30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty

Two-thirds of the way through, gentle readers. After today a scant ten entries lie between us and the end of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. I really hope you’ve found some of these posts useful. When this is over you’ll be able to read all these entries in one of two ways: either click on the 30 Days of GMing tag, or read them on the separate page I’m constructing to house all this advice. In the meantime, lets finish out the first twenty…

What was your best session and why?

I have one particular session that sticks in my mind, from a campaign I played in years ago. The session didn’t start out so promising; only three of the usual six players had made it to the game that night. But while we were talking before the game started, we discussed how funny it would be for the next session to start with some totally improbable situation, just to freak out the absent players. A little more discussion, and this went from “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” to “This is what we have to do!”. And one of the most epic evenings of play had begun!

Out of context here is the list of “six impossible things” we had to achieve in order for our plan to work:

1. Kill the fire giant chieftain and his mammoth animal companion.

2. Take control of the fire giant tribe.

3. Hollow out and reanimate the animal companion.

4. Using the animal companion as a sort of “Trojan Mammoth”, secure the bulk of our party inside.

5. Get safely to the Drow stronghold, potentially protected by the fire giant tribe.

6. Our vampiric dwarf cleric must use diplomacy to gain entry to the stronghold, allowing us to start next session not only inside the Drow stronghold, but inside a zombie mammoth.

Not exactly a short or easy to complete bucket list for the party. And frankly, we would have been happy to just get one or two items complete that evening, and carry on with the rest next session. But as amazing as it sounds we completed everything on that list in one 3-1/2 hour session of play. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will touch on a few points that contributed to our GM starting the next session with, “We start where we last left you guys, inside the mammoth. What would you like to do next?” Side note: we resisted saying anything about what happened that night to the other three players, so they started the session ignorant of what had passed. The looks on their faces when the GM started the session were everything we dreamed of.

Our GM ran with it – Our GM could have fought us any one of the points of our plan. They varied from the improbable to the downright ridiculous. But our GM saw how invested were were in this plan and rather than fight us, went along for the ride. That isn’t to say he made things easy for us, though I suspect there may have been a little fudging in our favour at a few points. He realized that, first and foremost, his job was to make sure we had fun. So rather than throw pointless blocks in out path, he went with the key improv philosophy of, “Yes, and…” and gave us an exciting evening of D&D. I GM that same group of guys now (with a few new additions) and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t still remember that session with fondness. And all because our GM put the fun factor first.

Discussion does not equal fun – For the campaign we were playing, six players was a perfect size. (Against the Drow, for anyone that remembers that 3.5 ed. gem) For most situations, anyway. But with six players a fair amount of session time can be spent just deciding what we were going to do. I can honestly say, if the other three players had been there that night we would never have come up with the plan, never mind pulled it off. That doesn’t mean they were bad players, or intentionally obstructive. But there can be a tendency during these group discussions to just go with the path of least resistance, in order to end the discussion and get back to playing. But with just three of us, plus a desire to “punish” the other three players for their failure to attend, we went from conception to planning to execution in a very short order. And when it came to execution, we still had all six characters at our disposal; our GM’s policy on player absence allowed for the characters to be played by proxy, either the GM or one of us. So we essentially had three brains controlling six bodies that night. Combine that with us being very brave and bold (especially the three player-less characters), and we were able to achieve in step in our plan in easily half the time it would have taken with full attendance. I’ve carried that lesson with me as both a player and a GM: sometimes it can be a bad thing to give the players too much time to discuss. There is often value in throwing them into the thick of it and forcing them to think on the fly.

The goal was fun – I think if our goal was more punitive towards the absent players, the GM would have steered us away from whatever course of action we developed. But because our goal was to: a) do something fun with our evening even though we were missing half the party, and b) “punish” the absent players by starting in a weird situation which ultimately served our campaign goals, the GM allowed things to happen. And I think that was my biggest take away from that evening: almost anything should be allowed to happen at the table as long as it serves to make the game fun. Fun is why we play; fun is why these are role-playing games and not works. That doesn’t mean that, as a GM, you have to allow the players to run with every demented idea they come up with. But, if their idea isn’t going to sink the campaign or harm another player’s character without their consent, and it will lead to the players having more fun rather than less, go with it. Our list of six things was a near impossible shopping list of tasks, and by rights we shouldn’t have pulled them off. But we did, and as a result we had an evening of fun still talk about years later. So the next time you’re GMing and you want to say no to your players, take a second to reconsider. Saying yes might just make for a memorable evening.

What was your best gaming session, player or GM? Tell us about it in the comments. And join us tomorrow for Day 21: What are your favourite books about game mastering?