When the GM prepares a story, except he doesn’t

This is going to be a small post, but it’s just something I wanted to share. I think it can somehow connect with a lot of the ongoing discussions that are happening at the website.

Last night we played our latest session of our ongoing Pathfinder 2 game (characters are level 10, so we’re halfway through, right? Right?) and it was one of those small-yet-big sessions where you have a big change of scenery. The players moved from the faux-skandinavian region to the faux-russian one, with a big plan (well several) and a lot of rubble and carnage at their tail.

It was one of those transitions that end up being a lot smoother than you anticipate, with a lot of clear agendas (well, more than you usually get in this type of game). There’s the girl who’s been tasked by the viking queen to become an ambassador in the not-tzarina court. There’s the barbarian with a long history with this region who’s been secretly tasked with killing that same not-tzarina, and is super happy to do so. There’s the guy who wants to find out what that BBEG did here and why he talked to the Baba Yaga. You have momentum.

And play night comes and you’re utterly unprepared. Yeah, I screwed up and didn’t prepare.

Luckily the region as a lot of personality – racial tensions, perpetual winter, the police are trolls, the entire thing feels like Labyrinth mixed with Holiday on Ice. And yetis. You have stuff to work with.
But there’s an initial situation to develop, and several settlements the players may decide to stop in, and lots of people and places to flash out. And the book has names, but the Pathfinder gazeteers are the kind of things that tell you that Anichka Whatsherface is a Ranger 6 and the major of Kerad but that’s that. You know it’s a bit weird because she’s human and humans are slaves here and the ruling class is jedwiga etc etc but… that’s that.

So I have 10 to 15 people across 3 settlements for whom I have combat stats but no hint of personality or looks or goals to flash out in like an hour.

I borrow from experience, screw around with google and find out a website. This one:


The thing is simple and silly. Click a button and you get 3 adjectives for a character, at random. With no inner logic.

I give myself one rules, which is one click per person. It is what it is, no clicking until it “makes sense”.

In 20 minutes I’m done.

It was, of course, fire.

The secret leader of the human resistance is generous, solitary and… a coward?
The darth-vadery jadwiga guard leader is stubborn, earnest and caring?
The witch is rude, insecure and rebellious?

I don’t suggest using this method as superior or universal, but considering the situation, it led to great results. I had no way to make things work aside from having to play these people. Two of them fell in love mid session. It was quite wild on my side of the screen and I’m kind of sorry for the players because they don’t know and probably didn’t even notice what was happening, and probably imagined I had all these complex interactions ready. It was a lot of fun for me, as a DM.

It’s old stuff for most and I’ve done similar things before, but never on such a short notice, with no possibility to react and build on what I was randomizing. There’s something valuable in this experience that I want to elaborate and carry over for future play.

9 responses to “When the GM prepares a story, except he doesn’t”

  1. I have had similar experiences

    So there's something powerful that happens when the game (or in this case your random generator) gives you something that doesn't make sense and instead of rejecting it you ask yourself "What do I need to do to make this make sense?". Rather than getting annoyed at whatever procedure produced this illogical outcome, you take a constructive approach and try to make it work. I've had some really powerful gaming experiences with this, because it really gets you to do something you wouldn't have done otherwise. It forces you to do something unexpected. I vaguely recall reading some Vincent Baker phrase about the "unwelcome and unexpected". It's randomness in gaming at its best. Of course sometimes it might not work, either because you can't make it fit, or because it's just too out there. But there's a real skill in roleplaying in taking these pieces and going "Ok, so what can we do with this?".

    But it's also extremely important to really do that work! If you just go "This doesn't really make sense, but let's just go with it", you break the credibility of your story. You need to look at your story and see what it would mean if this thing were true, and then establish that, to ground the thing in sense.

    Maybe I'm going a bit beyond what your example shows, but I think it's the same underlying principle. Anyway, it's a really good story; thanks for sharing!

    • I’m glad you mentioned this,

      I'm glad you mentioned this, because it reminds me how the "lucky accident" plays a role in many other kinds of art. For example, some artists will just splatter a bunch of pain on a canvas, then take a small brush and by making tiny adjustments create an amazing landscape. The accidental, unintended imperfections that result when doing Chinese or Japanese calligraphy are considered an essential part of a good piece, and the same can be said for photography as well.

  2. When Bounce Helps

    I think you're getting at something important, Lorenzo. Lately I've been fascinated by when Bounce/randomness helps and when it doesn't. I used to believe, with an almost fanatic fervor, that randomness/dice rolling had no place in character creation whatsoever – that for maximum player agency to occur, chargen rules *had to* start from a player’s vision and help facilitate that, with no chance roll being allowed to thwart that. This conviction came from my experiences going from games like D&D and Traveller to Champions and such. I remember the incredible feeling of freedom I had when I first made a Champions character, compared to the (what I felt at the time were) restrictive chains of stat rolls, which could limit your choice of class and so on. Heck, in Traveller your character could even die during creation. “I will never go back to rolling for a character,” I said to myself.

    Things have changed quite a bit – take a look at the current chargen rules for Finding Haven, for example. Most people who’ve tried them so far find them fun to use and come up with quite interesting characters. Not to toot my own horn, these rules were directly inspired by how the Legendary Lives system did chargen. I’ve come to the realization that, as with everything, it’s all in how it’s done. In fiction, there’s no such thing as a bad story idea, it’s how it’s executed that matters.

    I used to think a blank slate to start with is good, because anything is possible. But as Ron has pointed out elsewhere, in a creative sense it’s actually bad, because it gives people nothing to work with. People need something to riff off of. Randomness when used in the context of providing fodder for creativity is good, it’s bad when it gets in the way.

    Lorenzo, in your example you used randomness in conjunction with character attitudes to prep for a game quickly, and in a really fun way. I’m super-interested in seeing other ways of doing this for GM prep. I’ve seen Circle of Hands, of course, which has an interesting way of using randomness to prep situations. The latest version of the Black Hack has lots of random tables, but many of them I find more tedious than inspiring. I’d say the same thing about random dungeons back in AD&D, occasionally fun but often annoying. Your use of adjectives here is just amazing, it sounds so fun. Anyway I’d love to hear more examples like this, specifically for prep.

    • A key feature for me, in

      A key feature for me, in using methods of this sort, is that the initial WTF from a given result turns out to be incredibly sensible, creatively, a moment later.

      In Lorenzo's list:

      The secret leader of the human resistance is generous, solitary and… a coward?

      The darth-vadery jadwiga guard leader is stubborn, earnest and caring? 

      The witch is rude, insecure and rebellious?

      As I read these, each question instantly becomes a vivid exclamation mark. Perhaps with a very quick "well, why not?" as the transition. What matters is that one doesn't bounce off the new cue, but rather embraces it instead of staying with the rather pedestrian and frankly non-, even anti-content of the tropes associated with "secret leader of the human resistance" or whatever.

      Because what you get isn't what the person who wrote up those tables or sources for cues intended. They are in the past, unaware of everythng you're bringing to this roll, incapable of anticipating how its result will dovetail and synthesize with your specific game and concepts. What you get is very much your own. (… good vs. bad design toward this end bears considerable reflection)

      As I see it, this is about not seeking skilled artifice toward plot outcomes, but rather human recognition of potential activity.

      That "activity" is technically conflict, but since that word is sadly diminished into blither, let's use Rickard's uncertainty instead. What will this secret leader do? I don't know! It depends on what's happened, what interactions have occurred, and the actual situation of this very momment, as well as whatever constraining instruments get factored in too. But the cues of "generous, solitary, and a coward" have been operating all along, including possible limits to any of those things, so that even with changes in this person's behavior, they are 'themselves' thoughout. It may well be that we discover when the generosity overrides the cowardice or vice versa, for example.

      This is what I'm always talking about regarding playing NPCs, by which I do not mean merely depicting them or shifting them about for maximum entertainment/conflict value. I mean not knowing what they will do next, while working from the genuine gift of content which keeps on giving.

      The preparatory surprise that we're talking about, in this case the results from the table, is a bit like a wake-up call or dope-slap, getting me into a better frame of mind to play in this way. It can arise in different ways – for example, as I conceived and played and wrote Sorcerer, the equivalent occurs because the players are providing many of the situational elements, so that I am effectively "rolling on a table" to see what I'm working with.

    • Interestingly enough, I share

      Interestingly enough, I share a similar position about character creation. I used to think it should be all in the hands of the player, but I'm more and more persuaded that the benefits of injecting some randomization or "bounce" in that process oustrip the value of what is potentially lost.
      Ron's "Dream of Fire" playtest has shown me several interesting applications of this. It's not just about having discreet tables after tables – there can be consequentiality in this type of randomization.

      Regarding preparation, of course games like Circle of Hands (and so many others) come to mind in terms of creating restraint for the GM through randomized elements. And make no mistake: what Circle does is a lot smarter than this.
      What may be valuable in this experiment (for me, I'm not sure how universal this may be) is the timing of the process. When I prepare a CoH venture, I have constraint and randomization thrown at me but I still get some time to think about it, interiorize the elements and begin that process that Simon above describes as "making sense".

      Now that's precisely the point here: the lesson for me is sitting at the table without thinking that things make sense. 
      Think of how the process of preparation works (I'm not saying this is functional but it's what it seem to happen most of the time): you create the cast of NPCs and slowly the notion of their purpose begins creeping in. This character is the major, she's human, she's in land where humans are at the bottom of the foodchain, the player characters want to change this. She's a natural ally. What is she like? Well she lived here, and this happened before, so… etcetera.

      The character begins "making sense" in your head and that means she may end up having a role, a purpose. You start playing her in your head before play happens.

      This time I was blindsided. I used this method and the characters didn't make sense… until I played them. The major was all that but she was a coward, and when the players did the one thing that would draw the attention of a witch unto the town, she panicked and she wouldn't help them. She wanted them gone.

      The guard captain however was a bad guy, theorycally. If I had time to "make sense" of him, he would have been a foil, not a a particularly aggressive one, but he would be. But I roll his traits and well… that doesn't sound like a monster? He cares about the people he oversees, he knows what would happen if the small town would clash with these "heroes". He wants them gone, but he can help them be gone and avoid bloodshed. So he becomes their "ally".

      The impossibility to have enough time to "make sense" of the characters was crucial for this to work the way it did. It defeated them having "purpose".

    • I can’t add much to what Ron

      I can't add much to what Ron said in terms of explaining how it worked, but I can provide a couple, minimal examples.

      It goes from the simpliest thing: the major being solitary and cowardly meant that the players didn't find her in town, but they had to venture a bit outside as she was out "patrolling". And her being not precisely brave combined with this is what prompted the idea that a witch would be visiting that day; something I wouldn't have had happening if I had "planned" things.

      Then we have the guard, who starts out exactly as I was planning – intimidating, somewhat removed from the rest of the people as he's the only jawdiga in town. Then players start doing things, and saying things, and as he has to react to that, so I go to those traits, and the situation goes in places I could never foresee or manipulate (ok, I could technically but let's say that it becomes very easy not to) because I'm forced to play the character in the moment.

    • What may be valuable in this

      What may be valuable in this experiment (for me, I'm not sure how universal this may be) is the timing of the process. When I prepare a CoH venture, I have constraint and randomization thrown at me but I still get some time to think about it, interiorize the elements and begin that process that Simon above describes as "making sense".

      Now that's precisely the point here: the lesson for me is sitting at the table without thinking that things make sense. 

      Just to clarify, the "making sense" part to me is something that can absolutely happen at the table. I generally run pretty much low-to-no-prep games. I had a minor breakdown when I tried to GM Apocalypse World because it's so prep-heavy. What I meant about making sense is something like this:

      Say you had a rebel leader in town instead, who has challenged and overthrown the previous ruler and now sits newly installed at the throne. And then you randomize a personality trait and get "cowardly". Just accepting this straight off the bat creates a bit of dissonance. If she challenged and overthrew the previous ruler, that seems odd with her being a coward. There are of course many explanations one could make. Maybe what she was fighting for was so important she overcame her cowardice. Maybe she's actually not the one who challenged the leader, but rather was challenged and had only one way out. Maybe she had so much pride at stake that this overcame her cowardice. Maybe she wasn't a coward before, but now that she's acquired the throne, she's terrified of losing it. Etc. You take the result but you ground it in the fiction.

      In a parallel discussion on the Swedish forum right now, I wrote about the same thing on the topic of "That's what my character would do". The example there is: My character is claustrophobic, and we're all about to go into a dungeon. And my character doesn't have a lot of motivation to do so, but it's important for the scenario, for the story, for the group cohesion, whatever, that I go in with them.

      I could say "No, I hate caves, there's no way I'm going in there," and pretty much stop the game. I could say "Ok fine, I guess there will be no adventure unless I go in, so let's go". Both of these are, in my opinion, bad reactions. The first because I'm creating problems in the game, avoiding whatever is the reason we all need to go into that cave. Maybe I'll have to wait outside and be out of the story for two sessions. Bad choice. The second is bad because I've sacrificed my character's integrity. He's not believable anymore. Bad choice.

      The better choice, in my opinion, is to say "Ok, I'm going into the cave with you" and then do the work of grounding that in the fiction. What is the reason that, despite my claustrophobia, I still go into that cave? Perhaps I deeply admire or resent another member of the group and don't want to show myself weak? Perhaps I'm tired of letting my fears control me, and I will prove to myself that I'm stronger than them? Perhaps my claustrophobia is bound to feelings of loneliness and abandonment, and now, in the company of these friends I have grown to love over the course of our adventures together, I'm no longer afraid? Perhaps the reason we need to go into this cave is actually more important and more personal to me than we had previously thought? Etc.

      It's a great place to create some good drama and getting to know the character better, but if you just skip the "making sense" part, you're not respecting the fiction and treating your character as a pawn, not a person. Now, with an NPC you could probably get away with less of this, since we're more ok with not knowing everything about them and maybe we can just assume something, but the principle still applies, I think.

      On the other hand, people are complex, so maybe we can just accept that someone's behavior is contradictory, because that's how it happens in real life. I dunno.

    • Just to clarify, Simon, I

      Just to clarify, Simon, I wasn't picking on your "making sense" statement but going over my applications of that idea. It was self reflection, mostly.

      But since you brought it up, I think I would somewhat challenge the idea that preparation is the problem here; in fact, preparation is crucial to the genuine reactions here and if I had let "everything happen at the table" then we wouldn't have gotten anything like this.

      To me, the most important function of preparation is constraint. Preparation is the walls that prevent us from simply saying what we want to say and what we feel that would make sense in the moment. It stops us from collectively "telling a story" and helps us "play a story". Without preparation telling us something that we can't control or decide in the moment, we would simply make the village leader into the character we want to see right now, and we would make her do what we feel the players would like to see. When we make everything happen at the table (even backstory or setting), then the only thing that can happen is the one that makes sense in the moment. And to me that is the most dangerous form of railroading.

    • But since you brought it up,

      But since you brought it up, I think I would somewhat challenge the idea that preparation is the problem here

      Oh, I absolutely don't think prep is a problem. Here or otherwise. I just meant that the "making sense" part is not necessarily something done in prep.

      When we make everything happen at the table (even backstory or setting), then the only thing that can happen is the one that makes sense in the moment. And to me that is the most dangerous form of railroading.

      So as someone who often runs prep-less games, I obviously don't agree with this at all. First of all, obviously things can happen in a prep-free game that don't make sense in the moment. I've done that many times, and it happens all the time. Someone makes up something that is unconnected to what has happened so far. Then we will make sense of it later, trying to figure out how it relates to the rest of the game.

      That's a minor point, though. I absolutely recognize doing improvised railroading, and it happens to me when I try to GM Lasers and Feelings, for example. But that happens because the players don't get to make meaningful decisions in play. That has nothing to do with constraints on the fiction from prep.

      Then again, I don't see "collectively telling a story" as inferior to "playing a story". I'm not 100% on the differences, but I suspect a lot of what I do might be the former (unless you're referring to some sort of consensus-based play, in which case yeah, none of that).

      There are absolutely ways of playing with no prep that undermines meaningful decisions by the players and leads to a form of improvised railroading, but it's no more a fault of the lack of prep than old-fashioned railroading is the fault of the existence of prep. These are orthogonal dimensions.

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