The GM provides descriptions of every landscape and of every room. She gives voice to every monster and NPC. She adjudicates every turn in combat, and she lists every bit of loot and reveals every little clue along the way.
It would seem, that from start to finish, the GM is doing a lot of talking.
So, given the fact that, by definition, the GM is a conduit for a large amount of the game’s information, when is it important for the GM to just zip it?
When is silence golden?
Remind yourself to take turns: A good game has a rhythm, a give-and-take between everyone at the table. Most rpgs are not like board games, where turns are regimented at the start of a play session. Even so, it’s a good strategy, not to mention good manners, to allow the other players an opportunity to speak before offering your input. In other words, go last.
When you need to hear what the PCs are saying and doing: The value of listening — and understanding — what is transpiring among the PCs cannot be overstated. It’s more than just picking up cues from the players’ own speculation about the course of the adventure (though that is a useful trick, noting those bits and dropping them in later). It’s about having a sense of what the PCs’ motivation and goals are — whether they are focused on the next room or their character’s advancement for the entire campaign. When there is good interplay, a mindful GM can pick up on a lot of things.
Note the body language: While my impulse is to understate the GM’s capability to “read” the thoughts and feelings of other people at the table by their body language, GMs should note the posture and attention of the other players. Mostly, watch out for cues that there might be player vs. player conflict, participant fatigue or just boredom. But be careful. GMs shouldn’t presume too much by relying solely on this. That’s where misunderstandings can start.
Strategize for yourself: GMs who see the game table as a chessboard — if that analogy isn’t too crass — should be taking note of opportunities they can exploit. This is usually in the realm of miniatures/gridded skirmish combat. A moment of quiet might allow a GM to see a tactical opportunity. (After all, the GM must react to the changing game board turn-by-turn; players have a whole round to think about, plan and execute their next move). But it can also be in social encounters. Don’t hesitate to think about what a player has said in character, ruminate on it for a moment, and then craft a response before actually speaking. Not everything need be rapid fire social repartee.
Suspense requires quiet: This is why running rpgs that build suspense are so difficult. The GM must continue to provide descriptions, sensory input that in other mediums, especially books, audio drama and motion pictures come from a variety of places. Even so, a “quiet” GMing style is essential to putting the tension wick on a slow burn. Don’t confuse “quiet” with laid-back. In fact, building tension is one of the more exhausting exercises a GM can employ. But so much of it requires the GM to keep the volume knob turned low, until the moment of greatest peril. Then the contrasting frenzy will make the moment all the more memorable.
There are, of course, other reasons for GM silence. I’d love to hear about other gains GMs have made by keeping quiet. Share them in the comments section below.