Friday, June 6, 2014

The Method in My Madness

I have been a moderately successful GM.  Certainly some games have been more successful than others, but most of my players seem to enjoy whatever I am running most of the time.  In the past few years, I have felt like I had far more hits than misses, which is about as good a track record as I could hope for.  Even some of the misses, like the AD&D TPK three sessions into the campaign, have been illuminating. One of the reasons for the recent success ratio, I think, is that I have been practicing a campaign planning scheme of my own design.  At least, I do not think I have cribbed it from somewhere else.

"A plan is just a list of things that don't happen."
  -- Way of the Gun
This is doubly so of detailed session notes.

Despite the evidence I have presented in the last month, when it comes to the actual act of gaming, I am not an over-planner.  I usually come to a campaign with an idea of how long it should last and the overall story arc, a handwritten list of scenes that I anticipate taking place by the end of the next session, and usually the stats for the various foes I expect the players to face.  I have found that writing copious campaign notes before the game begins is  a really good way to waste a lot of time.  Now sure, you can force your players to go where you want them to go.  Rarely, however, is that where they seem to want to go.  My system for individual sessions is usually to set the scene for the day, let the players go in whatever direction they desire and figure out a way for that to tie into whatever I wanted to do by the end of the night.  That system seems to serve me pretty well.

"BUT!," you may ask, "How do you let them do their thing and then eventually get them where you want them to be?"  Campaign prep is the answer, but not the sort of intensive detailed delving that some GMs undertake.  Please note, however, that I am not knocking that sort of preparation.  In fact, quite the contrary, I have a certain admiration for the dedication to the craft that such prep can represent. A carefully constructed campaign with reams of notes can be a thing of beauty.  I, however, prefer a more free form construction: One in which the architecture is present, but fluid and adaptable.  To do this I have taken to using what I like to call my Ten by Ten Method.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a song entitled 10X10.  That has
nothing to do with this, but YYYs are amazing, so here they
The Ten by Ten Method strips down the campaign creation process into component parts and then allows me to configure (and reconfigure) them as I need to on a session by session basis, with an eye toward incorporating as many of them as I need to for the overall campaign.  The beauty of this method is that It allows me to re-skin elements that I think are important on the fly.  If the players don't go in the direction I think they will (and when do they ever?) then either the component I was planning on using can be moved to the where they have gone or I can draw on a new, more appropriate component and use it instead.

Before I begin each game, I make a list of important categories of components.  I shoot for ten, but that number may be bigger or smaller depending on the needs of the game and my levels of inspiration.  Some of the categories are the same from game to game:  Friendly NPCs, Major Opponents, Villainous Lieutenants, Cool Places to stage a battle.  Others change from game to game.  The Freeport game was the first campaign in which I used this system and it included categories like:  Unusual Monsters, Unique Magic Items, and Secret Agendas.  In my Savage Mars game there were no magical items so that got changed to Weird Technologies while Secret Agendas morphed into Odd Signs that perhaps Mars was the forerunner of Earth's humanity.

Once I settle on categories, the "by Ten" part of the process begins.  If the category is important enough to BE a category, then there should be no problem in coming up with ten (or more) different items to fill it.  These NPCs, nifty gadgets, and scurrilous minions may have connections, but they are not always necessary.  In the Freeport game, for example, I tried pairing a Major Opponent with a Villainous Lieutenant on a one for one basis.  In the end I found that I did not need all the Major Opponents but the ones I did need sometimes required more than one Lieutenant.  Note that it is possible, indeed probable, that you will not use every one of the items in the category by the end of the game.

After I have my ten categories with ten representatives, I think of ways that they can work together.  If one piece can work with more than one of the other pieces, so much the better.  In fact, that is the best way for this system to work.  I pick a few of these items and construct my first adventure of the campaign with them.  From there, as the players go about their business, I can incorporate the items as need be.  As the campaign continues, the elements I have already used have become part of the narrative and I can continue to incorporate the other items as we go along.

If my plan was for the PCs to befriend the kindly innkeeper who then tells them of some important goings on, but the PCs decide they would rather find their own lodgings, then the innkeeper will suddenly become unimportant.  Rather than letting the innkeeper's info go to waste, perhaps it could just as easily come to the players from a villainous lieutenant that they interrogate after his capture.  When the PCs decided to suddenly leave Freeport, the ocean trading captain I had hoped to link them to in the mid-game was suddenly moot.  When the hit mainland, however, that trading captain became a caravan master many of the unused plot elements just ported right over to the mainland without much fuss.  The focus is on the important elements instead of their method of delivery.          
This guy.  You know you would
have wanted to shoot him too,
had you been there.

Another benefits of this method is how it allows me to adjust to what the players to determine is important.  One of the beautiful things about roleplaying is when the events at the table take on their own "life."  For example, I give you the instance of the man in the shiny shirt.  In a Savage Pulp game I was running a couple of years ago, the PCs encountered some thugs in a nightclub in Miami.  The thugs were completely run of the mill, I thought.  What I did not anticipate, however, was the violent reaction the PCs took to one of the miniatures I used, a nightclub patron in a red open collard shirt.  The players took an instant dislike to that guy (an incidental endorsement of the use of visual props BTW), and dubbed him "Shiny Shirt."  Very quickly, Shiny Shirt took on the personality and stats of the henchman that I had planned to introduce later and a new villain was born.

What I am ultimately advocating for here is flexibility.  As a GM, when I write down a bunch of notes, it becomes a lot harder to allow for things to happen that do not match the work that I have already put in.  With the Ten by Ten system, I am doing some of the prep work that goes into a campaign session without attaching that work to predefined events that might never transpire in the game.  When it is time for something important to happen, I draw the most appropriate element(s) from the list and run with it.  The players get to interact in the environment in a more natural way, I still get to incorporate the plot elements that I created and everyone gets a fun game.  Which is the point of all that prep work anyway, right?


  1. I write copious notes, but that is mainly from a thinking to arrange my thoughts thing.. Like when people write elaborate backstories in fiction that they (hopefully) never use.. seems integral to my getting thoughts actually somewhere to take a look at them.. Your ideas here look very useful.
    This is the first time I have actually used a plot arc.. Before I started, I made a mental map of the plot people, dramtis personae, which is way more than I usually had done.. I mainly just added interesting people, strangeness as I thought of it..
    I am running by the X-files example, having what we used to call Uber plot stories, and also Freak of the week stories..
    I figured out what my trouble was with the posting, I would hit 'return' instead of publish, and it would get eaten.. I am better now. :)

    1. There is nothing wrong with either method. I almost always have an idea of where I want take a story. Having a destination in mind is a good idea. That way, when the PCs are at a loss as to how to proceed, you can present them with an opportunity to head in a useful direction. Insisting that the players go in that direction no matter where they think they want to go or what ideas they may be contributing to the process is good way to wreck a game.