the end, we won the battle anyway. But I think this encounter illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

The GM’s Options Analyzed

Of course, every GM is different and each one has his own preferences, but I think it would have been better to let the partially healed boat captain engage the Sahuagin and turn the difficult encounter into a simple one.

This would have rewarded the party (and me) for a clever tactical move that really changed the scales of balance in the battle.

In other words, I think it best for GMs to let the party reap the rewards of their ingenuity.

Of course, the reverse of this, reaping the results of their stupidity … not so much.

Dealing with PC Stupidity and/or Bad Luck

Well, there may be situations where the party does something so colossally stupid that the GM should stay out it and just let the dice fall where they may. Having said that, though, there is a difference between suffering an ill effect from a bad decision and letting the whole party get wiped out.  

A character that suffers a permanent loss of a few hit points or stat points might learn a lesson from the encounter, but if everyone’s dead, no one enjoys the game. And enjoying the game is the ultimate goal, is it not?  

The Benevolent GM Intervention

For myself, I have GMed games where I’ve manipulated a few die rolls here and there – all unbeknownst to the players. I remember, years ago, a PC was hit by a crawling claw for double damage. She was already wounded and near death. And the claw rolled maximum damage.

This was back in 2nd edition when you went unconscious at 0 hps and died at -10 or something like that. The claw rolled an 8 for damage, I think. It would have killed the character outright. So, I just pretended the 8 was already doubled. The PC was knocked unconscious, but she survived.


To sum up, I would say that the GM’s relationship with the players should be neutral leaning toward helpful. He/she shouldn’t be too adversarial and “out to get” the players. Nor should he/she be so altruistic toward the players that nothing is a challenge. And being perfectly neutral isn’t ideal either. He/she must strike the right balance. And let the good surprises from the players play out. Bad surprises … well, those you might have to mitigate.         

Published by atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

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