Note: I started writing this post right after running the third session of Sleepless Nights. I didn’t find the time to focus on finishing it, as I thought it would grow into a fairly lengthy treatment of the subject. Coming back to it now, a month later, I decided to just post it as is. I might return to the subject later.
So, Gunnulf’s session was fun, and fun in a specific way: it was funny. I hadn’t planned it so, and neither had any of the players, but we ended up not with a horror story, but with a horror-tinted comedy. And I couldn’t be happier.
It started with the players’ characterization of their one-shot PCs: little things like Hindrich’s worry about his ailing mother, Ysabella’s unpredictability and potential infidelity, and Thomas’s history of injuries. Things that could just as well have been played for tragedy, but led to the long buildup part of the session, composed mostly of in-game chatting, to develop a distinctly comedic air. Then running gags started to accumulate: miasma as a catch-all explanation for strange goings-on, Ysabella’s and Thomas’s marriage clearly heading for a disaster, and Gunnulf’s hearty humor coming off as bullying. When the horror stuff started happening, it was already well-established that we were playing something hovering between sitcom and farce, and the players threw themselves wholeheartedly into it, making stupid—but never unreasonable!—decisions, like Ysabella throwing the garlic out of their bedroom in a fit of pique, or Thomas rushing into the obviously dangerous, pitch-black basement. Afterwards, everyone agreed it was a great session, and a real surprise.
Now, as a GM, I’m predisposed against planning in favor of an improvisational, freewheeling style. This is just a personal preference, and I admire GMs who can plan their sessions carefully, with well-prepared maps, handouts, NPC relationship graphs, soundtrack, and the like. It’s just not something I’m drawn to myself, and, of course, time for hobbies is scarce these days.
I do think that probably those well-planned sessions (when the GM knows what he or she’s doing, of course) are, on the average, better than the sessions I run. I’m willing to admit that my sessions can flounder and fail to have a satisfying story arc. But in terms of total fun had, with the time and effort I have available to invest, my style is right for me: if I did plan and prepare carefully, I’d probably manage to run games twice as infrequently as I do now.
And while I am likely sacrificing some degree of quality for convenience, I also think my improvisational approach has some advantages even aside from being less costly. Chief among these, I do suspect I’ve got a better chance in any given session of being pleasantly surprised, like I did this time.
P.S. I’ve thought for a long time that genre is a weak concept, and that one way to improve it is to split it into two independent dimensions: mood genre and setting genre. So Alien is obviously horror/scifi while Guardians of the Galaxy is action-comedy/scifi; Silence of the Lambs is horror/investigation while Lethal Weapon is action-comedy/investigation. None of these combos requires explaining, but this framework does run into a spot of trouble when dealing with works whose setting is defined by elements primarily associated with a different mood genre. For example, comedies with vampires. I guess one could borrow a term like gothic to cover the setting elements, as long as we’re dealing with classic stuff like vampires, ghosts, curses, ruined castles, etc. Of course, gothic might just as well be construed as a mood. Oh well.