I recently started to work the rust out of the old DMing muscles (that’s right, my muscles rust) and was somewhat surprised to see that I am a bit out of practice. For one thing, I made a grievous error in running my game, which brings me to this post’s Golden Rule of DMing: “You can’t predict what the players are going to do, even if you think you have them cornered”.
I put my players in a bar with a secret door in it and said “Go”. I had expected the party to explore the secret door, and to find the adventure hook I had placed there. Instead, after bickering about various ‘cuts’ of the wealth for some time, two of the party members became locked in the dungeon while the rest of the party waited in the bar.
A session later things had not much improved; the bar was on fire now and the party were placed under arrest for killing 6 clerics. My secret door and the quest hook within it were still largely undiscovered.
The lesson here is that there isn’t any particular “right” direction for the players to go, and they will surprise you more often than not. In my case, I had little prepared for what was outside the tavern, as I had assumed the first session would be within my fairly fleshed-out dungeon crawl.
A great way to get around this problem is to do what video games do. In most sandbox games (and DnD is basically a sandbox game) the entire map is not rendered all at once. The computer maps out the parts of it you can see, and a little beyond that, and waits for you to move closer before loading the rest. This way the player doesn’t see an annoying loading screen every few blocks; the game loads the city in the background.
If you are dropping your party off in the middle of the desert, set a perimeter for the session. What is in your desert? If the party decides to ignore their quest and just travel north, does your world have anything to the north for them to discover? You don’t have to map out the whole world, just everything within a two hour radius. You can choose to only prepare the part of the world the party will discover today, but you have to make sure that there is actually a world for them to discover.
Computer games are handy in that they have a wonderful loading screen and cinematics and music. Dungeons and Dragons, more often than not, has food breaks and random encounters, which can serve the same purpose.
To conclude, try to have something prepared for almost any possibility. When the unthinkable happens and you are caught by surprise (this WILL happen) don’t worry about it. Roll something up and try to be more prepared next time. Life will go on and your players will be alright with it.
If you liked this, you can check out Part 1 here and my other material on the Dungeon Map.
May all your dice roll 20s,