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 Post subject: Advice for new GMs
PostPosted: Mon Oct 07, 2013 10:31 am 
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Joined: Sat Oct 05, 2013 4:12 am
Posts: 83
Location: Dubai
So you want to be a gamesmaster. Brilliant. Lots of people want to play, but gamesmasters are rarer beasts. You’ll rarely lack for players.

Some people think it takes a special kind of person to be a gamesmaster. Some worry they don’t have the skills or experience to do it.

I think that’s tommyrot. Anyone can be a gamesmaster. It isn’t rocket science.

All you need is the gumption to try, and some time between games to plan your next session. If you don’t have all the skills when you start, you’ll soon pick them up.

I am not a perfect GM. But I think I’m OK; I’m good enough. And I’ve been doing it long enough that I have had time to think about the role, what it involves, and how to improve my skills. You may not agree with everything I write, but if it gives you ideas, this has done its job.

And if anyone else has advice to offer - or questions to ask - don't be shy. I love reading advice on GMIng because I'm not perfect, and I can always learn new tricks.

First of all, let’s have a look at what a gamesmaster does.

1) The gamesmaster sets the premise of the game.

With an established group, the GM will usually do this in consultation with players – that ensures the whole group is happy (or at least prepared to accept) that particular premise. A GM without a group will likely create a premise she’s interested in and then advertise it to see if any players are interested. The premise should include the rules being used, the genre, some idea of how long the game is intended to run, when you plan to run it, and some kind of Hollywood-style ‘pitch’ to give prospective players an instant handle on the idea.

Example: I’m going to run a 1930s Pulp adventure using Hero System 6th Edition, Players will be the crew of a battered old tramp freighter scrabbling to make a living in the South China Sea – it’s Indiana Jones meets Firefly with coal-fired ships. The game will run for 4-6 sessions on alternate Thursday evenings, from about 7pm to 11pm, in Al Twar, Dubai.

2) The GM approves characters

Many new GMs forget this step! It's particulary important in systems with design-based character generation, where it's usually possible to break the system by creating one-dimensional characters. Rather than reject a character outright, a GM may suggest changes which will make the character acceptable. PCs who are loners is something to watch out for; players seem to love playing mavericks who have little or no reason to stay with a party. If the other players agree, it can be fun to allow one of these in a group, but the others have to agree because it should be down to them to keep the maverick with them, rather than the GM havin to come up with reasons all the time. An entire party of mavericks is nigh-on impossible.

Example: We agreed this game was a low-magic game for 3rd-level human PCs. You cannot play your 8th-level Elven wizard/cleric.

3) The GM creates the adventure

This is a core GM task, and involves working out a plot, creating and populating an adventure site, preparing necessary statistics for planned encounters, and trying to balance everything to (a) the abilities of the characters and (b) the abilities of the players. This is done in the GM’s spare time before the play session. The level of detail a GM puts into this varies on the time they have available, their ability or desire to improvise in play and their style.

4) The GM adjudicates rules.

This requires that she has a working understanding of the rules being played, and that she is fair. Rules-intensive games can require a good deal of study to gain that working knowledge. Rules-light systems are easy to get to grips with, but will usually require the GM to make up rulings on the spot for situations the rules don't cover; common sense is the main guide here.

5) The GM describes the setting to the players.

Miniatures and battleboards can help in tactical situations, and maps, illustrations and even photos, are useful props, but the primary mode is descriptive. The players only know what the GM tells them, and an inadequate description means their mental image may well be rather different from the GM’s mental image. At the same time, listening to a GM drone at length is boring. Boil descriptions down to essentials. I still struggle with finding the right balance.

6) The GM plays all the non-player characters

Opponents, cameos, spear-carriers, major villains, level bosses. Playing combat opponents requires understanding the tactics of the game and the abilities of the opponents. Playing roleplay encounters sets the tone of the game for players - roleplay well, and it encourages players to do the same; skimp and they will do likewise.

7) The GM reacts to what the players want to do, because they are the heroes.

8) The GM gives out rewards

These could be material things (treasure, magical items or ancient artefacts, rare weapons, a new starship), game rewards (experience points), or more intangible rewards: the gratitude of a village or nobleman, information about the setting, contacts who owe them a favour.

9) Most importantly of all, the GM tries to ensure everyone has fun

That includes him or herself. Players who aren’t having fun will leave the group (and maybe even leave the hobby). A GM who isn’t having fun will find preparation and running sessions a chore that becomes a weight around her neck. This is unfun, and that’s ungood.

That’s what a GM does. The obvious question then is, how does a GM do all of that?

The answer is that every single GM does it differently. Some spend hours before a session meticulously planning every possible encounter they can think of, others scribble down a few sentences on the back of an envelope and fly by the seat of their pants when they’re in the game.

Not all GMs are equally good at all aspects of GMing. Some excel at providing clear, concise and relevant descriptions, others know the rules inside out, some are great actors who play a series of memorable NPCs, others are superb storytellers who create intricate plots, others excel at improvisation, taking the most unexpected player actions in their stride.

Someone who excels at everything would be an awesome GM. But I’m not sure that person exists. If that’s the bar you set for yourself, you will be eternally disappointed in yourself, and that is unfun.

You don’t have to be awesome. You just have to be good enough.

With experience, and regular practice, your skills will improve. Spend some time critically evaluating your performance after a game – what went right; what went wrong; what could have been done better. Talk to your players, too – so long as they still want to come to the next session, you’ve done well enough, but they may have insights on an aspect of your performance you missed.

In part 2 – practicalities: putting the theory into action

Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain (UAE)
Active games: Pathfinder - Rise of the Runelords. Pathfinder Society games.

 Post subject: Re: Advice for new GMs
PostPosted: Mon Oct 07, 2013 10:54 am 
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Joined: Sat Oct 05, 2013 4:12 am
Posts: 83
Location: Dubai

Let’s have a look at how to put the theory into action. These notes follow the same numbering as the first post above.
And if I could remember to do all of this, for every session, I’d be a much better GM. As I said in the first post, you don’t have to be awesome – just good enough.

1) The premise of the game.

Start simple. I’d recommend starting out with a popular rules set in a popular genre – and invariably, that will mean using D&D or Pathfinder in a high-fantasy setting where monsters and magic exist. It’s almost the default RPG premise. And I’d recommend you start with 1st level characters, as that’s the way these rules are designed to work. But there are dozens of other cool rules and settings, and some of these may suit you better – if you want to run science-fiction, modern-day horror, urban fantasy, anime, superheroes or whatever, cool. Whatever genre you want to play, try and have some understanding of it. And don’t worry too much about being original – that’s greatly over-rated in RPGs. Some notable speculative fiction writer – I forget who – wrote that fictitious worlds should be “strangely familiar”, and that’s doubly true for RPG worlds; players need a concept they can hang onto in order to engage with the world. As soon they encounter the premise and start making and playing characters, originality will come.

2) Approving suitable characters.

It seems really obvious, but it can be hard to tell a player they’re cool idea for a character isn’t right for this game. Their eyes fall, their bottom lip sticks out, they may cry. Or, more realistically, they’ll threaten, beg, cajole or otherwise try to manipulate you into approving their character.

Be firm, even if you think it’s a cool idea, because if you’ve agreed with all the players that characters will be upright, moral heroes, or at least scoundrels with a heart of gold it’s cheating them to allow one guy to play an evil blackguard who gets to have all the fun. Save that cool but inappropriate character for another game.

There’s a similar problem with superhero games, when everyone agrees it’ll be cool to play upright, square-jawed Golden Age heroes like Superman or Captain America, but turns up to the game with dark anti-heroes like Wolverine or Batman. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with playing dark heroes, even evil ones – it can be great fun, so long as everyone’s agree that’s OK.

Game mechanics can also affect character suitability – most rules break down at extremes. A 1st level Pathfinder fighter with 18s in strength, dexterity and constitution is functionally equivalent to a 2nd, even a 3rd level fighter. Design systems like GURPS and Hero System are easy to break by pushing skills or characteristics to extremes.

3) Setting the adventure details.

Many GMs think this means they have to write down everything that’ll happen in advance. Try it – you’ll have prep notes you can probably publish on, but you’ll only run one game a year. And I guarantee the players will try something you didn’t expect.

To plan an adventure, you’ll require some structure, though – at the very least, a beginning, a middle and an end. One of the reasons dungeon adventures are popular is because they have an inbuilt structure: go into this room, you find this monster/puzzle/crazed old hermit to interact with. Deal with it, move on to the next room.

In fact, I highly recommend starting GMs make a dungeon as their first adventure, even if they never use it. Look at the map you made of the dungeon. See how it resembles a flowchart? There’s one of my secrets of developing adventures: draw it up as a flowchart; each box is a scene. Vary the challenges for players, as well.

Omar Ismail has a good policy for convention games: make sure each scenario has a puzzle to be solved, an opportunity to roleplay (i.e., interact with an NPC), and a combat. On a broader scale, that’s not a bad policy for larger, multi-session adventures as well: not every session has to have puzzles, roleplaying opportunities and fights, but over the course of the adventure, all those things should appear. You’ll quickly find out which your players like best, and can emphasise those aspects more.

Likewise, tension and difficulty should mount throughout the adventure, culminating in a climax – a major fight, an intense debate to convince the king to do the right thing, a maze that must be conquered in less than 5 minutes to retrieve the maguffin that’ll save the town.

Failure must carry a risk as well – it needn’t be death, but something to leave the bitter taste of defeat in the players’ mouths. Then give them a chance to make things right after all – victory is all the sweeter after a setback.

4) Adjudicating rules

This is the most mechanical part of Gamesmastering. You do have to have some familiarity with the rules to do this. Read them, try them out. Getting to know them by playing in someone else’s game is good, but not everyone has that opportunity for every game. I learnt Traveller, RuneQuest, GURPS and Hero System by reading the books, generating characters and running the characters I made through mock combats.

Most popular games, and cult games, have forums dedicated to them, and forum posters are usually helpful in describing how to apply rules – though that isn’t useful when you’re actually running a session.

Sometimes you’ll find one of your players actually knows the rules better than you do – I feel no shame in in asking that player what rule applies in a particular situation; it’s quicker than finding the rule in the rulebook.

Some games have simple rules; others are more complicated, with lots of specialised applications. The more you play a particular game, the more comfortable you’ll get with the rules.

The more different games you play, the more you’ll get used to searching out what you really need to know.

5) Describing the setting is crucial.

You need to give the players enough information that they can make valid decisions, and, if possible, add some atmosphere to the setting. Is it dark, misty, raining. Describe that. Tell them how big the rooms are, what they can see in them.

If you’re not using a battleboard and some kind of miniatures or counters, you’ll have to describe a battle area in enough detail that the players can visualise it.

Describe NPCs.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard is to make descriptions apply to at least three of the five senses (usually sight and sound, then either smell or touch) – I wish I could remember to do that in play more often.

Another good piece of advice is to tailor the description to how much effort the players put into examining their surroundings – a glance into a room gets less information than stepping into it, which get less information than searching it thoroughly. Some information you withhold until players thoroughly investigate an area. Some information may require a dice roll for them to uncover (a perception roll if they’re trying to find a hidden thing, a hacking roll if they’re trying to get data from a computer, etc.).

It’s common in some groups for the GM to make rolls to find hidden information in secret on her players’ behalf, so the player doesn’t know if there’s anything there or not if his character doesn’t find it.

6) Playing all the NPCs – and opponents.

You don’t have to be a great actor. Just good enough to try and make NPCs distinctive. If you remember the old adage of writing, “Show, don’t tell,” it’s in playing NPCs that you get to do the show part; description is the tell part.

You can act physically (if you’re playing a little old lady, shrink down, shake a bit) and vocally (put a quaver in your voice and mutter about young people these days having no respect). Accents and different voice tones are great if you can pull them off, but we’re not all voice actors and I often think that using your own accent is better than doing a different accent badly.

But playing the NPCs isn’t always about acting: sometimes players will face NPCs or monsters in combat, and you have to play them as well. Will the enemy retreat if one of them is hurt or killed, or are they fanatical. Do they have good tactics (which requires you to know what good tactics are in this game)? Do they act as a well-trained squad or as a loose mob? Do they have any special abilities or magic items which they could use against the player characters? Use them!

7) Reacting to the players

This is, in my view, the key to successful GMing. It means you often have to improvise, because they will always do something you don’t expect, and it will usually sem perfectly logical to them.

At the most basic level, it means not telling the players what their characters should do (if a player wants his character to climb a tree overlooking the battlefield, don’t tell him it’s pointless and he should do something else, let him try it and realise it’s pointless for himself).

At a more significant level, it may mean abandoning your carefully scripted adventure in which the PCs are supposed to defend the town from invaders, because they decide they want to kidnap the mayor’s daughter and hold the town to ransom.

If you don’t do this, you are, in some way, telling players what their characters can or can’t do, which is usually considered a bad thing (it’s often called railroading, because a train can only go in one direction). Some GMs, though, are so good at other aspects of the game that their players will accept a little railroading in return for the rest of the experience.

8) Rewards

Some games devote a good part of the rules to working out what rewards PCs should get: killing this monster or disarming this trap is worth so many experience points; this type of monster has this kind of treasure. Others are more nebulous. And you can get creative: the villagers are so grateful they’ve been saved that they give the party letter of introduction to the Duke, their master. A wizard offers to teach the party’s wizard a new spell. The lord rewards a player with a village – but he has to marry the last lord’s widow to inherit it.

9) Fun, fun, fun

That’s why we play games, isn’t it? As a GM you’ve to ensure that each player gets some screen time and isn’t just intimidated by the brash personalities of other players (unless the player actually wants to take a back seat; some do).

Some players like killing things and taking treasure, some like to craft intricate backgrounds for their characters, others like to roleplay conversations with the local innkeeper, others like to build their characters into the most efficiently powerful examples of their kind they can, others think that they’re pretty much audience and expect the GM and other players to entertain them. You’ll get to know which players like what soon enough, and then how to try to give them what they enjoy. And remember to take some time to enjoy the experience yourself.

That’s pretty much my gaming advice in a nutshell. I could go on at much greater length about all the subjects, and about other, secondary aspects of GMing, but you now have the basics of what I consider the important parts. You’ve enough information to work the rest out for yourself.

Go forth and gamesmaster!

Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain (UAE)
Active games: Pathfinder - Rise of the Runelords. Pathfinder Society games.

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