Planned Improvisation


In the midst of a moment of chaos on vacation I came up with a new word: planprovise. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, and that Lura has become comfortable with after being with me for nearly 16 years; it’s also my preferred way to GM. In short, it means planning ahead, but only as far as having a rough skeleton outline, and making up the rest as needed, and, most importantly, being flexible enough to tackle whatever surprises turn up.

Since I can easily make monsters on the fly in GURPS, I can generally fit an entire campaign onto a sheet of paper, or even an index card. The exception is my Warehouse 23 / 13-inspired campaign. Before I started steampunk-ifying the setting, I ran it so that the events of the game could have actually happened, but were suppressed from the history books. That required me to do a lot of historical research and refer it to during the session, but it’s not something I’ll ever do again, and even now can only run a single session of that campaign every few months. But even with that level of planning my players have surprised me repeatedly, forcing me to adapt on the fly.

Since HackMaster and D&D are far more complex than GURPS, for them I need to create or look up whatever monsters I want to use ahead of time. I keep them in a spreadsheet that allows me to quickly create encounters on the fly. I first made one for HackMaster Basic years ago, but have now turned it into a full-blown campaign manager for HM 5e, that I will be uploading once I have it tweaked and then remove anything that might get me sued. For D&D I started with a spreadsheet that just allowed me to easily calculate how much experience to give out at D&D Encounters, and kept the monsters in an epub I kept open in my beloved PRS-T1 ereader. Then I slowly started splicing in elements of my HM campaign manager, but at this point it’s not even to beta level – maybe not even pre-alpha.

But that is the only major prep I do for either game unless I’m running an official module, and even then I’m pretty flexible (I ended up throwing out most of a page of the last D&D Expedition I ran because player actions clashed with the author’s assumptions).

My HackMaster 5e campaign is partly an experiment in cooperative world building, in which my players and I are equal partners in creating the world. They come up with the big stuff, like the steampunkish city in the middle of the desert NE of the starting city. I had built nothing whatsoever beyond the city’s walls in that direction, so I just took it and ran with it, creating the details as we went. That campaign is an excellent example of planprovising, because my notes for it consist of a notebook I carry everywhere in which I jot down location, NPC, encounter, or villain ideas I dream up. As of now I have several villains working in the background, but only have the vaguest idea what they’re up to. Every once in a while I’ll have a minion or lieutenant stir up trouble wherever the PCs are and wait for a nibble. When they finally bite down on one then I’ll see about figuring out what he’s really up to.

As an example, a player made up the rumor about the steam-powered city, so while giving them interesting stuff to do and see as they crossed the desert, I was also coming up with ideas for the city, and decided that it was walled in and that the leadership was corrupt, but that’s all I had in mind at that point.

When the party first arrived I made the corruption clear by having the corpulent councilman meet them in his overly-luxurious office. We didn’t get far past that before we ran out of time, and during the following week I came up with a brilliant, but unoriginal idea inspired by the Doctor Who episode “The Hungry Earth“, in which near-future Welsh researchers inadvertently disturb a Silurian city, causing them to awake from stasis and deal with the problem. I found some appropriate monsters in HackMaster Basic and put them in my spreadsheet, expecting to have a large battle with the PCs being one squad among many, but not actually planning anything.

Inevitably, my players, who are the reason why I no longer do any detailed planning for games, came with a plan Q: set up a champions vs champions fight with their leader. If the PCs lost, then the Silurians could have the city the “invaders” had unknowingly built upon their home, but if they won the Silurians had to make peace with the residents and figure out how to share the city. I hadn’t foreseen that in any way, but just ran with it and it turned out to be great fun, especially when the spell-chucker stopped controlling his Skipping Betty Fireball and it circled around the city square, and table, and very nearly ended up hitting the wizard’s player before it finally fizzled (SBF moves a random number of feet in a random direction when not controlled).

That is the power of planprovising. I was well-prepared, but flexible, as I try to always be because it helps keep me, and by extension those around me, from panicking.

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