Beyond the Dice: How to Put the Hammer Down

No, not that kind of hammer and not that way!

One of the first games I ever tried to run was a disaster! I tried to set up what I thought was a reasonable scenario with a reasonable treasure, but my players didn’t seem interested in what I set up. They seemed intent on bickering among themselves and petty rivalry between their character’s about who is better at what. In an effort to reengage them with the game plan I’d laid out, I cut short some of the fighting and got them to the loot faster. And that backfired as everyone proceeded to fight over everything and try to take it all for themselves. Now, at this point in time, I had never even played an RPG before. I was running a game because nobody else ever seemed to want to do that particular job! Frustration set in and I slapped down a “You all wake up in a field with basic gear and no memory of what happened.”

As the years have gone by, I’ve learned so many things about gaming it’s almost like it’s second nature for me to run one. I often find myself automatically doing things to head off conflicts, curb out of control behavior, and to keep overall control of my games. It’s difficult sometimes, to articulate the things that I do because they are all so automatic. But one of the things that I struggled to learn was, how to not bring down the Plot Hammer on my players at every turn. You see, the Plot Hammer is sometimes seen as a tool for GMs to get things back on track in the game and to get everyone moving forward. Arbitrarily changing everything and claiming it was the act of some unknowable deity or some insanely powerful wizard that the characters will never discover is expedient.

I’ve come to hate the Plot Hammer though, because I’ve had it used against me, and I’ve resented it so much it’s not even a joke. But, I believe that every GM develops a version of the Plot Hammer, whether they learn it from someone else, or they create their own. It can be a useful tool, it certainly is easy to use and keeps you from having to think too hard about how to fix the chaos that your players can infuse into your game! The problem with this is that it poisons the scene, it takes away from the storyline, it completely circumvents the players and their goals for their characters. In short, using the Plot Hammer is a form of chumping your players out of what they’ve been working for, simply because you want to use a method of convenience to get your story back on track.

Not all Plot Hammers are great, huge, whacking things either. Sometimes they are smaller corrections you apply to the story, “That didn’t happen, everyone forget any of that happened.” The problem with this method is that you are taking too active of a role as the GM, you’re not giving them the story and letting them react to it, you’re shoving it down their throats and expecting them to swallow. So, instead of hammering your players into line so that you can continue with the scenario you have planned, how about embracing chaos instead? Don’t get your tighty-whitey’s in a bunch! It’s really not as difficult as you may think!

The first thing you need to do after you create your scenarios/scenes/story is to sit back and try to figure out how someone could throw a monkey wrench into it. Do this same thing with store bought items as well! You have to know HOW something can be broken before you can know how to fix it! Make a list! Make a list of the points where you think your players will introduce some chaos. Now, list a few possible ways you could counter their chaos and slowly bring them back to the original plot line. You may have to come up with new plot hooks to draw them back in. You may have to create new characters in order to re-feed them the existing plot hooks. You may have to come up with new scenes so that they can discover these new plot hooks.

And you may still fail at bringing your players into the plot that you have designed for them. What about a completely different plot? Rehash an old idea? Move on to the next idea? Maybe bring your current idea back at another time in the future? And even after all of this, you may still fail at making it work! But that’s okay! Sometimes I have to step back from what’s going on in my games so that I can come up with some new ideas. Sometimes things don’t work out the way that you intend and you have to start over with a new idea, or maybe rethink your original idea so that you can make it work again!

Start making lists NOW! Start planning for your players to completely derail your game NOW! It’s going to happen, it probably has happened to you once already! So, be prepared. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to have your bad guy chumped and you don’t have a backup plan? I sat for an hour trying to figure out what to do the first time it happened to me! Not anymore! Now I know what can happen and I’ve got plans within plans just in case a player throws me a curve ball! And you know what? My current game group managed to throw me a curve ball that I hadn’t anticipated anyway!

See? Players are tricky, you gotta stay on your toes and you gotta be ready for anything! Here’s a list of possible things that could go wrong in your game. And for you seasoned GM’s out there, think about using this list to put curve balls into your game as a way to mix up the action for the players! It’s still a curveball to them if you can manage to act surprised when you put it into play!

  1. Someone kills your bad guy.
  2. Someone charms your bad guy.
  3. Someone incapacitates your bad guy.
  4. The players ignore your plot hook.
  5. The players kill/destroy your plot hook.
  6. The players see an innocuous nothing as the plot hook.
  7. The players work around your plot hook so that it doesn’t work anymore.
  8. The players all go off in different directions chasing different, non-existent plot hooks.
  9. Someone gets thrown in jail.
  10. Someone gets another character thrown in jail.
  11. Someone dies.
  12. Someone kills another character by accident.
  13. Someone picks the bad guy’s pocket at the beginning of the adventure and gets the magic item that was the goal of that evening’s game.
  14. Half of the players get captured or killed before they even find the plot hook.
  15. The players find the plot hook and begin to pursue it but get distracted and end up going down a rabbit hole for a plot that didn’t exist because someone has a thing for the Farmer’s daughter.
  16. The players find the plot hook but spend the evening discussing their plans for what to do rather than actually doing much of anything except going for beer and pizza in real life.
  17. Someone tries to go undercover in the bad guy’s lair and ends up leveling the building instead of quietly gaining intel, thus alerting the bad guy to their presence.
  18. The players figure out how to block up all the exits and then set fire to the bad guy’s house while they wait outside roasting marshmallows.
  19. One player runs away from every plot hook you come up with because they know that it’s all a trap and they don’t want anything to do with any of it.
  20. The players find the plot hook and follow events to the eventual outcome, but in the final battle with the bad guy, two of them betray the group and kill everyone else off then join forces with the bad guy for world domination.

(Yes, all of these things actually happened in games that I’ve run over the years!)

Happy Gaming!


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4 Comments Add yours

  1. deltamonk says:

    I find my players throw themselves / each other enough curveballs that I don’t often have to, but it’s always fun to have twists you can throw in if you need to. I’ve learnt to embrace the chaos, if the players derail the plot I don’t always bring it back if the tangent looks more interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cindy says:

      I freaking LOVE the chaos! To me, it’s a better game when you go with the flow and see where it takes you! Thanks for reading DeltaMonk!


  2. modoc31 says:

    My brain hates the chaos, but I do love it!


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