Much like with Jason’s article, this is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of how to run a game. It also isn’t meant to be prescriptive. Like it says on the tin, I want to share with you how I go about running games these days. Curious about success through brainstorming and improvisation? Keep reading.
Much of my storytelling these days is done by the seat of my pants. I improvise story elements, introduce complications that follow from the fiction, and ask my players what they do next. And when I’m really on top of things, that’s all I have to do. But when I’m stumbling around, trying to come up with a way forward and not feeling the necessary confidence in my improvisation, I turn back to my pre-game prep. I look for the little details or interesting scenes that I came up with before, and I look at the goals and motivations of my Non-Player Characters (fancy words for “characters acted by me, the storyteller”). Somewhere in that mess lies the answer to my problems.
In my experience, preparation can be the lifeblood of a game or the bane of its existence. I’ve both played in and run games that were too tightly bound by their pre-game prep, following such a rigid conception of where things were going and what was going to happen that the players never felt empowered to make decisions. When there’s only one way forward and your choices don’t matter, there’s little to engage you, little to keep you engaged. There may still be skill involved, and for some players it is this contest of one character’s capabilities against another’s that makes a game exciting… but that hasn’t been the primary draw for most of my players for some time now.
Instead, finding what choices people will make and seeing what happens in the world my players and I have created is the biggest draw. So I take a different course in preparing for my games; I like to brainstorm a number of characters or forces with conflicting interests, sometimes with radically different abilities or operating on completely different levels. Then I arrange them around the Player Characters (fancy words for “the people portrayed by my players”) and let the forces I’ve made do my work for me. Whenever the PCs look to me I let those forces drive the action, confronting the PCs or offering opportunities.
What kinds of forces I make depends on who my players are and what they seem most interested in at the time. I try to feel out what it is that my players want from the game, much as Robin Laws suggests, and I aim for creating situations and choices that will both reward and challenge my players. Importantly, I don’t decide what the outcome will be. There are a few small exceptions to this, but they tend to crop up in specific game genres (more on that later).
These are the rules I try to follow:
- Give yourself resources to call on by learning the lay of the land before you play, so that you have some idea of what the PCs might run into and what the encountered things want.
- Once you have a grasp on the world and its moving parts, let those moving parts do as they wish; their actions and the PCs’ actions can drive all the tension you need without ever feeling like you’re breaking the fiction of the world.
- Introduce new bits as you see fit while letting the players’ actions have consequences both big and small.
- Don’t decide what will happen beforehand. Let the players’ action or inaction settle that.
I’ll be writing some follow-up posts, dealing with prep and improv, identifying your players’ drives, and the cocktail of challenge, reward, and determining the outcome. Also, predetermined outcomes as a staple of horror stories.
What do you guys do? Do you have any GMing strategies that you find particularly effective?