Know Your Role: The Three Roles of Gaming, Part 3

The Game Master – Continued

I realized after my last post that I have so much more to say about the role of the Game Master, and that a single post would be insufficient.  Seeing as the role is a highly complex one, there exist many layers to be discussed in order to introduce gamers to the true depth of the role.  The picture above is an extension of my discussion on a group of Player’s uncanny ability to sidestep some of the most well-crafted and well written aspects or set-pieces of an adventure.  In-game, Players will be Players, and they can also do the same out of game too.

Player Management

One of the most difficult aspects of running a consistent campaign lies in the management of the Players themselves.  Players are people too, and in the case of my gaming groups, we have jobs and bills and marriages all manner of adult-type responsibilities which keep us all very busy on a regular basis.  There are three major components to managing a group of Players:  scheduling, Player interest, and group size.  Managing these three aspects of the Players can often be tenuous and can make-or-break gaming sessions and/or groups.

First off, it can be nightmarish for a GM to schedule even a single session, let alone a campaign, as experience has shown this gets more difficult the older you get.  I’m sure our group misses the 24 hour marathon gaming sessions or the 4-day in a row epic quests, but, life happens and so few of us are fortunate enough to have gaming as the cornerstone of our personal and professional lives.  I find the newly adopted format taken by Karen, to be the most effective:  Write the session as you would a chapter of a book, with a definite beginning and end/break and then let the Players know you’re ready for them.  Eventually, schedules will open up for a night of gaming, and the GM doesn’t have to stress over a pre-set deadline.  This allows the GM time to have a final product ready to go and, given the window of time between writing completion and a scheduled session, creates an opportunity for fine-tuning and/or making adjustments to the session.

The second aspect of Player management is understanding how the players play and what keeps their interest at the gaming table.  Some Players may only be interested in nonsensical plots that simply lead them from bar fight to bar fight, whereas other may want nothing more than to roam through every city and village trying their luck with Bluff and Charisma to see how much money they can swindle NPCs out of, while still others may ACTUALLY be concerned with the plot and moving it along.  Ideally, every GM hopes that each individual player shows a well-rounded propensity for all aspects of the game, as having a group like this makes the GMs job much easier.  Players want to feel that they are very much a part of the story, so it is the GMs responsibility to cater to the gaming needs and or/desires of the individual Players and group as a whole.  It can be difficult, but it will reap benefits for the Players and GM alike.  PROTIP #3 – An extremely well-known indicator of how well a GM is keeping the Players engaged is noting the “dice-stacking” of each individual.  The higher and more complex the stacks of dice, the more bored the Players are.  The talented writers at have offered up a very informative article geared towards the GM counter to dice stacking:  Fight fire with fire!

The final aspect of Player management is maintaining an appropriate group size.  My experience has shown that the magic number is 4, counting the GM.  Having four individuals (3 PCs and a GM or 3PCs+1PC/GM Hybrid), in my opinion, has the potential to give the gaming group enough depth,versatility and potential for chaos needed for successful role-playing as well as the variety of skills (combat and otherwise) to successfully complete in-game challenges.  Additionally, keeping the number of players relatively low assists in maintaining a steady pace for the game, particularly in combat situations.  Too many Players = too much Player downtime =Protip#3.


A smaller number of Players and characters makes it easier for the GM to create a campaign that feels more personal to the individuals in the group.  If the Players have done their job and provided the GM with decent back stories for their characters, the GM can more successfully tailor individual encounters or entire sessions to select Players, all the while advancing the campaign’s plot.  I’ve written about how important it is for the GM to feel they “own” the campaign setting, and this is reflected in the writing they do for each gaming session.  In turn, the personalization of sessions helps to make the Players feel as if they too own the game setting.  However, personalization is the least a GM has to worry about when embarking on the writing of their own campaign.  The following is a list of the issues I believe GM writers face when conducting a campaign:

  • Establishing a Plot – Every GM wants to run an epic campaign.  Writers often have numerous thoughts rattling around inside their heads, and it may be difficult to sort them out.  While the purpose my be to get to “Z,” the GM has to start at “A” first.  If a GM can get the campaign off to a strong start, they’ll already be setting themself up for success.
  • Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew – Remember, there are 24 letters between “A” and “Z,” so a GM shouldn’t feel the need to rush.  Campaigns take a lot of time and a lot of effort.  By breaking down the long term story arc into smaller, digestible portions, the Players can more capably keep track of events and while the GM can keep from becoming overwhelmed by the writing process.  One approach is for a GM to think of the campaign as a television show.  Every week, there is a (generally) self-contained episode, with an introduction, build-up, climax and conclusion which help to advance the greater story arc throughout the season.  The same should be done for individual sessions within a campaign.  GMs must remember to keep it manageable or else their Players will end up like LOST fans; half will give up after the first couple of sessions, while the other half will be so damned confused they’ll  stick it out just to see where the hell the story is going to end up.
  • Try to Personalize the Sessions – I cannot stress enough how valuable this approach is to being a successful GM.  As I stated in the previous section, personalized encounters serve to really engage the Players and breathe more life into the story the group is collectively creating.  However, this process occurs over time,as GMs and Players get to know the nuances of the gaming group dynamic.  Once a GM is comfortable with the manner in which the Players conduct themselves in-game and couples that with character back-story and plot devices, the task of personalizing becomes less daunting.
  • Don’t Write the Campaign Into a Corner – PCs are wildly unpredictable.  Despite a GMs best efforts to learn all the quirks of the Players in the group and anticipate the ridiculous decisions inherent in every gaming session, Players will continue to surprise even the most veteran GMs with their propensity to cause chaos from nothing.  The GM has to remember that, like everything else in gaming, nothing can truly be set in stone.  A GM must be prepare for the worst and expect the worst.  If the Players decisions swing the session on a wild tangent, a GM can often times use this to their advantage and exploit it later.  Player decisions may require written portions to be rearranged for the pacing of the game, or bumped into new sessions completely.  Expect the unexpected and remember, Finagle’s Law (it’s worse than Murphy’s!) is always in effect at the gaming table!

Admittedly, my experience as a writing GM is sorely limited.  I feel I have have great potential as a writer and storyteller, and am never at a loss for dynamic scenes just waiting to be spelled out in a gaming session.  More often than not, I will gather together the Players I know, have everyone roll up characters for the next new campaign, run the introductory session and….. nothing.  That’s it.  My ideas lay dormant and the Players never get to experience the unwritten sessions that I find so exciting.  My hope is that I will be able to follow my own advice and do what needs to be done to run a successful campaign or two!  I know Robert is getting tired of it!

“The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” – Gary Gygax