GM Gym #1: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Are you a game master? Do you seek to broaden your horizon and up the games you’re mastering? Then we’re in the same boat.

Despite being a relatively new GM, I’ve already run some unconventional games in my time, and I’m always looking for the next challenge to check off my GM bucket list.* In this new series, I want to share my adventures with you, frame them as fun exercises, and perhaps inspire you to try something similar. Let’s enter the dojo of our minds, and work out those mental muscles together!

Today’s exercise: Running the same oneshot for multiple different groups.

They say that anything can happen in a TTRPG; but can it really? How much of the game’s course is really determined by the choices of the party, and how much of it is subconscious railroading on the GM’s part?

I found this question floating around in my mind a few times back when I started out. Luckily, one of my first major challenges as a GM would shed some light on it; when I offered a digital D&D oneshot at my workplace during the pandemic, twenty-four colleagues signed up.

Fitting them all into one session was unthinkable, so I split them up into six groups of four, and scheduled six game nights over what I believe were three weeks.

The oneshot I ran was the only pre-written adventure that I’ve been able to properly work with so far (not that I’ve tried many); The Wolves of Welton by Winghorn Press. A great game to play with first-timers, as it features some combat, plenty of negotiating, a bit of tracking, and an oh-so-delightful moral dilemma. It’s simple, but very memorable.

It becomes even more memorable when you play it six times in a row. Just thinking about it fills me with nostalgia; never has a place in D&D felt more real to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself – first, to answer the original question: Yes. Anything can happen.

How it went

Not only did I play the same scenario with all groups – with them being mostly newbies, I even pre-made four PCs, complete with backstories and traits, and let the players distribute the sheets among themselves. Still, the games were vastly different, and incredibly fun.

Four of six groups solved the mission via negotiation between the involved factions, one of them even managing an entirely kill-free game. Another group chose to brutally eradicate one of the factions, while a last group hilariously miscommunicated with everyone and ended the session in the midst of an angry mob of the same villagers that had originally hired them.

There were epic battles with individual highlights, and smart moves. Same with the dialogue; it was always unexpected, and often players would come up with genius – or completely bonkers – suggestions I hadn’t thought of yet. Even in the fifth game, I still had to invent a new location with a new NPC inhabiting it because the players insisted on interrogating them.

The overall plot wouldn’t always follow the linear route described in the adventure either; two groups in particular circumvented a significant portion of it right at the beginning by trapping and questioning an enemy that was supposed to run away and remain mysterious until later on. And this was despite the adventure’s very simple structure and short duration.

What I learnt

That every player – and thus, every party – is unique, and that good, unexpected things usually happen if you know your world and let them take the reins exploring it.

I also feel like this is sort of a gateway exercise** that provides an environment for training stuff that might otherwise get lost in the hassle of holding a session together that you can’t run in your sleep yet:

  • First off, you have a chance to get used to feeling confident and prepared at the table.
  • Sat on this comfortable base, you can not only work on little details like NPC quirks and voices, you can also get to know your NPCs’ perspectives and motivations better. I noticed that, after a few sessions, it was becoming far easier for me to react naturally to players talking to the different NPCs – not just in voice and wording, but in content. I’d recall an NPC’s stance on a topic from a previous game, or factor in a secret of theirs that a previous player’s inquiries had prompted me to invent. They were starting to feel alive, and I think it showed in the game.
  • You can of course also vary all sorts of other details, add some fluff here and there, and resolve the nagging question whether the local blacksmith should have had explosives in stock. (Yes.) More interestingly, you can simultaneously go the opposite route and distill the adventure down to its essential core. This will, to an extent, happen automatically; as you identify the irrelevant and confusing parts of the story, you will naturally discard them in favor of richer, more engaging plot points and corners of the world.
  • Lastly, playing a oneshot over and over again, especially a remotely diplomatic one like The Wolves of Welton, with different factions making decisions based on each other’s actions in real time, is a great way to practice handling just that; the consequences of player actions and the parallel actions of NPCs – e.g. what the villagers discuss while the players are out adventuring, and how they will greet them when they return.

In conclusion, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re only running a repeat oneshot to save prep time; you’re conducting research! You’re putting in those reps for your GM gains, and you’re putting yourself on the path to GM greatness! Till next time, back in the gym.

* If there’s a crazy challenge you’ve done or that you want me to do, let me know!
** And what a fitting choice, thus, for the first episode of this series!

Cover photo by Grégoire Bertaud on Unsplash

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