Sunday, November 11, 2012

GMing Tactics: Stall, Deflect, Distract

I'm usually well prepared for my sessions these days. I have enough mapped out, and enough obstacles between the PCs and the unkeyed and unmapped areas that I don't need to worry they'll outrace my prep. I haven't had to use these yet in my game, because I'm far enough ahead.

This wasn't always the case - my previous game was a wide-open sandbox with a player-driven storyline, external events they couldn't control, and fairly easy access to travel magic. They could literally spin on a whim and go somewhere I'd hinted at but hadn't had time to write up. Or finish painting the minis for (hey, I custom paint minis for set-piece brawls sometimes)? Or go to question someone who really should provide them with a (well-thought out by you) answer, but you're rather push it off until next session so you can mull it over? Or they're about to attack that NPC party and you realize you left the damn NPC party's writeup at home? Basically . . .

What happens if your PCs head right to blank spot on the map?

Here are some tactics I use to stall them, deflect them, or distract them.

Stall: A classic. Just keep them busy, and amused, but don't let them into the blank spot.

Magic Door - That door just ahead of them? Well, it's not a normal door anymore. Now it's made of some bizarre material that resists normal forcing and magical bypassing. You can't get past it without a key - a key found elsewhere in the dungeon/campaign world/over in the next town a week's travel away.
This is a useful stall because it automatically makes this section of the dungeon more interesting.

Blue Ribbon - The area is blocked with a forcefield, a force of friendly critters who just won't let you by for security reasons, or another impenetrable force . . . that yields to a special seal or title given elsewhere. Where might be obvious ("Show the seal of the duke and you can go past us") or not so obvious (A cryptic hint). Show your mettle (or your money) elsewhere and suddenly the elevator starts working and you can go W*E*R*D*N*A hunting. This is basically a Quest - and it's a Deflect approach as much as a Stall.

Dave's not here, man - Want to talk to the NPC and you're not ready? Well, neither is the NPC. Tonight is the gala ball/his mother is in from out of town/he's at a secret society meeting/he's been summoned to another plane/he's sick in bed. He's out, he can't see you, but he's left a note/message/etc. pointing the PCs somewhere else for a partial clue or a clue to something else (that you, the GM, already have handy).

Wandering Monsters are a generic stall. They're also a time-use tax, but they can also be a good stall until next session. A big nasty coming down from the corridor that ends in "I'll finish this later . . . " or "under construction" can sap resources, soak up session time, and potentially deflect players by forcing them to flee. Plus let's face it, people like fighting stuff, so it's not even much of a punishment. It's not even unfair, unless you're one of those people who thinks putting down "10 ogres are in this hallway" is fair if done between sessions and unfair if done right when the players go down the hallway.

Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later is good for information requests. "I can find out, but it'll take some time. Hit me up next time you come back from the dungeon." In other words, ask next session. Hey, I'm online every day and you didn't email me, so if you ask right before the dungeon delve and I'm not ready with an answer, well, neither is Cedric the Sage.

It's a Trap!: The heaviest of hands, here - trap them. Drop walls ahead and behind, and make sure the behind is easier to break. Keep them busy for a while and make sure the "out" is back to mapped areas.

Deflect: Turn them away from the blank spot.

Wandering Monster - again, but this time use something scary. Literally (so they must flee) or just powerful (so they should flee). A bit heavy handed, and it might tempt a TPK-inducing fight, so be careful with this.

Magic - Teleport tricks, rotating rooms, elevator rooms that dump you back up a level, confusion spells that confuse direction-finding. All of these serve to effectively deflect the PCs away from an area until you've written it up.

Detour Ahead - Block the way physically, with a barrier they can't easily move. You can have it removed later - maybe an umber hulk digs through the rock wall, the rubble gets dug out, the collapsed hallway is repaired by the dungeon cleanup team, whatever.

Distract: My favorite. Give them something else to do.

Wandering Treasure: "You hear the unmistakable clink of coins." Or a thief with a jeweled necklace sprints by. Or a prisoner tells them where a (already mapped) treasure lays. Or they find a map showing an already explored area, with some spot they missed marked on it.

Strange Sounds: It works in sneak-type video games. Make a sound, the guards look. Works on PCs, too. "You hear a door slamming shut . . . behind you." Maybe they'll go look.

Help Me, Kind Strangers: Have an NPC come upon them, and ask for help elsewhere. Offer treasure if necessary.

I'm Calling In My Favor: Works in town. An NPC they owe asks them to pay back that debt, by dealing with some issue in an already-developed area. If it gets them more ready for that blank space in the process, so much the better . . .

Some of these are pretty heavy handed, but all of them at least keep you playing, and add to the fun of the dungeon, without you needing to put up an "under construction" sign or forcefield without explanation or to say "Guys, can you go there another time? I didn't write it up."

Keep these to a minimum - prep is always better, and just plain seat-of-your-pants making crap up is fine if you can do it. This is for when you can't, or when you're really going to have a better game next time if you can just avoid having to wing it this game.

If you also use these kinds of encounters in your game, it won't even seem so odd. "Another of those magic key doors? Damn, this Mad Wizard must have had a stake in the Locksmith's Guild." Some of them can be used in a very heavy handed way if the dungeon is ruled by an Adversary (Undermountain springs to mind). If the Mad Wizard is still down there, it's possible he could send up an illusionary image of himself and a D&D Wall of Force / GURPS Force Dome and say "Turn back, fools, this way is not for you . . . yet!"

I'm sure some well-prepared GMs never have this happen. Well, I'm moderately well prepared, but I don't have the time or resources to develop everything before I let my players loose. My game is an ongoing beta test in that way - sometimes, you can't do that yet even though I've promised you will be able to at some point. I don't apologize for this, because I have even less time for that.

Use these in good fun.


  1. A more organic version of the "under construction" sign I've used is to have the dungeon move and shift around. E.g. the party come to the end of a corridor, which is very slowly but visibly grinding outwards and extending. It has the advantage of unequivocally telling the players both "you can't go this way right now" and "there'll be something here later" without destroying the dungeon atmosphere.

    1. That's pretty cool for a "living dungeon" or "mythic underworld" dungeon, thanks!

  2. It bothers me sometimes how much of gamemastering turns out to be smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. But the more autonomy the players have, the less likely you are to eliminate that sort of thing.

    1. Yeah, well, look at this way. The players are making crap up as soon as they need to. The GM does the same thing, but also has to do some of it ahead of times. So it's a matter of one using smoke and mirrors and the other playing stump the GM. :)

      Or, for another take on developing your game on the fly, there is this interesting blog post I found.

    2. I admit, I felt totally ninja'd when I say that you posted on a similar topic just moments before...! (Though I guess my recommended deflection was of the "you see nothing special" variety....)

    3. That deflection works, except when it can't. For example, I had my old group try to decide between options A and option B. They debated for two weeks, showed up at game, and basically said, "Let's do C!" C being a ghostly castle on an island they'd been vaguely researching for a while. I knew what I wanted to do, but I hadn't finished my outline. So I had to stall them until I had time to write some of the road ahead.

      I did like your post a lot - it was more of writing a campaign, mine is more dealing with last-second detours into whitespace.

  3. I think you will be angry with me but I do not like my dungeons to be built on the fly. I much prefer the dungeon to be prepared first because I like the puzzle-type-dungeon likee Gygax used to make. There is no way I would be able to make something like the temple part of the Forgotten Temple of Thariizdun on the fly. That part seemed to have been thought out in advance. The Tomb of Horrors is another puzzle adventure I really liked and even the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth had a puzzle to get into the inner sphere. The Temple of Elemental Evil also had puzzles on how to defeat the demon lord Zuggtmoy and not free her. For me, figuring out the puzzle is a lot of fun so mega dungeons sort of leave me in the cold. They seem boring to me because there is no moment where you think "Aha, I figured it out." Megadungeons can be fun for a while but they sort of get boring after a while.

    1. I don't like them built on the fly, either, if I can help it. I don't demand the game world - and a megadungeon is effectively a game world - be entirely pre-defined.

      I like some of the puzzle adventures you mentioned, but my problem with a puzzle adventure is, once you figure it out, it's finished. As a GM, that kind of sucks. But in a megadungeon, this is not a problem - the PCs will come back, and any hanging threads or missed parts will eventually get picked up on and dealt with, someday.

      Besides, you can easily put puzzle sections into a megadungeon, and mix big mysteries with small mysteries in so people can find them and solve them without "finishing" the dungeon. Gary Gygax did this over and over - the Great Stone Head Enigma and the Jeweled Man, for example, as big mysteries that were never solved, and ones that were - the demi-gods of Greyhawk statues, the Wonderland levels, the crying face that turned out to be Fraz-urb-luu, etc. Plus the whole damn Greyhawk Castle was a puzzle - there is plenty of early campaign players who made it to the final level, got rewarded, and them dumped on the wrong side of the world.

      Something like the ToEE or TOH or LCoT can be stuck into a megadungeon - a few levels where a demonness is kept, sub-levels where a lich made his tomb, gates to other places - it's all easy enough to do. I've done it in my megadungeon. So while I understand the feeling for discrete dungeons with individual puzzles, it's not either-or.

  4. If one moves away from a pure dungeon game, as I've been saying on Jeffr0's blog, it's nice to have stuff happening in the background that's planned out in a bit more detail. It's still responsive to players - if they don't show an interest in the big conspiracy plotline, it won't end up coming to anything, and will remain a series of random events rather than serious foreshadowing.

    1. I agree completely - and I did that in my last, 10-year sandbox game. And in this game, too, although to a lesser extent (it's beer-and-pretzels dungeon bashing at its core).

      I hope no one is mistaking my "what to do when the players go where you're not ready to go" tools for "what to use instead of preparing at all" tools. They won't work that way at all.


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