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A low INT modifier's guide to GMing

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  • A low INT modifier's guide to GMing

    This thread is meant as my way of emptying my mind, laying my thoughts out into words and trying to ultimately make sense of it all. Feel free to use the information contained here however you see fit. It could easily be a jumping off point for you to one day start down the seemingly daunting and grief-stricken path toward becoming a GM, or you may simply use it to take a glimpse into the mind of those who have built worlds for you in the past. Whichever way you choose to interpret it is entirely up to you. I simply suggest that everything you read be taken with a grain of salt. Despite the terminology that I tend to use when I write, nothing here should be interpreted as "The Way It's Done". Far from it, in fact. That mindset is a pitfall that a lot of people get stuck in and can never seem to free themselves from. Such stubborn beliefs belie the simplicity of your role as a GM.

    The 10 Commandments of Gamemastering

    I’ve been running role playing games for my friends for about 15 years or so at this point. I have created and run over a dozen campaigns and innumerable one-shot adventures. I’ve played both platform and tabletop RPGs aside newbies, hardened veterans and just about everybody in-between. Indeed I've likely forgotten more about RPGs than most people will ever learn (and as anyone who has played in one of my campaigns can attest, I often get the rules mixed up or confused). What I lay out here are the strictures by which I try to run what I consider to be a good game. They may work for you or you may simply disagree with everything; all I’m basing this on is my experience. I might also add that I don’t always live up to these commandments myself, as much as I try to. When they all work together, though, something beautiful happens.

    #1: Don't Take Your Game Too Seriously
    Let me preface by saying that we've all been there. You spent the past 2 weeks working over your campaign with a fine tooth comb and prepping next sessions adventures, I understand completely. Unfortunately, your players have build up a significant distrust in you and today they're acting like a bunch of paranoid meth addicts, metagaming in any way they can possibly think up. It sucks, but it happens. I'm also sure that it frustrate you when they aren't nearly as intimidated by the 7th Circle Demon Lord you slaved over, or even bother to notice or care about the tiny skull charms you made sure to note were hanging off his sword hilt like menacing trophies. Instead, they're poking fun at his loincloth and making faces at him. I understand completely. Your players are being douchebags. Now, here's the important lesson: GET OVER YOURSELF!. Repeat the mantra with me and take deep breaths:

    "This is only a game"
    "It is not that important"
    "I will not pout"
    "I will not complain"
    "I will not seek to manifest my rage towards my friends in the form of falling rocks"

    Ultimately, the most important (and often the most difficult) thing to remember for any GM is that the underlying idea behind any RPG, or for that matter any game, is for people to have fun. Are your players (friends) having fun? They are? Great! Now shut the hell up, roll with the punches and move on.

    #2: Hold Your Story Above all Else
    RPGs are not meant to be strategy games, although they are often treated as such. There are those who seek to find the code to unlocking the most potential and the highest ratio of Cost/Gain. If you are one of those people and that is what you ultimately find the most fun, by all means, continue. To me, an RPG in any form is just as the name implies; a game in which the players assume a role (character) and that you as the GM are tasked with putting them in situations where they can play those roles to their liking. In essence, they are highly cooperative and collaborative storytelling games. That being the case, your story is going to paramount to the overtone of the game.

    It isn't just that your players are doing a certain thing. There needs to be some understanding of why they are doing this thing and what the stakes are and what happens next if they succeed and so on and so forth. However, this does not mean that there can't be a decent amount of strategy involved (especially if that's something that you and your players enjoy), but any game that boils down to algorithms, dice rolling and number crunching is going to become dull and lifeless very quickly. Victory, after all, tastes far more sweet when it means something... and it's not going to mean anything without a good story.

    #3: Clearly Explain your Campaign Goals
    The all time easiest way for your players to "ruin" your campaign (keeping in mind that you can't actually ruin an RPG if you go with the flow and improvise) is for them to have no idea what it is you want them to do. Your fun as a GM is every bit as important as their fun as players... and if you are at all friends, they will understand this and care about your fun as much as their own. In order to foster this kind of an understanding, you need to explain to your players in clear and simple terms what your game is supposed to be, and just as importantly, follow through with your convictions as closely as you can. "This is a dark and sinister noir setting that hinges on Detectives and Crime Drama" or "This is a Science fiction campaign set in the deep reaches of space on an underdeveloped planet where hunting monsters is considered a common career" or "This is a High Fantasy adventure filled with Unicorns that fire rainbow from their horns and fairies run the parliamentary government system with an ironic but iron fist".

    Doing this grants your players an important choice from the very beginning: Do you play the game as I have described, or do you not? If they choose not to, no biggy, you can work around that somehow. You're very creative. I believe in you. But if they do, they should be willing to buy into everything. If your players work together towards a well explained universal goal, things will get really awesome really quickly. If they aren't on the same page, things will begin to fall apart and it just wont work.

    #4: Improvise, Adapt and Overcome
    No matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to predict everything your players are going to want to do in each session. This inevitability affords you 2 solutions as the GM. The first option is to simply not let them do whatever it is they want to do simply because it doesn't fit into your "grand design" for the way things are supposed to be (this is called railroading). Alternatively, you can simply say "Yes, and...".

    "Yes, and..." is a useful and important improv tool. It means you agree to what the players want, and you use this new input on their part to make more interesting and fun things happen. It's also going to require you as the GM to think on your feet a lot of the time, which is perfectly fine. You should be planning your sessions with the potential of improv in mind for virtually all situations. When designing my own campaigns, I typically think up a number of NPCs with similar motives, intentions or personalities who all exist within the same world. For instance, the gabby bartender at the local Sit and Spit, the streetwalking town whore of the adjacent village and the sketchy and ultimately corrupt member of the town guard could all realistically bare the same information for the players, while each of them has a very different way of delivering said information. Each of them has their own motives, intentions and angle that could ultimately change the perspective of the game without affecting its over-all flow. The players choices are important and help to allow them to immerse in the experience of your game. If I need to create new elements, I do so, and they continue to influence the setting of the game, creating more conflict, more story, and more fun stuff. It really does work, and it beats the hell out of the whole "you can’t do that" angle.

    #5: Every Player is Cool
    Yep. Every last one of them. This includes even the ones that are definitely NOT cool, like the wandering pacifist minstrel who has pledged his life to drinking and singing in taverns, or that one guy we've all played with who insists on playing as the Half-Elf Cleric who keeps a dead fairy in his pouch in the hopes that one day it will produce Pixie dust for him, despite his pre-existing knowledge that fairies and pixies are not the same thing. It doesn't matter if one of your players picks to play as the dumbest, most ridiculous waste of a character that you've ever seen in your life. It's your job as a GM to make him cool as hell.

    Why? Because as the GM, it's your job to make the game fun, and a player who thinks that his character is being ignored or shunned (no matter how justified you think you are in doing so), isn't going to have a lot of fun. Finding opportunities to make this happen can be both challenging and rewarding. Your goal is to give them as much chance to shine in whatever way they can as often as it is reasonably possible within the confines of your story. Again, if you're following Commandment #3, this shouldn't really become a problem all too often... but stranger stuff has happened and will inevitably happen again. Anyway, if a player shows up at your table with an incredibly stupid character, you need to try your hardest, suck back your pride and do everything in your power to make that character look awesome. The game will inevitably be better for it.

    #6: Don't Stress over the Little Things
    A lot of games lend themselves to the endless discussion of minor details. Games like Shadowrun, for instance, which has elaborate rules for every piece of gear in the game plus lifestyle costs, exchange rates, and so on and so forth. Old Dungeons and Dragons had it’s famed Encumbrance tables, Riddle of Steel has its half dozen interlocking wound tables, and so on and so forth. Maps like the one below are as common as goblins.

    Now, these things certainly have their place in the game, but there comes a point when you need to let it go. Screw up a rule? Whatever – move on. Forget that the magical ring in that shop actually costs 30% more than you quoted? Nobody cares, it happened – move on. Are the PCs stuck in the middle of a labyrinth with no map and no conceivable way of escaping without said map? Too bad – let them find another way. Keep it moving.

    This commandment has a lot to do with commandments 4 and 7, granted, and is also related to the all important commandment 3, but it is unique in the sense that it pervades every single part of the game, from character creation through the doling out of XP rewards. The rules (The Book) is always the least important part of any game I run. I follow the rules, sure, but I never let those rules dictate what happens in the game. Why? Well, because just following the rules means the PCs can lose. They can all die. The game can end in misery and disappointment simply because your players were (perhaps accurately) too stupid to save their own hides. That’s not okay; that’s no fun. Don’t let the fine print ruin the bold sweeps of a campaign.

    #7: Keep it Moving
    Sometimes your players are going to go into planning mode, weather it's a raid on an enemy castle, a dungeon crawl or an elaborate jail break to get one of their own our of enemy hands. Whatever it is, chances are they're not going to stop unless you stop them yourself. Not Ever. Not Ever Ever. They'll ultimately spend hours upon hours sitting there and sorting out every minor insignificant detail of their plan while arguing with one another about rules and chance of success. When they finally do decide to DO SOMETHING, it's going to be midnight and everyone is going to have to go home.

    Guess what your job is. As the GM, it's up to you to cut that shit out. The act of doing so is more difficult than it seems, and it needs to be handled delicately. If you're doing things right, your players probably have an intrinsic distrust towards you and will likely be suspicious of any attempt you make at hurrying their decision-making process. You do however, need to find a way to stop them before they ruin the actual fun part of any game, the execution of their plan. Let them plan, by all means, but let’s keep it down to 2 hours or so, tops. Be willing to fudge details in their favor, if you must, but keep it moving. As interesting as their plans are in the first fifteen minutes, by hour three they are usually just repeating themselves and getting nowhere. Moderate their discussions. Give them suggestions that would naturally occur to their characters. Ask questions that will direct them towards a concrete plan.

    #8: Create Tension and a Looming Sense of Danger
    90% of players in the universe are danger averse. They want their dungeon crawl to go perfectly according to plan, they want all of their stuff to work exactly when it’s supposed to, and they don’t want their character to be injured.

    Fuck that noise.

    Stories where everything goes according to plan and nothing goes wrong are BORING. They aren't half as much fun as when things go pear-shaped halfway through and everybody has to scramble to pull off a suddenly-improbable victory. Those are the games that players talk about for years afterwards. Those are the campaigns that set the standard for every campaign you ever run again. You want there to be danger, since danger creates tension, and tension is fun. Blow stuff up. Have something go wrong. Make the PCs work for their victory, since then (and only then) will the victory be sweet.

    There are, of course, limits to this, but as a GM you should always seek to make things just difficult enough that plan A is by no means assured of success and plan B is likely to be shot to hell, too. This may sound mean, but if you give your PCs the opportunities to succeed, then everything will be fine.

    #9: Be Generous
    If something is not central to the story you are trying to tell and one of your PCs wants it, let them have it. This is especially important if their means of acquiring said thing is realistic. If one of your players makes up some ex-wife who ran off to be with another man and that man just so happens to live in the town you're currently in, as long as there isn't a good reason to forbid it, let it go. The only thing that can come of something like that is creativity and fun, and those are the kinds of things you should be fostering. If one of your PCs has their back against the wall and they're facing certain doom in the face of some ancient evil, if they come up with some kind of far-fetched solution that's "just so crazy it might work", let them have it. You're not the PC's enemy. *Ahem* let me repeat that:


    You are the facilitator of their grand adventure and attempt at glory, not their direct adversary. You want to make this fun, not arduous or frustrating. Just remember that if you "win" and all the PCs are dead, the game is over and you have failed as a GM (unless, via Commandment #3, you set this up for them as a possibility). Don’t be a jerk. This isn’t a power trip, or at least it shouldn’t be one.

    #10: HAVE FUN
    This is just a basic rule of all existance in and outside of the game: If you are having fun, people around you are just as likely to have fun. Smile, enjoy yourself, laugh and do whatever you think is cool at the time. Your enjoyment of this game is just as important as anyone else’s, and if your players have beaten you into a place where you no longer enjoy running for them, you are missing the whole point of playing a game. Fun is the whole idea and, as GM, nobody has more power to make things fun than you.
    Last edited by Yygdrasil; 06-08-2013, 05:05 AM.

    Bastok & Windurst Rank 10. ZM, CoP, ToAU, WoTG, ACP, MKD, ASA & SOA Complete.
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