Something that I’m curious about is seeing a comparison of how other people GMing games balance before-hand preparation with off-the-cuff improvisation. I’ve tried games slanted heavily towards both, and would like to talk a bit about my thoughts on the different styles before finding out what your preferred style is.
My early games of GMing, huddled around a flickering candle (To set the dramatic mood) on a Boy Scout campout, were entirely freeform/improvised (And the rules were little better than that). I found that this was a good way to roll with the punches, as the players tended to act wild and crazy at the best of times, and were backstabbing murderhobos at the worst. We had numerous interesting adventures, including poisoning an entire town using reagents recovered from a disabled trap and turning the entire contents of a blacksmith’s shop into a medieval armored tank. But just as often we’d get bogged down, as I would struggle to come up with names or objectives in the scant seconds before attention spans began to wane and out-loud musings on the worth of another character’s possessions were uttered.
Another example of this would be the Simple D6 game I ran for The Ship Moves setting. While I had a general plotline figured out (Players were looking for a huge stolen Rivet, turns out the Necrons stole it for nefarious purposes), the rest was highly improvisational and ran heavily off of the “Rule of Cool” for whatever idea piqued my interest at the time. This included raiding a Tau base, repairing a failing fusion reactor, escaping a Tyranid infestation, and discovering a tribe of humans who worshiped a long-dead Space Marine who had crashed there.
However, the game lost a great deal of steam and died near the end, partly because the format of imageboards isn’t ideal for longer-running games, partly because I foolishly tried to force the ending into occurring much sooner than the pacing would indicate, but a significant reason would likely be that towards the end I was somewhat scrabbling for ideas, and some of the encounters and events (Like finding a lost tribe in a jungle and a Commissar who was corrupted by the Necrons, Borg-style) feel incredibly out of place in retrospect.
Overall, I’d have to say the pros of improvised GMing are that it has absolutely no prep time, can roll with obstinate/random player groups, and if done with a bit of care you can avoid having a plot point or similar important nugget of information deduced way before it was planned to be. However, the cons are that it can easily feel forced or lose momentum, and there’s a risk that plots can feel very short-term or insignificant because it’s so difficult to judge the pacing of the story.
The other end of the spectrum is structured preparation, getting stories, characters, encounters and more all figured out well ahead of the game itself. In this case, I think the most prepared game I’ve run was called Arevean Nights (Apologies for the terrible formatting, as it was made before several Obsidian Portal site updates). I had spent the better part of six months detailing everything from the map, to cultures, important figures, the entire (initial) story arc, and even city layouts. Before each session I would spend at least an hour or two each week preparing encounters, story progression, and some contingency encounters/plots. What I found with this format was that it was incredibly convenient when the players pointed to the map and said “We want to sail here” that I could simply flip to the appropriate bit of my rules and give them a colorful description without resorting to chunks of silence as I figured out what should be where they indicated. It also allowed me to add a bit more depth to my NPC portrayals, as I could better tell what might motivate a NPC and how to portray their mannerisms if they had ulterior motives without accidentally overblowing it.
The big drawback was that I still had to resort to freeform improv to fill in if they went “off the map” or interacted in ways I hadn’t anticipated with other characters, or even encounters and plotlines. I felt that this was notably harder than regular improvised GMing, because not only was I trying to come up with new material, but I was also trying to avoid stepping on the toes of the elements I’d already laid out beforehand. In addition to this, there was (For me, at least) a very strong compulsion to force players “back on the rails,” which is generally a bad idea as it tends to cause players to dig in their heels and be annoyed that their choices are being arbitrarily restricted, and frustrated as a GM because the players are bucking your hours and hours (or more) of blood, sweat, and tears.
For prepared GMing, I feel like it’s strengths definitely include being much more difficult to be caught off guard, and that you can afford to give characters and stories more gravitas because of a deeper understanding of motivations and the expected pacing of the story. The drawbacks are that if your established story bits are interrupted, it can really throw off the pacing of the story, and is much harder to improvise for than if you had no pre-established bits of story beforehand.
Nowadays, I probably prepare around 25-50% of my story, and improvise the rest, using sites like Donjon’s RPG tools and Chaotic Shiny to help me in coming up with quick adventure ideas, names, personalities, and then using my prep time to fill in the gaps to make a coherent and interesting story. Go ahead and vote below to tell me what your preferred GMing style is. If you’re a player, which style do you prefer when your GM prepares (or doesn’t)?