Over coffee and pastries this morning, I was chatting with friends about gaming. Most of that was telling stories about games we'd been playing recently -- most of us were still warm-and-fuzzy about the penultimate episode of our Deadlands game last night. At one point, though, my friend Colin (who is running the aforementioned game) made a point that I thought was worth following up. I think it's true from both sides of the screen.
I'm not going to quote him exactly, because I can't remember his exact words (I'm old). But the spirit of it was this: it doesn't matter what you have planned, or how much you've thought about something, when it comes time to explore something in game play (whether it's a character concept or a campaign concept) you often abandon all that completely and take a different tack than you were expecting.
As a player, this is a kind of instinct. You can have all kinds of ideas about what will work as a character, but find that somehow it all rings false when you attempt to play it out at the table. I've seen players struggle to find the right note to play a character, when they came to the table feeling like they knew exactly where they were going with it. Others realize that an idea that was good in the abstract just doesn't work in practice.
For myself, when I feel like I've found the right "voice" for a character I know I'm good to go. As I've written before, I'm a "funny voices" kind of guy; my characters as a player and my NPCs as a GM all tend to have very distinctive voices. If I start speaking and it feels right, I have no worries the character will work. When I was playing my postapocalyptic barbarian character Magnus, I had the idea of making him talk like (my poor imitation of) Clint Eastwood, and that made the character gel in my brain.
Another time, in university, my friend Kathryn was beginning a Forgotten Realms game and I thought I had a concept that would be fun -- a Zorro-style masked avenger character, complete with outrageous name ("The Scarlet Brigand"). Somehow, when I sat down at the table to play him, I couldn't make that concept come to life. As soon as my mouth opened, the voice that emerged was a different character than the one I expected. My instincts told me that my concept was wrong, and thank goodness I trusted them. The character I went on to play still had the same swashbuckling style, but was totally different from what I had planned. He went on to be an all-time favourite of mine.
My friend Colin had intended to play his fiery street mage character Egan Connelly (in my recently-mentioned Shadowrun game) with a full Irish accent. He even went so far as to get himself audio lessons in speaking with that accent. Somehow, it didn't feel right to him at the table, and he quickly abandoned it. You have to do what works.
For the GM, the same is true. You often go into a campaign with all kinds of ideal images in your mind of what the game will be like, but I don't think a single game I've ever run has turned out the way I pictured it. Part of that is the fact that GMing is by its nature a collaborative art, and your ideas not only should but MUST change as the players interact with the material. The GM must learn to accept changes gracefully, to improvise when things take an unexpected turn, and riff off the choices and interactions made by the players.
Graham Walmsley wrote persuasively in his excellent book Play Unsafe that in a roleplaying game it's a mistake to try to plan too much, to be able to do or say the perfect thing at a given moment. It's enough to do the boring thing, the thing that feels right in the moment; this leads to scenes that feel more true, and drama that's less contrived.
In other words, trust your instincts.