One important aspect to the fun factor of Sunday's Fate game was my level of prep. Normally, I'm a "Freestyle" GM who likes to make stuff up on the fly and roll with whatever my players give me. Recently, I've grown tired of that approach and wanted to broaden my horizons a little. So I decided, for this Fate Cthulhu game, to do some meticulous, old-school prep.
I basically pretended that I was writing the adventure for someone else. I did a "scene map" where I mapped out every scene like it was a room in a dungeon. For every scene, I wrote down every skill that could be relevant, and the kinds of clues that could be found. I even wrote flavor text to read aloud to players when they first enter a scene. I think at a few points, I even write in the text about "the GM" as if somebody other than me was going to read it!
But it worked, beautifully. I had a nice, steady stream of material I could feed to the players, and when they improvised or leapt off the page, I would go into my normal freestyle mode, then gently guide them back to the prep. There were two major benefits to the prep. First, it gave my storytelling confidence. Because I knew exactly where I intended the story to go, I could think about the future, not worry about stalling for time, and otherwise just focus my attention on where it needed to be at that point in the game. The other major benefit is that I had a lot of control over pace. I'm always obsessing over pace in my RPGs, because I've seen too many games ruined due to dragging on to long. On the other hand, though, I do this once a week and I respect and appreciate the effort that a lot of people (many of whom are complete strangers until they walk in the door and introduce themselves) take in showing up and chancing an afternoon with me. So I don't want the adventure to slip by too quickly.
Anyways, having a prepped, fully-written adventure allowed me to look at the entire story from a bird's eye view and instantly gauge where we were and where I thought they should be. When we were moving too fast, I would linger on a scene. When we were going to slow, I would start dropping hints about where to go next. This is not something I can do as effectively in a freestyle game, because I often don't know where the story is going.
Identifying myself as a Freestyle GM, I think it's obvious that I have nothing wrong with running a game like that. However, by embracing the prep work, I had a lot of narrative tools at my disposal during the game that provided for a rich, amazing experience. Moving forward, I'm definitely going to pay a lot more attention to my prep process and try and come to the table with a little bit more than my own brain from now on.
This coming Sunday, I'm playing D&D, a game that thrives especially well on DM prep. I'm using a published adventure, so I can just do all the reading, learn a couple of rules, and print-out a couple of cheat sheets and be ready to go. It's a trade-off, though. I really like running my own adventures. Not only do I get to put the kinds of encounters I want to see in them, and tell the stories I want to tell, but there's no better way to understand the source material than to write it myself! On the other hand, it's a LOT of work. As I look on to the next semester of grad school, and my day job, I can definitely see the appeal in taking a lower-prep shortcut to a good game.
In the end, I think prepping/writing adventures for RPGs is, to me, the ultimate example of a "labor of love." It is hard work at times, but the satisfaction and fun that come from it is, to me, unparrelled. My wife, who does not play RPGs, often asks me why anyone would want to do all that work instead of just letting someone else do it and just play. I'm hard-pressed to give her an answer, so I usually just go with the smart-ass "Well, being married is hard work, too!"