Thursday, June 9, 2016

Underseasoned and Overstuffed

The first of my Player Profile Posts is not quite ready at the time of this entry, so I'll go right into the return of one of my favorite reoccurring features - What Other GMs Do Wrong!

Now before I go ahead and accidentally offend any of my fellow Gamemasters with my snarky wit, and no-holds-barred criticism of the way they might do things, I'd just like to say 'Tough Noogies'.

Perhaps you weren't paying attention to previous entries in this series. That's kind of what it's about.

I all seriousness though, this isn't directed at any particular GM, nor is it a critique of any one particular campaign. If you feel it is - that is to say, if I know you personally and you think I am talking about you - please know I am not directing it at you. Also, you may want to listen to You're So Vain by Carly Simon [one of my all time favorite songs].

Of course, as I've noted before, if you think the comments and criticisms in this post relate to your game...maybe they do.


"I have this awesome setting! It's so different, and weird - it will blow away all your preconceived notions, and standards expectations of what fantasy is!

To start off though, we'll begin our campaign, and spend the next dozen session, or so here..."

This is Underseasoned.

"I have so many ideas for our campaign I'm practically bursting. I think I have it all organized though. I'll start simple..."

This is Overstuffed.

What's going on here? It's pretty simple.

Most GMs don't ^#@*ing know how to dole out content.


What Other GMs DO Wrong: Doling Out Content

I've seen this issue a lot over the past 10 years, and it manifests in two different ways. Either a GM tells you about all this amazing stuff that exists in their campaign setting, but they drip it out so slowly that even a camel would die of thirst waiting for the exciting parts to appear (Underseasoned), or the GM has the patience of hyperactive, twitch gamer and tries to shove thirty pages of world-building notes down your throat in a single 4-6 hour session (Overstuffing).

The former happens mainly with older GMs so far as I've noticed. Perhaps they've experienced one too many campaigns that got to the main plot, big bad, or climax point too quickly. To compensate, they stagger their best material out over a great length of time, hoping it will facilitate the campaign's longevity.

This is a reasonable assumption, and not even a bad plan at first glance. Look a little closer though - this is the 21st century. It's the age of twitter, snapchat, and attention spans shorter than a hair is thin. Even if that were only the case for younger gamers, we older gamers are getting old. We ain't got time to wait for you to make your game cool. Make it cool now! We have responsibilities, medication we have to take, and other such things. Our free time is limited! Make it count! Entertain us!

Do not make me sit through four, or five sessions of fighting brigands, and kobolds when before the game [to convince me to play] you talked about the roving bands of deformed, and twisted Humans with peculiar supernatural powers who'd been changed by Unseelie Fae. Where are they? Show me them!

What are you waiting for? Really? Do you think that once I see the cool stuff I'm going to expect you to top it every following session? No! Not unless you start doing that yourself. Some writers do try that. Each episode has to out awesome the last until they get into one-ups-manship arms race with themselves that there's no way to win. (See Star Trek Voyager).

As for Overstuffing...

This is much more common with novice GMs, and younger ones sometimes. I separate novice and young because they are definitely not the same. It's all about experience, and the habits you've formed, or hopefully haven't. It's much easier to adapt, and be flexible to new ideas and approaches if you aren't already set in your ways.

OK, enough life coaching...

What happens when you Overstuff your sessions is that you put in more material than the players can effectively process. Often this causes them to become confused, NPC names are forgotten, and at its worst, the process can make the climax of a story arc seem rushed. Why? Well in the GMs desperate attempt to fit every last thing into the story that they wanted to (and we're talking A LOT of material in this case) he, or she blows past the smaller details players may be interested in experiencing as their characters.

For example, if during the arc there was a subplot involving a PC, and their estranged brother, the player of that character may find that subplot pushed aside, or rectified rather quickly to accommodate the big final of an Overstuffed adventure.

An Overstuffed game is tough for the GM as well.

For one thing, the more you add, the more elements you have in play, the harder it is to juggle them all. You can easily get lost in your own attempt at awesomeness if you're not used to handling a large number of moving parts at the same time.

Obviously the idea of rushing a sequence [mentioned above] falls upon the Gamemaster first, and foremost. It is often difficult to avoid, as you work toward closing up loose threads,  making sure everyone has a moment in the spotlight (PCs and NPCs alike), and getting to the climax of the session, or the end of the arc.

Another issue is, well, a creative one. You have All These Great Ideas! What if...what if schedules conflict and the campaign is cut short. What if the players waste valuable game time investigating the broom closet instead of going to any one of the awesome locations you've so carefully designed. What happens if you create all this AMAZING content, and your group never gets to see any of it? What a waste! Better to shove it all in right now, right?

NO! WRONG! NOT GOOD! Don't worry about not getting to everything. As you'll see below, there are ways to get to the good stuff without your players, and your campaign choking on it.

What can you do about it?

Glad you asked...

#1. Build Slow from a Cool Foundation

A long ago I adopted the approach of noted Japanese Manga Writer, and Artist [and at one time big personal crush]  Rumiko Takahashi.

Takahashi, one of Anime, and Manga's most successful and influential creators, had a very particular style of introducing new characters, and concepts into her stories. Nearly every modern Anime/Manga artist/writer uses a similar approach to varying degrees of effectiveness.

As seen in her series Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, and Inu Yasha, Takahashi begins with a distinct premise and a cast of characters that either facilitate the working of that premise, or have the potential to flesh it out down the line (later in the story). She than introduces a single new character, or idea [or perhaps two related characters like a brother, and sister pair] for each new story/episode. We then follow that new element through to the end of an arc. When the next arc begins that new element is still there, now a fixture of the main plot, or the background, as we go on to meet the next, new element.

This approach means:

  • There is always something new.
  • However, there is only one, or two really new things at a time.
  • PCs experience, and become familiar with the new thing before the next new thing.
  • The new elements become regular elements, increasing the scope of your setting.
  • New elements that become regular elements can be moved back to center stage when needed.

Don't forget about the Cool Foundation. Paying attention to this part alleviates the issue of Underseasoned games. You need to start, right out of the gate, with at least one element to your NPC cast, and your world setting that has real pizzazz. Something that jumps out at the players, and makes them say, "Huh, I don't think I've seen that before."

If you can't quite do that, a least give them someone, or something that lets them know that they aren't in Kansas anymore (or Gondor, or wherever is the most normal for the genre your running).

#2. Notes for Now, Notes for Later

It can be difficult, but think long term.

Keep two separate sets of notes. It could be two separate notebooks, or just two sections of the same multi-section book.

In one section, the first of the two preferably, write notes, character ideas, locations, adventure hooks, or whatever, that you are going to need and use in the short term. This doesn't necessarily mean immediately, but the notes should relate to the story arc, or adventure you are currently running, or running next.

In the second section, write the notes on long term plans. Jot down things you want to introduce at some point. They can be fully formed ideas, half-solid concepts, or perfect world pipe dreams. It doesn't matter what they are, except that the all share the same basic quality...they are not ready to be implemented into your game.

The purpose of this approach is two fold. On a very simple, practical level, it helps organize your thoughts, and it makes editing the incomplete ideas easier. The bigger benefit, and one not so obvious perhaps, is that it psychologically fools you into waiting before you just throw everything you have into the pot.

By placing plans not yet ready to roll in a separate section from those that are, it automatically makes you give those longer term ideas more consideration. You may find they don't need much work, or that they need quite a bit. You may decide not to include them in your game at all.


They are a number of other ideas I have for remedying these specific issues, but for now I'll leave it at this since I have a lot of other subjects I want to post about. (Look for a Thorough Thursdays entry later tonight!).

As always, I'd like to know what you think. Please leave a comment if you have experienced underseasoning, overstuffing, think I'm way off base, or anything related to the post.

Talk to you soon,

Barking Alien


  1. This is very, very good advice, but you promised us snarkyness and offended GMs, boo!! XD

    I have seen recently examples of both approaches, although the slow one was a relatively novice (not young) GM and the rushed one was a younger, more experienced one. My feelings are simple:
    - Go for the good stuff, don't hold it
    - But let the players decide what is "good stuff"

    The first one I think I took direcly from your blog. Nevertheless, If we are travelling to the Castle of Awesome Stuff, don't spend the (short, 4-5 hour) session rolling for random enconters we can beat without breaking a sweat.

    BUT, if something piques our curiosity, let us investigate it! Improvise if you must.

    I realize that this has more to do with single sessions than with the campaign struture you were talking about. Anyway, post like this should go in the GM section of you typical game. As I said, very, very good advice.

    1. - Go for the good stuff, don't hold it
      - But let the players decide what is "good stuff"

      That right there sums things up pretty well.

      "BUT, if something piques our curiosity, let us investigate it! Improvise if you must."

      Oh you must. You absolutely must if you are running a truly open world, sandbox style game (which is my preference).

      Yeah, I could have been far more snarky. I shall endeavor to improve in the future (ya critical, opinionated, free-loading slack-jawed weasals!). ;)

  2. I have been pondering the pace of Ranma 1/2 since you wrote this and carefully thinking about the "slow but steady reveal."

  3. Nice article BA!

    I've seen the "under" a lot more than the "over" in my experiences but I know they both exist. Players can have some influence either way by driving towards the cool stuff in the under situation and by agreeing as a group to focus on just a few things in the over scenario but I agree it's largely up to the GM.

    My contributions:

    1) "En Media Res" solves a lot of problems when kicking off a campaign or even individual sessions. It's a counter to the under problem and avoids the all-too-common "you're all in the tavern/town/starport - what do you do" momentum-less beginning to a game. I'd much rather have the party peering over a wall saying "well, how do we get out of this?" than sitting around debating what to buy for their next excursion.

    2) Stop thinking about the _next_ campaign and find a way to include that really cool idea in this one, the one you are running now! I suppose it could lead to the overstuffed problem but I'd much rather have that potential danger than sitting at a lifeless table for most of a session only to have the GM tell me afterwards about this cool idea for a completely different game!

    1. I've seen both, but I've actually see (or rather felt) the 'overstuffed' approach more often in the last few years. It really is a feel thing to some extent. You can just tell a GM bursting to reveal his, or her ideas to the players, but at someone in the session or campaign that enthusiasm causes them to trip over themselves and their creations. Sometimes an overstuffing GM will become really impatient with what is going on because they are so eager to get to the next thing they made up.

      I like your En Media Res idea, and largely use it myself unless I am going for something specific by using a more traditional/classic opening.

      I actually have a different recommendation for your second point. I have the problem of always thinking about the next campaign myself.

      Instead of putting everything into the campaign I'm working on (which I feel can muddy the tone, atmosphere, and theme of a campaign), write down your ideas for the game they're appropriate to as if you were running that campaign. Then still those notes in a folder, or notebook. Later, when you some day run that other campaign, you've already done the prep-work.