In most situations, it is not the Dungeon Master’s role to lead players. You set the stage. You adjudicate the rules. The players are largely the adversaries from your perspective. So, the idea of coming to their rescue would be out of character, right? Well, sometimes it’s what is required, and it’s the right thing to do. Here is when you do it, why you do it, and how you do it. In the end, we’ll discover what socialization tools are used to rescue a game.
The group of adventurers needs to board the ship incognito. With your detailed description of the scene, players can expect the successful execution of their plans unless they miss their skill checks. They know which skill checks will be called for. Stealthy players will sneak on board. Other players will use guile to role-play their way past the watchful eye of the guards executing checks at the boarding gate. Plans agreed upon, you set the stage. PC’s take their assigned positions. This scene should be but a small imposition. This is an interlude providing a bit of realism to the game more than anything else. A small skill challenge with an appropriately low skill check required to overcome.
You set about making the necessary checks for each player. Things are going splendidly well for the group. The dice are in their favor. Then, without notice, a player diverts from the established plan. The player’s action is widely out of form for the given scene. Reacting to the new circumstance and honoring player agency you quickly assess the opposing reaction of the NPCs involved. Clearly, the player has made a miscalculation. The read on the situation is faulty. Did you not properly convey the threat? Did you not clearly explain the environment and all its hazards? Doubt about your performance washes over you. No matter, the game is afoot. You want to react quickly so as not lose the tension of the new situation. The NPC’s need to appropriately react in response.
The rolls are not favorable for the players. The intensity is ratcheted up another notch. The unfolding scene is like a fire spreading quickly across a rain deprived prairie. It threatens to engulf the group. In their panic players respond by throwing proverbial gas onto the flames. The scene explodes into a flurry of confusion. What was once a busy but orderly scene on the city docks on the bank of the river is now a vision of terror and chaos. Bystander’s scatter. Women scream. Men call to arms. The dock guard, originally the only opposition to the group, is now joined by the city guard.
The party finds themselves outnumbered and facing a situation that, at best the highest of skill checks will see them arrested, and at worst killed on sight. The group could probably fight their way out but not without killing a lot of innocent people. You’re a devoted Dungeon Master and believe in keeping a certain authenticity within your game. If the players go rogue, they will be hunted. You will be tasked with including the risk of exposure at every logical opportunity in the name of realism. More importantly, the goal that you have been working toward for weeks, months even years is now in threat of serious delay. A campaign supposed to end in a few weeks may be pushed back several more.
You ask the group what their characters are going to do. They choose to lay down arms and submit to authority. “Whew!” You just escaped hours of possible delay. In an act of trust, your players have given up agency of their PCs to you. You are a benevolent Dungeon Master. Rather than put them on trial and hang the lot, you decide the magistrate orders them to make reparations for their actions and orders the city guard to escort the instigators out of town. They comply. Dispirited, the PCs allow themselves to be shown on the other side of the city gate.
In the wake of their failure, your players are unsure of what to do next. The out-of-character conversation has turned morose. You suspect some underlying resentment toward the player(s) who deviated from the plan. This impedes those players’ ability to get their head back into the game. The guilty player(s) feel bad for what they have done. In light of their blunder, they are reticent to suggest the next course of action. You aren’t sure just how to make things right yourself, but it’s obvious your group is paralyzed.
The situation requires your immediate action or things could get worse. You can’t stop here. To do so would leave the situation unresolved and open the door to discord among the players. You have to act to now. It’s up to you, the DM, to rally the group. This is no longer their game to which they call the shots. It is now in your hands. The right choice is obvious. You have to get the game back into the hands of the players and hopefully find a measure of victory that will quell the sting of failure.
To the Rescue
If you suspected this scenario was taken from an actual game your suspicions would be correct. I was faced with this situation a few weeks ago. It’s at a time like this when a Dungeon Master/Game Master must pull from life experience to find the answer. This is the social component of tabletop roleplaying games. At that moment it didn’t matter how well I knew the rules of the game. What did matter was my ability to evaluate the players’ predicament? I needed to read the situation from their point of view – switch sides of the table. From that position I was able to identify the roadblocks…anger, resentment, sense of failure…then formulate a plan that would lead them back to the path of adventure.
The fix involved taking stock of the current narrative and finding a new path to the same objective – the boat. As it turned out the new narrative presented more exciting and creative challenges than the original story as written. It required me to assume the role of party leader for short time. As the Dungeon Master, I don’t normally make suggestions regarding what the players can do. I see my role as narrator and adjudicator. By that, I mean presenting to the players a description of the PCs’ environ, and then rule based on their actions. In this instance, because of the mental roadblocks I mentioned, they were unable, or willing, to suggest a new course of action. I needed to step out of my normal role and join the party at that moment:
“The boat will be traveling up the river. Perhaps you can get on board at another stop, or at a narrow passage. Doesn’t someone have a ring of swimming? Sarah, doesn’t your character have a potion of water breathing? Anyone have a disguise kit?…”
Was it hand holding? It felt like it to me. I think at least a couple of the players shared that sentiment, but it was the solution to the problem. Once I got their attention away from what had happened and focused on what could happen, they rallied. Ultimately the group came up with a better plan. And I’ll admit, I went easy on them too in their execution of the new plan. They – as players, as people, as a group – needed to end the evening with a sense of accomplishment. Success would negate the sting of failure. We learned lessons that evening. My players rewarded me with amazing In-Character conversation in our Discord over the course of the following week.
I walked away from this experience realizing more than ever before just how much your leadership skills can be tested when running a tabletop game. It is situations like this that those of us who have been playing Dungeon and Dragons, Savage Worlds, World of Darkness…etc. have known existed in these games. And therefore understand the very real and important life lessons and socialization skills that can be learned through playing them; teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, conflict resolution, personnel management, leadership role, respect for authority, responsibility. These are all invaluable tools you can hone and then carry beyond the table, and as it was in this case, save a game.