So, this one is a temporary tangent from my previous discussions, but still an interesting topic. A few days ago, my wife and I were discussing DMing for D&D, and the discussion of GMing styles came up, whereupon we realized that we both sit on opposite ends of a spectrum I hadn’t thought about before. I very much trend towards Flowing game styles, and she towards Structured game styles.
This refers to very open, loose GMing. Not to say a Structured GM is inflexible or strict, but the way they might approach a game would be very different from a Flowing-style GM. What I might call a hallmark of this style is loose, on-the-fly adaptability. I work best when I’m given something unexpected I have to work with, whether it be from a player, an unexpectedly bad/good die roll, or from a random occurrence or object generator. There are of course degrees of this, but I fall very heavily towards one extreme.
An example of this would be the first D&D 4e game I ever DMed, Arevean Nights. I had spent most of my free time at work and class in the preceding three to six months preparing everything from NPCs to encounters, plot arcs, and while I did set it up as a sandbox, there were some hidden railroads under the sand to guide players where I wanted them.
That all fell apart towards the end of the first session, as a combination of superb rolls meant the minor BBEG got splattered across the dungeon walls (It didn’t hurt that a Sorcerer/Assassin hybrid class is ludicrously synergistic and effective in 4e). Player went where they wanted, and I quickly learned that while I could slot in encounters I had planned for elsewhere and story arcs I had roughly sketched out into the game, I couldn’t excessively plan ahead or else I ended up either railroading my players or running out of material too quickly.
Contrast that with the other end of the spectrum attempt, with the first attempt to start a D&D 4e game a few months back. I had decided to randomly-generate almost everything, from the monsters to the plot and NPCs. The overall story was based on a Donjon RPG tools adventure outline, and the game was terrible. It was unengaging to players, and despite a promising not-in-a-tavern opening (Captured by pirates, and forced to survive as they got shipwrecked), it quickly devolved and players became disinterested as they didn’t have a buy-in.
However, I found the sweet spot when I rebooted the game. I used the Campaign Mastercraft Method to create engaging hooks for players to buy-in to the campaign, and used the FIASCO system with a custom ruleset, Ruins of an Empire, to create the major countries and figure out how their relationships were interconnected. From there, I just used good old creativity to connect elements (No matter how tempted I was by all the wonderful random generators out there…), and so far the first three sessions in the reboot have been smash-hits with my players.
However, this is still very much in the Flowing realm of game design. I took in outside inputs and wove them together, rather than presenting a finished setting for players to use. Neither is more right or wrong, but I for-sure prefer to GM using this style.
For contrast, my wife is very much a Structured GM. The games she has run have had been more rigid, with an established structure to it that the players are slotted into, and with stories and adventure arcs established beforehand instead of on-the-fly. An example of this would be a Dark Sun game she ran, where she asked players to make a set of characters that fulfilled a couple of story bases she needed covered for her campaign (Someone who is in the Veiled Alliance, a group of renegade good wizards, was one role that needed to be filled). It worked great, and the campaign was a marvelous success, but it’s definitely anathema to the style I prefer to GM in (It was perfectly fun to play in, however!).
The preference also covers RPG styles preferred as well. I personally love more rules-lite games, such as FIASCO, Simple D6, and more. GURPS would give me an aneurysm, and while D&D 4e is within the realm of games I enjoy, 3.5e/PF is not. My wife doesn’t prefer 3.5e either, but for her this is mainly due to the questionable balance and the absurd spell lists that make playing a spellcasting character difficult in an online game, and nigh-impossible in person without wasting everyone’s time looking up spells and planning strategies around them.
While, sadly, this does mean she is not as enamored with systems like Simple D6 and Precedence as I am, I strongly suspect she will love playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2e, of course) and Burning Wheel (Albeit low-magic, since BW has a spell list to rival D&D). I’m excited to try out one or both of these systems, possibly with the Mythic GM Emulator so we can both play, and while they are both at my normal limit of complexity, I’ve read through them enough to be quite comfortable with their mechanics and intricacies.
In The Balance
We also agreed that we are both fairly representative, but not extreme, examples of the GMing styles. An extreme Flowing GM would probably have loved my initial attempts at running everything randomly, and done a wonderful job with it, while an extremely Structured GM might prefer only on-rails campaigns, but use them to create stunning long-arcing campaigns and intricate details within those worlds before a player ever rolls up a character.
So what GMing style do you prefer? Structured, Flowing, or somewhere more in the middle?