After battling illness last week, the podcast is finally back, and it’s more questionable than ever! Join your hosts, The David, Robert, and Matt as they discuss all manner of inappropriate friendship gifts, illicit activities, and Jessica Jones! Sit back, relax, and get ready to encrypt or wipe your brain, because you’ll end up on a watchlist just by listening to a brand new episode of Useless Drivel – A Podcast Without a Point!
When I set out to write this weekly segment for my fellow creative types, I told myself that I would not write about tabletop gaming and I will tell you why. I have always used tabletop gaming as a vehicle for my writing. It gives me a reason to write and a very captive audience to tell my stories to. The rules have always been an afterthought for me. While I have easily logged the most hours as GM for our group I have never considered myself a good GM. Why on earth would any of you care to read my thoughts on being a GM? Besides, Matt has kind of cornered the market on tabletop gaming articles here at MitC. So, why after all that forethought am I sitting here writing an article about GMing? Simply put: I got a request and I am a people-pleaser, dammit! I was asked to outline my creative process and advise on how to break the dauntingly huge task of running a game into smaller, easier to digest chunks. So here goes…
Do you ever find yourself rolling up the same character archetype time after time? Are dungeon crawls that end with fighting a dragon the crux of your Saturday night? Do you play the same game so much that you could get a perfect score blindfolded and asleep? Don’t worry, you are not alone! Join us this week as we discuss our personal gaming ruts and attempt to sort out the reasons behind them. Whether it’s lack of focus, obsessive desire to win, or simply being too timid to step out of the comfort zone, we do some soul searching that is inspiring, informative, and a little disturbing. Switch sides of the table, swap that sword for a wand, and attempt diplomacy rather than thievery as you listen to this weeks brand new episode of Monkey in the Cage.
Seeing as I’ve already covered the basic elements of being a Player and a Game Master, there is really no need to revisit the individual aspects of either role. However, for those individuals that choose to embrace both roles simultaneously, and become what I call a Hybrid, it must be known that to do so is to walk the razor’s edge between epic success and absolute disaster!!! Ok, I’m being a little dramatic, but choosing to become a Hybrid can be extremely challenging but equally rewarding as well.
Generally, we all begin as Players and eventually find ourselves delving into the role of the Game Master. For some, it becomes a permanent mantle that is worn within the gaming group and can sometimes feel more like a job than a pathway to entertainment and escapism. For those of us seeking the best of both worlds, creating a GMPC is the way to go. Simultaneously running a game AND a Player Character within that game allows the GM to feel that, to an extent, they too have an interactive, rather than purely narrative, role in the story unfolding around the gaming table.
- Flexibility – The ability of a GMPC can be limiting in terms of the Player role being fulfilled. As the GM knows the answer to all the puzzles, what sort of encounters lay behind which door, and the ultimate story-arc of the session, the GMPC is relegated to a support role in terms of proactive adventuring. The flip side is that when the chips are down and the Players are stuck, the GMPC serves as a perfect deus ex machina, able to help resolve the issue and move the plot forward, hopefully in character. While this may not be ideal for the sake of the GM’s storytelling, it keeps the game moving.
- Direction – If utilized correctly, the GMPC can help steer the PCs in the direction needed if they get too far off course. This is best done with subtlety and in character and is more successful than attempting the same with standard NPCs, whom Players generally treat as tools to be cast aside once used. It’s only railroading if the Players realize it!
- Equality – The GM gets to enjoy being a Player again. While they have the task of creating, organizing and running the game, the GMPC is a vehicle in which they can interact with the group on a Player to Player level, which is something we can all appreciate.
- Focus – If a GM is the type of writer that REALLY enjoys details, being a Hybrid can serve to bog down the creative process. Trying to create a gaming world and the story while seeking to develop and character with back-story can split focus and result in either the game, the character or both suffering. Being a GM is a balancing act, and if too much time is being spent on developing a single PC, the responsibility to the group is being neglected. It’s okay to have your cake and eat it too, but greed will get you nowhere.
- Temptation – You’re the GM. You’re the boss. You run the game world and establish the house rules, so why shouldn’t you be able to boost your stats, trick out your equipment and bend the rules to your liking? Because it’s not fair to your players. If you want your GMPC to be the toughest adventurer out there, you better relegate them to NPC status or else your Players are going to revolt. As was stated before, the role of the GMPC is one of support. If the GMPC is the best at everything, the Players are going to be less willing (and able!) to contribute while the GM has one-sided encounters with themselves.
Protip #4 – The game is for the Players first and the GM second. If your GMPC waltzes into every battle like Jack Bauer and every verbal encounter with the wits of George Clooney and Brad Pitt from the Ocean’s 11-13 movies, your reign as GM will end more brutally than the fall of Tsarist Russia. Let the Players be the heroes and bask in the glory, with the GMPC on the sideline. It makes totally screwing over the PCs that much more fun!
“I know the world isn’t fair, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?” – Bill Waterson
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.
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 www.gnomestew.com 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
In my previous post, I discussed the role of the Player and stated that it is the easiest role to assume, but perhaps the most difficult to master. I realized, after posting, that this is a rather relative statement. Obviously, without individuals to assume the role of Players, gaming would cease to exist. That being said, without Game Masters (GMs), there would be no games to be experienced. The relationship between Players and GMs is one of absolute symbiosis…. an utterly chaotic, often dysfunctional and more often than not a love/hate form of psychotic co-dependency sort of symbiosis, but symbiosis nonetheless. Whereas assuming the role of Player is the easiest and most accessible, mastery of the role is a matter of choice; the Player will get as much as they give in regards to bringing their chosen character to life. The role of the GM, however, is a little more difficult to assume. Given the responsibility that comes with running even a single session, let alone an entire campaign, the idea of mastering the role of Game Master is a daunting task indeed.
The Game Master
Assuming the role of Game Master is akin to being a mother, lawyer, teacher, mentor, artist, writer, host, chef, friend, enemy, schizophrenic, actor, librarian and fortune-teller all rolled into one…. often at the same time. That being said, choosing to assume the role and conduct all that is necessary in running a game is a commitment a gamer makes not only to the Players, but to themselves as well. To run a successful game (be it a session or campaign), the GM must put time and effort into all aspects of the game (setting, rules and mechanics, player nuances/types, character goals, etc.) in order to sell the story to the Players. At this point, I would like to clarify that a true Game Master is:
an individual that tailors the plot to the characters their Players have created while simultaneously involving Players in the telling of the story. Running characters through pre-written module after pre-written module and “railroading” the game without ever creating a true opportunity for the PC’s to find their own voice or make their own mark does a disservice to the Players and spirit of gaming alike.
::Climbing down from my soapbox:: Now that that has been said, I think it is important for Players and Game Masters alike to understand what, in my opinion, being a Game Master and running a game is all about.
One of the most difficult challenges faced by a Game Master is the creation of a world that is a) both entertaining and engaging for the Players and b) accessible and inspiring to the Game Master. Roleplaying Game publishers have spent countless dollars and hours in producing dozens, if not hundreds, of preformed gaming worlds for Players and GMs alike to spread their creative and heroic wings. However, like the core rulebooks that dictate the suggested manner in which a specific game is to be played, these preformed campaign worlds are open to the interpretation of the gamer, despite their chosen roles. The published works of a chosen game world provides, at the bare minimum, a foundation upon which to build as personal a gaming experience as a GM would like. Additionally, an established setting can provide reference points, plot hooks, and any level of useful bits of information or ideas for creating a game that is tailored to the Players interacting within. It can be the training wheels a GM needs in order to help them steer through the twists and turns of running a game, or it can be the launch pad for writing incredibly unique campaigns and stories. The extent in which a GM decides to “own” the campaign world, meaning how much or how little they choose to follow the canon as laid out in the rulebooks and/or literature, is dictated by the individual and their group of players.
Once a group of characters are rolled up and Players sit around the gaming table, dice in hand, that gaming world, despite all professional efforts to create as comprehensive a world as possible, is completely and utterly in the hands of the GM, for better or for worse. The success of the game rides (almost) fully on their shoulders. To paraphrase the quote, “Every adventure is perfect until the first die is rolled.” For the best chance at success, the GM needs to either pick or create a world in which they feel some manner of connection or passion. If you, as the Game Master do not feel that you can make the game world your own, how are the players to enjoy the fruits of your labor?
While undoubtedly (or sometimes just hopefully) the GM does find a sense of accomplishment in creating a solid days / nights / weeks / months / years worth of gaming, the effort put in is ultimately for the benefit of the Players. I say this because I feel that if the GM was creating/conducting a game more for themselves, they are a) not really a GM, or b) better off taking a shot a writing novels. While gaming has a multitude of purposes for any number of gamers, first and foremost it is about the shared experience among the group. Additionally, in the realm of table-top RPGs, the experience of gaming is a form of organic storytelling in which the actions of the Players/protagonists can potentially shape the plot as much as the writing of the GM, in a manner that is both chaotic and heroic. Players are, simultaneously, the most vital resource and greatest hindrance to the writing efforts of a GM.
Perhaps the greatest in-game challenge for a GM is striking the balance of script and improv from session to session. Case in point:
After days of preparing the climactic battle between the PCs and their long hunted adversary, the Players choose to utilize tactics so mind-boggling reckless that they are not only overwhelming successful in defeating the villain, they negate all the hard work you’ve put into the climax with one lucky roll of the dice.
All the careful game mechanic analysis, the ubiquitous villain death-monologue, the layers upon layers of writing, reading and planning gone with the face melting roll of a 20. PCs 1, GM 0. This is no doubt frustrating or even downright infuriating. But that is okay, it is for the benefit of the players. Sure, you can negate the efforts of the PCs and tell them their attempted actions have failed, but to squash potential or actual victories is to undermine the reason for the game, the provision of heroic deeds. All too often, scripting can fly out the window. This leaves the GM two options: they can either “railroad” the PCs or improvise:
- “Railroading” is the term used for when, through the omnipotent powers granted the GM in-game, you force the actions (or lack of actions) of the PCs to conform the to the scripted action and/or plot devices. Railroading can be as simple as suggesting to the Players that their character is REALLY tired, so that they stop sneaking around town like a fool, doing completely asinine and irrelevant things (I, as a player am guilty of this) and go to sleep so the story can pick up the next morning; to extreme as not allowing the players any sort of latitude or decision making. Railroading, if used sparingly, can be an effective tool in keeping a game on track, but is ultimately viewed as a necessary evil.
- Improvisation is best for adapting to character choices on the fly, and helps the characters experience a true sense of freedom and allows them to help guide the plot. It can be surprising how often a Players decisions can move in the direction of the established plot and/or open up new avenues for storytelling. However, improv in moderation. PROTIP #2 – If a GM and Players improvise TOO much, the story has the potential to get so off-track that it ceases to be viable or recoverable. Allowing Players TOO much latitude can result in catastrophic failure to your hard work. Learn from your mistakes. Hindsight is 20/20 – Allowing the PC’s to combine spells on a shared initiative roll and channeling the damage through a single attack from the groups Fighter WILL result in a critical hit which will melt the face of your Villainous NPC!*
*Courtesy of AD&D 2nd Edition Metamagic rules.
Finding the balance needed for a specific group of players comes with time, as a GM learns the playing styles of the individuals in the group as well as understanding the depth of their characters. As I stated in “Know Your Role: Part I,” back story is an invaluable tool for the player. Additionally, it is a resource for the GM, allowing them to tailor the plot to the character as much as encounters can be tailored to skill-sets. Never underestimate what the Players can give to the story, but always remember, it is the GMs story to tell.
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – General George Patton Jr.