Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Error Handling Routines

We all make mistakes when we run the game; what's important is how you handle it.  I tend to loosely break mistakes down into two broad categories:  For the Players and Against the Players.  You can further think about them as "material" or not.  Material mistakes warp the campaign in an undesirable way, or lead to a character death; those are the only ones I'm worried about fixing. Small mistakes I just note and hope to do better next time.

Mistakes in the Player's Favor
If a mistake is material and gives the players a significant advantage, I prefer introducing complications or natural consequences instead of something heavy-handed like a retcon or a take back.  Think of it as an opportunity to send the campaign into an interesting direction.

The most common situation is a Monty Haul - your low level characters end up with a powerful magic sword or exorbitant treasure; perhaps a random roll at the wrong time.  Instead of taking that magic sword away, think through what would really happen if someone got an item that was well above their means.  Their life could become very interesting all of a sudden.  In the case of the powerful sword, NPC duelists might flock to challenge the unworthy owner, or the king or lord might claim it for the realm through divine right.

If you talk out of game, a reasonable DM might offer a lesser item that better fits the power level of the campaign.  If you play it out, you can still reach that same end point, but it would happen naturally through consequences of play.  For instance, a worthier fighter might claim the sword in a duel and disdainfully leave the character his hand-me-down, or the king shows his appreciation for the character's "donation" by granting him a lesser weapon.  But now the players have an enemy and a grudge - the campaign is more interesting.  Even better, they might fight off all comers and build a legendary reputation for themselves along the way; your mistake is their opportunity for awesome.

Mistakes Against the Players
The DM is expected to be "impartial and fair" on behalf of the players; when the DM makes a mistake that materially affects their characters, there's an obligation to address it.  I try to let dice fall and avoid fudging, but when my mistake gets someone killed who shouldn't have died, I do what I can to restore the injured party.  For these types of situations, I suggest talking to the group outside of the game - usually at the end or start of the session.  Explain the mistake, how it warped the game, and then discuss some approaches to making it up to the player.  I still don't go back in time and retcon the situation, but strive for a solution that works going forward without changing any timelines.

A recent example for me involved the ghost encounter from a few weeks ago; I ran a version of the ghost from a retro clone (beware the ghostly clone) that was inordinately difficult to fight because some key wording was missing, so I ran it in "hard mode".  The AD&D ghost attempts to magic jar a victim from the safety of the ethereal plane, but when that fails, it materializes and starts wailing on the victim, physically.  My version hung out on the ethereal plane the entire time, frustrating most of their efforts to affect it until they retreated and regrouped to come at it with fresh ideas.

When we met again, I explained the mistake out of game; the resources they expended were still gone, but we agreed that their research in between sessions would turn up tricks that might compel this ghost behave the way the monster was originally designed, thus putting the game "back on track".  That seemed reasonable, and we moved on.  I'll touch on it in the next game report.

I was looking through the 1E DMG recently, and saw that most of the error-handling advice was fairly heavy handed - fix problems with bolts from the blue and other tyrannical measures.  Somewhere along my GM career, I settled on the idea that talking about mistakes and collaborating on a solution out of game maintained the integrity of the campaign better than 'acts of god' and 'bolts from the blue' within the game.

If you don't mind sharing, I'm sure other gamers would like to hear about your most egregious screw ups, and how you fixed them - post some in the comments for everyone to enjoy!