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. Continue reading “Hands-off game-mastering: Yes, this means you”

OK, so how do I do that?

Now You Be GoblinsYeah, this is yet another post about role-playing games.

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

VorkaAnd what if you’re using a ready-made adventure instead of writing your own? Does that mean you can’t use these wonderfully time-saving modules? Of course it doesn’t.

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?”

The Surest Way to Become a Better Game-Master

TL, DR: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying.
Heavy Metal -- Ard

[Edit for Redditers: I noticed a number of new readers arriving from Reddit thought I was a “pure-player” and wondered “She claims DM is such an easy job once you let the players play loose, why is she just playing?” I actually love to GM, and after this article I posted five more on how to follow my own advice as a GM. They are linked at the bottom of the page. I hope they help!]

The last six role-playing games I played in during September were, uncharacteristically, all d20-based systems (Mutants & Masterminds 2e, Pathfinder, 13th Age, and a heavily home-brewed Spycraft version) with six different game-masters. The first five were at a game convention, and the sixth at a game-day event at the friendly local gaming store. And the first of the six was a lot of fun — while the last five were awful railroads. My husband and I have told the story elsewhere (note that he had one more bad Pathfinder game which I didn’t sit on, making his own record 1 for 7), but here is my analysis of the common points. Continue reading “The Surest Way to Become a Better Game-Master”

A Little Better Every Day

Seelah by Wayne RenolydsOn Labour Day weekend I ended going to Pacificon. It was a last-minute decision at Edmund’s request; I had intended to stay home, do lots of  writing, keep the cats company, and straighten up the house a bit. On Thursday I agreed to go to the convention instead although I did set aside some time for writing.

To be honest, I’m not finding Pacificon as interesting as some other conventions; it’s great if you’re into historical board games and miniatures, but skinny on the fantasy and science fiction gaming sides, Euro board games, and especially role-playing other than Pathfinder and D&D. Nevertheless, I signed up for a number of games, some of which were cancelled at the last moment, alas. In the end, I played nothing but d20 variants, even though I don’t find the base system enjoyable at all: Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition, one game advertised as Spycraft 2.0 that seemed heavily home-brewed (we didn’t even have the right character sheets!) and three Pathfinder games, one where we played dragons and two where we played goblins. Except for the M&M game, which was a lot of fun (thank you to game-master Cyrus Harris and players Chris Angelini, Jon Robertson and Edmund Metheny!), the games were lacklustre; Edmund has told the story here and here already so I won’t repeat it.

But amidst this, I found a reason to be hopeful.

In the last few weeks we have had two new shining examples in geekdom of the rampant sexism that can be found in some quarters: the nastiness which Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have been subjected to. We’ve also witnessed some uncomfortable conversations on racism in the wake of the disgraceful events in Ferguson, Missouri, which have splashed everywhere including geekdom. Some days, it’s easy to think that the geek world is filled with assholes. At the convention, I was reminded that while there are assholes everywhere, things can get better, inch by inch.

First, I noticed that there was a bit more diversity than I remember seeing a decade ago: a variety of age groups were represented, families showed up together, there were a few more non-white participants, openly gay couples were not rare, and everybody I saw behaved courteously towards disabled gamers that had more visible challenges (e.g. with speech or fine motor control.) Historically that has been the norm at the conventions I’ve attended in the last quarter of a century, but visible diversity is increasing, which is good.

On the feminism front, I was pleased that all GMs, whatever their failings, offered a range of female and male characters among their pre-generated character sheets. Our M&M GM had male and female miniatures available for each character; the female characters in the Spycraft game were generally good action characters; and the dragons and goblins were not obviously gendered in terms of roles. In addition, the Pathfinder GMs that used canon material from the official story line used numerous prominent female non-player characters in positions of authority. Paizo Publishing has put in a good deal of effort to make its setting gender-balanced. While there is still progress to be made, I want to salute the effort and recognize its results.

Old stories of the role-playing game world: I remember how, a few years ago, Evil Hat Productions took some flak for insufficient attention to female and non-white characters. I mostly watched from the sidelines because I could at the same time recognize the validity of some of the criticism and see the effort that EHP had already made in being more inclusive; by the time I encountered the discussion, it had already turned flamey enough that I didn’t think I could add much value. I know it was hard and even hurtful for some of the EHP writers, but they did something great and amazing: they shut up after the initial defensiveness, mulled over the topic for a good long while, and learned from the experience. They’ve been trying hard to do better, and this act of recognizing imperfection and doing something about it has increased my respect for them.

Heck, a few years ago, the kind of treatment Quinn and Sarkeesian and many others have received from jackasses would not have received much notice; even most men and women of good will would have shrugged and said this was just the way things are. The fact that so many of my fellow nerds are furious about it tells me we have turned a corner. We’re not post-feminist or post-racial or anything like that, and may never be; but just like with marriage equality, we can see the day where the jackasses will be a festering minority and will be shunned when they use threats, violence, slurs, and general dickery.