Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Secret of My Success

I've often heard it postulated that the reason adventure paths have become so popular is because many gamers are older and thus lack the time they once had in their younger, more carefree days to allow their campaigns to "grow" a story organically. Thus, adventure paths and similar products give them a "story in a box" that let's them cut through all the "boring bits" they no longer have time for and dive right into what they consider the best part of a campaign: the stories that percolate to the surface through play.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I'm not opposed to the idea of "story" in a RPG campaign. I happen to believe that the presence of story is where a campaign lives or dies. What I object to -- and what has become the assumption over the last 20+ years -- is that story is something others give you through their products. It's something professionals plot out, write up, and then add pretty pictures to so they can charge you $19.99 for an adventure you can only use once. I see this as the problem nowadays, not "story" as such. At the same time, I recognize that many gamers don't have a lot of time to plan out grand campaign arcs with which their players can interact. That's why I'm offering up the secret of my own success as a referee: make it up as you go along.

Years ago, I ran a campaign that took as its starting point a succession crisis/civil war in a good-aligned country. I decided that, for the civil war to work, I needed to wipe out the entire royal family in one feel swoop, leaving only distant -- and unsuitable -- relations still alive. I did this through the use of a gigantic sphere of annihilation that leveled the palace and effectively decapitated the government of the country, leaving the high nobles, merchant lords, and opportunists scrambling for a way to make the most of the situation. This was the starting point of the campaign, the kick-off that got the ball into play and formed the backdrop for all my subsequent adventures about the players' efforts to restore unity and peace to the kingdom.

Now, that probably sounds like a lot of work to pull off, but, in practice, it wasn't, because I had no idea who assassinated the royal family or why. Neither did I know who would wind up as the new king or queen or how he or she would gain the throne. I left the answers to all these questions up to random chance and the players' actions and, most importantly, inclinations. I knew who the major moves and shakers of the kingdom were and what their personalities were like. That made it easy for me to decide how they'd act during this crisis and they did so. How the players reacted to them and how they interpreted their actions and motives gave me the raw material from which I was able to craft what, in retrospect, looks like a coherent story but what was in fact a spectacular bit of misdirection on my part.

The end result was very satisfying and enjoyable; my players still talk about that campaign till this day, but the simple reality is that I had no idea the whys or wherefores of the assassination or the outcome of the succession crisis -- and that's what made it work. I wasn't imposing anything on the campaign except the initial starting point. The rest all arose through play. And because I had no grand plan, I could freely allow NPCs to die or the players to go off on weird tangents -- like when one kidnapped a nobleman, falsely believing him to have been on the conspiracy to kill the old king -- because, literally, anything was possible until the mass of slowly accumulated details made the identities of the assassins and the best candidate to become the new king clear. This was, if I may say so myself, an awesome campaign and I am very proud of how well it turned out in the end.

The only real drawbacks to this approach are that you must be able to think on your feet and you must know enough about your campaign setting to be able to construct NPCs and "facts" as required. I alleviated some of the latter by having a huge list of prepared names, descriptions, and personalities that I would use at random. That way, when the PCs met someone, he wasn't obviously generic-merchant-lord-who's-unimportant-to-the-plot but instead Maynoor Misrim, a tall distinguished gentleman who speaks with an imperious manner and walks with a slight limp. In short order, I had a huge cast of NPCs, any one of whom might be important, depending on how the PCs acted and how the dice would go.

In play, this approach took very little planning and I kept it going for months without much effort. I realize it's not for everyone, but I heartily recommend it nonetheless. Most of my best and most memorable campaigns ove the years have used this approach and I fully intend to use it again in my future ones as well.


  1. For years I beat myself up about not being a good enough DM because I didn’t spend enough time in preparation. I’m a chronic procrastinator.

    Then one day I realized something. The sessions I’d run that had turned out the best had all been mostly improvised. Whether because I really hadn’t prepared, because the players threw me a curve-ball, or because I got stuck without the materials I’d prepped.

    So, I decided to embrace that. Don’t get me wrong, I still do some prep. But it’s more prepping for winging it. (^_^) I look forward to the improv and enjoy it rather than beating myself up about it.

    Still, the occasions when I blank can be awfully frustrating.

  2. I whole-heartedly agree with this method of DMing. In fact, I never could see using modules except as note cards from which names and ideas could be lifted piecemeal. I think another author's setting can make for great inspiration and provide material support. However, if you can run on-the-fly, things are just so much more organic, dynamic and real.

    Obviously you enjoyed the campaign you described, James. I'd argue that this was in part because you weren't only running it, but playing in it as well. Our long-time DM was a master of running on-the-fly. I think many of our best gaming moments were when everyone of us, players and GM alike, were genuinely surprised by what just transpired.

  3. Yeah, preping for winging it has been my method for 30 years. At last night's game it was my birthday (hold the applause), so I was really partying - downing Bass ales like water. I told everyone ahead of time that there would be more winging than usual, and they acted appropriatly - stepping up to the plate with the time-filling role play. Sometimes winging can be ackward, frustrating, or just plain stage-fright inducing. But when your winging and the players actions come together just right, it's like chocolate and peanut butter, baby!

  4. I'm working towards ending my 3.5 very story oriented campaign and rebooting with some sandbox, player driven, DM winging campaign.

    In no small part because storypaths take soooo much effort. Esp 3rd party ones. You have to read it multiple times, really understand the plot and plots within plots, all the characters, interactions. All so you get it all "right". On top of that you usually have to tweak it to fit in your world and with your players.

    Bleck! I'm burnt out on it.

  5. It's something professionals plot out
    Frustrated novel writers, more like.

    That's why I'm offering up the secret of my own success as a referee: make it up as you go along
    I'm seriously considering doing this for an upcoming Call of Cthulhu campaign; I have a starting point, a vague conspiracy, and some ideas of where it might all go, but I'm tempted to let the players run with it and see where they go. I know that the story we come up with together will be more fun than a story I make up alone.

    I'm not sure CoC is the right game for such a loose approach, but I'm going to give it a go. I've been inspired by all this talk of sandbox play of late, as well as a one-off I put together which was a series of locations and characters with vague connections between them, but no plot as such; it ran much better than any plotted scenario I've written or run, so I thought about scaling it up to campaign level.

  6. Good GMs plot,
    Great GMs steal from their players.

    This philosophy has served me well for the past 10 years

  7. I'm not sure CoC is the right game

    It absolutely is. You just drop hooks and the players will do all the heavy lifting for you, trying to piece them together. Some of the time you have to think in story elements rather than location sandboxes, but there's plenty of space for the latter, too: in fact most of the great Cthulhu games I've been in have devolved to location-exploration close to the climax.

    I played for about 6 years with an inspired improvising CoC DM (or Keeper or whatever) and it was the best roleplaying I've ever done. Somehow that sense of not knowing whether you're making it all up in your own head or if you're interfacing with the "actual plot" is just the thing for CoC.

  8. Years ago, I ran a campaign that took as its starting point a succession crisis/civil war in a good-aligned country.

    Here's where I get hung-up: Do(did) you need player buy-in on that idea? What if players say "uhhhh...not interested"? Does this type of play(i.e."winging it") require a Big Idea(tm) to start, and that's it? Can you start without a Big Idea(tm)? How would you do this?

    I ask because I've got a group who I'm running with Rolemaster in the Wilderlands (which is a fun sandboxy affair), but I'm not sure if I need to drop a Big Idea or not....or what will happen if the Big Idea goes East and they go West.


  9. Of course, the great advantage of winging it is that you can quickly shelve what little you’ve prepped and be a leaf on the wind.

    (Another lesson to learn is to simply save up any ideas you have that you don’t get to use and pull them out at the opportune time.)

    I think it also helps that it really is a “big idea” and if it feels like a natural part of the world. If you’re set on the PCs rescuing the princess, that is much easier for the players to not buy into. And it can really feel like taking a hook if they do. Just setting a crisis before them and letting them react to it has a better chance of hooking them.

    (Allowing for the fact that some players are happy to bite whatever lure you put in front of them.)

    If they don’t bite, you move on.

    ...but...those events are still going to move forward. The bigger they are, the more likely the PCs will become involved at some point.

    Now, I’m not suggesting passive-aggressive refereeing. If you are pushing it, then that’s a sign you need to stop. This is a path that often flows naturally, but if it starts feeling too forced, you should probably back off.

    And you have to let their reaction be their reaction. You set up the situation; they decide how to deal with it.

    Or at least, that’s my ramblings on the subject today. ^_^

  10. FWIW, I've had the most success with this when starting with a threat the PCs ought to deal with and the least when starting with an opportunity they might enjoy. One opener that I've used a few times is to have the PCs all come from the same village. They meet on the road, while returning to their village for the once-a-decade census. When they arrive the village has been recently burned to the ground, and there are a few obviously foreign troops or boats leaving the scene. So far I have never had a party fail to follow up on who killed or imprisoned their families. Conversely, I've had that worst of all situations - player immobility and apathy - when I've started a game just next to some really intriguing location/thing that I expected them to go investigate.
    In general it strikes me that dungeon entrances and taverns full of intriguing rumours are among the greatest dangers a game ever has to face: the chance is very real, at that moment, that nothing will happen.

  11. I think a lot of it can hinge on the type of players a group has. Players can range anywhere from "Will bite on anything" to "Will bite on nothing". Tangentially, are the players who create there own gaming "food"(i.e. hooks). This can be good and bad. Good in the sense that this player can motivate the rest of the group to follow and bad in that the hook can be, let's say, less than desireable (Hey! I got an idea, let's kill the town elders of the village we grew up in!)

    Also, it seems to me that while "winging it" is often touted as "low prep" or "less prep than 'normal'", it's really just a different type of prep. I would call it width-first prep vs depth-first. In winging-it, you want lots of different paths with not a lot details(initially), vs here's one path that goes and deep.

    Of course, once players bite on a width-first item, then you can dive in on it in more detail....

  12. Somehow that sense of not knowing whether you're making it all up in your own head or if you're interfacing with the "actual plot" is just the thing for CoC.
    Yep, that's my thinking too, which is why I'm keen to give it a go. The players in the one-off really took control of the game, and I had great fun winging it, adding in details on the fly which had not occurred to me during writing, and so on. They thought I'd written the whole thing down, and I didn't choose to enlighten them. :)

  13. This can be good and bad. Good in the sense that this player can motivate the rest of the group to follow and bad in that the hook can be, let's say, less than desireable (Hey! I got an idea, let's kill the town elders of the village we grew up in!)

    I usually have "the bad" of those players get what they deserve, because obviously if you did such a thing, you'd suffer real consequences. They either learn to use their powers for good of the game and group, or quit playing at my table through their own frustration. (It's similar to the situation of certain types of players who always want to play a thief, but shouldn't because they invariably use it to spoil everyone else's fun by trying to rob other party members, go off on their own to "scout," etc.)

    As an aside, part of my problem with sandbox games has often been players who absolutely require an idea or storyline to be stuffed down their throats. They won't bite on anything because they expect to be entertained and led by the nose, lest they sit around for a few hours chatting with a barmaid and leaving accomplishing nothing. That's frustrating as all get out.

  14. I ran Cthulhu campaigns throughout the 90's, and winging it was just fine. I had to be up on the material though. The Arkham maps and play aids really fleshed out the town, and with just some bare elements the players did their things. Visiting Miskatonic, going out to eat, shopping. As they went about their lives, I would drop in my hooks and events and they would act/react to them. I really put a lot of time into my 1920's research so I could act on the fly (it seemed important that I knew more about the time period than they did), but to me it was worth it.

  15. I think it also depends on the referee. If you give me a module with a lot of detail and background, it would take me a lot of time and effort to extract the kind of bare-bones structure that I need to run it. And in play, I’ll miss taking advantage of all those details the author so thoughtfully provided.

    Give me a bare-bones structure, though, and I’m off to the races. I’ll improvise details as they become necessary.

    Other people have told me, however, that they find such a bare-bones structure useless. They want those details up-front, and they can read through all those pages and assimilate them enough to run it in very little time.

    Which is why I don’t think there is one true way to design and present adventure modules. Rather, I think the industry should really make an effort to identify the different needs of different types of referees. Then make an effort to provide the different types and identify them as such. I mean, if we are going to have an industry, that seems like a much better way to improve the hobby than most of the things they’re trying.

    Anyway, the point is that the type of improvising style that works for many of us may not work for every referee.

  16. BTW, does anyone else here read http://www.darthsanddroids.net ?
    It's not all that funny, but the last dozen or so strips seem oddly relevant to this discussion: the DM uses an NPC mouthpiece to review his ingenious plot, which the PCs have resolutely and consistently refused to engage. Then one of his players comes up with a plan that promises to radically derail the rest of the game. It's a great argument for improvisational play.

  17. Anyway, the point is that the type of improvising style that works for many of us may not work for every referee.

    True dat. I'd also say that's true from the player's perspective. Meaning, while I think I'm more inclined to want to run an improvisational game, in play, I have a slightly harder time of it.

    I think some of that feeling, as a player at least, can come from feeling I have no hooks at all. Of course this may be what some players live for, but I'm in the "middle of the road" camp.
    There's definitely a range of hooks from none to "You've been conscripted into the local militia...GO!!!!".

  18. Do(did) you need player buy-in on that idea?

    In my experience, yes, you do -- and that's a good thing. Gaming is a collaborative entertainment and one of the joys of abandoning a pre-planned story is that it's generally much easier to create the threads of many adventures in the (likely) event your players don't follow them up. I generally find it best to scatter at least a half-dozen separate ideas -- rumors, NPC encounters, etc. -- in the first session of play, so the players can have ample choices and we never get "stuck" without something to do.

  19. I would call it width-first prep vs depth-first. In winging-it, you want lots of different paths with not a lot details(initially), vs here's one path that goes and deep.

    That's correct. Gaming, by its very nature, will always involve lots of pre-game prep. Even the most loose sandbox style of old school play requires the referee to know the game, his players, and the setting well enough to be able to wing it with any degree of success. That's just a reality and I think the quest to make gaming friendlier to a "no prep" style is a snipe hunt.

    I do think that it's possible to shift the type of prep away from mechanics-heavy work and more toward considering who the important NPCs in a city are or what the local humanoid tribes are doing and why. For me, the joy of old school games is how simple they are to use from memory or without referring to a book. That frees me up to spend my prep time thinking about what the PCs might encounter and how I'll deal with those encounters when they occur.

  20. In my recent group, I had the basic plans before I even knew the people (mostly stangers to me when we met for the first game). I was going to have a caravan of higher end craftsmen leaving the big city, and stopping in towns during the spring festivals for a day or two. Finally, they were to end up a few games later (after getting some safe levels for dungeoning) in a classic dungeon near the hobbit lands. That was pretty much it. I didn't have much in the way of the first few adventures drawn up. When I told players about the town stops that would occur, most of them had their characters be from some of those areas. So that when the caravan stopped in those areas, some players would already be familiar with the place. That gave me the chance to come up with some character-specific encounters. So in these first few games anyway, players have their hands in the dough right off the bat. Not much time for that in pre-planned stories. The character interactions with some caravan NPC's made things flesh out pretty good too. I really had planned this caravan idea as a vehicle for players to get to a certain place, but thanks to them it has really panned out into more. That level of players getting into the mix of what happens in the game is a lot of the fun for me.