Sometimes GMing is flashy, and fun. When everything is ready, and you’re in the groove, when you know what is going to happen and can lose yourself in the game, and simply present the PCs with the consequences of their actions and concentrate on your performance in the guise of NPCs and on the delivery of an entertaining plotline – that’s GMing at its best.
Sometimes, GMing is challenging and intellectually stimulating. When you are having to operate off-the-cuff, but you know the characters and the game world and the NPCs and the way they will react; when you can let the PCs explore solutions to whatever problems they face without restraint, confident in your ability to react appropriately and still deliver an enjoyable game to all concerned – that’s GMing at its most rewarding.
And then, there are the other times. When you are uncertain, and unconfident, when the PCs have you completely off-balance; when you have misspent your game prep or have been unable to prep properly; when the NPCs have to be generated on the spur of the moment, and are nothing more than a collection of numbers, and the character doesn’t quite seem to fit, anyway; when the players are expecting a story and you have absolutely no idea. That’s GMing at its scariest.
All of those are big topics, and I have no desire to start a new series when I already have so many underway, but I thought that for this week’s blog I would at least offer one or two quick hints towards solving each of these problems, a mini-solution that might just be enough to get you through the day. Eventually, each of these will be a blog subject in its own right, but for now, fasten you seat belt; this might get a little bumpy…
Coping with Uncertainty
When a GM feels uncertain about what he’s about to do, there are two really good solutions.
The first solution is to come clean with your players: “I had this kind of wild idea and I’m not sure how it will work out, but I hope it will be fun. And if it crashes and burns, things will be back to normal next week.” I once GM’d a session in which magic had split a PC’s personality (the character couldn’t be there that session, something I didn’t know in advance) into multiple separate pieces and the uncontrolled magic had seized on this mental turmoil and manifested a small dungeon which was a metaphor for the disintegrating personality. Each of those personality fragments was represented by one of the other existing PCs, who had to defeat the subconscious-derived spontaneously-generating monsters and gather the “treasure”, the glue that would bind the fractured personality back together. The goal was to gather a certain GP value of treasure. I layed the metaphors on thick and fast, often in multiple layers.
What made the session fun was that the treasure required was far greater than the amount with which I had seeded the dungeon – about twice as great, in fact – but the players assumed that I was being crafty and that there was in fact enough hidden away to cover the requirement, if they were only clever enough to find it. They really stretched their creativity, harvesting dead monsters for valuable hides and horns, digging into a sparkling wall in search of gems, grabbing every piece of loose metal and testing it to see if it was merely coated with base metal, and so on. Each time, I would give them a reasonable value, for whatever they came up with, but it kept coming up short – until one of the players came up with the brilliant notion of drawing up a deed to the dungeon and putting up a “for sale by auction” sign.
The symbolism was too good to ignore, I had the missing player’s PC show up and win the auction claiming the booty that the other ‘characters’ had gathered, and putting his mind back together in the process. The following session picked up at exactly the point where the previous session had, but instead of the players shepherding avatars of themselves around, the “felt” something tear at the integration of their personalities, and “felt” their companion’s mind fracture and splinter under the magical assault, and then (equally quickly) “felt” everything come back together again. It was a satisfactory day for all concerned.
It only worked because I had put the players into the proper mindset to start with – telling them that this was to be an experimental mini-adventure, that it might not work but would have no long-term repercussions for them if it didn’t, and that it was to be a dream sequence.
Lie Through Your Teeth
The alternative approach is to bluff outrageously – “Everything is going according to plan, and it will all make sense in the end”. Then listen to the players trying to make sense of whatever you have cobbled together and let them guide you to a sensible solution. Their explanation for events might not have been what you had in mind, but it will hold together – and N+1 (number of players plus the GM) minds concentrated on finding a solution will generally be better than 1 mind on its own. But you have to be convincing in order because it is your seeming confidence that will inspire the players to keep trying to figure it out.
Overcoming the Absence of Confidence
Confidence is not some blanket condition that applies equally to all aspects of operations behind the GMs screen; an individual can be confident about one aspect of their craft and unsure of their abilities in another area. This problem is most frequently the province of beginners, but self-doubt can afflict anyone anytime – it is just that it doesn’t.
I am offering two sets of advice on dealing with this issue – one for experienced GMs and one for beginners.
A Solution For Beginners
Beginners usually have good reason to be a little apprehensive behind the GM screen, especially if they are dealing with experienced players. Don’t let yourself get scared off. GMing is not that hard. What’s the worst that can happen?
My first game behind the screen (a one-off trial run) was a total disaster. The players all had a decade or more experience as players and several as GMs themselves, and they were running roughshod over my game in no time flat. AD&D used to have this monster called Green Slime which transformed anything biological that it touched into more Green Slime unless the target made its saving throw; I had decided that the citizens of my world would have domesticated various of the monsters, an approach that I still consider reasonable. One of the players asked if they used Green Slime for garbage disposal, and after a moment’s reflection I said yes. The PCs immediately bought as many glass jars (suitable for holding potions) as they could afford, and very carefully filled each with a quantity of green slime; every time they encountered a monster in the dungeon, they would lob one of these mini-WMDs in its direction and charge. They would usually hit what they were aiming at, and either turn the enemy into more Green Slime (easily destroyed with torches) or distract the target long enough to get a couple of really good hits at it, making monsters that should have been WAY too tough for the party into easy pickings.
Already nervous because this was my first GMing attempt, this did absolutely nothing for my confidence. But I stuck with it, and had some of the more intelligent monsters use the same tactic back against the party, lobbing clay jugs full of a similar monster (a Black Pudding) back at the PCs. In the end, it proved a draw, as the PCs retreated because they were running short of Hit Points and had already used their limited repertoire of healing spells, and needed to train in order to advance to their next level. Afterwards, some of the players said it was the most entertaining game session in which they had taken part for several years.
How did I get through it? I roleplayed!
I took a deep breath, and then began to play the role of a GM who was completely confident and in control of the situation. Roleplaying was something that I already knew how to do, and something that I could be confident doing, so I used that ability to fake the rest.
Beginning GMs are either going to have a group of equally-inexperienced players to deal with, enabling both sides to learn as they go, or they will have experienced players – who will either cut the new GM some slack or pitch them in the deep end. The last is what will teach you the fastest, if you can get through it – and players have a lot of respect for a new GM who lets them do their worst and doesn’t lose control – and who comes back fighting, giving as good as he gets.
A solution for Experienced GMs
- Call for a 5 minute pre-game break “to get your head into gear”, and find yourself a quiet, isolated spot.
- Take a deep breath, and exhale slowly.
- Spend a couple of minutes trying to figure out Why your confidence has deserted you. Are you doing something that you haven’t had to do before? Are you doing something that was a total disaster the last time you tried it? Or are you making a molehill into a mountain?
- Spend a couple of minutes reminding yourself of your experience as a GM. Remember the last time you made a supercollosal mistake (we all make them) and how you coped – could it really be much worse than that occasion?
- Try to identify one aspect of what you are about to do that you can be confident of, then focus on doing that. Remember, you dictate the pace of events!
On another occasion in my relatively early days as a GM, I had to operate a large group of mixed, intelligent, monsters. I was not at all confident of being able to “switch hats” quickly, and even less confident about my ability to make the differences between the monsters obvious (I’m not very good at doing voices and don’t use disguises/props – not of that sort, anyway).
But I was confident of being able to handle playing one of the monsters as an NPC – so that’s what I did. I roleplayed one solidly throughout the session, speaking in the first person and appointing him the spokesman for the NPCs, and simply described the gist of what the others were saying, moods, tone of voice, etc. By half-way through the session, I felt I had a handle on the spokesman, and adopted the first person for one of the other NPC monsters in addition to the first. By the end of the session, I was able to play them all at once; the fear I had felt was groundless.
When PCs Do The Unexpected
There is very little that a player enjoys more than completely outfoxing the GM, coming up with a brilliant ploy from out of left field that is so completely unexpected that the GM is left completely gob-smacked and on the back foot – and rocked back on his heels, to boot! Almost every GM’s first reaction to that situation is to start looking for reasons why this “brilliant plan” doesn’t succeed, but this is never a wise response. It creates an situation in which the players feel that the GM is against them, trying to box them into accepting only the predigested solutions that he cares to offer them, just one half-step removed from railroading the entire plotline. The words that come to mind to describe the resulting atmosphere are “Poisonous”, “Defensive”, and “Toxic”.
As Johnn suggests in “Say Yes, but Get There Quick” (reading between the lines), it’s far better instead to look for reasons why this “brilliant plan” WILL work (unless there is some blatantly obvious flaw, of course). This results in a completely different outcome to that described in the previous paragraph; instead of being seen to box the players in, the GM gives the impression of being completely open to anything the players want to try, of being totally confident in his understanding of the Game World and the events taking place within it. The Campaign, and the respectability of the GM in the eyes of his players, are immediately elevated in stature.
Being properly prepared makes it a lot easier. I have already blogged about PCs doing the unexpected, unlike most of the subjects of today’s article, and you can read my detailed advice – and the story behind the it – in “My Biggest Mistakes: Magneto’s Maze – my B.A. Felton Moment“, so I won’t take time and space recapitulating it here.
Mis-directed Game Prep
Akin to the problem discussed in the previous section is this one. The GM spends all his time preparing for the PCs to reach Location X or Event Y only for circumstances to prompt them to take a side-trip to situation Z instead. That circumstance might be a random encounter or the sudden deciphering of a warning sign that the GM thought they had discounted or an unexpected opportunity or even a percieved advantage that the GM hadn’t thought of. Or perhaps he simply thought that he wouldn’t need it yet. I’ve even had a situation in which encounter Y was concluded far more quickly than I expected, propelling the party on to situation Z before I’d had a chance to prepare for it.
Under the ethos described above, the GM should let the PCs follow their own inclinations – though he should also keep track of what the enemies get up to when the PCs don’t show up to disturb their plans – but that’s not quite as easily achieved when the GM’s prep doesn’t include ‘situation Z’.
Once again there are two essential solutions: delay or improvise.
This is an approach that can only carry the GM so far. Realistically, the game can end no more than half an hour early without the players wanting to push on; and there is only so much delay – perhaps an hour or so – that the GM can throw into events without the players suspecting that he is trying to stall. Like a merchant sensing the urgency of a customer’s need and pressing his advantage, if that happens, they will start deliberately upping their pace.
So unless there is less than about 90 minutes before the session of play will draw to a close, Delay is valuable only as a holding tactic – something to keep the PCs busy long enough for the GM to think. His only real choice is to take the other solution and implement it as best he can.
The best way to delay is to throw in an irrelevant side encounter that blocks or obstructs the party’s path, but that seems relevant, or some mystery that appears to need solving but that seems relevant to what the party are now attempting to achieve. The key to both is imparting some sense of relevance. The first is easier; all that is needed is a representative member or members of whoever is expected to reside at the new intended destination, or some overheard dialogue indicating an intention to attack or blockade the intended destination, or hints that this new enemy knows the PCs are around here somewhere and that they are hunting them.
Still more sophisticated delays are possible if the GM has taken the time at some point in the past to prepare one and held in his pocket until he needs it. A former enemy, or henchman of same; or perhaps an assassin who was hired by a past enemy prior to his final defeat; or some delayed-effect legacy of an earlier battle. If you are a GM reading this, stop for five minutes right now and put a little thought into some development or encounter deriving from the PC’s past that you can pull out of a back pocket the next time you need a delay. Your campaign will be the better for it, and you’ll be that little bit more secure behind the screen.
Delays must always result naturally and logically from the circumstances within the adventure, so if you implement one, you will need to have everything in place to justify it later. Where did this enemy come from? If they knew the PCs were in the vicinity, HOW did they know? Part of the process of using such an encounter is being ready with the answers to these problems. Perhaps a broom closet in the dungeon/lair to which the PCs are travelling needs to be re-tasked into a room with a scrying room, or someone needs to name-drop the name of a deity who has given them a hot tip or whatever.
When the time to be filled doesn’t permit delaying tactics, it’s often better not to delay at all, moving directly to this solution. Improvising essentially means working without the safety-net of game prep, doing your prep on-the-fly a few seconds in advance of the PCs, then reconciling your on-the-fly contributions to the plot after the fact.
When GMs have sufficient understanding of what the NPCs in their campaign are doing, and of how the world works, this can be done in relative safety. The improvised game might not be as polished as a fully-prepped session, but there can be an immediacy and reactiveness that can counterbalance that – and there is a certain thrill to high-wire walking without a net that can be appealing.
If you aren’t confident of that level of understanding, it’s usually a better approach to graft a new mini-plot into the story that’s totally unrelated to the main plot. Something that can come and go without disturbing the broader situation, buying time for the GM to get the missing prep done for the next game session.
These mini-plots come in four sizes:
- The rest of the session or less
- A full session split in two
- The rest of this session plus one full session to follow
Mini-plots which last “the rest of the session or less” may need to be padded out with a small delay (as described above) in order to completely occupy the day’s play – but you now have a second plotline with which to connect the delay, keeping the whole side-trip away from your main plot self-contained. This type of mini-plot will follow a simple three-act structure: a roleplaying/discovery encounter, a problem-solving/combat encounter, and a second roleplaying encounter:
- In the first roleplaying/discovery encounter, the PCs are handed a problem of some immediacy. If the PCs are heading for a meeting with an important NPC, perhaps that NPC – and everyone in his keep – has fallen unexpectedly ill, or is drunk to the point of insensibility, or he is beside himself because his daughter’s missing or has been kidnapped, or has been possessed, or any one of hundred other possibilities. Heck, a time-traveler may pop up out of nowhere and “borrow” the NPCs for a moment, or the patron deity of one of them may hand them an emergency assignment. The problem should be short and simple.
- In the second act, the PCs discover the cause of the problem and solve it, either by roleplay, detective work, or hack-and-slash. A simple problem usually has an equally-simple solution. One of the major issues to be resolved in this act, if not in the first, is why the others caught up in the problem couldn’t solve it themselves – why does it fall to the PCs?
- In the final act, the mini-plot’s outcome gets wrapped up in a nice, neat bow. The NPC who they have come to see thanks the PCs, and excuses himself for a moment to compose himself before speaking to them about whatever they came to achieve, or whatever. Unfortunately, that’s where time for the day’s play runs out – at the most convenient point possible for the GM whose prep was undone or misdirected.
Mini-plots that occupy a full session split in two generally have a four-act structure. The first is the same as described above, and is followed by a new act inserted between the first and second acts of the three-act structure. The second act is when the PCs confront the problem and discover some sort of reversal or plot twist at the end of act II, which is where the days play ends. This may need to be padded with a short delay, as above. In the following game session, the PCs wrap up the side quest and have about half of the day left to get the main plot back underway – so at most this buys the GM one intra-session interval of prep time.
Mini-plots that occupy one-and-a-half sessions are only slightly more complicated than mini-plots, but generally involve a less straightforward problem and some roleplaying interaction with NPCs along the way. They can often be created by combining the four-act structure with an overlapping quick three-act mini-plot which is conducted in parallel with the first, overlapping and complicating it. By giving the PCs a simple problem and a difficult problem to overcome and entwining the two plots, you complicate matters just enough to stretch the whole thing out for an extra few hours of play. Sometimes you can gain additional mileage by saving any delaying action for the middle of the mini-plot instead of using it up-front.
Finally, mini-plots that will take longer than a session-and-a-bit to resolve are what I describe as “sprawling” – they are generally so big and complicated that by the time they are resolved, the players will have lost track of what was going on in the plotline that has been interrupted, which is the primary plotline of the game. I don’t recommend this sort of side-quest, as they can often be detrimental to the campaign overall.
The chief advantage of grafting a new side-quest or mini-plot into the game is that it isolates the effects of that plotline from the main game, in effect protecting the GM’s game from his mistakes.
Creating Spur Of The Moment NPCs
I have a simple recipe for spur-of-the-moment NPCs: I pick one attribute that is characteristic of the function of the NPC and amplify it, then leaven it with a second attribute that is characteristic of the function and invert it. The concept is that the amplification of the first has enabled the character to succeed in whatever his career/plot-function is despite the adversity.
Examples of this approach include:
- A wizard with an incisive understanding of arcane theory who drinks himself into insensibility daily to forget the horrors he has encountered.
- A fighter with natural style and prowess whose ego leads him to showboating and other flamboyances to the detriment of his success in combat.
- A rogue whose talents are exceeded only by his inability to submerge his bravado and boastfulness.
- A cleric who is deeply pious but is acutely class-conscious and dismissive of the value of others.
- A cop who believes in the legal process but has no faith in the courts.
I will intersperse such NPCs with personalities taken out-of-context and adapted from TV shows, movies, literature, or comics. A wizard with the personality of Homer Simpson; a rogue with the personality of Jack Bauer (’24’); a barbarian with the personality of the Queen Alien (‘Aliens’); A necromancer with the personality of Gordon Ramsey; a merchant with the personality of Jack Sparrow (‘Pirates of the Caribbean’). The list goes on and on. Crafting such an NPC is a three-step process:
- Pick a basis personality, the more incongruous the better;
- Integrate that personality with the character’s role – how will the personality impact the career of the individual, how will it benefit him and how will it hinder him;
- Decide how to convey the personality in play.
Both of these approaches will give you a viable off-the-cuff NPC in a few seconds. I will usually open my Player’s Handbook or rules to an appropriate section and pretend to consult it – or even to actually consult it – to buy myself those seconds, and to use as a guideline to the abilities of the NPC.
Skills? Nothing simpler. Rate the character’s capabilities on a scale of 1-to-character-level; if the skill is something that someone of the character’s profession should be good at, I give them a skill of twice the rating, if it’s something that might be beneficial but not necessary, I give them a skill equal to the rating, and if it’s not directly relevant to their abilities, they either get zero or half of the rating, depending on whether or not the choice adds to the character’s colour. That one number serves as a touchstone to the rest of the character, enabling me to get on with running him.
For non-level oriented game systems, like Champions, or my own superhero game system, I use the average basis of the roll as the character’s level. So, for the hero system, which is based on 3d6, which has an average of 10.5, I will rate the character out of 10. For my own game, which is d-percentile based, and with skill values ranging from -100 to +150%, I will rate the character out of 75 and apply a modifier of -50 to the skill values that derive from that rating. This gives skill values of somewhere between -50 and +100 for relevant skills.
I am also (usually) careful to jot down any skill values that are decided in this fashion so that I can be consistent on any future appearance of the NPC.
Putting A Face to the Numbers
There are times when you have to generate a more comprehensive NPC on the spot – rolling for their stats, and then interpreting them. The technique I employ at such times is very similar to the one described above for on-the-fly characters.
Ignoring the stat most important to the character unless it is unusually high or low, I focus on the next highest stat, and consider that to be a reflection of the amplification of one aspect of the personality. I then focus on the lowest stat, and consider it to reflect the leavening influence. Choosing one of the aspects of the stat to exemplify and label those personality attributes and the character suddenly stops being a collection of numbers and starts to develop a unique personality. Here are a couple of examples:
- STR 15 INT 12 WIS 9 CON 14 DEX 13 CHA 13 – generated using the roll 4d6 and keep the best three, i.e. a PC standard. If this character was a fighter, I would ignore STR because it’s mediocre for a fighter, neither exceptionally high nor low, and focus on the next highest result, the CON 14. This suggests a robust character, generally fairly healthy, with perhaps one or two flaws; so an overweight and short-sighted individual who was generally active and healthy. The lowest stat, WIS 9, also suggests someone who is a little foolish or short-sighted in a less metaphoric meaning of the term. Generating a personality to go with a set of stats using this systems is actually faster than rolling the stats!
- For the sake of comparison, let’s use the same stats for a Cleric and not a Fighter. That means that I ignore the Wisdom beyond noting that it is unusually low for the class. The strength score is thus the highest, which is suggestive of battle, and belligerence. The lowest stat is the Wisdom, but that is once again ignored, beyond raising the question of why this character would choose to be a cleric in the first place – it is clearly the class for which the character is least suited. The next lowest stat is INT at 12, and that is therefore interpreted as indicating that some aspect of INT operates to the characters’ detriment. The most obvious choice is that a high INT character asks a lot of difficult questions. Putting these thoughts together produces a characterization of someone who has chosen a career not because they want it or believe themselves suited to it, but to make someone else happy; someone who is argumentative and belligerent and who tends to raise doubts in those to whom they preach, rather than settling them. This is someone who is probably not happy doing what they are doing, which often manifests as anger and gloominess. Perhaps the character got into a serious fight (the belligerence coming through) which went too far and was saved from the gallows only by swearing to a life of service to a religious order. He now walks the fine line between service to his Deity as best he can and an innate unsuitability to that calling that makes the character someone who is tolerated more than welcome. The characterization is surprisingly complex, even deep, given such a simple method of generation. You could have this character make repeated appearances and the players would never know that he or she had been generated in about 30 seconds plus die-rolling time!
Putting a name to the face
There is a particular circle of hell reserved for players who force GMs to come up with character names off-the-cuff. I can’t speak for everyone, but I frequently find this to be more difficult than coming up with a personality for a character. I have one particular technique that has proven to be a lifesaver in the past.
The first of these techniques is the reversal. I simply think of a name or word that is appropriately symbolic of the major personality characteristic of the character and write it in reverse, then tweak to make it pronouncable. The hot-headed fighter created above, for example: Dennis, from Dennis The Menace, becomes Sinn-ed, tweaked to Sined (not ‘sinned’ as in ‘sinner’). Glower, meaning an angry stare, becomes Rewolg, which I will tweak for pronouncibility to Reywald. So the name is Sined Reywald. Works like a charm!
A Fish Out Of Water
But what do you do when a character doesn’t quite seem to fit the story purposes for which they are intended? Once again, there are two answers: the first is to alter the character’s role slightly to accommodate the character as they are; and the second is to toss the misfit aside and generate a new one using the techniques explained above (repeat as necessary until you have a smooth fit). Since there is no need to recapitulate those techniques, let’s focus for a moment on the first.
The usual reason a character doesn’t seem to fit is because the character’s capabilities or dedication are either insufficient or misdirected, relative to the role they are to play in the plotline. For example, if the NPCs role was as a messenger of the Gods, it would seem entirely inappropriate for the second example NPC to be that messenger; he is simply not pious enough.
But the problems can be more subtle – a character who is more defensively-oriented, or more reasonable and willing to negotiate, being cast in the role of ordering an unceasing and implacable attack, for example.
The solution being discussed is how to alter the situation to fit the character. In the first case, that revolves around the question of why such an unfit messenger has been chosen, and the obvious answer is for the task to be an act of punishment or contrition – in other words, the character’s lack of fitness for the assignment is the very reason he has been chosen to perform it.
The second case shows that it is often not quite so easy. A character who is primarily oriented toward defense could not initiate an unwarranted and incessant attack unless pushed to a level of desperation; in order to do so, the character would have to have become convinced that no matter how distasteful it may be, he has no choice but to seek the obliteration of the PCs. He has been convinced that to listen to anything that the PCs might say will destroy him in some fashion, or worse. Either he is correct, in which case something has happened to the PCs that they weren’t aware of, and need to know of; or he is wrong, and someone has done a beautiful snow job on a potential ally. In either case, whoever or whatever is responsible is going to be a significant campaign element thereafter – even if they didn’t exist previously.
Once again, then, this forces a choice apon the GM: he can either enlarge his campaign plans to include whatever is responsible for the confrontation, or he can revisit his former decision to utilize such a misfit character for this purpose. The latter protects the purity of the plotline underway; the latter offers an opportunity for growth in the campaign. Which would I choose? Early in a campaign, I would opt for the “growth” solution without hesitation; when the campaign is established, or even winding its way toward a conclusion, replacing the NPC with one who doesn’t raise such complex issues is a better choice.
As a general rule of thumb, if a fish-out-of-water offers a chance to enhance the campaign (as opposed to merely complicating it) then it is better to keep the misfit and turn the situation to the game’s ultimate advantage; otherwise, it is better to dump the character and replace him with someone better suited to the plot needs of the story.
The Absence Of Plot Direction
The last of the situations to be addressed in this article is perhaps the most difficult to deal with. So many of the choices discussed earlier rely apon a strong sense of what is happening in the campaign, where it is going and what will happen in the long term, that without that sense, the GM is truly adrift.
It’s my experience that if the campaign world is rich enough, a campaign direction will eventually emerge from the interplay of PCs and game environment, and that ultimately a campaign can be divided into three phases:
- fumbling and complicating;
- the emergence of broader plotlines into a broader narrative; and
- the culmination of those plotlines into the conclusion of the broader narrative.
The first stage is marked by the GM stocking the PCs awareness of the world with plot elements and story facilitators. At this point in the campaign creation sequence, the ultimate shape of those elements may be unclear, and all the GM should be aiming for is to make the world interesting with as many sources of adventure for the PCs as the GM can introduce. Scenarios and plots will be short and self-contained and be more about establishing what’s going on without any lasting impact. A GM can shortcut much of this process deliberately by building an overall plot arc into the game world from word one, but even if the GM doesn’t do so, one will emerge eventually.
The first stage is inherently unstable; sooner or later, there will be some event within the game that will catalyze events and attitudes on a broader front, that will have more substantial repercussions. As soon as that happens, the campaign is in stage two, in which every campaign element is examined in relation to the larger plotline that has emerged.
I normally advocate the deliberate incubation of a particular plotline within a campaign because if one emerges naturally there is no guarantee that it can be resolved in a satisfactory manner. Deliberately integrating an overall trend towards a particular confrontation of forces or ideologies or whatever means that the GM can ensure that a resolution is possible. Even when the players perceive the campaign as being in stage 1, the GM can be busily laying foundations for later adventures with none of the PCs aware of the ultimate significance of events.
In stage three, everything else is subordinate to the overall plotline that has emerged, and is all trending towards a confrontation and resolution – a big finish. And, even if the campaign enters a new stage 1 afterwards, the aftermath of that confrontation will continue to shape the game world long after the resolution is achieved.
It doesn’t matter if the GM feels there is an absence of plot direction – it is simply more convenient when there’s one built in.
To illustrate what I mean by all this, I thought I would conclude with a brief synopsis of my Fumanor Campaigns, analyzed from this perspective.
The original Fumanor Campaign had as its subject the recovery by the Gods from the latest confrontation between them and their equally-eternal enemies, the Chaos Powers. It was a fantasy-oriented post-apocalyptic campaign, and centered around the need to (a) unify the survivors from many pantheons into a single cohesive entity, and (b) strengthen that united pantheon by subverting one of their enemy into the ranks of the Gods. For various reasons, it was necessary for the key decisions involved to be placed in the hands of mortals (the PCs). It followed that the campaign would be all about the relationships between the PCs and these overwhelming forces as they jockeyed for position.
The first stage of the campaign revolved around introducing the characters to the campaign world, revealing the campaign history, and setting the stage for the PCs becoming aware of this situation. The second stage began when the PCs became aware of what the Gods wanted from them, and explained why both Gods and Chaos Powers seemed to have gone out of their way to interact with the PCs in the first part of the campaign. Each PC was given a minor quest to carry out that would prepare the way for the ultimate quest, even while it propelled them forwards. A number of side issues developed and were resolved, but all were shaped by, and could be defined in terms of, the relationship between those side issues and the major question.
The segue from stage II to stage III of the original campaign was so subtle that it was barely noticed. All the PCs knew was that with each encounter, the stakes seemed to rise, until all the universe was hanging on their choice. Some forces tried to stop them, some tried to support them, some tried to subvert them, and some sought to beguile them. Gradually they became aware that whatever they chose would alter the fate of the world in ways they could barely hint at, never mind understand.
Ultimately, three questions needed to be resolved by the PCs: The identity and role of the Divine, the question of a multicultural multi-sentient world vs. a world with a single dominant sentient race, and the distribution of magic – small amounts highly concentrated or large amounts widely distributed. The identity of the twelfth deity was almost trivial in comparison to the scope of these questions.
The final stage of the campaign had the potential to either form a dénouement, showing some of the implications of the choices that had been made, and promising a better tomorrow, or stage I of a new campaign if the players wanted to continue. They very definitely chose the second option.
The second campaign centered around the same conflict between the Gods and Chaos Powers, and what had really happened 100+ years earlier to trigger the apocalypse. Ultimately, the PCs would learn that Thoth, God Of Knowledge, had decided that his natural gifts should enable him to possess knowledge of the Chaos Powers that he could use to plan a final victory for the Gods; but that he had underestimated the corruptive nature of that knowledge, and had found himself in thrall to the Chaos Powers and forced to use his natural sense of Order and Logic to give the Chaos Powers the ultimate victory. Although he could not directly oppose his new masters, even to the extent of letting his brethren know that he still existed, he could indirectly shelter and aid those who could ultimately release him, starting when they were so insignificant that they were beneath notice. His every action on behalf of his masters had a dual purpose thereafter.
But, at the start of the second campaign, the PCs knew nothing of this. All they knew was that things had not started to improve, as expected, after their victory in reshaping the world and elevating Arioch to Divinity. There had been a short-term benefit, but things were soon falling apart around their ears. Apostasy, Heresies, Invasions, Despair, Demonic activities, Corruption, Crime, and Despair were all on the rise. Several times, the world teetered on the edge of destruction.
In stage II of the second campaign, the PCs started connecting one plot thread with another, and became aware that many of the threats they opposed had common causes. Some of it was an impending attempted coup from within, and some of it was a threatened invasion from the outside, and some of it was supernatural forces again jockeying for position in preparation for a major confrontation. One by one, all the threats that they had uncovered were linked back to someone’s master plan to keep everyone busy dealing with mundane issues and pointedly NOT interfering in the real objective of that master plan – the destruction of the Prime Material Plane and a consequent domino effect that would annihilate all of existence.
In stage III, the PCs undertook a desperate quest to search out the identity of the real enemy and baulk his designs. A long series of clues led to them through many hazards to discover the betrayal and capture of Thoth, and delivered to them a plan for his defeat – one that seemed almost impossible of success, but was better than nothing. At the epic conclusion, they had to fight their way through the attempted coup-de-tah to deal with the imminent destruction of everything. The PCs won, but only by killing Thoth to protect the forbidden knowledge that was consuming and enslaving him.
The third and fourth Fumanor campaigns are now underway more or less simultaneously. One is dealing with the internal consequences of the events of the previous campaigns, and has theological purity as an underlying theme; the other is dealing with the external consequences of the events, first in terms of an Empire Of The Undead whose existence was only possible because of the near-annihilation of the Gods in the apocalypse, and second in terms of the Elvish situation, in which the Drow were redeemed – at the price of turning the Elves over to conquest by Lolth, who is busy corrupting them. Both campaigns are following slightly more complex architectures than the simple I-II-III pattern I have described; the first has been more episodic in nature and no clear overarching plotline has yet become clear to the players (though there is one, and they are slowly becoming aware of it) while the other has so far seemed to be following a I-II-III pattern – in which the entire purpose of II and III are to set up a subsequent II-and-III stage involving the Elves, something that the players don’t yet fully appreciate.
What this synopsis shows is that if a GM feels like the campaign is not going anywhere, to simply concentrate on having fun, and eventually a pattern will reveal itself. It is better to feel rudderless than it is to force a lame direction onto a campaign.
Lifeboats In The Sunset
These eight problems can strike the best-prepared GM at the most unexpected times. Hopefully, these eight solutions will at least enable GMs beset by these sudden emergencies to keep their heads above water long enough to solve their problems!