If you want things the play out exactly as you planned them, write a novel. As a collaborative creative activity, a tabletop roleplaying game is a living thing. It’s organic, and messy, and in spite of what the rules lawyers and “system matters” folks will try to tell you, largely improvisational. It’s not a matter of balancing surprise versus control at the table. You need to let go of the notion that anyone has any semblance of control, and go along with whatever happens.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no structure. There have to be systems in place to keep things moving. Don’t conflate that with control. Structure is having hallways that lead places. Control is trying to keep people from running in the hallways.
Surprise is better. The whole reason I love the shared narration mechanic in the Lighthouse System is because as a guide I get to be surprised. The players add twists and turns to the story, and I get to interpret that, integrate it into my plans, and build on it. Most of the time they have better ideas than I do. That’s a lot more fun than running things off of my notes.
Surprise versus Control
People talk about “railroads” in terms of plots having only a few possible resolutions. You follow the steps, in order, and that’s the only way to complete the mission. My experience is that you’re more likely to find a gamemaster pushing a story in a certain way, than finding fault with the adventure itself. Your idea might be better, more logical, more entertaining. The gamemaster prepped for something else, though, so you’re going to end up there no matter what decision you make.
It’s far less stress to give up control and embrace the surprise. Listen to the players, trust them, and let them influence the game. Allow the plot to go in directions you didn’t anticipate. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
About Dancing Lights Press
Dancing Lights Press publishes story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. Our print books are affordable, at $10 or less. The 6×9 digest format makes them convenient to carry around. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.