Dealing with Accidental Inconsistencies in your Story

  • DM: The captain of the vessel informs you that he will give you free passage to your destination if you can capture his nemesis, a foul gnoll cleric who killed his father.
  • Players: Ok, we roll some streetwise to track this guy down.
  • DM: Success!  You discover where he’s staying.  It’s at the Boar’s Knuckle tavern, on the other side of town.
  • Players: We go to the tavern where he’s staying, and look around.  Is there anyone in the common room?
  • DM: Well, it’s midafternoon, so it’s pretty empty, but the barkeep and errand boy confirm that yes, in fact a gnoll has been staying here for a week or two.  He’s in room 12, though he hasn’t paid for tonight yet, so it’s likely he’s leaving sometime today.
  • Players: We go kick in the door.
  • DM: He’s standing by the window, he looks like he was packing his things, but when you burst in, he charges at you to gore you with his horns.
  • Players: Horns?
  • DM: Yeah. He’s a minotaur.
  • Players: I thought we were tracking down a gnoll.
  • DM:………..

It happens to even the best DM. It’s usually a more subtle detail than the one in the example above, but at some point in any campaign, a player points out an inconsistency in your story or campaign world.  This is especially apt to happen in a campaign where there is a lot of improvisation by the DM, or where the players go in a direction that the DM is not expecting.  What to do?  Stammer, stutter, and apologize? Backpedal?  “Oh, yeah, you’re right, ummm, he’s a gnoll, I forgot that detail…let’s try that again…”  No. Not by a long shot.

Step 1: Deny, deny, deny

Don’t admit that you made a mistake. Don’t don’t don’t. Why? Well, because you didn’t make a mistake. You created a story opportunity. If your players call you on a story inconsistency, don’t admit that you weren’t paying attention to the details.  Instead, either insinuate that the characters were given faulty information at some point, or better yet, simply smile conspiratorially at their observation.  This will make it seem as though you’ve been planning this little revelation all along, and the players have just stumbled across some larger truth that should give them pause.

Step 2: Stall

If at all possible, give yourself some breathing room.  It’s pretty hard to come up with good plot twists and explanations in the middle of a gaming session, especially if you weren’t expecting to have to.  Ideally, throw an encounter at them that will last until the end of the night.  That will give you a week (at least) to sit back and decide what’s “really” going on.  If stalling isn’t an option, here is your fallback position: Magic.  The beauty of fantasy setting is that pretty much anything is possible with magic.  Your best bet is to have the players roll some arcana checks, and say something vague like, “You feel strong residual magical energy here. It’s possible that you may have stumbled across some magical shenanigans.”  At this point, you don’t want to commit to anything specific.

Step 3: Brainstorm

So, you didn’t make a mistake, you created an opportunity.  You handed yourself, unwittingly, a plot twist.  What does it mean? How will it play out? Take some time to run through the possibilities in your head. Don’t rule anything out, and try to come up with at least three different explanations for the information the PCs received.  For example:

  • The Minotaur/Gnoll is a shapeshifter
  • The Minotaur is a bounty hunter who actually got to the Gnoll first, and was going through his things
  • The ship’s captain set the PCs up, and the minotaur is his trigger man

All three of these could be taken in wildly different directions, and that’s without leaning too hard on the “it’s magic at work!” crutch.  Once you have a valid explanation (or at least one that the players will buy), go with it! Set up some scenarios where the PCs gradually uncover the truth, and turn the mistake into something the players will be talking about for a long time.

The example given at the beginning of the article actually happened to me a few years ago (too much improvisation, too little thinking), and I turned “I thought that the guy was supposed to be a minotaur” into a plot twist that the players had a lot of fun with.  It “turned out,” you see, that the players had merely captured the apprentice of the bounty they were hunting.  Their employer ended up calling them all idiots, and torturing the truth out of the apprentice.  This led to a whole side quest in which the PCs tracked down the guy they were supposed to have captured in a single encounter.  All because I slipped up at the table.  Make the explanation as simple or as complex as you like.  Change the whole direction of the campaign, or simply create a small mystery for the players to solve.  It’s up to you.  Just don’t waste the opportunity.

What do you do when your players call you on a story inconsistency?

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3 Responses to Dealing with Accidental Inconsistencies in your Story

  1. BrianLiberge says:

    There’s nothing wrong with admitting to your players that you made a mistake or a slip of the tongue. These are you’re friends. You play with them every week. They understand that as the DM, you prep a lot of different things, have to improvise, and are often thinking ahead. There are a lot of reason why you might say one thing, and mean or intend something else.

    I’m not sure the author was really saying that you should never admit your mistakes. I just wanted to make it clear, that you really do have the option of making simple mistakes, correcting yourself quickly and moving on.

    That being said, I agree with the author that its often not your best option. Going with the flow of a mistake can often be inspiration, and a good source of surprising creative fun. If you realize a mistake, even a little one, take just a moment to think “It this going to ruin everything?” If not, I say go with it.

    The most common switch I make accidentally is saying the wrong name, either the name of an NPC or a place. Sometimes you just need certain things to be in a particular place. Sometimes you just need the person talking to give accurate information. Just remember you have options.

    • Benoit says:

      I do agree that it’s ok to admit a mistake. The “Deny deny deny” thing is a bit tongue in cheek. I just think our knee jerk reaction is to backpedal and apologize, when, like you said, they can really be fun twists and inspiration instead of embarrasing moments.

  2. Alton says:

    I ran a whole adventure with a mistake once. I used that mistake and turned it into an opportunity for the players to run with the storyline. They unwittingly did not know that they are the ones who ran the adventure. I did make one huge mistake killing a character in the process and did admit it. I felt bad.

    The ideas are sound and the advice is good.

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