Over the last couple weeks I've asked several of my players for feedback on my GMing style. In specific I've asked the question: how would you describe my style of GMing, and the type of games that I run?. The idea with this question was to see what my approach to game was perceived to be, more than to find out if the player found me to be a good/strong/skilled GM or not. I am interested in if people think I'm a good GM - I want them to be having fun in my games and that requires good GMing - but it wasn't the point of this question.
In all cases the answer I received hovered around two things: my approach was very character focused, and I was big on choices and consequences - which to me is something of an extension of character focused. So how does that work?
The Only Plot That Matters: Who Are You?
It is said there is only something like 37 unique plots in all of human storytelling. Thousands of years of telling stories, and we only have 37 plot lines. The number is higher or lower depending on who is giving the report, but it is almost always sub 50. However, I've also heard the argument that all stories are just variants on one plot line - the ultimate plot line: who is this character.
Villains are often regarded as more interesting characters than heroes. Part of this - I think - is because the hero often has to serve as the viewpoint for the reader, and thus has to be a little bland so the reader can identify with them. The villain, by contrast, is under no such constraint and thus gets to shine as brightly as possible. We get a great sense of who the villain is in a well done story. The hero is just some guy or girl that possesses certain qualities - those often a grab bag of the culture telling the story's positive traits - and open enough to help you insert yourself as them.
In RPGs though, you have all of the PCs as major characters to be revealed. Wrapping a story around finding out who those characters are means testing those characters, prodding them, giving them tools and resources and seeing what they do.
It's Not What They Can Do, It's What They Will Do
In a John Wick "Playing Dirty" video, he asserts that power creep is not something a GM should be concerned with. He asserts that it doesn't matter what a character can do, but that as the GM you should be finding out what the player will do. The example he uses is Batman. Batman is a very powerful character in every system. It's practically a joke how strong Batman is - just look at all the threads debating batman vs. X - but he still manages to have interesting stories. Why? Because revealing who batman is, holding him over the fire to see if he melts, or doing that to other characters in the comics makes for interesting stories.
To quote John Wick: Batman won't use guns. So put a gun in his hands and see what happens.
You can do this with your characters. Yes, you're running your normal game too, but you should be putting your PCs to decisions. It shouldn't just be a question of do they succeed or not, but how do they succeed. Who do they help when given those options? When given the choice between helping someone who asked for their aid out of desperation, or helping the Crown Prince of a kingdom, who gets priority?
And once you have that answer, what has to happen to reverse that answer? What do the stakes have to be? Can it even be done?
Consequences are a key part of this. If what your players are choosing has no impact, then you won't really find out who they are. However, if they get to experience the rewards for their choices - and the punishments - then you get to find out who they are.
Yes, you need to have both. In an ideal world every choice your PCs make will have both positive and negative consequences. Sometimes there will be more negative than positive. Sometimes there will be more positive than negative. But you always want to have both. It is ok if they don't see the negative consequences right away, but in general you should always have some good in there.
Also, these choices should not have a right or wrong answer. That isn't to say you can't have choices that have that - the players can choose to aid the villain in acquiring the mcguffin, and that might be the wrong c hoice for continuing the game, but every choice shouldn't be a "this is the right answer" vs. "this is the wrong answer." Just like every choice should not be "right" or "death."
Strong Characters Make Stories
Why do we do all this? Mostly because we're lazy. And being lazy means taking the shortest path to acquiring our goal. The shortest path to having 'good' stories that require the least set up is to have strong characters.
Strong characters with understood motivations and action paths will make a story happen where no story is present. Something as simple as a trip to the beach can be a whole thing with strong characters as they interact and come into conflict. I have a friend who understands the characters of Ranma 1/2 that all you have to do is give him a setting or premise and he can tell you what would happen in any number of episodes or longer stories between certain characters just because he understands them that well.
Your game can do this too. At a certain point, when the player understands their character and their goals, they will write content for you. They will flat out tell you "I am going to take down X NPC" or "I want to do Y thing" and then you don't have to worry about why things are happening, just what is happening. The players are driving the game.
Beyond having players run your game for you, the other benefits are numerous too. When you focus on the characters, the players feel engaged. By focusing your prep on learning about the characters you naturally make the game about those characters and thus those players.
Players will return this investment, which in turn makes your game stronger. Even better, once a player sees you will work with them, they will try to do more awesome things in your game. They will try to do things they've always wanted to, but could never find a game to do it in. Which means they'll be excited for your game.
Excitement is contagious. Investment is contagious.
Give it a try if you haven't already. You might be surprised.