Months ago I wrote about my Dreaded Slump, and things were looking pretty bleak for my GMing. I shared with you some ideas of how I was going to break out of that slump and get back behind the screen. I also promised that when I did I would share what I learned. I am happy to report that my slump is over and I am ready to talk about how my GMing has changed, and what I learned along the way.
A Bit of Background
For those not into reading a bunch of past articles, I was in a slump running traditional scenario types of sessions, and was moving away from traditional scenario driving plots and moving towards a more player empowered style. I found a few players who shared my interest in that type of play as well as an interest in one of my favorite settings, Underground, and we got started. Along the way we shifted the rules of the campaign from Underground to Fate Core (Part 1 and Part 2).
Overall its been a big success. The players I am running for do a great job of initiating the story as well as playing off of what I bring to the table. The sessions are mix of actions and complications that move along a loose story arc. It is the type of game where I go in with an idea of how the night should go, and leave pleasantly surprised with the end result, which is often not exactly what I had in mind.
My New Style
My new GMing style is much more centered around player agency. I can say that both Dungeon World and Fate Core have been heavy influences, as well as older games like Dogs in the Vineyard. To paraphrase Vincent Baker, I just set the stage and then get out of the way of the players so they can take the initiative in playing through what I have set up.
What I have given up is the control of a more linear traditional story where the players go from the first scene to the second scene, etc, until they reach the climax of the story. In return I have gotten something that I have been seeking, which is the surprise and rush from having to play off the players ideas as things develop at the table.
In making that shift I noticed a few things changed in how I prep, manage, and run the campaign. Some of these things I intentionally changed and others developed out of the play style of the game.
Adjusting My Prep
Making the shift from traditional scenario/scene type of sessions to more player initiated ones did require a change in my prep. Did I give up doing prep and go all ad lib? No. I have found a happy medium of prepping material, in case my players do find the story I have created interesting, while leaving it open enough to accommodate the things they come up with during the session. The end result is that my prep is much less than it has ever been. Often 1-2 pages of notes and a page or so for NPC’s is more than enough for 4+ hours of playing.
Here are two key things I learned and to which I adapted my prep:
More What and Less How
In the past, as I was doing my prep, I would set up a problem in a scene and then I would write notes about the most probable way the players would solve the problem. In most cases I would cover 2-3 possibilities, leading to a lot of extra writing, since the players only use one method to solve the problem.
Now, I still prep the details of the problem, but I never worry about the solution. I rely on the players coming up with a solution. I then play off of their solution. What I did have to prep was a solid mastery of the rules of the game so that when they come up with an approach to a problem, I can use the rules to set the proper difficulty and to provide interesting challenges.
Less Is More
In the past, I would have to prep five to six scenes for a four hour session. Then when running the game, my goal would be to move the players through the scenes, one after another. In a more player-driven game, the players are creating scenes based on their motivations, and the actions they want to take use up game time. Now I prep three main scenes which set up the main complication/challenge for the session, and I let the players fill in the rest with the scenes they create.
Adjusting My Campaign Management
In the past, my campaign management was pretty rigorous. Those past campaigns had pretty detailed stories with plots and sub-plots. My role in those games was more like narrator, unfolding the story before the players and having them move through what I presented. In the more player-driven type of campaign, I have eased off of that as well as made a few adaptations:
Let the Players Drive
I have been doing this for years, but it has become more important in the past few months. I let the players guide the direction of the campaign by setting the goals of the campaign, as well as how they want to achieve those goals. At the start of the campaign I worked with the players to set a goal, and every few sessions I ask the players what their next intermediate goal will be, and then develop the campaign around those choices.
Less Plots More Relationships
With the fluidity of the campaign being driven by the players, I spend far less time prepping complex stories and instead work more on character relationships. The time I took in the past to build those stories now goes to creating relationships between my NPCs, PCs, locations, and organizations. This becomes important when the players want to initiate some action, and I need to come up with a complication or challenge for the scene. By understanding the web of connections between the NPCs I can pull the right NPC into a scene to make the scene more interesting.
At The Table
When I am running my sessions, my style has been evolving as well. These have been things I have wanted to do in past games but have had uneven success with them. In a game with more player authority I find these things are now more successful.
It’s My Story…Unless Yours is Better
As I said before, I come to the table with a story ready to run for the evening. When we start playing I will ease into the story I have prepared, but if the players come up with a scene or direction that differs from what I have written, I then go with the player’s ideas. During the session, if it makes sense, I will slide in more of my story, but if it does not make it in that session, then I will save it up for a future session.
Narration is a Group Effort
During the course of the game, as GM, I spend a good deal of time narrating the outcome of actions, challenges, rounds of combat. There are times when one of the players will be inspired to describe the results of a specific check (their’s or someone else’s); I roll with it and let the player take over describing the scene. There are times when all three of us collaborate on the narration of a check.
Its been a great half a year and I have had some great GMing experiences. Along the way, my GMing style has begun to change and along with it the way I manage and prep my games. I started this year unsure of what I was going to do next, what I would run next, and if I would find the type of game I wanted to run. With some luck and some hard work, I have grown as a GM and my style has evolved once again. The most important thing is that I am running games that I enjoy and that my players enjoy.
Have you had your own journeys as a GM? How has your style changed over time? In what ways did you change how you ran your games as your GMing style changed?