Earlier this summer there was an awesome article on the LOOK, ROBOT blog about 11 Ways to be a Better Roleplayer. The article was full of solid, player-oriented advice. I liked it so much that I sent the link out to all of the people I play with, as well as posting it on G+, and saving it in Evernote. As I thought about it, I realized that even if a player reads that article and takes everything to heart, it will be for naught if the GM gets in the way. So today, my tribute to that great article is to give the GM corollary.
The GM Side
You are best off reading this article side by side with the original. I wrote this so that my eleven items are the matching GM advice to the eleven player items. If you are unable to put them side by side, then take a moment and re-read the original article. Caught up? Here we go…
ONE. Let Your Players Do Stuff
You need to let your players do stuff. Don’t write your sessions such that you have already figured out what the players need to do to complete a scene. Come up with the problem, but never come up with the solution. Set the scene and then ask the players what they want to do, and play off of what they say.
There are going to be times when players do things that are not going to fit with what you prepped in your notes, and that is OK. Be flexible, adapt what you prepared, and keep the story moving.
An active player is an engaged player. A passive player is just watching a play.
TWO. Create Opportunities For Players to Express Their Characters
Some players love making elaborate back stories for their characters, other players come up with complex personalities, accents, or even props for their characters. That is awesome. You can’t fault a player for enthusiasm. Embrace this by finding ways to let the player showcase their work in the game.
A good player is going to try to work these things into the game, but it helps if you can create situations that bring those things to the spotlight. If your player has an elaborate back story, then pull an NPC from their past to show up unexpectedly. If another player has a character who is a great orator, then give them a moment in the game to make a speech.
Create the openings for the players to showcase their characters, making them more real to everyone in the group.
THREE. Help to Keep Things Moving
Sometimes the player side of the table bogs down in discussion, over-planning, conflict, etc. Take your GM screen and break up that log jam. As a GM, one of your responsibilities is to make sure that all the players are being heard and that no one at the table is being talked over, or negated. When that happens, often by accident in the heat of the moment, take control of the table and guide the play forward.
Work with the players to build tension and drama in their scenes. Steer them away from actions which bring things to a halt, and embrace the “Yes, And…” approach. You want the players actions to build off of each other. Don’t be afraid to assume a little narrative control to make something more dramatic. At the same time, be careful not to halt things with your own actions.
The way you adjudicate actions in the game sets the flow, so keep the flow pointed towards the dramatic.
FOUR. Get In The Character’s Heads
Characters have motivations, but nothing is more boring than players telling the table what their player would or would not do. As GM, you need to make it about the Character, not the player, bringing their motivations to the spotlight and letting it play out at the table for everyone’s entertainment.
As GM, you can be the voice in the character’s mind, questioning their motivations and actions. Even better, bring in an NPC who questions the character and challenges their convictions and beliefs. Make the character’s motivations an active part of the game.
Characters are part of the story, and their personal struggles add depth to a story.
FIVE. Protect Your Players
The GM is often the de facto leader of the gaming group. Part of your job as leader is to make sure that no one gets hurt during the game. If you see a player about to do something that is going to harm another player, halt the game and question the player. You are better off breaking immersion and heading off a problem, than sitting back and letting things unfold that result in a player harmed in some way.
The best way to protect your players is through a social contract and through the campaign framework. In both of these structures you can outline what types of behavior is acceptable to the group as well as the campaign you are running. Set expectations and then hold everyone to them.
Nothing is going to take a game down faster than players who are mad at each other. Help keep the peace.
SIX. Know The System
You have a lot of work to do in managing a campaign and prepping sessions. Despite all of that, you still have to learn the game system you are running. You need to know the core mechanics, the overall combat system, and you need some understanding of all the other action rules (falling, chases, skill challenges, etc). It’s a lot, but in order to have the game move forward you need to be able to know what rules apply and how to use them.
There are lots of things you can do to help with this. First, you don’t need to memorize the ancillary rules as much as you need to know how to get to them fast. Second, you can put rules that you know are going to come up right into your prep, saving you from having to look them up. Third, you can study; crack the spine of those rule books, read and re-read. Finally if you cannot keep up with the rules of the system you are running, consider a simpler system, which you can master.
Looking up rules breaks immersion. The more you can avoid this, the smoother your games will flow.
SEVEN. Make The Game Interesting
In the world of smartphones and tablets, you are fighting for your players attention. Making table rules that ban devices and make everyone watch your every move will only go so far. If you want to keep devices off and attention focused, be Interesting.
Modulate the volume of your voice during exciting scenes. Don’t be shy about jumping up out of your seat to pantomime a great attack. Describe things with evocative imagery. Also, keep the game flowing. This goes back to rule six, if you have to keep looking up rules during the session, you are creating that dead air that makes people reach for their phones.
You are like a stripper behind that screen. Keep dancing, screen monkey, and don’t let them lose wood.
EIGHT. Make Sure Everyone Is Comfortable
Going back to social contracts and campaign frameworks, it helps to discuss and come to an agreement upon some of the edgier things that can happen in a game: sex, graphic violence, torture, etc. The last thing you want to have at the table is for someone to take an action that makes a player or even you uncomfortable. Again, as the de facto leader of the group, the responsibility falls to you to make sure that everyone understands the groups position on these things.
If something does happen that makes someone uncomfortable, pause the game and talk it out before continuing. If you are the type of group that likes to ride that edge of what is appropriate, then consider the X-Card so that your players have a mechanism to object and to feel safe.
We are all here to have fun, so make sure that its the kind of fun everyone is comfortable with.
NINE. Tell Stories Collaboratively
As GM, you are telling part of a story. While you have the lion’s share of roles (as NPC’s and narrator), your part is no more important than the Character’s parts. Make sure that you weave in their contributions to the story.
Give some control of the details of the world to players. If the character starts talking about the Dwarven Rites of the Dead, and it does not topple anything you have prepped, then let it ride. Even better, take that input from the player and record it in the campaign materials, so that it can be used again at a later date.
The best things in life are the results of collaboration.
TEN. Make Failure Interesting
From a players perspective, failing sucks. Failing for no good reason sucks the worst. There is nothing worse than failing a spot check for a clue and having the mystery coming to a halt, or failing a strength check to open a door, only to have to try over and over until it opens, just to find the room is empty. That is the kind of play that makes players reach for a smart phone.
There is a great rule when it comes to skill checks: unless both the success and failure outcomes are interesting, just say yes and move on. In other words, make failure interesting. Rather than having the failed spot check mean missing the clue, make it mean that you don’t find the clue in time to stop the next killing. I wrote a lot about this a few years ago; check it out.
Skill checks are like spice. Use enough to make things flavorful and don’t overuse them.
ELEVEN. Its Our Game…Not Your Game
I have a pet peeve when GM’s say my game. Its not your game, it’s your group’s game. You are only one part of the equation. Yes, you wind up doing more work than the players, but that does not entitle you to a bigger share of the game. You play the game as a group, and as a group you should be creating memorable stories together.
There are times when the players are going to take an action that is going to undermine your story. Perhaps they found a way to reach Baron Von Badass earlier than you wanted, or they decided to go to the hex to the North and not to the East. Let them do it and play to see what happens.
Always think about what is best for the game.
It Takes A Table To Make A Game
The best campaigns are the ones that are a perfect storm of GM and player input. They are the ones where the group is in harmony and the actions of the players are meaningful and have impact on the game world. The combined actions of the group bring about a story that you go on to talk about for years.
It’s likely that you are doing some, if not all of these things, but we can always do them better. What tips resonate with you the most? What ones would you like to be better at? Which ones do you disagree with?