I’ve been working a lot with how RPG sessions are run and planned. What’s been bugging me is that it has always seemed difficult to find that right blend of preparation and improv as a GM. I’ve run from both ends of the spectrum, and I’ve run in between. In twenty or so years, I’ve hit what I feel is every major variation of running for and preparing a game.
And I still haven’t been happy. I realized first that what has filled me with discontent is not the notion of preparation or improv or preparing to improv; it has been the notion of preparation itself. Until recently I haven’t found a proceess that coincides with the way that I think an RPG should be run. My process used to be something like: Figure out a story, describe some situations, prepare the maths/crunchy bits go. Sometimes there was more refinement to this, other times there was much less.
The first epiphany I had was: Story is an artifact of play. Re-phrasing: Story is the point of playing an RPG. If story is the thing that you’re making, you shouldn’t then fill your preparation with narrative. Prepping story is like shovelling dirt in the hole that was dug to build a pool. You’re going to need that space emptied for the players to do anything and to have fun. Story is typically the first thing GMs build, trying to define the beginning middle and end of a narrative, when that in reality should be the thing that we do not define. Story comes last, because creating the actions and reactions with the characters inside a fictional space is why we gather to play.
Instead we should build situations. Adventure Burner does some great work describing what makes a great situation. What I’ll add is that the best situations present an event, then also pose a question relating to that event. A monster approaches the players, bellowing loudly. What does it want from the players? In the answering of that question is where all of our play begins and then progresses. You can add more or less detail to the situation, and you can ask more particular questions for followup. Once you have the event and the questions (it should go without saying that these are implicit questions, not specifically posed to the players) you have created a space where play can happen. Instead of filling the space of events with “if players do this, then that”, you let it be explicitly blank and powerful.
Underlying the creation of situations is what should be our first step: the creation of a structure. What is the framework that the situations rest in? What are the implicit genre assumptions we abide by? What is the ultimate progression that events might lead us to?
More succinctly: What sort of story do we want to see in play, and what is the best “box” for that story? For example, I’ve decided that I want to do a murder-mystery. I know that structurally, the characters must be introduced to a crime (someone getting murdered), and then they the group will be involved in scenes where the interrogate and explore the people and environment. Finally, they will confront their suspect.
With this structure in mind, I know what elements that I need to create, and where the gaps will be left to fill up in play. If I tried to think about this in terms of story first, it is certainly doable but in my experience it’s harder, because building story tends put you in a linear, narrative mode. Building a a space for RPG play is best when you work from structure and fill out just the parts you need. Structure provides guidance but few answers. You shouldn’t be doing a lot of if this happens, then this will occur. You are building key events and describing the flow of play, then you consign yourself to what happens in play.
When you have a lot of story, it’s easy to go off-script. When you have a lot of structure, you never go off-script, and you never truly waste elements.
Adventure Burner talks pretty deeply in this vein, and one of the many things I like about Marvel is that it already does a lot of what I’m talking about. Because of Marvel’s structure-based adventure writing, you can play the Breakout intro adventure multiple times with the same people and never have the same story twice. The event has a flow and it has elements, but little else. You orient the players, spark the inciting situation, and boom! You’re all set for a few sessions.
I’ve also done a bit of chattering about situational play on the old site.
Earlier I mentioned experimenting with this kind of preparation. A little bit at a time I’ve been building a 13th Age adventure called Hell’s Harvest that uses some of these principles. If you want, you can follow along and see what you think.