After the players give you their initial background write-up at the start of the campaign, there are two different kinds of player “homework” I would encourage between sessions: one formal, one less so. They should be designed to get the player more invested, more involved with the ongoing narrative, but as a side effect also help the GM plan her sessions out.
Coming from a Play-by-Post (PBP)/Play-by-Chat (PBC) background, I was used to maintaining an in-character journal that helped new players catch up to plotlines involving my character while also revealing her inner reactions to the events around her. Some players are motivated enough to write these for tabletop campaigns on their own, but I’ve found that it usually takes a little push to get most players to follow along. Bonus XP that scales as they grow in level is usually that ticket. And since some players are more artistic than writerly, I tend to offer an a blanket suggestion to “do something creative that relates to your character and the last session.”
The upshot of this is that as the GM, you’ll probably be able to see which parts of the session or storyline the player and character liked the most, and which parts of the session or storyline the player and character are worried about. This tells you what kind of play experience or side quest to mete out as a reward, and which conflict is resonating with the PC and can be developed further and the stakes raised higher.
Now you know what to feature or start building towards in your future sessions, which saves you from spending time prepping material that might not have engaged the players or furthered the plot as directly. Of course, you’ll want to throw some curveballs in there to make sure your players don’t feel like they’re directing the sessions verbatim, but you’re a GM, and I trust you can be dastardly when the need arises.
The less formal option is for players who don’t have the time or creativity to invest in their characters with journals or sketches, but should be used occasionally for the other players as well. Either right after the session or while you’re chit-chatting, bring up their character and try to ask a question that allows them to steer the rest of the conversation. Just be conscious of the fact that as the GM you want to avoid trying to look like you’re fishing for compliments on your sessions or GMing ability.
Instead, center the conversation on the player like, “Wow, what is Asra going to do know that she’s found out the’s started a war?” You can begin to see where the player wants to go with the character, and so while prepping you can make sure that during the session you’re able to present him or her a few different options to achieve those goals. At the very least, you have a starting point for your prep.
The same goes for more meta feedback: “Hey Ryan, I noticed you didn’t seem interested in the session after such-and-such happened. Why not?” If you know that a certain player zones out for social scenes because his character is built around fighting, you know what balancing act you’re going to have to play in order to cater to all the players’ tastes and give everyone a part to play in the scene.
In novel writing they talk about the character-driven vs. the plot-driven story, but in RPGs there’s another type to consider: the player-driven story. Whether they’ve really latched on to your premise of stopping a cataclysm in their world, or are devoted to avenging their family, you should follow where the fun is coming from in your games and make sure you keep on coming up with more of it. Player homework just helps to take the guesswork out of it.
What do you ask of your players before and between sessions? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on player “homework.” Thanks again for reading!