Yin & Yang of GMing
There are two conflicting urges in every GM, forces that boil like seething dragons twisting in the blood (and so on):
1) the urge to tell the players a story, impress them with your craft, be in control of the game
2) the urge to have the players do stuff, take control, be independent and make decisions that shape and drive the game
These are the yin and yang of GMing. They are competing forces and in some ways total opposites.
The tricky bit is to be a good GM you have to allow both to exist in harmony. Suppress one or the other and you’ve got trouble.
I’ve said it a million times (well maybe not here, but talk to me sometime and you’ll get an earful): going into a game thinking you are telling a story or wanting to impress your players is bad. It leads to bad things, like a lecture circuit instead of a game.
But I’m lying, or at least oversimplifying. If you didn’t have that urge to impress the players, to hit them with a story that knocks their socks off, you probably wouldn’t have scheduled a game in the first place. You might not be GMing at all. When it’s two hours before game time and you’re kind of wishing you could just cancel the game because you aren’t sure it’s not going to suck (double-negative police, stay alert) believing you have a game planned that will impress the players is what will get you over the hump, because you don’t know what the players are going to do. You don’t know what spontaneous spark of genius they’re going to bring to the game — and neither do they because they haven’t seen the game yet. It’s the future, it’s a mystery. So the only thing you, the GM, can solidly wrap your hopes around is the game you have on paper. Is it any wonder lots of GMs have the storytelling urge? It’s the thing that gets you to the table, the thing that drives scheduling the game. It makes you prepare a game, which is a good first step, so long as you have the fortitude to abandon that preparation during the game if necessary.
So while I dump on storytelling as a dead end or a terrible, terrible addiction, the storytelling urge is valuable so long as it does not overwhelm. It has to be balanced by the desire to draw the players out, make them forge their own destinies and make their own action (in a cave, on Brontitall). This isn’t the dark side of the Force vs the light side, one good one bad — this is yin & yang, opposites that should be kept in balance.
Even if it’s just that burst of enthusiasm you put into making the captured goblin have a funny voice and an interesting personality, that’s your storytelling / impress them urge being put to good use.
From the GM’s point of view, storytelling is the active yang force and wanting the players to make independent decisions is the passive yin force. But you know what? The players have the same conflicting urges: their active yang is to take control and do stuff or impress others, their passive yin is to sit back and let you tell them a story. They need balance too, towards the GM and even towards other players. Sometimes they need to talk, and sometimes they need to listen. Being a passive audience can be a terrible temptation, particularly if your GM (or other players) is a good storyteller.
It was the urge to get my players to “do stuff” that led to experiments like West Marches, Promised Land, and obliquely Run Club. I was (I think) too good at preparing games that were fun and exciting even if the players did nothing special. I unwittingly trained them to be passive by bringing too much fun, providing too much entertainment. Extreme measures were called for. Instead of just poking the players periodically and saying “hey, what do you do?” I needed to change the dynamic by changing the rules of the game.