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View Full Version : DM Help How do you handle mental blocks?



CombatBunny
2015-10-01, 09:32 AM
I know this might have been addressed many times before, but itís something I still find hard to deal with and I think it is one of the worst case scenarios even for the most experienced GMs.

Many times the players throw at you something completely unexpected and you donít know how to react. The PCs kill an important character; they discover the plot way too quickly; they take the game on a direction far away from what you have planned, etc.

You feel stress quickly growing inside you and you debate between improvising something that could go horribly wrong or saying to your table ďIím stuckĒ.

How do you deal with that? Which techniques do you use to get out of that mental block as quick as possible?

Please help.

Kaveman26
2015-10-01, 09:57 AM
Voice frustration through Npc to fish for player input on what they want next. Maybe they give u an idea of what would work good for you too

Always have a plan b.

Don't take it personally. It's only a game. If they enjoy sabotaging intricate encounters with lateral thinking then so be it.

Seto
2015-10-01, 10:15 AM
The more effort you've put into preparation of the background world, the easier it will be to come up with an organic reaction to unforeseen events.
But if you're panicking or don't want to rush things lest the game goes in an undesirable direction, there's nothing wrong with, as you said, tell your players "I'm stuck : let's take a five or ten minutes break while I come up with something".

Firest Kathon
2015-10-01, 10:22 AM
If I cannot not come up with something very quickly, I would say to my players something along the lines of "Okay, guys, I totally did not expect that. Give me a few minutes to think about it." If it is near the end of the session anyways, end it a bit early and continue next time.

Generally, I would try to get into the minds of the other NPCs - how would they react to the events that just unfolded? The BBEGs second in command - will he abandon the cult, take the chance to become the boss themselves, or maybe use the resources at hand to further their own goal. The city guard - will they celebrate the PCs as heroes, or be horrified by their deeds. And so on. And do not be afraid to retcon something in the next session if you notice that you messes up someones reaction - nobody is perfect after all, and nobody expects you to be :smallbiggrin:.

Need_A_Life
2015-10-01, 11:21 AM
I declare a smoke break - as a smoker, if I'm GMing, that will happen now and again anyway - and go outside, giving me a couple of minutes to think it through. If any other smokers are in the group, they'll probably enthuse about what just happened, grumble about it or whatever, and that will give me more information on how to tackle the issue.

That being said, it doesn't happen to me that much anymore, because I plan plots based on what I call "critical failure points;" points where, if the players take a given action or don't take a particular action, the rest of the story won't work and then brainstorm for each of the (usually three or four) points in a given story arc where things could derail completely and work out some ways to salvage that ahead of time.

The last time I was completely dumb-founded was when a player had his character throw himself off a building, trying to commit suicide because he - for some reason - thought that it was the "secret solution" to the surreal plot they were engaged in.
I told him, that, okay *splat* you succeeded. You're dead now. And when he acted surprise that dying was the result of his attempted suicide, I told him that I would let him take it back, but that it was bull**** (and added that I certainly hoped that he'd act less drastically the next time he found himself confused about a situation).

mephnick
2015-10-01, 11:59 AM
It's one of those situations where you have to spend your prep time on the right things. Way too many people focus on plot instead of the world in general. Once you have a good grasp on your world, you can run the entire game based on common sense. I've had entire campaign arcs sprout up from random combat encounters because my players focused on something I never even thought about. You need to learn to roll with it. Once you get some practice at improv, you'll be able to warp anything into a plot point that supports your plan. Here's a few tips based on your examples.



The PCs kill an important character

Characters can be important, but they must never be essential. If they're that important, don't put them in a position to be killed. If they get killed anyway, continue with the logical fallout. The BBEG despot of a city gets offed during his opening monologue by the players? Have his cronies react. Maybe the city tightens up on terrorists. Maybe the political structure collapses. Maybe the downtrodden rise up and see their opportunity to overthrow the regime, hailing the characters as heroes and looking to them for guidance. This may change your entire campaign...Go With It. It's awesome. Only the players are essential. NPCs are there as tools for the DM and players to use to shape the world. Use them as tools.



they discover the plot way too quickly

Don't prep plots, react to the players. I may start with like..3 plot points in my head about a campaign that may last for years. Everything else is reaction between sessions. Don't worry about the future of the game when something unexpected happens, you can figure that out later. Seriously, don't even think about it, just get to the end of the session. Sometimes this requires a "uhhh..knights arrive and look pissed about what you did!". Players aren't stupid. They know they ****ed your plans up and they love it. Don't be embarrassed by scrambling, it's part of the game. Keep a notebook beside you and jot down everything that happens so you can read it later and shape the future sessions on it. If they figure out the plot, let them resolve it early! You can always add a twist later.



they take the game on a direction far away from what you have planned

This can generally be avoided by discussion during the opening session. If you decide to run a game about holy knights, the players shouldn't feel the need to suddenly become pirates.I mean, they could, and you can easily react next session, but they probably won't. If they suddenly decide "we're taking our holy power and starting a Crusade on the other side of the world!", then go with it. Recycle things you've prepped, re-flavour them, and use them on the other continent. This isn't railroading, it's having a life and limited prep time.

To be fair, I straight up ask my players what their immediate plans are at the end of each session. Trying to separate meta-game and open discussion from the table kills more campaigns than it enhances.

Ninja_Prawn
2015-10-01, 12:45 PM
trying to commit suicide because he - for some reason - thought that it was the "secret solution" to the surreal plot.

This needs to be a motivational poster and/or gif.

"That feel when your puzzles drive PCs to suicide."

Mr.Moron
2015-10-01, 12:49 PM
I just stopped thinking more than about half a session ahead in all but the broadest strokes. Right now in my game players are following a prophecy to get a vaguely defined power to stop the evil dragon invading their home. They've been collecting pieces of the prophecy and hunting giant monsters to gain the materials for the ritual. I have no idea what that power is or what the ritual involves beyond that it will require one or more players to visit the afterlife, and I have no idea what they'll find when they're there or how exactly it relates the whatever the power in the prophecy is.

I'll just work it out as they go along.

Jay R
2015-10-01, 09:19 PM
Wandering monsters. I always have a couple of wandering monsters statted up to attack the players when I don't have anything else to do.

JAL_1138
2015-10-01, 09:53 PM
Wandering monsters. I always have a couple of wandering monsters statted up to attack the players when I don't have anything else to do.

For best worst funniest most WTF and occasionally-lethal results, use the old 1e "roll twice and combine" tables.

Jay R
2015-10-01, 10:11 PM
For best worst funniest most WTF and occasionally-lethal results, use the old 1e "roll twice and combine" tables.

This is only potentially lethal if the PCs are too stupid to realize that "run away" is an option. Playing 1e, I never died to double monsters; I fled. I occasionally died to single monsters that I approached stupidly.

JAL_1138
2015-10-01, 10:18 PM
This is only potentially lethal if the PCs are too stupid to realize that "run away" is an option. Playing 1e, I never died to double monsters; I fled. I occasionally died to single monsters that I approached stupidly.

If they get surprise, and you try to retreat at more than 1/3 your speed (though that may have been a 2e-only rule; I haven't played a lot of 1e stuff with actual 1e rules) then running away can be an extremely bad idea...

(EDIT: explanation: 1e surprise was extremely brutal; missile weapons got their full rate-of-fire, for instance, can't recall if melee attacks got their full #atks/rd. Retreating faster thsn 1/3 your speed, at least in 2e and possibly 1e, gave an enemy its full # of atks/rd. Once you were in melee, it was on.)

Psyren
2015-10-01, 10:36 PM
The PCs kill an important character;

If they're truly critical to the plot, they shouldn't be killable. (At least, not until the appointed time to do so.)
But most folks like this can be replaced fairly easily if you think about it a bit. In the meantime, you can have whatever exposition they were going to deliver come from another source. Diary on their person, scroll of Speak with Dead conveniently nearby, another assassin/bounty hunter drops by who was about to do the same thing the PCs just did, but has more information, etc.


they discover the plot way too quickly;

Just smile knowingly and continue on, even if they think they have it all figured out. This gives you more time to throw a curveball or add another layer later. They spot the killer at the dinner party thanks to his evil moustache? Well yeah, he did it, but was he fully himself at the time? Does he have accomplices? Could that mystery end up being just one piece of a much larger puzzle? Etc.


they take the game on a direction far away from what you have planned, etc.

This can sometimes be the GM's fault - you need to run a genre the players feel like playing. If you're doing a talky social campaign and they keep trying to pick fights, it might be because they want more combat-heavy and you'd need to adjust accordingly (or step down and let someone else run, if you don't feel like GM'ing that.)

Darth Ultron
2015-10-01, 10:55 PM
How do you deal with that? Which techniques do you use to get out of that mental block as quick as possible?

Please help.

Mini Encounters. Something nice and easy to drop in any time. Phase spider thieves work great for example.

It is also a great time or any character side plots to kick in.

Jay R
2015-10-02, 07:25 AM
If they get surprise, and you try to retreat at more than 1/3 your speed (though that may have been a 2e-only rule; I haven't played a lot of 1e stuff with actual 1e rules) then running away can be an extremely bad idea...

(EDIT: explanation: 1e surprise was extremely brutal; missile weapons got their full rate-of-fire, for instance, can't recall if melee attacks got their full #atks/rd. Retreating faster thsn 1/3 your speed, at least in 2e and possibly 1e, gave an enemy its full # of atks/rd. Once you were in melee, it was on.)

Yes, you're right. A bad DM can quick-kill the party by following rules blindly.

Meanwhile, my post that you replied to specifically said that I always have a few potential wandering monsters already statted up, for when I need to change the situation without warning. In fact, I never deliberately prepared a distraction that was likely to kill them.

valadil
2015-10-02, 09:44 AM
Many times the players throw at you something completely unexpected and you donít know how to react. The PCs kill an important character; they discover the plot way too quickly; they take the game on a direction far away from what you have planned, etc.

My last game ran for not quite two years. Shortly after it ended I was at a bbq with my players and some of their friends. My players were enthusiastically telling stories from the game and instead of butting in, I sat there and listened.

There was a distinct pattern to which stories they told.

All the stories the PCs wanted to brag about were times when they tried to go contrary to my plans and I let them do it. It made me wonder how many more stories I shut down by railroading them into plots I'd already finished writing. Their clear preference was for improvised plots that they controlled over "well written" plots that I directed.

If the PCs care enough about your game to derail your plot, let them.

JAL_1138
2015-10-02, 10:29 AM
Yes, you're right. A bad DM can quick-kill the party by following rules blindly.

Meanwhile, my post that you replied to specifically said that I always have a few potential wandering monsters already statted up, for when I need to change the situation without warning. In fact, I never deliberately prepared a distraction that was likely to kill them.

I was just waxing nostalgic about old-school random encounter wackiness, I didn't say you yourself produced lethal ones, just that the old 1e tables did if used straight up, and then that the old rules made running away fairly hard if they were followed strictly. I was going off on a nostalgic tangent, not accusing you of anything or suggesting wandering monsters were a bad idea. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression.

Mark Hall
2015-10-02, 11:35 AM
"Pee break!" is a very useful announcement in that case. :smallbiggrin:

Mastikator
2015-10-02, 12:34 PM
Just copy from something the players are not familiar with. It's not cheating if you don't get caught!

Lorsa
2015-10-03, 12:00 PM
I know this might have been addressed many times before, but itís something I still find hard to deal with and I think it is one of the worst case scenarios even for the most experienced GMs.

Many times the players throw at you something completely unexpected and you donít know how to react. The PCs kill an important character; they discover the plot way too quickly; they take the game on a direction far away from what you have planned, etc.

You feel stress quickly growing inside you and you debate between improvising something that could go horribly wrong or saying to your table ďIím stuckĒ.

How do you deal with that? Which techniques do you use to get out of that mental block as quick as possible?

Please help.

Greetings CombatBunny.

I think this block occurs because you hold your pre-made plans in too high regard, or feel insecure with improvising. My advice would be try to try and hold some sessions where you only improvise, so you can get a feel for it.

When I GM, I don't get upset if PCs kill an important character, as whenever I introduce a character, I know there is a chance the players will kill them. There is no telling when they will discover a plot, so I try not to hold too many pre-concieved ideas about when it will happen. Moreoever, I know that the players will always take the game in a direction far away from what I have planned, so I try not to plan too far ahead. It is generally much more enjoyable for me when I get surprised as well.

Obviously you always have *some* plans, any good GM knows that preparation is one of the key ingredients of a good campaign. The secret lies in doing the right kind of preparation, and not have too rigid ideas of how things will turn out. I don't mean you have to throw away all ideas of pre-concieved notions of direction, but if your problem is mental block when things don't go according to "plan", then maybe by striving to throw it all away, you might reach the right balance.

The short answer to your question of how I deal with this mental block is: I improvise. I've improvised an astonishing number of adventures, locations, NPCs and encounters. I believe it is the second key ingredient of a good campaign.

When you prepare, make sure that you prepare with the mindset that you can't control the players. Plan for improvisation. Make preparations that help you improvise. Remember that the short-term can always be more detailed than the long-term. Never be more than one step ahead of the players, if you try to be three you will quickly find that it is impossible.

Sorry to be a bit vague, if you want more specific ideas for how to make preparations with the intent to improvise, feel free to ask.

Nifft
2015-10-05, 01:15 PM
1 - Practice Improvisation. Instead of prepping events, prep NPC motivations, and have the NPCs react appropriately rather than always crafting meticulous plans.

2 - Roll Dice. Random encounters & events can fill time (which you'll use to consciously or unconsciously think about what your NPC will do in reaction), but they can also serve as inspiration for plot-relevant stuff. Like, if you roll that the PCs are suddenly attacked by extra-planar bounty hunters, maybe that's because someone they already met had put a contract out on them (and then you make it true retroactively).

3 - Crowdsource. Ask the players to brainstorm their next moves. This will let you prep whatever is relevant to those next moves. Ask the forums for ideas. Sometimes, something clever will result, in spite of our best efforts.

4 - Read a Book. Or play a game, or watch a movie. Steal plot and character ideas from other media -- that's what all the other media have always done.

5 - Boardgame Night. If everything fails to inspire, you might be getting burnt out. Take a break. Let someone else run a bear & pretzels game, or have a boardgame night. If there's some external pressure in your life, perhaps work-related or family-related or something, give yourself the time & space you need to recover. Your players will understand.

ImNotTrevor
2015-10-05, 02:16 PM
Have a look at systems like Apocalypse World and Stars Without Number.

Not necessarily to play, but because they come with EXCELLENT tools that help make this kind of thing a non-issue. Especially in the case of Fronts from AW. When the BBEG is not just a guy, but a whole movement made of many guys with its own desires, goals, hungers, and lusts, It is easier to adapt to unforseen deaths. So they killed Lothar. Doesn't matter. The Vile Cult will press on, regardless. Imagine your opposing forces in terms of "what happens if they aren't stopped? What happens if this problem goes unresolved?"

Look at the stuff your characters possess and hold dear. Use your various evil forces to threaten those things. Nothing makes a player hate an NPC quite like an NPC going after their stuff.

What is the BBEG (if you insist on having one) doing right now? Clearly he isn't twiddling his thumbs waiting for some heroes to level up enough to fight him. He's ordering things. Causing a ruckus. Where are his armies? What is he securing? What is he hiding away? For right now, he doesn't care about some pissant adventurers. He's not going to show up until they piss him off sufficiently.

Target someone. Anyone. Pick at random. Split them off from the group. Get them alone and vulnerable and make them feel it.

The world is alive and reacts. They just killed a guy who was secretly evil? Well guess what, no one knows he was secretly evil. What happens when someone finds his body? What happens when the Guard comes looking? What happens when the party is wanted for murdering a (supposedly) upstanding citizen?

They do something you didn't expect? Ok. Where did they go? Who is there? Name some NPC's. Give them a feature or two. Do they follow their passion? Their nose? Their greed? Their lust? Have a fun time: have a bartender lecherously flirt with a character. I mean LECHEROUSLY. Have a priest try to convert them. Have a bird poop on their heads. Turn everything on a dime. Give them something they similarly don't know how to deal with. It could be legendary.

Read the Apocalypse World rulebook, particularly the Master of Ceremonies section. It is my #1 recommended read for aspiring DM's or anyone hoping to be a better GM in general. As a GM of 12 years, it is one of the best resources I've ever seen.

And one more thing:
Keep a list of names that are setting-appropriate. Every name you can find/think of. Just keep a list. Need a quick NPC? Consult the list and create someone.

But hey, I'm a forum poster, not a cop.

Edit: Dear lordy those typos

Tvtyrant
2015-10-08, 12:05 AM
What I have done:

1. Take a break. Say 30 minutes to think about it. "Let's take a break to order pizza!" At worst excuse yourself to the restroom for a little bit.

2. Tell the party you are stumped. I have retconned some big stuff with party permission by simply saying "I can't work with this." My last campaign ended in a TPK from a robot throwing them off of a pyramid, and the group agreed to let me take it back.

3. Make something up! Something wild! The same campaign started as a different campaign, and the party killed their way out of the plot. Invented a groundhogs day plot where they were reset to the beginning of the same morning each session, they loved it.

4. I don't suggest this one, but I did have a bit of a break down when the party carefully ambushed the running boss in his house and murdered him as level 2 characters. They caught him in an entanglement spell, then office spaced him.