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How Phil Got His Groove Back

Months ago I wrote about my Dreaded Slump [1], and things were looking pretty bleak for my GMing. I shared with you some ideas of how I was going to break out of that slump and get back behind the screen. I also promised that when I did I would share what I learned. I am happy to report that my slump is over and I am ready to talk about how my GMing has changed, and what I learned along the way.

A Bit of Background

For those not into reading a bunch of past articles, I was in a slump running traditional scenario types of sessions, and was moving away from traditional scenario driving plots and moving towards a more player empowered style. I found a few players who shared my interest in that type of play as well as an interest in one of my favorite settings, Underground, and we got started. Along the way we shifted the rules of the campaign from Underground to Fate Core (Part 1 [2] and Part 2 [3]).

Overall its been a big success. The players I am running for do a great job of initiating the story as well as playing off of what I bring to the table. The sessions are mix of actions and complications that move along a loose story arc. It is the type of game where I go in with an idea of how the night should go, and leave pleasantly surprised with the end result, which is often not exactly what I had in mind.

My New Style

My new GMing style is much more centered around player agency. I can say that both Dungeon World and Fate Core have been heavy influences, as well as older games like Dogs in the Vineyard. To paraphrase Vincent Baker, I just set the stage and then get out of the way of the players so they can take the initiative in playing through what I have set up.

What I have given up is the control of a more linear traditional story where the players go from the first scene to the second scene, etc, until they reach the climax of the story. In return I have gotten something that I have been seeking, which is the surprise and rush from having to play off the players ideas as things develop at the table.

In making that shift I noticed a few things changed in how I prep, manage, and run the campaign. Some of these things I intentionally changed and others developed out of the play style of the game.

Adjusting My Prep

Making the shift from traditional scenario/scene type of sessions to more player initiated ones did require a change in my prep. Did I give up doing prep and go all ad lib? No. I have found a happy medium of prepping material, in case my players do find the story I have created interesting, while leaving it open enough to accommodate the things they come up with during the session. The end result is that my prep is much less than it has ever been. Often 1-2 pages of notes and a page or so for NPC’s is more than enough for 4+ hours of playing.

Here are two key things I learned and to which I adapted my prep:

More What and Less How

In the past, as I was doing my prep, I would set up a problem in a scene and then I would write notes about the most probable way the players would solve the problem. In most cases I would cover 2-3 possibilities, leading to a lot of extra writing, since the players only use one method to solve the problem.

Now, I still prep the details of the problem, but I never worry about the solution. I rely on the players coming up with a solution. I then play off of their solution. What I did have to prep was a solid mastery of the rules of the game so that when they come up with an approach to a problem, I can use the rules to set the proper difficulty and to provide interesting challenges.

Less Is More

In the past, I would have to prep five to six scenes for a four hour session. Then when running the game, my goal would be to move the players through the scenes, one after another. In a more player-driven game, the players are creating scenes based on their motivations, and the actions they want to take use up game time. Now I prep three main scenes which set up the main complication/challenge for the session, and I let the players fill in the rest with the scenes they create.

Adjusting My Campaign Management

In the past, my campaign management was pretty rigorous. Those past campaigns had pretty detailed stories with plots and sub-plots. My role in those games was more like narrator, unfolding the story before the players and having them move through what I presented. In the more player-driven type of campaign, I have eased off of that as well as made a few adaptations:

Let the Players Drive

I have been doing this for years, but it has become more important in the past few months. I let the players guide the direction of the campaign by setting the goals of the campaign, as well as how they want to achieve those goals. At the start of the campaign I worked with the players to set a goal, and every few sessions I ask the players what their next intermediate goal will be, and then develop the campaign around those choices.

Less Plots More Relationships

With the fluidity of the campaign being driven by the players, I spend far less time prepping complex stories and instead work more on character relationships. The time I took in the past to build those stories now goes to creating relationships between my NPCs, PCs, locations, and organizations. This becomes important when the players want to initiate some action, and I need to come up with a complication or challenge for the scene. By understanding the web of connections between the NPCs I can pull the right NPC into a scene to make the scene more interesting.

At The Table

When I am running my sessions, my style has been evolving as well. These have been things I have wanted to do in past games but have had uneven success with them. In a game with more player authority I find these things are now more successful.

It’s My Story…Unless Yours is Better

As I said before, I come to the table with a story ready to run for the evening. When we start playing I will ease into the story I have prepared, but if the players come up with a scene or direction that differs from what I have written, I then go with the player’s ideas. During the session, if it makes sense, I will slide in more of my story, but if it does not make it in that session, then I will save it up for a future session.

Narration is a Group Effort

During the course of the game, as GM, I spend a good deal of time narrating the outcome of actions, challenges, rounds of combat. There are times when one of the players will be inspired to describe the results of a specific check (their’s or someone else’s); I roll with it and let the player take over describing the scene. There are times when all three of us collaborate on the narration of a check.

Groovin’ Along

Its been a great half a year and I have had some great GMing experiences. Along the way, my GMing style has begun to change and along with it the way I manage and prep my games. I started this year unsure of what I was going to do next, what I would run next, and if I would find the type of game I wanted to run. With some luck and some hard work, I have grown as a GM and my style has evolved once again. The most important thing is that I am running games that I enjoy and that my players enjoy.

Have you had your own journeys as a GM? How has your style changed over time? In what ways did you change how you ran your games as your GMing style changed?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How Phil Got His Groove Back"

#1 Comment By Rickard Elimää On July 8, 2013 @ 6:33 am

Great article.

Now, I still prep the details of the problem, but I never worry about the solution. I rely on the players coming up with a solution.

Yess! This is so good! Trying to come up with your own solutions will only make you less adoptable to the players’ ideas. I remember when I made thirteen solutions in how the players would escape from a prison camp, and the players found out the fourteenth. That’s when I stopped creating solutions and instead providing problems.

Now I prep three main scenes which set up the main complication/challenge for the session, and I let the players fill in the rest with the scenes they create.

This is something I learned from Feng Shui. Come up with a scene in the beginning and one in the end, and then let the players find out how to travel between the first and the last scene. That’s a problem in itself. 🙂

I let the players guide the direction of the campaign by setting the goals of the campaign, as well as how they want to achieve those goals.

Goals are always important, even if it’s in form of a mysterious man who enters the tavern, looking for some adventurers for his quest. It’s important because that creates a drive for the players to always move at a certain direction in the scenario.

It’s also important to provide information so the players can use that to take initiative. If they don’t know anything about the final scene, they can’t travel towards it. Always have a motto to reveal at least one thing about the scenario in each scene. Relations are one example of information.

It’s My Story…Unless Yours is Better / Narration is a Group Effort

Yes! It’s not only making the sessions more diverse, it’s also lighten up the GM burden. You have enough things to think about as it is, so leave some parts to the players to flesh out. Again, Feng Shui was a real eye-opener for me, and another example is Inspectres (which I told about in your previous article).

Roleplaying games should be something collaborative but the traditional gaming style isn’t, where the game master controls most of the things. By letting the players describe the outcome of their actions, they get the feeling of contributing more to the session. Go with the flow, go with their plans, and you will notice how the players gets creative and energetic.

Great follow-up on your article and wise conclusions. The headlines work as great mantras for any game master who want to create more fun with less work.

#2 Comment By neontapir On July 8, 2013 @ 7:25 am

Rickard, I agree with many of the points you made. From your comment, it sounds to me like you advocated for e GM to guide players to the ending. I wanted to point out that in games like Dungeon World, the GM is encouraged not to pre-decide the final scene of the game. It’s a very different style of gaming.

Instead, the GM helps the players set up a interesting situation and the group plays together to find out what happens. When I GM, I start the first session by asking the players leading questions about their characters. From their answers, I present challenges that test those answers. The ending is usually not what I would have chosen, but it results in a satisfying story and a good time is had by all, which is arguably the ultimate goal of any roleplaying game.

#3 Comment By Rickard Elimää On July 8, 2013 @ 7:45 am

@neotapir: Sure, I totally agree. The guiding part is from Feng Shui (Robin D Laws gaming style is railroads) but it’s more free in games like the *World Games or InSpectres. I tend to pick up whatever gaming style depending on how I feel. If I got a good idea, then I will probably guide them, otherwise I will leave it up to the players. Note that I still follow “It’s My Story…Unless Yours is Better”.

I’m usually very clear on what I’m expecting from the players. If they can paint within the picture frame or if the whole wall is available. If I want to guide them (read: loosely rail them), I have to tell them that, otherwise things will go out of hand if they think they can bring whatever to the table (with restrictions – I mean, your leading questions are restrictions; creativity is born from the right amount of restrictions). It’s the same thing with the opposite. If I want them to create something from a loose framework, they can’t sit around and wait for me to reveal information (that I don’t have).

That is actually something I think is missing in roleplaying games. Something that builds a framework with how the group should collaborate to create the story. This is mostly something all game masters (or groups) have to find out on their own. *World games are close, but no cigar.

#4 Comment By Totally Guy On July 8, 2013 @ 8:45 am

Congratulations! I went through a similar journey myself. It was quite painful but valuable.

Yet whenever I try to tell people that I’ve learned these new ways and that I think I’ve improved for it I always seem to come across as the bad guy who’s criticising how people have fun. I never mean to do that.

Well done on writing that out in a way that’s free of judgement.

#5 Comment By teaman On July 8, 2013 @ 9:47 am

I loved this article. I’ve started to do the same thing with setting up traps/problems. I jsut set them up, and any reasonable solution the players come up up works or is at least given a dice roll. They always do things differently than I planned anyway.

Also, one of the comments mentioned not writing the final scene. I’m just wondering how you get the finale in place without pre-statting the NPC’s (monsters) or whatever. I run D&D and always try to plan for a big finish to the evening, but if there is a better way, I’m all about it.

#6 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 8, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

Depending on the game I am running, I like to have Wireframe stats for NPCs. See these articles:

These allow me to have stats on hand so that if I need to build the encounter on the fly, I have stats on hand.

I don’t always have a big finale for the evening, though I try. Mostly I go for what feels like a good stopping point after a dramatic scene late in the session.

#7 Comment By teaman On July 8, 2013 @ 9:49 am

Also, I try to listen to my players and react a bit to their comments. If they say “I wonder if there are any hidden compartments in this room,” I put one in there. Sometimes I move a magic item or such that I planned for later, sometimes I just pull something out of the air.

(Hopefully not from anywhere lower.)

#8 Comment By Nojo On July 8, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

I’m enjoying reading Phil’s column and people’s comments about exploring player-centric ways to enjoy RPGs.

I live in Bend, Oregon, with far less players to draw from than Portland, where I used to live.

The players I have enjoy the GM-directed experience. They squirm in their seats when I prompt them to take the lead.

So I do tiny bits, following their lead when they feel up to it, and having a full investigative scenario ready to go for the 90% of the time when they don’t.

Phil, I notice you have two players. Is this related to running a player-driven game? I’m used to bigger tables with 4 – 6 players, and wonder if smaller groups do player-driven better?

#9 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 8, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

I like my two player game, but I would not mind if that group grew up to 3 or 4 players. I think that with two players what works well is that there is a lot of spotlight time for both players, which would dilute in a 4 player game.

I am not sure how the dynamic would work at larger player numbers. There would be no shortage of player ideas, but then there is a lot more work on the players end to collaborate among themselves so that they are not all shouting ideas and that the actions one player takes mesh with another’s ideas, etc.

With two players that has been very easy to manage, and I think that would hold for 3 players perhaps up to 4, but I can see where it would start to strain.

#10 Comment By Rickard Elimää On July 8, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

Phil, I notice you have two players. Is this related to running a player-driven game? I’m used to bigger tables with 4 – 6 players, and wonder if smaller groups do player-driven better?

I’m not Phil, but I would say that there’s no difference. The more players, the more the GM must leave the game in the players hands. When I was GMing with 7-8 players when I still had 90% planned, all I did was to give out things that the players could play with. Sometimes, I divided them into groups and let them play with things in the group. This demands that you have some sort of positive group dynamic within your roleplaying group so they can discuss within the group without having one player control everything.

When the players have more power over the game, I teach them to build on each others ideas so I have to take less and less space. I can go in and control certain areas to steer the story in a direction where I feel it’s most fruitful but otherwise, it’s the players that takes the initiative.

The most easy way is to handle 6+ players when they are in control is to divide them into groups where their goals are different. They will start to interact with each other and things will start to happen. In other words, you do the same thing as with a powerful GM, but handles it slightly differently.

#11 Comment By MysticMoon On July 13, 2013 @ 7:34 am

What oddly perfect timing for me to come across this. I tend to do poorly when plotting out whole adventures. Generally, the ideas that sound fun and exciting when I’m sitting on my own and plotting tend to fall flat in practice. I’ve always done better running spontaneous games where I play off of the players’ choices but that style tends to take a lot out of me and I can’t always come to the table with that kind of energy.

While perusing some of my old games, I noticed that I liked the way Alternity adventures were written. I went back to the Gamemaster Guide and read the section on preparing adventures. The section on running spontaneous adventures talks about using four sections: the core idea, relevant background leading up to the adventure, the supporting cast (NPCs & critters), and the trigger (the scene that launches the adventure.) I was just mulling over how this could be just enough prep to get me started on those days when I can’t get going.

I think this post is the perfect companion to that method. It’s good to know that it works well for those who like playing off of the players’ ideas. I find the idea of focusing on relationships (between PCs, NPCs, locations, and organizations, as you say) to be a nice addition to the overall approach and one that I believe will help me out.

I plan to put this to the test on a one-shot I’m running this weekend. I’m also looking forward to seeing how it works with a longer campaign that I have in the works.

I do have one question: can you give more detail on the 3 scenes for setting up the complication/challenge? I’ve only been working on the single “trigger” scene idea and I’m curious about the structure of a 3 scene intro.

In any case, thank you for this timely post.

#12 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 14, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

My three scenes are: a personal scene for each of the two players and then a scene to introduce the main conflict.

Sometimes the players latch on to one of the personal scenes and escalate it so that it takes over the whole session. Other times, we get through both personal scenes and move into the main conflict for the session.

#13 Comment By Eynowd On August 22, 2013 @ 1:00 am

Phil, I’d love to see you post more about how you go about creating the relationships that are important, and how much detail you go into with them. I’d especially like to see how you go about creating a lot of this stuff from scratch, as that seems to be one of my biggest stumbling blocks.

#14 Comment By Phil Vecchione On August 22, 2013 @ 6:53 am

I will put it on my list of future articles to write. I will write a DYI relationship map article and how we created it as a group.