Play to See: a game mastering philosophy

I’ve had a number of requests to do an article on my personal game mastering philosophy.  As someone who is constantly trying to improve as a game master (GM), I’m hesitant to claim I know “the one true way”. Everyone is different and every group is different. I don’t know that there is one style that will fit all groups.  There are however certain ideas that seem to resonate across the spectrum.  The idea I like to hold to is what I call “playing to see what happens.”

The concept behind”Play to See”  is to imagine the adventure you are presenting as a something like an ink blot test.  There is no right answer to the problems and obstacles you present.  The joy of the game for the GM is to see the reactions of the players to the scenario you have presented. Whether their character triumph over adversity or make “good” or “moral” choice is immaterial.  Your job in this scheme is not to judge or presuppose their choices but to present them with interesting situations in which to make (hopefully) interesting decisions.

To understand how I got to this philosophy, it might be useful to look at one of the common spectrums of gaming philosophy when it comes to adventure and campaign design: railroading vs. sandbox play.

Railroading describes a situation where the GM has a definite plot in mind and implements the adventure or overall story with that plan in mind. Attempts by the players to deviate from the GM’s plan will often be resisted. At its worst, railroading thwarts and robs agency of the player characters (PCs) as they find every choice except one closed off.  Doors are unopenable, nonplayer characters (NPCs) irrationally unhelpful, and even in-character inferences are disallowed. Extreme forms of this are a classic case of bad GMing but less rigid versions of this can be enjoyable with the right group.

The advantages of a light railroading style include supporting passive players. These players rely on the GM to present easy problems with only a few obvious choices.  As you move along the spectrum toward more free form or sandbox play, you find games with multiple branching points where the story can take real twists and turns depending on the players’ choices, much like many modern computer RPGs.  A skillful GM can even make the rails of a railroading style seem almost invisible by carefully reading the players’ intentions and laying down choices for which they already know how the PCs will react.

Another advantage of railroading is that the GM generally has to put in less work into their world. This starts to break down however once the GM begins to incorporate multiple branching points into their story. This style supports a less dynamic GM by requiring more preparation and less improvisation.

The other end of the spectrum is the sandbox.  Here the GM creates a world, with characters, their schemes and events. All of this plays out as the PCs interact with it. They are not forced along any particular route.  This is a great advantage to groups with proactive players who then have the freedom to explore the world however they wish.

It does require more work of GM, who has to be able to improvise and advance NPC plots on the fly.  There is a lot of work that needs to be put into the game early on: establishing NPCs and the shape of the world.  This will pay off in play but the front loading can be daunting.

Alternatively many newer games pawn off this work onto the players, using their ideas to fill out what the world as a whole looks like.  This can mitigate this aspect of the game.  It does however require players who are willing to put in this kind of work and a system that facilitates the generation of ideas.

A major disadvantage of sandbox play is for passive players who can find themselves at a loss of what to do.  In the absence of something “to do” they might find their character spinning their wheels, lost in the sandbox without direction.

Not a sandbox or a railroad.
Not a sandbox or a railroad.

“Play to See” falls on the sandbox side of the spectrum but rather than leaving the exploration of the setting open to the players, it supposes that you, as the GM, have certain decision points and situations you want your players to encounter.  As such each adventure then centers on one of more of these situations and pushes them to this decision point. What choice they ultimately make is not important.  It is the choice that your focus is on.

For example you might present the PCs with the problem of doomsday device that requires the sacrifice of a soul to stop.  They might choose to sacrifice one of their own. Or they choose to kill an enemy instead. Perhaps they find a way to trick the device with an artificial soul.  Or they let it go off. The point is not to assume any of these choices is the right one (or that there is a right choice) but to make your focus and interest in the game is on seeing what those choices are.

More like this.
More like this.

The advantage of this over railroading is that the players keep agency.  You don’t have an ultimate plan in mind so whatever decision they make doesn’t impinge on your enjoyment. There is no temptation to steer them back on course. Their choices are their own.  A proactive player can disregard the entire plot (itself a choice) and create their own plots.

Meanwhile in contrast to pure sandbox play, there are always event coming up to keep things moving. Even purely passive players who lurk at the tavern looking to be hired by the creepy guy in corner can be prodded into action. Maybe they are hired to transport slaves. Do they do it? Next time perhaps the tavern catches fire. do they help out? What do they tell the guards?

Essentially, the fundamental flaw I see from railroading is that it takes choice away from the players.  The fundamental flaw I see in sandbox play is that it can fail to present players with a choice.

By focusing on the presentation of the choice and then stepping away from it, I think you get the best of both worlds. You give the players vast freedom to choose but control events by being the one to select what they get to make a decision about.

At the same time as the GM, you get to enjoy one of the great aspects of being a player, the thrill of the unknown.  As a player you rarely know for certain what will happen next. You rely on the GM and the possible roll of the dice.  But as a GM your surprise is mainly though the choices of the players (there is some element of the unexpected if you have a randomization factor in your game, like dice, but it isn’t a given).

The important thing I think is to remove your hopes and wishes for the choice from equation. Let the players make their own choices and they will surprise you. You might think there are only two choices but they will find a third and perhaps a fourth. Don’t be afraid to focus on the immediate. Don’t plan farther ahead than you must. “Play to See” means that you can’t be sure where the players will go and you don’t want to waste your time developing the left and right paths when the PCs decide to dynamite the dungeon instead.