Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thoughts on GM'ing

For proper understanding of this article, you will need to know that a GM is the GameMaster who creates the setting, plot, and other characters (Non-Player Characters) in a roleplaying game. I've probably already lost anyone who didn't already know the term, so 'nuff said about that.

So I GM. For some people, who knew me a while ago, this would be a revelation. Not because they wouldn't know that I roleplay (I've been doing that since 4th grade), but because before college, I really never GM'ed. I thought at the time that I didn't have what it takes to do a good game, and whenever I tried, I would fail utterly and miserably (miserable for both me and the players). These days, I think I do a passable job, but it hasn't been an easy road.

I used to think that the hard part about GM'ing was coming up with an interesting, intricate, enticing plot. One that got the characters hooked early and kept them coming back for more. I also thought it would be impossible to come up with a plot that would lead into a year's worth of sessions. Well, I still have problem with the latter, but the former I hardly consider an issue at all. Indeed, I consider plot to be the least of my concerns when I plan out a game.

When I think about GM'ing and what GMs I have liked in the past have done, I find things slotting into 2 big areas. 1) Things that you can prepare for before the game. 2) Things that you do during the game.

Things that occur before the game include that plot I was talking about (although it doesn't have to), and setting. Setting is where I spend most of my time before a game, and I think it is time well spent. The problem with plot is that players are experts at avoiding it. They'll miss your hook, kill your main NPC, or destroy your little plot-filled village without even blinking, and they won't even know they're doing it. See the GM and players roles are extremely different. GMs create wolds and characters, set plots in motion and try to guide players to interesting parts of their worlds. Players, on the other hand are generally out to play a character and interact with the world, and have little thought to what happens in the plot (besides wanting to get in it). This is why I only really have the sketchiest of plots for any of my campaigns. The long-range plan for my most recent campaign was literally "Benedict is a dictator, and the unicorn is actually a demon." This over-arching thought guided some fiarly complicated sessions. Most of the time, I would think of enough plot to last for a single session (generating just enough but not too much is a difficult thing to master), and that would be it. The setting on the other hand is very important to think a lot about, in my opinion. With a rich setting, you can have motivations for all your NPCs, which can guide you as to what they've been up to if your characters seek them out (or if you want them to show up). I have found this motivation planning extremely valuable, for it lets my cast of NPCs be doing things while the characters are running through the adventure. If you know why the mad old wizard isn't helping the kingdom in its time of need, then when the characters confront him about it, you can already know where he is and what he has been doing, and whether or not he will take kindly to interruption.

Over doing plot or setting planning can both be bad as well. If you over do your plot planning, then more than likely your characters will feel railroaded into your story, and it won't feel like they have any control or input into what is happening. They will resent your plot hooks and actively avoid them. If you over do setting, then you can have the tendency to let your characters just waltz through adventure after adventure. You know what else is happening in your universe, and you can't understand why the players are rushing for it. Meanwhile your players have completely sidetracked into building businesses in the capitol city, which they can do because you've already fleshed out 10 different competing grocers in the city.

So, once you've done your world preparation, you still have to run the game itself. This is the hardest thing to do, mainly because the only way to get good at it is to run a lot of games and get used to what it takes. A lot of it can also be specific to how your group likes to operate. Do they like fast paced epic, heroic adventures, or do they like scheming, plotting adventures that build over time? Either way, as the GM its your job to make sure everyone's having fun.

There are four big areas I think a GM needs to consider during a game:

  1. Controlling players

  2. Make it interesting for the players and characters

  3. Engage players all the time

  4. Make decisions fast

Since this post is going fairly long, I'm going to fishing up, and if anyone actually wants to read more on this, they can ask for it.

Controlling players - There are two forms of this: Making sure one player doesn't ruin the fun for the other players through rules-lawyering, table behavior, character actions, etc. The second form is getting the players/characters into your plot without destroying it. I with a friendly group (and if they aren't your friends, why are you playing?), this shouldn't be an issue, especially if you do the other things here

Make it interesting for the players and character - More than likely you'll have 2 competing sets of goals inherent the audience of the game (the players). One set is what the players want to have happen (make a dent in the world, get their character killed gloriously, have a duel with someone, figure out some mechanics of the system), and what the characters want (to make it home, to find love, to kill the dragon). I've found that the best games get both the players and the characters interested. You can get the players interested by playing with the universe, having a twisty plot, or by just having a fun universe to play in. But even if the players on on board 100%, you can have problems if the characters don't have a good reason to be in the plot. You've got to appeal to their motivations, their desires and wishes. Even if the players want to take down the dragon and free the princess, if the characters are a bunch of farm boys who are unambitious, there are going to be issues. You could have the dragon burn down their farm, kidnap their wife / children, place a curse on them, etc. These are all clumsy examples, but I always try to identify what the motivations of the PCs (Player Characters) are, and play to them with the adventure.

Engage Players all the time - This is really tough, and I mess this one up sometimes. Some GMs you never notice the camera time (the time when the GM is listening to you or your characters), and sometimes your trying to find something, anything to kill the time until they get back to you. So, its very important to keep the players engaged as much as possible. If it is at all possible, let your players talk to each other while your GMing someone else. Even if its improbable, I generally let players talk as much as they want. Another facet of this is that everyone should get to do something new. I've played under some GMs where if you make the wrong decision at one point, you are stuck doing that for a long time (real time). For instance say the PCs, are hunting werewolves in the rural Oklahoma town, and one of them decides to walk to the next town to get supplies from the hospital. What you should not do is GM the rest of the PCs for a hour while the unfortunate PC is walking to the next town. My policy is the next time I talk to a player, they have finished whatever it was they were doing before, that or something interesting has come up. So the next time I get to the walker, maybe werewolves are attacking him. Maybe he found a truck and is already at the hospital. Maybe he just walks really fast. Anyway you slice it, that player deserves some more camera and decision making time, and if you don't give it to him/her, then they are going to be bored.

Make decisions fast - In general this means letting the players get away with murder. But it also means dropping the hammer in a big way too. Did the players just uncover your big secret that was supposed to last 10 more sessions? Don't cover that up, run with it! What does it mean? How will the world/NPCs react to the discovery? Don't hesitate to let players do what they want, even if you're worried about the consequences, just get into the mode that the whole world is fluid and subject to change, once you learn to go with that, I think you become a much better GM. By the way, this is one of the reasons that I do the NPC motivations thinking ahead of time. If the world changes out from underneath them, you quickly extrapolate how NPCs will react, if you know why they are doing things.

Well, thats all for now... Let me know if any of you like this kind of stuff, I'm interested to hear people's opinions :).

New addendum Tim has pointed out an interesting article in this same vane.


Anonymous said...


Of course I enjoy these sorts of posts! Although I'd love to respond more thoroughly, for now let me suggest an article by MJ Young. Young writes about a concept called "The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast," which underlies some of what you're talking about.

I think your technique of spending more time on setting development than "plot" works well because what you're really doing is laying the foundation for situation. Situation is what you get when character intersects with setting. And, as situation is what drives roleplaying, giving the players a setting to involve their characters in keeps the game moving in a meaningful, non-trivial way. In other words, everyone stays involved because they get to contribute.

- Tim

Ben said...

What an interesting article. I definitely think I fall into more of the bass playing... except that I almost always have an ending scenario in mind ( I don't, normally, have a plan for the players to follow to get there), so I like to let the characters do whatever they want, and sort of guide them to the plot I want to reveal. I'm very careful to remain flexible and not block the players from doing things to interfere, however. One of the things I definitely do, is think of one _way_ for the players to get to the plot, just so I know how they could get there, but I normally improvise in the actual games.