Saturday, 4 May 2019

How I run games


I'm not saying that this is the right way to run a game, but it's the method that suits my GM style and my lifestyle.

I'm a fan of Sly Flourish's Lazy DM books and I take cues from these in terms of creating NPCs and locations, but not having anything fixed. I have to start a campaign with a hook, otherwise why bother, but after this hook it's fairly loosey goosey.

Take my current Aetherscream PF campaign. I have a setting (17th century aetherships, horror and Mediterranean fantasy), a hook (the PCs are finding their way home, a planet's godhead has vanished and may be their only hope of getting home), and some NPCs and factions (Will of the Elder as the theocratic church, Clayshrikes as golem augmented freedom fighters, Grey Ones as vastly knowledgeable underdwellers run by a hyper-intelligent psychic black pudding, Skywretches as an expanding empire of Hammer Horror monsters). I built in a couple of fun gimmicks, like the PCs pistols being Ghastlocks, guns that absorb monster souls and offer special bullet abilities.

The above took me the most effort to come up with but I also know it's a framework that I can alter as I go. Before every session I note a list of possible secrets that could be revealed in the session. Some of these come into play, others get crossed off or carried over to the next session.

I have a set of Rory's Storycubes I roll if I want to create a new NPC or simply understand what a situation entails. I find having these removes bandwidth from me, giving me a little random engine I can use to expand my universe on the fly. As a GM, you're the engine that drives the game, which uses a tonne of bandwidth. I use tables, lists, random rolls and the players to share the load.

Consequences matter. I don't think it's a particularly good game if the PCs have zero impact on the campaign world, so I note down how my world reacts to their actions and make sure they see it resolve. This can take the game in unexpected directions, which for me is the best part of a game. I have no prepared endpoint. I honestly don't think you can really play a good game if you already know how it ends, since you're essentially coaching your players towards that ending. I'm cool with dropping the main quest or hook altogether if something more interesting organically grows from play. At the moment, I have a couple of players that have written a manifesto in the game world to help unionise overworked guards. It stemmed from a joke, but is now going to have consequences to how the game world operates because I know how my world would react to this development. This could take things in a vastly new direction, but it may not.

Since it's Pathfinder, the most intense prep is creating maps and stocking them with creatures. This, by the way, is my least favourite part of GMing. Some people love it, but I do not. Before a session I'll make some notes on developments since last game, some new secrets, and take a location from my master list to flesh out if I know that's where they're heading. I couldn't give a shit about balancing "encounters", but I do it within reason since it's PF. I don't think too much about it - I know what dwells here, so I add the creatures that make sense and build the ecology on the fly. As an aside, I'm not a fan of long, drawn out combat. My fights rarely go to the death, with opponents either running away or surrendering. You get far more play options keeping a goblin alive than having them decapitated.

I used to have big bads with plot armour and all that nonsense, but that's dumb. If someone who I thought would be a tough big boss gets slaughtered by my min-max players then it simply wasn't a big boss. I don't want to be precious about any character in my game.

As I say, this isn't the only way to run a game. Some people love binders of intense prep, spending hours on their NPCs etc. This isn't a style for me. For me, less prep is more. It allows for flexibility and means that I don't get pissed if the PCs don't visit my intricately designed dungeon or meet an NPC with a page of backstory. Here's how I write an NPC: Talie Thundersnow, show-off thief, in love with Ozarn the potter. Hates the monarchy.

So, there's an insight into how I prep for and run a game. It might help you, it might not.