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PostPosted: Tue Sep 30, 2014 1:19 am 
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Joined: Sat Oct 05, 2013 4:12 am
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Location: Dubai
I’ve been a GM for a long time. Oh, I’ve played in occasional one-offs, but for the last 25 years I’ve invariably been the GM. Until this year. Until I got involved with Pathfinder Society. I realised when my first PFS character hit Level 2 in March that I hadn’t levelled a character up since the late 1980s.

So much time behind the screen, I’d kind of forgotten what it was like to be a player. My GMing style had become part storyteller, part entertainer. I saw my role as enabling players to fulfil dreams.
There’s some truth in that, but the amount of playing I’ve done in Pathfinder Society has reminded me what I love about a player; this in turn has given me valuable lessons about how to GM better.

It’s made me harsher – but fairer. I think it's made me a better GM.

Feel free to disagree, expand, expound or add your own lessons.

1) Risk gives the game meaning

At one stage I was rather proud of the fact that no PC had died on my watch in decades. No longer.

As a player I have plans for my characters. I plan their feats, their development, two or three levels ahead. I think of the cool powers I’m going to get them, the cool items that boost their strengths or shore up their weaknesses.

The knowledge they may not get there makes me nervous. Every time I put a character I care about into action as a player, I worry about their survival. Without that risk, without that worry, I may as well not bother playing. I can sit and spend an evening creating and levelling up characters who never risk their lives in an adventure.

Lesson learnt: Do not fudge to keep player characters alive. Risk is part of their story; adventurers shouldn’t be molly-coddled. That doesn't necessarily mean I need to throw haymakers all the time, just acknowledge that adventuring is dangerous, and players know that.

2) The rules are important

Players need to know the rules you’re using in order to develop and play their characters effectively. That doesn’t mean you can’t house rule (except in PFS), but they should know the house rules in advance (or have the chance to modify their character to accommodate a previously unknown house rule). If I’ve invested a feat in order to create a specific rule exception for my character, it’s wasted if the GM doesn’t apply the standard rule to other characters.

3) Consistency is important

This is related to (2). Sure, different GMs have different styles, and even apply some rules differently. That’s good and healthy, but a capricious GM, who applies rules and rulings inconsistently, leaves players uncertain and their characters vulnerable to whim. That’s not good.

4) It’s not the GM’s job to know how my character works

Sure, if you’re trying a system none of your players have played before, or you have a new player, you’re going to have to go through a coaching process. But once they’ve settled in, and chosen their powers or abilities, it’s their job to know how to use them. Once I used to look rules and spells up for players. Now I’ll only do that for beginners. If players aren’t ready, they can miss their turn (or hold their action until they’ve worked out what to do).

4b) Sometimes I know how my character works better than the GM

if there's a grey area of the rules, it's better to find out how the GM interprets it before the game. If it crops up in play, a good GM will listen to the player's case. If a player clearly knows the rule better than the GM, trust them on it and check the rkles later. Usually it's better to err on the side of the player than on ruling against them, at least in the session where the uncertainty arises.

5) Just because it’s obvious to the GM doesn’t mean it’s obvious to the players

PFS adventures usually provide a quick briefing to players, with extra information if they ask the NPC giving the briefing the right questions. When I first started running PFS, I couldn’t understand why players weren’t asking questions, weren’t asking the right questions, or were focussing on a fairly trivial matter and worrying it past relevance.

Now I’ve sat on the other side of the screen, I’ve realised those obvious questions aren’t that obvious. Players don’t know what information is relevant, or even what questions to ask. In a story-driven home game I might let things run; in a tightly timed club game, I now have no problems breaking kayfabe and telling them “that’s not relevant” or “you’ve got all you’re going to get”.

6) Just because a player is quiet doesn’t mean they’re bored

The player may be roleplaying a strong, silent type, may be deliberately letting others have their time in the sun, may be thinking of their next move or may simply have run out of ideas. That doesn’t mean they’re not invested in the game.

It’s worthwhile checking that’s the case, but in the game a simple “Are you OK?” or “Do you have any input” should suffice. After game, check whether they had fun or whether they were bored at too many points.

7) It’s OK for a player to be bored once in a while

I used to think a bored player was a cardinal sin for a GM. GMs, after all, are rarely bored because there’s so much to do. But I’ve had moments in PFS when I’m bored as a player. Maybe I’ve lost focus for a moment, maybe I’m letting someone else do their thing, maybe I don’t see what my character can usefully do right now. But at any point I can shake things up – and if I have become a little bored for a while, the GM trying to get me invested in the scene isn’t going to help much. Next scene, maybe I’ll find something to do, and then I’ll be interested again.

8) If a player is bored for the whole game, there’s a problem

And you should try to fix it, but not at the expense of everyone else, or yourself. Maybe that player doesn’t like that adventure. Maybe they don’t like your style and would be better-served by another GM. Maybe they were giving RPGs a try to please a friend, but have found such games are not for them.

You can do your best to make the game enjoyable, but you can’t make people enjoy the game.

9) Let the players decide what they should do

You’ve given them all the information you can. Let them decide how they want to play it. Sure, there may be consequences – bad ones. If they’re in the picture, it’s their call.

10) The game doesn’t belong to the GM

You’re not a storyteller. If that’s the bug you have, go write a story. You’re a gamesmaster, providing a game for a group of players who have invested their time and effort into the game as well. They’ve travelled, often far. They’ve made characters they care about. They’re willing to risk them to play with you – but not for you.

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

PostPosted: Tue Sep 30, 2014 8:41 am 

Joined: Sat Oct 05, 2013 8:30 pm
Posts: 29
Agreed on most points except #10.

As a GM, I feel you are a storyteller - just not the traditional kind. A traditional storyteller fortells the story - he knows the events, the outcomes, everything. As a Games Master though, you are a retroactive storyteller. You tell the stories of these heroes, these obstacles they faced, the clever ways they got around it - after the fact. You only know of the world, the rules, the system, maybe how the NPCs might react, the traps and environment - but everything else evolves as you tell the story of how the world interacts with the players and melds with their individual stories to form a whole new, much more organic one.

It's a process of collective storytelling, honestly. You are absolutely right in saying that it's a game with the players, not just for them or you.

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