I did an experiment last Fall to find out if there’s such a thing as too much ad-lib. And now I can tell you... yes. If you ad-lib everything, your campaign can die of ad-lib overdose.
(Let me just say here that I have done a totally ad-libbed campaign about six weeks long and it went great. I don’t really know what I did right with that one, except that it was a group I’ve gamed with for years – the group this Fall group was new to me and RPGs.)
Here’s the part that went well. I had the group work together on a setting we all liked - Steampunk Australia exploration. They made up great characters and a strong backstory explaining why they were all together – I couldn’t have asked for a better cast. Then, without any plan for where it would go, I ad-libbed a couple quest hooks, and when they found one that appealed to them, it took off like gangbusters. They were off on their own custom adventure.
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But we ended up getting stuck in the first couple locations. The players kept creating more details and subplots (and if you don’t understand what I mean by that, stop reading NOW and read this) until the game was jammed with them. The story got bogged down in intrigue and mystery when what we’d all wanted was swashbuckley, actiony fun. It was strange to see our campaign go in a direction none of us were interested in, when we were the ones making it up!
By now, I’ve realized a few of the things that went wrong.
1) GM was overly responsive / not active enough
Like the title of this blog implies, the player’s wish should be the GM’s command, not the other way around. But at the same time, there’s such a thing as being too responsive to player ideas… or at least, being responsive to too many player ideas. It’s great to give them room to say things like: “I suspect such-and-such!” or, “My character’s not interested in that quest.” But once you’re responding to their ideas full time, you’re no longer in the mindset of moving the story forward.
Basically, there is a time for “active imagination,” where you’re giving them new areas to play in, and there’s a time for “responsive imagination,” where you’re letting their ideas dress up an area you’ve given them. As I write this blog, I look forward to finding out just how much control to let players have, and how much to keep for yourself.
2) Too much focus on player ideas
This one’s strongly related to idea 1.
If you tell your players you want the story to unfold naturally, from their choices, they will start driving the story with bold and innovative character choices. And it’s good to let them drive! Some of your best stories as a GM will come when let players contribute ideas.
In my campaign, I set out to instead see what story unfolded as the players made choices - completely. I had enough experience with ad-lib encounters and NPCs to do that, I figured. But what I didn’t have was any way to steer the ideas they contributed.
The thing is, when you let players ad-lib, they create lots of details and subplots but they don’t create many new locations and ideas – what they do is ask questions, which, adds detail to the locations and ideas you’ve already given them. And this is a good thing. But if you never take control by moving them on to a new location/quest/plot twist, they won’t know to stop. And soon your game will be overloaded – not with locations and ideas – but with details and subplots. Soon everyone will realize that the game has become convoluted and boring, and that they’re still not out to the jungle where the cool stuff is!
Too much focus on player ideas turns their creativity into a bad thing.
3) Ad-libbed ideas don’t necessarily relate to each other.
At atmosphere of total ad-lib is a hothouse of good ideas. I and the group (because we’d talk about this stuff out-of-game too) had ideas for flying steamboats, temples inside of volcanoes, fantastic animals, blimps, zombie pterodactyls, mad scientists, and long-forgotten technologies. And all these ideas were great.
But a pool of good ideas isn’t the same thing as a campaign. As a GM, you have to use your authority to decide how these ideas relate to each other (you’re up for human sacrifice in the volcano temple, escape on a zombie pterodactyl, meet a mad scientist in a blimp, who hires you on such and such a quest, which ultimately relates to long-forgotten technologies). Sometimes that means planning ideas to hand to them, sometimes it means giving them plot twists and quest hooks that “push” the campaign in the direction you want it to go.
I’ve shared this with you because I want to be honest about the dangers of ad-libbing. It’s important not to mix up the player’s role in creativity, and the GM’s role in creativity. And I’m sure I’ll be writing a LOT more about that topic in future posts!
For now I’ll say that if you allow too much ad-lib, you’re leaving space for the players to step in and to your job. And that turns player creativity into a problem.
In order for you to “let them drive,” you have to remember that you’re the driver.