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Winging It


by Ian Sokoliwski
Dec 03,2004



Welcome to 'Winging It', a column about a more free-form approach to being a Game Master. I'm hoping to show, primarily by example rather than by theory, how liberating GM'ing an RPG using minimal notes and preparation material can be, for both the GM and the players. This isn't my attempt to tell people 'how' to GM or anything, or even tell them what I consider to be a 'preferred' style of gameplay. Rather, it is just to show my experiences and explain some of my decisions that others can use as a source of comparison to their own styles, and perhaps spark the interest in other GM's and players to try this (or some aspect of this) style of gameplay.

By way of introduction, I have been playing and GM'ing various RPG's since 1984, back in my first year of High School. I've gone through most of the major systems, and have developed rather extensive 'house rules' for virtually all the ones that I've played on a regular basis. This willingness to completely reshape core game rules and concepts is worth mentioning for this column, as I will frequently cite examples where I am deviating (sometimes drastically) from the main rules (and sometimes setting) of various games, all to aid in my approach to GM'ing.

(As an aside, I have also done artwork for the LARP 'Havok!' by Seventh Moon Productions and artwork for 'Future Wars' magazine, in addition to my work as a professional comic book colourist. Oh, yes, and forgive all the extra 'u's in my spelling - I'm also Canadian.)

I hit upon the idea of doing this column recently when I began running a game of White Wolf's 'Hunter: the Reckoning'. Since I have found all the World of Darkness games particularily open to this free-form GM'ing approach, I decided to concentrate on this style of gaming with this particular Campaign. So, I will primarily be using this Campaign to illustrate examples of this type of gameplay.

Now, perhaps I should explain more precisely what I think my definition of 'freeform' GM'ing is, as a frame of reference. Simply put, I'm starting out each session with virtually no notes and only a handful of vague ideas about each session; rather, I'm allowing the gameplay and interaction of the player characters in my game world to dictate and inspire the events, plots, subplots, motivations, counter-motivations, and rivalries of the game itself, acting more as a guide and enabler rather than forcing any sort of concrete story. I am not creating a particular objective for the players, nor am I intending that they must find a concrete resolution for the Campaign as a whole.

It is a challenging style of gameplay, certainly. There is always the danger of the players encountering something new that you (the GM) hadn't thought about too much previously, and you can suddenly find yourself run out of creative ideas. This is a problem with all types of gaming, of course, but it is particularily troublesome here, as it is the very foundation of this style of gaming.

It is also a style of gaming I feel is more appropriate for certain types of games (and game genres) than others. With the time it takes to create characters in a game such as Champions or even most of the Palladium games, having completely new NPC's appear at a whim can be problematical. Certainly, a list of pre-generated characters, designed to cover many possible scenarios that the players may come up with, can be created, but somehow that list just never seems long enough, and the players want to interact with a particular character you just never thought of or had the time to finish creating.

Also, if you are wanting to run something with the intricate political machinations of something like 'Vampire: The Masquerade', with conflicting loyalties, arcane and labrynthine structures of favours and status, usually the more preparation you can do before each game session the better, and so this method may not work very well there either.

However, for a game where the players are a little befuddled, where they don't know all the behind-the-scenes background (and are, frankly, probably never going to fully discover it), this free-form gaming can be particularily satisfying. Good examples for this are the various 'conspiracy' game systems, where the players only have to 'think' the GM has created all the answers, because usually the players will never find all the answers anyway. Spy games, supernatural hunter games, even systems like 'Noir' which are more about mood and atmosphere than necessarily becoming more powerful and knowledgeable characters, are also suited to free-form GM'ing...

Conversely, games where all the players are intimately aware of most of the game system, games that are very comfortable and familiar, could also work very well. For instance, if everyone in a particular gaming group has been playing 'Dungeons and Dragons' for years, then it could be quite easy to grab a Monster Manual, an old map from a previous campaign (or from an old module, or even a real-world city map from the Internet), and everyone spontaneously generates the game from the 'shared knowledge' they all have of the setting, the expected roles each character will have to fill, and what the possible resolutions could be.

Let me stress, however, that I would never consider saying it would be 'wrong' to use a free-form style of play in any particular game. Even 'Champions' itself, provided you (as the GM) feel you do not need to know all the details about every NPC the players come across, can still find a very interesting free-form game. Perhaps it would be more a matter of being extremely familiar with the particular game system being used, more than the complexity of those game mechanics.

As I said, I will be using my current 'Hunter: The Reckoning' Campaign as my source of examples of this style of gameplay, starting with how the player characters themselves were created. However, I will also be using examples from other previous games I have GM'ed over the years, from action and adventure-based games in systems like 'Dungeons and Dragons' and 'Champions' to more military simulation and wargame based games such as 'Battletech' and 'Car Wars', and to the more personal and character-oriented based games in sytems such as 'Cyberpunk' and 'Vampire: The Masquerade'. Not only will I go over what I thought worked, but many cases of when I did something that made me decide to take a different approach to what I had been doing, mostly because I was finding those earlier approaches weren't working for me and my players. I hope some of you (the readers) will find some of what I have to say interesting, and perhaps even an occasionally a source of inspiration for your own games.

- Ian Sokoliwski

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