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.
Still here? OK. The premise of We Be Goblins! is that a clan of goblins has found a map indicating the location of a shipwreck where they can find a cargo of fireworks. The four player characters—Reta Bigbad the fighter, Chuffy Lickwound the rogue, Poog of Zarongel the cleric, and Mogmurch the alchemist—are the tribe’s finest and therefore sent by Chief Gutwad to get the fireworks. That’s it. Goblins – goblin shenanigans – fireworks – BOOM!
What’s not to love?
The second adventure, We Be Goblins Too!, follows much the same format except that instead of retrieving the “treasure”, the goblins must solve the problem of an ogre who has been decimating the nearby goblin populations.
First, in both adventures the PCs “take part in a celebratory feast and are offered numerous chances to prove their skill in a series of goblin dares.” In game function, this is also known as “getting used to playing your character” and “getting to know the system.”
The next morning, the PCs are tasked with the dangerous journey toward the coast. Upon reaching the site marked on the map, the PCs discover not only the location of a large stash of fireworks, but also the lair of one of the Licktoads’ most feared enemies—the cannibal goblin Vorka! In order to secure the Licktoads’ pride and good fortune by claiming the fireworks, the PCs must defeat the goblin cannibal and escape alive.
In the second adventure,
After enduring a number of trials to prove themselves, the goblin heroes set out to defeat the ogre and his magical boars. They confront Pa Munchmeat [the ogre] and his monstrous minions on his small farm, and if they can defeat him, the goblins can return […] not only as heroes, but as chieftains themselves!
Simple, straightforward. That means you, as GM, should have little trouble handling the goblin wackiness that is fully expected by the author to ensue. What, do you think you will have trouble remembering the agendas of cannibal goblin Vorka or ogre druid Pa Munchmeat? Do you think the political ramifications of getting off-track will be too hard for Golarion to handle? Didn’t think so.1
The goblin characters are described in ways that suggest the flavour the games should have. For example, their equipment inventory includes things like:
leather armor, dogslicer, shortbow with 20 arrows in a quiver decorated with dog ears, lucky pet toad (“Spotol”), jar of pickled halfling toes just about ready for eating (equivalent to 1 day’s trail rations), toasting fork, bridal veil, halfling ladies’ corset, 20 feet of rope with dead moles sewn into it, small silver mirror, jar of human perfume (half drunk), meat hook, leather satchel, flint and tinder, set of false teeth, pocketful of caterpillars
Come on, these are not listed just to fill space or show you that the author is whimsical. They’re clues to playing goblin characters. You, GM, should not quash your players’ attempts to act on this but embrace it! For example, the initial little competitions at the start of each adventure, in which the players get used to their characters and earn a few useful items such as the mystical Ring That Lets You Climb Real Good (a ring of climbing) or the Chief’s Personal Very Useful Robe That Is Useful, begs for traditional goblin cheating and treachery. Both GMs in whose games I played were dead-set against it, wanting us to play by the rules, while of course all players wanted to trip and misdirect each other’s characters.
NOW IS THE TIME TO SAY “YES!”
What’s it going to wreck, really? The purpose of the scene is to familiarize the group with the setting and distribute useful party items. Why the hell not allow the players to riff off the goblin playbook? It’s not like it will throw the adventure in turmoil.
Next in the first adventure, the PCs make their way through marshy territory with one significant encounter against a giant spider (not giving anything away here, it’s on the freakin’ cover of the module!), then reach the old shipwreck area where are such monsters as a horse and a dog. They’re expected to explore the shipwreck where they discover that their enemy, Vorka the cannibal, has been living, encounter a few traps, face Vorka, and (maybe) bring the fireworks back.
So let’s think about some things that could happen:
- They could manage to bypass the spider.
- They could steal the horse and flee on it (unlikely, but you never know).
- They could set off the fireworks and blow up Vorka’s ship carcass.
- They could go back, assemble the goblin horde, and give mass assault on Vorka’s hideout.
- They could decide to abandon Chief Gutwad and their tribe and join Vorka instead.
- They could trick Vorka instead of battling her, and capture her by surprise.
- Probably some other things I’m not thinking of right now…
Is any of this really problematic? Would any of this lead to a bad adventure? Would the group be disappointed at the end? Ha. They’d be talking for years about their exploits. Would any of this be difficult to handle, stat-wise, in a fairly crunchy system like Pathfinder? Not really, you pretty much have all the information you need already unless you plan to run a goblin mass assault at the one-for-one scale.
So your prep as GM would consist of reading the module, make note of some likely places where the PCs may jump the rails, be sure you know where to find any additional stats needed, and prepare your bullet point lists of things that could happen if the players stall, such as:
- The aforementioned monsters wandering around, obviously: spider in the forest, horse near the wreck, dog or Vorka aboard the shipwreck.
- The distant sound of fireworks being detonated if they stall between the spider encounter and the shipwreck.
- If they are all taken out or captured by Vorka, you can have them wake up all tied up while Vorka is heating a big pot of soup to cook them in, and allow them to spot something useful, such as a weapon or some fireworks.
- Or the spider could wander into the shipwreck area if the PCs managed to evade it in the marsh, which would be sure to distract Vorka.
You get the idea. This only takes minutes of preparation, but will make you feel much more confident in the face of player ingenuity.
Let’s looks at the second adventure. Here, after the initial dares and challenges at the goblin village, the PCs (who are now third level) head directly for Pa Munchmeat’s farm. They face some pigs and a feral dog on the farm, and in plain sight is the farm house where Munchmeat lives. Under the house is an owlbear nest, and inside the house are Pa Munchmeat the ogre druid, his daughter Guffy the ogrekin fighter and her pet the giant ferret Spike. (Guffy and Spike? Don’t ask me, man.)
When I played it, the GM expected us—nay, wanted us—to sneak into the house and explore it. We being equipped with ranged weapons, wanted to set fire to the house and shoot anything that came running out (or throw explosives and spells, which is even more fun.) Man, that is not what the GM wanted to hear. If you run the module as written, you know exactly what part of the house everybody is in, what the place looks like down to the stains, treasure, opponents’ combat tactics, etc.
Big deal. This would have been a perfect place to say “Yes” to player ideas. What’s the risk? Are we going to feel disappointed if we don’t take enough hit points’ worth of wounds by being devious and clever? Was the Pathfinder Society going to deny the GM the right to count this game to his credit? Did we not have the stats for all critters involved? Sigh. The text of the module even spells out that the goblins don’t need to kill Munchmeat, they can just scare him off. Clearly, there is a lot of leeway in how to wrap up the adventure, so why not let go of the linear expectations?
So enough of my griping—in conclusion, that’s how I use modules. They make for a handy structure but player ideas supersede the ready-made plots. And if during my preparation I realize that an adventure simply does not address certain reasonable player approaches (e.g., negotiating, sneaking, using a different route, etc.) then I either add the missing elements or ditch the module.
I hope this helps illustrate what I mean by “letting go of the plot.”
1 I stand corrected, having learned about The Brinewall Legacy. Poor Golarion, I weep for thee.