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Improvisation: Give Your Players Enough Rope to Have a Blast, but Not Enough to Hang Themselves
Posted By Martin Ralya On February 22, 2010 @ 1:41 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments
When I’m playing but not GMing (as is the case right now), part of my brain is always watching — and trying to learn from — my GMs.
During my group’s Eberron campaign session last night, I got to watch a great GM handle a tricky balancing act brilliantly, and I wanted to share some of what I took away from that experience.
The PCs in this campaign are special forces/spies/irregulars — folks hired to operate off the books and under the radar, and specifically tasked with preventing another Great War.
In this session, we were sent to protect a noble from assassination; his death would strengthen local factions trying to spark another Great War, so we had to keep him safe for a couple of days.
We were told very little about the circumstances of the possible assassination attempt, and our research before departure didn’t tell us much more. This looked like a session where my group would engage in one of our all-time favorite activities: over-planning.
We did some planning on our lightning rail journey, and hashed out several possible approaches (kidnapping the noble and keeping him tucked away until the threat passed, having our changeling impersonate him, replacing his entire staff, etc.) — and then did some more planning once we arrived.
Around this time, I wrote “Everyone aboard the overplanning express! choo choo choo” and drew a little picture of a locomotive in my gaming journal. That seemed to be where we were headed.
But once we met the noble and narrowed our plans down a bit, everything went beautifully from there on out — and we wound up having an incredibly satisfying session. Here’s why.
Our GM, Sam, did lots of things right — but specific to this topic, here’s what stood out for me:
Having a plan, or even just an idea of how the evening’s session might shake out, and being a) willing to change it on the fly and b) observant, quick-thinking, and confident enough to balance those changes with the needs of the storyline — while ensuring that everyone at the table (GM included) has fun, and without bogging down the session — is a challenging task for any GM.
I would have had trouble pulling this off nearly as well as Sam did, and I learned a lot just by seeing how he handled it. As a player, it made for a fun session; as a GM, it was a pleasure to watch an expert perform his craft.
I hope this was useful to you — and I’d love to hear your stories of putting this kind of improvisation into action, whether it went well or poorly. (Ditto for stories about experiencing this sort of thing from a player’s perspective.)
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