I was making my breakfast the other morning while listening to the boys at Gaming and BS . Specifically, I was listening to an episode (#101) where the question was posed, and I paraphrase, is the rush towards improv style GMing diluting the more traditional storyteller type of GMing? It got me thinking, not so much about a dilution occurring, but rather how do we adopt one of these styles and how can you change your style. So I gave it some thought, flipped my eggs and came up with this…

Three Types of GM

For the sake of word count, your sanity, and to avoid Internet rage, I am going to abstract GMing styles into three broad buckets. In my 30+ years, I have run games in every one of these buckets, so I am confident they exist in the wild. So let’s name these buckets and give them a definition:

  • Storyteller  – The Storyteller was my first GM type. This is the GM who is crafting a story that they want the players to play through.They often construct this as a fairly linear plot that has an assumed finale.
  • Narrator – The Narrator is a more relaxed Storyteller. They still have a story to tell and an ending in mind, but they have loosened on the linear plot and have adapted a more flexible, but finite set of scenes that can be executed in any order, but all lead to the assumed finale.  
  • Facilitator – This is the improvisational GM. They arrive at the game with only a slight idea of where the game will start and an intended direction, and they will then use the events and ideas at the table to drive a game to some conclusion, which is not often known before play starts.

So let me say that there is nothing wrong with any of these styles. Every one of these styles can be executed in a way that creates an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table.

But What About Railroading?

Ahh…good that you mention that. Railroading is not linear prep.  Let me say that again: Railroading is not linear prep.  Railroading is the GM’s reaction to a player’s action, in an effort to drive the game in a specific direction. That reaction is to typically negate, reverse, or shut down a player’s action, in order to get the game moving in the GMs desired direction.

It is most commonly associated with linear plots because these plots are the most likely to deviate, and an inexperienced GM will react heavy-handedly and railroad them back into the linear plot. But a Facilitator who is improv-ing a game can easily shut down a player’s action that may drive the game into an undesired direction. It is less common because the improv style tries hard to incorporate Yes…And into play, which helps to prevent shutting down players.

Ok…back to work.

Prep Informs GMing

 It can be long or short, it can be neat or messy, but as long as after we prepare it, we are comfortable enough to run the game, it has served its job. 

This title seems obvious, but let me unpack it a bit. Our prep informs how we are going to GM a game. In a chicken and egg manner, how we GM drives how we will prep our games. There is a reason for this, which I mention in Never Unprepared. That is, our prep is what we (GMs) need to be comfortable enough to run the game at the table. It can be long or short, it can be neat or messy, but as long as after we prepare it, we are comfortable enough to run the game, it has served its job. So for our three buckets, what does their prep look like:

  • Storyteller – This prep is going to have a linear structure, often based on an outline, and contain the expected scenes, one leading to the next until the conclusion is reached. The notes are going to be linear as well and easily work as a text file or other word doc.
  • Narrator – This prep is going to have an overview of what is happening in the session. It will have the start and ending fixed, and then it will have a series of possible scenes which all drive to the conclusion. This prep suits something like OneNote, where your note taking can be less linear.
  • Facilitator – Well, this prep is going to range from a post-it note to a full page. Often this prep contains a few high-level ideas and omits details, which are going to be made up by the GM or sourced from the table during play.

So notice how the prep and the play style line up (but Phil you just wrote that…yes…I did all of this..I have proof of past campaigns). The point being that when you prep your game for a specific style you create your zone of comfort around running it in that style. When you deviate from that prep you leave your comfort zone and need to rely more on improv skills (what you can do at the table) than your prep (what you did before you got to the table).

People who have strong improv skills can take the most linear of prep, or published adventures, and run it in an improvisational manner. If your improv skills are weak, then being handed an index card of notes and being asked to run a whole game will be daunting.

Making The Change

So what’s the point, and what was I thinking about while making breakfast? The point is, if you want to change your GMing style, you need to change your prep.There are many reasons for wanting to change your style. You may want to move towards the Facilitator because you don’t have time to prep. You may want to be a Storyteller because you have an epic story to tell. You may want to be the Narrator because the mystery game you are running runs better in that style. Again, all styles are valid, and like tools, they work best when employed to solve the right problem.

So if you do want to change your style, how do you change your prep? Well, you are going to go in one of two directions…

From More to Less

This is the most common type of change, moving from Storyteller to Facilitator. In many cases, this is because in our entry into the hobby we learn the storyteller technique from published adventures. In this case, we need to adopt a few things to make the change in our prep:

  • Remove the little things you are good at doing on the fly (room descriptions, dialog, etc) (Check out some old articles I did under the topic of Prep-Lite, a few years ago).
  • Break up the linear plot into chunks that can be shifted around. (Check out John Arcadian’s article on Island Theory in Unframed ).
  • Prep some resources to facilitate improvisation: name lists, motivations, NPC characteristics, etc.

From Less to More

This one is more rare, but not impossible to find. While some will argue, I will state that mystery games work best in the Narrator style. When I run something like Gumshoe I change up from Facilitator to Narrator. When you move towards Storyteller here are some of the things you need:

  • Create a scene map. You don’t need a totally linear plot, but mapping it out to show how the scenes connect will help you stay the course while you run.
  • Make sure that each scene can lead to another, preferably more than one.
  • Write yourself a What’s Really Going On (Thank you Fear The Boot) summary. In this summary, write for yourself what is going on in the session. It will help you keep to the story while you run.

Prep It And Run It

There are numerous ways to run your game. Find the one that fits your style and the game you are running. Then learn to prep your game for that style. Figure out what things your prep needs for you to feel comfortable running your game, and hone your prep. In doing so, you will find your style will match.
What style are you most comfortable with? What style do you find hard to run? Does your prep match your style? Are you over-prepping or under-prepping?