Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tools of Game Mastering

The game master in a role playing game has a wide-ranging set of responsibilities. Host (often, but not always literally providing location, refreshments, etc.), narrator, arbiter, teacher, counselor, to name just a few. To do the job well requires a blend of several talents and motivations, but most important is the desire to create a story. As in any cooperative effort, whether it is a team sport, an acting troupe, or a corporation, there are agreed-upon ground rules and accepted structures that establish a framework for the interaction.

In RPG groups we spend a lot of time debating the values of various frameworks, in the forms of competing game systems and editions thereof. It’s interesting to note how game systems have evolved from GM-centric to player-centric. In the case of D&D, early editions left a lot of room for GM improvisation, and expected GMs to exercise their creativity when adjudicating issues at the table. The most recent edition of the game has focused on a modular, balanced system that puts much more burden on the players (while at the same time giving them extensive tools with which to handle their increased responsibilities.)

I will leave it to others to debate the merit of these tools and the rules they enable, but I’d like to express a sort of wish-list to game designers in the industry, while asserting that I fully intend to follow this path as a GM with or without their assistance.

I’d love a set of tools as nifty as the players have to create my game. I acknowledge that I form a much smaller target audience than the mass of players I entertain, so from a pure profit perspective, you may not consider me worth it, but I ask for it nonetheless. Players have character generation engines (in software and book form), they have literary sources that provide inspirational heroes that act as templates for their characters.

A few recent books from Wizards of the Coast have contained more of the type of material that I think is useful to GMs. In particular, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting is my favorite example, if a bit challenging structurally and in the volume of options presented. I think the NCS is most effective because it contains broad factions, as well as specific individuals, and historical precedents that a GM could draw from to weave interesting plots. What are missing are some sample recipes for how to pick and choose from the available ingredients.

Looking at the game as a whole, a book of recipes might include combinations of the following ingredients that are already in place, but have yet to be properly exploited: Character themes and backgrounds are powerful elements (themes having been introduced with the 4e Dark Sun campaign setting) that have been tied in to adventures in this past season of the in-store Encounters program for organized play. There are some guidelines for incorporating those in the NCS, but I think there is room for general discussion (perhaps in a new GM’s sourcebook?) that describes the potential for this sort of material. It might include a template for GMs to generate themes specific to their own campaigns.

Organizations, guilds, and alliances are another core ingredient for GMs. I’ve toyed with a rating system in my home game that gives a numerical approximation of the players’ standing in relation to the various organizations they encounter. I’d be delighted if some of the brilliant game designers out there would take a shot at generating a tool for GMs to quantify this, and some ideas for enacting it in regular sessions of play.

Finally, I think the impact of environment on the players has been neglected. The Dark Sun Campaign Setting does a fair amount of this. But there, the environment becomes a dominant player. Aren’t there techniques for environmental effects that could be expressed as ingredients in the recipe model I’ve cited? 4e materials include environment-based traps and disease rules, so why not integrate these into a campaign model?

As a writer, one of the tools I’ve found useful is a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Some of the techniques that Evan Marshall proposes would be quite useful in adventure design. They are modular enough that a GM could use them when creating a sort of plot map, rather like a dungeon map, that would include the ingredients I’ve mentioned above. Faced with a challenge, most modern game materials describe the results of the players’ successful resolution of it. But, as Marshall points out, what grabs the audience is failure. Our heroes are trying to cross the rope bridge, but the villain severs the lines, collapsing the bridge. Now what will the heroes do?

Many of the ingredients for some fantastic campaigns are out there, but scattered over a range of sourcebooks, web pages, and online utilities. Just as players have “builder” software to construct characters that reflect their ideas and interests, I’d love campaign-level tools that offered the same functionality. It wouldn’t be necessary to make it software. A resource book that guided a GM through the process of building adventure and campaign arcs, with links to the ingredients, would be incredibly useful.

Add in some insights from “celebrity” GMs (like Chris Perkins and his Iomandra campaign) to round out the material and provide guidance on “flavor profiles”, and you’re starting to talk about a tool that I’d love to own.

As a GM, I’ve got lots of story ideas. My players have plenty of their own. All the ingredients are there for a successful campaign, but the challenge is bringing it all together in a timely fashion (the game is still a hobby for me, and real-life responsibilities beckon) and making it flexible enough to respond to the dynamics of actual play.

What tools would you like to see for GMs, or do you think tools are necessary? And, what ingredients have I missed that you feel are vital to successful campaigns?


  1. Good post :) Even though I despise 4e (as you know) I bought the Dark Sun book because I was curious about it. One thing that bothered me about it was they diminished the rules of survival to an amount of GP per day. I get the simplicity of that, but I was looking for something more dangerous and frightening for that setting. That is something I think WoTC missed in giving the GM as a tool.

    You mentioned a rating for guilds and the like.. I may be remembering this wrong but you may want to take a look at Stars Without Number ( It's free. It has rules for organizations and ratings and etc. It also has rules for how you can have "combat" between them and the like. Very cool!

  2. Thanks for the comment and the link, man.

    I'll check out Stars Without Number, sounds intriguing.