Welcome to our first entry for Flashback Fridays, where we encourage members of our team to be shameless in reposting old articles (retooled or otherwise) that they have done for other websites or publications.
This one was on tabletop GMing. It was originally published in 2015, over at What’s a Geek, and I haven’t edited it beyond correcting some errors in order to preserve it as it was. …Well, that, and adding reaction images.
So four years back, circa 2012, I blew the dust off of the old White Wolf books, reread everything, and told myself “Hey, you have a new and awesome circle of friends! You should introduce them to the wonderful world of tabletop gaming. Like. Introduce all of them. At the same time.”
A two years and seventeen (yes, seventeen) players later, I tell whoever I meet that while I don’t regret the decision I made to construct a massive, semi-open world campaign, I am never going to do it again. Consider that a cautionary tale, fellow STs and DMs. 3-6 players? Good. 6 or more? Crazy, happy, clinically insane level of fun but fucking no, don’t do it unless you want to kill yourself.
(And for those of you who wish to ignore my warning and STILL want to kill yourselves, feel free to contact me. I’ve got Words. And Stories.)
Anyway, I am going somewhere with this. See, I mentioned that Waking the Dead was “semi-open world”. This is a fancy term for me deciding to build a world for my game with a very, very loose idea of a plot to keep things together, and let my players decide how they wanted to things to go down in-game. The decisions they made would then affect the world accordingly, and on occasion lead to new threads within the “main plot”. Given my schedule at the time, this setup really worked out for me: it gave my players a lot of agency, catered to the fact that it was next to impossible for us to ever be a complete group (because, yanno, I was technically running a campaign for a battalion, not a party), and a pretty amazing story ended up writing itself. Mostly.
See, now I’m going to get to the funny part. In spite of the fact that I let my gaming group and the “plot” of my campaign run its course with minimal interference, I still had several instances during sessions where my players ended up making an interesting decision or doing something totally Holy Shit, and I sit back, light up a cigarette, and quietly ask the Powers that Be one question: “Where the fuck is my plot going?”
Now that question often causes varying degrees of distress in the creatures that we call Storytellers, Game Masters, or Dungeon Masters. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Setting up a campaign takes a LOT of work. It entails many an hour toiling over books or PDF files, trolling forums devoted to the system of your choice, taking notes, generating a veritable army of NPCs, possibly drawing maps or grid references, testing mechanics out, and constructing at least a general flow of where you want to go with your campaign and how to make it worth your players’ times. No matter how well-adjusted you are as a person, in light of all of the time and effort you put into your campaign, it’s near impossible for you as ST to feel even just a LITTLE bit upset when things don’t go according to plan, and if it has nothing to do with something that happened in the real world, it’s almost always because one of your players “derailed” the flow of your game by doing something unpredictable.
Yes, I enclosed that word in quotation marks on purpose. See, the first step to minimizing your anguish as the ST of a campaign is to realizing one thing: you might be running the game, but you’re never in complete control of how things “ought to be”, and quite frankly? You really shouldn’t be. Here are a few things that you might want to keep in mind or practice for yourself, should you ever choose to run your own campaign – or, in some cases, try your hand at Storytelling for a new group all over again. Some of these items have already been tackled by many an article or even within the guide books of tabletop systems, but it never hurts to mention them again.
Do not rely too much on the rules of the books. The creators of tabletop RPGs made rules as a means of providing guidelines for interested parties, and many of these systems have helpfully included templates for NPCs and generated an amazing amount of material that’s meant to help you build your own world within their world. When push comes to shove, though, that’s all the books are: guides that are meant to make it easier for the lot of you to have fun. If some of the official shit doesn’t work for your group, don’t use it. If it’s clear that the creator themselves didn’t playtest their shit (I’m looking at you, Classic World of Darkness), fix it. Don’t smack players on the nose with The Rules™ at every turn, and don’t breed a culture of constant debate over How Things Should Go based on So And So Rule. Your tabletop game is a game, not a courtroom.
Plans exist to be totally, utterly ruined. Prepare just enough to get the ball rolling, and then wing it. Try to give your group ample space to let their characters move and grow. An over-insistence on sticking with the grand idea that you have in mind might just end up reducing your tabletop campaign to a novel that you’re writing all on your own with your players serving as props that you move as you please. Very few players enjoy that. I certainly don’t.
Set some ground rules for yourself and your players. Common sense? Not entirely. Participating in a game tends to change the way somebody behaves. A player could be your most awesome BFF ever off the table, but the most horrible little fucker you’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with once you’ve got your ST hat on and he’s filled out a character sheet. Negotiate with your group. Agree on your own Gamer Code to make sure that everybody has fun, including yourself. And that leads me to my next point:
Figure out your triggers. You’re a human being, and you’ve got your own preferences to consider, especially since you’ve kind of gone off on a limb and built a huge, imaginary world for a bunch of other people to play pretend in. Don’t be shy about them either: let your players know what you’re cool with and what you’re really not cool with. It could be anything from “No one comes to my table drunk” to “No racist/sexist shit, IC or OOC”. Trust me when I say that more often than not, players are reasonable people. You can always cut the session short for a moment, explain why you’re not so cool with them doing something like that, and work something out from there. If they don’t get that, well. At the risk of sounding like a bitch: this is where you can let your universe dish out some pay back, and work the rules (or break them) in order to suit your purposes. I’ll talk more on this topic when I tackle how to deal with trolls on the table in another article.
And since we mentioned “IC” (in-character) and “OOC” (out of character)… don’t ever forget that there should be a fine but firm line between Real Life and On the Table/In-Game. Yes, tabletop is one of the most singularly immersive and personal gaming experiences in existence. That doesn’t give people the right – including you – to be a special snowflake.
Remember that you’re always in control. At the end of it all, the trick is to always keep it at the forefront of your mind that a tabletop game is your players’ game just as much as it is yours. After that, you need to figure out what actually constitutes a “derailment” based on the actions that your players have taken and what doesn’t. If you can rise to the challenge of building something new based off of something unpredictable, you’ll usually find yourself well-rewarded for it. Ultimately, you’re the one who decides what what’ll fly and what won’t, because there is such a thing as a RetCon button on the table. If something really doesn’t work for you, then it really doesn’t work, and that’s okay.
The one big thing that tabletop roleplaying games will always have over any other kind of game system is that they are ideally collaborative in nature. This means that you’re building a story between you and your players, and that implies that a whole lot of negotiation has to happen between player and ST so that everyone ends up having fun. Yes, you might be the ST and you might be the guy who keeps everything together and on track, but you wouldn’t have a game without your players, and their input is valuable. Besides, sometimes the “derailments” actually end with some pretty surprising results if you decide to roll with it. Hence, let loose, cut yourself and your players some slack, and be a little more open to letting them move your universe as they will.
POSTSCRIPT: So that thing I said about never doing a mega-campaign again? I lied. Sometimes, I question my life decisions. Just sometimes.