This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Like most creative endeavors, the GMing craft comes with its share of eternal conundrums. One classic example is the question of whether you carefully prepare adventures, or improvise them in response to player choices.

Carefully prepared adventures risk the accusation of railroading. In this particular application of a term I find annoyingly broad, the GM must be careful not to create the impression that anything that happens is predetermined, or that the players have anything less than absolute freedom of choice at all times. By its very nature, a prepared scenario can’t anticipate every possible branching action leading from a single plot premise. Otherwise even the simplest adventure would hit the table at the approximate weight of a telephone directory, and would consist almost entirely of carefully written responses to choices the players never wind up making. The more creative and surprising the choices made by the players, the more a prepared scenario becomes an improvised one during play.

On the other hand, if you’re completely making it up as you go along, some players (not, one hopes, the same ones who complain about railroading) find it more difficult to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to the enjoyment of any fictional presentation. If they can see you making it up on the spot, the game becomes less “real” to them. For players of this school, the game world is only genuine to them if they can believe that you’ve made certain immutable decisions and that certain of their choices will always produce the same results. Their desire for a sense of a bedrock reality behind the scenario persists regardless of your immediate need to adjust such factors as pacing, dramatic contrast, or degree of challenge.

In an investigative scenario, like one for any of the GUMSHOE games, you’ll generally need to designate certain facts as immutable from the outset. You’ll want to start the game already knowing a good deal of backstory, specifically who committed the act under investigation, how they did it, and why. (This is assuming that you’re not playing in a more avant garde mode, in which the players, acting as collective co-storytellers, help to collaboratively determine all these facts as they go along.) You can’t work out which clues might be available, even in improv fashion, if you don’t already know what facts the clues will eventually point toward.

For groups especially sensitive to the thought that you’re making it up before their eyes, a number of techniques allow you to convincingly fake it.

(Yep, I’m once again advocating a series of GM techniques which to a small extent deceive the players. If you find the entire idea of this scandalous, you may also be shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in the casino. Any author or screenwriter at all interested in the basic pleasures of narrative is to some degree a magician, relying on misdirection to eventually surprise and delight the audience. Just because players in an RPG take on pivotal duties that in other story forms are the sole province of the author doesn’t mean that the GM shouldn’t occasionally trick them into greater enjoyment.)

Several “tells” reveal to any halfway savvy group of players that you’re relying on a heavily prepared adventure. Disguise your improvisations by displaying these same tells.

Most notably, a prepared adventure takes an obvious physical form, as a sheaf of notes. To appease improv-averse players, create a fakebook. Use old notes from another adventure, perhaps with a new title page to keep it looking fresh and free of dog ears. Write a new title for the scenario, set to a high point size, so your players can read it from across the room if they “just happen” to glance at it. (For additional misdirection points, use your title for foreshadowing purposes. Choose an adventure title that creates a set of expectations, and then fulfill those expectations in a surprising way. A scenario called Darkness At the Bottom Of the Well might encourage your players to investigate an actual (and dangerous) well, when your real reference point for the title might refer to a book title, the name of an Internet forum, or your tale’s (entirely metaphorical) theme.

Refer to your fakebook throughout the adventure, especially when new scenes arise. This gives you something to do when forced to improvise your way through a situation that has you momentarily stumped. Don’t take as much time as the proverbial bad GM who’s constantly referring to his notes for interminable stretches—just enough to maintain your illusion of preparation. Even if you’re on a roll and don’t need the creative breathing room, make sure to take the occasional glance at it, to maintain the illusion of limited immutability.

Other fakebook techniques require some advance work—though not nearly so much as fully writing up a scenario in quasi-publishable format. Make sure, for example, to have not only the names of the characters you’ll need to use, but also a list of other unassigned names ready to go. A list of street names and business establishments may also prove invaluable Realistic sounding names are tough to generate on the fly, and are the deadest giveaway of an improvising GM.

Conversely, the most notable tell of the GM running a prepared adventure is the periodic break to read aloud sections of text. Personally, especially when running a published scenario, I find this technique way more disruptive to the fictional illusion than the notion that the GM is improvising. However, the same folks who get restless when they sense the GM is making it up may derive comfort from these canned textual signposts, which indicate that everything is still safely on track.

Ready yourself for this additional level of trickery by writing free-floating passages of text which can be dropped into any scenario. Descriptions of people are the most versatile, because you can assign them to characters who might pop up in any adventure. If you don’t wind up using a bored security guard, old coot watchman, or foxy librarian in the present improvised adventure, you can hold them in abeyance for a future installment. Because, like any improv whiz, you’re trying to minimize your prep time, you can keep these suitably short and sweet, avoiding the trap of the overlong text block.

Misdirection requires you to know your own habits regarding prepared text, and to duplicate them when improvising. Though I always try to paraphrase any prepared text, I often find myself at least half-reading passages from scenarios I’ve prepared. If you read lengthy passages as is, do the same when faking it with a free-floating text block. If you’d paraphrase all text snippets in fully prepped adventure, replicate that habit.

Ambitious fake improvisers can find further ways to mimic the behavior of a well-prepped GM. If your pre-written scenarios include hand-outs, create some free-floating maps, notes, and diagrams to fold into your plotline as you develop it. If you borrow images to represent people and places, keep a pile on hand for the same purpose, and so on.

Keep at it, and eventually you might convince even yourself that you’ve prepared!