I’ve put it off long enough; I’ve promised several people I’d give them some GM advice, so here it is. The deepest, darkest, most secretest truth about running games: it’s a big give-and-take. Players have almost as much input as you do in driving things along, and if you can’t keep stringing cogent material along to form a plot, all the GM really has to do is take the player-generated hooks or character details and harness them to the campaign.
See, most of what you have to do is reactive: the players give you hooks, or get interested in something, and bam, you have something to work with. You can tell pretty easily what a player wants to see by looking at their character, their background, their merits and flaws: a player who gives his PC a nagging wife, or even a happy nuclear family; a character with an addiction; a character who is hunted or wanted or has a rival. Having those implies they want these things to show up in a game; that, right there, is player agency. Players and player-characters have big, blinking signals of things they want included in the game, and just as it’s important for the players to follow-up on GM-generated adventure hooks, it’s important for a GM to look into player-generated hooks.
On one level, this kind of thing gives you more material to use… and by use, I mean, however you’d like. Many of my friends are famous for killing off their family members and creating oddly byzantine histories in horror games, just so they won’t have to deal with any obvious tropes, seeing too much character depth as a horror weakness. While it doesn’t have to be a weakness, it’s free world/plot/setting detail; besides, everybody likes it when something they’ve introduced is continually referenced in-game.
Moreover, given the perspective differences—remember, your players don’t think like you do, otherwise they wouldn’t die miserable deaths because they don’t understand your riddles–more often than not the players will look at something in a much different direction than you do. That’s great for creating stupidly annoying “surprises,” like when the PCs create their own red herrings and assume some random NPC inserted for flavor reasons is the big villain they’re hunting, or assuming one area is trapped or a monster lair or whatever. Maybe he is a red herring, but that NPC has some fishy background of their own. Or maybe there is a monster lair/trap around there, or they’re really avoiding some NPCs who would have helped them that they might run into on the way out. Trust me, this comes up way more often than you’d think.
It’s also a good idea generation unit you’re getting for free; on more than a few occasions the players will come up with some answer to a challenge or plot I’ve given them, and I’ve thought you know, that’s a lot more interesting than what I was going to do… and if you change this, and that, and do this, it’d be awesome. That pretty much describes my Exalted game; the players made characters that were nowhere near the plot I’d been working on, so I had to meld their character concepts with the story I’d been setting up, and tried to bridge the directions they were going with the myriad web of subplots I had rolling around.
There’s a train of thought these days that says the GM is just another player—it’s more or less true; the GM is doing everything the players are doing, having fun and rolling dice, only with a certain authoritarian position that’s socially accepted by the group. I’ve known several people who dislike GMing because they don’t like “showing up to a game but not to play,” or that “GMing is working;” I can’t even imagine what kind of hellish existence they live in; sure, the GM is almost always doomed to fail—unlike other games, it’s very bad form for the good guys (PCs) to fail at challenges or lose encounters, if only because you’ve just shat where you eat and killed your own game—but the actual interaction and play should be anything but “work.”
Sure, the GM has to adjudicate the rules, think up a story and setting, populate it with characters and villains, and come up with threats and challenges, but on some meta (and macro-scale) angles, the GM is just another player. Only, their goal is to keep the game going: a good GM never wants to see the party die off, because that means their adventures or awesome story or great tactical challenges will end. The best way to keep players invested is to make things fun and engaging so they keep coming back, and one of the best, time-tested methods of doing this is to play off what they add to the game. If the players throw you a ball, throw it back.
And there’s a lot of ways for people to take this. Some Bad GMs take the GM hat to mean that they’re the enemy of the players, or that it’s a way to keep the game aligned to the one pure story they’re trying to run. Raise your hand if you had a totally awesome idea in your character background or development, but weren’t allowed to implement it, even though it would have made things interesting/deep/entertaining without changing the flow, balance, 0r direction of the game. Again, those are bad GMs, and that won’t fly with most groups unless everyone’s too passive to say no or quit. (Or, heaven forbid, actually likes that kind of shit gaming.)
The best GM is someone who isn’t just there to do their best at killing everyone or to run an inflexible story. The story—or, if you’re anal about terminology, “the series of events that occur within an RPG campaign from start until completion”—this is important, certainly. If you can’t come up with an interesting, coherent plot that people are interesting it playing… then you won’t have any players. It’s about balancing the story you had planned as a GM with where the players—and sometimes, the characters—want to go. The best games I’ve been a part of were the ones where the players wanted to follow the plot, but had the capacity to branch out in their own directions, either as character flavor, as subplots, or as an entirely different campaign.
Of course, you have to learn when and where to draw the line. At the end of the day, the GM is still the GM—even in indie storygames. Just because a player wants something doesn’t mean you should be steamrolled into shoehorning it in; it’s the difference between a player having an itemized wish-list and a player introducing new character/plot depth for you to use. The guy running the game, no matter the system, always has the power to say “What the fuck, are you retarded? What kind of person would do that?” to shoot down any kind of socially unacceptable behavior, blatant stupidity, or Peasant Railgun-style rules abuse.