member, 22 posts
 A small space
 to hide the Hysteria
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 20:49
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Hoping to get a bit of insight from experienced freeform GM's of RPoL.

I've been monitoring a number of freeform games I actively participate in for a few months now in hopes of finding smart GM moves and strategies that are being used in hopes of being able to further define the freeform game that I currently run. As with many games on RPoL, my game has currently run into the issue of lack of interest despite my efforts to guide and redirect characters to pick up on clues for a large plot in the game. My players are still active; they sign in often enough despite the very small number of characters that still post in the game. But I'm discouraged and wishing I could involve my players a bit more, especially where plot is concerned.

I've noticed that sandbox games are a 50/50: if the characters and players in the game have their own plots to run, they're more inclined to be active in the game whether the GM is there to offer a nudge in a certain direction or not. Generally, if the players are left to their own devices but are not able to build on a plot for their character or are left to wander without much purpose, they usually end up not contributing to the story as much, and therefore their characters sit in the background with not much involvement in the game itself. Eventually these characters either leave, or they slowly disappear from any real productive activity. Dead weight, essentially.

I've also noticed that if the freeform game begins by lumping all the characters in one place and having the GM literally create one singular tunnel/direction for them to go in, the game is generally much more active, and the players tend to engage a bit more. I suspect many dice games are this way as well, and it makes me wonder how I can utilize this strategy in something that is meant to be a bit more sandbox-y.

I'm wondering if there are any other experienced freeform GM's out there who can give me some advice about this: what strategies work really well for you? What doesn't? Are there things I should consider in order to re-ignite a bit more excitement for what is going on in the game? If one feels that maybe a restart might be warranted, what should happen to ensure that restart is more successful? If I like certain parts of my game and don't want to do a full restart, what should a soft restart look like?

Thanks in advance!

 member, 53 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 21:39
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Not a freeform GM but one with a weird semi-sandboxy thing: I found the major thing that made a difference (aside from making sure to use elements from characters' backstories - pick less predictable but purely personal elements, like the old kung-fu rival showing carrying jiang shi infection, and it'll work like a charm) was realising that a lot of players act more like baby chickens than cats.

Switching from just throwing many things in front of them in hopes they'd go sniff one to having a "mother hen" whom PCs can go back and report to/be given tasks by really helped me strike that balance between straight-line structured gameplay and letting uninspired PCs mill about and lose too much momentum. Time limits on things also help.
 member, 426 posts
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 21:48
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Just remember, most players can't, or don't, have initiative to create plots on their own. Inform them that they do have that ability, but screen their ideas first!

Create special events periodically that everyone can participate in. This is easiest for historical games; but there is no reason why historical ideas can't be transported to other genres.

Don't worry about ebbs and flows in posting. It happens in every game. Sometimes players just need to chill their characters a bit.
 member, 23 posts
 A small space
 to hide the Hysteria
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 22:04
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Ahh! The mother hen bit makes a LOT of sense: now that I'm thinking about it that pattern does persist in some of the case study games I've been watching too! Good to know, I'm definitely taking that one down!

The interesting thing is that with the game I currently run, all the characters have really great backgrounds and in-depth stories that all lead to their own plots. I hand picked my players, so I assume that the people who join are folks who trust me as a GM and as someone who is capable of assisting them in building a story. I put in the work to talk with all of my players individually to give them prompts for their characters and to ensure they have all the right pieces to make their own plots work, all while also plugging in a major plot for those who would be more interested in interlocking relationships with other players that may not be a part of their own plots.

And yet...interest has waned on both the smaller plots as well as the main plot, despite myself as a character and a number of NPCs who are actively offering nuggets of information and tidbits of snacks to lure my players. I would be curious to learn more about time limits though, since giving players two weeks to play through a day, for example, could work for some but for others who still lag behind a little bit i a scene, it may still take time for everyone to be caught up. I worry this will keep players behind and eventually out of the game as a whole when I don't really want to be rotating characters and players in and out of the game every quarter.
 member, 54 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 23:30
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I feel you...sounds like you could do with a bit more interweaving of plots, but also? If everyone is off on their summer holidays or something like that, physically distracted by real life, call a hiatus and use it as prep time to set up immediate, mid-distance and future Problems for your folk to deal with. Trying to push the plot along when people just don't have the 'go' to spare at that time just feels awful.

I meant more in-game time limits, like "if you don't work out the Dastardly Plan of the Very Wicked Witch and break the curse before the Prince's 15th birthday, the Prince will become a dragon with no memory of his former life, ambitions, or desire not to roast the entire court like peanuts": so you have a goal, and if the characters don't concentrate enough to hit it in time, there are Consequences. It might be hours rather than days depending on how your game is paced, but the limit is there, clock ticking. Be ruthless in enforcing it and folk will realise they have to think of things and maybe even delegate, because if walking there takes three hours when you have to steal a horse, right? Shennanigans ensue.

As for people with different post rates, that's mostly down to experience in learning how to give the slower players things that can be done in less posts but realistically take longer, e.g. "take a jog to Gunderbad and get [important information], come back" and faster players doing more complex tasks/talking to NPCs you have to poke a lot to get information out of. On the theme of information, be aware that for those that need more guidance in PbP especially, you have to be plenty obvious and/or occasionally remind players what their characters know.
 member, 1508 posts
 Captain Oblivious!
Sat 6 Jul 2019
at 00:01
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I've found that having a sandbox style game only works so well.   I prefer having a carrot or two for the players to chase, in addition to the main story line; really works out well.
 member, 1574 posts
Sun 7 Jul 2019
at 00:34
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
First, I never run freeform, because rules are far too useful as communication aids, but I do run about as close to freeform as you can get while still using a full rules system, including sandboxes.

The biggest thing to get players moving forward is to give them an objective. Far too often do gms see two options, structured storyline or undirected sandbox. But those are mot actually the only ways to go. You can create situations, not plots, that inherently involve the players.

For example, the players have something that is wanted by other groups who try to kill the pcs to obtain.  Baulder's gate did this by saying the pc had a shard of a dead god's soul for example.

Another example is to attack the town where the pcs are, perhaos have a bbeg try to conquer it.

How are these different from a railroaded story? Simple, these are only what the bad guys do, and do not include any expectations what-so-ever about what the pcs do in response. There is no plot, no map of what happens next.

You should basically treat it like a game of chess between the antagonists and the pcs, with the pcs gaving free range to act as they desire about it, while the antagonists respond in kind.

What makes it become an interesting and compelling story will be conflict and mystery. Thus the key is making the antagonist's objectives come into immediate conflict with the players, to basically say that the antagonist can't leave the pcs alone without abandoning their objective, or dropping something obviously unexplained and weird in the pc's lap to hook them by their curiousity.

That will get your game going in general, but there is another possible issue that has nothinb to do with the game itself, and that is how you are running it.

For example, in one game I'm currently in, mission just ended, so my character has free time. Nothing going on right now involves her. No conflict, no trouble, nothing. So now ig is up to me as a player to fill this void, but I'm having trouble with that because of the structure being used. The game uses some sort of weird location based threads, so now I'm limited in where I can go, I am also expected to make up npcs to fill in and where am I supposed to describe my character going somewhere new?

Basically, that game is a sandbox without sand. The players are expected to do many of the gm's jobs, such as adding characters, events, locations, world data, etc. In other words, the game is a sandbox where the players bring their own sand. That can be good for certain kinds of players, but most players are looking for a sandbox that already has the sand filled in.

So you should make it easy and obvious for players to go from place to place, and to fill in detail in as much as you can, where-ever they go. Basically, let them enjoy exploring, and toppling, your sandcastle, instead of expecting them to build their own.

So, to recap, make the world dynamic and inherently in conflict with the players, and also, fill in detail for the players to explore, never expect them to fill in details themselves, yet don't discourage it (unless their additions are contradictory to established material).
 member, 962 posts
Tue 9 Jul 2019
at 17:00
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
The 'mother hen' is a good concept to keep things moving, but there is a danger of it backfiring.

Be careful that the players don't become 'hatchlings', constantly crowding round Mother Hen with their mouths open, displaying zero initiative and expecting the GM to spoon feed them:

"We've been on patrol, like you asked, sir, and some enemy troops started shooting at us, sir, what do you want us to do now, sir?"

"We met a traveller on the road, sir, and he gave us some intel, sir, but we don't know whether we should act on it, sir. What do you think, sir?"

Believe me, it happens...