A notebook full of scattered thoughts
Everywhere I live, there comes a point where I have to set aside a box in some out-of-the-way closet to deposit old, battered notebooks filled with half-baked thoughts sketched out over hours of captive tedium. I’ve carried a notebook with me since middle school, and whenever I have time to myself – either during a class, downtime at work, or a stretch of boredom on public transit – I sketch out whatever interesting game idea has come to me in the meantime. Normal and successful people work on business plans and ways to become cripplingly wealthy; I’m about one step above who I was in middle school, working out ideas for the latest iteration of The Dungeon of Dread. This is why I set aside a blog category for Discarded Game Ideas.
Talking about the ease of preparation between systems like D20 and D6 set me to thinking about these myriad notes I’ve made over the years.
In the past, I would sketch out broad swathes of plot, hammering out details on the villain’s motivations and the weird happenstance that would ensnare the characters into the main, important events of whatever was going on. I loved the slow reveal of something well beyond the characters’ ability to deal with, the hints of which had been lain down over the course of half a dozen to a dozen sessions of the game. I loved foreshadowing and intricacy and that golden moment when one of the players looked up from their notes with a vague look of horror on their face as they finally put together some previously established plot detail.
One note to the audience: I suck at one-shot games.
This is why I have the love that I do for Paizo’s Adventure Paths. They’re generally pretty well crafted, they unfold over the course of a longer timeline, and there’s a lot of stuff that the players can dive into. In short, they write the sort of adventures that I like to run. And I don’t have to scribe copious amounts of notes beforehand.
That said, my note taking has decreased sharply over the years. Part of this owes to different amounts of free time (since I moved, I haven’t had the regular stints on public transit; parallel to this, my MP3 players have started to gather dust), but part of it also owes to being able to shorthand a lot of my plots. Much like writing, the crafting of RPG plots becomes a lot easier, the more practice you have at it.
It also helps to know the group you’re running for. When I was living abroad, with limited access to gaming groups, a lot of my note-taking and preparation was in a vacuum. I’d work up plots that I wanted to eventually run, once I was in a place where I could have a group to run different games for. (The strange truth is that, when you’re in a foreign country, the default game of choice tends to be Dungeons & Dragons. It’s just what happens.) I would plan out extremely detailed plots and settings, not knowing what sort of modifications I might have to make once I got around to running the games in question.
These days, I’ve got an established group whose likes and dislikes are readily known. I know they’re unlikely to get into specific sorts of plots, so I don’t have to trouble myself to write those. And I’ve got a good idea of the sorts of adventure hooks that I need to throw out to pique their interests, leaving me less time needed to prep the intros. I can focus on crafting scenes and conflicts, now that the picky details have been taken care of.
In a lot of ways, this can be a godsend. Being able to distill the game down to the memorable scenes – rather than trying to pay attention to the larger metaplot – allows me to sharpen things up, make specific moments a lot more cinematic, and generally tailor the adventure to the tastes of my playing group.
It can also make a person extremely lazy.
On the surface, this seems like a bad thing. Laziness in running a game can lead to a lot of dropped plots and missed opportunity, but it all falls into degrees. The far end of the spectrum has the GM unable to engage the characters and falling back on misdirection or unnecessary combat to fill the void. On the other end of the scale, laziness can take the form of simply letting the players take a greater degree of control over the plot. There have been a lot of games I’ve run in the last few years that I consider to be relatively lazy efforts on my part, since all I had to do during some sessions was show up and referee the proceedings.
As a side note: I’ve always been fascinated by the terms that games use to designate the person creating the adventure and arbitrating the action. ‘Dungeon Master’ and ‘Game Master’ are pretty obvious ones, but I’ve seen ‘Referee’ quite a bit as well. And C of C’s ‘Keeper’ always amused me, as did Deadlands’ ‘Marshal.’
The thing is, those sessions where I did mostly nothing but let the players direct the action? My players loved them. I’d set enough things in motion beforehand that all I had to do was let them interact with each other to move the plot forward. One example that comes to mind was when they created an impromptu trial for another player character, based on what he’d done the previous session. For the most part, I let them role-play it out, offering up occasional input from relevant NPC’s. Otherwise, it was their show.
But there’s something that needs to be stressed about scenarios like this. The game didn’t start out like this. I’d been running it for a couple of months at this point, and around the time they decided to hold the trial, they were already hip deep in larger, more complicated plots. I’d done the requisite preparation already, and the game was sort of going on autopilot when they started taking things in new directions. Had they not taken another PC to task for all that was going on, I’d have pushed them down another avenue of plot.
In the end, preparation is key to making your games worth a damn, but it goes hand in hand with knowing what your playing group will respond to. Even when you’re running a canned module, like one of Paizo’s Adventure Paths, you would do well to read it over carefully beforehand and emphasize the bits that your players will be most interested in. If they’re a group of social combat characters who love talking to NPC’s and working that angle of an adventure, the room-by-room dungeon crawl is going to annoy the shit out of them in short order. And vice versa.