DM-ing Past an Impasse

One of the difficult situations you can find yourself in when acting as Dungeon Master / Game Master for a tabletop role-playing game is when your players find themselves stuck. An adventure is about forward movement, whether it’s fighting the next band of goblins so you can take their loot, discovering the secret door that leads into the hidden underground facility, or navigating through the asteroid field to get to safety. When your players feel like their characters aren’t making progress, that can sap the fun out of your game. What can you do as a DM to help your players get past an impasse?

Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything. Remember that your players are not the same as the characters they play. Being on an adventure is often not a lot of fun for the characters as they face danger, uncertainty, and the possibility of death. Sometimes even though the characters may be stuck, the players are still having a good time. They may be relishing the chance to role-play how their characters deal with failure or enjoy the prompt to think outside the box and come up with wacky new schemes so crazy they just might work. Some players want a game that plays strictly by the rules, even if that means they “lose.” When the characters run into trouble, watch how your players react. If they’re still having fun, you can just let them keep at it, but if the characters’ frustration leads to your players being frustrated, then it is time for you to step in as DM. In that case, here are some things to think about.

Break the DM Wall

As DMs, we have a barrier between us and the players, not just the physical barrier of the DM screen (for those who use them), but the distance between ourselves, who know all the secrets of the adventure, and the players, who do not. When your players are feeling stuck, it can help to open that barrier a little.

Suppose your players’ characters are trying to get into a castle to stop the evil duke from doing an evil ritual with an ancient artifact of evil. They try to get through the front gate and are stopped by the guards. They decide there are too many guards to fight, so they try to bluff their way in. The bluffing doesn’t work, but the players are committed this plan and keep trying to argue and make rolls to get through the gate.

Try saying something like: “I’m stepping in as DM to let you know that the guard just isn’t going to budge, no matter what you say or how well you roll. You’ll have to find another way in.” Giving the players this out-of-game information can help in several ways. It lets the players know that they weren’t on the right track so they can focus their energies on something else. It reassures the players that you are playing fair with them—they didn’t do something wrong, this approach was just never viable, and there is a way forward if they can figure it out. It also helps everyone take a step back from the characters’ frustrations to refocus on the fun of the game.

If your players like to actively role-play their characters and speak for them, it can help to shift perspective and speak about them instead. If you can get your players from “I’ve tried everything I can think of, but this guard captain is just stonewalling” to “Whiteleaf the bard is feeling frustrated and at a loss because her skills aren’t helping her group accomplish their mission,” that can help your players reframe their problem and work toward a solution.

No, but

You may have heard of the rule that in improv you always want to say “Yes, and.” “Yes, and” means you accept whatever ideas someone else brought to the scene and add your own contribution to develop it further. DM-ing is a kind of improv, but an adventure is also constrained by rules, rolls, and the story you have built for your players to explore. Sometimes the best thing to do is just throw out the other stuff and go with your players’ ideas, but if you always ignore the rules and the story, then you leave your players without a structure to work within. So there’s a corollary to the “Yes, and” rule: the “No, but” rule.

“No, but” means that when you say no to something your players want to do, you nudge them toward an alternative. This could be anything from a subtle hint on how to sway the current encounter successfully to a neon arrow pointing at the next plot point.

In the example above, you could “No, but” as you play the castle guard with a grouchy reply: “Look, His Grace said no one gets into the castle but Merchant Severan’s crew with the monthly wine shipment. I don’t see any wine barrels, so you’re not getting in here.” Alternatively, you could step out of character and say: “As you continue to argue with the guard, you notice that the northern wall of the castle overhangs a sheer cliff; there are no guards there, for obvious reasons.” These options give your players a hook for a way forward without interrupting the scene.

It’s up to your players to pick up on the “No, but” and figure out how they want to take advantage of it, but it allows you to steer them out of a dead end and back into the adventure without breaking the immersion of the game.

Change something

If your players just keep trying something that won’t work, you have the option as DM to change the rules and make it work. If necessary, you can always just say: “Okay, ignore that last roll. You succeeded. Move on,” but it’s better if you can fit the change into the story. If the situation the players’ characters find themselves in is a deadlock, you’ll want to either add something or take something away to break the stalemate.

Adding something may mean a new character comes on the scene, an event occurs to disrupt the current stalemate, or the characters get new information that gives them a way forward. For instance, perhaps the evil duke himself comes out to see what the fuss is and decides to invite the characters in so he has someone to gloat at as he does his evil thing. Perhaps a band of marauders swarms out of the nearby woods, giving the castle guards something more important to focus on and letting the characters take advantage of the chaos.

Instead of adding something, you might take away one of the things causing the impasse. Perhaps the guard captain gets frustrated and walks away to let her subordinate handle the characters, and that subordinate turns out to be much more gullible or a secret ally to the party. Perhaps several of the guards get called away to handle another problem elsewhere in the castle leaving a smaller number that the player characters can take in a fight.

In the end, remember that a role-playing game is a collaboration between players and DM. The most important thing is that everyone, including you, gets to have a good experience. Sometimes your players are going to get themselves into places where they aren’t having fun, but as a DM you have options for helping them get out.

Image by Erik Jensen

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