One of the pitfalls I discovered in my early days as a DM, was the tendency to “railroad” or lead my players on a track right into a storyline that I thought I needed them to follow. This, my beginner DM friends, is not a good thing. Players want to have free will. They do not want to feel their choices are either limited or of no consequence. Your job, then, is too provide them this free will, or at least the illusion of free will. It’s not that difficult to accomplish, and your players will appreciate it more. So let’s assume your players throw you for a loop in your campaign, and they take a path you hadn’t thought of…
Let’s assume your adventure called for the party finding a priest of Pelor who supposedly lives somewhere beyond the Howling Woods. They need his help because he holds a special Sunlight Ritual that a local farming community needs him to cast due to endless rain. Okay so you have your map planned out and you know that the priest resides in the Village of Eastwood, and you hope they stumble there eventually because it’s the largest village on your map. But your player’s decide to check out other spots on your map instead. They want to go to Evan’s Landing and then the Howling Woods. What to do? There are a few options.
Make things fit
This may be the simplest solution of them all, and the least obvious to the players. Whatever you had planned in Eastwood, adapt it to Evan’s Landing. The player’s wouldn’t really know the difference anyway. Unless you had a really good reason to keep your priest in the original location, this shouldn’t really be a problem. Your players have the illusion of free will, and your story can continue on its path.
Go with their flow
Okay, so the player’s have decided to go to Evan’s Landing but you really need Mr. Priest to live in Eastwood. No problem, let them go to Evan’s Landing. It turns out that a few farmers here have on rainy days, actually used the ritual from a priest in Eastwood. You can use the new location to your advantage. The farmer’s are willing to tell the party where this priest is, if they “help us out with something first…” The players will feel as if their free will contributed to their advancement in the storyline. As if they were supposed to go there and they figured it out.
The player’s have decided that they are not only going to take their time in finding this priest, they want to explore a bit of the world you’ve laid out in front of them. “we go to the Howling Woods and look for evidence of werewolves. We’ll deal with the priest later.” What?! Your instinct will tell you that it’s easier to say “you find no evidence of werewolves” rather than letting them do what they want. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, this branching out can lead to greater plot hooks in the future that you may want to have in your back pocket. It may also lead your story back on track. Let’s assume the players investigate the werewolf activity. Maybe they can find a young werewolf with ties to Eastwood. He might be carrying a map of the village, or a note explaining his curse. “Help me, I’m Harlan from the Village of Eastwood, take my corpse to my mother and beg her to forgive me and my curse.” Use the party’s ideas and choices to open up story opportunities for your campaign.
Regroup your thoughts
Not everyone can be creative all the time. If your party really throws a curve ball your way, it’s always fair to tell them, “Guys, give me a few minutes to gather my thoughts.” Take a snack break and come up with something. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure to sit there at the table with 6 sets of eyes staring at you while you think of something clever. Just be honest, they’ll understand. Bathroom break, phone break, or pizza breaks are good time for you to think without feeling the pressure.
Preparation is key
A good idea when dealing with these kinds of situations is to prepare and plan for them ahead of time. One way to do this is to have a flowchart or mindmap prepared, with the possible branches your players may take, and the options you’d have available to confront them. Flowcharts, as well as mindmaps can help you organize the many paths you can expect your players to take into a cohesive document for yourself.
In closing, don’t allow your player’s actions to be game stoppers for you. They are entitled to, and should be able to make decisions. D&D isn’t a video game, and it certainly isn’t on a track. Let the player’s take off on their path, just be sure you are prepared to deal with it. Get ’em off your railroad!