The classic gaming group has probably all run through a module, possibly dozens. And few people ever forget their first. Mine was “Against the Giants“. We muddled our way through it and I was still very young. Yet, after a while every GM wants to try making their own adventures. My first GM was just beginning to design his own adventures when I started playing. One day we found ourselves in a complex dungeon, riddled with death. After a battle turned I, the party cleric, decided to go a different direction. Turning back to where we had gone, I was surprised to open the door to a room behind us and find a Tyrannosaurus (We lived near Dinosaur National Monument so this was a mild preoccupation for us). This was supposed to communicate to me and my cleric to stop and return to main part of the dungeon. I didn’t. And in so doing earned what I remember as my first TPK. The GM was frustrated and the game ended early.
What went wrong?
Well we were really young and had a slapdash understanding of the game. That WAS a problem. But what we lacked in rules savvy we made up for in passion. And in my years I have come to realize that that more than anything is what I want on the other side of the screen. And yes, I should have probably got the hint and run when I heard the description of the towering reptilian monster. But my failure to recognize my GMs effort was due to my newness to the game.
So really, where did it breakdown?
The GM gave up. Well, yes that is a problem. But WHY did he give up? I didn’t stay in the plan. I left the boundaries of his game, and unprepared he crumbled. We were very young, and in minutes I had moved on to my sandbox and all but forgot my poor dinosaur-ravaged cleric. But that was one of the last times my first GM ever ran for us. The session was so frustrating for him. As a new player I had yet to learn the cues and tells of his play-style. But year after year gaming after that I saw GMs ham-fisted, pounding square pegs into round holes… My first GM was hardly alone.
Maintaining Fluidity in GMing
My GM surrendered to my deviation and ended a campaign. Hours of work shredded by a bad reaction to having a lack of preparation. But in an open ended game, particularly one where people are encouraged to create, the desire to “be ready” is going to frustrate the hell out of GMs. I try to operate with a few techniques when designing and running a game to maintain an ability to bend rather than break:
Floating Encounters – More than anything the ability to create these is critical to my GMing style. As you prepare a session take a few minutes to consider what else is going on in your world. Do the player characters have other future world enemies that are in motion? Think about your timeline. Do they have loose ends that might have grown? Should you be foreshadowing things to come? Make a list of all of these things. Then go through and rough in encounters that have to do with them. Running Hill Giant’s Fane after Gnoll-o-rama? Awesome, stat up some young templated hill giants. Wizard gets a wild hare to go get more components mid-module? Crap, that might screw up something if they come at the boss fully rested. Stop. Breathe. Let them go back and have them encounter the Giant group on the way back to the Gnolls. You probably made a later session more satisfying by having a floating encounter that foreshadowed it, still had them roughed up a bit before your big bad gnoll, and you made your world make more sense. And yet, you lose little if the floating encounter never triggers. Every few levels these groups should be revisited. Did they level? Has one of them become a pawn of something more powerful? As you flesh-out these “micro stories” you will likely find them growing back into the main plot of your world, make sure you realize whether or not a “floating” encounter becomes grafted on to your main story as it grows.
Empty Rooms – It used to drive me crazy when a module, scenario or adventure path had a room with “nothing” in it. No flavor-text, no trap, no monster and then one night I was watching my plot crash and my game melt and suddenly, a sound from one of the empty rooms came to me. I introduced two new NPCs in it and used their improvised backstories to reinforce the main story of the game. And the entire game shifted back to my grand design. I have been filling empty rooms ever since, so much so that I always leave myself some when planning out my own dungeons.
Image Streaming – This is a psychological visualization exercise. While applicable to a lot of life things, it is especially relevant to the creative mind. The generally this exercise starts with a question you ask yourself as you close your eyes. For me, as a GM, it most usually “What am I seeing in this location?” Get ready to record or write. Chances are your subconscious knows what you are imagining pretty darn well and will supply detail after detail if you let it. Once the flow of details and sensory feedback starts you just need to keep pushing til it runs dry. Sometimes it doesn’t. I have literally made whole settings with this technique.
As Above, So Below – You have a module? Awesome, go through it and find stat-blocks of monsters you like and want to be more part of your story. Make a print or copy of the entry and level it. Or de-level it. One monster can become six usable creatures with just a little tweaking. Sound too complex? Ok. For a score of similar low-level minions slap a couple negative levels on your second-in-command. Every two you do, dock any casters their high-end level of spells. Take away the best feats. Fast and dirty but you have an endless stream of mooks if you need them.
Hoard Like a Dragon – Much to the chagrin of roomates, family and loved ones, I have this one down. The long and short of it is, THROW NOTHING GAME RELATED AWAY. If you don’t have the physical space for it, go digital. Gets some file boxes. Any and every character you make can be retooled into a new one later. Every map can see re-use. It saves hours of time and with just a little adjustment, they are very different characters and scenes, certainly more distinct than a pile of dwarven zen archers. If you get caught with no prep for a situation, your box of old stuff can be filed down and re-refinished from last years dark elf matron to lizard king-priest for tonight in just about ten minutes.
Salvation Station – If you are considering a “giant eagle save” try to have it thought through before it happens. Sometimes an improvised, story-based save is fun and well done, but poorly executed it heightens the sense that the players are just windblown leaves in the river of your story and couldn’t lose if they tried. A hinted at or foreshadowed “safety net” is almost always a better idea than an ad-hoc one. If you are struggling, remember the less is more with this kind of thing and turn the save into another mystery if you can.
When in Doubt… Add More! – 16 gnoll warriors in your dungeon isn’t all that different from 20 to the feel of your world. But it might mean a far more challenging encounter to your players. Just take a more generic encounter from elsewhere and duplicate it. Or use one of the above techniques such as a likely “Floating Encounters” or mooks from “As Above, So Below”. As a general rule, if your players are more than halfway through the battle (body-count) and have no casualties you can probably add more. Keep in mind other encounters you may have coming and don’t overwhelm them early with this one. Lastly, don’t do this too often or it can feel a little repetitive.
There a dozens of other good ideas to remain flexible while running games, but the key is to remember flexibility. “Nose-Ringing” almost always gets a players hackles up and “running off the map” can result in a wasted evening if you have no ideas beyond the Halls of Darkmount. It is a game, don’t fight to maintain control, you already have it–don’t let going off plan fool you.