HOW TO BE A GOOD GM

Copyright 2000 by Dave Harper

Published on the Fantasylibrary.com Gamer's Lounge With Permission of The Author

The title says it all. ;-)

Up until 1998 I was a very good player and a very poor Referee. Despite several attempts at running a game, I lacked whatever magical spark good GMs had. I couldn't figure out why my players weren't having fun, why my plots weren't working out.

In 1998, my players had fun. They loved my game. They came back for more. I left for the year and when I came back they were ready, character sheets still ready at hand, demanding more from me. It's a heady feeling.

So what was different?

Over the course of my failed campaigns, I'd come up with some rules of thumb to run a game by. I'd like to share them with you now. Keep in mind that this is just one person's perspective - but it's one person whose players love him.

Dave Harper
March 21, 2000

THE PLAY'S THE THING

A popular way of describing a roleplaying game is "like a story." But that may actually be a fallacy; an RPG is closer to being a play. A story has an author and a reader; a play has a narrator, stars, and supporting characters. As the game master, you control the world - but not the players. Let them be themselves and react accordingly. Treat them like people.

To start with, always ask the players what kind of game they want. Be specific; don't rely on unspoken assumptions. Some groups create a contract ahead of time so they are all aware of exactly what may happen, but you needn't go that far. Just ask them what they want. If they hate politics, a court of intrigue will flop. If they want hack and slash instead, you could see your mysteries and flirtations burning to the ground in a matter of minutes. Give examples; don't say "science fiction" if you mean "Star Wars." Cyberpunk is science fiction, too. Try to find a happy medium, and be willing to compromise from your designs. But if you have a really killer idea for a campaign, don't give up - sway them to your point of view! If it's really that good, they'll turn around. If they don't bite, shelve it for later; trying to make it work against a group's will is a recipe for disaster.

Never assume a character will do something. Ever. Players surprise me even after fifteen years of playing. The best laid plans of mice and men...I've seen entire campaigns ruined because one PC decided to kill the wise old sage, or the party decided that a quest was suicide, or because a character wasted a wish on something trivial. You should never have a game where there is only one answer to a problem. Two or three is the absolute minimum for me when writing up ideas, and even then, I'm glad to accept other solutions if they seem promising. Nothing says these solutions have to be easy, but there should be more than one chance at them. It's no fun banging your head against a wall.

Another problem can come up because of what the players _don't_ do. From time to time I see a player spend hours making a new character with a fantastic concept, only to get tired of him and quit in a single session. The problem was, their image of him didn't meet the reality, either due to the rules, or to the reactions of the party. All of this could have been avoided if the player had talked to people first and explained what effect he was trying to achieve. Players and GMs can then help the player figure out how he can do this.

One last piece of advice on the subject: don't plan too much in advance. It's great to be prepared; a few minutes of your time can make it seem like you have the world at your fingertips, especially if the world is something you created yourself. I keep a list of random names behind my screen, and any time the characters meet someone new that isn't a major character, I give them one of these names and mark it down on the sheet. That way, if they come back again, I'll have a ready made NPC for them with some notes: "Talks with an outrageous French accent. Likes to exaggerate." But preparation can go too far. Writing a five-page description of the fall of the Baron of Aramor isn't helpful if the players have never even heard of him yet. When I'm planning a campaign, I focus on the one or two sessions immediately ahead of me, and jot down point form notes for sessions further ahead. By the time I get there, at least one assumption I had made has changed - guaranteed.

THE MAGICIAN'S CHOICE

The "Magician's Choice" is a trick that lets the 'dupe' choose any path and wind up at the same place. The best known example is a stage magician asking a member of the audience which of two stones he wishes to choose; the magician, of course, already knows which one he must use in his trick for it to work, but the dupe doesn’t. If the dupe chooses the first stone, the magician will declare "As you say, I'll use this one." But if the dupe chooses the other stone, the magician will take away that stone and say "As you say, I'll put away this one." Either way, the magician gets to use the stone he had in mind, and the dupe believes he had the power to choose - invaluable to the magician. This trick can also be used with PCs on more weighty matters than choosing a stone - choosing plot paths. They will still go down the route you wanted them to - but the thing is, they did it to themselves, so they can't complain.

I'm not suggesting that any road the players take lead to your special scenario that you spent hours on the week before. If you force the player characters into a situation where they don't want to be, and they can't blame themselves, they're going to blame YOU. And nobody will have any fun - even if you're _sure_ they'd enjoy it if you hadn't forced them. You have to provide at least the _illusion_ of free will, and free will implies a fair number of choices. If every time the PCs try to leave the city something stops them, they will grow increasingly aware the GM is forcing their hand. Nobody likes to be forced to do anything against their will.

Some force is allowed, even welcomed. After all, on their own, the players would never stumble into the lost caverns of Kara- Thoth, or need to slay the dragon of Tyr, and those can be the seeds of a fantastic campaign that the players will talk about for years. But try to work _with_ the players to get there. The sign of a good GM is that her players think the quest was their _own_ idea. The sign of the best GMs is that the quest really _was_ the player’s idea, expanded on by the GM. Don't put all your eggs in one basket; don't use overwhelming force, and don't ignore them. Use their route to add to the story, as they meet people and have little adventures of their own. Remember, anything the players don't know doesn't have to exist - for the sake of a good game.

The easiest way to do this is to find out what motivates the characters. It's not impossible! In my own game, I asked the players to choose passions for their characters; attributes like Survival, Greed, Honesty, Love of someone, Faith in a god, Jealousy, or Duty. I used game effects to encourage the players to _want_ to have these passions, and to use them to develop their characters even more. Players like them - they give a bonus once a session at some point when that passion is really raging - the most dramatic part for that player, even if it isn't for anybody else. And it's great that they like them - but their raison d'etre is for me. I write all of them down on a sheet of paper before the game, and then whenever I need to motivate the players, or figure out what makes them tick, I glance at it. A call to arms won't stir the passions of a greedy thief, and an offer of knighthood might well be wasted on a humble monk who just wants to be left alone to study. Knowing what each one wants, I can tailor-make offers they can't resist, or simply entice them into doing something themselves by dangling the possibility in their noses, letting them search it out and think of ideas that could fit. I make it seem as if the players could do anything at all, and then give them a few leads. They usually take the one I want them to without even realizing it!

Most importantly, however, a good game master must know when _not_ to use the Magician's choice. Sometimes it's good for a campaign to let the players do what they want to even if you don't have it written up. Even if it means the ten pages of notes you wrote will go to waste! And they don't even have to be wasted - those notes can be recycled in some other game, or even in the same campaign with different names. One excellent GM of my acquaintance had a binder full of plots that never got used, one for every conceivable situation. He simply changed a few names, a few places, and he had an instant adventure at his fingertips. The players in his game were free to try to conquer empires, kill dragons or simply try to steal a merchant's wares - and they knew no matter what they did, he'd be ready as if he'd planned the whole thing. We loved every minute of it. But sometimes the best games are done on the fly, without a clear purpose in mind. Each player has a different motivation, and you can't please them all all of the time. So every once in a while, letting them do their own thing helps to relieve that - a drunken bar brawl alone can let a fighter fight and a priest debate religion, a thief do tricks, a rogue start rumors, a mage seem mysterious, a bard flirt, and a politician forge alliances.

The trick is to know your own style. Try a free-form game one night - with a one-session plot ready in case the players don't pick up on things. You'll soon figure out if you - and your players - are cut out for this style of gaming. And if you are, hey - you might never go back to plots again! Me, I'm hopeless at them, but I keep a number of mini-adventures in mind - the street urchin who picks a character's pocket, the roguish flirtation, tracking down the rumor that hits too close to home, a challenge to the local authority. Sometimes after months of fighting great evils and doing great deeds, a break is just what you need. And if that doesn't work, break out a board game, a wargame, even a deck of cards, and declare that night RPG-free. A burnt-out GM is no good to anybody.

TALK AIN'T CHEAP

One of the best methods of becoming a better game master overnight is simply to round up a group of friends and tell them your plans for the evening. Get a bunch of people who don't play in your game, even if they don't know that "RPG" isn't just a heavy weapon. Whenever I ran, I used to tell people during coffee breaks at work. All my friends would do was ask questions - but what they did was phenomenal!

Some questions made me realize I was assuming too much - that the players would agree to a quest, for example, or that the party would fight a desperate battle rather than running away. I immediately figured out what could happen if they _didn't_ and revised my plans accordingly. I remember the first time one of these situations came up in game - and I was able to smoothly go on without any surprise at all. The players never knew they had ruined my entire plot...because they hadn't. They would have if I hadn't noticed it beforehand, though, or I'd have been forced to do something heavy-handed to make up for it. It's amazing how _stupid_ the best plots can sound when you tell them to somebody else. That's when you should sit up and ask yourself "why?"

Some questions were different - I had to explain what I meant by something, or what I wanted to do - and that made me realize a better way of doing it. I realized how flimsy an excuse sounded so I changed it before it came up. I realized one of the most important NPCs had no motivation, and gave him a history. Later on, I was able to plan his actions much better, even when the action didn't go the way I planned, because I knew where he was coming from.

The question I always dread is "Aren't you abusing your power?" It's never happened. I've never tried to bring in an out-of-game argument into the session, or play favorites with a girlfriend or friend - but it could happen someday. And having somebody else look at my adventure helps me stay fair just as much as it grounds me in reality.

And, of course, telling the group how much my players enjoyed the evening afterward was a plus. It's always nice to brag to people who can appreciate it and don't need to stay in character.

LISTEN

Simple title, simple advice. Listen to your players. If they have something to say, let them talk.

This doesn't mean giving in to their demands. But it _does_ mean letting them speak their minds. After all, the game is the thing - and the purpose of a game is to have fun. ALL of you. No fun = no players.

My players know that I'm always willing to incorporate new rules or change the plot - within reason. If they're tired of the campaign, I'm willing to change it to suit them. I ended up changing the major villain in a game before they even met her when I realized they were treating the threat thus far like a joke. While I simmered inside, that lasted for all of one session - and the players liked the new enemy, which I put in so seamlessly they never realized there had been a change in plan.

Of course, sometimes they don't say anything no matter what, so to avoid that trap, I always end the session with a question. "What did you guys think? How did it go? What didn't you like?" It's amazing how much they have to say sometimes. Praise and compliments (and tell me someone who doesn't like getting that!) mixed with complaints and criticism, and all of it makes for a better game. I know what to do more of, and what to do less of. And it's infinitely better than NOT knowing, just sitting there and guessing.

One piece of advice - the GM's word is law, but laws get changed. Be prepared to back down in the face of overwhelming consensus. Better yet, plan ahead and write up rules concerning how to _change_ the rules. In my game I promise players that what I say goes - but if everybody is against it, the rule will get changed for the _next_ time it comes up. That keeps everybody happy. Deciding "Oh, that spell is just too powerful" and changing it on the spot makes players feel cheated.

Note that a reasonable, in-game answer goes a lot further than "I'm the GM and I say so." One player asked if he could play a cannibalistic, jungle-dwelling elf. I said no. He argued passionately for several minutes until I told him that we were playing in (basically) Europe in the renaissance. Lots of elves, but they all lived in cities or on farms, and the only jungles were in the world's equivalent of Africa. He gave in quite easily after that, and has never complained about it since. But if I'd just said "You can't play one because it's not in the rules" he'd have sulked throughout the game.

Sometimes a player will have an idea that a GM hasn't planned on. Don't get defensive - that's a great opportunity! In the example above, I _could_ have told him "I don't have any jungle-dwelling, cannibalistic elves...but that sounds really cool. If you write up the culture, we can figure out where to place it on the map and you can play a character like that." It's a new source of ideas and work - and writing up a campaign world can be a LOT of work.

TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM...

The fun in a role-playing game is from overcoming obstacles. Sure, there can be fun, too, from having a cool character concept, and it can be really great when all the pieces of the game start to fit together, but on a day to day basis, give me a challenge that I can overcome in the game, and I'll be happy. Note the wording: you need to challenge your players, or they won't be excited. There has to be the potential for loss - even if it just means coming in second place (Hitler was the runner-up in World War 2, you know). And there also has to be the potential for success, or you can't overcome anything.

If you give them no real challenge, you're Monty Haul and your players will eventually get bored. There's only so many dragons you can slay, goddesses you can rescue, mountains of gold you can claim. But the other way can be treacherous, too; if you give them too much of a challenge, they'll get frustrated and quit. Nobody likes to play in a game where they lose consistently.

But wait - you don't want the players to kill off that villain just yet! And what do you do if they decide to take over the kingdom? Just let them do as they please? Absolutely not! The thing to do is give them small obstacles that they can deal with, little rewards they can earn, but still keep the main goal dangling in the air. Overcoming a challenge is fun because you feel like you _earned_ that reward. There's the excitement of danger and the satisfaction of a reward well earned. For the big things, let them get closer to their goal each time, but keep it out of reach. That makes it into a campaign goal, something that has to be earned over time. But in the meantime, give them something. For the unkillable villain, let them foil his plans. Let them scar him, ruining his good looks. Let them break his magical blade, and kill his prized henchman. Let them ruin his reputation. (Not all at once, I hope). But let him come back, with even more reason to hate the party.

And don't be afraid to turn the tables. If the players are being lackluster, if they aren't even taking it seriously, if they're stupid, or if they're just plain out of luck - punish them. But remember that not every failure has to lead to death. Players will remember other losses without giving up - scars, if you will. The loss of a loved one, or a cherished item; the failure of a goal - if the players don't succeed in foiling the plans of the Dark Mage, maybe he _will_ take over the kingdom! A humiliating reputation. Being sold as a slave. There's a million things you can do to someone that won't take him out of the game, and still hurts him. It's a risk, then - he can lose, or he can win. And he doesn't know which, can't know which, until he tries - and tries hard, if he wants to win.

When running, I always try to have a campaign goal in mind when I make up the session - but I also try to have a session goal that may or may not be totally related. In one game, the most fun the party had was nearly winning a contest of skill during a feastday, when the whole point of the contest was simply to get the party together (it worked, too). Nobody in the party won, but they talked for ages about how Asha came in _second place_ in a fencing tournament. "Second place!" they crow. "Can you believe it?" Never mind that she made an enemy by beating someone to that spot, and I hadn't even planned it. Never mind that they all _knew_ it was luck that did it. The prize money from the contest was gone in days. They were still ridiculously happy, and I let them be. I was happy they'd formed a party on their own, and they were happy to do well, and it didn't hurt my campaign one bit.

Of course, next time the tournament came around, the competition was a lot tougher. Keeps 'em on their toes.

KNOW WHEN TO FOLD 'EM

A campaign can be a beautifully arranged work of art within a tapestry-like world lovingly designed and described by the game master...but it gets absorbed one little bite at a time. Each session has to be memorable and fun, too, or there's no point for players to hang around until the end - no matter how good you promise it will be.

Now, this doesn't mean the players have to win something every session. There's a little lesson from social psychology you can learn: people gamble because of the lure of winning. It's called variable reinforcement. They know that if they keep on playing, eventually they'll win again - because they did so once. They don't know when it'll happen, but they know it'll happen eventually. So let them win sometimes, and allow them to lose sometimes. Don't plan it in advance, just let the dice fall as they may - literally - and be prepared for them to lose. It makes the wins that much sweeter for them.

But winning and losing isn't the point of the game. You are telling a story, writing it together, acting out a play without a script - and each session is a scene from the play, a chapter from the book. But a better example is a serial. You watch the episode, they have action, they have romance, they have fun - and then they end it on a cliffhanger, and you have to wait to see what happens next! In other words, make them want more. Never leave them totally satisfied, unless you're finished with the plot. While it's still in the works, let them achieve something, but end the session on a bang - an attack, the discovery of a traitor, news brought in on horseback from the capital, anything. While the heros have saved the day in one part of the kingdom, perhaps the villain has made his move unmolested elsewhere. While one mystery has been solved, the greater mystery has just gotten deeper. While the heros have just slain the dragon, now its lair is falling apart with them in it! Leave them with a challenge, don't give them many details - let them imagine it, think about ways of dealing with it. They'll show up half an hour early next time.

And on that note, I hope this has helped some of you. I'm not an authority on running a game - but I must be doing something right if everybody's having fun. And if everybody's having fun in your game, too - then you just passed the test of GMing. Congratulations, game master.




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