GM Tools: The GM as Author (Storyteller’s Art 2)

A recent bit of advice to GMs making the rounds on RPG blogs and websites is “Say yes, or roll the dice.”  The idea behind this suggestion is speeding up game play by dispensing with in-game discussions of setting and simulation rules; the GM simply allows the random roll of dice to decide. The assumption contained in the idea is that the player should have a reasonable chance of success because it’s good for the story.

I don’t particularly care for the idea. Following this advice, a product of story-centric RPG rules like Fate and its colleagues, will allow the player a great deal of input into what is possible in the framework of the setting and of your simulation (your rules set.) I think a GM should be able to set limits in his game and define what is nearly impossible or absolutely not possible; otherwise, your game’s reality becomes as mutable as the reality in White Wolf’s Mage: The Ascension where the degree of alteration possible to reality from the use of magick is primarily a function of the consequences the character is willing to occur – or, in our case under discussion, the consequences the GM is willing to endure.

OK, gentle reader, you are probably wondering about now why I started a column about tips for speeding up game play with advice that will slow it down.  Two reasons: the first, I wanted to caution my GM students that not every method for speeding up game play is worth the cost, and second, my solution to the problem posed in the above paragraph is closely related to the purpose of this post: improving your storytelling skills to improve the speed of game play. Remember, it was both his storytelling skills as well as his pacing that I admired in Reilly’s writing in Ice Station.

It would be easy to fill a column with platitudes on basic gamemastering: “Have your players all set at the same table to improve their focus on the game,” “Save rules arguments with players for after the game,” “Use random encounters to get a stalled game going again when your players bog down,” and so on. These suggestions are true enough, but have been repeated in so many places that most GMs with more than a few games under their belt have either been exposed to these ideas or figured them out on their own.

I believe that once most GMs move beyond the basics, they lose control of the pacing of their game because they lose the thread of their narrative or plot, or they get bogged down in a long and difficult combat to resolve and players become distracted. The latter is frequently a function of the rules set and is one of the reasons I have moved to Savage Worlds for my Traveller campaign; we will be discussing how to use those rules in Traveller in may posts over the next few weeks.

The former – losing the narrative or plot thread – is a more difficult issue to resolve, especially in a sandbox campaign. RPG’s are played by a social group of like-minded individuals gathered together in their free time to enjoy themselves; those conditions, however, give the typical gamer the attention span of a toddler. If you don’t keep your players focused and involved, you lose them to socialization and it can take many minutes to refocus them on the game.

One of my personal strengths as a GM is creating plots or adventures on the fly when my players go off course, but even taking that skill into account I find it increasingly difficult as a campaign goes on to repeatedly improvise without making any number of errors – conflicts with previous or upcoming plot lines, mistakes in campaign continuity, failing to create plots that do not advance the group’s overall story arc or one or more player’s personal character development arcs, and so on. (You don’t think your players have ideas about their group or personal story arcs? Ask them!) As a result, I either take the time to think my decisions through – and the toddlers run off again – or I make mistakes that may require a retcon to keep from doing permanent damage to the campaign. Other than taking possession of a character’s mind or imprisoning them, nothing pisses off a gamer more than a post-game retcon.

A sandbox campaign is much more difficult to run than a one-off commercial game module or adventure because the players have more freedom of action and do not expect to follow the writer’s expectation of their actions and decisions. The common term used by players to describe poorly run sandbox games is “stupid railroad plot” for the lack of options in moving from point A to point B in the adventure. The better-written commercial adventures, usually written by professional game developers, have various plot points linked by a web of possible decisions to allow the players a great deal of freedom of choice and also have prepared suggestions for luring players back on course when they wander off track without, well, dragging them along in chains. (That last sentence actually would make a lot more sense if you had clicked on the last hyperlink. I put them in for a reason, you know.)

Running a sandbox campaign does not give a GM permission to abandon his responsibilities and just run random encounters or other adventures on the fly. Poor story preparation rapidly becomes obvious to even inexperienced players (most of whom have read enough or played enough video and computer games to know a good story when they are in one.) A GM should develop a few adventure plotlines ahead of time and sprinkle lead-ins to his adventures around his sandbox campaign like little Easter eggs to find. It does not take long for your players to learn that the rumors or apparently simple patron or other encounters they discover while roleplaying can lead to an interesting series of linked games in a campaign instead of a one-off adventure. They will become increasingly skilled at finding and following the threads of the plots, especially if they learn that many of the plots will advance the previously-mentioned group and personal story arcs.

The devil, as usual, is in the details. How does a GM keep his plots organized and remember the webs of plot points he has created? How do you create and organize good plots and pace the resulting story well? The same way professional writers do it in their stories – by reading books on how to write, by using organizational tools for writers, and, finally, by writing. There is functionally very little difference in writing a story and creating one for a roleplaying game (other than the fact you already have key characters to use in the roleplaying game and some of the background material already exists.)

Many experienced authors eventually share their craft with others by writing a book or books on writing. (We’re not focusing on grammar here, but on character and plot and story arc.) Two books on writing I can recommend to you are by Orson Scott Card and by Stephen King; there are many, many others. The Gnome Stew blog (see sidebar) has a set of 30 excellent posts on gamemastering; several posts in the list and others on the blog apply techniques from authoring to gamemastering.

I have recently begun using some software authoring tools to help organize my various plotlines, their key plot points, related data like maps, planetary write-ups, and so on. Pen and paper work, of course, but modern mind mapping software and authoring software will prove tremendously helpful in organizing your thoughts. Many of these are free and/or open source. FreeMind and XMind, for example, are both free mind mapping software to download; they are great tools for outlining the connections between plot points so the busy GM can remember them. Commercial versions such as OmniGraffle or Visio are also available (nice if you can use them at work, too, to justify the expense.) A vast list of other tools for writers including many free or demo authoring packages is online here. I have used both Microsoft Office and the free LibreOffice version of OpenOffice for story work; the simple drawing tools in the world processors work well for organizational drawings of plot outlines. Commercial authoring software tools are available here, here, and here; in fact, I own Scrivener and it is the tool I plan to use for writing my first book later this year.

And finally, you need to write. Not for publication (although that’s OK; Mongoose is looking), but for your players. Read published adventures for inspiration and examples of how to do it right. Create your plots and outline them in writing using the tools I have listed because for the GM, memory just does not get it done (as we have observed before.) Prepare key NPCs, worlds, and locations; your worlds are much more memorable if you can devote even a few minutes of creative thought to the UPPs and their implications ahead of time. (Remember, if you have to think about it for long during the game, the toddlers are off and running.) By focusing on the preparation needs created by your plotlines, the busy GM can optimize the use of his prep time.

Let’s return to “Say yes, or roll the dice.” Rather than just bluntly saying no (which hasn’t worked in the war of drugs either) or pushing characters hard in the direction I want, I am trying out a tool to be more persuasive and creative in my responses. I saw a reference to Daniel Soli’s Writer’s Dice online and purchased a set of two. The dice each have six words on them, and you roll them when you need to generate a quick idea in your story (or game). For example, my players are hunting a group of pirates and are following their path into a system with three gas giants where the pirates could have skimmed and refueled. I really did not want the players to waste several weeks exploring gas giant moon systems for clues if they chose incorrectly, and I needed a quick idea to move them in the right direction. I rolled the story dice and got “But” and “And”, thought for a moment and said, “The pirates could have refueled at any gas giant, BUT the two larger gas giants have intense radiation belts above the safe level for ships without additional radiation shielding AND the navigational databases recommend refueling at the third gas giant. With no wasted time, the dice suggested a quick nudge in the proper direction with a nice science-fiction feel. I did not have to resort to a heavy-handed shove or GM fiat or the ‘lucky coincidence’ of picking the right gas giant the first time. (No one is lucky all of the time; your players will eventually small a rat if you do it often enough.)

It has been amazing to me how the simple tool of creating a one-line response to a problem or question that uses the rolled words in the answer stimulates creative thought. Player: “I want to sink the submarine by pushing a demo charge into the torpedo tube when it opens.” GM: “You could try to do that, BUT the powerful currents and the sub’s motion in the open ocean will make the task nearly impossible AND it’s highly likely you will blow yourself to smithereens if you miss the tube since explosions are more dangerous in water.” A more reasonable and gentler explanation than “No, I won’t let you do that because it’s ridiculous,” and a fair warning sign for a sandbox game. If the player insists on his character committing suicide after that, it’s his absolute right to do so and you should not feel bad if he does. Besides, he just might roll 00 or four sixes in a row or achieve whatever other ridiculous level of difficulty you set for him to reflect the fact that the task is nearly impossible in your game and become an instant legend. It’s part of the fun of roleplaying.

Perhaps I should send some Writer’s Dice to Reilly. At any rate, let me conclude by saying as a GM, you are an author whether or not you want to be one. Why not use the tools you need and acquire the skills to be good at it?

The next post will double back to my Savage Traveller character generation rules as promised. Until then, happy trails, pardner.