Faking It


It's another lovely Insert-Name-Of-Weekday-Here night, and your favorite gaming group has gathered for another session of your campaign of choice. You, the GM, have been looking forward to this session for weeks. The players have spent hours of game time following your carefully-laid-out plot toward a single goal. Finally, after overcoming all the obstacles you've set before them, they find themselves approaching the final challenge that will put a heart-pounding climax on your lovingly constructed plot arc. You know this session will be the one where they finally charge forward and accomplish what they've set out to do.

It's another lovely Insert-Name-Of-Weekday-Here night, and your favorite gaming group has gathered for another session of your campaign of choice. You, the GM, have been looking forward to this session for weeks. The players have spent hours of game time following your carefully-laid-out plot toward a single goal. Finally, after overcoming all the obstacles you've set before them, they find themselves approaching the final challenge that will put a heart-pounding climax on your lovingly constructed plot arc. You know this session will be the one where they finally charge forward and accomplish what they've set out to do.

And that's when one of your players says, "You know what? I've been thinking about Random Unimportant NPC X with Random Unimportant Problem Y in Random Unimportant Town Z a lot lately. I really think that before we go into the evil overlord's castle, we ought to go back to that town even though it's a few days' ride from here and make sure everything is okay. Maybe her plight has something to do with all of this." The rest of the group agrees, and they turn around and head back to a part of your campaign to which you've never given a second thought (or maybe even a first thought).

When this happens, you may want to shoot somebody, or tear your own hair out, or maybe just flip the gaming table over Knights-of-the-Dinner-Table style. But while you are perfectly within your rights to fantasize about strangling the player who threw you off track, you don't need to. Making something up on the spot - and making it fit with everything that has come before, and that will come after - is easier than you think, and I can show you how. As a GM, I feel like I'm well qualified to speak about this issue; not only do I have a group of players who delight in throwing me for a loop whenever they can, but I have run no fewer than three complete and successful campaigns for them without doing more than an hour of planning for each one. (Yes, that's an hour of planning per campaign, not an hour of planning per session.) Thus, I will devote this article to the making of a neatly numbered list that may aid you in developing an important skill that all GMs should possess: how to improvise.

  1. Don't Panic
  2. It worked in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and it will work here. The trick is to take a few deep breaths and stay calm and cool-headed about the situation. . . and never, ever to let on that you are unprepared for what they've done. I've known some GMs who, when the players stumble into an area of the story they haven't detailed, say, "well, you guys kind of caught me with my pants down here, so just give me five minutes to decide what to do here," but I don't think scrupulous honesty works in this situation. Sitting and trying to think of something while the players are staring at you and waiting expectantly is just too much pressure - so to remove that pressure, you should act like nothing is wrong. Personally, I'm a fan of the well-placed bathroom break, or the old "oops, I'm going to need a certain sourcebook for this and I forgot it in my room, give me 5 minutes to go upstairs and get it" routine for giving you a chance to figure something out as quickly as possible. Getting up and moving, and removing yourself from the room and the prying eyes of the players, may make you feel as though the pressure is off and free your mind to run down the paths you didn't consider beforehand.

  3. Stall
    Most GMs will find the adventures they prepare for usually make more sense and turn out better than the ones they have to make up on the spot. This means your goal should always be to avoid improvising an adventure unless it is absolutely necessary. When your players decide to do something unexpected, sometimes it works to say, "Well, maybe you should prepare for that first, and here are some places you can go to do it," and allow them to eat up the rest of the session with shopping and spell-component-gathering and NPC-gladhanding. Another effective, if somewhat more heavy-handed, tactic is simply to end the session as soon as the players decide to make their move, thus buying you an entire week to figure out what's going to happen next. If the curveball comes at the beginning of the session, though, this strategy probably won't work.
  4. Know your characters, know your players
  5. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: intense campaign preparation is always a good thing, not only because it allows you to limit the number of situations in which you might be forced to improvise, but also because it gives you a solid grounding for how NPCs and plots might respond to unplanned events. Somewhere in your gaming binder, keep a list of NPCs and a list of dangling plot threads. If your players throw you for a loop, just scan the list and pick an NPC and/or a plot you think their actions might effect, bring them in, and presto, instant planning. One of the best bits of improv I ever did was a result of this.

    It happened in a Hunter: The Reckoning campaign whose players were (and still are) notorious for derailing plots beyond any hope of retrieval. In the early days of the game, I had planned out a large number of low-level encounters for my newly minted hunters. Naturally, the players decided to ignore the lot of them and instead chase down a rumor about a vampire who was supposedly behind a lot of their problems, thus skipping ahead to a portion of the campaign I hadn't planned yet. Not only that, but I knew if the PCs confronted the vampire head-on (as they are fond of doing) they would most likely get killed within a few rounds of combat, which is not the sort of thing one usually wants to do in the third session of a campaign. So I went back through the list of NPCs and found one character: a different vampire who two of the PCs had encountered during their respective imbuings (another consequence of lack of planning on my part). Pretty much on the spot I decided she would be holding a grudge against vampire number 1, and the PCs would learn about her plan and have to decide what to do about it. There you go, instant adventure.

  6. If you can't get out of it, just do the first thing that comes to mind
    In an earlier article about how to survive a session you haven't planned for, I extolled the virtues of being predictable. For the same reasons I gave in that article (it's easy on you, and it makes it more memorable and powerful when you do something astoundingly original later on), this works well when improvising an encounter. So go ahead. Lose the little voice that tells you "that sucks" or "that's not interesting" and run with what feels right and whatever comes to mind. Does it feel right for the PCs to have a random encounter with rabid ankle-biting dire squirrels? Then do it, and don't worry about what the players think of it right now. I think most players would agree that stupid and ridiculous gaming is better than no gaming at all, so by that token an absurd adventure everyone knows you made up on the spot is better than forcing your players to sit in awkward silence while you rack your brain for a fantastic idea that might never come. Besides, some of my best memories of gaming come not from the times when the GM did everything right, but the times when everything got way out of hand and we all had a great time just screwing around. It is just a game in the end, after all.
  7. Take what you are given
    Though my study of theatrical improv has been extremely limited, it taught me one thing I always try to keep in mind when running a game. The lesson is this: If you go on stage with a certain mental image or conception of your character, and the person you are doing the scene with says something about your character you weren't thinking yourself, you should never deny them that creative license. For example, if your scene partner walks up to you and says, "Hey, that's a mighty nice chicken you're wearing on your head," your response should never be, "What chicken? I'm definitely not wearing a chicken on my head." Instead it should be something like, "I know, isn't it great? I got it on clearance last weekend." A positive response keeps the scene moving, while a negative one just brings everything to a halt. This idea translates surprisingly well into gaming terms. If your players come up with a solution to a puzzle you didn't anticipate or follow a plot you didn't want to make important, don't deny them their success. Take what they are giving you, and find ways to work with it rather than against it. Most players will put up with an hour or so of fumbling while you try to catch up to them (and feel smart and capable as well, which is never a bad thing) a lot better than they'll put up with a GM who finds stupid ways to shut down everything that doesn't go exactly according to his plan.
  8. This is, without a doubt, the most important thing to remember about improv in campaigns. I'm glad I learned it, because it saved my ass when the Hunter campaign I mentioned before really got out of hand. To my astonishment, the vampire NPC I had thrown in to get the PCs away from a potentially fatal plot thread had become an important part of the PCs' lives - so important, in fact, that when they learned the extent of the danger she was in they invited her to become a full member of their group. (For those of you who don't play Hunter, while not all hunters kill monsters on sight they mostly either mistrust them or want to make them into something else that won't be so monstrous, so it says something about how much this NPC was respected and liked.) I was thrilled by this new development and had planned out an extensive (and really good, if I say so myself) story arc dealing with how other vampires and other hunters might respond to it. The day before the session in which I was going to kick it all off, one of the players came to see me for some bluebooking. His character was an Avenger, which is perhaps the most proactive of the hunter creeds and certainly the least accepting of monsters in any form. He'd decided to take matters into his own hands and deal with the vampire ally.

    Dealing with her, of course, turned out to mean breaking into another PC's apartment (where she was staying) during the day and slaughtering her while she slept.

    I'll admit I was completely furious with this player for ruining my plans. . . for about ten minutes, anyway. Then I sat down, threw away the notebook pages containing the old story arc, and started from scratch by asking myself questions and coming up with potential answers. How will the PCs react to this news, particularly the PC who had a massive crush on her? Who will they blame for her death, since they still don't know a member of their own group was responsible, and what actions might they take to avenge her? What about the guilty PC - how will he cover his involvement in the murder, both to the police and his own group? The vampire was a very strong-willed individual, with a strong drive to make up for the wrongs she had done in the past - what if she came back as a ghost? How would the love interest react. . . particularly when he learned that the one who'd killed her was one of the group members he was closest to? It only took a little thought for me to see how many fascinating new avenues my player's audacious act had opened up for me. Sure, the next session was a little more hectic and frantic than I'd originally planned, but I think the players would agree that it worked out fine in the end. It certainly worked out a lot better than it would have if I'd saved the NPC with a cheap deus ex machina, thus angering the clever player and cheapening my story in the process.

  9. Pretend it was always part of your plan
    In the end, confidence is the key. Even if you don't think you're good at improvising, your behavior shouldn't change when you suddenly find yourself GMing in uncharted waters. Stay cool, calm, and collected, and try not to let anything get past that veneer of calculated prowess. As I've hinted at before, if all goes well, your players will be so amazed by the illusion of planning that they might even become less likely to take bizarre and random actions because they're afraid you've got contingencies for everything. So smile, hold your head up high, and pretend everything that happens in your game is all a part of your grand master plan. I won't tell your players the truth as long as you don't.

Good job as usual.

"Claping my hands"

Nicely done GC, you've managed to share some wise GMing tips without coming off as someone who thinks her way of gaming is the only way to do it.

Thanks for some of the tips and thanks for securing me in some of the strategies I use as a GM.

Now, if only I can brainwash some GM's into reading and integrating some of your article, I'll be a happier gamer.

Vaya con Dios

Hey GC,

"If the curveball comes at the beginning of the session, though, this strategy probably won't work."

...and, in my world, they ALWAYS do! :-)

Great article. It also pointed out to me why I don't GM very often: the players I game with always try to push the plot in a direction I don't want it to go because, frankly, I don't feel like expanding it in that direction. Yes, I have a massive case of Lazy GM. At least you set me straight and made me see the light.


Very nice article. This sort of thing is why I never have more than a general outline for my games. My players always find a way to derail my stories, so I stopped fighting it. Smokestack, you and I live in the same world apparently.

What in the world is bluebooking?

Overall well said, especially for the inexperienced GM. I've found #4 doesn't always work, though, as another GM (AD&D) once incorporated something so out of realm for the situation, that the entire table of players walked out on it. It was truly sad. =(

Great stuff! As a member of an occasionally problematic group myself, our GM has been forced to use most of these techniques at one point or another. I think it's easy for players to forget how much our creativity can screw the carefully-laid (or not so carefully-laid) plans the GM brings to the table. Our group got over that pretty quick when we took turns running an Ars Magica game last year. If nothing else, that served to remind us that running the game is hard work. Our regular GM has, at the very least, gotten more bribes out of the deal as a result. :D

Nice article, very well written.

Bluebooking tends to be one on one roleplaying between the GM and player. Can be for 'downtime' stuff or sometimes for playing out an inportant event in a PC's history.


I call that "Macro-gaming"

nicely done GamerChick,

I know its hard for a GM to "stay their hand" when their rabble of players just side-step your best material. It's a good idea to have a trusty list of "things to do when your players have it coming"

Sometimes they focus on something that you didn't intend to be significant. And yes, their reasons can be justified in many cases. However, if your whole party decides to follow that innocent elderly man down the street just to crack jokes about his liverspots...well...that, my friends is when that elderly man morphs into a level 20 greater demon, who's sole purpose on Earth is to devour the souls of people who pick on the elderly.

I've had players make many "perception rolls" in an attempt to put "the right course of action" in their heads. Most of the time, they respond in kind. But sometimes, well, see the previous paragraph.

Some may think this is unfair...and those of you who do...

"An giant anvil falls out of the sky and lands on your head. You die...roll a new character."

just kidding...


Bluebooking is a term used by White Wolf for a private conversation between a player and GM. They suggest using a blue notebook for some reason so they acll it bluebooking. This same thing can be acomplished with notes on scraps of paper or simply stepping out of the room, which is my preference, or talking outside the game about it.

Hmm. In contrast to everyone else, my knee-jerk reaction was that this wasn't a particularly good article. I read here frequently, and have enjoyed past articles written by a number of authors, including this one.

#1 and #6 are virtually the same thing. Stalling (#2) bores players as much as sitting there like a bump on a log (#4). Speaking of #4, the statement "bad gaming better than no gaming" really troubles me. Perhaps I'm a rarity, but I'd rather not game at all than play in a crappy game.

Hey, I'm even willing to take the extremist position that if you can't get past running crappy adventures, you shouldn't be GMing. A good GM learns, evolves, and adapts as they become better at their craft. GMs who willingly get stuck in the rut of doing the exact same thing all the time and make no effort to improve their skills shouldn't be GMing.

The two pieces of solid advice were #3 and #5, but #3 was mislabeled and #5 was misrepresented.

The best advice in #3 involved developing lists of possible contingency encounters. It didn't have anything to do with knowing characters and players. Knowing characters and players IS key to improvisation, but the hows and whys of it are never explained in the article.

#5, take what you're given, should have elaborated a bit. Being told you have a chicken on your head doesn't mean that you as a GM should accept that it's a chicken. The only thing you're obliged to accept is that the actor is telling you it's a chicken. It could be nothing. It could be a duck. It could be an egg. Just because the PCs lead you in a direction of their choosing doesn't mean they have to find what they're looking for. That's totally up to you as the GM. If you're a good GM, you always find a way to give the players what they want, rather than giving the characters what they want. And what the players say they want can be very different from what they'll really enjoy.

There's also an important consideration related to Faking It that wasn't touched on in this article: preventative maintenance. It's a well-established fact that PCs will glom onto the most wacky, obscure, pointless detail that you provide, and follow that instead of the real adventure. DON'T GIVE THEM THOSE DETAILS! This doesn't mean you can't provide any details at all. You need to in order to describe their environment. But limit those details to purely relevant information, or things that don't take the easily take the party off on tangents. In other words, don't give them what it takes to go off track. But if you do, make sure that the time it takes for them to formulate a wild goose chase is also sufficient time for you to prepare/introduce a contingency encounter.

Good point...rumble,

However, one thing to consider is that there are players out there who grimace at the preconcieved "linear" storyline. It may not seem that way at first, but most gamers will be able to tell if the scenarios are all pre-arranged. And giving the players NO choices in the game can can, in fact, make the campaign dull. There are certain gamer-types where this doesn't matter, of course. Powergamers for example, gererally just want the shortest distance between battle A and battle B.

The players should have the option of totally changing the movement of the game. They may not know they are doing this and the GM shouldn't PUNISH them for it. But if the planet's core will explode unless the group stops the evil overlord's plans...and some of them decide to go search for the "Forbidden Naked City" instead...

Well, you can't exactly take back the whole end-of-the-world thing, can you?

So, there ARE people who abuse this free-will to an extent, sometimes without anyone's consent. And they can potentially screw up the game for everyone else. These "boat-rockers" can also be 'dealt with' accordingly.

Furthermore, from a GMs perspective; I like knowing that I could have to improv at any moment...It keeps the game fresh and exciting for me as well.

It's all a delicate balance. And the ability to KEEP it balanced is why YOU have been chosen to hide behind the cardboard divider...along with your ominous chuckles and the biggest bag of dice.

Until all are one...


Nice article GC, that reasoning behind your improv situation is certainly something I can agree with as important for my style of GMing.

Rumble, I have got to disagree with your stance on the article, especially with your extreme push against GMs doing something silly or generic to just have a fun night when you have little to work with. From what you said I believe you are pretty selfish on what you want from a GM and we certainly seem to be divided on what the GMs role is. It might be that you have played under too many GMs who shoved half assed dungeons down your throat with the expectation that you’d enjoy the hack and slash each week, and if that is the case the only person who can find a better game for you is you, but by making the GM the ultimate authority on the plot of a game and should have great material each week or bail on his friends would only lead to making GMing a chore and burning out your GM very quickly.

In the game the GM might be considered the ‘Storyteller’ and have some kind of plan but the players are also telling it, and personally I prefer to add all the details I can and let them pursue what they think is important to their story. I’m far from a great improviser but if I can incorporate what interests them into the story it is fun for them and me.

My GMing experience here comes heavily from my writing of original and fan fiction, and especially with the heavily developed characters of Fanfiction you can generate a hundred subplots just by trying to type in character and considering the details after the fact. If I know *exactly* how it is going to end I don’t need to finish the story because it is already finished in my head.

To use a current example, I am putting together a short Forgotten Realms Pirate game in which the PCs will find themselves bystanders to Pirates (backed by Red Wizards) deploying a new warship that no one in the inner sea can compete with and using it to rally the pirates together into one force. Now by detailing all I can and keeping an open mind on the plot I can leave them the option of searching for a ship that can rival this new threat, or try to infiltrate the pirates and find divisions to sabotage the pirate’s efforts into warring on each other, or both, or something new I haven’t considered. And really, all I need to prepare is filler details to pad up and diversify what in print game material is out there for the possible locations that I think are relevant and interesting and then consider some sperate encounters to spice things up if I need to slow my players when they charge into uncharted game story.

I could run the game on rails and give no details to make them suspect there is a wider world out their around them and make them go after a ship to rival the pirates and must fight on the battle terms I set, but then it is my story, not theirs. If I want a specific story, I’d prefer it written so the players can’t mess with it. If I want to tell a new story in a social situation with my friends, I will play through a sub par game and laugh with my friends as the bad puns fly at the holes in it.


Another quality piece of writing that deepens my hunger for role-playing... now if only I had a goddamned group! :) Damn you and your thought provoking!

But, I gotta say, I disagree with rumble on almost every point. For instance, some of the points may have been similar, as with #1 and #6, but #6 ties everything together by incorporating points from everything. It's a good conclusion, and I approve.

The key point that gamerchick made with regards to stalling is that it shouldn't be obvious that you're stalling. Otherwise, you may as well just throw your hands up and tell the players you've got no idea what to do next, which runs counter to the large point this article is making.

As far as #3 is concerned, knowing characters and players, for me, is what it is all about. If you know your players, you can tailor your improv. If the PCs are gaining on the brigands' wagon train, and you know your PCs love outdoor tactical combat, send a detachment of brigands. If you don't know your players, and you can't tailor any improv to them, you may as well roll on a random encounter table and hope for the best. At that point, (here it comes!) you may as well be stalling.

In fact, though you mention knowing your players has nothing to do with contingency plans, I would argue that it has _everything_ to do with contingency plans. A contingency plan that isn't tailored to your party is little more than a random encounter or filler. That's fair enough, but to me, that's more like stalling than improv.

Ah, but detail... I love to provide as much detail as possible, I love it when my DMs do it, and I love taking advantage of it. The best campaigns my friends and I have been in have had these details, ready for the exploring... you couldn't possibly chase them all, you just immerse yourself in it, and _go_.

Therefore, I say let them glormp on to what they want! Role-playing is a cooperative effort, and the more they find when they explore, the more clearly you'll be able to show them just how deep your world is. Of course you shouldn't let them chase red herrings the whole game because _they_ think something is important; you've got to have _some_ semblance of a plot in your head, even if it's as vague as "they'll probably meet this guy."

However, I don't think gamerchick is advocating that you relinquish control of the campaign to your players' whims. I think the anecdote about the player slaying a key NPC is spot on, and crystallizes almost every point in this article quite elegantly. Don't fight it; by accepting it and incorporating it, you can control it further, and mold it into something that has the best qualities of each.

Of course, let's back up a second: if your world _isn't_ that deep, and for whatever reason, you aren't willing or interested in taking your world in that direction, you probably _should_ skip it. Maybe that's not what they're into; maybe they want Point A to Point B. I know that if I'm running a one shot, I'm not going to devote the time to fleshing out the world all that well, and throwing in a lot of detail has a low "long-term yield" to "invested effort" ratio.

How much detail you give really has to do with what they want. If you've been sparse on details, and you suddenly start describing something to your players in great detail, they are going to pay much closer attention. The trouble with not giving any details but relevant ones is that it becomes obvious what they're supposed to do, and when it's not, you run the risk of the players becoming frustrated, or you have to hit them over the head with a hint.

In general, I don't think that the GM should do an end-run around the players when they take something irrelevant and pursue it, which is seems to be what you advocate with your take on the chicken example. Of course you should mess with your players, and you shouldn't spell everything out. The trouble with what you suggest is that it has a bias towards rejecting their input outright, in favor of what _you_ think is best. I think you underestimate the ability of players to communicate what they want through their characters' actions.

As a final note, it's also worth keeping in mind that what you do _vastly_ depends on what kind of campaign you are running. If a PC resolves to embark on a suicide mission to kill somebody highly influential in a complex political campaign, then that's something that warrants more careful consideration than, say, going down to the kobold cave to kick some ass instead of going to rescue the mayor's daughter immediately. In the case of the former, I would do some bluebooking (or balcony, as we used to call it, as we'd go out on the balcony outside, close the sliding doors, and have long in-character interactions), and find _lots_ of time to figure out what the hell that would do. In the latter, I'd just mark off that the daughter is probably going to be sold into slavery, and the mayor's not going to give them that reward unless they manage to get her back somehow.

Oh, and speaking as someone who has _no_ gaming and no immediate prospects of gaming, I assure you that, from personal experience, mediocre or bad gaming would be much better than no gaming. I have had no gaming, and then I had some mediocre gaming with a campaign I made up off the cuff... and now I have no gaming again. The mediocre gaming was way more fun, and I didn't even want to run the damned thing. :)

- Tra'Hari

I agree! No gaming is way worse than Mediocre gaming.


Overall good article. I have a few nits to pick, and some suggestions :

(1) Don't Panic .
Spot on.

Use sparingly, especially heavy handed stuff. It looks bad. Better to fill the time with routine activity, subplot and action. It should not be too difficult to improvise enough stuff to fill a gaming session.

(3) Know your characters, know your players:
Absolutely. Makes me think though that you do a little more planning & preparation then you admit GC, if you keep notes on npcs and characters. One hour per campaign, indeed !
I might also add 'know your campaign' . ie In addition to notes on npcs, its a good idea to have a map showing distribution of towns/lairs with notes on who lives there, who's in charge, what kind of encounter you might get there etc. Gives you instant possible plots.

(4) If you can't get out of it, just do the first thing that comes to mind ' It is just a game in the end, after all.':
Well ... thats your opinion, and I know plenty of good gamers who will agree with you. I'm just not one of them. Personally I take my campaigns with a Tolkien like seriousness. Campaign integrity is everything to me. Nothing winds me up more easily than infeasibly unplausible events. You just don't insult the king in his castle in front of his courtiers etc and walk out with nary a scratch. You pay the consequences demanded by campaign integrity. Am I sounding like as nut ?

(5)Take what you are given:
As you say GC. This is the most important part of your advice. The best DM I have played with, was able to accept whatever we did as players, not try to deflect us, work out the likely consequences of our action, throw in some subplot, and let the chips fall where they may. I once bypassed a whole dungeon in his campaign by coming up with a plan to enter directly by the roof. He didnt penalise me but rewarded me for innovation. On another occasion I came up with an overambitious plan to attack a goblin lair by dragging a couple of catapults through 5 miles of forest tracks. Two days later I had only made 3 miles and I was ambushed by a large force of goblins and bugbears. All improvised.

(6) Pretend it was always part of your plan:
Naah ! you don't have to pretend it was part of your plan. You just need to co-opt it and make it part of your plan. ( That was a very small nit I picked ).


Lastly, I would like to give a couple of useful tips which I have used in the past:

(1) use your own memory and experience. Once I needed to come up with a manor house floorplan in a hurry. Fortunately, I came up with the idea of using my old school plan as the template. It was a pretty good match. I knew every room every door every window stair etc by heart. A few adjustments and I had a ready made lair.

(2) Use old source material.
Keep a sorce folder containing your old dungeons, free dungeons from magazines that you have never used, adventure packs that you have bought but never used, or used only once. They can be brought out, dusted off and used at short notice if you need to improvise.

On Stalling,

Actually I use stalling alot but in RP situations. If the players have stumped you, have them stump an npc instead.
IE: if they ask something you haven't planned to the sage, the dead spirit, the all knowledgeable codex, etc. Let the NPC be surprised, you can also play it "à la Wilow" when the wizard consults the sacred bones.

I mean, if the GM can't think of everything why should the NPC's be able to?

Sometimes though not faking they've thrown you a curve ball can be reward in itself. During the post-game feedback session, I usually tell my players when they've gotten the best of me or thrown me off track, heck when it's clever and not an actual waste of time, I even reward it with extra "XP" of Karma or whatever.

On bad gaming better than none,

Yeah but only for a while. And let us not confuse silly and bad, they don't necessarily go toghether. My best campaigns had both high sillyness and high drama in it. I mean life itself is quite silly, why shouldn't RPG's an activity that is supposed to be a hobby "un moment de detente" be any different?


I don't think that gamerchick was saying in #4 that things have to take a ludacrious couse. If you are playing with a "Tolkien Mindset" and are dedicated to preserving the mood as such, then wouldn't the first thing that comes to mind be an action that would fit the mood of the game? If players were to unexpectedly decide to throw tomatoes at the king's stronghold, there is no requirement for a giant foot to come down and squish them to a 2-dimensional status. You could just as easily call the guards out to arrest them. Just because you do the first thing that comes to mind doesn't mean it is required to be outside the mood of the game.

Chia Rhino,

Ok You're right. And so is GC.

I was just making my pitch for taking the campaign seriously. Its my passion and I repeat myself a lot. a lot. I guess what I'm saying is, theres a point where the humour gets silly. Try not to pass that point. Thats all.

And I don't do giant foots. maybe mailed boots, but not giant foots. Unless there happens to be a giant around.


Hmm. Well, I guess I should have expected some responses. I don't really have the time or the interest to do a point-by-point to address everyone's, uh, "challenges" individually, but I'll try to be clearer this time.

1) The first three paragraphs of the article set up the expectation of answering the question, "What recourse does the GM have when the players pull the story off-track?" The question presupposes that the GM has a plot/track and that the players pull away from that track, and implies that this circumstance is (initially) undesirable, although it doesn't specify whether it's undesirable for the players, the GM, or both. The last sentence of the third paragraph pulls away from the entire setup, and narrows the scope to "How to Improvise." Even then, I don't think the article does a very good job.

2) The article doesn't address preventative maintenance (see my prior post), nor does it address how to get the story back on track. I consider these to be key inclusions given the article's premise, even when narrowed to "How to Improvise." Specifically, how do you improvise events to get your people back on track?
The article primarily covered GM adaptation to CHARACTER actions, and only minimally addressed GM adaptation to PLAYER actions. It talks about following the story, but not the mission/goal, which was the point (intent of the players and the GM leading up to the session) in the first place.
It never talked about how to hold true to the GM's original intent. Games aren't just about the needs of the players and their characters, but the needs of the GM and the NPCs as well -- especially if the GM wants to run a particular plot. Why bother to develop plots at all if your players aren't going to pursue them?
I'm aware that there are games out there in which the players take a highly active role in plot development. I've even played and enjoyed those games. BUT THIS ARTICLE ISN'T ABOUT THOSE GAMES. This article seems to be concerned with the standard GM-in-charge and players-run-characters gaming scheme.

3) I know you guys are desperate when you say "any gaming is better than no gaming." But you're wrong. Moronic people use the same logic with sex (any is better than none). Let's avoid making analogies in that potentially. . . disturbing arena.
From "bad" gaming, you walk away with a negative experience. You meet your friends weekly, and their idea of fun is to literally beat the crap out of you, and you're not a masochist. It's distinctly unpleasant, and you want to do it again?
From "mediocre" gaming, you walk away with no significant experience. You meet your friends weekly, and their idea of fun is to get stoned and just sit and stare at one another around a table, and you don't do drugs. It's funny the first time, but the amusement quickly wears thin into boredom. Are you sure you've got nothing better to do -- perhaps you could read a book or do some volunteer work?
From "good" gaming, you walk away with a positive experience. (You meet your friends weekly, and everyone actively participates in conversation and contributing good food and drink.)
Explain to me why you'd suffer through bad or mediocre gaming rather than doing something else you'd actually enjoy. Wth bad and mediocre gaming, not only will you not have a positive experience, but you'll probably walk away with plenty of bad habits and potentially contribute poorly to other games you happen to join.
Believe what you want, but there's no way you'll sway ME from "Good gaming or no gaming, thank you."

4) Lastly, a fun time isn't the same as a fun game. I can have a fun time laughing and joking with my friends over a meal. For the sake of the poor fellas who can't find a game, I won't state exactly how many times a month I game, or with how many groups, but I game a LOT. I drop the games that aren't fun, just as I drop my relationships with people who aren't pleasant to be with. When I game, I'm looking for a good experience from the game, as opposed to a good experience with the people (uh, which I also look for :)). I make the distinction.
While the X-files (friends) was on, I enjoyed and followed the show (gaming sessions). I enjoyed the CONCEPT (gaming) of the X-files, even when there were terrible episodes (sessions) aired. I recognized the difference between a good and bad episode, which didn't change the fact that I often said, "I like the X-files," out loud. In the same way, I recognize the difference between a good and bad gaming session even if I still like my gaming group's company all the way through.
Goofing off during a game can be done with style, or done poorly. When it's done well, the game session itself is still good. Remember the "Humbug" episode of the X-files? Completely comedic, split-off from the rest of the series, but thoroughly enjoyable -- in fact, one of the most lauded episodes. Then there's the dumb breakaways, which everyone laughs at, has a great time goofing off with, but the game isn't really that good. Those are usually the ones about which people say, "I guess you had to be there." Generally, "you had to be there" means the amusing events couldn't be separated from the company. . . the game events weren't necessarily funny on their own.

Anyway, even if I'm hideously misinterpreted, as is often the case no matter my intentions, it's back to work for me. I've spent way too much time on this already. ;)


Hello Rumble,

I'll do my best not to misrepresent you.

If you read my stuff, above, you will see that I share some of your misgivings about goofing. I agree with you that the NPC's have their own agenda, and the DM will usually have a long term plan for his campaign. This is very much the sort of 'Campaign Integrity' issue that I was talking about. But I also disagree with some of your tendencies. In particular, I detect a hint of excessive DM control in your comments. For example, I quote from you 'It's a well-established fact that PCs will glom onto the most wacky, obscure, pointless detail that you provide, and follow that instead of the real adventure. DON'T GIVE THEM THOSE DETAILS! '
I could not disagree more with this comment. I prefer to trust my players, give them all the details that they should reasonably have, and then let them decide what to do.

If you are worried about the players losing the plot, then there are less intrusive ways of dealing with it. If you're doing your job as DM, your plot won't be wasted because it will be in the player's long term interest to deal with the challenges you set them. If they don't do it now, they will probably have to deal with it later. For example, the orc lair setting up next to the player's hometown doesn't go away just because they ignore it. If anything it becomes a worse problem. Eventually they will have to deal with it.

Anyway, my position is, that I agree with the general spirit of GC's remarks. I personally like to play for a DM who will listen to my ideas and not try to dictate what my character will do.

Quick comment re: "DON'T GIVE THEM THOSE DETAILS."

I don't believe you and I are in disagreement, Mohammed. We're simply not to the point where we're agreeing on the terminology.

I quote from you, "give them all the details that they should reasonably have." I discourage/avoid the dissemination of information I prefer the PCs not get hooked into. I consider it unreasonable to include those details.

Case in point: The Pit of Loch Durnan, by Monkeygod Enterprises, is an entertaining module. At one point however, there's a passageway in the caverns that continues aimlessly and interminably, with no interesting consequence. When I playtested the module, my players chose to go down this passage for HOURS, using up many of their torches. They had to find their way back in the dark. The passage had nothing to do with advancing the plot. Why was it in the module? It was there because it made sense for the background of the story. I would have had it caved in -- it would have served the EXACT same purpose, and the PCs wouldn't have gone off on the goose chase.

It doesn't have anything to do with player trust. It has everything to do with relevance and consequence. Relevance is whether the details are important to the players and the characters. Consequence is what happens if the players follow the detail or ignore it.

I'm contending that irrelevant, inconsequential details should be omitted where possible. Your plots will progress much more smoothly and quickly as a result, and the players won't really notice the difference. They still get to do whatever they want -- it's just that their choices are subtly and reasonably limited.

G'day Rumble.

Your last post you stated:
I'm contending that irrelevant, inconsequential details should be omitted where possible. Your plots will progress much more smoothly and quickly as a result, and the players won't really notice the difference. They still get to do whatever they want -- it's just that their choices are subtly and reasonably limited.

While I do agree that there are a lot of modules out there with useless things like this in them when they are a waste of time, I disagree with your statement as a working concept. The less details you give may give you better control over your campaign but as a player the less flavour text I get the less real the world is. Even if they are extranious details that add nothing to your plot they make the characters lives real.

Lets look at Tolkiens works. The story wasn't really that surprising, the writing style was far from award winning, but the world was so rich that people reread it over and over. To give the players only the details they need denies them that.

Every great campaign I have played in I can recall because of the detail given and the growth of the character within the world, not by the smoothness of knocking down the goals of the GMs plot.



Ok, maybe we are mostly agreed. In the example you give its obviously a reasonable decision to exclude the tunnel, and I wouldn't argue against it.

But I think we do have a difference in emphasis. As a DM I don't put as much emphasis on control. To tell the truth, my campaigns tend to have no great theme. I put much more emphasis on player driven goals, and I personally prefer that style of DMing as a player.


PS. I agree with a lot of what Trent says in his post of Oct 23 above.

On details

I think one should use alot of details as a GM. I don't mean to swamp your players with irrelevant details and false leads. But when you leave out too many details, every thing you describe now become the focus of the players' attention.

Rumble: "As you walk down the dark alley, a grey cat run across and knocks over some trash."
Player 1: "I go for the cat!"
Player 2: "I'll search the trash the cat knocked over!"
Player 3: "Why the hell are you doing this guys?"
Player 4: "'Cause the GM wouldn't have mentionned it if it weren't important."

See what I mean. It leads to meta-gaming.
Try this experiment if you will:
In a modern RPG tell the players the following:
"You're all in the "insert vehicule type here" waiting at a red light, what do you do?"

Watch em' become nervous, ready weapons, start searching the streets for enemies and snipers.
Hey they're just waiting at a red light, why are they all nervous?
Because you the GM have put focus on this.

I mean sure the game will be boring if everything from eating to takin a crap or buying food has to be roleplayed.

But there should be a certain amount of irrelevant information for the players to sift through. Not every phone number or match carton in a bad guy's pockets are relevant to the story. It's up to the players to sift through the infor and decide what is relevant and what isn't.

I think you should give maybe 25% irrelevant info to the players, not false leads, just useless info.

Say they search a murder victim's pockets:
hey find his wallet, his girlfriends' phone number, a business card and a receipt from a pharmacy.
Now maybe the girlfriends' phone number has nothing to do with his murder, still it brings more depth to the story.

Like the background scenes in a movie or videogames just bring visual richness to the experience.

I'm rambling now so bye.

Hey there,

Okay, lemme give the original definition of Bluebooking: it's a term created by Aaron Allston and first mentioned in the Champions supplement "Strike Force" for the process of metgaming by the GM and player (or between players) using blank books or notebooks to write out conversations, cut-scenes, etc., that are not a pertinent part of the game being played at that time (i.e., background stuff). The term was coined because Allston's group originally used "bluebooks", blank books you find at college bookstores which are usually used for college essays/tests. Hence "bluebooking."


I think we're coming up with too many details here...

I concur, dear Beth Kinderman.
My dark (or dork?) fantasy campaign has been running for 1,5 years, and most of my preparation has just been thinking of NPCs - preparation: 1 hour for ... 6? sessions.

Truly. I concur.


Dear EchoMirage

If you spend only 1 hour per 6 game preparing it either:

1 - you have a great memory and can whip up great encounters that follow the rules. Hey I'm glad for you and wish I could do the same.

2 - You always use the same recepy but dress it a little different so the players never notice. Basically you have templates or pre-gen characters that you dress up "a la mode du jour".

3 - You just don't follow the rules and make upt stuff that creates anomalies within the game system. (ex: NPC's with too many HP's or Feats or skills or powers). It gets very easy to do this with the more complex game systems (GURPS, ROLE MASTER, World of Darkness)

Sam said:
"2 - You always use the same recepy but dress it a little different so the players never notice. Basically you have templates or pre-gen characters that you dress up "a la mode du jour"."

I only had one DM that ever ran a game like that and he was actually pretty good at it. The only time it stareted to get repetive was when he ran Shadowrun. Eventually he changed that game to the way I write games because he liked it better for a little while.

The way I write games, which is specificaly to avoid the perils adressed in the article, is I write the entire thing ahead of time, including all prominent NPCs and templated for non prominent NPCs. The only problem with this model is if I forget something.