How I learned to stop worrying and hate the plot: Improv is kinder than planning

I ran a game on Saturday, and it underlined a lot of what I'm actively useless at when it comes to GMing.

I ran a game on Saturday, and it underlined a lot of what I’m actively useless at when it comes to GMing.

HEY GUYS LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY CAMPAIGN FOR THREE PARAGRAPHS NO SHUT UP LISTEN

The game in question is 13th Age, and we’re on session ten now – enough for my players to have found their feet in a new system, and for me to write far too many plot threads and leave them all just… sort of… hanging around, like the sort of plot threads you’d find hanging off the sleeve of a plot jumper.

After an adventure against goblin mercenaries in the elven woods and a quest to liberate a lighthouse on an underground island from inter-dimensional fungus terrors, all my players requested something with a few more NPCs in. I agreed, because a) LISTEN TO YOUR PLAYERS and b) I quite like play-acting, because it’s more fun than statting out another squad of monsters then watching their heads get bashed in by the barbarian.

So I put them off for a week with a brawl against some pirate gnolls (always fun) then they hit the city of Drakkenhall – a city that more than half of them had visited at some point, but not one with solid connections that they could leverage like they could in Axis.

A TERRIBLE CASE OF PLANAPHALACTIC SHOCK, DOCTOR

Then, before the game on Saturday, I had a cup of coffee and got out my A3 pad and started sketching out a relationship map. Because that’s what you have in a city, right? People. People with personalities and desires. Create enough of them, give them a scarcity of resources, and position the players in such a way that they can effect the outcome. That’s RIPE for adventure and intrigue, yeah?

The planning takes me two and a half hours, and that’s about five times as long as I’d normally spend prepping for a game – when my players are poking around a dungeon, or decapitating goblins in the elven woods – but I’m happy with it. I’ve got plots, schemes. I’m pushing the players apart and together in some interesting ways. I’m excited to see what develops.

Then the players hit it, and it all falls apart.

I’d forgotten the fundamental rule of adventure planning; try not to. (And, I mean, how can you “plan” an “adventure?” I think excess preparation downgrades any decent Adventure to the rank of Excursion, or maybe even a Ramble.)

Blurry, but that's probably good to avoid plot spoilers.

Small and burry, but that at least avoids plot spoilers.

ACTUALLY PRETTY HAPPY WITH THE PUN IN THAT PREVIOUS SUBHEAD, I SHOULD USE THAT AGAIN SOMEWHERE. ANYWAY I STARTED TO FEEL PRETTY BAD

I’d given the players some leads, and of course they ignored them in favour of getting drunk and picking fights in bars, because up until now I’ve run cities and ports incredibly loosely, and a favourite activity amongst players is to roll up their sleeves and reach into the Lucky Dip that is my brain to see what they get.

Within half an hour of starting play, because I say Yes to things my players suggest, I (and the players) have already invented: one High Elf drug dealer and a ludicrous fantasy drug called Clip that gives you Violent Telepathy, one bar part-owned by schoolgirls with a pit-fighting arena, one magical college, and an entire subculture of drow bars (they use too many curtains and smoke a lot).

My plots – my schemes – are sitting on the paper in front of me, weighing me down like anchors. “You could always go report to the church of Sollus,” I say to our Cleric, noticing all the strands arcing off that central point on my relationship map. When the group finally arrives, it’s nowhere near as interesting as the previous encounters. “Here’s the plot,” my NPC seems to say, “why don’t you go and chase it.” Even the names I’d prepared seemed heavy on my tongue as I read them out – the rival churches of The Vagabond Saint, The Silvered Ones, the Riverfolk Chapel, if I’d made them up on the spot, would have sounded pretty good.

As it stood, I stopped halfway through a sentence and had to look them up, and you could hear the momentum of play stumble and fall over. The whole scene played out like it was viewed through a tinted car window; all muted noise and indistinct colours. No-one cared about what was going on. They were here to receive the plot. This was a social obligation, a tax for playing the game.

And across town, the other half of the group are in the invented-on-the-spot schoolgirl pitfighting bar called The Slap And Tackle, and the ex-schoolgirl Barbarian is getting ready to beat up a tamed owlbear in single combat, and we’re formulating the four stages involved in an owlbear duel (Hooting, Circling, Face-Slapping, Arm-Ripping) and the fighter is blind drunk and betting his share of the pirate ship on the owlbear after he fluffed a Gambling check and it’s happening, you know, the whole scene is buzzing and we can smell the owlbear blood and hear the booming hoots and feel the sawdust under our feet.

And on top of the church spire, the other players watch their Quest Log update: “Investigate the Obvious Plothook the GM has given you!” as they spot the cult member watching them from an adjacent rooftop, and weigh up the odds of pursuit, and decide to leave it for another day.

Fun fact: my version of Drakkenhall is, basically, Istanbul with elves in it. This is following on from a fine tradition of "invented" places in my games with names such as "Essentially Venice" and "Almost Entirely Holland." (I went to Istanbul, once, and a journalist from Stuff magazine threw up all over my feet.)

Fun fact: my version of Drakkenhall is, basically, Istanbul with elves in it. This is following on from a fine tradition of “invented” places in my games with names such as “Essentially Venice” and “Almost Entirely Holland.” (I went to Istanbul, once, and a journalist from Stuff magazine threw up all over my feet.)

REMEMBER, YOU CAN’T SPELL “IMPROVE” WITHOUT “IMPROV,” A FACT WHICH IS DEFINITELY RELEVANT

I struggle with games, some times, because I base a lot of my self-worth on my ability to run games well and on a bad day it’s hard to think “Out of ten sessions, this is the only weak session” from “I am a terrible person and if this game was a horse you’d shoot it.” I’m getting better. I’ve got a good group, and they understand my process.

(It wasn’t a weak session, this one, by the way. We had a fag break, and then they met four identical Kenku tailors called The Brothers Korvid, and then the Barbarian took the rest of the party to meet her fabulously wealthy parents who live in the city, who I also had to make up, and it was a challenge to play Disapproving Mother, let me tell you, but I made it work)

But you know what made it harder to run, in my head? Not that it was difficult to try and weave the players into a plot of my own creation (that’s a different topic for a different time), but that it was prepared ahead of time. It stopped being a group activity and became a performance, and I felt hot under the stage-lights. The slightest mis-step felt blown out of proportion until I’m freezing mid-sentence, unsure of what to say or do. The cogs behind the world creak to a shuddering halt, and the backdrop starts to look paper-thin.

My normal method of making up Local Colour is to turn the questions back onto a player; if they ask “Is there a Wizard’s Guild here?” then you say “I dunno, is there?” and “Sure, how is it different?” or “No, tell me why that is though” then spinning out their suggestions into something great, working with them to gain steam. It means that they’re involved in the bones of the game, and it takes a lot of the pressure off me. 13th Age, as a game system, actively encourages that too, and when you skip over the parts of the game that bake it in, the play can feel a little dry and undefined.

But also, in theatrical terms, it’s improv, not a play. We are far more forgiving of improv than we are of plays. Improv is a duel, a back-and-forth, and even messing it up can be funny if pitched correctly, if the audience are buying into it. You’re doing the best you can with whatever you have to hand.

Plays often hinge on that assumption that this is a fantasy world, displayed on stage, and it must hold up to inspection without falling over. If something doesn’t make sense in improv, you can discard it or try to manhandle it into the story; if something doesn’t make sense in a play, you’ve got a bad script. Or a bad director.

And then the shame kicks in, because when something falls flat from your prepared notes… well, you had all the time in the world to figure it out, and this is the best you could manage. If a name isn’t good, you fucked up beforehand, rather than just freezing on the spot. Nerves you can handle; bad prep is unforgivable.

Thanks to my insistence on squeezing my plotlines into the characters’ actions, we’re starting the next game on unsteady ground. I’ve already worked plotholes into what I wrote out before the session when I was improvising; I’m viewing the next game with trepidation, because I’m going to have to perform some narrative gymnastics to pull this shit back on track.

Fuck that.

A HEARTWARMING ENDING, WITH SOME SWEARING IN IT, BECAUSE I’M DOWN-TO-EARTH LIKE THAT

You know what the track of the game is? Not my poxy plot, contrived as it is.

The track of the game is the way that my players got in touch with me after the game and said that they really wanted to disguise the dwarf as a schoolgirl to track down the mysterious cultist spied at the top of the church spire. My job isn’t to bring them back online to my daft metaplot with dragons, and demons, and dimensional breaches, and body-swapping, and motivations so thin you could read a newspaper through them.

My job is to make sure that dwarf dresses up as a schoolgirl. My job is to imagine what the fuck the stable of characters I have at my command – and an infinite stable of characters I’ve yet to invent – would do if this happened, and react. My job is to make it up as I go along.