My friend Chase just reflected on preparing to GM, despite players, in which he traces his history through GMing styles. His second step as a nascent teenage GM was learning to run a game on the fly, and he describes how he matured out of that step.
Apparently, I still have the mind of a teenager.
I’ve been GMing since high school, and except for a brief stint of massive over planning when I had time in my life to spare (in other words, before I became a father), I’ve been an on-the-fly guy for most of my life. So, I hope you’re in breeches and your zipper is up, because I’m going to talk about flying from the seat of your pants.
Who Rolled Higher on their GMing check?
But wait! Am I committing an incredibly gauche faux pas in the very first days of our blog by criticizing my friend’s GMing style, or claiming I do it better? Am I writing with the hopes that my co-blogger won’t be reading this? Is my thesis that GMing on the fly is the best way to GM?
No! Quite the contrary; I have a blast running a character in Chase’s games, even though he’s a different style GM than I. Note how I said that: rather than saying I like Chase’s style as a GM, I said that I have fun being a player in his games. Upon this distinction I make my point. Chase does what works for him to run a fun game.
I really hope my players would say the same thing about me. If they do, it’s because I’ve gotten good at…
Doing What Works
I think my own maturation process as a GM had less to do with transition in style, and more to do with a change in attitude. When I started gaming in middle school, I assumed there was a “right way” to GM. At that point in my life, I had not considered much my personal style as a GM. I simply hoped that what I was doing was “right.”
As my age has incremented (and, arguably, I’ve matured), I’ve found less use for labels like “right.” I still find “wrong” helpful, but that’s another story for another day. Instead, I’ve tried to make a practice of doing what works for me and my players. I don’t drive a stick shift, because an automatic just makes sense to me and I can “make it work” more effectively. Similarly, I’ve learned to GM on the fly, because frankly, planning stresses me out, and I find shooting from the hip to be fun.
In his post on planning, Chase said that “players only need the illusion of choice.” I approach the game from the maxim that “GMs only need to exert the illusion of control.” More precisely, the game is fun for the players when they are unraveling a grand plan. However, if the GMs handling of the game causes the players to believe the story existed as it is being told now, what does it matter if the story was planned or not?
So, what does “not planning” mean?
I suppose I need to be clear. I do actually plan; however, I plan in a way that is fun to me, and therefore doesn’t feel like planning. What this means is that I work out very few details ahead of time. People who played in my D&D 3.5 game will scoff at this as they recall flowcharts and copious notes, but for me, that system is freaky hard to run on the fly.
So, how do I plan?
First, to me, theme and mood are everything. I try to think of the game I’m trying to run and get in the “feel” of it. I try to recall media I’ve encountered that is thematically similar to the game I’m running, and recall the emotions such art evokes. If I’m running a comic sci-fi game like Paranoia or Gamma World, I tend to laugh a lot in the hours before the game. If I’m running D&D, I try to evoke feelings of malice (to get in character for the evil mastermind) and bravery (for the heroes).
Second, I think of the characters. I’ve always felt that I run my games best when I know what my main characters want, so I try to think of their motivations, emotions, and where they’re willing to compromise. I find these facts easier to remember than a string of story points, because players will invariably muck up the story royally, and knowing how my NPCs react to muck makes for easier re-calibrating.
Third, I try to imagine some scene elements. My natural inclination is to try to dig deep and plan the sin out of such scenes, but as my time planning increases, my fun quotient decreases. So, I don’t imagine specific places. Instead, I try to think of the part of the world the characters are in, and get a sense for the kinds of places in it. If I think the characters I’ve imagined will draw characters to a seedy urban scene, I don’t try to depict the perfect dive bar. Instead, I imagine elements of such a setting, and the kinds of background people who might be there.
Putting these elements together (theme, characters, and scene elements), I move to imagine the kind of conflicts that could potentially occur in the game. In many games, this means flipping through some kind of creature catalog and figuring out what kind of enemy works. I’m a big fan of taking a stat block and throwing out the color to just make something work. I’m a bigger fan of games that have such simple NPC and enemy generation mechanics that it can be done on the fly. These include FATE-based games, story-based games like Dread, and also (surprisingly), D&D 4E, which has monster generation mechanics that can fit on a business card.
Does it really work?
People have said they enjoy my games. Maybe they’re just polite, but I think I’ve found (and continue to develop) what works for me. I by no means recommend this style for everyone. However, if you’re one of those GMs who doubts your style because not planning feels like a cop-out, give yourself a break! Instead of feeling guilty for not taking your hobby seriously enough, try to embrace your style and “not plan” well.