Thursday Feature – Let Your Players Surprise You

Author: Kallak

As the GameMaster, your approach to the campaign is obviously significantly different than that of the players. You fight to hold the middle ground between keeping the campaign “on track” while making sure you aren’t “railroading” the players through a linear and ultimately predictable plot. You strive to walk the tightrope of making truly awe-inspiringly bad ass memorable villains, while trying to not fall in love with them yourself so that you aren’t crushed when the players deliver the death blow – which more than likely comes in the most demeaning way imaginable after only a couple of rounds. There’s not much in the way of discovery or exploration for you like there is for the rest of the gaming group. You have the burden of advance knowledge.


I mean after all, you wrote the campaign right? Or you’re running a module and you’ve read it cover to cover? How do you get to explore and discover like the players do when everything is already laid out and defined? Perhaps more importantly, how can you do all of that AND keep your campaign under control? The answer (or at least an answer) is to let your players surprise you. Not in that “oh my god, I can’t believe they just did that and ruined all my hard work” sort of way – but in a more controlled way that lets you not automatically know everything beforehand as the GameMaster.

So as to give us a setup to use during this article for explanation purposes, consider the following scenario:

During the course of their usual adventuring, the PCs come upon a peasant man accused of murdering his wife. He professes his innocence, and swears that she was taken by a local outlaw who is now framing him. The constable can’t be sure one way or the other, and so with a bit of nudging allows the PCs to investigate should they desire to do so. If they don’t, the man could very well face the gallows for a crime he may not have committed.


Asking both the constable and people around town, the party learns that the outlaw and his unsavory henchmen tend to target the eastern road, but it is highly suspected that their hideout is somewhere in the forest to the south.

Assuming they agree to look into things, this setup gives the players a very simple choice to make. Go east and try to catch the outlaws where they are known to target innocents OR go south and hope that the rumored information about the hideout is correct. Regardless of which they choose, eventually the goal is to locate the outlaws, and if they have in fact taken the peasant’s wife, defeat them and secure her freedom, and the wrongly accused man’s as well. If the outlaws didn’t take the woman, the players can still rid the town of a menace by defeating the gang of highwaymen.

Typically, the outcome of the players’ choice in the above scenario doesn’t really matter all that much, and will at best alter the order in which the PCs face the challenges that have been prepared.

  • If they go east, perhaps the PCs encounter 3 outlaws watching the road, and either capture and interrogate them for the hideout’s location, OR drive them off and track them back to the hideout in the south forest. There, the remaining 6 outlaws are holed up, and the party must overcome them to achieve their objective.
  • If they go south, perhaps the PCs conduct a series of skill checks to find the hideout, face the 6 outlaws holed up inside, and the remaining 3 henchmen return during the battle or standoff and join in to make things more difficult for the PCs.

In either case, the players will face off against the same roster of villains with the same motivations and resources – because that is what was prepared in the notes beforehand. Now, the GameMaster could certainly add in a plot twist to liven things up a bit (maybe the wife went with the outlaws willingly, and helps them against the PCs), but this doesn’t alter the fact that since the GameMaster wrote it or has read it in the module, they know in advance – which means that the twist is purely for the players.

To overcome this, and let the GameMaster share in the fun of finding out just exactly what is going on at the hideout, there needs to be an “unknown” somewhere along the way. Some piece of information that isn’t in the game notes. In this case, that information is which way the players decide to go. Is the wife really the damsel in distress, at the mercy of cruel captors? or is she the cruel one herself, using the outlaws to rid her of the sniveling fool she hasn’t been able to stand for years?


Who has the answer? Certainly not the GameMaster, at least not until the session is in play and the call is made, east or south. By writing in things that aren’t definite until the players make a decision (with however many options), the GameMaster really doesn’t know what’s going on in advance – they only know what COULD be going on. It’s also more difficult to fall head over heels for your villain of choice if you don’t know him all that well because he’s not handcrafted solely by you. The campaign is still structured, but with elements that have yet to be determined, and thus must be discovered during play (by the players AND the GameMaster).

  • Is the villain working to destroy the kingdom? or does he want to take it over for himself?
  • Is he motivated by revenge? or loss?
  • Does he seek to curry favor with the dragon council? or the lords of the abyss?
  • Is he a lich? or a death knight?

The answer to all of these questions and a million more is: you don’t necessarily have to know in advance. You can write out options and let your players surprise you.

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