About

And what is “innovative” game mastering, anyway?

Let me tell you about the way I used to GM.

Before each session, I would outline settings, NPCs, and a loose script of encounters. The script was loose because I wanted the players to be free to move through it however they chose. That meant giving them lots of “crossroad” scenarios: to make friends or enemies, to take one job or another, to walk the path of the hero or of the outlaw. And this worked so well I once ran a game for two years straight.

I gave the players a lot of freedom… the thing was, no matter how many crossroads I gave them, they were still following my flowchart. Every outcome was planned. (and if they went off script much, I had to scramble to get things back on track) I wanted to change that, and that would mean rethinking my whole GMing philosophy.

The game didn’t contain many surprises for me, and that was my signal that something was wrong. I was basically functioning as a level designer – doing the creative part of my job beforehand. After that, I was just reading a script.

On the other hand, players get to be creative the whole time. They’re making it up as they go, because they don’t know how the story will end. So one day I thought, “What if I didn’t know how the story will end, either?”

This led me to what I call “imaginative” game mastering. My next game, I started with a few rough ideas, but no planned encounters. I started making things up in response to what the players were doing at the moment: they wanted info, I’d create an NPC; they played like hardened criminals, I’d give them a history and bring lawmen into the game. It meant I had to be constantly guessing where the story could go – and I found there were thousands of possibilities I would never have thought of with my old scripts.

Suddenly, the whole game could change from a caper story to a conspiracy story, just because one player said “I think we’re being set up.” In response, I’d make even the friendly NPCs untrustworthy, and create a web of lies that went deeper than anyone had imagined.

Suddenly a goodie they’d stolen could become the All Important Plot Device, just because the players had misunderstood my description of it. It didn’t really matter, because this just raised the stakes and led to more fun.

Suddenly it was okay for players to make up the next encounter. They knew I was experimenting with ad-libbing, so they felt secure suggesting things like, “how about we hear the Hutts are hosting a ball – and we crash it?” after a good Streetwise check.

The amazing thing was, it was easy. The players never felt like I was BSing! They loved that it was as much an adventure for me as it was for them. But most of the time, they didn’t even realize I was making it up as I went.

That’s when I realized it wasn’t my job to plan the best ideas ahead of time. It was my job to judge where they were taking the story, and then make their ideas happen in challenging ways. It was my job to give them the story they were just realizing they wanted, like some kind of storytelling genie.

So this blog is about my journey of going “script free,” and about tools you can use to make your ad-libbing feel as solid as any planned encounter. Believe me, you’ll be having more fun than anyone at the table.


Author

GMGenie (aka Tobin Duby) loves roleplaying games. As teenagers, he and a friend created an amateur game system because they didn’t know roleplaying games were a real thing you can buy. The first “real” game he played was GURPS 3e. From there he went on to D&D and Savage Worlds, back to "house rules" systems until finally falling in love with Fate.

He’s never liked the linearity of published adventures, and he’s wanted to write his own for a long time. For now, he writes a blog that seeks out ways to balance GM authority with player creativity, and provides GMs with tools to let their campaigns grow organically.