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It will happen, whether due to a sugar rush from the half-bag of sweets and chocolates the players just ate or perhaps the caffeine-induced high from an energy drink. Your players will, at some point, decide to take a remarkably ill-judged course of action.
This inevitably throws up some pitfalls for experienced and inexperienced GM's alike. Such plot-turns take you away from your planning and into uncharted territory. Spontaneous acts of foolhardiness can bypass huge sections of carefully crafted plotline or place characters in a situation you haven’t prepared for (or even considered!). A further obvious risk is that such actions, by their very nature, place your players at risk of getting killed off.
Whilst a GM can never anticipate all eventualities, it is possible to think about some of the ways in which rashness or impulse might arise and consider how you might respond to them.
Rashness in its many forms
Rash Words: Sometimes your players’ characters get a little too sure of themselves and develop a case of foot-in-mouth. They may get a bit lippy with an NPC who has a short temper (and a posse of friends) or they may ride roughshod over polite convention with influential administrators and officials. They may simply be a little belligerent today and be looking for a fight. If words are spoken in-character (and it’s no use protesting after the event that a comment was OOC), then consequences flow from them.
Rash Deeds: Sometimes, for whatever reason, a party decides that discretion is not the better part of valour. A frontal attack against improbable odds is best! As a GM you can be convinced that you have stacked the odds in such a way that the party will surely choose the indirect tunnel to the stronghold rather than attempt to storm the gate. Nope, that gate is just too inviting! Instead, they charge and you are left wondering how to avoid wiping them out with a couple of unfortunate critical rolls.
The unsubtle approach also risks bypassing extensive sections of planned plot. You may well have constructed a large proportion of your planned session on the assumption that the party will act circumspectly - instead they cut to the final confrontation after twenty minutes.
Rash Characters: Some players take rashness/impetuosity as a played character trait. The actual character is incurably impulsive and will do things while the rest of the party cringes or attempts to pretend the offender is nothing to do with them! They will always attempt to open that locked box or sneak into places best left undisturbed. A “Keep Out” sign is an irresistible invitation to enter.
How to handle rashness
As a rule, in game as well as in life, stupidity has unpleasant consequences. It’s important that for a really dumb action there should be a measure of “downside” for the character(s) involved. The main reason for this is that if there isn’t, there is no reason for characters and players to behave differently in the future. Creating scenarios for your players will be near impossible in the medium term if they are able to take the most bizarre or risky approach without fear of consequence. You also sacrifice some of the immersive “reality” of your world by neglecting this basic principle.
The instinct of many GM's will be to try to get things back on track as speedily as possible. We all like to think we are happy to let players do entirely their own thing but in the heat of the moment, when several hours of thought and preparation evaporate, it is only human to want to steer your PC's back to safety. But gone too far, this becomes railroading, which acts against the basic principle of gaming; that players exert in-character free will to interact with your world as they wish for the entertainment of all.
The impetuous decision, far from being a game session disaster, can be character building in every sense of the word if handled well. To take the Rash Words example, a character of mine once assumed that a foreign honcho didn’t speak the language and referred to him as “King Jellybelly” within earshot. My character was promptly arrested, strung up (literally) and had to plead for his life. Success was not determined by a dice roll but as a dialogue between me and the bilingual portly gent himself from my position on the gallows. Grovelling, abject apology and much bartering of gold and services to be rendered eventually saved my character from the hangman.
The GM decided to make my character (and me) work very hard for this flippant comment and rightly so. Through my increasingly desperate bartering I provided fresh material for future sessions as I owed service, as well as my life, to the corpulent monarch. It was a memorable session that was both fun and made me a better player. If players speak out of turn, don’t be afraid to throw some consequences their way!
Dealing with rash deeds can be more challenging. If you have weighed your opposition’s capabilities based on a particular approach only to find the scenario playing out completely differently, the correlation of forces might be weighed heavily against your players.
The easiest option here is to roleplay it out. Let the dice fall and battle commence. Once in the situation, the party may surprise you by suddenly becoming inventive on-the-fly and will carry the day by determination and luck. If things turn out badly they will simply have to retreat, regroup and come up with a better plan. There’s no harm in allowing this type of thing to play out - it might work out or it might not. Your players will learn from it either way.
The other option in the above scenario is that the group is overwhelmed and surrounded, and must surrender and then spend some time in a dungeon. This will be a good lesson in humility and allow the enemy some high-quality gloating before the plucky band eventually manage to engineer their escape. The tariff you decide to set in terms of lost belongings is up to you. That surprisingly tasty stew the guards fed the group last night might, after all, coincide with the disappearance of one of the player’s horses! Once out, of course, they are loose within the walls and can resume their mission with a dose of revenge thrown in. They may think twice before trying the same thing again - particularly if they were fond of that horse - but they will recall their ultimate success with pride.
Rash characters are the easiest to deal with because they are predictable in their rashness. You have only to press their buttons to get a foreseeable result. This can be a driver of plot rather than a hindrance if factored in at the start. Try to balance your response to such characters so as not to discourage the more conventional style of play, however. Impetuosity should not always yield positive results. People who live on the whim of Lady Luck will find her a fickle mistress.
When is a fool not a fool?
Sometimes, characters will make a balanced decision that subtlety isn’t the way to go - the bold approach. Rather than going about things the long way they will “rattle the tree” and see what falls out. They act overtly, challenging their enemy in some way that requires or provokes a response. Often, they set themselves up as bait having made the calculation that they can handle whatever comes their way. It allows them to unmask their opponent and present an opportunity to confront them. I like this in players and it is a completely acceptable approach, though hard to plan for in advance.
If you find yourself in this situation as a GM, quickly ask yourself “What would the protagonist (your main opposing NPC) do now?” In this type of situation you become both GM and roleplayer combined, looking at events through the lense of the opponent’s character and responding in a hasty or calculating fashion as befits the situation. An obvious option, and probably the one predicted by your players, is to “send in the heavies”. Perhaps an ambush where the NPC's have the highground.
But you can also be creative. Perhaps an indirect strike? Hit back at family or friends. Hurt those the party have associated with so that they lose both their network of support and the goodwill of those around them. Perhaps you lay a trap of your own.
The bold approach can create amazing sessions whereby the antagonist is prompted to respond in subtle and challenging ways. The players, for their part, must ride the wave of events that they themselves unleash; rising to the challenges and obstacles thrown before them.
To conclude, boldness, rashness or sheer folly are inevitable elements of roleplay with an engaged, and proactive group of players. This is no bad thing and can add some real zest to a campaign. There should be limits to what your players can get away with; sometimes rashness will pay off, other times there will be painful consequences. If in doubt as to where to go with an unexpected action, let the fall of the dice decide and roleplay things out from there. Use the basis of your intended plot and the character of the group’s opponents to guide your response to the unexpected, then trust your players to react in their turn as events unfold.