Today is my birthday. I’m 42 years old and have been a gamer now for over 32 years. Birthdays are a good time for reflection, so this year I thought I’d reflect on my GMing experiences and see how my style has evolved along the way.
My journey began with a happy accident. I picked up a copy of the Moldvay Basic edition of Dungeons & Dragons believing it to be this, as I’d seen it on a commercial. Imagine my surprise when I opened it up and found funny dice, a 64 page rulebook, and a ‘module’ with a map too small to put counters on. Undaunted and curious by what I read, I started on the slow journey of learning what this game, what roleplaying, was all about.
For me, the 1980s were a wondrous age where I grabbed almost every RPG I could find (I happened to join the hobby during its first real “boom”) but primarily settled into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the Marvel Superheroes Advanced Game. It was the age where I actually preferred being a player to a GM, and I learned several valuable lessons that stuck with me as a GM:
- I’m not a dungeon crawler. I couldn’t get out of dungeon delves fast enough; as a player I found them tedious and as a GM I loathed the prep work in designing them. When I did design dungeons, I kept them to a dozen rooms or less.
- I loved the more investigative and roleplaying aspects of gaming. When playing a superhero, I found it much more interesting trying to balance a super and private life than taking down Supervillain Team #6 in battle (although I loved the heck out of those Marvel maps!).
- In response to the long, endless campaigns my primary GM ran, I preferred shorter, tighter, mini-campaigns. Rather than conceptualizing campaigns as a string of modules, I started plotting them like movies.
By the end of the 80s and into the 90s, my gaming style evolved again. My primary GM and the other player that formed the core of our group left to join the armed forces; at the same time, I’d fallen in love with GURPS. I was now primarily a GM and the majority of groups I started used GURPS as a baseline. During this period, I learned several new lessons:
- Balance is important. GURPS does an admirable job of balancing disparate elements from several genres. How does a hardened, armored space marine stack up against a medieval master wizard or an Old Western marshal? GURPS showed you how, as well as how to handle that marshal picking up a plasma repeater rifle or a wizard trying to fireball her way through the marine’s power armor.
- Detail helps sell a setting. The more details you can give your players, the more they have to play with. GURPS source books were brilliant for this, and Shadowrun showed me how to do it with attitude.
- Game settings don’t have to be married to the rules system for which they were created. Sometimes they actually run better with a different system.
- I enjoy GMing much more than playing, and it doesn’t take much to coax me back into the chair if I’m already a player.
- There is such a thing as too many players. Some games can handle large groups, others work better with small ones. I found my sweet spot to be between 3-6 players.
By the end of the 1990s I was out of college and finding it difficult to spend a lot of time prepping for games; skipping sessions became more frequent as well. It was also around this time I discovered LARPing and finally got into the World of Darkness and horror gaming in general. Delta Green pulled me into Call of Cthulhu, which is pretty much perfect for running infrequent games.
During this period I learned the following:
- I had to give my sessions a tighter focus. The more I let my players spin their wheels and plot threads drag from session to session, the more the adventure would unravel.
- Not every player expects the same things from an RPG and sometimes you just can’t satisfy everyone at the table. That’s completely okay as long as you’re honest about it and accept the consequences.
- Fairness is important. It was during this period that I finally stopped hiding my rolls and took down the GM screen. If I felt the need to roll something, I had to be ready to accept the consequences.
- Using published adventures and campaigns didn’t make me any less of a GM than if I’d created them myself.
At the turn of the millennium Dungeons & Dragons was hot again and “d20” had become the universal system of choice (even if it was closer to Palladium’s Megaversal System in terms of compatibility between games). Interestingly, I was a late adopter; I’d continued to play games like Call of Cthulhu, 7th Sea, Victoriana, and WitchCraft.
During this period I learned the following:
- I really enjoy (alternate) historical games.
- I’m better about knowing where the adventure threads are going when I introduce them rather than just toss out anything that sounds interesting and see where the players take them. While the latter can be fun, I find it more satisfying to let the players trump me when they correctly guess my motives.
- Spending an evening together with a group of friends is more important than what goes on during the game. Also, don’t get bent out of shape because of last-minute cancellations – the older I get, the lower down the list of priorities game night becomes.
- Providing a “campaign ending” session, even when it’s premature, is more satisfying for everyone than just dropping a game when outside factors cause the campaign to end.
It was also during this period that I began to get involved in the RPG industry as a freelance writer, blogger, and line developer. In addition, I started going to Gen Con regularly (I plan to hit Origins this year as well). These experiences have also impacted my GMing style:
- It can be enjoyable to play a character for a single adventure that you’ll never play again.
- Figure out my session goal and watch the clock. Help things along when they need it and cut “soft scenes” (thanks, 7th Sea!) when I need to make up time.
- Short, tight adventures often run better than overly complex and convoluted ones.
- If an element or NPC is important towards the end of an adventure, its presence needs to be telegraphed early in the adventure.
It’s funny, while crafting this article I discovered that my GMing style and preferences haven’t changed all that much over the decades; I really just learned how to refine them through trial and error. Overall, I still enjoy running dramatic games with a movie or television feel that have tight plots but give the PCs time to breathe a little.
I apologize for rambling a bit on my B-Day. Hopefully my reflections have given you some insight on how this wizened Gnomie ticks and how I approach GMing.
But enough about me, how about you? Have you found your GMing style really evolving over the years or are you still essentially running the same types of games you were 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago? Is there anything you wish you could change in the future? Is there anything you’d lost that you’d like to get back?
Hurray for the Marvel Superheroes Advanced Game! That’s actually how I managed to find players in my area. Not a lot of roleplayers, but I found a few comic book geeks. (Of which I am also one.) They took to the game like fish to water and we’ve branched out from there.
But we still return to the Marvel games most often. We haven’t found very many other genres that work for FASERIP, though we did give Transformers a whirl and it worked out better than expected. (This was by request of a player. We have no idea if a Transformers game exists, but we threw the setting into the FASERIP system and it worked out okay. There was less variety in characters because they all had too similar stats but it worked for a short, two session experiment.)
Happy birthday, Walt!
And thank you for sharing your hard-won reflections and advice.
Great article. Reading this made my day. I’m 39 and started gaming in 1887 with the marvel advanced set and top secret. You’ve inspired me to jot down some thoughts of my gaming evolution as well. Thanks!
1887, huh? Your memory must be going in your old age. 😉
Ha. I haven’t so careless with the secret of my immortality since that little Russian stint when I counseled the final tsar. I guess I’m slipping…..