The Shackles of Precognition

In the past few years I’ve had a lot more regular weekly games than one-shots. Mostly games with no GM, so no one is writing a story for us to follow. We are all just playing in the moment and seeing what happens.

I love it. Except for one thing, which I’m doing to myself.

Sometimes I come to the session with an idea for a scene already in mind. It usually happens when I know my turn is next and I want to be ready to leap right in and frame a scene to get the game started quickly — can’t waste precious game time!

But it always feels like cheating. It doesn’t feel genuine to show up with a scene already baked. Even if it’s a great idea, I feel bad because it doesn’t feel like I’m playing in the moment. I’m reciting a bit of story I already wrote, even if it’s just a premise for a scene.

And it’s a slippery slope. Once you have a starting point, and a whole week to think about it, you start imagining what you’ll say and how it might play out. Soon you have a whole mental script of what you want to happen. Even if you remind yourself that these are only things that could happen, you’ve got a whole agenda looking over your shoulder. A script monkey on your back, interfering with your spontaneity.

It sucks, and it goes totally against the principles of these games. And the irony is that the more fun the game has been, the more tempting it is to think about all the things that could happen, because the game is fun to think about!

Once I get past any planned material, everything is fine, and the game becomes natural and fun again. I’m just reacting and improvising, listening to what the other players are bringing and running with it. That is true, in-the-moment, play. And when I make scenes mid-game, they’re spontaneous and often even better, because they’re hot reactions to the vibe at the table, right now.

This trap of planning ahead only comes up a fraction of the time — usually only when my scene is next, and even then only some of the time — but I’ve been wrestling with different ways to fight it. Sometimes I’ll jettison a pre-planned scene idea at the last minute and make something else up on the spot. Or I’ll ask other players involved in the scene questions so they help shape it. “Would your character have been following me, or is this just a chance encounter?” etc. That immediately starts to make it something organic and interactive, freeing me from my preconceptions.

Either way, I try to get the pre-planned bit out of the way as quickly as possible so I can get back to playing in the moment and seeing how the other characters respond and react. Outrun my own precognition to escape, Muad’dib-style.

I see other players pre-plan scenes too. Honestly it happens all the time, I assume for all the same reasons. But ironically it doesn’t bother me when other people do it, probably because I’m still playing in the moment so I’m having a normal game experience. It only bothers me when they go too far and are clearly laying out a whole story line they’re attached to, trying to GM the game from within.

Are they burdened with guilt the way I am when I roll up with a scene idea in a wheelbarrow? I do not know. I’m guessing some yes, some no.

    Ben Robbins | March 31st, 2023 | , , | show 4 comments