A week before last Friday I had my normal L5R game. That game regularly has me nervous. I have great players, and I have a lot going on in the game, but I never feel like I'm delivering on plot points as well as the game deserves. Last session, I feel I was finally able to deliver in the way I wanted.
So, what was different?
The Right Kind Of Preparation
I've been GMing for decades now, literally, and over the years my prep work has changed in various ways. It's only recently that I've found the truth behind the saying "every game has its own preparation method." It's not a GM thing, for me, so much as it is a game thing. With this game the approach I'm taking is more individualized.
Everyone Gets A Story
This should be true for every game, but my L5R game is less about a party of adventurers/magistrates/etc and more about a group of individual samurai in a city who work together, but also have their own stories. There is a meta plot as well, but that's just one of several threads running through this game.
In writing one of the methods of planning is to plot out your tentpole moments. These are the moments that need to happen to hold up the whole story. For example, in Star Wars the tent pole moments are: Luke meets the Droids and Ben Kenobi about the Rebellion's need, Luke decides to go with Obi Wan, The Rescue of Princess Leia, The attack on the Death Star, and Victory. There is a lot that happens between those things, but those are the key moments that the story hinges on.
But Games Have Choice
The problem with Tentpole moments in games is that Tentpoles need to happen, which makes a linear path through the story, but games don't have linear paths. At any point in an RPG Luke could decide to just wipe R2-D2, kill Ben Kenobi, and become a Tusken Raider or something. He could choose not to leave Tattooine. He could offend the Princess and not join the Rebellion. He could do anything. Because of this, for so long, I tried to stay away from those moments.
But Flow Charts...
And so for preparation I went to flow charts with tent poles. The charts aren't fully realized, but I plan out the next two to three moments in the plotline, find the tent pole moments, and then figure out the extreme ways the moment could go.
Now, by extremes I don't mean "burn down the city" or "save all the people' but more binary yes or no type results. For example, one of my characters has a sword that is heavily tied to the realm of slaughter and the realm of the hungry dead. That sword is the character's plot. They've been tasked to bring it back into balance, but the sword devours anyone who goes near it. To fight this they need a sheathe capable of containing the sword. So, the tent pole for that part of the story is "Does Oramari get a sheathe for her sword before it fully awakens?" I then have a direction for Yes and a direction for No. Easy enough, right?
Now, just multiply that by the 5-6 players in my game, add another couple for the metaplot, and I have a checklist of plot points to go to with every session. I make sure at least one check box is worked towards for each character, and it should make for a good game.
Who knows, maybe it will work for you too.