yes and

Player-Driven GMing

I’ve been running a lot of one-off Catalyst sessions as part of the Cascadia Militia. A once-a-week game means lots of different little plots and ideas need to spawn. With a strong possibility of the same people playing each week, I can’t reuse something unless it’s a deliberate callback. Crafting unique adventures isn’t the only challenge: without having much knowledge of my players, I can’t go into the session knowing what they like or dislike. Rather than making a ton of content beforehand and planning for every contingency, I wing it. I make up the entire three-hour session with barely an ounce of preparation. I strongly believe every game master should not only be able to do that, but regularly practice such a style. Being in the game master’s authoritative position, but yielding the direction to players, lets players explore the parts of a story they care about.

First, I should make one concession: not preparing the story is different from not knowing the system. New GMs should structure their campaigns, which forces them to learn the game mechanics as they build their story framework. The ability to design sessions on the fly requires enough game knowledge to keep play flowing. Be able to create enemies, balance checks, and provide interesting equipment, loot, or other rewards without significantly delaying the game. Once this stuff is second nature, you’re ready to let the players drive the story’s details.

When you start winging it, ask questions. If you’re in the middle of a plot line or overarching story, ask the group what they, as characters, are concerned about. Make that concern real (or, at least, a possible threat). A group that is worried about demon retaliation for last session’s raids is in the perfect mindset for that thread. Keep asking questions and listen intently. Don’t let anything fun slip away. In that example, if the players mentioned they left evidence of their personal involvement behind, send demon assassins after them. If they are worried about large armies, focus on building defenses or getting reinforcements. The players’ actions take on real meaning when their fears are voiced and acted upon. If, instead, you told them what to fear, the players’ investment drops: there’s a disconnect between your perception of the world and theirs.

Starting down the path the players make can be daunting. Again, your best option is to follow their lead. Utilize Socratic questioning to figure out what they expect. You can either play into their expectations or subvert them. Try to find a good pacing and balance in doing so. Encourage them to ask questions as well. Answer them with emotional honesty towards the world and characters. Everything should fit together in a logical fashion, but that doesn’t mean you have to understand the whole world at the beginning. If every question you have answered works with what’s already established, the next answer will also work. Answering off the cuff also creates unexpected tangents which would have never been explored otherwise. Eventually, the story tells itself. Everyone still discovers fun things about the world, but nothing is jarring.

So far, the players have led us to the interesting parts of the story through broad discussions and questions. Take their input one step further by having them describe details in the world. The sillier, but still fun, way to do this is asking for character names, places, or other small details. If the players say their pilot’s name is Lucky Ted, great. That character can now become relevant in the story because the player who suggested that remembers their contribution. They’ll be inclined to work Lucky Ted back into the plot when assistance is needed or to make a callback next session. Best of all, you as the GM can see the minutiae players attach themselves to and expand it. Lucky Ted clearly has a strong personality, aesthetic style, and reputation, even if the player who suggested that name doesn’t know it. When the players see Ted’s sombrero peaking over the horizon providing the deus ex machina they needed, they’ll go nuts. That moment would be lost if you had glazed over that trivial detail or had lost the impact if you had created your personal insert character.

Taking this player design one step further, let the group describe whole scenes or situations. Your job is still to design the enemies and mechanical details, but let them explore the world. Have the group describe the state of small towns between military outposts. Have them expand on how a disease affects people.  “Yes, and” whatever they say. “Yes, there are no cars in town and that’s because the first demon sightings were nearby.” “Yes, and because the plague had a long incubation period, quarantine zones were ineffective.” With these details unearthed, players can really get into the world and speak as their characters.

This same methodology works for setting up areas to explore or battle in. Have them, as a group, draw aerial photos or explain what they expect to see in a demon base. They’ll play off each other and create a fleshed-out scene. Try to minimize the ideas you veto, instead working to have the opposition use them too. A mounted machine gun turret is great, until the enemy sentiency mage brings it to life and directs it against the players. Details you add in narration are likely to get ignored; details players add will be remembered.


I spend a lot of this blog describing role-playing games as “cooperative storytelling”. Too many GMs treat their role as requiring absolute control over the world. With a new group and a great idea, that might be a decent game. But you’ll have to plan accordingly. If you want to relax, trust your players. Ask them about their characters, their fears, their ideas, and the conceptions about the world. Use your invisible hand to guide them through their own plot lines. Let the story develop between everyone and be amazed at the depth you create.


Improv 101

I recently took an improv class from Comedy Sportz Seattle. If you have never seen an improv show before, go do that. The basic premise is one or more people make up a scene on the spot with little to no scripting, possibly fueled by audience suggestions. Given the clear similarity to role playing, I figured the lessons learned from the class would help my demo presentations of Catalyst. It was an amazing experience and I encourage everyone to break out of their comfort zone and try it (both improv and role playing). These classes also reinforced many elements of fun, successful RPG sessions in such a concise way, I’d be foolish not to talk about them.

There’s a basic improv principle known as “yes and”. It’s the idea of agreeing and expanding. Let’s take an example scene from a Catalyst game: a character bursts into a bar begging people to help save the farms from a demon raid. The players could say no. That would effectively end the story. Or they could say yes, continuing the plot line. Even better, the players could agree to help and rally the other survivors, or demand payment, or bring supplies to construct traps, or anything else that embellishes the scene. Adding details makes play more interesting. The more “yes ands” a group does while proceeding, the more unique an experience they have.

This concept can be taken a step further with player/game-master relations. Too often, a game master has a specific scene or solution in mind. When players deviate from this, the game master’s instinct is to deny any alternatives. An as example, say the players need to assassinate a cult leader in their headquarters. The game master may have only planned for a frontal assault, but there are clearly other options. A clever player may want to disguise themselves, so they wait out front to see what the dress code appears to be. Rather than saying no one ever exits the church, a game master should send someone out. When that player looks for clothes to disguise themselves, rather than saying no clothing remains in the city, the game master should give them something. When that player enters the building, they should roll persuasion or charisma checks and try to blend in, rather than immediately being discovered. Let the world “yes and” your players.

Another improv concept is quick development of character relations. The best first lines establish a who, what, and where, like “Captain, get down!” The audience wants to care about the relationships between people. Two strangers interacting is an uninteresting scene. Nothing compels them to remain together, so whenever there is conflict, there is no incentive for the characters to remain on stage. Players in an RPG also need real relationships to justify the insane situations in which they fight side-by-side. “Yes and” the backstory too. Johnny Danger saved Laura from a rabid hellhound. Yes, and he knew she was there because she called out his pre-apocalypse name. Yes, and he was so touched someone remembered him from his awkward high school days he lessens his selfish, egotistical attitude around her. A few sentences of agreeing make way better characters than essays scrawled on the back of character sheets.

Our improv teacher liked to use the term “wackedy-schmackedy” for the non-sequiturs or goofy behavior people try to inject in scenes. It may get a laugh at the moment, but halts or cheapens the scene. Worse, it shuts down whatever a scene partner may have planned. Consider an RPG character with an annoying gimmick, like an invisible friend.  There is a way a player could pull that off, but that’s probably not going to happen. Instead, every scene will be slowed down by a nonsensical, one-sided conversation. It is not interesting character development; you will likely never stop or change things because of commitment to the gag. Instead, let the humor and levity come from honest reactions.

I will use my typical example of Bonesaw, partially because he is a sample character in Catalyst. Bonesaw is a pro-wrestler with enough head trauma to blur reality. It was never clear whether he believed the demons were part of a kayfabe show gimmick or that he thought the wrestling world was real. Now, this character could clearly go off the rails and just be silly, but he did not. He did not fight exclusively using wrestling moves or try to pin demons for a three-count. He did not waste time finding a working stereo to play his entrance theme or try to wrap ropes around the battlefield. Instead, he reacted how that character would in reality, though perhaps slightly exaggerated.  Bonesaw justified killing a surrendering man by saying he “disrespected the honor of the ring”. He sang showtunes in the car because “that’s what you do while on tour”. He suggested a cage match to solve a dispute. And there were moments where this character reacted appropriately but not strictly within the gimmick. After his ally found a demon radio, Bonesaw ripped it from their hands and smashed it because he didn’t trust the demon technology. Gut reactions always trump wacky or random humor.

Often in improv scenes, you have to justify actions done by you or others. There’s a Comedy Sportz game called “Foreign Movie” in which players are on stage pantomiming and speaking in gibberish while other players provide the “translations”. The game works by justifying the actions, vocal intonations, repeated sounds, and spoken lines. In role playing games, players and game masters need to justify dice rolls. In Catalyst, dice are rolled when there needs to be random chance. Always succeeding is uninteresting; failure often leads to greater storytelling. However, a bad trait of game masters is to justify a failed player check with lack of skill. That quickly gets disheartening and frequently goes against the established nature of a character. Which is better: “you failed the perception check because you’re hard of hearing” or “you failed the perception check because there is a fierce wind.” Twists add to the narrative while avoiding shaming a player. “You failed the hacking check because you’ve never encountered such elaborate security.” “You dive over the fence but lose your balance on some gravel.” “While sneaking past the guards, some dust tickles your nose and you feel a sneeze approaching.” All these add to the world and even present more opportunities for players to creatively fix their mistakes.

There are clear parallels between these different types of made up stories. The major difference is improv scenes are short, while campaigns and the characters within are long. There will inevitably be conflict in a role playing game. Do not force it by shutting down ideas and being contradictory. Be amendable and agreeable about the small stuff, so the intrigue and focus lands on the important scenes.