Saturday, March 9, 2013

Event Based GMing

Today I'm going to talk about what I've coined as "event based GMing". But first, let's look at another form of GMing really quick. It's one I'd bet every GM has thought was the correct way to GM at one point or another and has been disappointed in (probably leading to the widely accepted belief that "GMing is Hard").

It happens to the best of us...
You plan that the queen of a country is to be assassinated, but you want the party to discover that there is something afoot. You want to set up a series of clues that bring the party to the throne room to try and save the queen in a climactic battle that should gain the party some notoriety and report should that succeed.
In essence, the party is going to try to figure out who's going to kill "Mr. Body" before the deed is done, and the party doesn't know it yet. The case is afoot.
You spend many hours figuring out exactly the trail that the party should find. You stat out each NPC in the castle meticulously. You figure out which rounds the NPCs are going to be making in the castle, and you plot everything in great detail. It takes a while, but you put computer programming levels of detail into the plot. You know that at 10pm the assassin will meet Matilda the maid in the garden and exchange the key to the the royal chamber for the cure to her son's illness. Good job!
So much for your notes...
However for some reason the PCs don't do as you expected. They didn't go from the dining hall to kitchen. Or they asked the wrong questions. Or they decided to post some of the party near the NPC to be assassinated and set up a communication system to quickly alert the other party members of any threat (even if it's just a light spell and a steel mirror from a window). They never make it to the garden to overhear the assassin exchanging the cure for the key. If they manage to be a part of the plot at all it's out of sheer luck. If they see it unfold, they won't know what they're seeing to enjoy it. The plan falls apart and you're forced to improvise. Your time is wasted, and the look on your face betrays your confusion as your mind tries to stick to the script that is being burnt to ashes in front of you.
Many GMs, new and old alike, end up making this mistake at least once. It's an easy mistake to make. It's an alluring mistake. But what is that mistake? Over preparation. The above scenario shows a GM who is clearly trying to create a rich adventure for his players to be a part of. The GM put a lot of effort into it, probably in an attempt to ensure everything was perfect and special. In reality, the GM was ensuring that the opposite of what was desired was accomplished. Confusion, frustration, and wasted time.

Event Based GMing
Event Based GMing (at least that's what I call it as I've never seen or heard of this style elsewhere) is very different from the style described above. It specifically avoids the pitfalls of a tightly scripted adventure and emphasizes simplicity to run, while maximizing the efficiency of having a human mind behind the screen to adapt the adventure. It's not improvisation, it's flexible preparation!

But enough beating around the bush. Event based GMing is, at its core, a story or scenario broken down into smaller portions called "events" (though you could call them things like "scenes" or "encounters"). These events are key points to the story or adventure you want to share with your players. They are then arranged somewhat spontaneously and placed ahead of the players from behind the scenes. In practice, it appears like it was all meticulously planned out from the beginning, creating a wonderful feeling of a living, breathing world while keeping the players involved. Let's look at the same plot mentioned above, except this time we will be looking at it prepared as an event based game.
Event List
0. Party arrives at the castle for *insert reasons here* and meets some of the staff. Consider dropping hints or red herrings as to which members of the staff might be shady.
1. Party overhears Matilda the maid and the assassin.
2. Party discovers the assassin is one of the staff members.
3. Party discovers some of the staff members are missing.
4. Assassin gets wise to the party and tries to increase suspicion on a red herring.
4a. Party investigates suspicion, add a short subplot.
4b. Party doesn't investigate, ignore subplot.
5. Assassin or assassins make a move against the queen. Multi-level attack. Poisons food, disguises as unassuming NPC, sets up an escape route, bribes disloyal guards for assistance, creates diversions, attacks when guard is lowest.
6a. Party fights off assailants, heals queen. If assassin is captured, make mention of a more powerful individual behind the attack. The party must now find the culprit.
6a. The party fails to stop the assassination. Some clue is gained from the attack. An assassin is captured or slain + speak with dead, or queen's servants use divination spells to find a clue. The party must now find the culprit.
Now we can play out the scenes in what I call event-based GMing. In the beginning you give the PCs some backstory on their surroundings and introduce them to some of the cast members (event 0). You know that at some point during the adventure you want them to hear Matilda the maid doing something shady, so you simply have her show up at a convenient time (maybe outside the bathroom when one of the party members is bathing, not realizing the PC is nearby, or it could be in the back corner of the mostly unused library while the party wizard is examining some books, or some other situation that seems reasonable). Rinse and repeat.

The benefits for this method of GMing is it's quick and free flowing. It rewards your own ability to be imaginative. It's also reactive to what the party is doing (and parties should be pro-active, not merely led around by the nose). You can also modify the events as the party goes on. If one of the PCs is rummaging around in the kitchen, consider having them find some poison stored amongst the spices. If you want, feel free to adjust the plot on the fly. Maybe the party does something completely unexpected and decides to assassinate the queen themselves! Be ready for anything, and remember that it is always going according to plan -- because there is no plan.

Instead, there is a series of points that you want to "bring up" during the story. Now one of the beautiful things about event-based GMing is that it's incredibly fast in terms of game preparation. Get a rudimentary idea as to the plot you want, break it down into what events you envision for the party to get involved in, then grab your trimmings (NPCs, treasures, etc) and go. This style also allows you to very comfortably create both linear or sandbox games (which I'll talk about more fully in one of my next articles) or merge the two seamlessly. You simply place each event into the game like placing a puzzle piece down, and those puzzle pieces build the road to adventure.

One Event At A Time


  1. Hey, Scott its me Varik, I've been trying to get ahold of you a while man, You can get ahold of me by Emailing

  2. Looks like you're pretty popular. This is Silv, and I'm trying to get ahold of you too :P I sent you a facebook message but it doesn't look like you're ever on.