This guest post by TT forum member Ramza was the 2nd Place winner in our Guest Post Contest, which posed the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a GM?” Congratulations, Ramza!
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With each session as you advance your campaign, your group will develop in a number of ways. You should take the time to understand the impact that each of you has on each others’ development. This is critical not just for the game master, but for everyone at the table. It can be especially important when a group adds a new player.

Generally, after you have identified the style of game that you and your group prefer you should take time to analyze how your actions support or negate that goal. Make sure that you are rewarding behavior that supports that goal, and not punishing such behavior. You should also not reward behavior that does not support that goal and you may want to punish behavior that explicitly conflicts with that goal.

An excellent example of the power of this approach can be seen with a common dilemma: what do you do about the player that demands the limelight to the exclusion of all others? Having identified the problem the next step should be to consider the question “How do my actions reward this behavior?” This question should be asked for each person at the table. If the situation is unwanted then you want to eliminate any rewards that you might bestow once that behavior begins.

You should then ponder how to provide incentives for other players to grab the limelight so that the focus of the story can be shared. Remember that you want to develop rewards that are immediately applied. This strengthens the association between the reward and the desired behavior. Food and experience points are frequent rewards…though, if you opt for food, you may be blamed for weight gain by members of the group that respond well!

Even if you believe that all is well, this is a powerful analysis to incorporate into your game preparation. Quickly applying this analysis can prevent you and your players from developing bad habits.

A similar analysis can allow you some insight into the goals of your players. If your players consistently “reward” a particular aspect of your game, it may be that they want more of that to come their way. If they seem to avoid, disregard, or resist a particular aspect, it may be that they want to see less of that in the game.

If you begin to see this you can respond by discussing the issue with your group, especially if their behavior seems to be at odds with what you believed to be the goal of the group. For example, if you thought everyone wanted a hack and slash campaign, but they seem to prolong and relish in their brief encounters with NPCs, it may be that the group’s focus has changed.

Finally, you could build into your plans tools for this kind of analysis. You could explicitly establish rewards for desired behaviors that players can seek out. You could even, if you are daring, devise a system for your players to reward your actions when they fall on point with the groups goals.

In such a group, a little record keeping will establish a clear history and insight into exactly what everyone likes and dislikes, regardless of what they claim those things to be. In essence, this becomes an avenue for discussing and understanding group dynamics and goals. More communication is always a good thing, especially when it can lay a foundation for informed decision making.