#RPGaDAY 2019 - DAY 10: "FOCUS"
As the GM, one of your more important roles is to have a vision of the story you want the players to help tell. From experience, I've found that sandbox games can be a lot of fun, up to a point, but when characters can make literally any choice, with no guidance, and no direction of where they should be going to advance something...they quickly become bored.
This is the role of plot hooks, hints, equivocation (aka forced-choices), alignment of the story to player's own goals and other techniques that GM's have picked up over the years. Let the players do what they want, but when they're ready to get moving, give the game the focus they are looking for so that they feel they've accomplished something at the end of the session or story arc.
I'm an especially big fan of the concept of "Character Arcs" from MCG's Invisible Sun game. The basic concept is that players "buy" a character arc--which can be saving a loved one, avenging a loss, finding true love, etc. And they work on that goal each week, learning about life and themselves (XP called "Acumen") as well as feeling either Joy or Despair (different XP) as the story progresses towards a conclusion. It's hard to think of something more enticing to a player than the idea that the GM and other players are really interested in helping them accomplish their own personal goals.
Which brings me to the second definition of focus: providing clarity.
The other role of both GM's and players is to make everyone feel that they are in a real place. GM's lead this with the introduction, but the players build on it with their actions, reactions, decisions, and observations which makes the made-up people and places more than a single paragraph or reference item on a map.
One of the best examples of this, for me, is a set of ruins the characters came across when wandering through the Great Forest. It was a random roll, a single line of text or a whim that caused the players to run across it. I gave the ruin a cool name that I though up on the fly, Tywardin. And the players got a "knowledge history" level of information about it. And they took to the city. They began to explore, and speculate. I put small oddities in the city, and the players, through their characters, worked to figure out what had happened. By the following week, I had a map of the points of interst...two old roads, ancient triptychs, old caves that were once storehouses, and several ruined buildings on a plateau. The players spent three sessions going through the ruins, finally coming across some illithid who were searching for something. The illithid were killed off, and in their possession was a clue to a new adventure direction, for either immediate or future use. The players provided the interest, and I provided the focus for that interest, through the development of something they wanted to explore.
The third definition of focus is to concentrate, and it's possibly the hardest hurdle for being a GM. In a world where phones are beeping, Netflix is always available, schedules are complicated and commitments always seem to be screaming for attention, it's hard to force yourself to sit down and write. It's hard to follow Neil Gaiman's advice and find the time to be bored enough to be creative. It's hard to turn the passion for a cool idea into a finished first draft, much less go through the editing process. And it's hard to commit to being at the table for almost every game night, be it weekly or monthly--and even if you do, it's so easy to get distracted at the table by the world of electronic beeps.
For me, it's not as easy as just doing it. I have to make a commitment to myself that I'm going to accomplish a specific manageable task within a specific time. For these essays, it's "write an essay every day, from when I start to when I finish. If I just can't do it, make it up the next day. Don't take more than 31 days to do the 31 essays." When I'm writing an adventure, I have to agree that today is going to be the map with specific locations, tomorrow is going to be the event path, and the next day is going to be possible NPC's, and the fourth day is going to be some alternate paths and hooks. And this is to be ready for the next week's game that I'm running.
Such commitments are not easily made, so I ensure that I'm ready for them--both mentally and with a schedule which will allow me to be successful. But I get three rewards out of doing it. First, I get to exercise my creative side, inventing and building new things that other people will enjoy--whether it's an essay or adventure. I get to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing and ideally finishing something, rather than always spending a night relaxing, and generally I get to make progress towards a larger goal from my mini-goal of the day--the 10th essay in a group of 31, or the possible NPC's that will bring my maps and locations to life. Either way, as long as I have the energy, it's worth the sense of commitment and the time...and so, I focus.