Principle #1 of GMing is that players create story.
Using this principle means you’ll spend a lot of the game giving players things they asked for. They want to snoop around the docks for plot info – you create some dockhand NPCs to dispense it. They think it would be good to sneak into the mansion disguised as guests – you tell them there just “happens” to be a masque ball there this very night.
The formula for ad lib comes down to: you present them with a problem, they choose an approach to solving that problem, and you provide the environment and NPCs that will let them pursue that approach.
Normally this is easy – they’re only dictating where and how they want to encounter clues that are already in your notes, after all.
But sometimes your players move in a direction that sounds like an absolute dead end to you. And that’s when the ad-lib mindset can start to work against you. You get stuck on the problem of how to give them what they want… without realizing no-one’s making you.
Remember the formula; there’s a difference between the Problem and the Approach.
Stop! Example Time
I once did a campaign where the PCs were trying to uncover a witch who was hiding out in a temple community (session notes here). One approach they tried was bribing a servant to look for new faces (they weren’t being allowed access to membership records).
But I knew that the witch wasn’t a new arrival at all – rather, she was masquerading in the stolen body of a high priestess! And that part of the story was too cool to change, so I was baffled how to make their approach return any results.
Then I realized, he doesn’t have to find what they think he’s going to find. Instead, I could have him find something else mysterious – say, a concealed door that led to the secret lab I already had prepared.
That would ultimately lead to all the witch-information they could want, and even a direct encounter! And more importantly, it would move the game forward without having to wait for me to come up with some new plot element.
See, even though you’re letting player questions tell you which parts of the game world to expand, it doesn’t mean you have to make their every hunch be exactly right.*
Problem vs. Approach
Did I give them what they asked for? Well, in the sense that they were asking, “who’s new around here?” no. But in the sense that they were asking for a way to find the witch, yes, I gave them exactly what they were looking for. And this is where the difference between Problem and Approach comes in.
I had given them a problem: find the witch. They had given me an approach: sort through the new faces.
This was a rare instance where accommodating their approach would have robbed the game of something cool. So instead I took a step back and reminded myself what the problem was.
This is a GMing tool I call “Co-Opting The Approach” or, “No, But You Do Find…”
This is a tool that should be used as an absolute last resort when your brain is moving too slow to work the players’ approach into the game. Don’t look at it as an excuse to put your notes ahead of the PCs’ decisions. Instead look at it as a way of keeping the game from getting slowed down when you just can’t think of any way to change your notes. Don’t use it too often, and make sure your Co-Opts always lead the PCs toward what they were looking for.
*(As I look back on it, I realize also could have just had him return with the news that there were no new members since before the time of the witch’s arrival – and that might have put them onto the fact that she was disguised as an existing member. But I didn’t think of that, and it wouldn’t have led to as good an article.)