Over at Fear the Boot, Trampas wrote a great article about “shackles” in running roleplaying games. The idea is that a game master can easily get in a rut and how our tools and methods can keep us there.
I have a shackle of my own: pre-game notes. I fall close to the Dan end of the game prep standpoint: I am an obsessive planner that does all my planning in notes. I create copious amounts of backstory, plot, NPCs, etc. This makes me prepared for anything the players do. As long as they stay inside my carefully mapped playground.
Which they never do willingly.
So my planning led me to construction giant Fallout 3 sized cliffs around my spaces, locking them inside. This did not necessarily in mean a single railroaded path, but there was a limited number of avenues they could pursue. Each one was deep, unique, and completely not flexible in the slightest.
Then I was “forced” to run a pick-up game where I had little time to prepare. I literally went to Wizards, pulled down an adventure, read it once, took a few notes, and went forward. I had some names, basic plot details in my head, a few monsters and maps, and that was it. I went into the game in a panic.
Somehow, it was wonderful. The players had a great time, enjoying the experience without any problems or concerns. They even went off in a strange unexpected direction that felt similar to the rest because everything had the same level of prep. I simply shift what little resources I had to wherever they went, solving problems as needed.
This realization that minimal, flexible prep is better than extensive, limited-use prep suddenly freed me from railroading my players. They could approach everything anyway they wanted. Joe the NPC could be a shopkeeper if they go this way; a guard if they go that way. Anything could be used just about anywhere. Whatever wasn’t used could be saved for next time. I was able to throw my crutch away and make for superior experiences for my players.
-That is all.