There’s a good reason I push so heavily for GM improv and the ability to think on one’s feet: it’s a critical skill for every GM to master, because not mastering it leads to… Bad GMing. Not always Bad GMing, but being too inflexible or stalling too often can give this terrible feeling. Become too inflexible and you’re railroading players, and few experienced gamers are willing to chug along on someone else’s rails. Stalling to think is a valid tactic, but doing it too much makes you look bad; it’s a sad but true statement that people (consciously or subconsciously) judge you from how you act and speak, and being the GM puts you in the forefront of the social spotlight.
The opposite of improv and rolling with things is pretty bad: the hide-bound, “my story my game” GM who follows the adventure to a letter, without any deviation therein. Most games fall somewhere in the middle: the GM sticks roughly to an established outline, the players occasionally come up with things that the GM works into the campaign. It’s a valid middle ground; not every game should follow every niggling little thing the PCs come up with, but they shouldn’t be shackled to a single linear progression either. The advantage of tabletop RPGs over films, books, and video games is their amazing amounts of flexibility; harness that power.
“No, no, no, I don’t think so, no.”
Probably the worst game I’ve ever heard about was an Unhallowed Metropolis campaign an acquaintance joined. Think near-future with Victoriana steampunk as the top technology, world progress having stalled in the 1800s due to a Zombiepocalypse of epic scale. My friend, who was a complete newb to roleplaying, made a licensed bounty hunter (called an Undertaker) whose job was to play Van Helsing and put down the supernatural beings living on the fringes of burnt-out England. He also had a special ability related to killing werewolves, and another for staking vampires. (This is important.)
His compatriots were a mixed batch of new players. There was a criminal, and a doctor who wanted a gun that shot hypodermic needles; the girl the GM had a crush on got to play a Mourner, a silent, beautiful woman who waits next to the recently deceased to see if they rise as zombies, at which point she chops their head off with a kukri. The GM was one of the most popular LARP storytellers on campus, and was also the guy who ran the “local” Ryder hobby and train shop.
Scene set, roll footage.
The game started with a long description of all the players getting on a train, bound from somewhere to London, and progressed into a long description of the passengers on the train, at which point the PCs were asked what they were drinking. And by long description, I mean the GM would just read from reams of paper he’d written and printed off. After choosing what drinks they were ordering, and introducing players for about ten minutes, the GM read off yet another page of text, detailing a werewolf jumping around the train, landing on the roof, and preparing to bash the doors in.
The GM then gives the players a time frame to prepare their defensive position before the werewolf bursts down the door. The players ask about putting down their drinks, or using these high-alcohol beverages as Molotov cocktails; it wasn’t possible as their drinks were suddenly gone. As are the other passengers he had just described in detail, plus the bartender. Vanished. Things continued at this rate when the werewolf burst in the door; it spent an agonizing amount of time staring from character to character before attacking PCs irregardless of how they’d positioned themselves. My friend asked if he could use his anti-werewolf ability on the thing, and got a “No, no, no, I don’t think so.”
After a lengthy and dull combat where my friend was the only person who could hit the werewolf, until the Mourner finished it off in one hit, the PCs arrived at the train station; another page of text narrated them into some guy’s basement. This mad scientist chap was operating on something, under a tarp, and had surgical curtains all over, which was narrated by more description; he had some important plot details, but didn’t actually want to reveal any of them. My friend saw some piece of paper that “looked really important;” smelling a plot hook, he went after it. He couldn’t read the language, and his attempts to get 1.) the guy who spoke Latin to read it and 2.) get the criminal to sleight-of-hand it were both turned down with “No, no, no, I don’t think so.” It wasn’t that he couldn’t ask them to do it; it was that they couldn’t touch or read it in the first place.
And the “No, no…” bit was also what the GM used on him when he tried to follow what smelled other plot hooks: first was his attempt to look under the blanket, which didn’t even elicit a response from the mad scientist; he just couldn’t touch it. Next was his attempt to look behind one of the surgical curtains, the one with an eerie trail of blood leading under it, and it was completely impossible. To this day, I’m convinced it was like some bad late-90s video game; the invisible force wall prevented him from seeing that the surgical curtain was just a distance-obscuring visual effect designed to block out the obvious polygonal collapse just beyond. Like using /noclip in Half-Life to find out the tram tunnels at the beginning were all dead-ends.
That, right there, is why GMs need their mad improv skills. Note the number of times my friend tried to interact with the world; note the number of times he was allowed to. I doubt interacting with any of those minor bits would have been plot-breaking to go in-depth with, but the GM didn’t want to put any thought into them because he’d spent so much time writing up his details about the setting. What my friend was doing was exactly the kind of player intuitiveness and proactive thinking that got him rewarded in my group’s games, so he quit Unhallowed forevermore to game with us.
Not only is it a sin against GM improv, it’s also a sin against:
- The Other Golden Rule: When In Doubt, Say Yes Or Roll The Damn Dice. Every mistake I’ve ever regretted has been based around this rule, and it is one of the most important things for a new GM to learn. My friend was trying his damnedest to interact with things, and yet every time he saw something that sounded like it was important, it was, in reality, just clutter and aesthetics he couldn’t interact with. Instead of saying “No” so damn much, his GM should have said “Yes” or “Yes, but…” Nothing breaks the verisimilitude of playing than like being locked into a tram-car of GM story narration and only let out for the occasional fight scene.
- Run a game, not a story. The divide between “game” and “story” is breaking down with today’s storygame and indie gaming movement, but even then, the idea is for a social, communal experience where player agency has more (usually a lot more) input, still confined by some rules and game mechaincs. What the GM was running here wasn’t a game; it wasn’t even a choose your own adventure. This was a script for the players to follow along: having sheets of description isn’t a sin, if you’re not that good on coming up with stuff on the fly. Not giving the players a chance to interact with the world puts them squarely into the field of puppets, not players; they’re just characters in your grand novel, only ones whose actual “character details” were designed by somebody else. That this GM is a highly popular Vampire LARP storyteller, who is well-known by major regional LARPs in 2-3 states, informs me that my opinion of Vampire LARPs might not be so knee-jerk reactionary after all.
And Another Old War Story
To prove I’m not talking out of my ass, the first game I ran was an Exalted game involving more improv and Handwavium than anything I’d seen before, which was influential on the games I’ve ran since. I had some grand idea of having Terrestrial Exalts learning that Solars weren’t the evil ‘nathema they’d been told, some kind of paradigm shift with a re-ascension of the Solars theme. What I got were a bunch of the most stereotypical Dynastic dragon-bloods ever made: lustful, power-hungry, arrogant, holier-than-thou badasses. Perfect epitomes of Dragon-Bloods, but characters that hardly fit where I’d wanted the plot to go.
Things ended up going in new and weird directions, following the players’ dreams of conquering the South. Meanwhile, their elders were conspiring for some grandiose power-grab, and conscripted the player-characters in the Wyld Hunt in hopes of capturing Abyssals for slave-soldiers. (Or something. It’s been a while.) So while the “realize Solars aren’t the grand evils we’d been told” eventually became a subplot, it was hardly the grand plot arc I’d originally designed. That I worked it back in was only by happenstance, as I’d thought it was dead after months of campaigning.
The game itself followed the three PCs’ ambition to become a regional power, while various other factors pulled their strings and constantly showed up to interfere with the players. I’d mark it higher on my list of “games I’ve run,” except I’d come up with the half-brained idea to run it as a completely reactive game after the first few arcs, mostly figuring out faction conspiracy progressions rather than shoring up the plot: “here’s how the various factions are screwing with you today, what are you doing.” In the end, it was too draining on the players, who saw everything as an adventure hook and chased down every one they saw, but needed more time to go after their own goals of conquest. (And that was without them finding out what half the factions were doing because they were off pursuing/beating up the others.) It was a lot of fun to run, but it was better for learning more GM skills.
Mainly, doing plot improv on the fly, which helped me out with the next long campaign I ran, the Weird Wars game that everybody apparently loved.