The Gassy Gnoll: Shackle-free Gaming

It’s come up a time or two that this Gassy Gnoll is a bit… free… with his campaigns. At times the sand in the box has been a bit course, rubbing both the GM and the players a bit raw.

Honestly I typically create a world, dump the characters into it, and then do something mean or interesting to get them involved. In the battle for creative freedom, I would sometimes borrow an idea here or there from a published module, but found them far too constrained and railroad-y for the most part.

Novel Design: Plot Structure

Early in July, the Warden @ Roleplayers Chronicle posted an article trying to explain the warring points of view plaguing every game story designer – players want freedom and designers want those player characters to stay in between the padded walls he or she has written to constrain things. Somewhere between those two poles is a happy medium or at least a stretch of land where the two parties can meet to throw things at each another.

Even as a GM if you’re writing for your own campaign and can predict the behavior of your players and PCs, there’s no way to predict EVERY eventuality for an adventure or session. So how can a designer hope to predict where the winds will go after a butterfly farts somewhere far away? Obviously they can’t. The best they can do is to offer enough windows into the world of the adventure that an enterprising DM/GM can fill in the blanks if his or her players roam out of frame.

Honestly that’s the kind of game I appreciate. Sure, there may be a big ugly situation you’re dealing with in-game, but eventually you get to explore the edges. As a GM, I feel the most stretched and challenged when the players pull me along into those edges. I often never know where they’re going to lead or if we’ll ever get back to what we were
doing before. And often those meanderings into the dark are the most fun for me.

Though I appreciate a well-crafted module, unless it’s a dungeon I’ve never just used any module as-is (and even then it’s iffy). Inevitably either I or my players have roamed out of frame and then come back with ideas about what’s “out there.” As a result, I find myself gravitating more towards gaming supplements that offer little bits and pieces (or even big set pieces) that I could throw together as islands in the chaos.

As a GM, how do you design your adventures? Do they have distinct beginnings, middles, and ends and a tight schedule to keep? Or is there flexibility so your players could completely skip sections and cross the wires to end up in a tangled mess of plots and stories?

What are you looking for in supplements? Places? People? Things? Collections of ideas? Entire end-to-end adventures? What’s your idea of a perfect supplement? If you could go to your FLGS and find the “just right” supplement for your game today – what would it look like?

Let us know in the comments!

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5 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Shackle-free Gaming

  • When I’m designing adventures, I design a situation that has some kind of equilibrium (even if it’s not a peaceful or static equilibrium) and determine what all the NPCs will tend toward if left on their own. The duke will plot the king’s death, the goblins will raid merchants and farmers, Guilder and Florin maintain an uneasy peace, the necromancer will grow his army until he can conquer the valley, etc. I put in enough thought so that when the PCs are added and start mucking things up I know how the various factions will react.

    That’s kind of what I’d like to see in a supplement: interesting factions with details about how they interact with each other, what their goals are, and how they’re likely to interact with PCs. You can still set up an epic confrontation with the Witch-King if that’s what the PCs decide to do — and if they don’t, then maybe the valley is overrun by undead while the PCs are looking the other way (and maybe the Duke rethinks his ambitions in light of that; or not).

  • I have a beginning, middle, and end in mind every time, but whether the players get to them in that order is another matter entirely. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    What I hope to do is leave motivation lying around for the players, and trust them to have so much exploring the world I’ve created for them, that it will only be a matter of time before I would have to struggle to stop them doing the plot – or one they have gotten themselves attached to that might not have been *the* plot – out of their own free will. recently blogged though on a movie trope that I think really should be handled better in games than it is in films.

  • I like to leave things as open as possible because for me the biggest reward an RPG can provide is for both sides of the screen to discover the story together and really only see what it is in retrospect. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have my ideas of where things should logically (or emotionally) end up, but I do my best to leave that out of session preparation. Like Jack writes above, when I build the campaign I fill it with things that all have lives of their own. I use these initial plantings, however, to bring out a discussion of themes with the players who are interested in that level of play, and these themes lead us through character generation. Once the characters are built I can add in, remove, or reduce the emphasis on planted elements which might get in the way of this group of characters hitting on the themes we are interested in exploring this time.

    That really is the end of my meddling in the story structure except for calling time, or having to deal with inconsistencies like losing a player for a session or two, etc. I have a vision of how things will go for the setting if the PCs go not involve themselves with background events. That lets me predict a general sense of the arc the tale might take, and I use that to build an introduction to the campaign for the players. I try to exorcise my thoughts on ‘what the story is’ in this way by exposing the mights and maybes of the setting to them. They get a sense of where I am with the campaign and some things that real people in that setting might think are important, and I get a sense about how important they think those things are.

    Then we are off, and I enjoy having the world act and react as naturally as I can to all the things which are going on. Like the Gassy Gnoll (but without the gas, I hope) this strikes me as absolutely the most fun a GM can have. It’s your chance to play, not plot. It’s the difference between a story you tell, and a story you experience.

    As a campaign ages, more and more events in the world are shaped by what has come before, and I think it becomes more and more necessary to stick you your guns and keep adjudicating what would happen naturally – not what would happen in the movies. Purchased supplements for me then are best when they are just a toolbox of locations, information, and realistic characters each with their own motivations and stories that I can interpret through the lens of my campaign and adjust accordingly.

    A roadmap to adventure I neither need, nor want.

  • Oddly enough, I combine elements from all three posters above, with the unbidden world carrying on without the player characters as Jack and Runeslinger, but also more recently I try to have a definitive start, middle and end as shortymonster does. The latter approach has more come about because I’m having to run episodically (something I traditionally tended to avoid) to accommodate a changing number of players at each session, and because there are time restraints thanks to the evil influence of the Real World.

    So, what I’m tending to do is plan definite scenes in my head where things go a certain way. If the PCs end up not getting to that scene because that’s just not how the story went, no harm done, it goes back in the pot for a later day with the numbers filed off. If the players get to the scene and it goes completely differently than I expected, well that’s awesome because it keeps me interested in the plot.

    Mostly in a supplement (which, in honesty, I tend not to use because I love to tinker, and I tend to run very archaic games) I like cool ideas. If the author has a Kewl Dingus in mind, I like a thorough discussion of what the implications of including it are. If there are NPCs, it’s nice to know how they feel about each other, and how they feel about the Kewl Dingus. If there are places listed, which of the NPCs go there, and why? All of that is so much more useful to me than a couple of pages saying that this one time an NPC goes there and has an argument with another NPC and the players can watch if they like. Ideas lead to inspiration, and that leads to a good collective story, told by me AND the players.

  • forged

    My approach is pretty similar to what you are all describing.

    In the past I have started with a partially formed idea of what is going on in the world. I’ll focus on major characters and what their goals and personalities are. (If they are incomplete, I’ll just note where I need to spend more time working on the idea.) Once I get a feel for the player characters, I’ll start introducing additional NPCs and threads to interact with each of the characters both on an individual scale and possibly as a group.

    The goal of all that is to have the story start moving around the PCs and have the world in motion. If I’m really ambitious the major NPCs will be up to lots of stuff. Eventually the players will start to see that the world is an onion and start looking at the bigger picture.

    One of my major goals is to try to get the PCs to care about their environment so that when the status quo goes awry the players care about it.

    The thing I really noticed with things like Pathfinder’s Adventure Paths is that for my style preference, I need to make the world significantly more in motion than what they present. Which means having the time to do that. I didn’t realize that bit until I was too far along with the first attempt to use an adventure path, but I’ll know for future reference — if it becomes an issue.

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