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.