In honour of John's first time at bat, I thought I'd post an entry talking about some of what I consider "core principles" of GMing. This is material I originally presented as a workshop at the local university gaming club, WARP.
If you read any roleplaying websites, blogs, discussion boards or listen to a podcast, you know that there are a lot of people out there who think there is only one way to roleplay. One True Wayers. There are One True Wayers who think roleplaying is all about tactical combat, One True Wayers who think roleplaying is all about story, and OTWers who think roleplaying is about wearing costumes and speaking in silly accents.
The truth is, there are a lot of right ways to roleplay, and only one wrong way.
Fun is the Most Important Thing
If everybody at the table has a good time, you’re probably doing it right. GMs have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders, and if we tend to forget any one thing, it’s this… fun is the most important thing. The only thing.
Your players will forgive you any other mistake that you could make, as long as they’re having a good time. If they’re not having a good time, it doesn’t matter what other skills and techniques you bring to the table… players don’t continue to play in games that aren’t fun. Life is too short.
The good news is that this is a problem that is easy enough to fix. If you’re running a session and when you look around, you see bored, distracted players, you know you’ve got to shift gears fast. Just ask yourself, what is the most fun thing that could happen right now? And make that happen. It doesn’t have to make sense. Worry about all that later.
One important consideration is that you need to know what your players enjoy. Paying attention to what your players want is probably the second most important job a GM has. More on that to come.
I also want you to remember that, as GMs, you are also entitled to fun. You are a player too, and your games should be enjoyable for yourself. If the GM’s not having fun, chances are the players aren’t going to enjoy themselves either. You’re often going to be the cheerleader of the group, getting people hyped up to play, getting them excited about your game. Unless you’ve got fun stuff to look forward to, it’s hard to jazz up anyone else.
The Players are NOT The Enemy. They Are Your Collaborators.
There is an awful temptation to think of players as the opposition, because a lot of the time the GM is in control of the antagonists. Old School games with their roots firmly in war games certainly emphasized this divide, and encouraged early GMs to hit the players hard, moving them from one battle to another, and exploiting their weaknesses or errors.
This is not a constructive way to GM, unless you want a game that is all about combat, resource management, and paranoia. If that’s the kind of game you want, the rest of this seminar will probably make you cranky.
GMs often struggle to get their players to commit fully to a game, to actively engage, to care about the story that is unfolding. This is called “Buy In”. There is nothing so frustrating as a game that the GM is pouring his heart and soul and hours of prep time into, while the players spend every session texting their friends or chatting out of character about last week’s episode of Dr. Who.
It’s a lot easier to create Buy In if the GM welcomes player input into the game from the very beginning, maybe even letting them help create part of the setting, and listening to them when they say things like “I’d like to play in a game where I got to be a general in charge of an army.” The value of keeping secrets and surprises in a game is highly overrated; having players who are willing to participate actively and help you make the game exciting is way more important than keeping the story safely under the GM’s thumb.
GM Authority Comes From the Players
Back in the day, we used to joke that if the players got out of line, you just had lightning strike them down or boulders fall, burying the player characters. The GM was God, after all, and God’s authority was unquestioned. If those smartarse players stepped over the line, you could and should squash ‘em like bugs just to remind them who was really in charge.
I don’t know if there was anyone who actually ever played that way, but I can’t imagine that they played that way for long. It’s true, in a traditional roleplaying game, the GM has a lot of power to control the narrative, and that pretty much means that you can do whatever you want. But most players aren’t interested in a roleplaying experience that includes random abuse. They’re at your table to have fun, and chances are they don’t think it’s fun to have the GM acting like a bully.
A GM with no players at the table has exactly zero authority. It is your job as GM to exercise your power responsibly, to always remember that you’re working with the players to create a fun experience together.
One important qualifier: You Are Not Santa Claus. The players are your partners, not The Enemy, but that doesn’t mean you spend every session massaging their feet and feeding them crème brulee. It is your job as the GM to provide adversity for the player characters – sometimes, it’s even your job to create situations that are horrifying or have life-or-death stakes – you simply have to make sure you’re doing so in a way that is fair and unbiased, and that the players are always clear what the stakes are in a given conflict.
The GM Must Be Fair and Unbiased
In acting on the behalf of antagonists, in framing stories, interpreting rules, and especially in managing interplayer conflicts, the GM must be fair and unbiased. A GM must deal with close friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives the same as a player that’s just sat down at the table for the first time. That means you don’t give anyone a particular advantage over another player, and you don’t single anyone out to be picked on or ridiculed.
It’s important to create an atmosphere of equity and respect at the table, and that starts with the GM. You let it be known that everyone’s opinion has equal weight and everyone’s voices will be heard in a conflict. Sometimes the GM gets the final word, sometimes decisions get made by consensus. No one should ever walk away from the table feeling like their contributions were ignored or they weren’t given a chance to speak.
The GM should play by the rules of the game, and not change them on the fly or ignore them. Players expectations of the game are often based on the rules, so a GM needs to work within those expectations or make deviations from the rules-as-written clear. If a given game has too many rules for you to grasp, play a game with lighter rules.
The GM should not cheat, not even in favour of the players. Some GMs feel this is a harmless way to “keep the story on track”, protecting the players from random die rolls that could harm their characters. The best way to do that, however, is to make sure that the players are clear about the stakes in any given conflict. It’s very hard to create any drama in a battle, if the players know you’ll bail them out if they get in over their heads. If players aren’t allowed to make significant decisions in the game – even mistakes, sometimes – they aren’t being allowed to participate fully in the game, period.
Trust Is Essential to a Successful Game
There is nothing as boring as a game where the players refuse to participate because they’re unwilling to expose their characters to any kind of risk. Can’t make any friends or have any romantic entanglements – the GM might use them against you. Never take a drink in a bar – someone could poison your drink! Never buy a home – the GM will burn it down!
This attitude is a symptom of a game where the players see the GM as The Enemy. You have to convince them that this is not true; you are not going to punish them for making a small mistake or oversight by sending assassins after them. You are not going to use every NPC they exchange a kind word with as a weapon to hurt them or take away their stuff.
What players need to understand is that although it’s the GM’s job to provide them with adversity – because a game where the player characters don’t face any challenges is boring – as a collaborator, the GM is happy to provide them with the adversity they want.
In a high trust environment, players are willing to take greater risks and allow the GM greater liberties because they understand they’re not going to be arbitrarily eliminated, punished, or crippled.
When In Doubt, Talk It Out
The best solution to almost any problem you’ve got as a GM is to discuss it openly with your group. Communication and transparency increases player trust in the GM and reinforces the collaborative nature of the relationship.
In the case of a rules question or a judgement call, asking for other opinions before arriving at a fair and neutral decision is ideal. The only problem that really should be dealt with discreetly is a player issue, which should be discussed privately before being broached with the group. Forcing an issue in front of the group can back a player into a corner, making them defensive.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying to your players “I’m not sure where things go from here – what do you think should happen?” or “What kind of scene would you like to see your character get into next week?”
The PCs Are the MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTERS in the Story That Unfolds
It’s a classic GM mistake to fall in love with the NPCs they create to take important roles in the campaign. But even if the GM and the players are attached to a given NPC, they must never take centre stage away from the player characters and their action.
The PCs are the stars of the show. All the stories you tell together focus on these characters, and an NPC (or the setting itself) should never be in greater focus than one of your “main cast”. The story is not about them, and no matter how much complexity you’ve put into the development of Stormtrooper #28, chances are the players don’t care that much about them.
NPCs should also not be used by the GM as a de-facto player character for themselves.
PCs Must Be Able to Make Significant Choices as the Game Unfolds
Player characters must also never be made spectators in their own stories. The players must be able to make choices in your game that have a significant impact on how the game proceeds. Although the idea that the game could go in almost any direction is intimidating to the new GM, it’s one of the things that make RPGs a vital storytelling form. This needs to be encouraged, not diluted or negated.
A rookie GM mistake is to create adventures where player character decisions can only lead in one direction. This is called Railroading, where a series of events will always lead inevitably from A to B to C, or Illusionism when the players believe they can choose to go from A to B or A to C, but really the GM is simply changing the outcome of that choice behind the scenes – creating the “illusion of choice”. In this model, whatever path the PCs take through the Haunted Woods, they’re going to end up at the Caves of Death… you planned it that way, and that’s the way it’s going to go.
Removing the ability of players to make significant decisions takes away their primary means of interacting with the game. It means you’re taking away their freedom and their ability to contribute. This can be okay in small doses, but ultimately players don’t want to spend hours of time as passive observers – they could watch movies or read books, if they wanted that. They want choices, big meaty ones that have real consequences. Making tough decisions and suffering through the fallout is the stuff of real heroism.
RPGs are Not About Combat, They Are About Conflict
Many games devote a significant amount of their page count to rules for combat, which makes sense given the roots of the hobby in wargaming, but for many players combat is not the main feature of roleplaying. In fact, unless a player enjoys tactical combat, it can be a problem – slowing the pace of a session to a crawl.
Combat is only the simplest form of Conflict; the difference is that Conflict is any situation where two characters enter a scene wanting different things and knowing that not everyone can get what they want. What happens next? Conflict can be between the player characters and an antagonist or even amongst members of the party itself. Conflict is the essence of drama, and important to good storytelling.
The stakes in combat are usually clear: life and death, or at least an ass-whupping for the loser. The stakes in a conflict might be more nebulous, or look different from either side of the argument. Conflict could escalate into combat in the long term. Conflict is rooted in player character drives and desires, and since the decisions they make in a Conflict have a significant effect on how the game unfolds from a point of crisis, it is a powerful (perhaps crucial) tool in the GM’s toolbox.
Play to Your Strengths
GMing is a highly collaborative art, something that requires a lot of negotiation and give-and-take with players to do well. The GM gets to make their most significant contribution to how the game is played by the decisions they make early in the game; What game am I going to run? What genre? What sort of stories do I want to tell?
You should have a clear idea in your mind of what kind of game you’re going to be running, something that you can express in a concise and lucid manner to a player or group of players to catch their interest and attention. This is called an “Elevator Pitch” – a capsule description of your game to quickly get people on board what’s going to unfold.
A good GM always plays to their strengths, and runs games that engage them. Although you can meet players halfway on most other issues, allowing them to talk you into running a game you’re uncomfortable with (or uninspired by) won’t lead to a successful game.
Think about what kind of stories you most enjoy, and inspire yourself by reading / watching / playing more of that. Try to recreate that experience at your gaming table, and don’t be afraid to steal good ideas from anywhere you get them. Focusing your games on the things you’re passionate about will make them unique.