Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Random musings rantings and ramblings about what it takes to be a decent GM

Ok after reading a few old posts on the local forum and thinking of some conversations I've had lately about DMing in general ... thought I'd share some of my long winded opinions on this (based entirely on good ideas I've stolen from smarter people). This is in large part a re-post of something I posted to the local gaming group forums and was in a thread asking for GM advice.

DM Style

I know that the hallmark of indie games and many old school games is low GM prep ... however I have to say that the super obvious first and most crucial element of being a good GM is communication and a very close second is preparation. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare ... so crucial in an RPG ... you are the conduit as a GM by which the game occurs and flows. One can have the finest players in the land ... yet if the GM is constantly unprepared ... they will only achieve a small fraction of the fun and adventure they might otherwise achieve. That is if they don't just quit out of boredom. That said ... each GM is totally different and requires variable amounts of prep. I really am surprised at how little prep most GMs I know actually do. I'd say at least 50% haven't even really mastered the rules of the games they are GMing to a level that is beyond all of their players. Many freely admit they usually just "wing" it ... and as smug as they are about that ... in most cases it shows (and not in a good way). 

To me there are two major archetypes of GMs (yet every GM is unique and I admit this is just a simplification for discussion purposes).  The "Improviser" and the "Planner."

I've played with the "Improviser" Sage-Storyteller who has the uncanny ability to roll with things and does a good job of eliciting input from their players, these folks show up with a couple index cards and its "go time!" Fine if you are that kind of DM and have such skills cool ... but I've seen people that are amazing at this ...  and the old pros can hold it together no matter what ... but when your cutting your teeth on this style of GMing all you need is to have one bad session and the game can collapse (which I've personally witnessed as a player recently ... and many other times over the years). So even those people need to do a little thinking and planning and some "what if" scenarios in their head. I think the best  custom world campaign I've played in with a GM like this was one where the GM had a fairly concrete world fleshed out and used that to balance the party actions. By this I mean they had maybe 3 to 5 pages of notes on their world, 3 or 4 pretty good maps with their own notes on specific areas. These reference materials grew as the campaign went on.

Then there is probably the hardest GM/DM style to pull off and that is the drunken monk fighting style ... no no .. kidding ... it is the "Planner." I have to say as far back middle school I recall playing in a friends older brothers game and this guy was an insane planner. Of course he was an unemployed high school kid with no life at the time ... so what else did he have to do. He had contingency upon contingency he had meticulous notes about everything. He literally must have had a couple hundred pages about his homemade world, he had dozens of maps, he would diabolically prepare for our game each week and have all sorts of scenarios worked out of what he thought the party would do. He was damn good at DMing  for being so young and his games were some of the most fun I've ever had with any RPG to date (and I've been blessed to have some rockingly good GM/DMs over the intervening 20 years). But ... realistically who can do this. If you really are a super dedicated GM/DM you can be the "Planner" ... but I've seen people who start out this way and have their game going good, yet they can't improvise to save their life and once the party does something unanticipated they either fall into "railroad" mode or they simply fold under pressure and their game jumps the shark hard.

I think the bottom line on style is that most good GMs are prepared and can do heavy improvisation if the party goes right when they anticipated left. I think most solid GMs are good at blending other material into their own ... or they are confident enough to run a module ... not needing to act all  tough and bad assed about their "own" setting and not only that run the thing well and actually improve it.

I recall a game that was balanced, fun, really suspenseful and the GM showed up one night and wasn't fully prepared for what the party did and his game jumped the shark. One of the key members in our group got so mad he stood up, angrily tossed his books in his bags and said "I'm done, this game is over for me" and just left. This guy was one of the most mellow, low key, funny guys you'd ever meet. We all felt that way, the entire party. I don't know what the answer is for sure, I'm sure many of you have more experience running games than I and more insight into such things but I think the answer is ... be flexible, learn to be an improviser but perhaps try to be as prepared as you can. Oh sure we all have a busy week at work, or real life stuff happen, RPGs are not more important than life after all, so you can't have a perfect session every time. Just be self critical in a good way, learn from your mistakes, TAKE NOTES and listen to your party. I've really become a fan of party feedback, even doing a questionnaire once in awhile and that might sound lame but try it I've been surprised at how much more candid people are when the have a bit more time to think and don't have to say things in front of other people. Questionnaires aside I  also think if you as a DM foster an environment where players don't feel bad about just being honest about your game, in front of you and the whole party, you'll get some great feedback as well. Again how you get your feedback is as stylistic  as how one GMs but you get my point. You just have to be open to it, don't take the criticism personally, learn from it, incorporate it, but also be strong enough to respectfully listen and really evaluate that. If players simply tell you how to run your game every week it can go to far ... I feel a GM needs the respect of their players and when players are constantly correcting the GM and doing the old Backseat GMing ... it  is not a good sign. Either that player has issues or your game is heading for the rocks.  So of course as with all things there needs to be a balance, but good player feedback, no matter how you get it, is invaluable so long as you the DM/GM take it to heart.

Timing is everything!

I mean the first is hard to do if you don't have practice running your game and in a home game its doubtful your going to have a main group and a test group. So what I think this means for a home game is ... get your pacing down. Think about how you want your session to run, do you want people dicking around in town for 3 hours in a 4 hour session? Do you want your random encounter combats to run for 3 hours in a 4 hour game? Learn your parties playing style quickly and use it as a tool to help you keep the game moving at the pace you the GM determine is necessary to get the things done you want to. This isn't being a "railroader" GM this is being a good time manager and that is one of your key responsibilities as a GM.

Teen Wolf Syndrome

Ok the next part about balance ... player to player balance that is. I personally feel that you don't need players to be balanced against one an other (unless you anticipate hardcore party vs. party combat/conflict ... then you damn well better pay attention to balance) in terms of ability/damage/etc. yet balancing out who the spotlight is on is always a good idea. So if one guy is level 4 and another level 2 ... it doesn't have to be the end of the world. That said ... having someone who is doing four times the amount of damage of the  entire party, with an armor class that is unhitable by anything save a lesser god ... traveling with four sages who have no combat abilities at all. Unless that is somehow the complete mechanic of your game, your players all are ok with it and enjoy it and you've very clearly discussed it with them in advance ... you need to rectify that situation. In my experience as a player the easiest way for a strong imbalance to occur is for the GM to allow someone to either create a character that is outside the rules of the game "Ok Mike go ahead and roll up a frost giant PC ... I think it should be ok" or you have a strong "Monty Hall" game going where people are getting too much powerful loot to early on. You can get a character or two geared up well beyond their level. 
If one person is head and shoulders above the rest as I've said before I'm fond of the term "Teen Wolf character." Its like the old campy 80s flick about the kid who is a werewolf who goes out for the basketball team and becomes basically a Michael Jordan in his NBA prime on a high school basketball team. He runs around scoring 120 points by himself, while the rest of the team stands around and barely breaks a sweat. Eventually they get irritated and don't really care if they are winning, it just isn't fun and they begin to kinda not like playing. That is what happens with RPGs ... if one guy is busting everything's ass and everyone else is just a spectator, oh ya sure maybe you speak goblin so once every 5 adventures you contribute, or maybe you make a perception check and help out ... but you do nothing in combat ... you stand there and watch Mighty Mage reduce everything to ash before you can even blink. The players are going to get bored and the game will likely fizzle out before its time.

This same thing can happen if a GM puts an NPC in the party and decides that they want to be a GM-PC ... don't ever forget that the spotlight should always be on the PCs ... period. If you want to have uber-mc-badass NPC-PC show the party up week after week ... at best your essentially railroading the party and at the worst your really stealing the fun from the players. 

Don't fall in love with outrageous results! Or, in other words, "Aren't critical fumbles high-lair-ee-ous?!!"

I whole heartedly agree with this notion that you can have way too much zany, random, insanity  all in the name of "realism" or added fun. I think this is one of the most easy GM pitfalls. I've played in games where random encounters were off the charts and overwhelmed a good game. I've played in games where the critical hits were so brutal player mortality was 2 players a session no matter what. I've played in games where the descriptions of fumbles and criticals were so off the wall they really undermined the flow of the game and ultimately were a distraction There are entire systems out there that make hay out of this (Hackmaster for one) ... and if one desires it ... perhaps actually run a system that's been designed around it.

I love a balanced way to handle critical failures and critical effects but adding some spice is never a bad thing as long as its done in a balanced way. I think many systems sort of are too vanilla and blah and can use a little spice in this area ... but  I'm just saying you can also make your game "jump the shark" by going to far.

Many people don't realize or understand that a party split can really derail the fun and get players disengaged. Once that happens it can lead to sideline BSing, and then the whole mood of the evening can be ruined. It really takes a very focused GM who pays close attention to whats going on and has the ability to cut back and forth between the split up groups. I've played with DMs in the past that can do this masterfully, but this is not a natural skill for anyone, it just takes experience.

No one likes the RPG Railroad!:

"Storytelling is a vital part of being a good GM. But when the story telling takes over, you don't have a game anymore. You have an audience listening to your creative work of fiction." This my friends is what is commonly referred to as "railroading" ... there is a GM/DM at  Strategicon who is famous for it  ... I won't name names (he runs GURPS alot is all I'll say). A nice guy, knows the rules, I'll go so far as to say he is very prepared for his games usually. I played a miniatures game with him years and years ago called Gutshot! and it was awesome. He was hilarious and good times were had. Then a year or two later I played in one of his GURPS games with a few friends who were attending the con with me ... I'm not going to go into detail, but it was one of the most horrible games I've ever played in. He simply railroaded us, our rolls meant nothing most of the time, our actions meant nothing, he just railroaded us through his storyline ... and it sucked and we felt violated. If your making decisions FOR the party ... your engaging in railroading. I think every GM has to do it on occasion to speed things up or get things back on "track" ... but its a slippery slope and before you know it your the conductor on the RPG Railroad.


One of my best friends fits into the categories very often. He is the quintessential rules lawyer, he is a hardcore power gamer, he abuses his "character back story" as an excuse to do pretty much whatever he wants. He is an awesome guy, I really view him as a brother, I could BS with the guy for hours on end. Some games are pretty fun with him ... but get the guy in a game of D&D and forget about it ... you will not have fun ... you will end up wanting to burn your books and commit a murder suicide on the guy. What can a DM do though if the "tool" is one of your best friends? At the end of the day folks ... either boot the tool ... or call the game and start over without the Mr. or Mrs. Tool. If you try to keep going your going to burn out yourself and your players and possibly ruin your gaming group.

Mr. Miyagi, Yoda, and Einstein could have teamed up and probably not come up with such a profound passage:

"GMs are often overly obsessed with control at a convention game. Remember, even if a player starts busting your world, as long as it doesn't derail the adventure or upstage the other characters, roll with it! If the players are enjoying it, roll with it! You don't have to borrow trouble and worry about how some precedent is going to ruin your campaign several sessions down the line because after this adventure, you're done. If they leave the game world a smoking husk afterward, that's fine. Because there is no tomorrow!! Free yourself to embrace the fun while still challenging your players."  This quote comes from. Its a good piece that encapsulates some of the aspects of prepping for a one shot/con game ... holds merit for a full campaign as far as I'm concerned.  
The power of YES!
I'm going to be bold here and say that large quote above applies to home campaign games people. I think that as the GM/DM if you can figure out how to do what that passage says, in your campaign ... and not let things get broken ... you have found the pathway to enlightened RPGing. You see it is all about fun, its about a group effort to have a hilarious, suspenseful, rip roaring good time. It is not about sitting down to test who is the best at rules minutia, who rolls the most criticals, or whose character does the most damage. It is not about the GM/DM being right all the time. Yes yes ... we know your god GM ... be an evil vengful god that doesn't occasionally toss your followers a bone and they are likely to go elsewhere. To me honestly I think this is why many people prefer some of the indie systems and old school systems to some of the newer games and more rules heavy systems out there ... its easier to say yes to players and easier to engage them by allowing them to add their own creativity to the game. 

I think in an ideal situation the party-DM dynamic is pretty good in terms of players doing cool things and coming up with fun, sometimes zany (but in a good way) ideas and just being allowed to go with it. Hopefully the party will actually help the DM police things in terms of balance, etc. and actively police themselves . I think if that is occurring in a game its one of the best signs that the players are taking ownership of the game.  To me that is one of the best signs that they are enjoying the game and really a high compliment to the GMs skills. I think a very strong DM could do the same thing alone ven in a party with a couple boarderline powergamers as long as they pay close attention to whats going on and keep good notes and have the ability to bend powerful things back at the party if need be.
I think this is related to giving players freedom to do cool things ... though it might not seem like it. It is the interruption of the mood of the game by allowing the players to see behind the curtain too much and by giving them too much input.  For many systems there really should be a GM/Party DMZ where the roles are clear. Colorful player input is awesome and should be encouraged but players re-writing the game on the fly should be discouraged (again some DM-less systems out there thrive on this ... I'm talking standard systems).  Another thing that bother me in most situations: GMs who are too obvious about making things up on the fly "Oh its erm ... I guess I'll call it ... Smithville" ... why would you do that as a GM. Yet I have experienced that to varying degrees in nearly every game I've played in, and yes I've done that in games I've run as well.  Sometimes its unavoidable but I would say that even if your going to make something up on the fly try to conceal the fact that you didn't have it planned if you can. I feel that even little things like this add up and you end up losing players attention to the game as a result. Lets face it we are trying to immerse ourselves in an alternate reality to one extent or another ... and lack of detail gets in the way of that. Now this doesn't mean you have to have full on campaign maps with every minor hamlet named with a detailed history ... good god of course not. I'm talking more about how the GM presents that places name to the party, how they introduce NPCs, etc. I feel if you can find ways to make it feel authentic, like you had it planned all along or like its right out of the module, you'll keep your players more into the "mood" so to speak. This applies to all aspects of the game really, the more smoothly you can deliver good amount of detail, without boring your players, the more they'll get into the game.

Things I forgot in the first draft of this crazy DM manifesto of mine (I'm sure I'll add more later):

Wrong guy running the game:

Ok I've played in several games where the wrong person was actually running the game. You get situations where a new person wants to try their hand at GMing and that is cool, always happy to add people willing and capable of GMing to the ranks. A developmental game where everyone knows that so an so is going to run their maiden game, and that is basically the intent of it ... a developmental game for a new GM. But often as is the case ... you meet other gamers randomly and just fall into a game with near strangers. Many times in these cases what occurs is you have some seasoned players, maybe even experienced GMs ... as players in a new GMs game. Now this doesn't instantly mean disaster, heck I'd wager that is how a pretty fair percentage of GMs break into running games. If things are done properly having an experienced group of PCs with a new or somewhat new GM can really be a good thing for everyone. It can focus the players who want to help the new GM ... you get a sort of big brother mentality (in a good way) going and players do a good job of policing themselves, helping the GM in tactful, polite and appropriate ways. It can lay the foundation for a solid RPG group really. Unfortunately though another outcome is the veteran players can simply ride roughshod over the rookie GM and burn the game down. GMing isn't rocket science, nor is it bomb diffusion ... but it has so many variables and nuances to it ... until you've done it (and done it well) you just don't appreciate the intangible difficulty. Along those lines, GMing for an awesome helpful friendly group of friends who enjoy laid back fun ... is vastly different from GMing a game full of power gaming, inconsiderate tools ... obviously the difficulty of actually succeeding with the later group verges on the impossible. Anyway my point is if you end up in a game group where one person is an old pro, good at GMing and they like doing it ... and another person is a new GM and they are really nervous and only running a game because they thought that was the only way they'd get to RPG ... what the heck ... don't be too proud to talk it out and switch places.

No matter what the case though know your limits as a GM and if you happen to be something of a novice GM ... don't be afraid to pull aside the experienced players one on one and chat with them. Pick their brains about what they think a good game is, enlist them as an ally ... this will help you in the long run. Also don't let your players push you around. As the GM you are indeed the supreme, unchallengeable god in your game ... to me the golden rule of all  standard style RPGs whether or not its printed ... is the GM is infallible if the choose to be. The rules are just a suggestion that can be bent and broken at will ... and you the GM are the ultimate authority on what is legal and what isn't ... when something can be done and when it can't. When I run a game I make that clear at the beginning, yet I also make it clear that I'm not going to be inflexible and I will listen to any and all of my players concerns ... but I ask that once I've heard said concerns and rendered an opinion ... that is that ... GMs word is the highest law of the land. 

GM Prerogative: Now witness the power of a fully armed and operational battle station!

I ask my players to feel free to be honest to point out misinterpretations of the rules, etc. but I also ask them not to get upset when I tell them ... yes I understand what the rule is in the book ... but in this case ... in my game ... it doesn't apply. That said you have to be exceedingly careful when doing this as it can cost you huge credibility with your players, it can lead to railroading and imbalance and all sorts of nasty unintended consequences. I like to think of it as a measure of last resort. I'm not talking here about modifying rules in general. That is another matter for another, deep discussion .. for another day.  I'm talking about a situation in real time in the game where you have changed a monster ability, altered how an ability works for a specific NPC, etc. and a player calls you on it ... and you say "I know its different than what the rules say ... and I intended that." When you make a move along those lines, you have to anticipate that someone might catch you ... and if so ... be prepared to deal with it. This to me is alot more about knowing your group and knowing how they react to things. In some groups A) they just wouldn't notice and/or B) if they did they wouldn't care ... yet other groups something like that might cause an explosive melt down. Anyway my long winded point here is be careful and just because you can do things ... that doesn't always mean you should.

And another thing ....

In an RPG your usually going to be playing for more than one session. That being the case you are essentially asking the players to form a cooperative endeavor with you that is not unlike a business arrangement  or a contract if you will. You are making certain commitments to the players and your hoping they will do the same for you. I have really been surprised over the years at the number of games I've played in that were off the cuff and there were no initial character creation/orientation sessions where the players and GM discussed their expectations, wants and goals for the game. Would you start a business with someone like that? Would you organize a serious club or group of any kind without at least a little discussion? Most people wouldn't. Yet at least in my experience its pretty common to just fire up a game, roll up chrs and ... go. That isn't good in my opinion.

I think every game other than a one shot (and heck even there I don't think a 5 minute discussion to this effect would hurt) should include an around the table discussion. Where each player is given the floor to tell the group what they want out of the game and where the GM can go over the ground rules, cite his expectations of the players, talk about what he/she wants as a GM (yes you can want things too ... its OK ... though the players are the stars of the show you are the director/producer/theater manager/etc.). As far as actually character creation and revealing character back stories, etc. as a group before the game starts is really an individual group/system/GM thing and that doesn't matter as much in my mind. But a group buy-in session where everyone gets to listen to each other and reinforce that your all in it together ...and what things you all want out of the game are made plain ... is essential. The one thing I never try to forget as a player and GM is whatever the RPG endeavor it will sink or sail on the basis of your collective cohesion ... something so obvious but exceedingly difficult for many to always keep in mind ... those who do have a better chance of success. Fight the good fight and keep your head up ... good gaming is out there and if you hang in there you'll find it!


Anonymous said...

Cheers for a really insightful write up. You can really understand that you have been there and done that and that this was based on experience.

I'm playing my first RPG at the moment and it feeld after 4 sessions that pur GM might be failing. Initially I put it down to not knowing what to expect, but we have 2 really qualified RPG players in the group, and both have GM'd as well and I can see that half the time they want to take over.

We are getting bogged down on random stuff for over an hour limiting our actual game time; a random encounter in our last session almost killed the whole party; we have a tool in the group who isn't really in it for the game; and the GM isn't prepared to step passed what is written into the book - if its not in the book he just doesn't know how to deal with it and repreats whatever it is he is reading from.

I have another session tomorrow and moght point him in the direction of this post after having a chat with him and the other lads about the direction the game is going. I'm really enjoying myself and don't really want to see the game fail because of something we might be able to fix.

Cheers againg for the quality write up.

Bodlar said...

Your Excessiveness continues to astound. To pay homage to your excess I shall give an excessive reply.

All good points I think. The best campaigns are well planned but flexible. That's always been the style I strive for. I build an good epic story for what's going on in the background. Then each session I will write a few paragraphs with key information and contingencies. One of my favorite tricks as far as GM flex is concerned is to write multiple loosely placed encounters and modify them based upon where and what the players happen to be doing. I've written lots of options and encounters that never happened, but there are always opportunities to use them in other games. It's an indirect form of railroading, but it works really great. Not only does it make your game feel organic, but the players don't feel like you ever forced them into a certain situation.

The biggest pitfall I have ever seen a GM run into is lack of flexability. I am pretty terrible as a player. I play like I want my players to play. I break most GMs by constantly pushing the system and circumstances. I warn every GM I play for that I will probably break their game. Truly capable flexible GMs can handle that and enjoy it even. Just remember as GM your word is LAW. With great power comes great responsibility ;-). Weild your power as iron fist or fun loving, and everything in between. Every situation calls for a different approach. Confidence is key.

The Lord of Excess said...

Rogue Pom: don't feel bad and hang in there man. Yes indeed I've been there done that with what your going through. From the sounds of it you guys have an up hill battle. Don't let it discourage you though, if you really want to experience good RPGing hang in there. From the sounds of it ... you might be suffering from something I didn't address and I'm actually going to amend my post accordingly.

Bodlar ... well you and I have had some similar gaming experiences (being that I was a player in more than one of your games) and I think it probably has shaped our gaming outlook accordingly. Really an Awesome tip man ... create things to be used flexibly. That is along my point I guess about being able to roll with whatever the party does and give the illusion that you are always two steps ahead of them. I think it really adds to the suspense and adventure of the game when you can feel confident that your GM is ready for you no matter what. At least for me I feel more immersed in the game and more involved in the action, drama, etc.

The Lord of Excess said...

Also. Bodlar ... you are not the Tool player (hopefully you knew that and you probably know who I'm talking about). I'd describe you as something else ... perhaps the "assassin" player. I agree that you play how you want your players to play. You enjoy a challenging DM vs. Party style of game and relish the PC vs. DM attitude ... one thing you do is become a rules expert before you GM. If people want to do this that is a must, because working completely within the framework of the rules is really the only way to make it a true vs. type of game. You bring it and you expect the players to bring it. Now that said I'd say that probably most games are the GM serves as a guide, the Dungeon Master from the campy (yet classic) D&D cartoons kinda attitude. They are the stage manager, the director of the band and usually the janitorial and repair crew. You do all that plus give an even more adversarial type feel by really pushing your players and challenging them. It can really be a rewarding style of game, I really enjoyed every game of yours I played in ... and have to say to date they rank towards the top of my RPG experiences in terms of fun and enjoyment. That said though it is by far not the only enjoyable way to GM or play ... I'd go one step further and say its a more advanced way to play and harder to pull off for most GMs. I think your style of play is more along the lines of what John Wick advocates in his book "Play Dirty" (DAMN good DM resource for anyone btw .. I have read that and re-read it ... very enlightening stuff).

Will said...

This is a good write up about much of what DMs must consider. I have always seen it as the most difficult of gaming "jobs", because depending on group size and demenor, you can really have your work cut out for you entertaining, weaving a tale, pacing, not being too predictable, making each individual feel important, etc. DMing is probably 66% inherent talent and 33% learned skill. Some of the best read or knowledgable players have made terrible DMs. Practice helps this some for sure. As I am for the most part a player first, I see that the DM can be helped in huge ways by party chemistry. The presence of even one "tool" can suck the life out of a game. Everybody should try to work together to make it a fun time...or why bother showing up right?

Alexander Man said...

Thanks for this great writing... A lot of useful stuff!

In our gaming group almost everybody are GM´s in some game... But we all have our own "genre" where we have specialized in. Historical, Scifi, Fantasy, Horror, Super Heroes... You name it we´ve played it. And I think, in over twenty years of gaming, changing place from player to GM, we have learned a lot from each others successes and sad failures as a GM (and a player). At least all my friends have developed as a GM... I hope I have too :)
I think it´s important to know both sides of the coin... A good GM is vital for a successful and enjoyable gaming session, but there´s been many times when a good player has also saved the evening and kept the game flowing...

And I agree with "Bodlar" here with "plan well but be flexible". Over the years I have written about hundred pages of adventures and campaign twists for my Rune Quest campaign, but I have used only few of my plans :) The Campaign is naturally always on the background, but I let the players walk free in Glorantha... And they mostly write their own adventures with their actions and choices. But I hold the strings and try to make the world alive for them. And every once in awhile
I lead them back on the campaign road...

I think you need good players too for this type of gaming... who understands the campaign world and doesn´t try to dominate the GM when he gives some freedom to the players :)