I was making my breakfast the other morningÂ while listening to the boys at Gaming and BSÂ . 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?Â 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 Â – 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 haveÂ adapted a more flexible, but finite set of scenes that can be executed in any order, but all lead to the assumed finale. Â
- 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. Â Let me say that again: Railroading is not linear prep. Â Railroading is the GM’s reaction to a player’s action, in an effort to drive the game inÂ 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
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 nextÂ until the conclusion is reached. The notes are going to be linear as wellÂ 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 noteÂ to a full page. Often this prep contains a few high-level ideasÂ 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 zoneÂ 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 cardÂ 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 isÂ 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 youÂ 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?
Like you, I have run games in all three modes. My current style is in the Narrator camp, as I usually have a rough campaign story arc planned out in my head. However, I am also developing my improv skills, which means many sessions are run in more of a Facilitator style.
I suspect I start many sessions as a Narrator, then switch to a Facilitator approach as the Players create cool story moments. My Players seem to appreciate the degree of story input the latter style allows them.
It is also worth remembering that ours is collaborative hobby. The expectations and play style of a group may lean towards games in one of your three styles. I have run improv games for Players expecting a Storyteller game. As the Players lacked experience, or confidence, with improvising, then the game bogged down. Likewise, I am sure many Storyteller GMs have been equally frustrated with improvising Players. Finding the right balance for a group can be tricky.
Thanks for such a great article
The style of game dominates this for me – my Pendragon campaign is arguably story teller ( with player consent, sometimes we go ‘off message’, but we sooner or later end up back in the epic time line events). My Chuubo game is 100% Facilitator (in fact I am not always sure if I am running the game or the if someone else at the table is). I am also reading Nights Black Agents at the moment and narrator seems the way to go if/when we play that. so I move between these styles on a regular basis: Though i think i am most comfortable with narrator at the moment
I probably best fall into Narrator. I tend to prep heavily, or at least research until I’m subject matter proficient or better for the genre and story. I started this when I used to run espionage games heavily. To get the verisimilitude I wanted, I researched the hell out of things. When I swapped to historical-based games, same thing. I like to be ready for the oddball question or to have what I need for description…whether it gets used or not.
I tend to have a pretty strong plot in mind, but ordinarily, I have two or three “set pieces” that will happen in some order, but will let the players go where they will. Fortunately, I’ve tended to have players that get “story”, and don’t just wander off into some cul de sac that is entirely divorced from the proceedings.
I am a narrator. Prepping is almost a hobby, whether I am running my home-brew Pathfinder game or the adventure path of the same system I also run. For my home brew I tend to write up notes and encounters and hope I covered where the players will go. If they go left where I wrote to the right I go to improv mode. I am most comfortable with narrator though. I use OneNote a great deal, as well as Realm Works. I like Realm Works because the players can access game details whenever they desire. It really supports my GMing style.
While I enjoy adventure paths, I sometimes feel cramped and limited. I used to use a heavy hand to guide them back to the linear path. Now I allow more detours and additions. I am a lot gentler in my steerage back to the story line. Luckily the one I am using has a few sand boxes.
Great article, Phil! I have given thought to going to a little more improv and this turned a few lights on for me. I really hate stumbling in the dark . .
Great article, Phil!
Like NikMak, I like to run different systems with different styles of play and prep. My problem comes when I don’t know what kind of game it’s going to be. Players and their annoying input! 🙂
I need to file this article away for reading before each new campaign. Always a good reminder.
I think it not just the amount of prep you are doing but how your are preparing too.
As you mention, when you move from storyteller to a narrative style you don’t necessarily prepare less but would prepare different elements.
For example, instead of preparing one detailed dungeon map for a storyteller style you would prepare rough description of a few dungeons for a narrative style.
In fact, I think I have come to prepare more material for sand box narrative then with simple storytelling linear game.
I run as a Facilitator these days. The Powered by the Apocalypse games really taught me how to ask questions and how to say, “Yes, and…”, or, “Yes, but….”. Of course, you also have to be a good listener too.
I was running a D&D game last year and I would show up for our sessions with usually just a single idea in mind for that night. For example, I knew one night I wanted to work in hell hounds, but that they were cold rather than hot. I eyeballed the stats and ran with it.
Great article Phil! I love posts like this.
I have experimented with all three of these GM styles and prep styles, and I can see the benefits and uses of each one. It all depends on what kind of game you want to play, and it only causes problems when there is a mismatch between GMs and players.
Phil, I cheered when I read the section about railroading. It’s not the ordering of the scenes but the GM’s response to players actions that determine if you are railroading. Sure, we should be willing to shuffle things around as necessary, but running them in whatever order doesn’t mean you are shutting off player choice.
I found this article to ring very true for me, especially in how it progressed in my own campaign.
Last year on Halloween when I started my sci-fi horror campaign (Orions Spur, After Exodus) I designed it as a one shot mini campaign lasting about four months, and following the storyteller route I prepped heavily for the game and helped loosely guide the group along the story outline I set up.
Six months later after the climactic conclusion my group of players were so in love with their characters and the world setting they begged me to continue the game as an ongoing campaign; and so it evolved into a space sand box along the lines of Kill Joys mixed with The Expanse for story elements, and with three new players joining, not long after which one long time participant left the table.
Sand box games I found lend themselves very well to the Narrator approach to storytelling, and keeps the open feeling of the game setting without requiring as much prep work or improvisation.
Then after another five months (roughly) free time became lesser, and due to a series of unfortunate events I found myself unable to prep at all for a few sessions beyond some maps I created/put final touches on at the last minute, my game sliding into a Facilitator role.
Often, with only having time to do prep work in the hours right before the session I learned interestingly enough I the game was every bit as enjoyable (To both myself and my players when I improvised the majority of events as they unfolded and took the “lets play to find out what happens.” Approach.
After asking for feedback now, as the campaign is nearly at it’s one year anniversary, I found surprisingly none of my players noticed any change in my gaming style/presentation, all of them citing the consistency of details, (both in descriptions as well as map/music/handouts etc.) and campaign depth (as in plot hooks, NPC back stories etc.) had remained on consistent level since the first session.
(It’s also probably worth noting none of them were told I was changing my prep level over the course of the campaign to the current Facillitator/imrov heavy game it is to date, and are likely hearing about it for the first time by reading it here 😛 .)
It leads me to wonder if this is just my group of players and campaign that was able to change behind the scenes in such a manner without my group noticing, or if other GM’s have encountered the same feedback from their group, or if changing styles mid way through a campaign has had any jarring effects on the story being told and way the players interact with the game?
I prefer Facilitator, but find that all three show up in virtually every game I run. As a GM, the ‘scariest’ and most (narrator) fun nights are when the players are creating at full speed. Several times, I have been accused of ‘railroading’ when I was the guy running to catch the caboose! I enjoy the players running away with the game and saving my Prep for later games. Having a number of orphaned encounters means I have a number of instant plug ins.
Silveressa’s experience is mine as well, the players investing enough to actually provide the meat as my skeleton gets bare. A great part of my game world has been created by players and that continues. I used to have a Blue Book with collected Elvish customs gleaned from how some 50+ Elf players played the game. Maybe a tenth are mine in origin and less than a quarter have any real contribution from my, editing not counted.