Saturday, December 31, 2011

GM Tips: GMing 101

GM Tips: I've presented articles extolling the role-playing game as a great past-time that is an intelligent, imaginative, and creative way to spend your time and money. It's a growing hobby that has become much more popular since the formative days of 1979, but there's still a huge hurdle to getting involved: the GM. It's easy to get into any number of RPGs as a new player, but getting started is a rocky, uphill battle for the Game Master, as he must wrangle player personalities, schedules, and the rules of the system in addition to developing his own plot. Hopefully, a few personal lessons will ease your GMing burden, or at least illustrate how I shoulder the burden of the Game Master.

As the year ends, the crush to get a few more blog posts finished mounts. Will the stress of publishing three (or more!) articles in one week make my head explode in a viscous explosive aneurism of productive overload? Only time will tell.

This article has been stewing for a while, and I'm quite ashamed to admit it. It's been promised to a young friend of mine for several months now. Well, reminiscing about early RPG experiences and then distilling them into productive advice has been an invigorating and frustrating process. I hope these tips, meant for brand new GMs especially, will help other nerds elsewhere pool their collective imaginations even more harmoniously due to their elegant wisdom.

Either that, or at least you'll get a better idea of how I personally harangue my players into serving my RPG plots.

The task of leading a group of RPG nerds as Game Master is a daunting one. As I mentioned in my Nerd Bread post about RPGs, the GM has to be outgoing, coordinated, extremely well abreast of the rules and plots of the game, and really has to do all of this at a pace that keeps his players entertained. But, while there are numerous responsibilities to being a GM, I find that most new GMs (myself included, once upon a spaceship) neglect to realize that they only need to be responsible for a few key elements of the game at a time. Below I have four manageable areas that are pretty easy to address and go a long way towards setting the foundation for a long, successful, and fun RPG campaign.

Know your RPG system.
This bit might be easy to overlook, especially when you only know a single RPG system, but it is important if you're a first-time GM or an old beardy fellow like myself with a dozen systems on the shelf and another dozen on the computer. The key to knowing your system is knowing the features of your chosen rules set. This is different from simply knowing the rules. This is about enlightened awareness, not empirical knowledge of your game's book. Your system of choice might have rules for survival in the wilderness, but you really should know if they work well if those rules might come up in play. Knowing what does and doesn't work in your system--or how certain things work--keeps gameplay smooth and well-coordinated.

For instance, when playing a game of the latest edition of Gamma World, I keep in mind that gameplay is supposed to be tough, fast, and fun. So I cut loose on my tendency to have overblown plots, well-developed antagonists, and hyper-detailed combat. Players might have a poorly placed botch result in the death of one or more PC, but in a system where character creation is just a couple of die rolls, that makes it fun and quick to get back into the game.

In a GURPS game, on the other hand, I keep in mind that the system is all about detail and drama. There's a tendency for combat to bog down if you don't manage it properly, as there's a large number of great-but-overwhelming options for players. So when I use the full combat rules, I use the NPCs to drive player actions and lead them in how to fight. I might emphasize that an NPC is getting desperate and using Fatigue to make rapid attacks to help nudge players towards matching their frenzy, etc. But in any case, I try to keep GURPS combats shorter than most other RPGs when you look at it turn-for-turn, and instead emphasize the heavy cost of those intense, short sequences of violence.

When I first started to really GM games, it was to the sweet western tune of the Serenity RPG, which uses the Cortex system by Margaret Weis Productions. It's a fun, cinematic system that really dials in the dynamics of the TV show that gives players the ability to spend plot points to modify dice rolls or even spontaneously add plot twists to the story. At first I led this as I did other games I'd played in the past (notably Dungeons & Dragons 3.5), and that was an okay start. But when I started to properly direct the plot point dynamic by giving players unfair challenges that forced out-of-the-box solutions, that created some fun moments that my players still reminisce about nearly seven years later. Conversely, my early attempts to learn and memorize the nitty-gritty paraphernalia of the rulebook met with failure and frustration--remembering a lot of the fringe rules off-hand is nowhere near as important as mastering the system's core dynamic.

In any case, the habit I have formed for my own games is this: obsess over learning and refining the game's rules right until a session starts, and then stop. Once the game starts, I try to forget about the stack of rulebooks on my gaming shelf--it's just my players, our story, and my rules. Anywhere from twenty to fifty percent of all the judgments I make in a game are off the cuff, and while they're informed by the rules I read doggedly in my free-time, I try not to obsess over an abstract sense of whether I made the 'correct' call or not. I'm the GM; all my judgment calls are correct. Except when they're not.

"...remembering a lot of the fringe rules off-hand is nowhere near as important as mastering the system's core dynamic."

Know your setting.
Knowing your setting is all about having the principles of the fictional universe well-established, even if the canon itself is hidden. It's a key to good fiction and to good role-playing. This doesn't mean you need to know every little detail about the farmer's outhouse in that little hamlet on your world map--it means you know why things work the way they do. That way when your players ask you an unexpected question--like how many strawberries they can buy for the party with ten shillings, or if they could hit an enemy boarding shuttle with the armored underside of an unarmed transport--you can come up with a reasonable, consistent answer even if the rules are coming out of your keester.

And this ties in to preparation. Preparation is good, and if you are thinking about the world and campaign as a whole, I don't think anything is wasted. That said, if you've got a game coming up and you've only put in 30 minutes of work into the upcoming session, don't panic. Don't panic. Just play the game, and let player decisions and curiosity fill out what you didn't plan. Besides, the average group of players will probably destroy your plans about one hour into the session anyways, so no need to stress over a little ad libbing. A lot of times when you find yourself making spontaneous GM calls in the moment you'll find that you make the game feel even more responsive to player choices and consequences, and that's the heart of role-playing in the end.

And another note on knowing your system, which I'll expound upon in later posts: change stuff. Make house-rules, redesign character sheets, cut and paste your own GM screen, and do anything else that makes the game more intuitive for you. Just because you're playing with professionally-made materials doesn't mean they best fit your gaming style or preferences--nerd up and make it fit.

" means you know why things work the way they do."

Know your players.
No matter how well you do as a GM, you need your players. Even if you have a totally antagonistic play-style where the players huddle together and say, "oh sh1t, Benz got Trow nao, we're hozed"* you still need the players to enjoy the session if you want them to bother coming back. And if they come to game expecting a well-balanced combat-heavy experience and you instead deal a dramatic plot with high-minded social interactions, they will cry "OMG, hackz."**

So know what your players are expecting, and make sure you give them a good idea of what you have in store for them--in story terms, in content, in pacing, and in game mechanics. A number of GMs out there even go so far as to make prospectuses while planning out a new campaign, distribute it to interested players, and gather feedback before the first session even begins. That's a little overboard, but if you don't do something similar in an informal manner, at least, you're asking for trouble.

In describing the story to your players, let them know what stories inspire you, but also what specific elements inspire you. Saying you like The Lord of the Rings isn't as helpful as explaining you love the details of the journey, managing supplies, and crossing diverse terrain that is emphasized more in the book than the movies. Also be sure to give your players an idea of the content you'll be including in the story. A general movie rating is helpful, especially if you go by category: "PG language with R-rated violence" for instance. In my grittier campaigns, I like to plum the depths of my personal knowledge of anatomy when describing violence, and that's not something you should generally spring on unsuspecting players in my experience. Pacing is an after-thought for a lot of campaigns, but if you have unusual pacing in your games you need to be aware of it. I think most RPG players expect 1.75 fight scenes per session: two in an ordinary session, with one large boss fight every four or so sessions that takes up the majority of a night's game. My current campaign so far has had about .5 fight scenes per session: we might have two or three sessions pass without combat altogether, and then have one adventure dominated by a single fight scene or a couple of brief, violent ones. The pacing is sometimes dictated by the game mechanics and your own interpretations of rules, which is why it's important you spell that out to players ahead of time, especially if they have their own copy of the rules.

I'm good friends with the members of my core gaming group, so I've been lucky on these counts. Before starting our current game, for instance, we had a couple of nights where we just hung out, talked about the setting and their character ideas, and watched movies that I explained were inspiring to the composition of the campaign. Our first RPG together, however, was a more special case, and it helped me learn the lessons described above. Being a Serenity campaign, we already had a few of the elements of story, pacing, and content laid out for us, and since the Serenity RPG rules had just been released, I thought that was taken care of as well. Note that uncertain qualifier. The inaugural game night began with the players assuming a mix of ship crew and prisoners on a penal transport ship that struck disaster while under-weigh. When I described the grisly scene of one crewman who'd suffered explosive decompression, I realized that--while the women players' looks were tremendously rewarding--I probably should've warned them. Eh, tough cookies. Later in their adventures, the players balked at the prospect of buying food and fuel for their ship--issues that are normally dire but still glossed over in the movie and television series--when I prompted them to do so. And, even though the rules were designed for the setting, I still needed to house-rule after-market modifications to spaceships, specific strength limits, and the running rate of slaves on Whitefall. All lessons learned.

*Computer-gamer language, personally associated with the worst habits of RPG players.
**Hackz: Petulant players will usually attribute unexpected or unjustified defeat to being the victim of aggressive cheating through game-hacking.

"Even if you have a totally antagonistic play-style... you still need the players to enjoy the session if you want them to bother coming back."

Know the atmosphere.
GMing the right atmosphere is that little something extra that--when done right--can make a game session truly special. Good atmosphere--and being aware of it--can be the difference between a game of fantasy epic goodness and a night of combat-guessing-games. You can make atmosphere through vocabulary, voice, sounds, sights or even food. Vocabulary is one of the fundamental ways of creating atmosphere, but it is more often a pitfall for bad RPG atmosphere, because you and the players are improvising and it is therefore easy to say something ridiculous. For instance, in a medieval European setting (or any of the countless fantasy iterations thereof) your average town guardsman should never be heard to say, "You've gotta be frickin' kiddin' me!" no matter how apropos it may be. If you can manage a passable accent to fit a character, do so, but even if you're lousy at accents, a good GM changes his voice to match distinct characters if only to differentiate them from the dozens of speaking roles he will assume.

Sounds are my favorite tools in crafting a good gaming atmosphere. I now have nearly 9 hours of music in my iTunes Myth RPG playlist, and I've even split up the list into music appropriate for general mood, action sequences, tragic moments, or scary scenes. With the click of a button, I can queue up a good theme to supplement a grand speech or a disturbing dirge to set my players on edge in a dark cavern. I also have a couple dozen tracks of ambient sound effects--rainfall, campfires, marketplace noises, and battle clatter--that I pull up whenever players spend much time in a given setting. Sure, it requires a bit more preparation, focus, and coordination to play composer for your RPG, but it makes the emotions of your game run a bit higher.

Food can also create or interfere with atmosphere. As someone who personally doesn't snack, I don't usually choose to provide snacks in game. Fortunately for my players, my wife and one of the other wives who plays with us are big into bringing or making snacks for everyone. But crunching into a bag of Doritos when the player-characters are marshaling for grand battle can really tank an atmosphere as well, so I try to make sure every session has some low-key time that works for snacking. That manages the disruption of food on gaming atmosphere, but food can help improve gaming atmosphere, too. You can eat food that, if not the actual food  eaten in your setting, invokes the same mood you're trying to establish. For an RPG session that coincided with my birthday in real-life and a winter holiday in our Myth game's timeline, for instance, we ate a meal that would be typical of citizens in the setting: coney and civey (rabbit stew) and Italian panforte for dessert, two entrees that date back to medieval times. It was a good meal, and made for a very focused gaming experience.

"Good atmosphere--and being aware of it--can be the difference between a game of fantasy epic goodness and a night of combat-guessing-games."

So there you go, GMing 101. Just remember: know your system, know your setting, know your players, and know your atmosphere. These are good principles for the preparation and execution of your games, and they span GMs of all rules sets and abilities. Next set of GM tips will probably provide some more concrete examples of how to make your game your own.

No comments:

Post a Comment