Monday, August 22, 2011

Build a Better GM Challenge - Unemployed Geek Edition.

Today's article is in response to a challenge posted over at Hill Cantons to RPG Bloggers, to detail three things that those of us who write about tabletop roleplaying games do well as Gamemasters in our home campaigns. While this blog isn't an “RPG blog,” per se, one of the topics I write about with some frequency is the tabletop RPG. One of the goals of this challenge is to share knowledge and insight in a sort of collective “workshop” for people trying to sharpen their skills with regard to running a game for others. So, in order to present my entry to “Build a Better GM,” I'll share a few things that I have learned over the years. Gamemasters are part narrator, part referee, and in most systems the ultimate arbiter of the world and how the characters the players have created can interact with it. Good GMs provide the players with an arena for drama and set the stage for telling their own adventures. Bad GMs enter into a competition with the players, one rigged in their favor. Everyone who runs games has their own strengths, and weak points, and some of the things that make the greatest GMs are talents, that cannot be taught. Others, however, are teachable and learnable skills.

Besides, we all know this guy is the TRUE master.

1. The Balance.

The first thing that I feel I do well in my home campaigns is careful attention to a balance between two elements of gaming that sometimes interfere with each other. The “roleplaying” and the “game.” I've been a player in campaigns where one is emphasized to the neglect of the other, and personally, those sorts of games aren't fun for me. Taking either element to its logical extreme conclusion and you have something that most people wouldn't find fun. All game, no roleplaying sacrifices theme and story for tactical combats without context or meaning, die rolls determine life or death, effective tactics minimize risk and there is a simulation-level resource management. If a “character” dies, it doesn't matter, roll a new one and get back in there. All roleplaying and no game makes character decisions only meaningful in the context of interpersonal relationships. Combats are loosely scripted affairs with no reasonable risk of death unless the player is clearly choosing to make a noble sacrifice, and a trip into town may involve hours of conversations with shopkeepers and locals, making the game more an exercise in collaborative improvised storytelling.

Yes, GMs have Godlike power in their game. Abuse them, and players may "vote with their feet."

The first example is how many of the first tabletop roleplayers played, evoking the wargaming roots of the hobby, and the second is the rule for online forum roleplay. I do not mean to say either of these styles are worthless or that one is inherently superior to the other. It isn't a choice of one extreme vs the other, with the very best gamemasters, a blend and balance of the two has created the best gaming experiences of my life, and I strive to pass that on to players. In general, I make combats meaningful by making the vast majority of my rolls behind the screen stand, and if I need to fudge a roll, I do so very rarely and without letting the players know. I fudge rolls if and only if allowing random chance to stand “as rolled” would make the experience less fun for everyone. A spectacular critical hit from a nameless henchman putting a hero into an early grave scenes before he confronts his personal nemesis might be fudged, but ignoring dice rolls too often makes them all meaningless. Don't be the GM who bends rules to pound the PCs into the dirt, and bends them again to let them win. Players know when you are doing that, and resent it.

2. Roleplaying is a Group Activity.

I've been in a lot of games where there's that one player who insists on creating an obstinate character whose personal goals and outlook frequently cause chaos and dysfunction within the team of other players. I've seen GMs throw their hands up in frustration, not knowing what to do, and a table full of uncomfortable players. After all, the player is “just playing my character, doing what he would do,” so no one can fault him for it, right? Bad advice in this situation labels this individual as a problem player off the bat and recommends eventually asking the player to leave the group. Sometimes, this is regrettably the case, but I've found that such extreme measures are rarely necessary. I've corrected this with a particular speech I give at the beginning of most of my campaigns. The “Group Activity” speech has been given so many times that my regulars don't even need it anymore. It is understood.

The group is a mercenary unit of gritty bounty hunters? Excellent.
My character for this campaign will be... a pacifist.

Basically, I concede that no one can fault someone for playing a character honestly and accurately to their core concept. However, fault can be found in the creation of a character whose outlook and goals will inevitably create conflict and strife, and whose personal philosophy allows for no growth as a person, compromise or change. Roleplaying is a group activity, and the fun for a single player of creating a situation that is all about a clash of their characters personal ideology and goals with the rest of the group should not trump the fun for the other players in that group. An understanding that conflicts within a team may naturally arise as characters develop is one thing, and can provide great scenes if played by mature players resolving a difference of opinion. Making a character who is unsuited philosophically or psychologically to belong to a group working toward a goal is not appropriate for a group activity such are roleplaying in all but the rarest of circumstances. Players in my games keep that in mind before the first word or number is written on a character sheet.

3. Plan to Improvise.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Every GM who has assumed players would go a certain direction and they immediately seized on the opposite one knows this. Some respond by railroading the players and seizing the illusion of control of their own destinies from the player's hands. This is not fun. One of the strengths of tabletop roleplaying is being able to determine your character's fate, and do what you want, rather than following someone else's script. Knowing that the players will knock you for a loop now and again, a lot of preparatory work can be done to shore up an individual gamemaster's improvisational weaknesses. I have a list of names ready that are unsassigned to any NPC so when they introduce themselves to a throwaway NPC I create on the spot, they don't immediately know that character is unimportant as I struggle for a name off the top of my head.

You want to... talk to the goblin? Okay... His name is... erm... "Bob...lin."

So long as the player group has a concrete goal to work toward to avoid a paradox of choice, and whatever a GM might need to make up, but would personally struggle with on the spot is prepared in advance, there is a lot of fun to be had with letting the players have some control over the flow of the action. Have a few villains statted out, maybe a few maps of locations to be dropped in ready, focus on having the hard stuff to make up on the fly in front of you, and making up the rest by the seat of your pants is easy, and a lot of fun. The limits imposed by a prewritten scenario are gone, and the story can flow purely based on reactions to player decisions.

Whew. This one turned out to be longer than I thought it'd be. I'll refer anyone following these threads for the “Build a Better GM” Workshop back to the links at Hill Cantons, and I also recommend reading articles over at Gnome Stew, and the books Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, and Nightmares of Mine, by Kenneth Hite (if you can find an affordable copy, it is the finest advice available to horror GMs.)

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ckutalik said...

Dude, we took out that first guy in our Mini-Con AD&D session!

Alex Schroeder said...

A list of names! Good point, I've used those before but these days I have gone without for too long.

Anonymous said...

This inspired me to go on a massive quest with a group of friends in some game; all i need now are some friends.

Alpha said...

Thanks for the links.

Zombie Ad said...

Great article and superb tips.

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