It's a common affliction of gamemasters to pour hours of their precious time into crafting a story to make their players awestruck, only to see them time and again decide to run obliquely to the carefully laid path before them. Some resort to the railroad, locking the car doors and forcing the players along for the ride. Others react by trying to script carefully planned flow charts of how to re-direct the players back to their attempt at Pulitzerdom. Most throw their hands up and see hours of hard work just vanish.
I make no apologies: I'm a lazy gamemaster. I've done the carefully crafted story thing one too many time, and frankly, I just cannot be bothered to invest the time. Further, I also have come to realize that your intricate plot is a disservice both to yourself, and to your players. It is either there for the conceit of wishing to impress others with your storycrafting acumen, or, as was my case, it's a lack of trust in yourself to be able to run a game "off the cuff". Coming to the table with nothing more than a handful of NPCs and some vague ideas can be a frightening notion. It has the feel of walking a tightrope without a net. It's also completely unjustified.
In this little missive, I'll outline the simple formula I use for my GMing style, ideal for both the slothful as well as the time-pressed. I will demonstrate how to turn your vague ideas and handful of NPCs into tools to help your players craft a story they'll enjoy, as well as point out that you do indeed have a safety net you may not have considered.
Step One: The Campaign Idea
Before you can start GMing, you need to have a basic premise or idea of a campaign. The temptation here is to include loads of history and backstory that will make players' eyes glaze over. The goal is to try to make the world, and the campaign, seem real by making it detailed. This is a common mistake. Nothing will make players feel more disconnected from their character, and thus the world, than the feeling that everything is completely alien to them, they have nothing to hook them into the world.
This is your first opportunity to be lazy. Rather than explain all the intricate details, steal them from media that the players are familiar with. Instead of explaining the elaborate politics of your nation of bored, decadent nobles, just say "This is nation is basically like Dangerous Liaisons" or "This character is alot like The Marquis de Sade". There's nothing wrong with explaining the Hyborean nation of Stygia as "basically Egypt, but they worship an evil snake god, commit human sacrifice, and use dark sorcery". Sure, there's more to it than that, but the players don't need to know that right now. They just need a hook to engage that information quickly. These things are all tropes, dense nuggets of information you can convey by engaging in a common frame of reference. I like to outright list the TV shows, books, and movies which are sources of inspirations for my campaigns, as the players then instantly understand what the game is about as well as their character's place in the world. And it's alot easier than writing pages and pages of background history that you expect them to digest.
Once you've established the world using tropes, you then establish the premise the same way. "This game is going to be kinda like Star Wars, with the players being rebels fighting against an Evil Empire" instantly lets the players know what kind of people they'll be roleplaying.
Step Two: The Plot
You don't have one, you don't need one, nor even want one. You should be too lazy for that. You have your premise from step one, right? Use that. If you know the game's premise is "rebels fighting the Evil Empire", then that's all you should write. Don't be tempted to flesh out the ways in which the players will thwart the Evil Empire. That's their job.
Instead, figure out who the movers and shakers of your Evil Empire are: a sorcerer-king, his apprentice, the arrogant military commander. Flesh them out with personal goals. What do they want? What kind of things will they be doing in the setting to get what they want? Write that down if you want, but keep it simple. Write it in bullet points like:
That's enough for now. There could be subtext, like maybe his loyalty to the Evil Emperor isn't as secure as it seems, or he isn't yet aware his son is alive (and is one of the PCs)... but that can be figured out organically in play. For now, just some basic goals is enough. Muse on what kind of things they'll do to accomplish those plans. Maybe, say, capture a Princess who is a secret member of the rebels and torture her to find out where the plans are. And the Princess is an NPC who has a goal too: hide the plans. So now you have a story hook based around those goals: secure the plans and rescue the princess. Come up with a few more of those and you're ready to roll.
One word of caution: never love any NPC so much you cannot bear to see them die in a humiliating way at the hands of the PCs. Because they probably will. Remember, you made them, and you can always make another one that looks just like them. So don't get attached. Heck, if they become a problem, kill them yourself if you have to. NPCs are there for the benefit of the players.
Step Three: Getting the PCs involved.
When it's game time, you show up with your NPCs and their goals, from which you've come up with a few story hooks. The next thing to do is to screw with the Player Characters using those hooks. The first thing you need to do is look at the character sheets. See what kind of skills, talents, hindrances, and backstory the Players have come up with and use them all against them.
So, PC1 lives on a farm with his family? Maybe your Evil Knight's troops, in an effort to find the plans, aggressively question, torture, and even kill PC1's family. PC2 wrote "Enemy" down and as a hindrance on his sheet, and told you it's a powerful gangster he owes money to. So you have one of those gangster's goons come calling to put some pressure on him to find a way to make that money he owes... or at least make some tracks. Then dangle a money making opportunity in front of him, one that involves him putting some distance between himself and his enemy to boot. He can choose to take the bait or not... if not, well, we'll get to that shortly.
The goal is just to use the things the players already told you about their characters, which are things they want to be important in the game, and then have your NPCs' goals stomp all over those things, leaving big fat bloody footprints on their most precious hopes, dreams, loved ones, and possessions. Then sit back and enjoy the show!
And what if the players don't bite at any of your plot hooks? That's ok. They don't have to. But just because they do nothing doesn't mean our NPCs are also going to do nothing. Let the consequences of inaction catch up to them. If they are in a city and hear tell of an Evil Necromancer nearby raising an undead army and they decide not to do anything about it, they shouldn't be surprised when, some weeks later, the city is besieged by an army of undead.
Meanwhile, while your consequences are brewing, present additional or alternative plot hooks as well, other story choices they can make. Let them figure out which align with their PCs' personal goals and which they wish to pursue, and which they feel are not worth their time. Let them be proactive and come up with their own story hooks, if they're exceptionally creative players. But keep your world in motion. Soon enough they'll learn that while they can impact the world, the world is not sitting around in statis waiting for them to interact with it. It's not an MMO where the contact stands there with a yellow exclamation point over his head until someone clicks on him. It's a living breathing world with powerful people doing things that trample the things that are important to player characters.
This of course implies there have to be things important to the PCs. You need to make sure your player can explain at least three things their character deeply cares about or wants to accomplish. At least one of those accomplishments should be long term. Once you have that, you have all the ammunition you need.
Also remember to steal ideas. Steal from everywhere. While an adventure module might be too linear for a lazy GM (it's alot of work... and then the players go off the rails anyways), it may be just what you need for when the PCs decide to sneak into the dungeon of the Evil Overlord. Sure would be handy to have a dungeon ready, wouldn't it? Grab your module or at least the map and you're done. See a great movie or scene from a movie? Steal it. Read a great NPC in a book? File off the serial numbers and put them in your campaign.
Step Four: Keeping the ball rolling
The great thing about this whole process is that you never had to write an adventure. You didn't need to prep a scenario. You don't need to start up the train engine and get everyone aboard the railroad. You just kick the crap out of the things the PCs care about with your NPCs then let them figure out what to do about it.
So what do you do when the players seem stuck, can't decide what course of action to take, or disagree on how to proceed? Simple: you kick the beehive again. Put the pressure on. Follow the famous advice to have someone bust in the room with a gun. It doesn't matter who. It doesn't even need to make sense: the players will make sense of it somehow, trust me (more on this later). Just do something to push the players into making a decision, taking an action, whatever that might be.
It's important to note here that you're not pushing them into following a plot: you don't have one of those, remember? Rather, you're just pushing them into deciding to do SOMETHING. What? That's up to them. If they choose to do nothing, there should be consequences of inaction, like the Army of the Dead example mentioned previously. Perhaps the city's forces may be enough to drive the dead off... perhaps not. But the PCs can change the tide of the battle either way by their actions. If they decide they want to abandon the city to it's doom... let them. If they want to go try to negotiate with the necromancer or even join him, let them.
And that's the whole key: it's not your story as the GM. It's the PCs story. You just keep the ball rolling by creating a world and NPCs that demand stories happen. What those stories are about, and how they end, is out of your hands. You're just presenting the problems, it's their job to come up with the solutions.
Step Five: Ending the Campaign
Where is the story going? Are the PCs starting to meander? Is the meaningful opposition starting to seem like more of the same instead of new conflicts? If so, it may be time to end the campaign.
This is a tricky thing to do, because without a plot, it's hard to know how the story ends. That said, there are ways you can work to escalate the conflict towards resolution. Remember the players having characters with goals? Well, at the culmination of the campaign the PCs should finally have a do-or-die chance to attain their most difficult and long term goal. Make the stars line up for them. If they need to recapture their lost throne, give them an army. If they want to find a mythic lost treasure, let them be contacted by a scholar with an ancient map. Provide them with the perfect opportunity, through a series of happy coincidences if necessary, to finally reach out and try to seize their fondest dream.
The Safety Net
I mentioned earlier that, despite your lack of elaborate notes, intricate plots, and fantastic story ideas you do have a safety net: the other players. Seriously, this is the most overlooked resource by most GMs. You have several other imaginations sitting around the table with you, use them. Trust your players to come up with their own plans and plots and resources. Trust them to plug the holes in the plot (of which there will be many). Trust them enough to solicit ideas directly if you must. It's ok to say "ok, I'm not sure where to go with this... what do you guys think?" to get the ball rolling again. As the GM you want the players to trust you, but that trust should go both ways.
Here's two key points when it comes to trusting your PCs.
Putting it all together
All of this distills down to one word: Trust. Trust yourself to be creative. Trust your players to be creative. Trust that while your NPCs and the PCs may have opposing goals you and your players alike share a common goal, to have a great game where the opposition is fierce and the PCs succeed just barely by the skin of their teeth. It may seem that the players want to succeed easily, but they really don't. They want to be beaten up, knocked down, and bloodied. But they don't want to be broken. They want to win, but they want it to hurt. They may not even consciously know it, but they do. They want to be [i]challenged[/i]. Trust this. Beat them up, knock them down, bloody them. Make a show of trying to break them, but know they trust you enough that you won't force it.
Work with your players even as you work against their characters. They'll work with you as the GM even as they work against your NPCs. Secretly they want to be beaten up, and secretly you want them to win, but you both will outwardly act like you want the opposite. Even so this is not an oppositional relationship, it's a partnership. A conspiracy to make the PCs suffer but allow them an opportunity to win. They might succeed, they might fail, but they absolutely must feel that they told a good story doing either, and in that, you're all working for the same thing.
And ultimately trust because that trust lets you be lazy. Pull off being lazy enough and you might just run the best campaign ever.