When running a campaign as a GM, especially a free form campaign, it’s important to consider what the end effect of each of your actions and stories will be. One of the most common novice mistakes, including one that plagued me for years, is failing to consider the impact of even seemingly small contributions to the campaign. In a free-form campaign, this can mean that the game doesn’t gain traction and doesn’t get the full dramatic effect, but it can also have dramatic consequences for any game, including a gradual descent into meaninglessness.
Play with purpose follows a simple concept; there is a final objective. However, it’s important to note that there are a few things that play with purpose isn’t. It isn’t railroading your players along a certain path. It’s also not forcing a particular outcome. For instance, I might make an end point in one of my campaigns be something like “the players discover they’ve been sitting on the MacGuffin all along”, and gradually move toward the things that will lead them to that event. However, I don’t preclude certain outcomes; they can do whatever they want to, they just will never find the MacGuffin anywhere else and eventually they’ll wind up discovering it right under their noses.
There are a few problems that can confront play with purpose. It’s a long-term mindset, so it’s not the sort of thing that you want to have end immediately. If you try to complete your purpose every single session not only will you run yourself ragged trying to come up with new ones, but you’ll also lack some of the suspense and surprise. This is also the sort of thing that leads to players feeling that they lack freedom and that your game is really more an exercise in you telling a story than a cooperation in storytelling.
Another problem with play with purpose is that it’s very easy to underwhelm when you actually reach your objective. Consider what your ultimate objective is and make sure that it’s something that actually contributes to your game; choosing an obvious goal (i.e. “Reach level 2”) or something that is too mundane (“Kill the bad guy”) may lead to the actual accomplishment of what could be a meaningful and enjoyable goal becoming little more than a side-note in the progress of the game.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to make sure that things go well. Consider a particularly exciting scene/chapter/memory that pops up when you think about potential story elements, and use it as a guide for your own thinking. If you’re more literarily inclined, you can probably be more fancy about it, but if your players aren’t familiar with it and you change enough details to make it your own you’ll provide what is likely to be a meaningful experience without having a significant chance of dropping a dud into your players’ laps.
Another way to make sure that the important event goes over well is to let your players own the scene. Obviously, this doesn’t mean just saying “Hey, look, the MacGuffin!” and then taking a bathroom break, but rather allowing them to make meaningful and dynamic choices. If they’re comfortable roleplayers, it’s usually enough to give them very little scaffolding if any to get them going, but in some cases it might be better to give them clear choices; if they want to make their own path they can always run it by you once it comes up.
Playing with a purpose in mind can make campaigns more interesting and engaging, and counter potential writer’s block, giving you opportunities to prepare more interesting and engaging content without having to figure out associations between events as you progress through them. Creating an objective that you then reveal in a dramatic fashion can create meaningful and memorable experiences for your players and make your game a resounding success.