Hands-off game-mastering: Yes, this means you

The Big Adventure, by zazBI wrote a post recently about the single best way for game-masters to improve their role-playing games: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying. I received a number of comments on this blog and in social media, essentially: “Yes, it’s true, except in this specific case when I do have to drive my players along the plot because X.” I wrote a second post about one of the values of X: “I’m using a module, how can I let go of the plot?

Today I would like to answer  a few more X objections. In all of these, I’m going to assume we are talking strictly about whether or not to give priority to the pre-determined plot over player ideas. I’m also going to point to my husband’s companion post, which addresses why GMs should rarely say “No” to player ideas.

I will take it for granted for now that no matter how much or how little you intend to share narrative control, you at least understand now not to use one behaviour Edmund described in his “No” post, the GM who cuts off players before they can finish a thought. But even discounting that issue, talking less and listening more will improve your games. I guarantee you that the simple act of closing your mouth and letting the players finish a thought, and even asking questions to tease out their intent, is much healthier to a game than telling your players all about the wonderful world and plot you have in mind for them.

Bad Objection #1: “Crunchy systems require too much preparation to ad-lib.”

Not true: they require different preparation.

I used Pathfinder published modules in my walk-through of how to run a ready-made adventure while letting the players have agency and affect the plot. In both cases, we had pretty much all the stats needed right there in the modules for any player lateral move.

Moreover, crunchy or stat-heavy systems are precisely the ones for which you can most easily find ready-made stock characters to use in your adventure. If you GM something like Shadowrun or Pathfinder or Hero, you probably already have a whole scrap book of stock non-player characters or a collection of published supplements detailing such NPCs. If you don’t, then here’s your assignment: compile a dozen or so standard NPCs you can add to a scene even if you had not planned in their presence. They can include soldiers and cops, merchants and bureaucrats, doctors and hucksters.

Give walk-on NPCs a name, a few descriptive details, and a motive. Very often, you won’t even need any stats—the player characters merely want to talk with them. You can have ready-made lists of names and traits prepared ahead of time which you use from episode to episode, just crossing off those that you use as you go. Websites like Seventh Sanctum and Abulafia provide plethoras of random generators you can use in your game prep.

With a different name and temper, who will know that “Bedemer of Copegatebluff, a lieutenant in the Woodland Wolfs Mountain Assault Detachment” really has the same stats as “Julitor Yarcan, a commander in the 431st Elite Forces Brigade”?

Bad Objection #2: “Convention games require more structure.”

Railroad tracksStructure is not the same as plot, let alone railroad plot.

It’s true that in a convention game (or game day or in-store game), you are held to a strict time-slot, usually from, say, two to eight hours. You want to fill that time as much as you can without going overtime. Too long and you don’t get to finish the adventure because the next game is about to begin; too short and the players may be disappointed. You don’t have the luxury of continuing next week with another episode; the plot must make sense as a standalone episode.

You also usually play with strangers, or at least people who are not your regular players and are probably also strangers to one another. The group has not been shaped by long acquaintance or friendship, its dynamics will be unfamiliar.

All this argues against trying to stick to a predetermined plot!

If it’s a challenge to fit a decent story arc together in the time allotted, then how much more difficult it is to fit a particular story arc in that time with a bunch of strangers! You’re much better off having some moveable or optional scenes you can throw in or ignore as needed to fit the direction the group is going in and the tick of the clock. And if your final result is only moderately hanging together as a plot, at least the players will have had fun—think what a disaster it will feel if you don’t succeed very well at shoehorning the story within the time frame AND you spent your time railroading the players!

In my extensive convention experience, players don’t sign up for a game because they hope to experience your beautiful story arc. They sign up because they want to be something cool (like a superhero) or go some place exciting (like a world filled with airships and floating islands) or do something amazing (like raise Atlantis). The most successful series of conventions games I ever ran were episodes of Cat (John Wick Presents); year after year, people kept coming back with their old character sheet and miniature (yes, I gave away plastic cats). These adventures contained a plot outline, but only to use as a canvas for the players to do fun things. Until my players invented it, I didn’t know the greedy real estate agent had a convertible BMW that the cats would trash! My husband was terrifically successful with his “Star Trek: Tall Ships” series, where you played the crew of ST: TNG in the Napoleonic era. People wanted to be Geordi LaForge, blind pilot of a ship of the line!

Besides, your regular group of gamer friends may put up with certain things that you should not submit strangers to. Your friends may know that they will have another chance next episode, or they like to hang out with you and each other enough to overlook your GM flaws. But the strangers at this convention? They set their precious time aside and paid money to be here, and they chose your game as one that gave them a chance to have fun. Please don’t spit all over that by treating your adventure plot as if it was more important than these players’ ideas and enjoyment.

[Edit: My friend John “Johnzo” Aegard wrote a guide to “Tight Dungeon World One-Shots” that is intended for running four-hour Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) sessions at conventions. But the advice in there can be adapted for just about any convention game! Good stuff.]

Bonus reading: my advice for running a con game, from a column I published on RPG.net some years ago. I think it still holds.

Bad Objection #3: “My players are too passive for player-driven games.”

locomotiveSounds like they’ve grown used to riding the railway system.

It’s true that players who are used to being carted along the plot rails may have very little to contribute to a story at first. They’re like those chickens that have spent their entire existence in a cage and can’t even think of walking out when the cage door is eventually opened. However, everyone can (re-)learn to get creative in a role-playing game.

Maybe you can try a one-off game of something very free-form like Jason Morningstar’s game Fiasco (Bully Pulpit Games). There are dozens of free dowloadable playsets, so you could even try one that matches your regular game genre. For example, if you normally play a dungeon crawl, you can try Dragon Slayers or Dysfunctions and Dragons; if you usually play superheroes, you might try Science Comics, Go Team Superscience, or Heroes Of Pinnacle City, and so forth.

This will break the routine and give your players a taste of shared responsibility for driving the adventure towards a fun plot. Then you can get back to your regular campaign and start answering the players’ questions with questions of your own. For example:

Player: “Is there a discreet jeweller in town who could appraise this for me?”

GM: “I don’t know, do you think there is one? Maybe you’ve had to use their services before?”

You may have to start small to draw players out; but persevere and you will greatly improve everyone’s experience at the game table, including your own.

Bad Objection #4: “My players are all over the map unless I provide some direction.”

Maybe they’re fractious because they’re chafing under the harness.

Once again, it may be worth-while to experiment with a different game before returning to your on-going campaign. Allowed for the first time a chance to shape the story, some players may act goofy or come up with wild ideas that go against what the rest of the group is looking for. But take the time to hear them out and see if you can find a way to incorporate their ideas and wishes into the adventure in some form.

I won’t deny that sometimes one player will systematically go against the gestalt of the rest of the group. There’s that guy who likes to stir things up by walking up to the mayor of the town and slapping her in the face, or putting down the miners’ strike at the silver mine by shooting them all. Use the in-game consequences of these actions (like going to jail) to deal with them, or if there is no curbing the behaviour… don’t invite them to your games anymore. Seriously, if a problem player really is out to wreck the game, do you want to punish every one else to let this guy have his fun?

Barring the problem player out to sabotage a game, the problem of herding cats should gradually resolve itself as your entire group gets used to the more open style. And at least they’ll feel ownership in the game!

Bad Objection #5: “My players have never mentioned a problem so I think they’re happy with the way things are.”

Maybe. Or maybe they don’t think it’s worth arguing over, or have never known anything else.

Try it. Please.
FAE: at the game table

Art Credits: The Big Adventure, by zazB, a.k.a. Guillaume Bonnet; FAE: at the game table, by Claudia Cangini. Clipart from OpenClipart.

4 thoughts on “Hands-off game-mastering: Yes, this means you

  1. I mostly very much agree. However when I think about my games and when I say “no”, the most common reason is probably consistency.

    I find that consistency, and it’s little sister fairness, are one of the core value I’m looking for in a gaming experience. Meaning that (given the same abilities) if player character A can do something PC B should also be able to with the same parameters (difficulty and such), but the same applies to NPC X and Y. And vice versa.

    So, to take an example, abruptly stopping during a discussion to slay the king of a major kingdom central to my campaign: no problem. The PC will endure the consequences of their act, but apart from that I’m fine as a GM. However, making a called shot to the knee in a d20 system is not fine: it gives undue advantages to the player character doing it, and since he did it once he can (and will) do it again and again and again; and so are many other PC and NPC; and it will break a lot of rules and balances of the game. To that type of thing, I mostly say no. I advise my player before the campaign that the rules can only do so much and that sometimes to avoid breaking things players need to think or at least accept such things.

    So yeah, in gaming I often say no. It’s not a hard no, and it’s never about what’s prepared, written, mapped or whatever. It’s always about the level of rules we as a gaming table we agreed upon, what we can endure. And it may break some part of the FATE philosophy, the über heroics and PC are here to shine, but that’s fine for me (and my tables) since that’s not my type of game.

    I never played FATE, been looking into it since FATE Core and working on a campaign. I’m not a narrativist at all (in fact I despise it), but even as a simulationist (in the GNS Theory sense) I think FATE can give a lot. Aspects (and consequences and such) alone are a great way to play a “realist” even gritty game without having to digest 200+ pages of complex rules.

    1. I feel there are systems that are more conducive to say “No” than others, and d20 systems are generally in that family. On paper it looks like the 13th Age variant is more supportive of “Yes” GMing, but the one game I played was on serious rails with a deaf GM. However, I think it was his own (mis)take.

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