GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we pivot gears to talk about handling tragedies and tough issues in games which means this is a perfect week to talk about the GM Eraser—Retcons.
Retcons: if you’ve played any LARP in the past decade, this is a loaded word that often means tons of drama, headaches, and staying up outside till 3 AM to resolve the botched scene. Officially, a retcon when something has gone terribly awry and the entire scene needs to be rewound, and played out again. Whenever I’ve seen major retcons, it has been because of a player death (or several), due to power misuse or misinterpretation of a power. In tabletop roleplaying games, it happens less often because player-vs-player is often not allowed but it still creeps in occasionally.
Fortunately, there are some creative GM tricks we can employ to make this whole process less of a chore. Everyone’s time is valuable and wasting it on a terrible night of replaying a scene is nobody idea of a good time, yet letting the error stand will make everyone unhappy. Even worse, when players frustrations reach an all-time high they (rightfully) walk away from the game entirely. So here are some tips to make these bad scenarios a little more bearable.
Make It An Event
Fatigue makes people cranky. So don’t run a retcon session immediately after the game to “take care” of the problem. Snap judgment calls can only further compound the problem and players (and you) have already been immersed for a while. We often hear the excuse that scheduling problems mean it has to be done ASAP, but truly, nothing HAS to be done. For the love of everyone’s sanity, take a game session breather and just wait. Doing so will allow you the storyteller to take a good hard look at the rotten bag of noodles you’ve been handed and how to best untangle them.
Now you may need to schedule a special session outside of the regular game week on another night and that’s okay. Invite people over for some drinks, get some special dinner for everyone, and hang out as friends before diving in. This is a critical phase if the reason for the retcon is due to PVP. Everyone needs a moment to reconnect as friends and prevent game session bleed. What we don’t want is for players and staff members to devolve into out-of-game arguments or feel that their concerns aren’t being heard—and this method stacks the deck to avoid that.
Add Additional Content
A more tabletop-oriented tip (but still applicable to LARPs) is to add additional content to the scene. Whatever you are retconning has already been played out and the second time around, dice may fall differently. Sheer mechanics, correct power usage, and the randomness of games provide a modicum of variety. Yet adding in some fresh content either leading up to the scene, or even after, takes the sting out of wasted time. Think of it like an alternate ending or a how-it-should-have-gone scenario.
Additional content becomes even cooler after the storyteller has had a chance to think of world reactions. NPC’s and monsters may have far cooler reactions and death scenes, and consequences can be immediately thrust to the forefront. It’s not often storytellers have a chance to make better choices, so don’t let it go to waste. Plus the added scenes and reactions can make the retcon fork off in a completely new direction that makes everyone happier with the outcome.
Toss Out Rewards
If your players stuck with you through a retcon scene, it’s not the time to be stingy with experience, loot, or favors from NPC’s. Make it rain like it’s the holidays upon them. Everyone just went through a few ordeals and since they stayed committed, surprise them. When you’ve had the pain of character loss, arguments, an extra session, and more time spent just to get things on track—a little extra benefit goes a long way. If possible, reward the entire game for the Kerfuffle rather than the exact players involved as well. Doing so will create more trust among everyone that when retcons do come up; there is a reason to stick it out.
The one case where rewards may be inappropriate is due to gross misuse of metagaming information, cheating, and toxic out-of-game behavior. A retcon being run for this scenario is to repair the damage done by players who are (and should be) already removed from the game. In this case, an extra few experience points isn’t going to make anyone happier. So your rewards should be more personal, like taking the victims of player toxicity out to dinner if you can or allowing them to play a different character of a restricted class or race. Letting the old burn down and rewarding them with future character options can create excitement to move on.
What’s your biggest retcon story? Let us know in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Unbound by Charles Urbach
Image Credits: Festival of Drifting Souls Legend Of The Five Rings Fantasy Flight, Critical Role
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.