Oh, who am I kidding? Things never go according to plan. The mark of a good GM is dealing with those time when things go seriously off the rails. A bad GM keeps the train running forward until the whole thing crashes. A good GM lays new track.
And yet, even if you keep things rolling you are still going to upset some passengers. Players. Whatever. The point is, you are bound to upset someone.
Let me give you an example. In my Vindicators game there has been this epic storyline running since March. Lord Dread, inspired by Marvel's Doctor Doom-
So this epic has been going on for months and we are finally at the culmination, the face off against Dread. I had planned for this fight to last quite a while. Dread has been around for decades, he knows how to fight teams of super powered beings. He has numerous tactics and an arsenal of weapons at his disposal. I had fully planned on making my players suffer in this final battle.
During the adventure Robin dropped out of the game, leaving me running his character Apex. Then Alan contacted me, telling me he was disillusioned with his character Knack. So he did me a big favor and took over running Knack while I modified the game to come up with a way to kill off Knack in a heroic manner.
See how the game doesn't exactly go the way you expect? And there is no getting angry here. People are people. They sometimes disappear from your game, or they get tired of the character they are playing. You roll with it and your appreciate it when they do you a favor.
So Knack gets his heroic death. He pilots the Vindicators' alien shuttle into space and rams Thor, a military satellite taken over by Dread to drop tungsten rods onto Disneyworld. Knack is another casualty in the war against Dread. Meanwhile on Earth round one is done and I am ready to punish the players.
And Chris writes like a man possessed.
Chris runs Trickshot, and Knack was sort of his best friend. Both were outcasts, both possessed similar powers, both had inhuman advisers. Trickshot was magical, Knack technological. And so when Ry’Lahh, Trickshot's magic bow, informed Trickshot Knack was dead, Chris decided that this called for an epic post in response.
“no.” It was a whisper; inaudible given the situation. Knack was…gone?!
”I call the top bunk!” the young archer shouted as he and Taylor raced towards their room. The space station corridors were just wide enough to allow them to jockey for the lead as the two jostled and joked, entering their living space as reckless as usual. Charles threw his duffel bag filled with clothes that had been purchased by Brian Griffith onto the upper bed. A moment later he leaped up onto the mattress; the archer’s feet dangling close to Taylor’s head.
“What the frag-grenade?! You dirty virus, that’s rigging!”
Trickshot had just recently gotten to his feet. His legs felt like jelly and he was sure that the floor was shifting beneath him. “No…” The look in his eyes was one of bewilderment and utter devastation. It was reminiscent of an Alzheimer’s patient after a moment of lucidity. He tried to focus on something – anything; but it just wouldn’t happen.
He could feel intense pain as gravity pulled at his numbed limb. The shoulder of the costume had been disintegrated, exposing charred bright red flesh. As he moved, the wet glimmer of bone showed through on occasion. Tears welled up in his eyes, obscuring the color and light show that displayed behind Lord Dread. “NO.” He began to move towards the villain, stumbling at first.
His footing became more stable after the first initial steps. He had little regard left for his own well-being. He had no quips, no jibes to taunt this villain. He had no mirth to bolster his team. It was as if all the goodness and joy that dwelled within the flaxen haired hero had been snuffed out suddenly and without warning. All he had left was pain and anger. His shoulder flared in agony; white hot tendrils of pain jolting into his brain and making him want to scream. His trot turned into a run. It wasn’t much farther now…”NO!!!” He leaped into the air; sailing over several stairs as he sought to inflict as much pain and suffering as Lord Dread had just done to him. He screamed unintelligibly; a snarl full of rage and hate as he swung Ry’Lahh with all his soul.
This is a player who has stepped up and wrote a tremendous post. And I confess I saw this post as being a way out. Remember how I mentioned Robin and Alan earlier? Well, they were not the only issues going on. I had one player, Dave, who wanted to return to the game and had been patiently waiting months to do so. And a guy named Don had contacted me, wanting to join the game. On top of that Paul had gotten in touch with me privately, telling me he wanted to take a leave of absence. Combined with the other issues I had faced earlier as well as the fact that I anticipated this combat to possibly last as long as another month (My plans had been for Dread to be a stunningly difficult opponent)...
I took the easy way out. Even though Chris' character Trickshot had been stunned for that round, I wrote it so his character staggered forward and smashed Dread on his helmeted skull, killing him, bringing the combat to an abbreviated close.
And this served to frustrate Earl, whose character had been less than effective these past few months, combat wise. In retrospect I could see where he was coming from; Earl's character has what is probably the most effectively terrifying weapon in the game: a holy flame thrower that burns the souls of the wicked. Imagine if you were a criminal and you knew this guy had such a weapon. You would either 1) make it your top priority to take this person down first or 2) you run away. At this stage of the game Everyone knew about the holy flamer, that's what happens if your character has been adventuring for a few years and criminals exchange information. And in this day and age information sharing is as easy as a text. So did I overcompensate a little too much where Earl's character, Battle Maiden was concerned? Yeah, I probably did. Earl had been looking forward to that final fight and when he was robbed of his opportunity to do something big and cinematic-ally impressive, it justifiably pissed him off.
In the end I let the combat stand. If I reversed my decision then that would have likely upset Chris. Worse, everyone would have known the end result of the combat: bow smash to skull. All I could do was apologize to Earl both privately and publicly and apologize to the group as a whole and explain why I did what I did.
The moral to all this? When you are dealing with a group of individuals you are not always going to be able to make everyone happy. There are going to be times when you make unpopular decisions, wrong decisions. And I can assure you that if you are a GM for long enough you are going to make wrong decisions. You are going to upset players, either singly or some or the group as a whole. And the question you have to ask yourself is, is it all worth it? Is it worth the frustration and risk of upsetting people?
After twelve years of running The Vindicators I would give an unqualified Yes to that question. Have I upset players? Of course I have. Have I consistently entertained them far more? I would say so. No GM bowls the perfect game. What you do is try and do better next time, to come up with ways to make sure a similar event does not occur. For me I think I need to insure these mega-events do not last as long, somehow. It would be a start, anyway.