Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Garrison Benson, and it’s about something every GM is familiar with: figuring out how to GM, what works for you, and what doesn’t. Thanks, Garrison! –Martin
Most folks get into role-playing through friends and family. They start out as nervous players in (say) their weird cousin’s game, and eventually, if and when they feel confident, they take the plunge into game mastering. Then there are those rare few who, living among populations devoid of GMs, spontaneously start role-playing. (It’s like how some species of West African frog spontaneously change sex from male to female in a single-sex environment. Geekdom finds a way.)
I belong to the latter category. I first took an interest in tabletop RPGs a few years ago, but at the time I didn’t know any other gamers. That made me the default GM. I’ve since stumbled haphazardly through running complex and unfamiliar games with new players, while learning some valuable lessons — usually the hard way.
November 2012: “Find out what everyone house rules,” or “The time I had everyone roll 3d6-in-order ability scores and random starting hit points, then killed off thirteen player characters in six hours.”
One of the first game systems I delved into was Labyrinth Lord. I figured I’d try the game rules-as-written before I bothered tinkering. Seems reasonable, right? For Labyrinth Lord that means random ability scores, random starting hit points, and death at zero hit points. My players lovingly crafted their characters, taking their time drawing amazing little portraits, calculating their encumbrances to the pound…and then waded into a bloodbath. They attempted multiple dungeons designed for first-level characters, all populated with single hit die monsters. The survival rate was less than 20%. (Luckily I’d had the good sense to give each player more than one character.)
Later, I asked around on some OSR forums and realized that almost everyone house rules ability scores and starting hit points. A lot of people ignore encumbrance altogether. If I ever again manage to talk anyone into playing an OSR game with me, I’ll use pretty generous house rules and start them out at third level or so. More generally, next time I try a new system (especially one that’s been around a while), I’ll look around the community first and see what “unwritten rules” almost everyone uses.
February 2013: “Kick off campaigns with one-shots,” or “The time I planned out a really epic campaign arc but didn’t get around to planning anything interesting for the first session.”
About a year ago I started an Adventurer Conqueror King campaign for new players, which I hoped would last several months or years. I spent hours and hours plotting out the long game: the names and quirks of regional leaders who the PCs must eventually join or usurp, the baddest monsters in the land, and a fascinating archaeological mystery (to be unraveled across months of play). I had a lot of great ideas…and I saved them all for later. The first session (which I spent very little time prepping) was a romp through a dungeon that managed to be at the same time boring and lethal. The campaign lasted two sessions before ending in an anticlimactic Total Party Kill (see below).
Looking back, I should have put the majority of my time into session prep, not campaign prep. I should have thought of the first session like a TV pilot, a chance to show off my grand vision and test audience reactions before investing the time in fleshing out a long-form plot. Nowadays I plan first sessions like one-shots, cramming as much awesome stuff as possible into a single night’s gaming. In my experience, that provides a much better foundation for a long campaign (which players want to continue) — and more importantly, it’s fun in its own right even if it ends up being just one session.
February 2013 (again): “Cheat in the players’ favor, stealthily if possible,” or “The time I dropped a green slime on a new player’s PC who had no access to fire.”
This is the story of the TPK I just mentioned. I rolled a green slime for a wandering monster, and didn’t read the full monster description until after it was all over the fighter’s back. (Turns out, you can only kill green slimes with fire or cure disease.) The dungeon walls had some kind of magical luminescence, so the PCs weren’t carrying torches. I wanted to give them access to fire without it seeming unbalanced, so I had a band of baddies walk in with torches…and shortswords. Long story short, everyone died.
I’m glad I didn’t secretly fudge the numbers — I wouldn’t want to give new players an inaccurate sense for the system’s mechanics. But I should have done more to help them. If I could do it over, I’d have an NPC cleric show up and cast cure disease, give them advice about slimes, and then proceed to create messy story complications that prevent him from becoming too useful. (Maybe the cleric, while not a direct threat, would have motives in the dungeon that unavoidably conflict with those of the PCs.) I could have turned an un-fun, essentially unfair situation into a cool story hook, and made it look like that was my plan the whole time.
March 2014: “If you can’t strike a balance, then make it easy,” or “The time I went to a convention and realized that all the fun GMs let their players succeed.”
I attended Gary Con last year. It was probably the best thing I could do to improve my game mastering. Getting to be a player for once, and playing under a wide variety of GMs, I was able to observe and take notes on when and why everyone had the most fun. One GM I played under had a really atmospheric world and some great original monsters and magic items, but the game was so brutally hard that it made everyone tense and frustrated the whole time. Another GM had the most clichéd, uninspired adventure littered with +1 weapons and other bland magic items — but he let us succeed. My character waded in and slayed a bunch of monsters, and as I recall never lost a hit point. It wasn’t challenging, and it wasn’t an amazing story, but we got to be butt-kickingly awesome heroes. Everyone had a blast.
That summer I ran a space opera game in Fate Core for some friends — once again, mostly new gamers. At character creation I let them come up with pretty much anything. We wound up with a genetically enhanced chimpanzee linguist, a hallucinogen-producing tree monster, a clone of Amelia Earhart named Amelia Spacehart, and several other great characters who all flew around the galaxy together in a cabin strapped to the back of an alcoholic space dragon. Before the story even started, they were already having more fun than anyone had in any of my previous games. Then, throughout the campaign (which lasted two months before reaching a satisfying conclusion) I erred on the side of making things too easy. Yes, the game might have been a bit more fun with perfectly-balanced encounters, but for a noob GM like me, I have to say it worked out pretty well.
November 2014: “Cheat in the players’ favor, openly if necessary,” or “The time my Imperial Stormtroopers nearly TPKed a party in the first encounter.”
One time I tried out West End Games’ D6 Star Wars game. I ran a published adventure for beginning characters. My players were new to the system, but all had some experience with tabletop RPGs. During the first encounter — against four Imperial Stormtroopers — two of three player characters died and the other narrowly escaped. (As I set up the encounter, I thought I was following the previous lesson and erring on the side of making it too easy. I was wrong!) The surviving PC, severely disillusioned, made a very understandable decision to abandon the mission, quit the Rebel Alliance, and pursue a life of ease and pleasure. Then we played video games for a while.
I don’t think I could have fudged in their favor without it being obvious and contrived. But after the battle, I should have asked if the players wanted to roll back time and try the encounter again, or take a different course of action entirely. After all, they (like me) didn’t have a feel for the system’s level of lethality, and didn’t know how to effectively use their characters’ abilities. It would have been an entirely reasonable option. And after getting our bearings, we might have had a pretty satisfying adventure.
As game masters, we all make embarrassing mistakes. They often become funny later. (The above are just a select few of my many misadventures.) The important thing is that while we laugh at ourselves, we also continue to learn, grow, share our wisdom, and keep trying again.
What were some of your early mistakes as a GM, and what did they teach you? Let me know in the comments!