On Tuesday, I wrote my pro tip for the single best way for game-masters to improve their games: shut up, forget the story you’ve built in your mind, and listen to what the players are saying. But of course, that seems easier said than done: how, practically speaking, do you run a game without a plan? And what if you’re using a published adventure? So let’s walk through the process.
(Note: All this will assume that everyone in the group is showing good will. Personality problems and player sabotage are outside the scope of this discussion.)
Some Background Resources
Before we get into the details, let me point you towards some useful resources. If you can only get one, I urge you to read Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering from Steve Jackson Games, by Robin D. Laws. It’s only eight bucks for the PDF and no GM should be without it.
If you’d like to read more along those lines, you may want to take a look at three books from Engine Publishing: Never Unprepared, Odyssey, and Unframed. Many published RPGs also offer excellent GM advice; my favourite of all times is found in Josh Roby’s wonderful game Full Light, Full Steam (Callisti Press).
Letting Go of Your Story
So in order to prepare, the GM has to have some idea of a story, right? How can a GM run an adventure for a group of players without a story in mind?
The answer may not be “No story” so much as “More stories.”
In the resources I listed above, you will find different ways of preparing plots so that players are not forced to go through all you prepared scenes in order and exactly the way you envisioned them. As you probably already do for all adventures you create, start with a situation that will make the player characters want to act; add interesting non-player characters to interact with, and give them agendas; set up some locations where interesting things could happen; and let the players come up with the rest.
This makes your role one of attentive listener and entertaining describer, alternately. By all means, give your descriptions and explanations, but then zip it! and listen as the players come up with their own plans and ideas. If they fall prey to analysis paralysis, nudge things forward by having events unfold as the NPCs pursue their agendas, leaving consequences which the PCs will need to deal with.
The secret is not to plan the end of the story, but to sketch out many different ways it could unfold. What if the PCs try to talk their way past the opposition rather than fighting? What if they sneak, or bribe the guards? What if they don’t rescue Sir Bedevier in time? You don’t have to come up with the details in advance, just sketch out a few different ways things could unfold and have at least some idea how this would impact events.
Chances are the players will come up with something you had not planned on anyway and they should be rewarded for it, not punished. If they decide after all this that they will use a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak, for heaven’s sake, let them unless it’s really inappropriate or game-breaking in an irretrievable way. Everyone at the table will have more fun playing through the groups’ own spontaneous ideas than your scripted plot.
Let’s Be Goblins
I thought it would be both useful and fun to work through an example of published scenario and how to bend it to an open, listening game-mastering style. Two of the failed adventures I discussed in my previous posts were official organized play events run under the auspices of the Pathfinder Society, I thought they would make good case studies, especially since the scenarios are available as free downloads: We Be Goblins! and We Be Goblins Too!, both written by Richard Pett, were released in 2011 and 2013 respectively as Paizo’s contribution to the annual event Free RPG Day, and won acclaim as whimsical, delightful romps offering a break from classic dungeon-crawling.
Let me clear up a couple of things this is not about: it’s not about the two particular GMs who ran these adventures, except inasmuch as they are part of a general trend. I believe whole-heartedly that they were doing their best and wanted the players to have a good time. It’s also not about the published modules, which are well written and entertaining. What it IS about is how one can use a published scenario without turning the adventure into a railroad operation.
Naturally, there are spoilers ahead, which I will hide behind the cut. I think it’s perfectly possible to run through the modules and fully enjoy them even after reading them, but I would hate to ruin someone else’s fun if you prefer to maintain the surprise. Continue reading “OK, so how do I do that?”