Welcome to the GM Attitude Adjustment article in the Schrödinger's Gun GMing series!
Wombat's Path series of articles.
How My GMing Evolved
When I got started with D&D back in middle school in the now-almost-mythical year of 1981, I didn't know where to look for other people to game with. So I gamed by myself, using a bastardized mashup of D&D and AD&D to provide challenges for my characters. The story was always the same: Meet monsters, beat them up, and take their stuff to level up and more easily beat up bigger monsters. That worked for me. The Keep on the Borderlands filled a creative need and gave me an outlet, and I soloed that module into the ground.
Then I started getting into theater and creating adventures for friends. I realized that sticking to my original Meet/Beat/Take storyline would only take me so far. So I focused on NPC characterization and interaction with those characters. The character interactions handled the aspects that teed up the adventures, but the dungeons were still very linear and very obstacle-oriented.
That push turned out to be Adult Life. I no longer have the time to spend on NPC design to the extent that I had in college. To save time I focused more on the story than the plot. I made a handful of generic encounters to reskin on a moment's notice. I broke plots down into pieces and let my players guide me on how to put those pieces together and what they wanted to do next. And now I'm organizing those thoughts and techniques under the umbrella I call Schrödinger's Gun GMing.
I am making some assumptions on my approach and where I'm coming from. Firstly, Schrödinger's Gun GMing won't work with all systems. I'm assuming that we'll use Schrödinger's Gun GMing on top of a "traditional" RPG with an all-powerful GM who operates within the rules but has the option of exercising Rule Zero. Many Indie rulesets have explicit rules for GMing and moving the story forward which make Schrödinger's Gun GMing moot.
Adjustment #1: Where does game reality begin?
Most RPGs feature modules or adventures that give a GM a scenario to run for the players at the table. Most of these adventures are linear, meaning you must do X before doing Y, and/or programmed, meaning choice A produces result B. Since most of the major player choices have already been assumed and programmed into the adventure, this frees the GM up to focus on encounter tactics and fleshing out NPC motivations. Very few published adventures break this mold, and some of those don't really provide enough GM tools to make the adventure sing.
We've been taught to accept that the published module already exists in our game worlds once we decide to include it in our games. Sure, we customize the adventure, change treasure, add trappings and hooks from our worlds to integrate it more fully, but that's fundamentally window dressing. Since adventures usually detail an exotic location, we accept that if we use the adventure then the entire location becomes a part of the game reality, even the parts the PCs haven't seen.
The same thing happens when we make our own adventures. We GMs impose our will on the story, which is fine, but in many cases we do it at the expense of the PCs' (and players') free will. We cut to the ending and pre-decide that there are only two outcomes for the PCs to choose, when in truth our hypothetical box overflows with possibilities.
In both cases we trust the prepared yet-to-exist reality more than we trust our players to help with the creative process. We shut out all possibilities except the very limited choices about what we want to have happen. No matter how you slice it, eventually this approach leads to saying "No" to your players.
As nice as it is to have some linearity to a prepared adventure to give the illusion of control, I think it's much more sane to realize that game reality doesn't start behind the GM screen, it starts when the players interact with the game world. Thanks to Kobayashi Maru players have cultivated the habit of choosing options that don't exist. So why spend hours of design time for something that might never come up in the game and therefore might never become real?
I'm not advocating trashing all the encounters you have written up already, nor abandoning detailed adventure writeups altogether since you will still have major complex encounters to run. Rather try to relax the rigid enforcement of causality between encounters in a traditional published adventure that leads to denying your players' creativity. We'll get more into this later when we talk about design, so please bear with me for a bit.
Adjustment #2: The players make game reality as much as the GM does.
This follows naturally from the previous adjustment. If no players have experienced something in the game reality, it does not exist in the game reality. The GM may provide the setting and background, but the players give the story its spark of life. Without players, a GM is essentially a frustrated novelist with a great world with great story seeds, but those seeds read like a history book and not like an adventure.
Unpacking this idea could take dozens of pages, but let's hit a few relevant highlights.
1) The players through their PCs can change game reality by choosing what to do next, even if you haven't prepared for that choice. Honor that power and make their choices meaningful. This concept ties back to Always Say Yes. Don't play a shell game and offer them a choice that doesn't matter unless you have an in-game reason for it. If they decide to talk instead of fight, let them and see where it goes. Don't move the dungeon half a continent away simply because you decided that's the party's next adventure even though they want nothing to do with it. When we get done, you'll have pieces of that dungeon you can fit into whatever craziness they lead you to next on their journeys.
2) The PCs allow the players to interact with the game reality. The PCs must have a reason to care about the game reality, and it's a good idea to give them things to do immediately, from the point of character creation. Create PCs that have personal plots to follow, and resolve them during the course of the game. It makes the PC more real to everybody at the table and gives the player a deeper involvement with the game world. Let the player decide what sort of plot interests them and they'll be hooked.
3) Listen to your players. They will tell you what they want to do next. Not listening to your players invites them to not listen to you, and you end up antagonizing each other instead of making great stories together. Players who engage with the story and not just the game rules want to explore, create, and get involved in the game reality, and the symbiosis between player and GM produces some really great story ideas.
Adjustment #3: Many disparate plots, one integrated story.
You can have one overarching plotline that everything in the game flows from. But if that's the only thing happening in your game world, it won't seem real to the players. One plot makes a one-shot game, not an RPG campaign. I'm a firm proponent of giving the PCs way too much to do and letting the party decide what they should focus on or how they should divide themselves to deal with multiple priorities. If every adventure lines up for the party easily, it will feel very linear and the players won't invest as heavily in the game. If your players aren't invested in the game, they won't let their PCs find reasons to get invovled with the main plot of your game other than "I guess we need to do this adventure next."
I have had many great gaming experiences come out of debates over what plotline the party should follow next. I have heard of incredibly creative solutions to keep the party together come out of these debates. Discovering new ideas, learning to work together with friends and strangers, and getting fired up to solve problems and move the story forward gives me all the motivation I need to play RPGs for the rest of my life.
Not all plots need to involve the fate of the world. Plots exist in several different scopes. I'll get into the different scopes in the next article, but every character, PC or NPC, has at least one personal plot that they could use help with whether they know it or not. Personal plots provide great depth of character. After all, would Indigo Montoya be half as interesting if he didn't have the six-fingered man to chase throughout The Princess Bride? Would he have been driven to become the best swordsman in the world? Would he have met Wesley and signed on to the group plot of rescuing Princess Buttercup? And isn't that character much more fun to play with than just a fighter with a scar on each cheek?
On the Difficulty of These Adjustments
Some of these ideas seem counterintuitive. After all, what the heck am I supposed to do if the adventure I've chosen to run isn't real? I agree, some of these ideas can hurt if you're not used to thinking that way. I encourage you to relax and keep an open mind. Look for ways that these ideas can inform your current game, and come back as we start exploring how to use Schrödinger's Gun GMing at your table.
In the next article we think about Plot Scope, keeping track of events in your plotlines, and setting the initial condition of your game's plots. Since it's Thanksgiving here in the States, I probably won't publish anything else in this series this week, so be sure to keep an eye out next week.
Thanks for reading!
Go to the Schrödinger's Gun GMing Cover Page.