What do you do when the players pull a 180?
Most you have spent a lot of time preparing for your game sessions, but things do not always go as planned. As a gamemaster, you know it is just a matter of time before, for whatever reason, the players choose to ignore the path that is put before them and go in a completely different direction. When this happens, you should allow it.
In this situation, one of the worst mistakes you can make as a gamemaster is to force the players along the path that you have prepared. Sure, you put a lot of time into the adventure and those lousy players want to do something else. Accept it. If you force your players down a specific path, most experienced players will notice and probably not like it. No one likes to be railroaded into doing something they do not want to do, so do not force your plans on them.
At this point, your goal is to keep the players engaged for the rest of the session and there are quite a few options available, but since the players decided to go a different route, the first thing you should do is find out what they want to do and what they are trying to accomplish. Maybe they have something in mind and somewhere that they want to go. If that is the case, play along and fill in the blanks as needed.
Do not be surprised if your players actually provide you with all you need to keep the session rolling. If this happens, all you need to do is provide setting details, non-player characters, and atmosphere. Either way, do not despair, roll with the punches and see where things lead.
If the players do need some direction and something to keep them engaged, the most common way a gamemaster can handle the situation is with random encounters. Some gamemasters have random encounters already prepared. For newer gamemasters, who may not have much experience running a game, this is particularly important. It allows you to be prepared for the unexpected. In addition, there are a wealth of encounters on the Internet and some of them are even broken down by geography or location such as mountains, forests, and cities.
Just because they are referred to as random encounters, does not mean they have to be completely arbitrary. If the players are traveling through a mountainous area, maybe you create an encounter that fits not only the situation, but also your world and campaign. If the mountains were known for having goblins, orcs, or dwarfs, using them in an encounter feels less random and builds the player’s world knowledge.
Of course, you can always have a hungry troll, vicious ogre, or any other creature that may be in the area stumble upon their camp. Flying creatures are always an interesting option.
Encounters do not always have to be combat-oriented. Friendly encounters are a great option that often foster opportunities for role-playing. You could create an encounter where the players come across a merchant caravan or a lone traveler camped along the road. Perhaps after meeting the players, the caravan leader asks the players to help guard the caravan. Maybe the lone traveler asks for help. Both of these scenarios could provide an opportunity for role-playing and maybe even a little adventure along the way.
Aside from encounters, you can introduce an environmental challenge. In the mountains, maybe a storm blows in from the north and the players are forced to find shelter. This could involve the use of survival and outdoor skills to make the event more interesting and add an element of danger.
Maybe your players are traveling through space and a meteor storm suddenly appears requiring evasive maneuvers, navigation checks, and leadership checks. If their ship takes damage, one or two of the players may have to spacewalk to make repairs. Both scenarios give the players an opportunity to show off their skills and it is a nice alternative to the typical combat encounter.
Investigation scenarios are a great option as well. Use your imagination and create a situation where the players experience something strange or mysterious prompting them to investigate. An investigation often generates some interesting role-playing opportunities and allows the players to be creative. It also creates a great opportunity for the players to work together and utilize non-combat skills in order to be successful.
If your players decide to turn the tables on you and go in an unexpected direction, take a deep breath and go with it. It is bound to happen eventually, if it has not already. Just use your imagination. You may well be rewarded with some unexpected, but memorable moments.