One of the best ways to learn is by watching other GMs work. Being a player gives you perspective — often a better perspective than what’s offered from behind the screen. Good practices. Bad practices. You can learn from all of it.
Here are some of things I’ve learned about the GMing craft by observing others:
Silence is golden
As a teen I got invited to Bill’s game. That was fortunate — all the other players were college aged. Was I intimidated? Just a tad … (which, admittedly, might color how I remembered those games).
This was the era of gaming greatly influenced by wargaming’s legacy, and Bill was very much in the mold of a judge from that time. He would provide brief room descriptions, then sit back and watch. He would step forward to adjudicate only when required.
He operated like the old basketball adage: If after the game the referees seemed to be invisible, they probably did a pretty good job.
This might fall into the category of “let the players play.” Anyway, in Bill’s game, the players set the pace. The approach was ideal for his dungeon crawls.
I guess those times Bill roleplayed NPCs were memorable not because he was a particularly adept actor, but because of his restraint in other aspects of the game. Because when he chose to talk, you knew it was time to listen closely.
We call it … a battlemap
Understand, I started in an era when that the only map in the game was the one secure behind the GMs screen. One player might be designated as the mapper, which he dutifully tried to scratch out on a worn and crumpled piece of graph paper. Its accuracy was questionable, at best.
But the rest of the game was narrative. Combat was described.
Sure, some players might bring minis. And these might be displayed on a grid. But the players controlled that. Only the GM knew for certain if what we were representing on the table was accurate.
(Remember, these were the days when the GM’s role might accurately be described as adversarial — not cooperative, as is the assumption today).
I think the first time I saw a true battlemap in play was for a science fiction rpg at a convention in East Peoria. This GM, whose name I cannot remember, unfortunately, had a easel-sized tablet of grid paper. Each sheet in the tablet was another encounter area, with all the terrain and obstacles clearly detailed in magic marker. As the adventure progressed, all he had to do was flip the page and present a new encounter area.
For a GM running a convention game, it was outstanding preparation. But I immediately grasped how much more streamlined this approach was. Yes, a party is not likely to get lost in Undermountain with such an approach — but any game with turn-based combat, this seemed like an elegant solution. I became an advocate of this approach.
I loved drawing up my own battlemaps in crayon. (Crayon is the best because the colors are so vibrant and so quick to fill in). I even shared that method with the readers of Dungeon. (Prison Mail, Issue 119).
Today, of course, GMs have a score of such products at their disposal, whether it’s Flip-Mats, Dungeon Tiles or a bevy of printable terrain cards. Gaming’s even come full circle with three-dimensional products. And for me, personally, I’m now hip deep into plaster — building my own floor tiles, modular dungeons and set pieces for my games.
But it was that very prepared convention GM who set me on this path.
Short ’n’ sweet
More recently, I got a reminder of how a terse, brief description can be more effective than a shelf full of background material.
I mean, that’s quite an admission, coming from me. I’m the guy who provides a 10-page player background document for players in my setting. I open most sessions with paragraphs-long descriptions of the events as they’ve transpired.
Silence may be golden once the game gets under way, but at the outset, this GM is going to get his say in.
I had to be reminded less can be more in some instances.
This lesson came from Robert, who is taking his turn from our group to move behind the GM screen. My direction for character creation for his new campaign: A single sentence.
You don’t know how liberating that was. I had a clear instruction, a solid idea of the adventure setting, and a target for my PC. What more could I ask for?
There is mystery about this setting, and Robert’s wise about playing it close to the vest. It’s refreshing.
Swing the spotlight over here
If I have GMing mentor, Ken is it. Maybe it’s because he participates in local theater productions, but he always has a sense of drama in his games. And one thing his is particularly good at is providing spotlight moments for players during encounters.
One of his best tactics is “divide and conquer.” In other words, he finds ways to isolate PCs in the midst of combat, providing them with a chance to enter the spotlight. He usually achieves this by the way he moves monsters and NPCs around the encounter area. The trick, of course, is that in most games, the key to overcoming obstacles is for the players to work as a team. He’s pretty consistent at balancing that out.
One thing he does exceptionally well is “read” a character sheet. I admit it, when I look at a PCs sheet, all I see are numbers, and I’m the last person who’ll check the math to see that it’s right. But Ken’s pretty adroit at seeing the intended “character” buried inside those numbers. I think that gives him some insight at laying out situations that beg for players to step into the spotlight. The encounter probably won’t be tailored for a particular PC, but if there is an aspect a given PC might exploit, then Ken will lay it out there for them. Maybe it’s not always subtle, but when is a spotlight subtle, anyway?