“Dear Bryan the GM,
So I hear that you’re working on some details for a new fantasy campaign. That’ll be cool; it’s been a little while since the group played an old-fashioned swords & sorcery saga. Are you going to try out the new Fantasy Fate rules that Chase and I have been publishing, or are you leaning toward a more mechanical, established system? I know the group’s been into Fate pretty heavy lately. Still, it might be a nice change to play in another system for a while. Maybe Pathfinder? That last Pathfinder campaign that Matt ran seemed to be popular, and generate quite a few good blog posts as well.
Now we all know you’re a big fan of planning, but before you get too far into that process I thought I might offer a few helpful hints about planning games that I’ve learned in the last year or two of writing and following RPG blogs. Here’s hint #1: Stop planning so damn much.
While player responses to your Cabin Trip game seemed to lean toward the positive side, it’s pretty obvious that the plot, and therefore the outcome, was set ahead of time. In the words of one blogger, you marked a trail on the campaign map in invisible ink, and then waited for the players to follow it. Yes, there were some encounters that were tailored in response to Character X or Plot Point Z. Likewise, the players definitely had their pick of different clues to follow. However, you could’ve given the party a lot more freedom when it came to plotting a course across the adventure, and where that adventure would ultimately lead.
So instead of writing up a plot for this next game, try writing up an event or a moment instead. Set the scene for the players, give them a rich and vivid world to inhabit, and establish a hook or two. Treat your role as GM as a news reporter instead of a storyteller. Reporters relate events that have recently or are currently transpiring, and those events are (almost) always important to their relative community. Their true significance, and the accompanying response by the community, will be determined as events unfold.
This same model can be used to create a more interactive and interesting role-playing experience for your group! Give your players some good, meaty facts: names, places, faces, and choice current events. When it comes to these events, just know your audience; you need to make the events significant enough to one or more players that they are in turn inspired by the “report” to take further action! How will they respond? Will the community rally around them? Can they change the world for the better? The players’ actions in the game will determine all that. So long as you stick to reporting on what they do and see and find from that point forward, the party will always have what they need to continue the adventure.
In addition, much like a news reporter needs to know their audience to deliver meaningful, intriguing stories, they also have to know their ‘beat.’ That is, they have to know all the major locations and figures that might come to bear in any of the stories they report on to the community. They watch its local leaders, monitor its famous (or infamous) hotspots, and keep a finger on the pulse of society. They can’t predict where news will happen, or who’s going to make headlines next, so they just keep tabs on everything, and stand ready to mobilize when events lead them to the next story.
As the game master, you should be doing the same thing. Create as many of the potential NPCs as you can. Be familiar with their usual haunts. Define where these locations are in your campaign world, as much as possible. You don’t have to know when Mayor McCheese shaved last, or how many steps lead to the wine cellar of Le Bistro du Jour. If the story leads to the Mayor, however, you should already have some idea of where the party can find him, what he looks like, and maybe even his crucial stats. Don’t delve too deeply into his background just yet. If the party never lunches with His Honor McCheese, you’re going to be more than a little frustrated. You may also feel the ever-so-slight temptation to push the party toward him, since you spent “all that time” fleshing him out.
Now don’t get me wrong, this approach to GMing still lets you scratch that planning itch. It seems like a shame to waste all that overwrought… er, enthusiastic attention to detail you frequently display. Instead of making a plan that will dictate a story, however, you can plan designs that will drive the story. In order to accomplish this, you’ll need to know what motivates the characters- and players- in your party. More than narrating a story, you should focus on motivating the party to take actions that will be worthy of an epic tale. Here’s where the design and planning come in, my friend: the party will need compelling locations, fascinating personalities, and momentous events to spur them on to feats of heroic proportions. Creating and introducing these memorable elements into the campaign is exactly what you should be planning for.
Leave the actual story to the characters who are telling it: the players. Then the adventure will take on a whole new level of fun for you. Instead of just waiting for the group to arrive at predetermined story check points and counting the rolls until they get there, you can witness and respond to the action as it unfolds. You don’t need to know exactly where the game is going to respond to that action the right way. Since you’ve already designed the people, places, and happenings that they’ll encounter, you can just report on who and what they find when they find it. If they happen to game outside of the box, and blaze a new and unknown trail, you can always explore it with them and design new moments for them to experience as they happen. Just think of it as a late-breaking news story that you’re all racing to ever!
Well, I guess I was a little dishonest when I said “helpful hints,” since all I had was the one. So calm down. Enjoy the discovery. Be prepared, but do the whole table a favor and stop planning so damn much. You’ll have a lot more fun, and it will make the game more fun for the players too. You can trust my advice; I have a blog, after all. Which reminds me… If all this works out well for you, make sure you fill me in. I’m sure I can get a least one more post out of it.