After a lengthy break from running games, I’ve finally got myself back in the Dungeon Master’s seat–first with the start of my Starfinder game, and then with a special Halloween one-shot. It’s this latter game, and how I went about planning it, that got me thinking about today’s topic.
There’s a rule I try to abide by when running games: don’t say “no” unless you absolutely have to. Players are smart! They often think of wild, entertaining solutions to problems that are far different than what you had in mind. Why deny them that? If a player figures out a cool way to beat an obstacle, you should let them do it–don’t shoot it down just because it’s not the exact solution you had in mind. It’s often said that no DM’s plan survives contact with the players; embrace that! See what wonderful new paths your players open up!
It was in that spirit that I planned my Halloween one-shot. I’m normally a fairly detailed planner; I like to really flesh out the NPCs and settings of a session. This time, I was pretty lax. It was to be a very silly session, and it wasn’t part of any overarching narrative or campaign, so I only whipped up a bare-bones outline. In doing so, I found several opportunities to let my players shine. How? By choosing not to plan out specific outcomes.
Let me give an example: the players had to strike a deal with a vampire. In order to get the vampire’s help, they had to convince the people of the nearby town to stop sending vampire hunters to vamp’s castle. Normally, this is the kind of thing that I’d work out the details of: who would they need to convince in the town? What would the Deception or Bluff or whatever DCs be? That kind of thing. This time, though, I figured, “Eh, I’ll wing it.” I trusted the party to figure out how best to convince the townsfolk, rather than plotting a bunch of possible ways they might do it. The end result was better than anything I could have thought up: they convinced the mayor to partner up with the vampire to run a bed and breakfast out of the vamp’s haunted castle (Malfrak Duggems of the Silversun Chronicle will almost certainly be delivering the scoop on this sometime in the next few weeks).
There was another possible questline involving a hag that the players would need to barter with. We didn’t end up playing this one out, as certain choices the players made invalidated the need for the item the hag would trade them (though they did end up visiting her for unrelated reasons, but that’s neither here nor there). However, it was another case where I didn’t bother planning out a ‘right answer’ to the conundrum; the hag would have a precious item the players needed, and would ask them to offer up something of equal value in exchange. What could the players offer? No idea! But I was certain they’d come up with something. Why bother creating one specific answer to a question like that? It’s far more interesting to let your players decide what they value.
I even played fast and loose with some of the combat. The climax of the session involved the carriage the party was riding being beset by various creatures: a werewolf, a man-bat, and a specter that possessed the carriage driver. Now, the party was only level three, so clearly I couldn’t actually throw all these monsters at them as-is–a werewolf alone is a CR3 monster. But I wanted to use all of them, so I instead set it up like a cinematic chase scene: the werewolf was running alongside the carriage, the man-bat attacked from above, and the possessed carriage driver tried to engineer a crash. We alternated between players and monsters in a loose initiative order, and I didn’t really track enemy health as such; the baddies backed off when it felt dramatically appropriate. This setup led to some really cool moments: the party druid hit the werewolf with a moonbeam spell, forcing him back to his human form; the bard used a well-timed dissonant whispers to scare the ghost out of the carriage driver; the sorcerer took a flying leap off the back of the carriage to attempt to strike down the man-bat (sadly, a string of low rolls prevented this from happening, but it was an awesome idea nonetheless); and the barbarian finished off the chiropteran foe with a mighty javelin toss.
I had an absolute blast running this session, and it was mostly because I could sit back and let my party run wild. I wasn’t worried about them hitting specific DCs or figuring out just the right way to solve my puzzles. I let their creativity take center stage, and the session was much better for it. Sure, there were a few hiccups–I stumbled awkwardly through a mummy encounter that I hadn’t planned well enough, for instance–but overall, it was a good experience. Planning this loosely isn’t going to work for every session, but it certainly reminded me of something I think I’d forgotten over my last campaign: you don’t need to work out every last detail of a session. Sometimes–most times, even–it’s better to just work out the setup and let your players deliver the punchline.