By The Seat Of My Omnipotent Pants

A Metaphor

This past week’s D&D session was something of an experiment for me. As I mentioned last week, I procrastinated a bit too much. By that, I mean that by about 2 hours to game time, I had managed to be indecisive enough to know several major plot points – just not the specifics or the order in which they would appear. Not having any combat encounters worked out turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I had also invited a new player to the group over lunch that day. At this point, I was more than slightly worried the session was going to be a disaster and that we would wind up playing Snorta! for half the evening.

With the minutes ticking away, I called upon several old friends (and previous DMs of mine), Dante and Kanati, half to ask for advice and half simply just to have someone to tell “haha I’m screwed oh God”. Both told me something that sort of shocked me a little. In the campaigns I’d been in with them, they’d winged it a lot more than I’d ever imagined. “I used to just throw a bunch of bad guys at you and throw more at you if you were winning too easily, and fudge dice rolls if you were dying.” “Most of the human enemies you ever fought were just monsters I renamed.” I could feal fake reality crumbling about me, but yet somewhere in the crumbles there were nuggets of hope. And so, not really having a large amount of options left, I made a decision to leave the plot nice and loose (and the encounters looser.) At this point, I was becoming convinced that this was going to be so bad as to turn my new player off of gaming forevermore, sending him on the dark road to philately or something equally destructive to the soul.

How did it turn out? Well, to be honest, it turned out better than when I’d try to put everything on rails. I haven’t quite figured out exactly what that means yet.

F*#$ It, We’ll Do It Live

I started things off with a bang. I ended the last session on a cliffhanger, with the PC’s army’s camp under attack by a cement zombie mixer horde. I’d been hearing lots of neat things about making combat encounters that had non-combat goals, so I decided to make a challenge where they had to light torches that would activate the camp’s perimeter defenses – in this case, a wall of fire from an oil-filled trench. It was my intention to send several waves of zombies in after them, some of which would put the fire out and harry them while the next wave would arrive. I decided the main force would arrive in 10 or 15 rounds and threatened the party with Certain Doom if this goal was not accomplished. Since I wasn’t quite sure how long this would take, I just used vague language like “they’re getting closer”. Or, rather, I intended to use that sort of vague language. As it turned out, I had severely underestimated the range of my party’s ability to make fire appear in a brazier – they had the whole damned wall up in the first round. Also, they had nuked most of the first wave of zombies clean off the map. So, here I am, about two minutes into my combat encounter, and they’ve cut off the main enemy force and all the reinforcements I had coming. They had won in less time than it took me to draw the map. I had a few zombies that were going to try and put out the fire, but after the whole wall went up, I couldn’t figure out a way to make it believable on short notice. I let them have this one, and chalked it up to experience. We did a little RP at the end involving the commander of their army getting injected with Icky Black Stuff thanks to a big bloated corrupted stirge, and they fled to go warn a nearby town of its impending cement-block doom.

When they got to the town, I decided to use another of the plot points I had picked out, and after they’d gone in looking for a priest the bad guys were after, I threw up forcefields around the town and started dropping cement on them from the sky (the same process that created the zombie-producing block from the first session). I really wasn’t sure what the players were going to do to get out of this. Literally. I never came up with a win condition. But I could hear Dave The Game’s voice in my head, Obi-Wan-style, saying “Matt…. say ‘yes’ to your players…” What followed was about a half hour of excellent roleplaying and teamwork. They went to the edges of the city to try to remove the field-generator posts (which were on the outside, so they failed.) The cement kept piling up. They tried climbing buildings. The cement got deeper. They determined the height of the field by shooting arrows atop said buildings. One player psionically built a bridge out of doors and nails. I remember wondering at the time whether I should check the rules to see if that was actually possible, and then I realized it was sufficiently cool that I didn’t give a crap. The players eventually decided that throwing a rope and grappling hook over the edge was the best plan, then used another rope/hook to get back down on the other side.

Going Off My Own Rails-less Rails

When they went to go pull the post and disable the field, one of our rogues said “Wait! Didn’t that cultist say these were heavily guarded and that’s why he didn’t try to stop them before?” Uh oh. Probably should have seen that coming. Did I have a combat encounter ready? Hell no! But I did have KMonster open on my phone. For the uninitiated, KMonster hooks into your DDI account and pulls a list of all monsters from the Monster Manuals and Monster Vault, and lets you search by name, level, role, and keyword. I looked up level 1 monsters, found 2 elites and a brute, and checked to make sure their abilities were Mostly what I wanted. Time for a quick re-skin! I was a bit worried because I couldn’t remember how strong elites were supposed to be but the XP budget matched the size of the party. Looking up the elite I was using (Anise the Chaos Warrior), I’m pretty sure I wasn’t using everything to full advantage because the party made short work of these guys. There were, at least, exasperated cries of “He’s still UP??!!” I’m still glad I chose this particular enemy, because they had cool shadowy breath powers and ongoing damage and creepy auras that made saves vs. ongoing damage harder. For the life of me, I can’t remember what brute I was using. Mostly because they nuked him before he could do anything. This encounter did mark the first time I’d done lethal damage to the party, but a lot of it came from our gnome getting blasted away from the forcefield when he disabled it, sending him flying headfirst into the hindquarters of a cultist. I briefly considered giving him reduced damage since he was hitting a soft part of the cultist, but I figured I’m not making them worry about encumbrance so that cultist’s butt was extremely bony and he always drank his milk. (It does a cultist good.)

I was happy with how the session ended, but not necessarily how we got there. I’m a big fan of ending a session on a cliffhanger, so I decided I’d use another of the plot points I’d been saving up. Specifically, the Bad Guys were hunting a priest and the PCs didn’t know why. I knew why, of course, so I sent the PCs in his general direction and eventually they found him. Well, him and the giant horde of cement zombies they ran from at the beginning of the session about to overwhelm him. I made it pretty clear to everyone through some trial and error that the megamixer was indestructible and only interested in killing the priest and that a rescue attempt would be equal parts futile and suicidal. Then I realized something fairly important: there was no way for them to rescue him, and I had some stuff I wanted to do with him yet. Important stuff. Crap. So that got changed. My free-spirited days of careless DMing were over. My plot took 14hp damage, 5 ongoing. We’ll see if it makes its save next time. After all, that, I am embarrassed to admit, I can’t remember how the session ended anymore. I remember it being cool. I think. It must have been totally rad to make me forget everything. It is my fondest hope that one of my players chronicles these things before anyone finds out. Or, at the very least, I hope they don’t write down “we became level 39 donut cyborgs”. I don’t know how the next session will go after that.

Believe It Or Not, It’s Just Me

So what did I learn this week? Well, it’s OK not to spend an excessive amount of time planning. You’ll still have a good time. It’s a lot of fun to lay out a goal, let your players come up with a solution, and let them pass if it’s brilliant, cool, and/or fun. I learnt that sometimes enemies are just blobs o’ stats and they’re a lot more interchangeable than they first appear. It was not lost upon me that I chased the PCs to the next part of the story not once, but twice using the giant mixer of cement zombies. I imagine they’re probably getting tired of that. I learned that your players may not have any idea that you’re winging it, even when your poker face is as bad as mine. I also learned that it sucks when you try to wing it too much and shoot yourself in the foot. At least it was a mistake that just cost me a little more thought and work and didn’t screw up the game for any of my players. Everyone at the table at least appears to be having a good time. We had a new player join this week, and he claims he will return. Another player used the word “fun” in describing her experience. I shall take these things and put them on the tiny rubber band ball that is my self-confidence. One day, we shall visit the state fair. One day.

Though I had a reasonably successful seat-of-the-pants run, I’m not sure I’d recommend doing it as regular practice. I think planning needs to happen. What this experience gave me, I think, is a better idea of where to focus my efforts. Also, I am forever referring to any time a DM puts players in an impossible situation to keep them on the rails as “being chased by a mixer of cement zombies”. It’s my new catch phrase. It’ll be on T-shirts this time next year. Car salesmen are going to use it in their pitches. Wealthy soccer moms will say it over brunch before tennis. iCarly’s cool older brother will say it ironically in reference to his grandfather. I’m gonna be rich!



Metaphorical Photo Credit


  1. Oh man, you have no idea how much this describes how many of the last several game sessions I’ve hosted recently. Actually, tomorrow’s game is quickly bordering on this too. 😛 I have the “map” in my head, I have their personal goals in mind, I have their motivations (at the moment, it’s nothing more complex than “murder a swath across the countryside to get out of Yuan-ti territory”)… I just always manage to wait until the last minute to come up with the specifics.

    I’ve also gotta say, the random treasure tables in the back of the 4th Ed Rules Compendium and Essentials DMG have been life savers.

    Truth be told, though, I leave a bit of the game unplanned especially when it comes to the story. My players are about 80% predictable in what they do… but that 20% left to fate manages to change things drastically every time. This only works great for me because it’s a homebrew campaign, obviously it’d be a bit trickier if I were running a module and they went totally off the rails and all of the branches. 😉

  2. “Fun” article! 🙂

    I think you touched on something important – the PCs rarely know when you’ve had something planned in advance or developed things on the fly. We use a lot of Dwarven Forge stuff for our games and I often have to build out the encounter ahead of time. That creates a challenge in terms of being flexible with the group. However, it is still possible to “wing it” if needed. I tend to only set up the DF pieces ahead of time for major encounters.

  3. It’s like they tell you when you are up on stage…if you make a mistake, keep going. The audience hasn’t read the script, they have no clue, unless you tell them.

  4. There is definitely a lot of similarities here with what I do. One thing that I’ve found to be rather useful is to have a couple of “encounters” prepared, but not necessarily be set in stone with where they’ll occur. In other words, if I want the party to fight a bunch of gnolls, I’ll snag some gnolls from the compendium or monster builder and have their stat cards with me at the table. Then as the session plays out, I’ll try to let the story flow naturally. If the PCs decide they’d rather head to the orc encampment instead I just reskin the gnolls for the orc encounter. So even though the party is fighting “orcs”, I may just use the stat blocks for the gnolls. If the party questions an ability, its easy enough to explain that these are “frenzied” orcs, or perhaps they’ve picked up on some of the tactics of their gnollish rivals.

    Of course, this won’t help when you’ve planned for a dragon encounter, but you get the idea. 🙂

  5. You know, when the PCs kick your butt it is good to let them savor that. This is especially true if you are a tough DM and often leave them licking their wounds. At the same time, when something like you described with the fire defenses happens, that is the perfect time for that old tunnel to be used by the undead… and now there is the thought that maybe someone within the town is a traitor! This is all easier if you think through “what if the PCs destroy my plans” for each encounter, but it also works as a general rule: “If PCs are foiling my plans, more monsters crawl in through [floor/ceiling/window/tunnel/portal/etc.] and this is because [insert plot point].” One you can use a few times is a foe that is a summoner. He suddenly begins summoning minions inside the town, and the PCs must stop him to stop the flow of them. Having free action when hit to summon monsters as an opportunity action (once per PC turn) is especially productive.

    Overall, what you describe sounds fantastic. There are honestly too few campaigns like this in a player’s life. The free wheeling ones can often be the most memorable. And yeah, DMs are unprepared all the time. If someone showed up at my house for my weekly game and I wasn’t calling out “I’m just printing one more thing” they would probably think they were at the wrong house.

    As for not remembering how things ended, it happens. Try to jot things down, but also be willing to ask someone to record the events. E-mail the group and ask one person to capture what happened. If you use a site like Epic Words, you can have them do it there so they get in the habit.

  6. Gargs454 says:

    Good points Alphastream. I’m usually printing out monsters right before leaving for my games as well as this is usually when I’ve finally decided what to throw at the party. The only thing I would caution on with the “tunnel” approach when the PCs defeat your plans quickly is to be careful how often you do this. Do it too often and the players will start to believe the campaign is on rails and that no matter what they come up with, the DM will always have a counter. This will eventually lead to “throwing in the towell” so to speak when it comes to thinking outside the box, etc.

    That being said, using this approach from time to time is a great way to spice things up and create new adventures. “How did the zombies know about that tunne? They couldn’t have found it that quickly on their own, someone must have shown it to them!” Now the PCs are on a manhunt. My campaigns tend to use a combination of planning and free form adventure design. If the players ever start fixating on something, I absolutely make a note of that and make sure that some plot element springs from that.

  7. Interesting article. I think its great that you pointed out that if you just roll with stuff, the PCs probably won’t even notice that you’re winging it!

  8. As much time as I’ve spent planning in my home campaign, I think my players have enjoyed the improv sessions the most. A whole new world opens up for everyone, and anything is possible… the trick is taking notes so you don’t lose “the magic” and forget where to take the story afterwards. 🙂

  9. This reminds me of my old Spelljammer campaign. It was a rare game session when I could stay ahead of my players, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I learned to juggle about a dozen plot hooks in the air and improv the ones that they decided to follow.


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