TI3.2: When the GM plans a novel, not a game

“Salutations friend. I’m Garth Marenghi, horror writer, though I prefer the title, ‘Dreamweaver.'” –  Garth Marenghi from the titular character’s ‘Darkplace’

The above quote can be interpreted as a rather blatant satire of an egotistical artist, so sure of their own brilliance that their ego inflates the actual worth of their work amongst their peers, or amongst consumers of their art.

Here’s a open claim that I will make about our hobby; GMs can fall prey to the same issue. And this is why I said in TI3.1 that ‘writing skills’ aren’t necessarily a fundamental skill. In fact, it can be a hindrance if you’re too literal in the way you think about writing in this hobby.

It’s all to do with thinking that the story that you plan matters more than what your players and their characters do.

Sounds like nonsense right? I can cite a recent post on the always entertaining r/rpghorrorstories where a GM abused the medium to tell a story, THEIR story, at the expense of the rest of the group a good couple of times.

No seriously, this is a shitty thing to do. There are a half dozen ways you could argue why and cite consequences for this kind of blatant self-worship as a GM, but I’ll save that for the conclusion once I’ve aired my own dirty laundry on this subject.

The important thing to keep in mind at this point is that it can happen if you plan your campaign thinking that your players are your supporting cast for your NPCs and your story, and not the other way round. And that if you do it, you are being either intentionally selfish and self-indulgent, or (un)intentionally ignoring what your players want in your game.

This situation is one of many ways that can be a pitfall for planning a session. There is a reason why we should do session 0’s, why we emphasize communication and open discussion of the games we play in this hobby.

A gaggle of thatguys

This failure begins with my first experience of tabletop gaming. Pathfinder 3.5

Yes, I am a post-millennial player. I have only a thimble-full of the experience compared to most of the hobbyists in our community. I place my entry into the hobby at about 2011 – 2012; it was a gentle dip through the widely popular D&D 3.5 clone on Roll20.

It was a cracking amount of fun at the time. A friend online ran the session, we sat over Skype and played, it was a standard dungeon crawl and I really enjoyed myself.

Looking back on it, it was god awful, with some of the worst examples of dysfunctional teamwork dynamics, bizarre role-playing and erroneous abuse of the rules to very stupid effect. Here were the characters:

  • I played a neurotic rogue who was obsessed with rolling ‘Sense Motive’ and ‘Perception’ for everything because of my super special backstory involving an undead Lich and my dead master which I wanted to angst over.
  • Another player was just a murderous, evil bastard, happy to fight constantly with the half-elf in the party, even mid-combat, even during fighting a dragon.
  • The half-elf similarly resorted to stealing and fighting the murderous evil bastard back, or shooting him mid-combat with a powder-and-shot gun
  • Another player played a bard that used a spell to further fan the flames of hatred between the half elf and the bastard, by causing one of them to spontaneously, temporarily fall in love with the other.
  • The only player that was doing something constructive was the warlock, who really didn’t have a personality to speak of at all.
lich
Backstory for my character in the game that I wrote at the time. ‘Ow the edge’ comes to mind. Also, unwarranted self-importance. Also, encountering a lich at Level 1 in a world where they are dangerous as fuck? And mentor dying suddenly to serve as motivation? This shit is just awful. And this was just a cross-section of the A4 page!

I was quite enamored by one main thing in the game. The way our characters were dramatically interacting. In hindsight, some of the behaviors were borderline stupid and were often forced for immature comedic reasons. But suddenly, I began to have designs and grand delusions, because when it turned out the GM wasn’t continuing past the second session…

Here be contrived cameos (OR how to plan the wrong way!)

So I roll up on our Skype conversation one day, proudly brandishing my copy of Pathfinder 3.5’s core-book. I claim the uncontested mantle of GM and begin invites for previous players and friends alike to play.

Here’s where things go wrong.

  • I didn’t read the book cover to cover.
  • I spent ages wrestling with Roll20’s battle-map interface and character sheets, when it clearly wasn’t the best medium suited for me when planning a session. This wasted tons of time that could’ve been spent on planning encounters and situations.
  • I certainly didn’t do a session 0. It was more like “Submit your character backstories, I shall read them all separately, then we will make characters separately and bring them to the table.” Which by the way, is a guaranteed way of making it so your entire party doesn’t mesh with each other, guarantees that you’ll have no idea what kind of game your players will play and guarantees that you will have no idea how the group will play together, if at all.

But the most heinous of crimes was committed, the core subject of this tale. I had already written the plot to the campaign, and my players were going to ride that railroad firmly stuck in their seats.

Railroading is an accusation leveled by players when a GM endlessly steers them onto the plot when they’d rather explore other things that they find more interesting.

Railroading, however, isn’t inherently bad and I think its rather archaic for describing why a GM who forces players down certain roads can be a problem.

All games require structure now and again and no game can truly have a level of spontaneity because it requires the GM to have planned for every expectation that the players have. Which you can’t do. You can only do what you reasonably and realistically can do as a GM.

But there is such a thing as too much structure. This is why I term what I did as railroading. Because arrogantly I believed and planned as if the beginning, middle and end of the campaign was already going to happen exactly how I imagined it!

So I wrote ‘the story of the five heroes’ as my main plot hook, the player characters of the previous game were now NPCs in my game, ultra-powerful now, ultra-critical to the plot and larger than life.

0a2620_c5882c684eb54dd08d4e28f0b09fb4a0
The front cover for Pathfinder; art by Wayne Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds likes his BELTAN ZIPPERS quite a lot but despite not liking his art style all that much, I appreciate his attention to detail and his ability to draw such intricate features on a character.

I obsessed for ages over how I’d set this up. I had branching paths in terms of how the new party would meet up with the old party, I had backstories for what those characters did in their downtime period after the first adventure I played in. I had contingencies for choices that players would make with these heroes. I had legends and fictitious accounts that were passed on by word of mouth that made me think, ‘This is amazing, I can do so much with a tabletop RPG! And I don’t need to know a bit about coding, not like videogame RPGs!”.

I even had a dramatic showdown planned between the half-elf and the murderous bastard, basically a grudge match that would end the campaign in an awesome battle of physical prowess. “Yes, like a real dramatic story, things would go full circle.” I blustered in my head, fully believing in the literary power of my campaign and my own mastery of storytelling.

A swift end to a self-masturbatory campaign

The game lasted for two – three sessions. They didn’t even meet one of the heroes. No-one wanted to carry on playing. People made their excuses and moved on.

I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and didn’t think about the present game we were playing. So many GM crimes were committed in this game in planning and running it because I wasn’t paying attention, only thinking about my awesome super secret plot at the time.

Let’s see, here’s what I did and the crimes I committed in brackets…

  1. I shipwrecked the players on a shore with very little equipment to start the game, in a game where equipment matters very early on. I might as well have started them off in a fucking prison. (Railroading an introduction to the game with a contrived circumstance, depriving players arbitrarily of their tools in the first five minutes in a system where tools matter)
  2. I split the party for ages and left two of the players sitting on the sidelines to do an underground bar brawl (Leaving players un-involved in the game for a period of time without their consent)
  3. Boring the players with lots of dialogue with townsfolk and NPCs that went nowhere (Mistaking pointless dialogue and conversations for depth of story)
  4. I set up a slog cross-country with nothing interesting other than hiking across a battle-map of trees and grass, and random, unrelated battles that they skipped due to being so bored. (Boring my players with mundane scenes that could be skipped or spiced up with a better variety of encounters or set-pieces)
  5. I put players in a multi-tiered dungeon with no distinctive features other than the fact it was a tower with different themes of monster according to the floor number (Leaving out details on major set-piece locations, thus making it boring as all hell)
  6. Ambushed a martial player on the ground floor with a gelatinous blob that was literally right in front of him that he could’ve seen in the good light conditions (Robbing a player of a chance to counter an ambush he could’ve feasibly prevented in the open terrain he was in)
  7. Subjected the group to a scripted battle only one of the players had an advantage in (Blatant player favoritism)

But I didn’t care. All my mind was on was telling this awesome story that nobody consented to wanting in the first place. That’s bad GMing, because I planned for the wrong things. I pretty much wrote the plan to a novel, not the plan for GMing a game. And it showed because I ran it awfully.

But why is it bad GMing and what has that got to do with structure?

Simple:

  • You must plan and structure your sessions based on what everyone wants to play, including yourself.

AND…

  • The structure of your session must engage all your players actively, rather than putting them in passive, boring, inert situations like I described above.

For anyone who doesn’t really know what playing tabletop RPG sessions are like, does the above really sound like fun to you? Lots of travelling between places that are featureless, having the spotlight on one or two people for the sessions and throwing very unfair fights at characters that only contrivance can solve, not your character’s abilities?

If yes, I would defy you to enjoy what I ran first time round. Because in hindsight, that was not fun. It was not offensively bad but it was mediocre, like a 2 out of 5 rated Japanese video game RPG that bores you with dialogue, thirty minute cutscenes where the player doesn’t do anything but watch two spiky haired nobodies spar in a play-fight and unengaging game-play that takes ages to resolve in real time.

If there is one thing you must always be mindful of as a GM, is that all things must serve the purpose of the group. There’s no ‘I’, ‘Me’ or ‘Myself’; the hobby lives and dies on a positive shared experience.

In games where there is one GM and four to five players to serve, that responsibility becomes all the more apparent. There’s real pressure there. That’s why, if you plan properly, listen to what your players want and do everything you can to make it fun and interesting for everyone as well as yourself, it will get better and better with each session.

 

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