When I’m playing but not GMing (as is the case right now), part of my brain is always watching — and trying to learn from — my GMs.

During my group’s Eberron campaign session last night, I got to watch a great GM handle a tricky balancing act brilliantly, and I wanted to share some of what I took away from that experience.

The Quick Setup

The PCs in this campaign are special forces/spies/irregulars — folks hired to operate off the books and under the radar, and specifically tasked with preventing another Great War.

In this session, we were sent to protect a noble from assassination; his death would strengthen local factions trying to spark another Great War, so we had to keep him safe for a couple of days.

We were told very little about the circumstances of the possible assassination attempt, and our research before departure didn’t tell us much more. This looked like a session where my group would engage in one of our all-time favorite activities: over-planning.

How it Went Down

We did some planning on our lightning rail journey, and hashed out several possible approaches (kidnapping the noble and keeping him tucked away until the threat passed, having our changeling impersonate him, replacing his entire staff, etc.) — and then did some more planning once we arrived.

Around this time, I wrote “Everyone aboard the overplanning express! choo choo choo” and drew a little picture of a locomotive in my gaming journal. That seemed to be where we were headed.

But once we met the noble and narrowed our plans down a bit, everything went beautifully from there on out — and we wound up having an incredibly satisfying session. Here’s why.

Just Enough Rope

Our GM, Sam, did lots of things right — but specific to this topic, here’s what stood out for me:

  1. He didn’t pressure us early on. It was pretty clear that there was a chance we’d spend the whole night agonizing over tiny details, but our GM didn’t push us to act out of character or otherwise get a move on. As long as we seemed to be having fun (which we were), he let us go in whatever direction we wanted to.
  2. He played out one encounter in detail. Protecting the noble involved getting him through five business meetings — three at his home, one offsite, and one back at home that we would not be allowed to actually attend. We spotted #4 and #5 as the week links in our security agenda, but we couldn’t be sure when the assassins might strike. Sam ran the first meeting in detail so that we could enjoy it, see how our plan played out, and establish a template for the other meetings.
  3. Then he handwaved the next three encounters. Once we had a working plan for the meetings, he described a few details from the next two and then left it at “They pass without incident.” For the offsite meeting, since our focus was on the journey (as the destination was insanely secure), we played that out and then skipped the meeting. This was perfect: we got to see that our planning was paying off, but we didn’t waste time on boring stuff.
  4. We shifted back into gear for the final encounter. Since everything seemed likely to come to a head in the final meeting (the one where the noble wouldn’t allow us to be in the room), all of us — the players and our GM — slowed things down and really savored the planning, roleplaying discussion, and other aspects of this encounter. We figured out most of the truth behind the upcoming assassination attempt, then got into a huge fight after the meeting when the attempt actually took place.
  5. He applied mechanics to our areas of interest. After the session, we talked about how much fun we’d had. Sam mentioned that he’d reduced the number of mooks who made it to the final encounter based on our planning, and also delayed the arrival of the second big bad — again, based on what we’d done. I don’t know if this had been in the works all along, but I suspect that if we’d just asked to skip ahead to the final encounter — done no planning, in other words — things would have gone very differently. Seeing that Sam had made what mattered to us (the planning) matter to the outcome of the session was really satisfying.
  6. Lastly, he gauged our energy levels perfectly. Since we threw Sam some curveballs, it would have been easy to just assume that the final battle (which lasted several hours) needed to be shifted to the next session. But Sam correctly guessed that we all had it in us, and because he’d paced the session so well — balancing our interests with the need for progression — it went perfectly.

Having a plan, or even just an idea of how the evening’s session might shake out, and being a) willing to change it on the fly and b) observant, quick-thinking, and confident enough to balance those changes with the needs of the storyline — while ensuring that everyone at the table (GM included) has fun, and without bogging down the session — is a challenging task for any GM.

I would have had trouble pulling this off nearly as well as Sam did, and I learned a lot just by seeing how he handled it. As a player, it made for a fun session; as a GM, it was a pleasure to watch an expert perform his craft.

I hope this was useful to you — and I’d love to hear your stories of putting this kind of improvisation into action, whether it went well or poorly. (Ditto for stories about experiencing this sort of thing from a player’s perspective.)