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Improvisation: Give Your Players Enough Rope to Have a Blast, but Not Enough to Hang Themselves

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 Quick Setup

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.

How it Went Down

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.

Just Enough Rope

Our GM, Sam, did lots of things right — but specific to this topic, here’s what stood out for me:

  1. He didn’t pressure us early on. It was pretty clear that there was a chance we’d spend the whole night agonizing over tiny details, but our GM didn’t push us to act out of character or otherwise get a move on. As long as we seemed to be having fun (which we were), he let us go in whatever direction we wanted to.
  2. He played out one encounter in detail. Protecting the noble involved getting him through five business meetings — three at his home, one offsite, and one back at home that we would not be allowed to actually attend. We spotted #4 and #5 as the week links in our security agenda, but we couldn’t be sure when the assassins might strike. Sam ran the first meeting in detail so that we could enjoy it, see how our plan played out, and establish a template for the other meetings.
  3. Then he handwaved the next three encounters. Once we had a working plan for the meetings, he described a few details from the next two and then left it at “They pass without incident.” For the offsite meeting, since our focus was on the journey (as the destination was insanely secure), we played that out and then skipped the meeting. This was perfect: we got to see that our planning was paying off, but we didn’t waste time on boring stuff.
  4. We shifted back into gear for the final encounter. Since everything seemed likely to come to a head in the final meeting (the one where the noble wouldn’t allow us to be in the room), all of us — the players and our GM — slowed things down and really savored the planning, roleplaying discussion, and other aspects of this encounter. We figured out most of the truth behind the upcoming assassination attempt, then got into a huge fight after the meeting when the attempt actually took place.
  5. He applied mechanics to our areas of interest. After the session, we talked about how much fun we’d had. Sam mentioned that he’d reduced the number of mooks who made it to the final encounter based on our planning, and also delayed the arrival of the second big bad — again, based on what we’d done. I don’t know if this had been in the works all along, but I suspect that if we’d just asked to skip ahead to the final encounter — done no planning, in other words — things would have gone very differently. Seeing that Sam had made what mattered to us (the planning) matter to the outcome of the session was really satisfying.
  6. Lastly, he gauged our energy levels perfectly. Since we threw Sam some curveballs, it would have been easy to just assume that the final battle (which lasted several hours) needed to be shifted to the next session. But Sam correctly guessed that we all had it in us, and because he’d paced the session so well — balancing our interests with the need for progression — it went perfectly.

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.)

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Improvisation: Give Your Players Enough Rope to Have a Blast, but Not Enough to Hang Themselves"

#1 Comment By Bercilac On February 22, 2010 @ 3:23 am

Good grief. That sounds amazing. As you point out, this kind of flexibility would be really tough for anyone, even an experienced GM.

You know what I’d like to see? A template. I’ve become increasingly addicted to these gaming template tools of late, after a long love-hate relationship with them. It’s not that the template gives the best possible way for a GM to structure his or her game, or that it exhaust all possibilities (not really the point, anyway, though some templates try to). A template is a great learning tool. It teaches you to structure your thinking and organise your creativity. In the long term, everyone outgrows templates. But initially, they’re handy. This is about a learning process where one goes from not knowing the rules, to knowing the rules, to knowing when to break the rules.

In this spirit, I have created this modest attempt at an improvisational template. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s basically meant to help people organise their thinking in ways that Martin suggests:

It’s also shameless promotion for my blog.

#2 Comment By Razjah On February 22, 2010 @ 5:45 am

That session- wow. I think that I would have left the final meeting for the next week. But my group only plays for 4 hours and we game on a weeknight, so doing a several hour long combat would be crazy after the hours of setting up the conflict. Gaming until 2 am- good; gaming until 2 am with 8:00 classes- not so good.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On February 22, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

That was a very tough tightrope to walk– I’ve run and played in several games where the GM couldn’t make that balance. It sounds like he did a great job of mitigating [2] by providing good chunks of information at various points.

Deciding to reward you by showing you the results of the first prep, skimming over 2 and 3, and showing you the important half of 4 but skipping the rest was an impressive reading of the table. It sounds like enough to develop tensions and reward your preparation, but cut out enough that the big battle still fit in your evening. I tip my hat to him– it sounds tough and incredibly well done.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On February 22, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

I’m Sam. Thanks for the praise Martin! I figured I’d chime in with some of the behind-the-scenes details of that session.

The session began with a pretty big wrinkle: one player (the controller in this 4E game) let us know in advance that he might not be able to make it. He indicated the day before that he was probably in, but reversed three hours before game time. There were also two new NPCs, either of which the team might have chosen to include. Because of this variability, the adventure had to be flexible.

I also wanted to shake things up a bit. The previous adventure had been the classic “Long Walk before a Dungeon Crawl.” I wanted to do something different, but that meant getting out of the dungeon, which happens to be one of the best tools for preventing Analysis Paralysis.

I bit the bullet and decided to make the session feature heavy doses of espionage and counter-espionage, then sketched out the few elements I knew would be beyond the players’ control:

– The Timeline: The vague intelligence about the threat to the noble suggested an attack would occur within two days. The team’s contact had arranged travel which left in 6 hours. Once on location, the noble arrived at a specific time. After settling in, he had a fixed schedule, culminating in a big public appearance before he went home.
– The Locations: The adventures almost always start in the same location. The transportation was another site. Once in the city, they could have chosen to go anywhere, but logic suggested really only two or three places. Finally, the noble’s meetings were all settled for specific places.
– The NPCs: I really had two major groups to detail, the noble’s entourage and the enemy forces.

Once I knew these things, my prep for the game was largely done. Everything else that happened in the session flowed from the players’ choices.

I defined the timeline and locations as I did because it naturally limits PC analysis. Once the threat was known, the PCs could have started anywhere, but they knew they really only had two days to work with. Zooming in, those two days were sliced into pieces with their own internal time limits: the wait at base for their train, the train ride, the wait for the noble, and then the meetings. The time slices blended with specific locations act as natural constraints on player over-planning.

When I designed the NPCs, I also had constraints in mind. The noble was flexible and happy to cooperate with most plans, but he did have some hard limits (the fifth meeting primarily). His forces had one motive (keep him alive). The players knew that these were the limits with which they’d have to work.

For the enemies, I knew they’d have limits as well. They were also fighting the timelime – the noble’s public appearance would mark the end of their good chances to pull off an attack. The enemy wouldn’t know in advance that the PCs would be a factor (the PCs do belong to a secret organization, after all), so the enemy would always be reacting to the actions of the PCs.

With these limits in place and knowing the PCs’ abilities, I anticipated three general choices the players might make. 1. Use the changeling to stand in for the noble to draw the attack to themselves. 2. Protect the noble both obviously and discreetly (I expected the changeling to hide or be disguised as back-up, while the two big guys would stand around looking intimidating). 3. Try to track down the threat proactively and eliminate them before they could attack. 3 seemed like a longshot, and they picked 2. Knowing I’d be working with (probably) one of two options, I sketched the consequences of PC actions for both. Since they picked 2, I’ll just go over that.

One thing I’ve learned about players, and particularly the players in my group, is that they like to play to their PCs’ strengths. If one player is playing a sneak, you can bet stealth is going to be a part of any plan he makes, and you can design an adventure or at least an encounter around these things. While it might strain the imagination in many games that *every* encounter happens to suit at least some of the PCs, this particular game is about PCs who belong to a kind of fantasy CTU in which missions are assigned based on team capabilities, so it’s not crazy that the PCs end up doing things they’re good at.

For instance, Martin’s playing a sagacious history buff, which fit nicely with protecting a noble who might have any number of enemies in his past. With diligent research that I expected him to do, he uncovered a woman who was key to the adventure. It made a big difference later.

Once the PCs had their general plan (big guys stand in plain site, changeling hidden but watching, and the sage pretending to be an advisor), I had to make the enemies react. I knew the bad guys would take any decent chance they had to kill the noble, but preferred better odds and a night strike. The unrevealed traitor never had a moment alone with the noble once the PCs arrived. The backup would have tried to sneak in through a secret door, but the PCs actually broke into the house before the noble arrived to check security, and recommended it be fully secured. This left the traitor without help most of the day and evening.

The PCs had also spruced up the rounds of the noble’s loyal security team. This meant that when the bad guys finally did arrive, they had a bigger fight on their hands than they expected. In 4E terms, every success on the skill challenge to secure the sight meant one more mook killed before he could get to the noble.

Finally, Martin’s identification of the woman with which the noble had a past made a big deal, because it allowed the PCs to identify the nephew as a possible threat. Before the last meeting, two PCs stayed with him the entire time, pretending to talk security, while really trying to feel him out and prevent him from causing trouble. After those 30 minutes, they had mostly consider him safe, but by keeping him occupied, they stopped any chance he might have had at salvaging the elaborate assassination plot he’d been crafting.

When the fight finally came, it was late at night and the enemy forces were anxious to strike. Rather than taking the secret door, they had to take the rough route of just crashing through windows, hoping to overwhelm with surprise. About half the forces directly engaged the PCs through the second floor, but the rest tried the first floor, hoping to be surprise reinforcements and catch the noble, whom they guessed might be near the entrance they’d use.

Unfortunately for them, the PCs had done such a good job improving the noble’s security team that not one of them made it to join the fight. The PCs’ planning had almost cut their numbers in half. The traitor had been downstairs for the first several rounds of the battle, busy killing off the loyal guards so that he wouldn’t need to worry about them later. When he finally arrived, he only had two allies left, and died not long after that.

That’s where the adventure is right now. The PCs have just had a major victory over the enemy; I actually had initially expected that the noble would more likely than not be dead at the end of the night.

When prepping this game, one of my GMing philosophies was dominating my thoughts: Every good idea the players have should count. I didn’t expect the team to actually break into the manor in advance to test for weaknesses, poison, traps, secret doors, etc., but their plan was excellent and they pulled it off so well that it couldn’t do anything but improve their odds. Even though I’d assumed the assassination battle would have been much tougher and would have had a dramatic featuring of the traitor earlier on, the PCs’ behavior had to stop it from happening as I’d envisioned. I’d have felt like I was cheating them if all their great ideas hadn’t amounted to as much.

Finally, during wrap up, I chose to tell them directly that their planning had made things much easier. It’s often hard as a player to know when your roleplaying is making a difference in the game. In a fight, your good choices are easy to see (“Wow, that fireball fried half the bad guys!”). Outside of a battle, player decisions can be just as strong in shaping the course of a session, but not always as obviously. They did a great job that night and I wanted them to know that everything they did mattered, so I let them know.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 22, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

[3] – Cool template! I could print that out, make a copy without your notes in it, print that out as well, and plan to improvise a session quite nicely using your guidelines. Solid!

[4] – Yep, this is a tough one. I’m the worst offender in our group for causing us to poop out early, so maybe I should have said that Sam correctly gauged my energy level. 😉

[5] – Thanks for responding — and in such detail! The interplay between my article and your response is one of my favorite developments on the Stew to date — you added so much in your comment, and it was awesome to see where I was right and what I missed.

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