Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thou Shalt Not Plot?

I recently found this interesting bit of Game Master advice. A whole book of it, actually.

As a Game Master of moderate experience (ten years, off and on), I tend to take tomes like this with a grain of salt. Not because I already know most of it (I'm still learning new things), but because Game Mastering is very individual. The guy who wrote this prefers a very character-oriented sandbox approach. This is certainly fine, and he provides a decent set of tools for doing this.

But every so often, he feels the need to stand up on his soapbox. These really stand out because the majority of his writing is neutral/dry. In fact, his rants are the only part of the book that I have more than simply skimmed, because they stuck out so strongly against the overall dry writing style that he uses everywhere else.

The first major rant is against video games that call themselves RPGs. While I agree with this, it seems a little odd to wind up in a book of Game Mastering advice. Anyone looking for a book on GMing is going to know the difference between a tabletop RPG and a console RPG. Something possibly more helpful would be advice to the poor schmuck who's trying to figure out how to escape the traps of trying to run a tabletop game as if it was a console RPG.

The one that gets me, though, is his rant against plotting. The idea that by devising a plot, you've created a foregone conclusion and therefore there's no point in playing it out, because the ending is already written. I've seen this complaint numerous times on RPG forums, more often from players, though. "Don't railroad me!" they whine. "If the GM has anything prepared for the session, he's railroading me and trying to crush my soul!"

Well, here's the thing. I plot. And I never railroad. If I wind up tossing out my plot notes 5 minutes into the session, I'm okay with that. But those notes were still useful, because they got me thinking about what comes next. Even if the players don't do what my plot says, those things that I put in my notes are still out there. People that they could meet, even if they didn't have the dialog I wanted them to initially. Places that are out there, even if they didn't go there this session. Am I going to make them go there next session? No, because I don't make the players do anything.

I don't world-build extensively. I'd rather focus on those things that are directly in front of the players rather than populate the 7 Islands of Doom that the players will never go to. I'll wait until the players decide to go there before investing any serious effort.

Another important lesson here is that everyone is different, and that includes GMing styles. Kris Newton, a friend of mine and writer of "The Jaded City of Oz" adventure, has his own method of doing things which doesn't resemble my methods or Brian Jamison's. But they have all led to some rather enjoyable games.

I find it rather useful to look over the Game Master sections of every game that I own, because each has a different approach and each one has things to teach me. But I will rarely consider any one method or suggestion as superior. Which is one of the other ways this book bothers me. No matter how much experience you have as a GM, yours is not the One True Way. If it's a good way, I might borrow some ideas and some of your advice. But it would be very unlikely to make me abandon those things that my own experiences have taught me.

1 comment:

Barking Alien said...

There is a lot (ALOT!!!) of misunderstanding in this area, especially between old school fans and some of the more modern and new school fans. Though to be clear, this is more than and old school/new school issue. Its a conceptual issue.

The idea that having a plot, a story in mind, automatically means the end is known and victory is assured is not only ludicrous but shows a lack versitility of thought. I think the average ten year old can come up with a story he or she doesn't know the end of. Why can't an experienced GM do the same?

The goal of the sandbox GM and the story-driven GM are really not all that different. Both want PCs to explore their world, get involved in it and leave a game session wanting to play again. They simply approach this goal in different ways.

I want to say more but I'm exhausted. I'll pipe in again another time.

Great Post man! Keep'em coming.

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