Running the World-Machine: Flexibility as a GM

This week on Running the World-Machine, I talk about how being flexible as a GM prevents player frustration, makes your life easier, and makes your tabletop RPG better for everyone involved.

Given that I’m totally exhausted, this is probably too big a topic for me to tackle today.  But I’ll do it anyway.  (And there will someday be a second post examining how some game systems seem to go out of their way to encourage or discourage flexibility.)

Flexibility as a GM is one of the most important skills you can develop.  What I mean by flexibility in this instance is the ability to roll with what your players are enjoying, and to allow for solutions to challenges that aren’t strictly covered in the rules.  It makes the players feel more empowered and has the potential to lead to a much better time to everyone, as well as helping you relax (like we discussed last week).

I realize that’s a little abstract, so I’m going to give an example.  First, for rolling with what your players are enjoying.

Alice the GM has prepared a grand adventure for her players.  They will fight demons and monsters in their quest for the Sky Scimitar, which they can then use to kill a god, the highest villain of the adventure.  They’ll travel through towns along the way, meeting NPCs that will help them out for a particular adventure (such as crossing the seas, or fighting through the politics of a big city to get permission to travel through the Pass of Nightmares).

This adventure seems like it would be interesting enough.  Definitely linear, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if the players are into it.  The problems would start arising when the players start going off the rails.

However, Alice didn’t account for Cassidy and Kiera, two of her more screwball players.  As they travelled across the seas, they started to love the thrill of naval combat and the captain of the ship, Captain Hamaguchi.  They reached the ports of Crushed Shell City, but now are trying to convince Cpt. Hamaguchi to go with them on their quest, and they want to travel around the continent by sea instead of cutting through the interior (and the Pass of Nightmares).

This is taking Alice’s plans off the rails.  If Alice is being inflexible but trying to throw the players a bit of a bone, she’ll invent a reason that Hamaguchi simply can’t stay around, and possibly toss in some storms around the southern part of the continent that make sea travel impossible, limiting the players what she planned.

Alice really, really shouldn’t do this.

The players, Cassidy and Kiera, and grabbing onto a part of Alice’s game they’re really enjoying.  By making it so they can’t continue to engage in that part of the game, Alice starts lowering the fun quotient for everyone.  She’ll have to argue, either in character or out of it, for Hamaguchi’s leaving of the group, which leads to less time spent playing and more time spent metagaming.  (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if your players can refute (in character) Hamaguchi’s in-character reasons for leaving, they should have the possibility of winning that debate, not just get railroaded further.)  Also, Alice is cutting Cassidy and Kiera off from a part of the game they’re both enjoying just so she can stick to the plan.  In the end, this might lead to Cassidy and Kiera grumbling about the adventure through the Pass of Nightmares, which makes it less fun for Alice to run and the whole thing a mess for everyone.  Players not having fun has a tendency to ruin any elaborate piece of campaign-craft, believe me.

What Alice should do here is bend the rules of her adventure a little bit.  She may need to call the session early to do some prep, but she should let the players go with Hamaguchi on a nautical adventure to the other side of the continent.  This doesn’t even need to necessitate that much more work.  She may be able to transfer the themes and challenges of the Pass of Nightmares over to a strait the ship will have to pass through, for example.  And now she knows that the players enjoy (naval combat, Captain Hamaguchi) and can spend more time prepping for things she knows the players will enjoy, instead of spending lots of time and enthusiasm preparing something that leaves them feeling cold (and her frustrated at what could be viewed as wasted prep time).  The players have more fun, Alice has some guidance for her future design work.  Everybody wins.

This flexible attitude should also apply to solutions to gameplay challenges:

Esmerelda is stuck.  Her character, Peregrin, is at the bottom of a long metal shaft with no one but his dog-sized Robo Buddy (now with magnetic feet!) for company.  The walls are smooth, and he really needs to get himself out of there before the death laser beneath his feet starts up.  He didn’t buy a jetpack at the last space station, and he lost his rope and grapple earlier in his adventure, so he can’t just send his dog up to lower down a rope (and his dog isn’t strong enough to carry him, either).  And in the end, there’s no way his Climb score is going to let him get up the shaft without some help.

“Wait!” she says. “I can get Peregrin out of this!  The Robo Buddy has magnetic feet, and Peregrin has 5 ranks in Knowledge(Engineering).  I disassemble his feet with my multitool and use those as magnetic clamp handholds to slowly climb my way out of the pit with my Robo Buddy on my back.”

“No,” says Alice.  “You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because the rules don’t say you can do that.  They say you’ll need a rope, really, and disassembling the Robo Buddy isn’t allowed by the Asset description.”

“Well damn, then. I’m out of ideas. I guess I’m stuck and Peregrin dies terribly.”

This is another situation where Alice probably should have been a little more flexible.  While what Esmerelda tried to have Peregrin do might not be accounted for in the rules, it was a good idea that could be accomplished in-universe without so much as a raised eyebrow.   Not allowing players to creatively think their way out of situations, but instead relying on them having specific items or using certain techniques (ex: making it so a Fly spell is the only way to escape from a pit, or forcing them to pick a lock when the players would rather pickpocket the key) destroys player agency.  When players lose agency, you’re teaching them that their decisions don’t really matter, and that their creative ideas mean nothing compared to your plans.  So bend a little.  Let Esmerelda get Peregrin out of that laser death pit with his Robo Buddy’s feet.  The player gets a chance to feel smart and conquer a challenge, increasing how much fun they’re having.  And if you allow for creative solutions, you don’t need to meticulously plan the solution set for every problem.  (Although be sure there’s at least one or two you can think up fairly easily so you don’t dead end them!)  You can just throw your players into a situations and see how they get out of it.  This lets them take control of their experience, so they’re playing a game that you’re running, not just acting out pre-scripted parts in a play you’ve written.

And those improvised moments, where the insane plan works?  Those NPCs that started as one-note characters before becoming the players’ best friend?  Those are usually the moments most fondly remembered, recounted years later to other gaming groups over a set of dice and a soda.

So be flexible.  Your players will have more fun, and you’ll be able to relax and see where things go, lessening your stress level and meaning you’ll probably have more fun too.

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