Michael Cule: “You play to find out what the game is about. And the players will teach you what the game is about. They’ll ask questions that you never thought of, the questions you never thought needed an answer. That’s the sort of thing you need to be able to improvise about and turn on a dime, and stick something in, or make something up, that’s going to confirm and answer the questions you never thought were going to go into it.”
Roger Bell-West: “Every time the players say let’s follow clue A rather than clue B or C, they’re saying this is the thing we’re interested in.”Michael and Roger are talking there about improvising in investigative campaigns. My preferred style for running a game is improv, arguably because I’m too lazy to prep but also because I don’t think it’s the referee’s job to author a story and then herd the players through it.
My own improv is along the lines of seeing what the players are interested in and running with it. As a rule I don’t actually retcon what I’ve already decided is going on in an adventure, because that strikes me as unfair on the players. How can you uncover the truth if the facts themselves can be altered? Armistead Maupin famously retconned a key plot twist into Tales of the City when a reader wrote in while the stories were being serialized to point out that one of the characters' names had an unusual anagram. In retrospect it worked, but I'm not sure any of the rest of us should try it at home.
When I ran the Victorian scenario “Murder Your Darlings”, there was an opportunity I might have seized to change the whole story. The characters came across a twenty-year-old photograph taken in India of a woman who looked a lot like one of the maids currently working in the house of the murdered ex-major. Instead of taking it as evidence of the maid being the major’s illegitimate daughter (the result of his affair decades earlier with a family friend, who was the woman in the photograph) they jumped to the conclusion that she must be a naga or immortal shape-changing lamia. And I could have made it so. They wanted a supernatural explanation, so why not give them one? The risk in changing the plot with a significant retcon is that it can ripple out to invalidate other facts the characters have already uncovered. O, what a tangled web we weave…
Listening to Michael and Roger talking about The Armitage Files, I got to thinking about “The Unseen Hand” (last week’s scenario) and how you could run that, not as the ironic experiment in conspiracy theory it was designed to be, but as a flurry of happenstance, coincidence and enemy action from which the players could grab some threads and tug on them, and that would decide the real direction of the story.
The Tesla angle, for instance. ‘Nikola Tesla must be experimenting with AC vril power…’ one player might say excitedly. Personally I'm already heartily sick of "Tesla the sci-fi hero" stories (yawn) but OK, it’s a science fiction campaign based on Lovecraftian themes, so why not? The Tesla connection could let you fold in and embellish roughly contemporary stories such as Alpha the robot (pictured above) and his occasional acts of murderous rebellion. As the players’ investigations show you what they are hoping and fearing from the adventure, you can lay the rails just one step ahead of them. Little do they know that the investigation is going to be whatever they want it to be.
I’m still not sure about that level of “total improv”. It’s how a lot of Doctor Who writers seem to plot their stories, but once you notice that they’re ass-pulling on a regular basis, there’s not much incentive to care. Likewise, if players cotton on that you’re adapting the facts to fit whatever they say, disbelief isn’t so much suspended as thrown off the roof. So if you try it, do so sparingly – but, seeing as I did say you risk getting lynched if you play “The Unseen Hand” as written, nobody could blame you for chickening out and turning it into a seat-of-the-pants episode of cosmic weirdness instead.