My Sunday group finally got to play again this weekend after I had to cancel two sessions in a row. Because the sessions are every other week now, this meant that it was over a month since I last got to play with that group, and I was very anxious to get back to it.
Aside from a brief internet outage at the beginning, the session went well and was a ton of fun, but it did not even vaguely resemble what I had prepared after the first hour or so. Based on earlier discussions, I expected one PC to go AWOL and have to be tracked down by the others, and I had some fun stuff in the city to facilitate that. I had an encounter with a twist that will probably become its own blog post whenever I do actually use it planned as well.
I didn’t use any of that.
What happened instead is that the PC I expected to go on the lam tracked down the rest of the party and sought their help with the situation instead. This created a bunch of interesting character development in the process; the PC in question is an ex-con, and his decision that he both felt responsible for the city and trusted his companions enough to seek their aid was something that’s been building for a while and kind of culminated with his actions last session. Of course, him not running off also meant that the PCs skipped over a bunch of other content and went straight for a group of bad guys I was expecting them to wait on until much later.
It also led to some really fun moments. The bad guys in question were a bunch of fey pirates, and one of them had literally never seen anything like the party’s paladin. To be fair, she’s pretty unique – a towering animate statue of purple stone in the shape of a tiefling woman. She sticks out a bit. So when she walked up to him as he was sneaking around and asked what he was doing, he was fascinated by her and wanted to ask a bunch of questions about her origins. She responded by essentially going “Yeah, all right, sure,” and walking off arm-in-arm with him. The combat that eventually materialized didn’t look anything like what I had planned, either – the bard turned one of the bad guys into a mouse before the bad guy even saw him. The rest of the party tried various unorthodox tricks too – some of which worked and some of which didn’t.
The encounter with the Xi-Drake (think very intelligent, good-aligned, mind-reading, mute pterosaur) was also fantastic as the party tried to both communicate with him. Once they’d succeeded, watching them explain the current state of the world to him (he’d been in stasis for a very long time) was also a lot of fun, and while I’d prepped the meeting out, they surprised me with the routes they took and the conversations they had afterward. The argument about the nature and properties of light was particularly good.
It was great.
Sometimes having to improvise a lot can be frustrating. I’ve certainly had sessions that got away from my prep and left me feeling unmoored and rudderless, disappointed in my own GMing and feeling bad for my players. I’ve discovered that specific problem to be one that tends to be worse early on in campaigns than late in them, however. As I get more comfortable with the PC group and more familiar with the bits of the world that they interact with, the process of improvising gets easier. It also gets less frequent as I learn what to expect from various PCs.
And when that all comes together, the creative side is a lot of fun – which I think is a good take-away for the GMs out there. Once you’re far enough into a game to really feel like you know the world and characters, it becomes much less of a problem if they do something expected. At least for me, those moments when the party surprises you become something to look forward to and enjoy rather than dread and manage.
You don’t want your game to feel random, nonsensical, or hallucinatory in most cases, but at the same time, that spark of the unexpected is what really separates tabletop RPGs from other participatory entertainment like video games, board games, and card games, so say nothing of passive entertainment like books, movies, and TV. If you never have to make up anything on the fly, you lose a lot of the storytelling “juice” of the game and essentially have a choose-your-own-adventure book in verbal form. That may still be fun, but not as much fun as it could be.