Invariably when I as the GameMaster (GM) ask my players, “Where are you going,” that’s an invitation that not only invites a response but begs for a response!
Sadly, my players rarely step up to that challenge.
Like any decent web blogger a GM needs to prepare content.
I was involved in a long running RPG campaign and at a certain point the GM stopped preparing for the weekly game sessions.
It quickly became obvious that there was a lack of preparation because the encounters became haphazard and once combat broke out that GM had to stop the game and spend thirty to sixty minutes of game time pulling out Non-Player Character combat statistics from the various gaming books.
For a three to four hour gaming session that’s pure boredom for the players! It’s also an unnecessary waste of valuable time!
This first time that happens, you get a bit perturbed.
Same with the next week.
Month’s later the complaints became quite vociferous!
Ultimately, the players stopped showing up to that Game Master’s table. (Lesson learned; that GM took corrective action and once they resumed preparing for thier games, we returned to their table).
So as a Game Master you need to do prep work.
But where? For what? And in which direction?
I’m a big advocate for “Sandbox” style Role Playing and with a sandbox the size of your unlimited imagination, but marching off in a random direction is not to be advised.
If as a GM I’ve prepared three missions located to the North, the South and the East, if the party shows up on game day and says, “Hey, lets head out West!” that’s a recipe for disaster. What’s located to the West? As the GM I have no idea! I didn’t prepare a West! In that case you have to come up with something on the spot like maybe the Forest of Fetid Fungi! Time to consult the Gary Gygax table of Random Encounters!
So when the GM asks the players in a sandbox, where are you going? The purpose it to be able to make adequate preparations for the next game.
And to digress a bit more (before getting to the purpose of this discussion) when you’re running in a sandbox, a GM should lay out about two to three directions or paths for your players to evaluate and decide upon. More decisions than that and players will become overwhelmed. (Throw in a Star Wars sized galaxy with a Star Wars sized number of lightly defined worlds to explore, and most group of players will melt)!
But, no, this article is an injunction to the players to help encourage them to make a choice.
So to lay out our example, the Player Character Party is in the city of Safehaven in the Tavern of mildly amusing Non Player Characters and their quest giver has provided them with three clues, one located in the Razor Mountains to the North, the next in the Swamp of Sudden Suckage to the South, while the third clue lies due East in the Castle of the Prince’s third cousin whose head needs to be removed.
So you award the party Experience Points, and since it’s getting late, you invite the players to hop on the Discord channel during the week to let you (the GM) know which path they will take.
Six days pass and as the GM you (okay ME. Who am I kidding? We’re talking about MY PAIN after all) sit there and since there’s been no response to your gentle nudges on the Discord/Facebook/E-mail thread that you have set up for the Role Playing Group and you have to run SOMETHING tomorrow, what does one do?
What is a devious Game Master to do?
I don’t want to take away the player agency. I want them to figure out which location to head out to on their own. Right?
Well the Razor Mountains aren’t going anywhere and the Suckage that plagues the swamps will keep them where they’re at.
So do I prepare for the King’s third cousin?
Well maybe not.
But since his forces are mobile, perhaps they come knocking into the town of Safehaven and start stirring up trouble? Okay let’s put that in the bin and so as the GM I put together some NPC combat stats for meandering trouble from the Prince's third cousin.
My players tend to like Role Playing encounters and I read about some firefighters rescuing a cat from a tree the other day.
So how about we have Matilda the homely baker who carries an unrequited torch for the Bard race into the Tavern of mildly amusing NPC’s to report that her cat is stuck within a tree! Again!
She’s an amusing character and there are lots of eye rolls when she shows up, but the Bard player hams up the role playing as they deflect the obvious but unwanted advances. However Matilda also provides key alchemical components for the party’s Wizard so they cant entirely rebuff her.
I know my players. They’re going to go out and get the blasted cat out of the tree again (and NO the players will never realize that Matilda is the one that keeps tossing the cat up to the top of the tree just so that she can get more quality time with the Bard regardless of his lack of adore)!
(Or is it because the players dearth of response to my inquiries on direction on the Discord channel that this cat lives such a tortured existence)?
That encounter will burn some time no doubt and the players will have fun. They usually do.
Oh, that’s right! The players ignored the note from the armorer about the strange leather clad fellows loitering outside his shop for the last week. That band of thieves could have been easily run off and the armor that the party Fighter had commissioned would be safe. Nope, let’s prepare for the armorer’s apprentice to race into the Tavern of mildly amusing NPC’s to report that though the armor was about to be completed, there was a break-in last night and the panels and plates are GONE! The Armorer had poured all of his wealth into that one suit and is now financially ruined!
Okay. That’s three encounters. I can drag that out for our next scheduled session depending on what the players decide to pursue in game.
But my sandbox is not a static environment. Oh no!
So the Prince’s Cousin has designs on the Village of Watermelon Maids. He’ll begin marshaling his troops.
And the Swamp of Suckage has spawned the Slimes of Oozieness, which will make their way to the Village of Festive Feasts. Failing a response, the loss of the harvest will no doubt lead to food shortages later.
And the dark shadow that lurks beneath the Razor Mounts will no doubt stir . . .
But does the party ever have to leave Safehaven?
No, they don’t.
Honestly as long as the players have fun with their Player Characters running about Safehaven dealing with the locals and the local trouble that’s fine.
After all, one day the Slimes of Oozieness will slither their way North, the Prince’s Third Cousin’s troops will eventually be able to lay siege, and that mysterious shadow up north will swoop down on leathery wings over the village of Not-so-safe-anymore-haven.
Just don’t blame me when all three show up on the same game session.
You guys gave me WAY too much prep time and not enough direction.
So yes. In essence, does this mean that if the players show up and say, (in Discord) “Let’s head North and check out the mountains,” that means that I as a GM will spend my preparation time figuring out the Mountain? So the thieves in Safehaven will be sufficiently distracted and wont break into the armory, and Matilda’s cat can spend her days chasing field mice instead of precariously perched upon the birch?
Yes indeed. That’s a distinct possibility. Your Game Master might work the same way too.
How many players does it take to make a decision?
I’m was also a player in a Role Playing Group and that group was positively bombarded by seven (yes SEVEN) quest lines and the GM kept hinting that there were a LOT more in that town!
So for about thirty minutes one day, I sorted through the quest clues and put together an itinerary. On the Discord, I wrote out an agenda for that game day describing where we were going, why we were going there and what we hoped to learn. I asked if that plan worked for everyone.
No one responded and no response means consent (okay not every time but in this case I can use that rule of communication).
So when we showed up for the next session, the GM was ready! We got more done that next session than all of the sessions previously played.
We advanced that plot because the GM could focus his planning on where we were going with laser intensity!
To be honest it actually took us two sessions to get through that list, but we didn’t gather much dust on our dice because we kept them rolling the whole evening.
Yes, player interaction with the GM and helping with the preparations on that minor level can improve the quality of your role playing.
Try it. You might like it for your group too.