(I realize I am a day late in getting this post up, but the Gen Con aftermath left me exhausted.)
Today marks the tipping point for the ‘I in Improvise’ series, as we look at the third of the four techniques I use while running my games.
Ret-Con. Changes. Revisionism.
In a lot of ways, this is the most potent of the four techniques. It brings meaning to some of the wild and crazy ideas that spring up when you improvise. But it is the most subtle, because if you do it correctly, your players will never know.
When you are improvising behind the GM screen, you need to have realistic expectations of how your games are going to go. Everything changes. Constantly. Plots evolve, NPCs jump into new roles that you didn’t expect, and your reactions to player’s choices send the game spiraling into new areas. This is actually the expected outcome of improvising, so swallow the blind panic that just gripped you somewhere below your sternum, relax, and roll with it.
When these changes happen, you want the flexibility to react to them. Therefore, you need to resist the urge to firm up the plot as the game progresses. As GMs, we tend to accrete meaning to events as they play out, and soon the momentum of the story sends it accelerating down a track towards a conclusion. So what do you do when something super awesome happens at the table that totally contradicts what you had planned or had been building towards? With revisionism, you can step back in time and alter the trajectory of your story.
Step One: Keep Your Mouth Shut
Seriously. KEEP IT SHUT. Don’t blurt out that your player’s off the cuff idea is way better than where you were going. Or that it would be really cool if you had planned ‘X’ all along. Wait till after the session, and ponder the implications. And then revise your pre-planning to make their idea or ‘X’ part of your new plotline. What do I mean? I am glad you asked; here’s a real life example.
Once upon a time, I was playing in a fantastic game of Dresden Files.
[Minor Spoilers to Follow]
I, being the glutton for punishment that I am, was playing a Red Court Infected (half-way to becoming a vampire) who touched a Denarian coin (and had a demon’s shadow living in my head, trying to tempt me to fall). Over the course of the game, I thought I had identified which NPC was the projection of this shadow. At one point, I told another player, ‘You are the only one I trust.’ To which the GM blurted out, ‘how cool would it have been if he was your shadow.’ We all sat slack-jawed in silence and stared at him. It took a moment, but he realized how cool that really would have been and lamented his error in an explosive burst of profanity. He was right; it would have been amazing. Perhaps the greatest game I would have ever played in. But he didn’t keep his mouth shut, and the opportunity was lost.
[End of Spoilers]
Step Two: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!
It really does bear repeating. Seriously, do not open it.
Step Three: Revise!
If you can get the first two steps down, then this step is a breeze. It amounts to re-writing what you had planned or changing it to incorporate the new material. Comic book writers do this all the time. They have a fancy term for it, retroactive continuity. It amounts to something innocuous that happened before suddenly has new importance, or a new side of something being revealed.
Two things to remember when using revisionism. First, don’t over-complicate it. If your new idea touches on things that the players have never dealt with, just revise and move on. Maybe you want to start foreshadowing the new changes as you move forward, but if they haven’t touched it yet, just file the idea, and go back to the table. Let the new information simmer in your subconscious and add itself into the stew of pre-planning you have there.
Second, if you do have to change something the group has already established or interacted with, make the change as subtle as you can. Keep it super simple. In the Dresden File example from above, the path to simplicity would start with talking with the other player. If they were cool with playing my character’s shadow, the GM would help them lead my character, in slow, subtle steps, down the good-intentions-lined-path straight to damnation. If this seems heavy handed, remember, nothing and no one are ever as simple as they seem. Events and people are fractal growths of all of the factors that influenced them. The death of Archduke Ferdinand by itself was not so traumatic of a loss that the world suddenly went to war. It was the match that set off the tinderbox of Europe’s political scene. So, sudden revisions to the status quo are often just a matter of revealing a new facet of the story to your players.
Life does it all the time. I have a good buddy who, after years of knowing him as an adult, it turns out we actually knew each other from events in our past, but we had never connected back then. This new revelation opened up a whole new aspect of the friendship as suddenly we had years of shared experiences to commiserate over. You never know when a new facet will be revealed that changes how you look at a person or story or event.
Improvisation is more than just flexibility at the table. It encompasses a flexibility of mind that extends to all aspects of the game. Revisionism gives you the freedom to walk back and forth along the timeline of your story, making whatever adjustments you need to keep the game exciting and engaging to your players. It is a wild ride that you just don’t get from running an adventure path.