Letting Mistakes Enhance Your Game


What do you do when you slip up while running a game? What do you do when you forget to have the PCs meet up with a certain NPC, or find a certain item and it's too late to go back and introduce them? What do you do when your NPCs don't remember the PCs or when you forget to figure out what the mystery machine DOES when the characters finally activate it?

I once read a book on writing by Orson Scott Card. I'm not a big fan of Card's writing per se, Ender's Game being the one glaring exception along with his book How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, a how-to guide to writing.

In his writing guide, Card makes the argument that mistakes and accidents in writing, and I'll add in gaming to this, should be used, not corrected. By accidents and mistakes, I'm not referring to grammar or spelling and neither was Card. In fact, Card's example was a hand drawn map of a city.

Card likes to draw maps. It's a relaxing creative hobby that he can do whenever he's alone with some free time. In this case, he drew a map of a large fantasy city with seven gates in the city wall. Each of the gates had large streets that lead straight to a large plaza in the center of of the city. One gate was different. Somehow, while he was doodling the city into existence, Card had overlooked one gate and had filled in buildings all the way up to it, just like he did with the rest of the wall.

Card could have erased those buildings and drawn another road leading up to that plaza easily enough, but he decided to leave that gate as is and try to come up with a reason why the gate would have been blocked off instead.

He decided that each of the gates represents a god. The blocked gate was for a god who had fallen out of favor and become forbidden over time. Thus the gate was blocked off, and I assume that all of the churches, shrines, and whatnot for that god were either destroyed or abandoned as well. When the gate was blocked off people started building and before long it was hard to tell that section of the wall from another section.

Card later used this city along with its blocked gate and the reasoning behind it as inspiration for a novel which he then wrote and made a lot of money from. Don't ask me which novel; like I said before, I don't read most of his work.

...instead of fixing mistakes, you can incorporate them.
If we bring this idea of using mistakes into the realm of role-playing games one could make the determination that instead of fixing mistakes on adventure design, NPC interaction, and running games, you can incorporate them into your game, thus enhancing your game instead of detracting from it.

I know that no matter how good a GM you are, you are gonna mess up sooner or later. I am a rather absent-minded fellow myself and I tend to forget small but vital pieces of information at inopportune times. Stupid things like introducing an NPC three times without that NPC remembering the characters, adding a dot signifying something important on a map and then forgetting what it was, leaving clues that make sense to me (the GM) but not to anyone else, and having an evil NPC get away and forgetting to bring them back when I meant to.

That forgetful NPC could have been controlled by someone else, have no short term memory, have someone following them, or they could have other reasons for not openly recognizing the characters.

That dot may have been the ancient ruins that I wanted the players to explore, a nice campsite, or a place where I accidentally rested my pencil and pressed too hard while thinking when I was drawing the map.

Forgetting that Evil NPC means that there is a different reason that bad things are happening to the PCs. I can always bring that NPC in later.

Instead of giving your players an oops accompanied by a sheepish look, you can act as though you MEANT for these things to happen. Instead of backtracking your game and redoing things, save what happened until that session is over and then figure out a way to add it into your campaign.

For Example

In my world elves were originally complete pacifists. Their world was invaded by a demon army and some of the elves started fighting back. Over time, most of the pacifist elves had been killed off and the remainder fled to a small island where they began construction of a machine that would end the war.

The elves who chose to fight allied themselves with the slaves who fled from the demon army. This allied army managed to forcibly close the portal that connected the demon army with supplies and reinforcements. The portal exploded when it was closed, wiping out the main fortress for the demon army in this world. Thus the war ended.

5,000 years later the portal has reopened. A new demon army poured through and the characters had discovered ancient writings hinting at a lost isle of elves with a machine that could destroy the demon army. They found out that the elves in question were the last of the pacifist and highly learned in the magical arts. The characters immediately set out to find this lost isle.

When the adventure was well under way, the characters had narrowed the location of the isle to almost a hundred square miles, had a ship fully stocked and a captain and crew ready to go, one of the players made an off-hand remark that showed me a major glaring problem with the final resolution of this THREE YEAR CAMPAIGN.

If this machine was built by pacifist who were willing to die and to leave everything that they knew and who had let everything that they loved be destroyed without ever fighting back, how could it stop a demon army? What did the machine do? It couldn't just kill the demons, it had to do something else. Closing the portal wouldn't work either, the demon could either reopen it or open a new portal later.

I realized then that I had no idea what that damn machine did. I had the vague thought that it would kill off the bad guys but now I realized that pacifists wouldn't build a machine that killed or hurt anything. Figuring out what the machine did had been so far in the future that I had never worked it out. Now here I was, within a session or two of the characters getting to the machine, and I HAD NO CLUE WHAT IT DID. Talk about procrastination...

I did eventually come up with the idea that the machine would transport the entire solar system to a different region in space (crafty little elves, weren't they?). This would cause the demon to have to find the planet again before he could open up another portal and no one left alive had the capability to create a portal leading into hell.

And the machine was reusable. Handy.

...even a glaring mistake can be rectified without the characters ever having known.
So you can see that even a glaring mistake can be rectified without the characters ever having known that you had made a mistake in the first place. These players thought that I had the machine, what it did, and how it was activated worked out months in advance when I didn't have a clue until a couple of days before our last session, which was a doozy I might add.

The NPC who I reintroduced to the PCs three times was a young scholar in the making, a highly intelligent scribe translating texts in the library. He was originally just a generic NPC contact that the characters can use to gather information or to translate things on occasion.

However, I now had to come up with a logical but fun reason that he didn't remember the characters. I didn't want a young absent minded genius or some other cliché and I love psychology and studying the criminal mind.

I ended up making him a serial killer based loosely on the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy. He never remembered the PCs because he was focused on only one of them, a bright intelligent beauty named Serendipity. The other characters didn't really exist for him, thus he forgot who they were.

This character changed the flavor and direction of my entire campaign and made it MUCH darker and gobs more intense than most of my work. The players loved it and it was extremely easy to throw in plot twists random encounters, weird notes and clues, and to turn everyone in the city against the PC's (because they were suspected of being the killer(s).

In Closing

So keep your mistakes. Make them fit within your world and use them. Never back-track and say things like "We're gonna have to replay last session because I forgot to add some things that you're gonna need". Your players will know that you messed up and that's not something that you want to have happen very often. Your players want to have confidence in their GM.

Keep your players in the dark. Adapt your mistakes into your game and see where it leads you. Journey into the unknown and flex your creative muscle. See what you come up with and only admit defeat when you have to.

Your players will thank you for it.

These are good points, Calamar. turning a mistake into an opprtunity will be more difficult if it's exposed in mid-session and you do not have time to engineer a cool explanation.

- reading a signature is silly -

Apparently, I and my group, are so used to errors in GMing that this has never really become an issue. The slips are normally minor in their long term effects.

FREX, Recently a group of unequipped PCs were given equipment prior to the task at hand. Among that equipment was a hand axe, that shouldn't have been there (becasue it would short circuit an obstacle later). When they came to that obstacle and I realized I had given them the axe, I said oops, there wasn't an axe, and the players accepted it. It had not yet been used and didn't provide any other complications, so losing it was no big deal.

If NPCs start with a name, our group is amazing for their ability to remember it and to ask if "Exedor, the sage" is available when they return to the library. If they ask, the GM is reminded that they've previously met him. Some initially minor NPC have developed and fleshed out through PC intentionally returning to their haunts. One campaign started in "The Obligitory Bar" (Home of the Obligitory Bar Fight - New PC groups formed weekly) with the NPC "Bartender". He was eventually named "Dammit" (as in Gimme a beer Dammit) and the bar became "Dammit's Obligitory Bar".

The NEED to cover errors, I think depeds alot on your group. My group would rather put up with a few mistakes, then wait after every action for the GM to check his notes.

OTOH we have had a few campaign level problems. Gold shipments are being replaced with clever immitations that can only be detected through destruction (utter) of the gold, if it is gold. The problem being a group of engineers and chemists are not falling for that. The campaign died quickly.


In last night's session, I forgot to mention an old map that was stashed with the other treasure. After the session ended I remembered it and I'm trying to come up with a way that the PCs get it and associate it with said treasure, without "oops, there was also a map".

- reading a signature is silly -

Any useful containers which could have hidden compartments?
Any scrolls on which the writing could change form into a map when a suitable spell is cast or an appropriate command word spoken?
Did they bring back a chest - they are unlikely to have inspected the carved base of the chest at this point, but if it tips over accidentally they may notice the map on the bottom.
Could the map be hidden inside the cover or spine of a book?

Schröedinger's cat is dead; long live Schrödinger's cat

I'm afraid the only treasure were some potions and some coins pouches, which they examined already :P

- reading a signature is silly -

They examined the coin pouches? How much attention did they pay? There could be a map printed on the inside of the pouch fabric.

There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes.
-"The Scar", China Mieville

I was thinking more along the lines of a cloth map that's wrapped on the inside of the pouch, becuase the chances of them slitting (or inverting) the pouch and seeing the map are slim, using your suggestion.

- reading a signature is silly -

How about using the coins? Make them unable to change the coins because one side is defaced - ground down and etched with lines. When they examine the coins more closely they realize that they have a jigsaw puzzle. You can even take the map, print it on some paper, and cut it into coins for them. Overlap the coins and get the map.

What about etched into one of the potion bottles so that it is not revealed until the potion is consumed. Or you could make the cork of a potion a rolled up map.

Good luck.

Gil, I love that coin idea! I am SO going to use that in a game soon! That's just cool...

If one drink's the potion, perhaps they will see an image of the map...once i had a PC drink from a fountain of direction, and its effect was that the PC's eyes started to shine beams of bright light that allowed him to follow a hidden magic trail leading to a "lost shrine"

you can also have the bottle, once empty, shine a refracted map of light on anything it is reflected off of (a wall, floor etc)...after the potion is consumed, the etching could be appearent, and when held up to the eye to read it, the PC would find it backwards, and the other PC's would see the map shine on his face...

hmmm...refractive map...I like!
Now, to make sure they actually SEE it...

- reading a signature is silly -

just say (once one drinks it) that they see smthing written on the side of the bottel, now that it is empty. the PC who swallowed the potion will no doubt hold it up to see whats on the bottle...then tell the other PCs that somthing is reflecting off the PCs face.

Or just make the potion poison and kill them all.

Maybe the map is stuffed in one of the potion vials? If the vials were clay and not glass (which would be cheaper to produce, and probably more prolific), then there would be no way to discern the contents without opening them.

The map-vial could also have plain water in it (or holy water for some later use perhaps?) so that it would make a noise when shaken like the other vials to keep it from being unique at first observation.

Along the same lines, the map could be on the bottom of the stopper or cork (etchd or burned) in minuature. coincidentally enough, the vial, if filled with water and stoppered with a thumb, for instance, provides enough magnification to read it.

These ideas are great! (not just mine, I mean all of them)


Or, to be weirder by the post, perhaps one of the potions, when attempted to be consumed, tastes disgustingly undrinkable...and when spilt on the ground it turns into a map (liquid map baby!)

but just try to convince your players to pour out ANYTHING in game...

or perhaps one of the potions is a liquid tattoo, and once consumed, the PC feels great burning pain on his/her back as the map is tattooed on the back of the player (We have seen these types of magics in my game, usually drow use this sort of thing...but insted of ink, it leaves raised scars)

or...again....you can just poison them...and pretend they are all Socrates.

Socrates... hehe

Or, as Bill & Ted called him: "So Crates"

I like this idea; better than mine!