ABCs of GMing – Adaptability

The ABCs of GMing

The ABCs of GMing is an ongoing series about the different skills and ideas needed to run a successful table-top game.



When running a tabletop game, Adaptability is an invaluable trait. It’s important to apply this skill in a variety of ways when running a game so that everyone involved has an enjoyable experience. Here are a few tips and tricks on not only being adaptable during your campaigns, but also making sure your game itself is adaptable.


Storyline Adaptability

Generally speaking, your players will play whatever storyline you put in front of them. However, there are times where they won’t like your actions as a GM, and they may intentionally move their characters in a different direction. You don’t want to force your group into a story; it should flow naturally. If you find that your group is heading north instead of south, accommodate for their change.

Any good system will give you enough setting to slip your players into your desired plot in time. If they still aren’t being receptive, as frustrating as it may, let their actions continue. Keep in mind that it’s still their game, and it is your role as the storyteller to provide them with a positive experience. There will be times when careful planning and work may go out the window due to unexpected character actions or players. This is a hazard of the role you’ve undertaken.

Instead, come up with an alternate main plot (or ramp up a side plot) to keep them interested in playing. Down the road, when they are least expecting it, you can reintroduce your original plot points. You want them to have fun. If it feels like they are being forced, they won’t. Make sure the flow goes the way the players are comfortable with, and be prepared to have hijacked plotlines or ideas. The best part about being a GM is they are still playing in your world.


Battle Adaptability

Every GM presents their own style when running a game. Some GMs will play a taskmasker, making sure every battle is a “live or die” scenario, truly pitting the players against them. Others take a softer approach, and focus the experience more on plot and less about the hack-‘n’-slash. Regardless of how you run your game, however, you need to progress in a manner that makes it fun for your players. You don’t want to set up a huge battle just to let some lucky dice rolls wipe out half the group. That’s not exciting for anyone. Rather, keep a list of available alternatives with your notes to make sure the action is still enticing instead of vexing.

Are the guards with assault rifles proving to be a bit too much for your players? Downgrade the next wave to pistols.

Is that orc barbarian cleaving through the party fighters? Reduce that threat range to keep the number critical hits to a minimum.

Additionally, a big challenge when running a game is avoid playing your NPCs like they are the ultimate PC of your dreams. While you may have made that multi-classed fighter with the idea of turning him into an NPC killing machine one day, you have instead made him an NPC in your own storyline. Just make sure in his new form he’s not too much for the group. Being creative and finding a way of reinventing old ideas into new ones is a valuable skill, but be mindful that you can’t simply cut and paste old characters and enemies. The last thing you want is a nostalgic NPC breaking a boss fight you’ve been setting up for six sessions.


Setting Adaptability

So, you’ve picked your game, you created your NPCs, your players have characters. Now it’s time to decide on your setting. While things go well for a session or two, your players will eventually want to get away from this wonderful city you’ve crafted. Don’t panic. Even though your players may not be as enthralled with your idea of a starting area, all is not lost if they decide to pack up their things and move on (whether by choice, or by getting run out of town because they’re causing too much trouble). You’d be hard-pressed to find a system that can’t let you adapt accordingly.

Did that big setting plot with Renraku in Seattle get all FUBAR’d because you NPCs got chased out of town by Knight Errant? Send them to Denver, where there are five countries in control of the city, and countless megacorporations vying for control of sectors of the metroplex.

Is Korvosa not quite to the liking of your players? Riddleport is a short trip to the northwest, with just as many opportunities to exploit.

In short: with any setting, there are always alternatives available to you to help salvage most of your main story while letting your players get the opportunity to travel around the world in an organic manner.


Character Creation Adaptability

There are limits, however.

Sometimes, your players can be more creative than the system itself. It happens. Eventually you will experience when a player is making a character that they’ll have an idea for something new that the books don’t address. For example, in Shadowrun, a character wants to play a shapeshifting “were” creature, but the mammal of choice isn’t one of the six options the system presents.

Well, there’s no reason why you can’t come up with your own.

Be willing to sit down with the player and discuss the feasibility of their idea. In most cases, it’s not too far off from something that already exists. And if it is outlandish, chances are that someone, somewhere has tried something similar that can help you out with it. One of the best resources available to a GM is the online forum for the game system you are running. There are plenty of others who have their own various issues and questions, and your player may not be the first person to think of it. Take advantage of these communities. You want your players to have fun, so be willing to adapt to their wishes and ideas on making their ideal character – as long as it fits in the confines of your worldview.


Next time, I’ll be talking about Balance, and how to give your game the perfect level of difficulty for your players. In the meantime, feel free to tell us about your adaptability adventures on our forums!