Chall’s Secrets of GMing

A good friend of mine will be reclaiming the GM seat for our biweekly game. He asked if I had any advice. He doesn’t need it, he’s an awesome GM. However, I agreed to provide some pointers. So here they are:

Note: The following assumes you have a solid grasp of role playing game terminology and concepts.

PCs Are Important

Player Characters are the focus of the game. This doesn’t mean the universe revolves around them but it dose mean they must be the center of their story.

For example:

  • In Fantasy: The PCs aren’t Gods, they’re probably not royalty, the fate of kingdoms is not at their whim. However, they are the only ones capable of defending their Orcish village from the Paladins of Lord Genocide.
  • In Space Opera: The Galaxy’s huge and the Celestial Crest is everywhere. While masters of their world the PCs are in no position to take down the despotic Galactic Kings. However, they can make a fool out of their Star Archon and wrest local control from her iron grip.
  • In Steam Punk: The PCs’ air pirate ship is just one of many. They aren’t the most famous buccaneers, yet. They’re pushing for it.

How does one strive for this PC-centredness? Here’s some advice:

Character Creation

Usually players create characters together in the first game session; take advantage of this. The sentiment “Make anything you want.” signifies you simply don’t care. That’s bad.

Ask each player what they’d like to play. Watch for anything that doesn’t fit and offer alternatives. If a player asks what you’d like to see don’t say ‘oh anything really’you’re the GM you should know what you’d like. If a player can’t think of anything offer the types of characters you’d make for this game  as suggestions.

Have the players write out some general ideas about their characters before they jot down a single stat. Where did they grow up? What are their goals? Who do they know?

I highly recommend they also answer: How do I know the other characters? This can really help your game run smoothly. If the characters know each other they have a reason to stay together and are less likely to write problematic PCs.

Most importantly work with the players as to ensure you like each PC, if you don’t the rest of my advice won’t work.

 

Character Backgrounds

If the players have given you backgrounds for their characters don’t simply reward them with extra CP/Xp/Freebie Points; use these backgrounds in your game. Make family members, friends, rivals and foes as key NPCs. Have organizations they mention show up. Take them to places their backgrounds mention.

Your meta-plot doesn’t have focus exclusively on PC history but said history should be an important part of it. The PCs are works of art given to you by your players. Including their stories into the larger one shows that you’ve listened and care.

PCs > NPCs

As mentioned before the PCs must be the center of your game, as such do not regulate them to sidekicks to your NPCs. Taking orders from NPCs is fine, being motivated to help them is great but never put the PCs in a situation where it’s obvious a group of NPCs, who are readily available,  would do a better job. This doesn’t mean the party must be the best at what they do in the entire game world, just that, for the situation at hand, they are the the best choice available.

If you ever get to a point in a game where you’re talking to yourself as two or more NPCs, for more than 10 minutes, you’ve failed.

When writing  NPCs save yourself  time by jotting down only background, motivation, goals and necessary stats. Then, if the players end up liking, or loving to hate this character then you can flesh her out further.

Mortality wise be ruthless with your NPCs, they can die at any moment. Use your parties allies and friends to demonstrate how deadly the world can be. This includes villains, occasionally one-shotting the big bad is exactly what’s needed.

Planning and Running The Game

The following are some simple tips that I’ve found useful for planning and running my games.

 

Know Your Group

Character creation will give you a good idea what of your players want. That being said be sure to keep their tastes in mind and throw in little things that each player will like. If one likes romance, throw some his way. If another likes intrigue, mix some of that in. If a third likes building things, give her a chance to do so, and so on. . .

Also, if you know some of your player’s triggers DO NOT HIT THEM. If you do so knowingly you’re an asshole. If you stumble across one remove it from the game. RGPs are meant to be enjoyable and not destroy friendships.

 

Twenty Point Notes

When I write my adventure notes I simply jot down twenty things. A ‘thing’ in this case is:

  • Plot Summary: The basic idea of what I expect to happen.
  • PC Hooks: Specific notes on why this particular adventure matters to certain PCs.
  • NPCs: Short stat block. Notes. Plan. Motivation.
  • Scenes: A short note on a cool scene I hope gets played out.
  • Clues: If the adventure is a mystery add clues that will enable the party to find a way forward.
  • Troubleshooting: Some ideas on how to tackle things that would ‘break the game’.

Once an adventure is finished I copy my NPC notes to a Rogues Gallery document.

Depending on the game you may need maps.

Finally draft up some screen shots and music that  fit your game and you’re ready to go.

 

PCs > Plot

If a player comes up with something brilliant that circumvents your hard written scheme, go with it. Allow her action to change the scope of the adventure and perhaps even the entire campaign.  It’s scary, yes. You won’t get tell your story the way you wanted to but, it’s not your story, it belongs to the table.

This kind of flexibility is what makes table top games better than Computer RPGS:

  • In table top: Mario could convince the Koopa Kids to join his side and fight against their father.
  • In table top: Link can lure Gannon out of hiding with a clever plan.
  • In table top: Samus doesn’t have to follow her former commander’s orders to not use her armor to its full potential.

Furthermore, if a player comes up with a ‘fan theory’ that blows your actual plot away, change your plot to match. Let the player be right.

 

Setbacks Must Happen and They Must Be Awesome

The flexibility of table top goes both ways.

  • In table top: Mario might get captured.
  • In table top: Link could cheese off the Gorons and get chased away from Death Mountain.
  • In table top: Samus might screw up in such a way that leads to the death of her former troop.

This is okay, setbacks make everything more exciting. Just make sure the PCs can recover.

  • Peach escapes and saves Mario, now they both must fight to regain the Mushroom Kingdom.
  • Link is forced to defeat Darunia and become king of the Gorons.
  • Samus is on her own, but she works better that way.

Setbacks should be interesting and open new possibilities for the game. Allowing your PCs to experience failure increases their investment in the game; as long as you don’t make fun of them for said failures. PC decisions, victories and losses should all matter.

Note: ‘Setback’ can easily mean PC death.  Personally, I never go out of my way to kill a PC, they’re important to my game and losing even one can upset most of my future plots. I’d much rather let a PC live with failure than ice her. That being said, it still happens from time to time, but I try to make such death’s awesome.

 

Challenge

When you run a game do so with the lie that you’re aiming for TPK. You’re not but this lie makes things more exciting.

As for challenges, tailor them to match the party. If you know your PCs and the game system this shouldn’t be too hard.

You should ensure there are several tough challenges. You should also ensure there are one or two easy ones so the party can show off how awesome they are.

Don’t draw up rigid challenges that have only a set number of answers. If a player throws out an idea that you never thought of but would work, then roll with it; even if it turns a difficult challenge into cake walk.

When it comes antagonist NPCs try to err on the side of cunning. The ‘big bosses’ should be tougher than the PCs but only just. If they’re overpowered you’ll wipe out the party and your campaign. If they’re overpowered and you go easy on the party the players will resent you for it. In short make strong (not overpowered) foes and play them smartly.

An addendum:  If the PCs knowingly cheese off someone way more powerful. Someone you had no intention of throwing at them, someone whom you’ve warned is out of their league; then feel free to TPK.

Addendum II: On rare occasions it can be fun to throw uber-NPCs at the party IF there’s a way to deal with or defeat her non-violently. Make sure to give your players plenty of hints of what they’re getting into before they run into this situation.

Finally don’t hang your ego on challenge. Being a GM isn’t about showing how much cleverer you are. It’s far more about imagination and inspiring excitement.

 

Ensure Everyone Has A Part To Play

The initiative system is genius, it forces the GM to go to every single player and ask ‘what do you do?’ then each PC gets the spotlight for one, full round. Take this concept and apply it to the entire game.

There are boisterous and reserved players. The boisterous ones will hog all the game time if you let them; this will lead to the reserved ones getting board and frustrated. A good friend of mine nearly left gaming entirely because of this. It’s aggravating being part of a game that you don’t get to play.

When I run I describe every scene in detail and ask the group “What do you do?” I listen to those who speak  first, pause and then go to everyone else to make sure they participate. If a player can’t think of anything for his character to do I’ll throw something at him to keep him involved.

If the scene turns into a long role play session than I’ll be looser with this rule and  just allow everyone to talk. However, if I see a player doing nothing I will engage them.

The key is to give everyone, whether boisterous or reserved, roughly equal table time.

 

Flow With The Core Mechanics

Be familiar with the rules of your game and use them. Don’t be afraid to teach your players the rules, if they become more familiar with them they’ll enjoy the game more. That being said:

Try not to reference the book constantly.  If you run into a rules snag and find you’re taking over five minutes to look it up/debate make a solid ruling with what you know and move on. After the game  investigate in more detail and let your players know your final decision in the next session.

Keep the mechanics consistent. If the difficulty to lift a car is X in one scene keep it that way in another. Jumping around will only confuse players or convince them you’re railroading them.

Think about working with a problematic roll rather than fudging it. If your villain fails an easy save and gets turned into a chicken, let it happen, either his henchmen will flee with him or the PCs got an unexpected easy win. A critical takes out one of your PCs? Sure he drops but give another PC a chance to save him with an epic first aid roll.

Granted, in cases where a player has been rolling horrible all night you may want to fudge a small amount so he walks away with some victory.

The Plot Must Flow With the PC Decisions

Your NPCs aren’t static bits of code and graphics that respond only in set ways. While not as important as the PCs they should still have personalities, motivations and goals. When PCs do something to aid or stymie their plans have them react accordingly. The King the PCs saved will not just give them a reward and send them on their way; he’ll become a good friend. The supervillain they thwarted will keep them in mind for his next plot. The towns and villages around the PCs will hear of their heroism or cruelty and react accordingly.

In short your campaign should be a living one that enacts its plots on your PCs and reacts to how they deal with them. In that regard, make sure your metaplot notes are loose and leave plenty of room for change.

In Conclusion

Game Mastering is a rewarding experience. You get to craft a memorable stories with your friends. The with part is key; players must know the actions of their PCs are meaningful, otherwise you’re simply forcing them through your own personal novel.  Novel writing is a worthy and wonderful pursuit but it’s not the same as Game Mastering. Make sure the PCs are characters you like, throw them in the center of the narrative and let it all  live and grow based on the player’s actions and the dice. You’ll end up with a tale better than anything you could have created on your own.

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