It took you 10 hours along the week but you’re finally ready for anything your players may come up with in the game. The secret agent PCs enter the mob boss’s office to find incriminating evidence and start searching everywhere. You have all the handouts at hand ready to be handed over to the players. That’s when one of the players’ eyes shines and you see a smirk in their face. “Let’s leave a trap that kills the mob boss when he comes back”. Oh no! What now? The train has left its rail and it may never get back on it again! We are going off the rails!
When you take the role as a GM you need to understand that it is highly improbable for everything to go along as you expect. You need to come to terms with it as soon as you can if you intend to continue your career as a GM. One needs to prepare as much as they feel comfortable with, leaving some space for improvisation. Personally, I tend to improvise a lot in my games but I try to have a predefined structure that can help me with my improvisation. Getting to this point requires a great deal of practice but it is achievable. However, there are moments in which no matter which foundations you lay before you the campaign or game you are running goes totally awry and there isn’t much you can do about it. Let’s see how we can prepare ourselves for next time this happens:
This is not easy
First of all, I wanted to make sure you understand that going off the rails is not always easy. Some of the best GMs out there have had to stop the game after a weird turn and think for some time the consequences that may cause. One excellent example I always think back to when this happens to me is episode 56 from Campaign 2 of Critical Role. At the end of the episode, something of great proportions happens and the DM is forced to stop the game to think all this may cause and plan ahead. The game abruptly ends and the players have to wait for the next session to keep playing. If this can happen to DMs as professional as Mathew Mercer, then you shouldn’t feel pressured to keep going off the rails if you are uncomfortable doing so.
The invisible wall
If you are not comfortable going off the rails and you are playing with a group of players you trust you may invoke what I call the “Invisible Wall”. This is definitely not something to be often done but something you should only do if you feel cornered and don’t know what to do with that the players decide. If the players decide to go to point B instead of point A where you have everything already set out you may apply this technique. It involves telling your players that if they go to point B you need to have some things ready and you don’t feel comfortable improvising that section. That way you are signaling them to either go to point A or wait until the next session in which you will have that section prepared.
Notice that by doing this you are not forcing the players to have their characters go towards the way you want railroading them. You are clearly indicating to players that you don’t feel ready to have the story go that way YET, but if they decide to wait a bit you can ready the path. Creating an invisible wall where you don’t want the story to go to is usually considered bad GMing because you are restricting player choices and carrying them where you want them to. In other words, if you do use this make sure to do it properly, but abstain from doing so unless you don’t see any other way out.
It’s impossible to properly avoid going off the rails, but you can at least mitigate the damage and prepare yourself as best as you can for when it happens. Prepping your sessions in an efficient manner can help you do this. I personally plan most of my games (even non-D&D games) using the tips from SlyFlourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and highly recommend it. The steps detailed there have you prepare everything you need to easily improvise your game sessions. Some games make it far easier to do than others. I know of many RPGs that required little to no prep because the system already gives you most you need to improvise around it. Ironsworn, Fate, and Burn Bryte are amazing examples of this. There’s not much else I can say about prepping without stepping over what SlyFlourish talks about, so go take a look at his work if you want to prep efficiently! This content is also available in video format: click here
Once you have that ready, here you can find some tips of my own that I can’t live without that make improvising so much easier:
If you start detailing your world a bit you will then be able to easily improvise when the moment to describe arrives. I personally have some sections of my world that are described with just one sentence. That’s all I need for my head to start thinking of things that will surely make sense to be there or possible encounters. That’s why using websites such as Kanka, or WorldAnvil is so useful for me. Lately, I’ve heard of some people detailing their world in Microsoft OneNote and Notion. These last two might require extra work but are just as useful as Kanka or WorldAnvil.
If you have “city from Disney’s Atlantis movie” written in one of your cities, your mind will surely picture a futuristic city under the water with long-forgotten technology. From there you can improvise futuristic vehicles that swim at high speed, great constructions, and underwater people. The underwater people might be based on some civilization from a book you read. Ta-da! There you’ve got quite a lot of things coming to mind from just one sentence. Fill your world with few details that you know can help you improvise the rest. You can then come later to fill in the details whenever you like, adding NPCs or important locations.
Having a list of names ready is an extremely important tool for improvisation. Before your session look for random name generators and mark down all the ones you think make sense to exist in your game. The great part about this is that a name can easily inspire a voice and/or personality out of you when improvising. An NPC can easily point the players towards where you want them to go, changing the location of something you planned where they are going. Now you just need to create this random NPC as a whole by just picking a name from the list. This is why I consider Names lists so important when going off the rails.
The most important skill you need to know to accomplish how to go off the rails successfully is know how to improvise. Some people find it extremely easy to do so, while others don’t do as well. Some even recommend going to improv classes. While this might definitely help you a lot, it is not necessary. I’ve been GMing for 5 years and I’ve never done any improv myself, nor have a theatre major (even though I did enjoy theatre club as a kid, but I don’t think that helped that much). The only way to get better at improv is with practice. Once you achieve a good enough level there’s an instant payoff as your sessions end up being much better.
If I recall correctly, all my most memorable GM-moments are a result of going off the rails. That’s when I’m forced to improvise. It’s at these moments that I usually go a bit lose on the rules and start using the famous “Yes, and” method. It’s easier to improvise if you start doing everything in Theatre of the Mind. Ask what the players want their characters to do and try to allow those sort of actions to happen. Players usually have a better time and a more memorable, completely unexpected result appears. Knowing how to go off the rails and improvising are two of the most important elements of great GMing.
I’m extremely sorry there is no other way for me to tell this, but if you want your GMing to be better you need to learn how to go off the rails at times, and improvise. There is no trick to doing so properly other than practicing. Everyone has their own style when improvising, and there are ways to facilitate doing so, like the ones detailed above. I hope after reading this that the next time you are forced to get out of the things you planned for the session you end up creating a marvelous story out of it with your players.
What was your best or most memorable moment that happened just because you had to go off the rails? Do you think you could have made that moment better with enough preparation? Let me know in the comments below! I love reading your stories.
If you liked this
A great strategy to use your time better when going off the rails is by knowing how to properly manage it. Did you know I created an entire article about that?: CLICK HERE