Why Game Masters Script

In the first article of this series, I discussed the issue of free will in relation to tabletop roleplaying – why it matters, what it means, and some of the larger issues involved. In that article I brought up several terms that are important with respect to the free will in roleplaying issue. I explained that scripting is the tendency of game masters (GMs) to plan or write out the entirety of a plot-line in advance and then railroad (or push) the player characters (PCs) into following it.

This can cause some real free will problems. After all, if the PCs make any choices that don’t fit in with the GM’s idea of how the plot line should go, he’s likely to feel that he has to force them back into the plot line. Free will and scripting don’t go together.

Even though I strongly object to scripting, however, there are some good reasons why GMs do it. In this article I’ll bring up some of those reasons, explain why those reasons just aren’t good enough, and introduce a few of the ways in which you can wean yourself off of scripting. If you do script, maybe this will convince you that you can give improvisation a try. If you don’t script, maybe this will help you to understand the GMs who do – most of them aren’t doing it to frustrate their players!

The Nervousness of Improvisation

Game masters often feel nervous about striking out on their own, about having to improvise on the go. Some of them just feel a sort of stage fright, and feel that the only way to look prepared is to be over-prepared. Improvisation certainly can be a frightening prospect: how do you come up with all that information without preparation? How do you figure out from moment to moment whether PCs’ actions should succeed or fail?

When I GMed for the first time I did several things to make improvisation easier on myself:

  • I warned my players that I was going to be winging things a bit, and asked them to go easy on me.
  • I decided ahead of time that if I really needed a few minutes to think about something, I’d take it.
  • I made use of the resources right in front of me – my players. When I got really stumped I’d ask them what they thought about something, take their opinions under consideration, and then do what seemed best to me.

These things may seem completely obvious, but they often aren’t – particularly to inexperienced GMs. New GMs often feel as though they have to keep going no matter what. They worry that if they stop to think, the players will think they’re bad GMs. This isn’t the case! It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “hey, I need to think for a minute; why don’t you guys go get some more pizza in the kitchen?” If there’s another player you trust, you can steal him to help you a little if you’re really confused.

GMs also often feel that the only way to keep control of the game is to make all of their decisions alone. This isn’t true – it’s fine to ask for help from your players, as long as you make the ultimate decisions yourself.

Feel free to take breaks, look things up, ask questions, and so on. Don’t worry about the fact that it’s slowing up the game – although it’s true that it’ll throw off the pace of things a little, that’ll get better as you become more comfortable with your job as GM. Just ask your players for a little forbearance while you get used to what you’re doing. GMing is just like any other endeavor: you aren’t expected to be perfect at it your first day on the job!

It’s Such a Cool Plot!

Some GMs script because they have a plot idea that really excites them. That excitement blinds them to the fact that their players might have other ideas about what makes a cool plot or a fun game. It also blinds them to the inevitability that their players will simply think of something they didn’t, thus negating or wildly changing the way the plot should come out.

GMs need to remember that most players want to be more than just passive watchers of a beautiful play. Players want to make decisions about where things are going – roleplaying is, after all, an interactive activity. This is, as I stated in the first article in this series, one of the things that really makes roleplaying unique and attracts people to it.

There are things you can do about this on various levels, and we’ll get into them later on in this series. But for now, just remember this: no matter what you do, there is always a certain likelihood that your players will take your game in an unexpected direction. Often you just have to let them. Stop trying to fight it – you’re only making yourself and your players miserable. Stop thinking of the plot as your plot; this just makes you forget what should be a major consideration in your game: the idea that you and your players are working together to create the story.

The Heroes Have to Win

Perhaps the GM just doesn’t want to let the party lose. This is as noble a reason to script as any, and just as misguided. If the party picks up on the fact that the GM won’t let them lose then all sorts of bad things may happen. The PCs may take stupid risks that they shouldn’t take, because the players know the GM won’t let their characters die. The players may stop caring about the amazing spiffy save-the-world goal, because they know they’ll win no matter what.

Don’t be afraid to let the party lose. Not every band of heroes out to save the world has to be successful. Some gaming groups are comfortable with a little fudging (result-altering) here or there to make the game play better, but this should be a subtle and minor thing when it’s used at all. In general you should let the party win or fail on their own merits. That way when they win they feel a real sense of accomplishment; they know they did something amazing and did it well.

There’s just no tension or excitement in knowing that no matter what you’ll always win. Sometimes great epic plot arcs end in tragedy – there’s no shame in that!

I Bought It In The Store

Yet another reason for scripting is the use of a professionally written supplement. Unless a sold adventure is a short one, there’s almost no way to avoid a certain amount of scripting. The author cannot be at the gaming run to adapt things to player creativity. In order for him to write the beginning of part 2 of the adventure, he has to know where part 1 ends – and this means that the party must end up at a predictable place at the end of part 1. (Of course, there are ways to minimize free will problems in commercial adventures, but I daresay that many adventure authors don’t think much about the issue.)

Read the entire adventure ahead of time. Try to think of the things your players might think of that the author didn’t account for. Figure out ahead of time what you’ll do in those cases; this makes improvisation much easier on you. Improvisation will also be easier if you have a good handle on everything that’s going on in the adventure. This will give you a good idea of what your resources are when trying to shape the story, and it will make it easier for you to understand the impact of the PCs’ actions on the story.

Remember that when you run a published adventure, it doesn’t have to come out the way the author planned. You’re allowed to change things, and so are your players. Publication does not make a plotline sacred!

The only real worry you have with respect to a published adventure is whether or not it’s part of some big epic plot arc series of adventures. In this case, you run into the problem of whether or not you can run later adventures (or acts) if the first one comes out differently than the author planned. In this case, I’d recommend letting the first one end up however it ends up. If you decide you want to play the next one in the line, try to make the events of that adventure mesh with your new starting conditions. If that just isn’t going to work, then pretend that the first adventure came out the way it was supposed to. Work with your players to bring their characters into line with what the adventure expects (or start with new characters), tell them how that last adventure “really ended,” and go from there. This way you get to play your games the way you and your players want to, but you also get to play later adventures in the series.

Preparation

If the GM is particularly excited about the game then he might have prepared a lot of material for it ahead of time. The prospect of pitching all of that work when someone leaves the beaten path can be daunting, as well as frustrating, and can often lead GMs to script.

A solution to this is to prepare a different sort of material. Stick primarily to background information and characters. That way you don’t have to wipe much out. If you have detailed information on a character, that character can react to anything the players may choose to do. If you have detailed background information on a situation, you can adapt the future of that situation to whatever the players do. However, if you concentrate on scenes and what’s going to happen during the game, you risk having to throw out your material.

I’m Teaching Them a Good Way to Play

Some GMs script because they believe that there’s a right and a wrong way to solve a particular kind of plot. They want to make sure that the PCs can only solve the plot the right way.

Not all plots can be solved in all ways – this is fine. Sometimes different plot solutions will have different effects and different effectiveness – this is also fine. However, this doesn’t make it okay to heavily script a plot just to make sure you get your lesson across. Other ways of doing things aren’t necessarily wrong; they’re just different. Some players or PCs prefer certain methods, and some players or PCs are just better at certain methods. Roleplaying games can be used as teaching tools, but most players are there to have fun. You don’t necessarily want to hit them over the head with a lesson instead of playing the game they expect to be playing.

As you can see, there are probably as many reasons for scripting as there are GMs. There are also plenty of ways around the need for scripting, however. Check out the rest of the articles in this series for ideas, and hopefully we’ll be able to help you shake the scripting bug. We promise it’ll make for happier players, which will make you a happier GM!

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