While running a game I do not want to be bound to a design I have put in place. I want to learn what the story is as much as my players do. That does not mean that I don’t plan games, far from it. It means that when I play through the details I have prepared I do not allow myself to be locked into them. I allow my players’ interaction to guide the story’s path and we learn it together.
The preparation that I undertake for a game is largely reactionary. It follows a guide of preparing only what I need to run a game. This can be a bit deceptive at times though. I certainly have plotlines in my head when I run a game. Nefarious things going on in the world for my players to uncover. To do this I may need details of things the players will not interact with directly in place for me to run a game.
Imagine a Warlock who has created a laboratory on the side of an active volcano. His plot spans out amongst the surrounding area. The players learn of a swamp that all the plant life in it has died and the swamp has started to boil. A test of the Warlock. To prepare for this I would have the swamp mapped out, but the very first thing I would look at creating is the Warlock, at least at a conceptual level, if not a full stat block. He is the mastermind so I want to know what he is doing and why.
My preparation would include the major locations around the swamp, NPCs, Monsters and probably some random encounter tables. But I do not script the game encounter to encounter. I show the triggers and the connections that I expect will bring in various components, but I do not lock myself into them.
Random flavour for play
Personally, I use some alternative tools that allow for a bit of random flavour in the encounters and then, before the game, I will try to guess what I think will occur. This gets me game ready for running the session. Never do I lock things into place though, as players always have a way of turning plans on their heads.
I am also a big proponent of allowing the game to guide the story as well as the players. I say this by way of saying I allow the mechanics of the game that we use to occur. If I roll a die and that die says a player character dies, the player character dies. Conversely, if one of my NPC’s rolls a die and that die kills the “Big Bad” then it happens.
These are the unexpected things that guide a story. Otherwise, you may as well write a novel and cut out the players, because you telling your story, overriding the games, is not in my opinion in the spirit of the game.
Design and play in my last game
Let me give you a direct example of this from my last game of Degenesis, a post-apocalyptic futuristic Earth-style game. The players were holed up in a warded community on the outskirts of Parasite (Paris). They were surrounded by a Pheromancer (a mutant with abilities of persuasion and mind control is the simplest explanation if you do not know the game). At the end of the last session, one of the core players had been placed under this mind control.
There were two circumstances the players were focussed on. First, the loss of their companion and second, they knew the wards keeping the Pheromancer out were not complete and may fail if they were placed under pressure. In my design, I focussed on these two issues.
As they had been in this village for a few sessions I had most of the NPCs statted up and the village laid out. I did some work on some of the NPCs that were part of the Pheromancers group as they had really only shown up last session, and combat was not a massive focus in that game.
In my consideration for the game I thought that the focus may be non-combative, as up to now the players had been open to communication with the Pheromancer. I used some of the tools I have on my desk (a set of story-based cards) to generate some interesting angles in communication. With these added as entries to my notebook, I had familiarised myself with the “plan”.
I also prepared some skill-based encounters surrounding the idea of the perimeter breach issues. These, too, would not be largely combat focussed and would allow some decent work to secure the issue should it be focused on. These were also in the notebook, but as fate would have it, I never had to call on these notes.
The game started and the players had a briefing, weighing up the issues. First and foremost they decided the absence of their companion (in-game they were not aware he had been taken under the influence) was the highest priority. What occurred next is they started out to the perimeter to see if they could find him, but they did so in preparation for war.
They have had an NPC guide in previous sessions bringing them to this area. The NPC was designed to be very capable, but a complete coward. He sought to “stay with the villagers” in an effort to not confront the Pheromancer. His opinion of these things are they are the worst of the worst. But the players used their skills and got him to prepare with them.
At this point, fairly early in the game session, I realised that things were already far from what I had planned. The players were gearing up for war if they needed to take action. The discussion seemed to be out the window if they saw something they did not like. The other flip side was the NPC who was meant to be a guide and a coward had been recruited by the players. I did not realise the turning point this would be to the story until it occurred.
To summarise, the players and the NPC were on fire with their dice rolls. They got close enough to the Pheromancer encampment to realise that their companion was in the figures thrall. They did not do it unnoticed though and the NPCs that were in service to the Pheromancer warned him of the fact. The Pheromancer realising his “superior” position strengthened his charismatic ways as this group were open to parley.
In reality, they weren’t but I was playing the Pheromancer from his experience with this group. The party opened fire and a brief combat ensued. The hive of NPCs protecting the Pheromancer closed ranks as the shots rang out making him a difficult target. Then the NPC Guide (who had a dangerous rifle – one of the best in the game) fired and got an excellent shot in. So good that it allowed for him to shoot again which he aced, even with reduced dice.
The aftermath was the NPCs that had been serving the Pheromancer were broken from this state and unceremoniously realised their circumstance. The entire concept of my plans for the night was gone. The big bad was dead and it had been an NPC that had caused it. I did some wind-up work for the situation and then advised what would be coming up in the game. I gave out experience and the game was finished probably an hour or so earlier than planned.
But I LOVED it. This is what I love about being a Games Master and learning about the story as you play it. The story did not end with the players being lorded as the great saviours, though it was their insistence that the guide gets involved that resolved the situation. The post-game discussion found many of the players were actually expecting a total party kill as this was the first “Psychonaut” that the group had directly encountered.
Could have been different
There were areas that could have been completely changed if I did not approach the game from the point of view of learning as I play. Realising that the plans I had made for the game were not going as I planned, I could have changed the plans that I had put in place. The Pheromancer, instead of going into a boost for charisma could have leapt completely into combat mode. But from its experience, this would not have made sense.
Also, my rolls are hidden (it is online and I physically roll dice) because the Foundry system is not terribly GM-friendly for Degenesis. I could easily ignore the die rolls that made stuff happen. The guide could have had his die roll fudged and absolutely refused to help. His excellent roll for stealth and then the brilliant shots that ended the game early could have been fudged.
I believe that the beauty of an RPG lies in its collaborative storytelling. The GM does a lot to present the world, but it is not just their world. Players and GMs must come together within the confines of a negotiated system to explore the story. To ignore any part of those three things (GM, Players, System) detracts from the outcome for me. Am I right? Yes, for me and my games. Is it the only way? No, but I do encourage GMs in particular to consider how they present their games and why they do it their way. Until next time, keep rolling!
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