retcon-rightlyHow to undo major events in your campaign without destroying it.

The worst case scenario in my games has to be erasing gameplay, rewinding and replaying that part of the game again. I’ve only done that several times and it’s always felt horrible. A logic flaw pops up, or an inconsistency conflicts with what has been said or gone on before, or I just get facts wrong.

These problems need fixing. But nowadays, I use the techniques outlined below instead, which are listed in order of preference, instead of rewinding the game and erasing things.

Gameplay trumps rules

A house rule that serves me well is that whatever happens in the game is part of the permanent record, even if we later discover that rules were broken or overlooked. Gameplay trumps rules.

It’s easy to explain all but the most grievous of rules errors in-game. People in real life make mistakes every day, even the experts. We forget things, lose our balance, blunder even simple actions, get distracted, or make weird decisions.

Retcon within same combat round

Another great house rule allows PCs and foes to replay or fix errors as long as we’re in the same combat round they were made.

Combat rounds in many game systems are supposed to be simultaneous anyway, even if initiative or turn order makes things play out linearly. Allowing missed extra damage or use of a forgotten power within the same round minimizes logic errors. It also gives us all a bit of a comfort zone, so we’re willing to take faster turns, else we’d be checking and double-checking everything each time before letting the next player go.
A player who realizes they’ve missed something just interrupts and we pause and complete their issue. This minimizes errors and game issues, and my group doesn’t mind being interrupted because they know it might impact their decisions.

I know many GMs run “you say it, you do it” and no-take-backs type of combats. If this isn’t working well for you, consider allowing retcons as long as everything that changes takes place in the same combat round.

Change your own plans, plots, backstories

Before I expose any game issues to players, I’ll first try to change my own plans so events or errors make sense.

For example, if I forget a clue that was supposed to be in a previous encounter, rather than stopping the game and rewinding, or making a big deal about information the PCs would have had for awhile now, I’ll offer the clue instead at the next earliest opportunity and pretend nothing is amiss.

I find it’s much easier changing my plans than making my group stop, rewind and reprocess.

Reframe

Just as reporters slant stories to lead readers one way or the other, you can slant player and character perceptions to minimize game issues that crop up.

It’s easy slipping into the mindset of hard facts and truths. In real life, though, just about everything is fuzzy, and multiple points of view, beliefs and opinions are possible. When GMing, even if the PCs have experienced an event, you are free to consider things just through the narrow lens of PC perceptions and not consider gameplay as hard facts and truth.

Pretend you are a newspaper writer looking for the best angle on a story. Look at multiple points of views and interpretations. See if you can reframe things without causing issues with what you’ve told players.

For example, more than once I have forgotten an NPC’s spells during an encounter. After encounters I’ll realize my omission and what the NPC should have done. Next time the PCs meet the NPC, I’ll remember the spells or magic item or special abilities forgotten before. My players will be surprised and ask what the heck is going on. I’ll bluff confidently and say their PCs indeed perceive things accurately. But behind the scenes I’ll change my notes, saying the PC was overconfident last time, or had already cast his spells in a previous encounter, or that he wanted to keep his abilities secret. No harm, no foul, and actually a potentially interesting development.

Add new game elements – NPCs, locations, history

Still in line with my preference to change things on my end rather than breaking immersion and changing things in past gameplay, I’ll use all the GM tools at my disposal to explain away or justify game problems.

I’ll change NPCs or create new ones, change plots, modify history, change locations, twist encounters, and do anything possible to fix errors without bothering the PCs. As long as game consistency and logic, character perceptions, and what I’ve told players remains intact, I’m happy to make changes.

In rare cases, I’ll change established passive game elements to help fix problems. For example, I’ll change names or histories to solve logic errors and bring past roleplay into alignment with the facts. I’ll discuss this with the group to check for objections and get feedback, and then as a group we approve the changes. We’ll only do this if the changes would not have resulted in different character actions, and therefore different potential outcomes.

Group discussion

As a last resort, I’ll call a special group discussion to help fix bad campaign errors. I’ll provide all the information I’m able to reveal up front, and then supply two or three possible choices on how we should deal with the problem.

Then I’ll let the group talk things out, offer new suggestions, and vote on the final remedy.

Last ditch options I might consider are:

  • It’s all a dream or vision. The PCs wake up just before the error was made and we replay.
  • Divine intervention.
  • Alternate reality or dimension. The players somehow got into a parallel universe or timeline, and return to their own reality just before the error was made.
  • Magic. It can explain anything.

Bleh. I like none of these options, but they can all work. The important thing is talking with your group. Be open and honest about your error, accept all feedback. The worst thing you can do with a major problem you cannot fix yourself is stonewall your group, pretend nothing is wrong, or do something outlandish like the dream solution, without explanation.

Your players will understand, and appreciate your honesty. Gameplay might be awkward for a bit, but before long it will resume and this little blip will disappear into campaign memory.

Before I go this route though, I’ll try all the other methods above to fix things with a minimum amount of fuss, and minimal exposure to players so they can continue to enjoy the game unaware you are wringing your hands, bluffing and thinking like a madman for believable remedies.

Stall

Oh, one last tip. If possible, when you discover a major campaign or gameplay issue, end the session to give you a bit of time to consider your options. Then hop online to your favourite gaming forums and post the details of your dilemma to see if the community can offer you some clever ideas and solutions. Gamers love helping gamers.

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