Friday, January 6, 2012

Being a Game Master

One of my players recently approached me about wanting to learn to GM. He asked if he could sit out a session as a player, and watch what went on behind the screen during the game. Any opportunity to encourage those interested in GMing is golden, as far as I’m concerned. More GMs means more game choices.

However, I’m not sure how much can be learned from the GM’s side of the screen that isn’t already apparent to players. What would be apparent is where I diverged from my session notes, or “cheated” to tweak the tension in a combat encounter. But that would be apparent only after I explained it (not something that would be easy in-session.)

My first response to the request was “Sure!” My second thought was to grab a couple of GM’s guides from various games. The game this particular player is in is a 4e D&D game, so I grabbed the Dragon Age GM’s guide and the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box GM’s guide. Both of these books have a lot of useful info that is not specific to a particular ruleset. I also recommended the 4e D&D Dungeon Masters Guide 2, which I think has a lot of good info as well. Finally, since this player had played at my table during the last D&D Encounters program, I’m including the GM booklet from that. Then he can see how the encounters were set up, and have an idea where I diverged from them as written.

Playing Fair
With almost any tabletop RPG the rules are complex enough that the GM will not know them all. Knowing when to substitute mechanics, gloss over details, or defer to player knowledge is part of the art of GMing. The key is to be fair. Both to the players, and to the game. The only way that players will respect the GM and the game is if they feel it is fair and consistent. Being fair is, for me, a state of mind. I’m by nature a team player. I want to work with people to help them succeed.

When players propose a ridiculous action, perhaps to test my level of attention or to see if they can get something free, I need to respond in a way that’s fair. Think of the classic story of the djinni granting wishes. How the wishes are worded is vital to them working correctly. The consequences of poorly worded wishes are widely known. So, I take on the role of the djinni and dissect the player’s request, but I must do so while remaining neutral and without malice.

What are the consequences of the proposed action? “I want to leap onto the dragon’s back, and wrap the rope around its wings, so the beast cannot fly, and then leap off!” Heroic? Yes! Ridiculous? Probably. Looking at the request there are three or four components: Jump, Wrap (maybe Balance), Jump. I probably need to come up with three consequences. If the first jump fails, make an Acrobatics check or fall prone next to the dragon (granting an attack of opportunity.) If the wrap fails, make either an Athletics check to hang on, or an Acrobatics check to tumble clear (choose to stay on the dragon and try again, or get away.) Finally, make an Acrobatics check to tumble clear (with the same consequences as the first jump.)

I’m trying to be fair to the player by outlining the possible consequences in advance. I’m trying to be fair to the game by using game mechanics to quantify the action. And I’m trying to be fair to the story by leaving an avenue for heroic success that will be the stuff of legend for the duration of the campaign. Of course there are lots of different solutions to such an action request. Each GM may handle it a little differently. And each ruleset may have different mechanics. But, hopefully in all such cases, the GM will first and foremost strive to be fair.

As the campaign unfolds, players learn to trust the GM’s sense of what is fair. They learn that, within reason, they will be allowed to negotiate the consequences of proposed actions. But in each case something must be at risk, and consequences must result.

The Art of Fail
When I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, I’ve used Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. One of his best pieces of advice is using the (repeated!) failures of the protagonist to build the story. In fact, he says that in nearly every scene the protagonist should fail, until the end. We’ve kind of got RPGs arranged in the opposite way. And, when players min-max their characters, they do so specifically to ensure success. Unfortunately, that takes much of the drama out of the story or game. Only when we’re confronted with failure are we forced to scramble and come up with new strategies.

As a GM, you need to be on the lookout for these opportunities for failure. When they occur, you need to impose fair consequences. When a GM designs an encounter, they create a framework. When players engage in the encounter, they bring it to life — through their actions and the consequences of their choices.

Winging It
Bartoneus over at Critical Hits posted recently about the art of “winging it” as a GM. ( In addition to what he said there, I’d add that “winging it” should include listening to the actions your players propose, and allowing those actions and their consequences fill out the framework of the encounter. By definition, a player has an investment in a proposed action. They want to succeed. By recognizing those moments of opportunity, quantifying them in terms of game mechanics, and defining consequences, you’re on the way to GMing a successful game. Such opportunities are almost impossible to plan for, and usually require a bit of negotiation to adjudicate. But, being open to exploring them is one of the really fun of aspects GMing.

If you’ve got any advice for those that are eager to take up the mantle of GM, please post a comment. I’d love to hear your ideas on the art of GMing!


  1. Good post, and it seems like you gave your protege good advice plus good starting points for the system that interests them. We recently started doing short video logs on my blog and one of the segments was on returning to being a GM after a long break - not quite the same thing.

    I particularly resonated with the point you stress about failure. I suspect that what we really need to shoot for is more enjoyable and inspiring failures, and help manage expectations through the colossal failures, but the point is well-made. All success all the time = what was the point?

    One thing I like to suggest to beginner GMs is to ask them what they are most worried about, and then practice whatever that is with them, so it loses the distortion brought on by concern. Another is to offer myself as a practice partner for running system elements like extended rolls, difficulty determination, combat, etc. Finally, I try to have a conversation or two with them about divergence, and how many of the best games are the ones where everyone, including the GM, is surprised by where it went and how far it diverged from what was predicted/expected. To make this make sense, I like to ask things like 'What would you do if...? + What do you think I would do if + What would you prepare to make my encounter interesting...? + What if I didn't do that, I actually did this instead...?

  2. I think one of the problems with GMing is finding people to do it. Everyone wants to play, as long as they don't have to GM. And that is across the board. Veterans get burnt out. As for new GMs, it's the problem you find in the work world. You don't get hired because you don't have the experience, but how do you get the experience if you don't get hired.

    I would add that one individual who is a rules master in the most complicated game I've ever seen told me just last week that he won't GM himself because he can't do the confidence comes from more than just running system elements.

    Here's a question....what makes a good GM vs a bad GM, in your opinion?