Behind the Screens – The GM’s Invisible Hand

Now that we’re back after a holiday hiatus, I’d like to continue our discussion on GMing styles. Today I’m going to cover what I call Laissez-faire GMing. But unlike the economic theory of the same name, I can actually explain how it will improve your life. Laissez-faire, as defined by Merriam-Webster is “a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action.” As applied to RPG’s I’ve heard it referred to “no-prep” or “low-prep” GMing. Basically you’re allowing your players to have a greater amount of control on their characters’ narrative destiny than they would otherwise have.

So what does this mean? Once again, I’m falling to my Kingmaker group to provide a concrete example. During our last session, the PCs threw a kingdom wide Midwinter Festival hosted in their capital city of Drakemarch. The festival had a dual purpose. First, it was an attempt to raise the morale of their citizens who had been disheartened by recent attacks made by trolls and other monstrous beasts. Second, it was a lure to entice a particular NPC – a bard known only as the Nightingale – into a confrontation.

The session opened in the Festival’s planning stages. The players were given a month of in-game time with which to plan particular events that their characters would be interested in hosting. Hallmark events included an equestrian exhibition and a wrestling competition both replete with posturing, ego, and flare. The final event of the Festival, which was to occur on the eve of the Midwinter Solstice, was to be a collaborative performance featuring the party’s bard and the mysterious Nightingale.

Things went as smoothly as could be expected with only one small crisis requiring PC intervention before the Festival’s finale. A group of malcontents masquerading as local clergy used the Festival as a cover to spread potential dangerous pamphlets and scrolls. By “potential dangerous” I mean “explosive rune’d”. But that plot was ended almost as soon as the party caught wind of it.

During the performance, the Nightingale (surprising absolutely no one) revealed herself to be an agent of a rival kingdom and summoned a devil horse to attack the city. The PCs do their PC-thing and a major disaster is averted.

The greatest thing about that session though was 95% of the content was player generated and I had no pre-established script for how I wanted to session to play out. The Nightingale was an NPC I took from the PC background written by one of my players and the impetus for a Festival to trap her was entirely that player’s idea. The equestrian and wrestling competitions were the brainchildren of two different players respectively and played to the strengths of those characters.

All in all I think I spent about 15 minutes planning the session once I had an idea of what the players wanted to do. I knew I wanted to end the session with a big combat and I knew that there should be some heavy roleplay in the beginning to balance that out. But other than that I took a step back and let my players direct the session.

A word of caution, Laissez-faire GMing is not easy. It relies heavily on player input and continued participation to be successful. A GM will need to be comfortable with on the spot improvisation and have a flexible enough narrative that could allow for whatever zany directive a player might come up with. Handing the players the steering wheel can be a terrifying experience, especially for GM’s who might be most at home running things as written. I’ve come up with a list of what I think are important factors to consider when you’re looking to run a Laissez-faire game.

1) “No-prep” does not mean “Unprepared”

Just because you don’t have anything scripted for a session doesn’t mean that you’re just going to coast through your game on your player’s input alone. You’ll need to be on your toes and ready to go off on whatever your players give you. “Yes, and…” becomes a really important skill. You’re basically GMing by the seat of your pants. In my Kingmaker game, it all started with interest in a particular NPC. This turned into the idea for a festival to lure said NPC to the capital and the adventure built up from there.

2) Spotlight Equity

Give each player their time in the sun is always important. But because you’re no longer driving the narrative, it can be more difficult to set up situations where a particular PC has their moment. You’ll need to be aware of when you can shift focus from one PC to another in order to make sure that everyone gets spotlight that wants it. Fleshing out the particulars of the festival provided each player an opportunity to add an event important to their characters or participate in an event where they felt that their characters might shine.

3) Have your resources ready

Nothing can derail the flow of a session quite like needing to come up with stat blocks. The work it takes to come up with a balanced combat encounter is pretty much the antithesis of what you’re going for with a “no-prep” game. Unfortunately, encounter balance is rather important to the core mechanics of the game. Or is it? Ask yourself, did the players have fun? Did they all survive? Did they get to do cool things during the fight? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then you did it right. You can use the CR system and GM resources like the NPC Codex, the Monster Codex, or the NPC Database to help throw together a combat on the fly. I had my players ambushed by a band of travelling vagrants, just arrived to the city for the festival. I got some APL-2 rogues and the stats for a APL Wizard and went to town. It wasn’t a super difficult encounter but my players had fun. And in the end that’s what it’s about.

4) Have an exit strategy

Whether it’s a high intensity encounter or a sudden and mysterious cliff hanger, end the session on a high note. Nothing’s worse than having a great high energy game that slowly tapers down into a “what are we doing again” type funk. Have an idea of where and when would be a good stopping point for the night. Our game ended with a desperate battle pitting six 5th-level PCs against a CR 8 monster, a CR 8 NPC, and six CR 4 guards. Harrowing? Yes. Deadly? Definitely. Awesome? Absolutely.


So that’s that. Some general guidelines for GMing with very little prior planning. Have any experience with the no/low-prep game? Or do have more question on how to run one? Let us know in the Comments section below!


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

1 Comment

  1. Denim N Leather Reply to Denim

    Very nice article; hit all the salient points, too. I run what I like to refer as ‘semi’box’ in that I have a basic plot in mind in terms of the world clock, and then seed it with adventure hooks so that the players can pretty much chase down whatever leads they want. Most of the hooks are picked up from their own backgrounds and things they make up during sessions. You are correct in that this doesn’t mean ‘unprepared’ — you have to have your resources handy, be adept at reskinning NPCs and monsters as needed, and be comfortable with off-the-cuff roleplaying of characters you only have a vague idea on personality for!

    Lot of nice food for thought in this article!


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