Learning to Love Lists and Embrace Spontaneity

The best laid plans of mice and GM’s…

In a number of posts, Josh and I have discussed our love of decks. Now, I’m going to take you back into the past, to the time before the decks. It was a sad time, a dark time, every plan was torn asunder. The military truism of ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’ was quite true, just as it is now. Now, that is not to say the players are the enemies of the GM, they’re just often enemies to the GM’s plans.

Lists were the first thing I came up with when I was running as a GM for Shadowrun.  Josh had a habit of routinely and efficiently dismantling everything I seemed to be able to plan.  I needed a new idea, so I started just showing up to a session with a list of names (I still heartily recommend this one) with brief descriptions for NPCs, a list of potential locations with basic descriptions, both actual and perceived if something isn’t as it seems, a list of available things for them to do, and a list of ‘Uh-Ohs’ for when they rolled a glitch (in Shadowrun, when more than half of the dice used come up 1’s – the equivalent of a natural 1 in a d20-based game. Once I started doing that, the games became less stressful when my players (usually led by Josh) came at the story and my set pieces sideways, and more enjoyable for me as the GM. The lists made it so I wasn’t frantically scrambling to come up with something, anything for them to do.  

I still continue some of the lists even as I do less dice rolling on my side (though some of that has indeed been replaced by decks). I still have a list of ‘jobs’ or ‘adventures’ my players can go on and a list of places and NPCs. The decks are helpful, both for coming up with the lists, and when I’m in a game and need a little boost to make things odd or weird.

While lists are something that you can “do” as a GM in improving your game, learning to embrace spontaneity, on the other hand, can be a bit unnerving.  Especially if you’re just starting to dip your toes into running games, when players attack problems in completely different ways than you’d planned or go off the rails entirely.  You’ve spent hours thinking of interesting NPCs, places, and encounters, trying to anticipate all the ways that your players might meet them and then in thirty seconds (or less), all those carefully laid plans you had vanish in a puff of smoke.

In your panic, your first instinct might be to try to steer them back onto the railroad by yanking on the wheel.  I’d advise against this for a couple of reasons.  It both breaks immersion in your game and your players will start to resent you for it.  Role-playing, at its core, is collaborative storytelling (emphasis on the collaborative part).  If the players feel that they are no longer part of that process, at least part of the fun gets sucked out of the game for them.

Instead, what I have learned is to lean into it when my players do things like that.  Why, you might ask?  Because often, the players come up with even better plot twists than I can.  Much of the time, their table talk gives me more interesting ideas of what to do in a session than I was able to come up with myself, or at least as Josh says, “something to riff off of”.  Steve Kenson, of Mutants and Masterminds and Shadowrun novel fame said in “Kobold Guide to Gamemastering” from Kobold Press:

“If all else fails, and the players are dead-set on focusing on something that has nothing whatsoever to do with your planned adventure, take what is handed to you and run with it… One of the bright sides of this is that you may be able to salvage your original idea and try it out on your players again later, with sufficient changes to the problematic moment where things went awry. If you do it well, they’ll never know it was a story they had previously avoided!”

Steve Kenson, Kobold Guide to Gamemastering, page 116

This, like everything else to do with running games, is a learned skill.  The more you practice saying “Yes, and…” to players, the more excited they will be to play with you.  Your stories will wander down new and interesting paths, and you will even feel a sense of discovery and kinship with your players as the sessions and campaigns unfold in ways you never imagined.  Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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