In my first installment of the Lessons From The Long Campaign: Setting Up An Epic Campaign , I was asked by my fellow Gnome, Telas, how much I had to “Railroad”  my players through the campaign. My answer was very little, because during the course of the campaign, I adopted a philosophy of never writing the ending to a scene. In this installment of Lessons from the Long Campaign, I am going to talk about now not to write endings to your scenes, and to use that lack of an ending to empower your players to guide your campaign.
You set the pace, push the characters into conflict and crisis, and describe the consequences of their decisions. […] For instance, it’s never the GM’s job to plan what’ll happen.
— Dogs in the Vineyard – Core book (lumpley games, 2004)
This quote was my personal inspiration for abandoning the ending to my scenes. In past campaigns, I would set up the scene, then I would write how the scene should end, and then later, run the game. For a while, I thought that I was a pretty good judge of my players, as we always seemed to get to the ending that I wrote. The truth was, that with the ending written in my session notes, I was subconsciously steering the players towards the ending, by the way I described things, my rule decisions, and my use of NPC’s.
When done improperly, your players will feel railroaded, and you will convey to the players a lack of creative input; in that their actions have little bearing on the outcome of the scene. When done correctly, the players hardly notice your skillful steering of the plot. The downside is that as a GM, there is no excitement; no uncertainty, when you guide the outcome of the scene. In someways the GM might as well be reading a story to the player.
So all you improv GM’s know all about this. You guys who hardly write any session notes, prep your game a half-hour before your players show up, and then run 4 hours of a game off the cuff, you are not going to be surprised, at what I am going to say. For the rest of us, and I will call us Structured GM’s (don’t read too much into the name), we walk a fine line between running the story we have written and railroading the players through our story. For my Structured brothers and sisters, I am here to talk about something you can do, to inject a little freedom into your games, while maintaining your more structured elements.
Leaving The Door Open
What I liked about the quote from DitV, was that it freed me from, what was often, the most difficult part of writing my scenes; that was I did not have to worry about figuring out what the players should do, but rather put the fate of the scene into their hands, and just play off of it. When I write scenes for my campaign now, I write up how the scene opens, I write what events occur in the course of the scene. I do not write how the events will or should play out in the scene. I do include a single line at the end of the scene notes, that defines what will close the scene out, and lead us to the next scene. Here is an example from my campaign:
- Background: In my campaign, there are half demon’s called Fiends. They were created when the Demon Prince’s mated with various human royal lines, after conquering them. Up to this moment in the game, Fiends were allies of the Demons, and fought against the humans.
- Opening: A group of NPC’s captured a young fiend, while on a mission for the King. They bring the young fiend to the King and the other PC’s and leave.
- Body: The fiend has a few lines of dialog. He acknowledges that he is a cousin to the King. He reveals that he is the son of a Fiend that the heroes have fought previously.
- Closing: The scene is done when the players free, imprison, or kill the Fiend.
That’s all I wrote for the scene. Honestly, when I ran the scene, I had no idea if the players would kill the fiend or not. During the course of the scene, inspired by some of the players actions, the Fiend turns out to be sympathetic to the humans and shows an interest in the human’s religion. The heroes, after some debate, decide to let the fiend live, and to help him covert to their religion. Fast forward several sessions, and the young fiend returns to his Demon controlled city, where his new found faith is used to create an underground movement that helps the humans take the city.
The scene turned to be a big turning point in my campaign, and the only reason that it came to be, was because I did not have a preconceived ending in mind. The scene was not total improv, it had structure, but only enough to set the stage, not to dictate how it would end.
From Scene To Arc
I also applied the same technique to the overall story arcs of the game. During the course of the campaign, I had seeded a number of goals that the players would have to achieve before they were ready to combat the Demon King. Each of these things were their own 3-4 session story arc. It would have been easy to just string the arcs in a logical progression, from one to the next, and lead the players through them, but I wanted to carry on that freedom to my players, that I had given them at the scene level.
What I did instead, was towards the end of the arc I was currently running, I would ask the players what they wanted to do next. We would review the existing list of goals that were outstanding, including various plot hooks, and clues that the players had uncovered, but did not have time to follow. The group, without my input, would come to a decision on what they wanted to do next. I would then get started coming up with the notes for that arc.
It was quite liberating not to have to structure so much of the campaign. Sure I knew the goal of each arc, but by not forcing any order to how they had to be completed, I was able to be surprised by what they players decided where their priorities. For me as the GM, there was an element of uncertainty that would arise in the campaign, as the players made their choices.
For the players, it deepened their investment in the overall story. Rather than some baron handing them a quest each week, the arcs they played were based on their decisions, and played out at the time when they thought they were the most important. At times, the players had differing opinions of what arc should be next, and they would negotiate and bargain with one another in order to reach a decision. It made for some great PC to PC interactions during sessions and between sessions.
Some Structured Unstructuredness
I would be remiss in not covering some skills that make this style of running scenes and campaigns work well.
- Pause Before You Act– You set up the scene, and then let the players loose. After a few minutes, the players have made their move, and are close to closing out the scene. Stop; do nothing. Take in just what they did. And see the next tip…
- Every Action Has A Consequence– Part of giving the players the power of decisions is that they also accept the consequences of their actions. While you are pausing, think through what is the logical consequence for what the players have done. It may not be anything that happens right now, it may be something that happens weeks from now, but decide what the consequence is and write it down.
- Balance The Options– When you set up a scene, you want to give the players a number of interesting options, but not so many that they get analysis paralysis, and the scene bogs down in hours of debate on what to do. By creating a finite number of options, you allow the group to reach a consensus faster.
- Don’t Put It Out There If You Don’t Want Them To Do It– Basically, don’t make a choice available for them, unless you are prepared for them to take it. In my example scene, the players could have killed that Fiend the moment they saw him. If they did, that would have been the end of the scene. There would have been consequences from it, but it was a valid choice for them to make. So if you have an NPC that cannot afford to be killed, don’t place him in a situation where the players are allowed to kill him.
As a Structured GM, letting go of the ending of my scenes was one of the most exciting things I had done in some time. It was the GMing equivalent of letting go of the handle bars of your bike the first time. There is a rush in the freedom of being a bit out of control. But like letting go of your handle bars, you can reach out and grab them if you start to wobble, and put the bike back on the path.
Letting go of the ending of your scenes and your story arcs also empower your players, giving them a true impact in the course of the events that surround their characters. They will reward you for your trust, by keeping your game exciting and unpredictable.