Thursday, October 7, 2010

Behind the Scenes

In a comment, reader Martin asked the following question:
For your style of "sandbox play" (which I find very intriguing but have never executed as a referee), can you give us a sense of how much of the information above you had "planned out" versus how much you made up based on the actions of your players? I know your players read the blog so I'm not looking for you to give anything away, but I'm also fascinated by comments you make that seem as though you make up really interesting campaign plot points "on the spot", but then toward the end of your summary above you mention "The additional details about Areon, as well as the Stranger from "Earth" were ideas I'd wanted to work into the campaign at some point", so clearly you had thought about those ahead of time. I'm just trying to understand your process a little more. I have definitely fallen into a pattern of preparing way too much background information for my games, most of which never gets used but which takes time away from me working on the actual things that my players are dealing with.
I thought this was a question worth addressing at some length, since I get asked it (or variations of it) a lot.

I've often described my refereeing style as very "seat of the pants" and talked about how little preparation I do before each session. That's true to a great extent, but I think I may have also misled people somewhat. For example, I have maps of Dwimmermount, which I made well in advance. I've also keyed these maps with a few special encounters, but the rest I leave empty or at least undescribed. As the players explore the dungeon, I may or may not add encounters or items to some of these empty or undescribed rooms. Whether I do so or not depends greatly on how the session is unfolding at that time or if I have any ideas I'd like to insert into the campaign. The same is true of details about the wider world. I have a (very vague) map of the world outside Dwimmermount, Muntburg, and Adamas and some areas on that map have been detailed in advance, but much of it is left blank, to be filled in as needed/desired.

Before each session, I don't spend hours poring over my maps or working out details of what the characters will encounter. However, I do spend a lot of time thinking, often at odd hours of the night or while I'm out walking around or engaged in some daily, boring activity. I come up with lots of ideas and I store them all away for use later. Some of these ideas are just inklings of thoughts and others are more elaborate. Some are (mostly) original and others are variations on stuff I've read in books or gaming products or seen in some other context. Some I think about how I might include them in the campaign and others I'm not even sure would work very well in it. But they're all useful, because they're the "raw materials" on which I draw when I'm in need of something to include in a session.

When I say I "don't plan beforehand," what I mean is that I don't (generally) decide in advance a lot of details about what's in this room or that one or what's beyond this hill, etc. This applies on every level of the campaign, from a shopkeeper in Adamas to wider cosmos beyond the world on which the campaign takes place. The advantage of this approach is twofold. First, I have a lot of flexibility. I can bend and shape the nature of things to suit both the players' tastes and interests and those unexpected "in the moment" events that good gaming often generates. Second, it helps to foster a sense of mystery, because, quite literally, no one -- not even I -- know the answers to certain questions. So, when I throw out a piece of information or have an NPC say "X is true" about the world, it's not rarely cut and dried. Until I absolutely need to establish something about the campaign, I don't, preferring instead to keep things vague and/or contradictory, which, so far, has worked very well.

Of course, this approach has some potential pitfalls, not least of which being that, unless you're quick on your feet and have a good memory, you're liable to wind up with a very muddled and inconsistent campaign. Fortunately, those are my two main talents as a referee, which means I am able to make this barely controlled chaos seem a great deal more intentionally coherent than it really is. I suspect that another issue inherent in this approach is that it's a lot harder to game when you're not "on." That is, unless you're really feeling up to it, you're more likely to stall and delay and not actually play. In retrospect, I realize that many of my "off" sessions have been as much as result of my own lack of energy for the demands of thinking nimbly on any given night than external factors. What I do is very demanding on the referee and, if he's not feeling up to the task, sessions tends to be less than exciting.

All that said, I'm quite happy with the approach I've adopted. It certainly suits my temperament these days and the campaign has survived and prospered despite its ups and downs. I also feel that I've been a lot more creative and open-minded in this campaign than I have been in many of many of my past ones, precisely because I have to be. I can't fall back on predetermined answers to questions about the setting, so my responses to player queries often invite even more questions rather than being definitive. That's to the good, I think, but it also means that there are now dozens of dangling threads, any one of which could, if pulled too hard, unravel the campaign. It's a juggling act, to be sure, but then that's why I enjoy being a referee and, by most accounts, I do a pretty good job at it, so I plan to stick with it and see where this craziness leads.

17 comments:

  1. Not to toot my own horn, but that sounds startlingly like what I do. Very little of what I do is planned out anywhere near in advance; instead, I tend to stick in elements I'd been thinking about beforehand whenever I get around to playing them. Even a very good idea might take a couple of months before its "time to shine" gets used.

    As a recent example, in my last session (which I wrote about on my blog) I'd had ideas for a desert tomb for a while, as well as mummy-zombies and a statue made of scarabs.

    As we all know, however, no plan survives contact with the enemy, so there's no real sense in trying to plan out every single thing the players will try to do. So why bother? Vague details are worth their weight in gold, and concrete plans are leaden chains.

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  2. unless you're very quick on your feet and have a great memory

    i consider myself quick on my feet and my memory is not that bad, but i know my campaigns would become muddled and inconsistent very fast if i adopted your playstyle. i envy anyone who is able to work like that. i doubt there are many dm's who can really pull it off successfully. i haven't met many (any?).

    Until I absolutely need to establish something about the campaign, I don't, preferring instead to keep things vague and/or contradictory

    this is something i personally would have problems with, because as a player what i like to do is "fit" my character into a campaign world. to do this i need as much specific info as possible, which would be next to impossible with your method.

    this would result in frustration for the dm as i would ask about stuff all the time and for myself as your answers probably wouldn't satisfy my. :)

    I can bend and shape the nature of things to suit both the players' tastes and interests and those unexpected "in the moment" events that good gaming often generates.

    do you do this completely spontaneous or do you have a few encounters prepared and spring them when you think the time is right? i always try to have a few encounter aces up my sleeve to spring on players when i consider the moment appropriate.

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  3. Though I had a pretty good idea this is what you were doing based on previous entries, it is good to finally have confirmation that my hunch was correct.

    I'm thinking of trying this method with my upcoming campaign, but I'm worried that if I'm unable to do it it'll be too hard for me to rebound and keep my players interest.

    I'm generally good at ad libbing, but I'm still a tad worried.

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  4. Request for clarification:

    Do you "add encounters or items to some of these empty or undescribed rooms" based on "how the session is unfolding at that time" such as a room marked empty suddenly contains a monster? Maybe because earlier that session the party easily defeated a creature you thought they'd have trouble with and they need another challenge?

    Or is it more big-picture adjustments to areas not yet explored based on overall campaign developments? Maybe something like a sudden new idea of a magic sword or kidnapped princess in the campaign means that now you've got to put the sword or princess *somewhere.*

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  5. I don't mind a bit of "winging it", but I do try to pre-populate my dungeon levels. If I don't, I'm worried I may take it too easy on my players, accounting for their current party strength. Having a lot of stuff pre-keyed means that I won't be tempted to pull my punches. I'd rather have them be on their toes and get the full old-school experience, with nothing watered down.

    For any in-town non-combat type encounters, I totally wing it. I've got an excellent memory, and take notes, so tossing things in on the fly is no issue.

    I do however let the players' plans succeed as much as possible, if they are being clever.

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  6. My GMing style, more or less. It's just "fair" to the players, I think.

    Sadly, some people in these last years get surprised this can be done, instead of shoehorning players inside a pre-generated fixed script (I won't call that a game). At least around here, of course.

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  7. Thanks for commenting on this, James. This does help a lot toward further explaining your process.

    As it turns out, it's really not too different than what I do, but I feel like, based on your recaps and your explanation above, you probably just do it better. Your memory seems to be a lot better than mine. That's one of my big downfalls - like you, I think a lot about my campaign while driving around town or doing menial chores like dishes or whatever. And, I even write them down and intend to bring them up "in-game" but when it comes around to it, I often forget. Then on the way home after the session, I'm usually saying to myself, "Dang it! I forgot to work that in!"

    I think part of it has to do with our frequency of play. We're supposed to play every other week, but over the course of our 10+ year campaign it's gradually gone down to about once every 3-4 weeks, and that makes it difficult to remember what's going on.

    Anyway, thanks again. I'm already thinking of my "next" campaign and would definitely like to try a more sand-box style. Your session recaps have been a great inspiration in that regard.

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  8. Martin, a big part of the secret here is not to worry about remembering to work something in. Sure, you can have a bunch of ideas for things ready to go but if something else comes to you at the table, or you don't remember an idea until later, don't sweat it. Just do what seems to work at the time.

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  9. this is something i personally would have problems with, because as a player what i like to do is "fit" my character into a campaign world. to do this i need as much specific info as possible, which would be next to impossible with your method.

    I guess it depends on what you mean by "fit." When I started the campaign, I gave the players free rein to make their characters as they wished and I then slowly built the world to accommodate their decisions and provide additional context. So, the way Dordagdonar and Vladimir were portrayed, for example, gave me cues on how to describe the elves and dwarves of the setting and the church of Tyche is similarly a result of the way Brother Candor's player has been presenting it through play.

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  10. Do you "add encounters or items to some of these empty or undescribed rooms" based on "how the session is unfolding at that time" such as a room marked empty suddenly contains a monster? Maybe because earlier that session the party easily defeated a creature you thought they'd have trouble with and they need another challenge?

    Or is it more big-picture adjustments to areas not yet explored based on overall campaign developments? Maybe something like a sudden new idea of a magic sword or kidnapped princess in the campaign means that now you've got to put the sword or princess *somewhere.*


    Both. :)

    I should probably expand on this in a future post, so expect one on this topic in the next few days.

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  11. I'm kind of a maps freak. I like drawing the entire world, countries, cities, dungeons but I keep my notes to a minimum as I'm always getting new ideas. That's why I always have a comp book anytime I GM.

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  12. ...I then slowly built the world to accommodate their decisions and provide additional context.

    which is quite awesome indeed!

    how do you handle conflicting views with this method? what if you simply don't like what the players give you to work with?

    obviously, the way you do it every character "fits in". i guess for me that would take away a challenge i enjoy a lot. i wonder how i would react to that.

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  13. Martin, a big part of the secret here is not to worry about remembering to work something in. Sure, you can have a bunch of ideas for things ready to go but if something else comes to you at the table, or you don't remember an idea until later, don't sweat it. Just do what seems to work at the time.

    Exactly so.

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  14. how do you handle conflicting views with this method? what if you simply don't like what the players give you to work with?

    I'll let you know when it happens :)

    More seriously, I guess I've just been blessed with players who don't come up with unworkable or uninteresting ideas.

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  15. ...and then I slowly built the world to accommodate their decisions and provide additional context.

    That's my preferred method as well.

    As with James' campaign, my players defined the nature of the elves and dwarves, simply because the elven player was a big fan of Tolkien (and played his elf that way) and the dwarven player wanted to play a dwarf sorceror (a combination that I hadn't thought about in the campaign before).

    how do you handle conflicting views with this method? what if you simply don't like what the players give you to work with?

    The problem with this method is that it works best in the beginning of a campaign. A few years into the campaign the setting can be as defined as one that was completely prepared by a DM - at least from the viewpoint of a new player, or an old player needing to roll a new character.

    I only remember one instance where my interpretation was in conflict with the wishes of a player - when that player explained his setting addition too loosely and left out details that he saw in his mind (like the physical description of a creature he invented), so that when I had that creature appear in an adventure he didn't acknowledge it as this creature. I couldn't retrofit the description because it was part of the setting already - happenings that lead to this encounter depended on this physical form.

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  16. Love to hear that I'm not the only one that's winging entire campaigns. Or is it really channeling something that's already there - in another dimension ;-)?

    Agree that you need quite a good memory to keep it up. I guess documenting the campaign in your blog also helps - to have some sort of document to fall back on and keep the world consistent.

    Cool that you also dare publish it online. I'll also give that a try :-)

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  17. Great post. I mostly make things up as I go along and I've often wondered if it's a common DMing style.

    I have a huge downfall, though: urban campaigns.

    Adventuring in a city means lots of NPCs and intertwining storylines, which catches me up in contradictions and misrememberances, which is frustrating for the players.

    For that reason I try to keep the adventures small town and wilderness now, with only brief stops in large settlements.

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