At the heart of every tabletop rpg is improv. There’s that beautiful sweet moment when a player zags when you expected a zig. When the GM sees a window of opportunity to introduce pure unplanned chaos into the situation. When the dice come up snake eyes and leave a player high and dry with no options left. When that crit fells the beast in one shot, cutting short a six hour campaign in twenty minutes.
If you love tabletop, I think you live for these moments. For the sheer seat-of-your-pants panicked joy of figuring out what’s next. How do we follow the fiction from here? What do the rules allow for? What do our hearts really want in this moment?
Much of being a good roleplayer is learning to embrace these moments. In a recent game of Monsterhearts one of my players was a werewolf who failed a series of roles stumbling into deeper and deeper shit. He put the captain of the football team in the hospital. A photo of him wolfing out ended up on Instagram. The police wanted him for questioning. So, cornered, in the hospital room with the wounded football captain, the story reached a dead end. The police were on their way. The butcher’s bill was coming due. My player was at a loss and so was I, to be frank. I hadn’t planned for this. I hadn’t expected things to go so badly for this poor kid, for bad decision to stack on bad rolls and more bad choices. (this isn’t me blaming the player, MH is a game about making bad or questionable choices!)
So, what to do. Go back to first principles. Keep the story feral. Say what honesty demands. The wounded dude pulled aside his bandages to show a fully healed chest and said, “yeah, welcome to the pack.” And jumped out the window. Or something like that.
I had no plans for more werewolves. I had no pack. No alpha. No squad of bros hulking out and getting hairy in the woods. But now I did. Now, the story had breathing room. Now the lost, isolated character had community, had a goal, had a whole arc.
There’s a principle in Dungeon World that states: Play to find out what happens. It means, you won’t know what the story is until you’re in it. Stay open to possibility so you are ready to meet it on the road. Listen to your characters, to their wants and their needs. Be ready to scrap your plans and chase the story into whatever place it leads you.
We talk a lot in the writing community about plotting vs pantsing. As if there’s a clear choice between outlining and discovery. Most of the early stage writers I meet are plotters — outlining a story to an inch of its life. Looking for some kind of structure, some kind of roadmap to guide them through the murky swamp of invention.
But writing a novel is an act of faith. Faith in yourself. Faith in your vision. A belief that you do have something to say. A belief in an audience ready to hear it. And faith is not a gps. It follows no roads. And it cares about no plans.
Don’t get me wrong. An outline is a good thing. A plan is a good thing. Know what you’re trying to accomplish with this book. Know where you want to go. Outlines provide structure and help refine pacing and conflict and give you milestones to work towards.
That said, don’t forget to play to find out what happens. Don’t forget to listen to your characters. To be open to realizing you’re not in the story you thought you were in. Explore new paths. Be ready to burn the map and find new territory.
No one is purely a pantser or purely a plotter. Over time, I find more and more that writers discover a midpoint on this spectrum. A loose plan, a direction, but no more than two stars to the left and on til morning. A book is a journey and getting lost is part of the plan.