I just recently started a Night’s Black AgentsÂ campaign and while prepping for my first session, I found that what I prepped was far less than I normally would write out. When I looked at what I was leaving out, I saw that it was all the contingency material; all the “if they do this, then this happens”. It was then I realized that I did not need that anymore, because I would react to what the players came up with and roll with it. I had become comfortable with uncertainty.
What’s Happens Next?
From the start of the hobby there has always been uncertainty in RPGs. The nature of the collaborative storytelling in RPGs means that as a GM, we are only in control of a small fraction of the game. Once we describe the room, what happens next falls to the players and the choices they make. We then react, the GMÂ reacts, and then it’sÂ back and forth until the scene is complete.
Depending on how comfortable you are with uncertainty will determine how smoothly that back-and-forth with the players will be. If you have a low level of comfort, you will consciously and unconsciously steer the players into the areas you have prepared. At higher levels of comfort, you will wait to see what the players come up with, and then react.
I speculate that dealing with uncertainty is one of the reasons that some people do not want to GM. There is a fear that they won’t know what to do next. The truth is that we are often better at this than we give ourselves credit. Also, this is a learned skill, so even if we are not adept when we start, we can grow into a higher level of comfort.
The Pitfalls of Overcompensation
When you have a low level of comfort with uncertainty you tend to overcompensate. There is a need to create certainty so that the game remains in a comfort zone where you, as GM, can perform. Not that there is any wrong-bad-fun, but when take to an extreme you run the risk of compromising the fun for yourself or worse, for the entire group. Here are some common ways that overcompensating can go wrong:
I am betting that this is the most common case. Over-prep is when a GM documents numerous contingencies in their prep, preparing for anything the players can think of during the session. The obvious downside to this is that its time consuming for the GM, and raises the dangers of GM Burnout. For the group, its the least invasive because the GM shoulders the burden for their lack of comfort, and in most cases the players are oblivious to all the work their GM has done.
The dreaded R word! When you have a low level of comfort, you want the game to stick with the stuff you know; be it your written notes or the prepared adventure you are running. So when the players take an unexpected turn, you are forced to get them back into your comfort zone.
This can be subtle, such as giving the illusion of choice but behind the screen steering encounters into the players path to get back into the comfort zone. Done at this level, this is mostly harmless, but its not a true experience. (Confession, I was a master of this and did it for years, and had many good experiences.)
Or, it can be overt, by shutting down players ideas, or making the outcomes of their actions meaningless; the truest form of railroading. This is far more obvious to the players, and leads to player resentment, which can collapse a game.
It took me years to understand this, but when you keep the game in your comfort zone and either prep for everything that can happen or herd the players, it’s boring always knowing what will happen. When you are a player, an RPG is exciting, you don’t know what is behind the next door, or what will happen next. When you are GM, especially one with a low tolerance for uncertainty, you always know what is going to happen next. Over time, it’s not exciting and leads to boredom. Once bored, a GM’s passion for the game wanes, and then it is only a matter of time before the campaign dies a slow quiet death.
I Wasn’t Always This Comfortable
There are two forces that create uncertainty: your skill, and your trust in your players. If you have a low level of comfort for uncertainty, you need to address one or both of these areas. Here are a few quick tips for both.
If you want to be able to handle uncertainty better, you need to sharpen your ability to run the game.
- Know your game – learn the rules and be comfortable making rulings, finding obscure rules, etc.
- Discover your weaknesses – reflect on what parts of a game make you more anxious than others.
- Prep for your weaknesses – bad at names? Get a name generator app or print a list of names.
- Learn story structure – the more knowledgeable you are about story structures and storytelling the easier it will be for you to come up with something on the fly.
- Learn improv techniques – even if you don’t play small-book, write-sad-things-on-index-cards games, you will benefit from learning improv techniques (see Unframed).
Trust In Players
Since your players are going to be the ones responsible for taking the game into the uncertain, you need to have trust in them. Here are ways to build your trust:
- Create a shared vision – when you are setting up your campaign framework (see Odyssey), make sure players know what the campaign is about and the role of the characters.
- Understand you are all in it together. Make sure that everyone at the table understands that this is not a GM vs. Player endeavor but rather a group effort to tell a great story.
- Debrief – when the game is over, take time to go over what happened, talk about what worked, where it could be smoother.
- Tune your team – some people are not team players, some people are chaos makers, and when given the trust to drive part of the game, they run it into a wall for their amusement. You don’t have to play with those people if they are working against what you and the group are trying to play.
Cozy Up To Uncertainty
Looking back, I was not always comfortable with uncertainty in my games. I would say my rising level of comfort is something that has evolved over the last five years. If you want to know more about my own journey you can read about it in Unframed. The short version is that out of boredom, I started to give up my control of the game and found great joy in the excitement of not knowing what was going to happen next. Today, my prep is less, my games are more fluid, and my groups are having more fun.
Uncertainty is a scary thing, but it is also an integral part of our hobby. Rather than tightly gripping onto your campaign, learn to let go and embrace that uncertainty, to make the game more enjoyable for yourself.
How comfortable are you with uncertainty in your games? What do you do or have you done to mitigate uncertainty in your games? What things would you like to let go of to embrace uncertainty?
Those four points under trust your players is spot on.
Your evolution, Phil, is similar to my own. I particularly like to manifest it in those sad-index card games–I don’t worry that an unbalanced encounter will wipe out the group and months of play if it’s Microscope or Primetime Adventures. On the other hand, I did “wing” a 5e adventure I’d created for 4e, trusting my memory for the broad strokes and gut for monsters and balance.
The longer your game goes, the more you need to draw on the 4 trust in players elements. Your 5 points under “your skill” are a big confidence boost; if you know what’s safe to approximate, or what a reasonable target/result looks like, it gives you the confidence to steam ahead, instead of bogging the session down in lookups.
I’ve found that a big part of dealing well with uncertainty is designing an adventure that embraces it. Too many GMs create highly linear stories. “The party goes here first, talks to this NPC, gets the secret information, then goes there, finds the key to bypass the golem guarding the ruins, then….” Most of us start out this way as GMs. It’s how we learned. Books and movies all work like this. So do too many modules.
The problem with linear story planning is that it doesn’t accommodate players doing things differently. What if the group decides to go to the ruins first and tries rushing the golem? What if the group goes to town but instead of bribing the NPC to reveal the secret info picks a fight with him because they think he’s a thief playing a con game?
Inexperienced GMs typically respond to these problems in two ways. One is they panic and despair when the party goes off the path, because they’re not ready for it. Next time they feel they have to over-prep. The other is they overtly railroad the party into doing what the storyline prescribes, because “allowing” the group to go off track would “ruin” the game. Two of the first GMs I played with were like this.
For these reasons I adopted the practice years ago of writing pretty much all of my own adventures and structuring them as webs of related elements. I sketch out places, challenges, relationships, and possible outcomes. Sure, I have in mind the “right” path through the adventure when I design it, and that’s the one I hope the group will find, but the structure supports them hitting dead ends and having to turn back, or managing to tough their way through something they “weren’t supposed to”, or even managing to find a smart solution I hadn’t thought of.
This approach does take a bit more prep work up front than writing a linear story. That alone may keep some GMs writing strictly linear stories. But the extra work up front pays off as the adventure unfolds. The web structures forms a broad base of prepared material I can improvise atop when I have to react in real time to the PCs doing something unplanned. Which, experience is, they always do.
I do much the same – and have become a cheerleader (sans pleated skirt) for diversity in gaming. I’m a guy… a White guy from a middle-class background. I’ve lived very well – and I was homeless for a spell. This being said, I am still a sum of my parts. I know how MOST White guys think – and plan accordingly. I come up with a scenario and figure that most will choose path A, I make a couple of contingencies for paths B and C – and then start playing. I am very rarely wrong.
That is, when I’m gaming with White guys.
This is exactly why I _LOVE_ gaming with non-white guys… we tend to come from totally different backgrounds and have different takes on life. I discovered it the first time I gamed with women – and they always came up with path Q, or path FISH… because they don’t THINK like I do.
I tried a couple of times to railroad, and it failed for all involved. I tried planning for EVERYTHING, and found that there weren’t enough hours in the day for that. This forced me to wing it.
Sure, I still figure on paths A, B, and C – but just love it when my PC’s run off to path YELLOW and circumvent all my hard-made plans. My best GMing has been during sessions when I have just made up everything on the fly.
Mr. Phil – you’ve given some VERY good advice!
Yep, those white guys all look the same, too.