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By Nick McCarthy
For those of you who do not know, Pete Tong is Modern day rhyming slang for 'Wrong'. Usually used as 'its all gone horribly Pete Tong!' This article is intended to help you out when the game that you are running for your players suddenly de-rails and there seems to be no way for you to get it back on track. The advice in this piece is taken from the new ptgptb forum, and if you want to see who exactly said what and in which context, then please feel free to go there.
Now I know that as you read this you don't NEED to read about how to keep your game going... None of us ever make a mistake as a GM, we never have a bad day, nor do we ever fail to make a totally riveting plot with more hooks than a hook factory in hook town. I am sure that you are reading this and nodding sagely to yourself and saying 'I do that' and 'I do this' or 'I never have to do THAT!' It's a funny thing to have to admit or acknowledge folks, but even the very best of GMs have their off days. Fortunately if you have a bad day as GM when writing your plot or adjusting a bought scenario for your group, the chances are that you will be on form enough to wing it with style and grace and save your bacon (or at least the game session) by some nifty improv' or the addition of specific knowledge about your group of players and what floats their boat. There will however be the odd time when you don't seem to be able to pull this off, and if you happen to be starting with a new group, then the chances of this happening will have increased dramatically.
First thing is, as always, preparation. Now there have been entire articles of the 'zine devoted to the writing of top-notch scenarios. So I won't go into to much detail about that here. Instead I will concentrate on what to do when you come to the sudden and awful realisation that you are twenty minutes into the game, and it is not working.
However preparation can be important in this as well. Make sure you read your Players character sheets folks. If they have a long list siblings who once swore revenge for the murder of their parents noted down in their character history, then not only should you keep these brothers and sisters in mind when writing a scenario or campaign, keep them in mind for when things are not going well. A few heavy hints, a glimpse of a shadowy figure who looks a bit like the PC and with luck the player (or even the whole group if they know the story) will start to wonder if a family vendetta is in the offing. By incorporating such PC character details, you will immediately engage at least one of the players (assuming they care one iota for their character, and if they don't then you really are in trouble!). With luck the animation and attention to detail of one player will spark the interest of the rest of the group. Even if all they ask is 'why do you care so much' you have them starting to engage with the plot again. It probably isn't the plot you started out with, but at least the session has not been ruined. If your players are not the sorts to make up much of a character history, then you could always try insisting on a least some sort of history. There is no need for war and peace; just a few plot hooks that relate to the character. Surly three or four sentences along the lines of 'I was once attacked by a pod of enraged dolphins" is not too much to ask? Any thing you can do to keep it personal to the character is fine. You should also try to know your players. I know that one of my players can be sucked into any game I care to run by the addition of some Celtic myth. Another loves horror movie references. By knowing these things about the people who play the game, I can get the characters to be more involved as well. I know this is fairly obvious stuff folks, but its one thing to sit here talking or reading about it, it's another to keep this in mind when faced with a bunch of players with blank expressions and expectant hearts.
Whilst on the topic of the players not engaging with the plot, do remember that the players are there to have fun. Just because your group has decided to do a series of Monty Python salutes or a put on their own version of 'Guys and Dolls' for the residents of Tombstone, so long as all the members of the party are taking part and enjoying it then try not to worry too much about them totally ignoring your beautifully crafted and detailed plot about life in the 'real' wild west. By the same token of course, any player reading this should try to remember that the GM is entitled to enjoy the game as well. Players should be prepared to curb their sillier instincts if the GM is not enjoying being a part of the parrot sketch. It's only fair that the players at least try to have a go at the plot. All that said, what it boils down to is when you see that some or all of those involved in the role-playing session are not having fun, its time to for the GM to take action. As we are in the format of a role playing game, it is fairly safe to assume that most folks there have some interest in role-playing, and so your best bet to get everyone back in the groove is to get every one back into the game. We lovingly refer to this as 'Hit them with the plot!'
Now we have already talked about tying your plot into the character background before hand, but for whatever reason this has not worked (perhaps a new PC has been made unexpectedly and the reason for them to accept the scenario has vanished?). So now you have to do something to make them interested in the plot once more. Call of Cthulu excels at this, as it is very easy to have the PCs be affected by the negative consequences of the plot. If the players don't manage to stop the dread ritual from being performed then they, their family and the entire world will die... that is a pretty good reason for the PCs to care about what happens next. The players have been well and truly hit! The same thing can apply in other games as well. If the players do not interfere with the natural plot progression in some way, have the plot rear up and bite them on the arse. This can be a somewhat clichéd idea, but the truth is that it works (or else why would it have become a cliché?). So look at movies and read books, and try to see what the writers have done when the plot seems to be about to collapse under its own weight. Well what do you know? One of the main characters looks exactly like the bad guy! Or the bad guys get the address wrong and kill the PCs next-door neighbour! Maybe they don't get the address wrong and a bad guy with a .45 in each hand kicks the door in. If you want to be a bit less violent, can a party member be blackmailed? If they can, then do so (it doesn't matter if they really did it or not!). Perhaps an anonymous tip off will spark the party into life again - with a bit luck there is no chance the group will find out who tipped them off for at least a session or two, which means you can then try and figure out who it was.
Reverse engineering is another great way to get your gaming session back on the rails. There is no need for the players to know that you don't always know for sure what is going to happen next, or why a certain event just took place. Keep your ears open. The players will often knock around a few ideas of what they think is happening. Now you may be mid game and realise that you have made your plot far too insanely complicated, and the players have no hope whatsoever in solving the mystery, as they just killed the one NPC who could tell them what they needed to know. If one of the players says "hey, I bet this guys has security cameras in his office! We can just look at the tapes from last night" then you may want to go with it. It does not matter that you had said earlier that there were no security cameras in the office; just go with it. Say they are hidden cameras if needs be. Do whatever it takes to get the game back on track. Or if you prefer think about taking the game in a new direction. So what if you were not expecting your players to off the NPC? What happens next according to the internal logic of the game? Most players will let the GM sit and think for a while when you ask them to give you a second. Perhaps you should just go with this new direction and see where it takes you. This may work especially well if you hear the players talking about the likely consequences of the sudden appearance of this dead body in this place at this time. If you are really lucky, some one will ask, "What's the worst that could happen?" and some one else in the party will answer that question... use that worst-case scenario! Again, take what you need and reverse engineer it into a coherent plot between game sessions.
There are yet more ways to rescue a broken scenario, such as sub plots. You can try to have the 'standby'. Have a mini scenario ready (the sort of thing that you can run in a couple of hours) and include whatever information is needed to progress the plot in that scenario. Have the haunted house with a name written in the dust of the windows, or the P.I. working for the wife's half of the family can contact them out of the blue and ask to meet up so you can swap information. What fits your scenario is up to you, but there is always a way for hidden knowledge to come to light in every genre. Whether that is the info cubes of a sci-fi game, or the arcane invisible (until now) writing on a door. Just lower this plot device into the scenario with a large crane as and when needed. It doesn't really matter that the players have never heard of this warehouse before, or this ginger bread house that suddenly appeared next to them. Just so long as it fits into the story at least a little bit, you can talk fast, smile knowingly and then lean back in your chair as though nothing odd is happening. Most players won't even notice, despite the beads of sweat running down your face. The main problem with this is that you must make sure not to use it to often. Remember this linking scenario is supposed to be really easy, and should have 'break glass in case of emergency' written on the front. Only use it when the players are really stuck, don't hand the scenario to them on a plate every session.
You can have the party put aside the characters they normally play, and go play other characters that have the information and the motivations needed to progress the plot. Once again, you can worry about how they get this info to the main characters later. Who says they even should? Perhaps the characters they started the game with are not the best ones to finish it with. So long as every one is having fun, does it really matter? They can be sat in a café wondering what to do next when the news on the radio tells them some one else has completed the job. Then go back in time and run the scenario again - or at least up to the point where it went wrong before - but with different characters this time around. 'Ars Magica' is an entire game that relies on the playing of different characters, and it can add greatly to the sense of realism in any game to have the Players realise that their characters are not super human (even if they ARE super human!), and need some one else to take up the baton after they have dropped it. This is a great opportunity to add depth to a game, and also to get the players to pay a bit more attention to the NPCs that inhabit the world around them. They may order their drinks from fairly unremarkable bartenders without a thought. But if their latest adventure is completed thanks to a NPC bartender that the players take over for a session or two, then they will be forced to consider this and future NPCs as more rounded individuals. That's surly has to be a good thing.
Last and by no means least, if all else fails, or if you just can't be bothered, ask. Tell the players you're a bit stuck, you are not sure how to get things working again, and ask them what they would like to do. They are sure to have some ideas, and may even have a few really good ones. You might even find that the perception of the game as a disaster was all in your mind, and the players have been having a wale of a time... well they might have been! If you feel the game is being ruined for some of the players by the actions and behaviour of others, tell them. Take the offending folks to one side, and let them know that you think they are spoiling the game for someone. Point out that whilst they my find the continual repetition of 'NI!' (As in 'knights who say...') hilariously funny, not every one else does.
This piece has been a product of the gestalt mind of the Internet. Nick McCarthy is only the conduit for this entities knowledge. Any and all mistakes are his and his alone, all the good ideas and workable suggestions are the product of the infallible gestalt of the PTGPTB forum. If you want to dissect the forum and see who exactly said what (or if you just want an insight into how forums have affected my mind... that's an ugly thought!) then go to the forum page and take a look, you could even go crazy and post something if you like :)
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