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Spontaneous Gaming Month—Week Two
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Spontaneous Gaming Month—Week Two

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Spontaneous Gaming Week 1—Role With It

Welcome back to the Four Horsemen Blog, hosted by our friend at! Gen Con 2016 is in the books and we had a fantastic time. Gen Con is usually a looot of work for us, discussing new projects, meeting a growing circle of publishers, developers, designers, artists, and more. And making friends with all of them. After all, we are totally the friendliest evil outsiders.

Gen Con is also a place where crazy fun, great memories, and improved gaming skills wait like Pokemon to be captured forever. A remarkable moment in my Gen Con life happened when I joined my buddy Death (Dan Dillon) for a game of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying. One of the staffers at Alderac Entertainment ran the game, and we were allowed to create our own characters. That’s always a good time for me, and the L5R universe is fascinating, so I was feeling pretty good about my next four hours of gaming. Then our GM did something amazing. He had no notes. No plans. No adventure module. Just a knowledge of his world and a desire to see us have a great time. So while I constructed my Scorpion clan bushi and the other players made their characters, he just started asking us questions. What’s the most important part of bushido to your character? How do your characters feel about lesser clans? Are any of you making a duelist?

Aaaand he then ran one of the funniest and most interesting four rounds of gaming I’ve ever had. I began to see that, though I thought of myself as a decent and energetic game-master, I was really limited in my skills and my players could have it better. There were people I could learn from and they needed no rules or preparation to drop a better game than I could. Wow!

Since that time, I stumbled upon an outstanding event called Iron GM, where I compete every year against some of the best storytellers in gaming. The event forces them to craft a story from three previously unknown elements, and their players judge them based on use of those secret ingredients, knowledge of the game, the encounters they crafted, and general panache. I was hooked from the beginning, but to be sure I was very mediocre my first year. I learned how to deal with surprises, reject ideas and replace them with better ones, and more just by competing in this event once a year on my own. I’ve since won the event twice (Pestilence won the first time he tried. Ugh. Yay!) and continue to learn good habits for totally unprepared gaming.

So much impromptu gaming happens at conventions we thought we’d spend the month of August giving advice related to unplanned gaming events. It’s our hope some of these nuggets from our own experiences will allow you to spend more time gaming and less time talking about gaming!

Accept the Offer

My friend Nicolas Logue teaches impromptu theater among other things. A common piece of advice he gives is to ‘accept the offer’. To me this means several things. First, accept that you’re playing with no preparation. Don’t pause and try to prepare too much. Embrace the fun of working on your feet. You and your players will intuitively understand that no one can make the game a success alone and cooperate better with one another if you just let go of the awkwardness and expectations. If you and your players commit to the style of play you’ll all have a fantastic time. Secondly, spontaneous gaming cannot succeed without saying yes a lot. This weekend I had some of the most fun ever running a game for a party of skalds and bards (and yeah, one sorcerer). The band’s manager wanted to play bass, and wanted her bass to have a double-bladed neck so she could swing it as a bastard sword. I could say “yeah, but how do you hold it?” or “sure, I guess, but the guitar won’t sound very good after you bent the neck in combat”. But those responses would be lame. By accepting the offer, we invented the ‘basstard sword’ and she really relished combat against Weird al Qadim.

When you accept a player’s offer and find ways to give him what he wants, he’s more likely to accept your offer in return. One year at Iron GM I ran an event I call Goblin Bachelor Party. Our secret ingredients were chaos beast, coral atoll, and conquest of paradise. The players all wanted to play goblins with a penchant for distraction and self-destruction. That kind of chaos makes it hard to advance a plot for me (I’m normally the serious epic adventure type), but sobeit. I accepted without hesitation and crafted a fast goblin culture complete with tribal rite of passage that occurs every time a single female is born (once a generation, or about a week in goblin years). The silliness included pretty challenging encounters including lava spiders, harpies and a rope bridge, and constant backstabbing of PCs as the goblins tried to assert themselves as most fit to marry the chief’s daughter. In the end, they cast a curious artifact into the local volcano to celebrate the winner’s wedding day and the whole island exploded. Goblins.

Events like these are their most fun when everyone just embraces the mood. They don’t have to be silly. I’ve played in a spontaneous game that began as people telling ghost stories and melded into a roleplaying game. Accept the offer. You can’t play this game without each other.

Find a Rhythm

Above I mentioned gaming instead of talking about gaming. So many times people envision a great time in character, enjoying each others’ company while playing a pick-up RPG. But then there’s the drama of deciding who’s playing, who’s GMing, what level, what the game is about. If a game is really going to happen, and really be fun, it needs to get organized quickly and definitively, and then it needs to proceed apace. I like to start with an action sequence to make sure everyone buys in with energy, then use that scene to introduce the story with context. I think this approach begins a game with excitement and carries that energy into subsequent encounters. Every game needs those traits, but to be sure if you want a game to start and last, those elements have to be present.

During a spontaneous game, maintaining the rhythm of the combat or narrative is very important. No one is having fun if they feel they have to wait for their turns or if the scrum of tactical combat takes away from the narrative. Be sure the roleplaying and action carry the plot of the game as well as a sense of purpose, and don’t let scenes move away from the purpose you had in mind for them. This skill also helps any game retain the attention of its players.

Of vital importance is keeping up your own energy. I try not to sit down at all when I run games. Standing and gesturing during a narration or roleplay keeps your players focused on the tale you’re spinning. If you start to wind down during a game, the players will wind down with you every single time. You drive the energy and emotion at your table. Establish a balanced rhythm and maintain it.

Encourage Players to be Proactive

No one wants a pick up Pathfinder (or any other) game where one GM or one player dominates the scenery. To be sure, I believe players should be proactive on their own, demand attention, and do the things their characters would do. But it’s crucial that you encourage this behavior by establishing their agency and pulling action out of them. A player wants to know their character can achieve their goals in at least some form. Make sure they know this. When they want to accomplish something, encourage the idea, then ask them how they accomplish it. When I GM, I try to avoid telling a player how something should be done unless they can’t give me a way to accomplish it. Then via role or suggestion I might help them out. But I strongly prefer a table where my players have an agenda and set out to assert their will on the game. They sometimes need your permission and encouragement to do that, and they need to be rewarded for their efforts.

Remember while you’re responding to active players that other players are watching. The more everyone enjoys the scene, the longer I let it go. But if it’s mostly a player and her story, disconnected from the other players’ goals and interests, then I make sure to deal with each player for a bit in turn. Over time I developed a skill for remembering where I left off in a roleplay scene so I can episodically jump from one dialogue with an NPC to the next. If I can do this with enough practice, so can any GM. This gives your game a ‘tv show’ sort of feel which I thin actively encourages players to roleplay in character and stay invested in their part of the story. One of the most fun moments in gaming is when you give little bits of information across multiple scenes and together they allow players to come to a conclusion or decision that excited them all. Most of the time, after hopping around 3-4 different roleplaying scenes, the PCs unite, compare notes, and take action with a very satisfied feeling that things are coming together. Then I kill a PC horribly to remind them who’s really in charge here.

Apply Good GM Habits

Running your spontaneous session requires a few special skills you’ll develop with practice, but remember, the things that make you a great GM in a planned session apply to pick up games as well. Have reliable naming conventions to help your players immerse in your story. Limit fourth-wall interruption during crucial scenes. Hold back a few surprises during encounters so every creature is not the same. Use the terrain and scenery in both combat and roleplay encounters (and remember that every combat is a roleplaying encounter, and any roleplay scene could erupt into combat).

This dynamic applies in reverse. Every game takes a turn toward the unexpected. Understanding how to “role with it”  makes your planned sessions better, too. When a villain unavoidably dies about ten sessions too early, let it happen and make a smooth transition to the encounters you had plan. Maybe another rival is made more powerful or the lackey who steps into the vacated leadership role is worse than the first guy. My regular players don’t often get me at my best because of scheduling issues, day job, and other complications. But my ability to improv a game helps make sure they get to enjoy the planned scenes I never had the time to plan.

Practice these skills by grabbing yourself a rules-light pickup game of Pathfinder or another RPG this week. A few spontaneous sessions in and I think you’ll find yourself a better GM in every situation. And for you players, try to recognize when your GM is practicing these principles and be sure to buy in with proactive characters who embrace what she’s trying to do. I promise you'll get your own helpful advice from Stephen Rowe (Pestilence) next week!

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