For many years I ran Amber games which were about 15% planning and 85% improvisation. I’d just run with the flow of the game, make stuff up when I felt I needed to, and just generally inserted whatever felt right at the time. Prophets who sing their prophecies hidden in nursery rhymes? Why not? A prince of Chaos never mentioned before? Sure. A sweet, slightly naive guy who wanders around with the party until they realize that he is a physical manifestation of Corwin’s Pattern? Go for it. A player who wants to learn the power of the Storm Riders (bad guys in my game running) and comes out the other side of the ordeal as a much younger version of herself..? Exactly.
But Amber’s like that. Weird stuff is the order of the day. The game universe is, for all practical purposes, infinite. Why not make it up, right? And the simple fact is, I’ve had some truly great players in my Amber games. I was blessed to have my players. And to be fair – it’s what I’m good at as a GM. Improv’ing my way through sessions is my only true gift as a GM – just running with it, having it be wacky and amazing, then worrying about tying up the loose ends later.
But I’ve never been able to do that when running other games. When I run D&D (and Pathfinder, etc.) I find that I’m often troubled by the thought of improvising. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do it – but I’m always worried about it. I’m self-conscious about it. I’m afraid to admit to my players that I’m making stuff up and I’m afraid that they know it.
So this month I’ve started two new games… a Pathfinder game and an Amber game. And I’m trying something new with Pathfinder. I’m making it all up. And in the spirit of that, here are two of the things making this experiment in faking it work:
Being open about it
Last summer I tried an experiment where I ran the Kingmaker Adventure Path and tried to run it “by the book.” I ran the AP as written with only the most minor changes. I wanted to see what that would be like. Something between a stress test of Pathfinder and an attempt to run something entirely out of my comfort zone. It was fun but deeply flawed. The longer the game went on, the more I had to modify just to keep the game moving. This should be expected with pre-written modules, but hey, it was worth it. So when I started this game I basically opened with telling the players — “You live in the city of Theris, a sprawling monstrosity of a city somewhere in between Constantinople and Casablanca, with a little bit of Gotham thrown in for good measure.” That’s what I know about the city… the rest will get filled in as we go along. And so far it has been awesome. I don’t feel the least bit self-conscious. I can trust that they know already that I’m pulling stuff out of thin air and that they can too. I can open the Bestiary mid-game and just pull a monster… I need a CR 2 with electric powers? Shocker Lizard! Of course, I re-purposed it to actually be two twin sisters who had been modified with magitech to have these abilities. Who’s counting?
Get the Players Involved
I’ll admit it. I’m pretty adamant about my dislike of FATE style games. I’m pretty against many of the “innovations” that come along with the modern era of narrative control tools. I’ve always been of the mindset that I want my players to be willing to just throw stuff out there. Of course, I’m reflective enough to admit that maybe my own self-consciousness about winging it at the D&D table was being picked up on by some of my players and they thought – “if the GM is uncomfortable, I am too.” That’s a fair thought. One thing I love about games like Dresden Files and Houses of the Blooded is the way they involve the players during character creation in defining elements of the world the players will be playing in. I’m also a huge fan of games like Shadowrun where all the PCs start the game with networks of established contacts. So I asked my players to do just that. Each one of them got to define some element/some truth about the city and got to define a contact. And it was awesome. My players came up with all kinds of craziness. I read one of them and just looked at the player… he responded with a smile and a “you like that? You’re welcome.” I’m stoked about working those things in. And letting them define their own contacts really helped to ground them.
So, there’s more to it that just those two things. And nothing I’m doing is particularly innovative or even exciting… but it underscores the fact that we, as GMs, can have bad habits we fall into just as much as we have good habits honed over years of play. And just breaking some of those bad habits can help to really push a game from being a chore to being a joy again. I’m stoked about my Pathfinder game now in a way I haven’t been in a long time. That alone makes this experiment a success.