Madness in my Method

Recently I’ve been trying to work out how I actually run games. I have come to the conclusion that I run games in what could be best described as Organised Insanity. Some GM’s write extensive notes, do lots of research on their subjects, make sure they have a full grasp of the Rules, others have nothing they just turn up with no notes no rules and it just splurges out of them.

I’m about halfway through that continuum. I tend to write notes on the situation the players will be dealing with, but I do not bother to spec out everything, no conversation maps, and nothing more detailed than the movers and shakers with stats and possibly a generic statline for less important npcs. Then when the game starts I mostly ad lib things within that framework, and usually cling to the rule of cool, i.e. if the players want to do something cool I usually let them attempt it, unless it would really disrupt the game.

The reason why I have gone to this method of running is simple. My players have an unnerring ability to go off the rails of any adventure. I could try and force them back on line I know from bad experience that Gamers do not respond well to being rail roaded. Rail roading is where every time the players try and get off the rails of the planned adventure they are forced back onto it either by sudden impassible pathways (the Invisible Walls of PC games like Skyrim for example). Start doing that to your players and you will definitely get more and more frustrated players until eventually they try to lynch you.

My players come up with plans usually so out of left field that I have not previously thought of them myself. Which means I couldn’t possibly plan for them, so instead I’ve built up a skill for making stuff on the fly. Which means when one of my players decides to do something like murder the king instead of defend him, I can make stuff up until I’ve had enough time to work out what is happening. That is not to say that they can’t still stun me into silence (look out for the Bag Full of Daughter incident on the first podcast) but through long years of practice I can usually get back on track fairly quickly.

My planning for a session therefore usually includes:

Brief description of the location and what is happening and why it is important (e.g. This is the main fortress of the Dom’Varr Hilesh on this planet and the Forces of the Rogue Trader are intending to infiltrate it to take down the Shield keeping it safe from their spaceships weapons.)

Any additional important information to bear in mind (e.g. the Guards are paranoid after the Rogue Trader landed an army 50 miles away, but they are not expecting troops here just yet.)

Brief descriptions of any important NPC’s including stats if I think the players are likely to attack them. (e.g. Astropath Miscellos, currently tired and exhausted having spent the last few days trying to send the psychic distress call, heavily investing in Telekinetic abilities. )

If it’s a tactical location or I REALLY expect the players to start a fight, I tend to draw a map with names for the rooms, and possibly guard locations. I’ll also write or more commonly select npc statlines for servants and so on.

If there is something happening then I might write a brief time line, assuming everything is allowed to play out without player interference (e.g. Hour 1 General in meeting, Hour 2 General goes to Personal Ready Room, Hour 2 and 47 minutes Clerk Anderson enters and shoots him three times with a silenced gun).

This usually takes up 3 sides of A4 paper (equivalent to Legal for you Americans) and gives you enough framework to run with and enough information that if the players start pulling wacky hijinks you have some information to give your ad-libbing some form.

The issue with this method is however two fold, the first being that you have to be good at ad libbing. This like many skills is something you really have to practice, so you will likely start off not very good at it, but eventually it becomes second nature. The other thing is remembering what you ad libbed! I record all of my sessions, and I also get the players to recap the previous session which usually serves to remind me of things I made up on the fly. I also jot down the odd note as I’m going along, things like names and so on.

What I do try and do is avoid either Pixel-bitching or rail roading, as there is nothing more likely to cause players annoying. Both of these are connected, rail roading is as mentioned above, putting sudden impassible blocks in the way of what the players want to do, Pixel bitching is more allowing them to do what they want, but not allowing them to actually progress until they are sealing with the single clue that the whole plot is built around. For example if the players are supposed to find the clerks journal detailing how much he hates the General, but instead they use psychic powers to read his mind, it would be bad form not to let them find out that he hates the general!

It should be pointed out that I don’t consider my method to be the perfect method, far from it, as I know it has limitations. However for my personal skill set, and with the players that I run for it gives the best balance between the amount of preparation I have time to do, and the likelihood that the players will derail it (usually in the first five minutes).

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