RPG-dopers, do you have a preferred GM style?

(Pen-and-paper, geeks around the dinner table RPG, if it wasn’t clear)

I’m curious about GM styles among the RPG-playing set. The group I game with has had discussions about this (which led to me being the permanent GM, dangit!), and we came up with three basic classifications of GM style. I’m curious as to everyone else’s experiences with this sort of thing, and what style they prefer (doesn’t have to be limited to the list below, if you’ve got your own definition!).

  1. On Rails. You get from point A to point B, both of which are defined by the GM, and while there may be scenery on the way you will NOT get off track, by Og. Usually involves lots of GM preparation, custom NPCs, storyline, and so on.

  2. Switchyard. Pretty much the same as #1, but at the outset the players are presented with choices and can decide which ‘lead’ to follow. Might involve a lot of GM prep, though often as not the prep doesn’t happen until a choice is made (just to save the GM’s sanity, I’m sure).

  3. Free-form. AKA “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Script!”. Pretty much a sustained burst of improv theater, with GM prep at a minimum because nobody – him included – knows for sure what’s going to happen next.

I usually run a combination of #3 and #2, myself. My players are a pigheaded bunch and will gleefully ignore the carefully-crafted hook in favor of chasing down a throwaway background event. So I don’t like making Big Plans, because they’ll find a way to shatter them. I try to maintain a couple of overarcing plotlines and a few recurring NPCs (villains or otherwise), but for the most part the PCs are driving the bus and I’m just calling out (mostly ignored) directions.

What about the rest of you? And, further, as a player, do you prefer a particular GM style?

I prefer #2. I like to make my own decisions, but at the same time I can’t really cope with too much freedom. I’ve encountered a few GMs that say “Okay, you arrive in town. What do you do?” This results in the group floundering around doing silly shit until the DM gets around to making the hook known to us.

This seems an appropriate place to share what happened at a recent session. We were dungeon-crawling, but feeling sort of regretful about it because the kobolds we were slaughtering were very clearly only protecting their home and weren’t particularly vicious creatures otherwise. However, we had a mandate from the nearby town to do so, so we kept going. As we did, though, we kept trying to come up with a diplomatic plan to prevent further deaths.

Eventually we encountered the door to the chieftain’s hall. The group gathered in front of it, whispering and trying to prepare a strategy. I pointed out that this was our last chance to try talking instead of fighting. Our half-fey warlock pipes up with “Why not try knocking?”

I stared at her, shrugged, and knocked on the door. The GM looked confused, and I knocked again. Eventually, we get this:
Kobold: “aside They’re knocking! What do we do? silence …Uh, what do you want?”
Us: “We’d like to talk to your chief.”
Kobold: “Uh…aside They want to talk! silence …Uh…okay…but you have to turn over your weapons.”

Instead of doing so, the warlock volunteered to go in by herself amidst several heavily armed kobolds. She proceeded to apologize for all the killing and managed to get the kobolds, if not exactly friendly, at least willing to listen. We wound up gaining safe passage through their territory to find the real enemy.

The DM later told us he fully expected that to be an epic battle and hadn’t really considered that we would be able to talk our way through at all, especially since we’re normally a trigger-happy bunch. I have to give him significant credit for being able to think on his feet and provide us with a fun experience despite us going off the plan.

I would prefer a combination of 2 and 3, though I only have experience with 1.

I also prefer a GM who actually has a fairly complete understanding of the current rules of the game. I have just bowed out of a game where the GM (or DM, in this case) had been playing and DMing D&D games since 1977 or so, and had lots of experience with the game in all its various editions and permutations. We were ostensibly playing 3.5E, yet every session made it more and more clear that he hadn’t actually studied the 3.5 rules. Instead, he’d skimmed them and much of the time got them confused with the rules from previous editions. The result being that some classes — arcane casters, in particular — became almost unplayable.

He was also a heavy-handed railroader (style #1 above), though this is mostly because he was using published adventures rather than creating his own scenarios. He also liked to mumble and hurry his way through flavor/descriptive text in his rush to get the party into the next combat encounter, so there was very little actual roleplaying going on.

When I DM, I tend to prefer a “wing it” approach. I’ll prepare ahead of time with a selection of generic dungeons/adventure sites, NPCs, and possible scenarios, that I can plug in where appropriate, and then let the PCs drive the story. I’ll make the rest up as I go along.

If I’ve done my job, the players think we’re playing #2, but we’re pretty much playing #1. All roads lead to Rome, and whatever route the players get there, they will get there. It involves scrambling and adjusting to what the plan is – a whole subplot about an underground Fight Club-like scenario to give the players a contact to a puppet-mastering sorcerer didn’t happen; instead, a little judicious spying at the scummy watering hole had the party following one of the Bad Guys home, kidnapping him, and taking him back to a shallow grave he had dug for a family he had killed and, while the Paladin was distracted back in town, getting the information from him the Jack Bauer way.

Wasn’t at all what I had in mind, but once I realized they could get the information that way, no reason to force them back to the Fight Club. And now, I can use that later for the next time they surprise me.

I prefer a combo of rotues 2 & 3. I have to admit I am seriously loathe to play with any GMs other than my SO who has spoiled me rotten - I happen to think he is the best GM, ever. I hate following too many rules and I hate not being able to be flexible.

Choice one just doesn’t work, unless the DM is either a world-class master of human psychology, or a control-freak jerk. E needs to either have anticipated all of the players’ “free” choices and prepared for them, or e ends up pulling out the ol’ “Rocks fall everyone dies” whenever the players make the “wrong” choice.

Choices two and three differ mainly in how good the DM is at those psychological skills I mentioned. Most DMs, I think, try to have some sort of plan, and figure out as they go along how to fit the party’s choices into the plan. If the DM is good enough at it, the experience for the players ends up being much like in the world-class master storyteller scenario in case 1. If the DM’s not good at it, then it ends up being free-form.

Well, this is true. :slight_smile:

I guess the difference, to me, lies in whether the players can tell they’re being railroaded, or not. What matters in this case is the apparent style – meaning, what style do your players think you’re using? That’s what I meant, though I probably wasn’t clear.

Every good GM, IMO, uses so-called Magician’s Choice to get the job done. But it can be heavy-handed (style 1), or gentle urging (style 2), or not apparent at all (style 3).

I’m trying to get more towards #2 these days, myself. My players have gotten to the point where several have asked “How many adventures do you have planned?!?” because they’ve never been able to catch me flat-footed… as far as they can tell.

In reality I’m barely half a step ahead of them most of the time, I just have a damn good poker face. :slight_smile:

I’m a #3, with maybe a little bit of #2. I’m actually quite good at improv, as evidenced by a group of players in Undergound (the PCs are futuristic gun toting ex-bio soldiers) deciding that what they wanted to do was go to King’s Island, an amusement park. It was a good game. I’ve got a bunch of different general encounters planned out that can be adapted to fit a lot of different circumstances in case I need something, as well as things specific to the story. I also like making minor plot lines for each of characters for a main location, just to have something to throw at them or to set up a hook. Like I told my players in the 3.5 game I’m running right now ‘You’re in Silverymoon now, but if you all suddenly decide to go to Mulhorand for no reason you’ll still have stuff to do.’

I despise #1, having had to endure it several times. A GM twisting the game and rules and anything else he can get his hands on to ensure his predetermined outcome annoys the hell out of me. Being plotwagoned it’s called. ‘Lets just go along for the ride, everyone hop on the plotwagon!’ ‘You can’t hurt that, it’s clearly made from plotdevicium.’ It’s not roleplaying, you’re not making any choices. It’s storytime with the GM, and he’s graciously allowed you to roll some dice and pretend that what you’re doing has something to do with what he already knows is going to happen.

Precisely. I generally consider a campaign with no overarching story uninteresting. The problem is that if you have a fixed, detailed script for that story, you no longer have a game–you have story time, with interruptions to roll dice. Going the other way, too much freedom means the PCs may not even find the story.

As a player, I like a light hand on the reins, gently guiding the game in the right general direction. Players should be drawn into the story for good in-character reasons, with plenty of leeway for wandering, interesting diversions, and the occasional bit of outright idiocy.

As a GM, I start with a story in mind, but without a fixed ending. My job is to lead the PCs to the climax, and then let them make what of it whatever they will. My usual approach is to have a large variety of “set pieces” and characters that can be adapted to suit the players’ course. If the PCs strike up a conversation with a cheerful scholar at the inn, rather than the rogue who has the information that will lead them deeper into the story arc, they get to listen to me talk in detail about his studies–I have a generic “scholar” NPC in my head for just that reason. This may well lead to an expedition into some ruins to look for some widget of historical significance; this won’t advance the plot, but I can use the opportunity to provide backstory. The rogue’s information will be made available again later. The plot hook will be adjusted and moved to a new location. Eventually, a PC will find the bait tempting enough to take a nibble, or will stumble onto one of the other hooks that leads into another story-arc set piece.

My personal nightmare of a GM is one who piles the PCs onto the plotwagon, then drives them past the same bit of scenery (including NPCs) over and over. I once had a GM for whom all NPCs were effectively interchangeable–a half-orc street thug and a noblewoman acted and sounded exactly alike, for example–and who resented anyone who short-circuited an encounter with a clever solution.

I’m a frequent 3rd Edition D&D GM who has not invested yet in the 3.5 stuff.

I like #2 until characters reach a certain level (usually around 8-12). Then it’s a lot of #3, as the more sturdy, self-sufficient party gets to know my (hopefully) rich, detailed campaign world. I still have hooks, but they’re calendar-based; e.g. the crazed wizard is going to try and summon Set in the fall, but it’s four months until then and the characters can do anything or nothing in that time, and when it does happen, they can deal with it or ignore it at their leisure.

The only real given in my campaign is that it’s pretty chatty and cerebral; people who hack first and talk second often end up making their lives miserable by killing friendlies, killing the only people with vital information, or picking fights with foes who overmatch them severely. I hate campaigns where the party (whether I’m in it or DMing it) is too confident that the DM wouldn’t throw anything in their path they they couldn’t defeat. I also hate campaigns where the orcs always want to fight you, whether it’s in their logical best interest or not. That kind of stuff makes it feel like a video game to me.

Back in the day (late 70’s/early 80’s) I like to play RPG’s. D&D, Traveller, Gamma World, SPace Opera, Runequest, Top Secret…ahhh the days.

Unfortuneatly, I was rarely allowed to play them.

Why you ask?


At the time, I didn’t understand it, but people always claimed that I had the best stuff. It wasn’t until I ran with a completely new group of people after college that I finally understood. Most GM’s are crap.

Why they liked me? I don’t know. Looking at the OP…I guess I was a #1

…but could massively ‘fake it’ and make it seem like a 2 or 3.

I had my set-piece campaign…very well fleshed out and documented. I also had the ‘factions’ (opposition and neutrals) fleshed out with their motivations. I had in my mind the track that would be followed (the ‘rails’ of #1 in the OP). Players said they really felt as if the world was moving around them/changing to events.

I also had many ‘mini’ campaigns that I kept in a notebook…ranging from ones that would take a session or two to one-off random encounters. I would carry it with me and brainstorm these things while waiting for people/in a boring class etc. This book was full of stuff. I used it to spice up a floundering session or to change tempo.

Looking back, I remember a friend suffering from huge disillusionment when he saw the book laying around one night and looked through it…realizing that is what I did. I think his imagination put more into it then what was there and was disillusioned to see the ‘nuts and bolts’.

Looking back, I guess I really did herd them. One of my more successful campaigns was where they found themselves underground and unable to turn around and go back…it’s easy to ‘herd’ when they are underground. The other one people loved was when they started as decendents of criminals on a large island (or small continent) with no way off…civilization is there but isolated from the main.

Or the Space Opera one where they were detectives working for the IPA (Interplanetary police agency). I suppose they could have quit their jobs, but then I would have designed another campaign and I’m sure they knew this.

It’s easier to ad lib and allow freestyle and have prep when the players can’t really switch areas completely…where the same powers are at play…the same politics rules the area.

Have a main plot line…with several dead ends and side stories. Have many good ‘random’ scenarios made up and it’s golden. Of computer games…I guess somewhat like Oblivion, except better. :slight_smile:

It’s been a while since I GM’d, but I sure agree with that. I disliked the “encounter random monster, kill it, haul in treasure” style of play.

For me, I always thought that the least amount of rules combined with the maximum of GM preparation, scenario-development and storytelling skills was best … and a GM willing to be tough and challenging with players. A good game is one in which the players are genuinely absorbed into the game, and really in fear of bad consequences should they screw up. Anything that gets players to that state is good, and I’ve found that it requires a world rich in atmosphere, detail and incident, with an overall plot holding it together, and just enough of a twist to take it out of the realm of the ordinary.

As far as the three choices above go, I’m not sure my style fit well in any category - I preferred fully explorable maps with a multitude of possibilities (sort of like #3), but certain plot-points or choke-points that were certain to come up eventually (like #2) and some overarching plot, quest or story within which the whole adventure would fit (somewhat like #1). I did not however attempt to railroad players into any one predetermined path, or discourage unforeseen or clever solutions to problems I presented.

The difficulty of course was that this style of play required a lot of prep work; however this wasn’t a problem for me, as I found preparing for play to be almost as much fun as playing - when I had time I even liked to prepare props, such as maps and the like, to hand out to players.

That’s actually one of the things that prompted me to ask this question, really. My group is about to bring in another member who happens to be on the other side of the state; he’s played with us before and we all enjoy having him around, but he moved, so, no more gaming. But we picked up MapTool and it worked really well for us the first time out.

Problem is, it requires more set-up on the part of the GM… namely, me. Doh. Anyway, it made me start thinking about the play style, because I’m used to free-forming everything and pulling the environment, etc. out of thin air. Now that we have to map it (rather than me just scribbling on a sketch pad to get the idea across), I’m consciously trying to avoid railroading.

It’ll be fun, and it’s about time I got another set of challenges as GM, but it got me to thinking, too. :slight_smile:

I’ve seen good ones do this…but I’ve also seen many, many more bad GM’s do this. If I knew a GM was going to do this, I probably wouldn’t play.

Being a GM requires prep work, IMO…AND MUCH OF IT!

However, designing a run-of-the-mill deserted castle doesn’t mean you have to place it on the map…to be ignored by the players. You keep it in your ‘portfolio’ and bring it out when you need. Little gets wasted. If it’s not used today…then maybe next week or next year.

I agree, but I’ve found that it requires prep work at the beginning most of all. We’ve been playing in this setting for… eight years? Characters have come and gone and at this point I’ve got a backlog of ideas planned out and ready to rumble, I’m just waiting for opportunities to use them. Usually in reaction to something the players have done, rather than a planned hook.

For example, one of the PCs just died through blatant stupidity; even the player admits he was being dumb. He was the primary driver behind one of the plotlines, and of course now that he’s toast the other PCs have decided that they’re going to change focus. At any rate, I’ve decided that the PC’s soul is now being carted around by the surviving PCs (via a piece of equipment he’d had at the time) and will torture them with it at a later date, so the original plot arc (which died with the dumbass) can be revived if needed via that hook.

Then there’s the big bad guy they’ve been chasing for a while, who started out as (they thought) their friend and team member. I hadn’t planned it that way, but needed an NPC villain and we had an ex-PC whose player wasn’t going to play, anymore. He was in the right place at the right time and was easy to set up with the right motivation, but it’s not something I sat down and planned to do, y’know? I’ve planned things since, but at the time it was improv.

One of the PCs (of course the most vocal) seems hell-bent on transforming himself into some sort of paranormal investigator; if he keeps it up I won’t have to do anything, the other PC’s will handle it. I’m actually not against the idea but he’s pissing everyone off trying to be a magic-wielding Ghostbuster’s clone when they all want to chase the big bad guy. Kinda funny, really. Last couple of sessions I’ve mostly just been watching as they argue, mostly in character, about what they’re going to do next. If he manages to convince them to join in on his crusade, I’ve got some ideas waiting, but I’m not going to bother to plan anything because I’m pretty sure it’s either a phase or the other PCs will snap him out of it before it goes anywhere.

And frankly I’m just waiting for them to go back to New York. They left a BIG mess there that’s just waiting to ooze out. Heh. What happened there was the original plot, that I planned and set up multiple hooks for, had NPCs fleshed out, differing factions intertwined, the whole nine yards. They followed a side plot across the Atlantic and have been having a hell of a time in Europe ever since… essentially having turned on the stove, closed all the windows, and left a stack of oil-soaked rags next to the oven before heading out the door. I could force them back on-track, but honestly, I think it’ll be more fun to let them get back to it when they get around to remembering… and then watching their faces when they realize, they set themselves up for this crap.

Point is, I agree with you about planning when you’re just starting out, but I’ve found it much easier to ‘go with the flow’ after things have been running a while. But now, I’m faced with the go with the flow style of play having to mesh with pre-plotted, planned sessions, because that’s the only way to include one of the players (who we’d all like to come back).

So yeah, it’s a challenge, but I’m trying not to (a) overplan, and (b) under-prepare. Tough balance!

Second this concerning prep work. I could never make an adventure really interesting without it.

What I eventually did was have certain “canned” sequences - for example, I had a great underwater adventure segment, which I could connect to any water feature or trap - and with a few twists, could fit into a game somewhere … a party may be crawling though an underground cavern and hear in the distance the roar of an underground river … if they take that route, I could add in the underwater adventure stuff … though it may be somewhat harsh on those without the proper spells or gear for breathing underwater. :smiley: [This exact scenario happened, with only one in the party actually able to descend into the depths … the rest, frantically shedding their armour and gear after falling into an underground river, spend some anxious time frantically treading water, while various unseen things clutched at their ankles and were driven off by their buddy - until they could crawl out, freezing and gearless, in another lightless part of the cavern … :wink: ]



I’ve never had a campaign last 2 years, let alone years. Thinking back, I had an overall ‘plan’ up to about lvl 15. I didn’t like really high level campaigns and usually I (and the players/friends) would move onto something new. After the ‘big finish’, we were usually ready for a change.

So, I have no experience with multi-year campaigns…my suggestion is something new? :slight_smile:

Heh. I was careful not to use the word campaign, but not quite clear enough, it seems.

We have a game world that has been running for eight years – we’ve all played various characters during that time, always set in the same setting. About four years ago I was picked as the permanent GM. The players have varied, from two at our least to twelve at the most. When a player gets bored, and it’s happened, they roll up a new character. But the setting itself we haven’t wanted to change, we’ve all liked it. It has changed – in many cases, through PCs actions, drastically – but the overall setting is the same.

It makes for easy encounters (I have a list of people/groups the PCs have pissed off), lots of in-jokes, and a never-ending source of amusement, a player who is so familiar with his environment he doesn’t bother asking about it any more. Which is a mistake, because it IS a living world, in a sense; things aren’t static.

But it’s not the same campaign we started with. There is one character who is still active who was on the original campaign set in this universe, and he’s an NPC villain now (not the same one mentioned before). In two cases, characters have been retired, several were abandoned because the players got bored, and quite a few have died. Usually from terminal stupidity; I don’t actively try to kill characters, but I don’t coddle them either, and I especially don’t let them escape miraculously when it was their own damn fault in the first place. :slight_smile:

Right now our highest level character is level 8, and he just reached that. The one who bit it last session was level 9; frankly, I think the player was getting bored and wanted a change, thus the complete disregard for little things like bothering to put on armor or trying to get under cover…

(Head go BOOM!)

After 26 years I am not running a campaign, it feels a little odd.

I always went with a mix of 2 & 3. The getting there and by what route was always part of the fun and often led to going places I did not even vaguely plan. During any given long campaign, there would be stretches, where the player did have to follow a set story to some degree. This was as so many of my campaigns went for the epic and took place in wars.

The last Campaign started as a massive two-part war and then once that was done the characters were powerful and wished to continue. They chose from a selection of about 8 choices and set out in a direction for which I had only the lightest plans. The options I had some more planning for were never taken. On the way south, they ran across a random encounter than turned into a small-scale sidebar where they assisted in over-turning a very racist, anti-wizard theocracy. The party consisted mainly of non-humans and the only humans were a Wizard and a Druid.

This scenario and a merchant venture played out over about 16 long games in a 2 year stretch. The campaign itself took a slow 4+ years to run down.

My Middle-Earth campaigns flowed over years. They often found themselves between adventures and would seek adventures at the good ole’ Prancing Pony or down in Minas Tirith. More often then not, I would try to let the players choose their paths. If they were stumped, I would then herd them in some direction I felt like taking.

As a player, I always hated the type 1 campaigns. I recall campaigns where the ref used extraordinary means to force us to what he had prepared. Places completely out of character for our characters.


I’ve been in #1 games before and absolutely hated them. I’ve also GMed with players who wanted me to run a #1 style game and it drove me insane. Every step of the way, they’d ask me what to do.

“Okay, so we found the letter and the body. Now what?”

“You’re still standing in the apartment. Tell me what you’re going to do.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“You aren’t supposed to do anything. That’s the beauty of it.”

I actually quit a game I was running because the players insisted on too much hand holding. They would do absolutely nothing without a prompt from me. They wouldn’t figure any of the puzzles out or take any initiative whatsoever. They just wanted me to tell them what to do. In one scene, we had cop characters called to a hotel where a famous actor was on a ledge, threatening to jump. One character was on a cell phone with the actor, another was being harassed by a reporter NPC. The reporter NPC kept asking pointed questions about another man who’d committed suicide the same way and from the same ledge a week prior, bringing up the cryptic things the man had said just before killing himself. At the same time, the actor NPC is saying the same cryptic things on the phone. The player characters ended up attacking the reporter for bothering them and my players were upset by not having been told what the appropriate response was. :smack:

When playing with a good group of players who don’t make me want to cry, I generally do #3 masquerading as #2. If I’m doing my job right, the players can’t tell how much I’m making up as I go along. I usually come up with a general idea and an end point I’d like to steer things towards and then the rest is on the fly.