Walking the Line

Image by: alborzshawn

No, this isn’t some reference to Johnny Cash. What I’m talking about is the line between planning your session and improvising. Both sides of GMing are vital to the long-term success of a campaign, but if you go too far one way or the other, then you’re likely going to end up with unhappy players and a derailed campaign. There are exceptions to this norm, but they are few and far between.

Planning and Over-planning

I’ve talked about how to keep your campaign organized, and it is vitally important (in my experience, at least) to plan ahead and keep all of your notes and materials in order. It’s a good thing to think of what may happen, to plan the world and the things that the players could come across, but you can definitely go too far with said planning.

I once heard a game designer (and I’m paraphrasing here) relate the story of speaking to a very excited gamer at a convention. Said gamer was talking about his campaign world and all of the notes that he had detailed. We’re talking Ed Greenwood-introduces-TSR-to-Forgotten-Realms-esque levels of planning and writing. The game designer said they asked the gamer “how much of that are your players going to see?” The gamer responded “well…” and the game designer stepped in and said “If they’re not going to see it, why build it?” I would ask the game designer in question to email me so I can quote them properly, but I have a feeling that this is a conversation that many game designers could have had with any number of gamers.

It’s easy to over-plan. I mean, you get so many amazing ideas and you just want to put them down on paper. You begin to do so, and you end up writing yourself into a corner, if you’re not willing to be flexible. With that level of planning, you’ve got two options: be flexible in how your world shapes up during the game, or write and plan for every possible contingency that could arise within a given game session. The second of those two things is nigh impossible, so I strongly recommend the first course of action.

It’s a great thing to have a vibrant world with a lot of good details. However, if you aren’t willing to to let your players and their characters contribute to the world, or even (gasp), let them change things that you worked on, then you run the risk of railroading them right out of you game. Remember, gaming is a shared experience and you have to be willing to let things develop naturally; that includes your game world, your adventures, the whole shebang.

Lack of Planning is the Mindkiller

Some people claim that fear is the mindkiller, but I hazard that those people have never been on the receiving end of six blank stares as your struggle to come up with something to say at a gametable. Of course, that’s a kind of scary experience, so maybe they’re on to something.

Anyway. It is definitely possible to go too far in the opposite direction. If you leave too much of your world or your adventure undetailed, then you run the risk of things spiraling out of control. This is the one that I’ve had the biggest problem with, myself. I do pretty well in coming up with things on the fly, but if I don’t keep some discipline and plan ahead, then I tend to rely far too much on my improvisational ability.

The first campaign that I was ever responsible for ran aground due to my tendency to not plan. There were other reasons, granted, but from a GMing perspective, planning was a big issue. We were playing 4e, and one that system’s biggest strengths (for me) was the ease of encounter set-up. Normal encounter meant an enemy for each PC, maybe swap one of those baddies for four minions, add some environmental challenges, grab a treasure parcel or two, and you’re off to the races. At the start of the campaign, I planned the sessions and the story, built the encounters and generally tried to keep things flowing. By the time I retired the campaign, I had ad-libbed an encounter with the stereotypical old-seer-who-sends-the-party-looking-for-weapons-of-yore. It was hackneyed, and wouldn’t have happened had I been planning things out in more detail.

Keeping the Balance

You have to be able to take care of both sides of this equation unless you’re some kind of genius or savant. I myself, and most people I know, are not capable of either planning for everything or running everything on the fly. Obviously, you need to find the balance between the two that works for you, but if you’ve not done so recently, I would stop and take a look at how much/well you plan or how much/well you improvise. If you have a deficiency in one or the other, do your best to explore the other side of things and see if it can enhance your game.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, GMing[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Walking the Line

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  1. In regards to the question of “how much of that are your players going to see?”, I can sometimes justify constructing an iceberg, even if the players will only see the tip. The reason being: you never know when the players are going to start mining icebergs.

    I recently had an exciting time of sitting down and creating a couple dozen NPC’s as preparation for a new campaign. I find that by having the stories of the people who play major roles in the city already defined, it gives me a lot of opportunities to just reveal little bits of the icebergs at a time. It also creates the story of the town itself, and everything falls into place nicely.


  2. I have to agree with you Dave, though I think Tracy’s point was to suggest you only go “so far”. Ultimately, you are right though. My best games have followed that same sort of philosophy. Not determining what the players will discover, but letting them dig down as much as they’d like.


  3. Exactly, Nick. I’m not suggesting that you don’t write as much as you want to, just don’t get so lost in your own details that the games lose their collaborative nature.


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