Now that we have good players, heroes, and villains, we have to put them to work. A campaign is an ongoing series of adventures in a game world, made up of several ingredients. First, the campaign’s premise must be sound. Good campaigns are consistent with the world you adventure in and have clear and worthy objectives. A good campaign is built from a good premise. “What if” questions are good starting points for finding a good premise. What if aliens secretly contacted Earth governments during the Wild West era? What if superheroes were all created by a single time-traveler? What if the barriers between dimensions begin to break down? Take the basic premise, and follow it through in as much detail as desired. Read more
Playing good characters is another important aspect of role-playing games. Although a good GM and good players can have a good game with bad characters, it’s much easier to have a good game when the characters are good. When players create heroes, it is far easier to have fun and eliminate many of the conflicts that often arise as a result of good role-playing. A group should be well rounded with well thought out backgrounds and personalities.
Experience Talks, Part I (WT&D Issue 1) discussed the contribution of the GM to a good gaming experience. Part II discusses the role of the players, characters, and campaigns in creating a better gaming experience for everyone.
Good Players are essential to any game, especially any role-playing game. A player’s attitude, willingness to adapt, and attentiveness can make the game more enjoyable for everyone involved. Several characteristics that are common to all good players will be addressed in this article. First and foremost is the player’s attitude, from which all their other qualities derive. Other traits that excellent gamers possess include adaptability, attentiveness, and a desire to help out wherever he or she can.
Attitude is the most important trait Read more
Over the past few weeks, Dave has talked about six roles the GM plays—Director, Writer, Referee, Host, Actor, and Tactician—and how each of those roles helps to make a fun and memorable game.
During the Game Summary
A good GM runs a smooth game by making his players comfortable immersing themselves in the game, by running a game that his players want to play in, and by making quick, appropriate decisions relating to his game world.
Away from the Game
Another aspect of running a smooth game is to make sure everything that needs to be prepared ahead of time is already taken care of. Read more
A GM also has to be the tactician for the NPCs. There are various ways for GMs to run the opposition in battle.
The opposition can react based on what the players characters do. If the hero brick squares off against the villain mentalist, the villain speedster could intervene. If the hero swordsman prepares to attack the enemy wizard, the enemy archer could attack the swordsman first, or else attack another hero who may be a more dangerous threat.
GM as Actor
GMs also need to take on the role of actor. When heroes encounter villains, allies, or neutrals, they want for them to be interesting enough to be able to tell one from another. When the NPCs perform their heroic or dastardly deeds, they should remain feasibly consistent with what the players have already learned about them.
Cult of Personality
NPCs are people too! They need to have personalities. Often, by taking an existing character that the GM knows well, whether its Barney Fife, Ferris Bueller, or his own second cousin, he can use the existing personality for an NPC (without letting the players know about the hidden connection). This will guarantee consistency, as long as the GM keeps straight that Miles Brogan, barroom brawler, is actually Rambo in a different body and an Irish accent. Read more
GM as Host
The GM is also the host of the game. Whether the game is at the GM’s home or not, it is still the GM that is responsible for the game.
When new players want to join, they should feel welcome so that they enjoy the experience and want to return — make them feel at home. Make sure they know where the bathroom is, and where the phone is. Offer to get them something to eat or drink if you notice that they aren’t digging in.
People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Having enough chairs and table space makes it easier for the game to get going. If the table is covered with boxes, papers, and dirty dishes, players might feel like intruders in the GM’s home, instead of the important guests that they are.
Food and drink wouldn’t seem to be an integral part of a game, but even when playing, people need to eat and drink. As with any social gathering, especially one that lasts several hours, drinks and snacks are vital to keeping the guests happy. Read more
GM as Referee
GMs also have to act as referee/judge when running a game. In other games that require a referee (such as football), the referees must know the rules in and out, and be ready to make a call instantly. GMing is a little different, since the GM not only enforces the rules like other referees; he’s also free to change them to suit the story.
Example: In one game, the GM had us write up Champions characters, but we may as well not have bothered. The game was run extremely freeform, and felt more like a Marvel Super Heroes game. My speedster had a 9 SPD, but in combat, it didnt matter at all, since everything was handled descriptively, instead of taking it phase by phase.
This took some getting used to, but it was kind of nice to play Champions while taking a break from the rules for a while.
Example: In another game, I was mind-controlled to hate a demon that got stronger whenever he was attacked in hate. Since the mind control attack barely hit me, the GM offered me a chance to dodge. Surprised, I said, Okay, what do I do? He told me to roll the dice and tell him if I made it.
I rolled 3d6 and got an average result, and told him that I guessed I made it. He told me that the mental beam just snagged me in the foot as I was getting out of the way and that I now had a medium dislike of the demon. This was a nice rule-bending that added a partial effect to mind control, which is normally all-or-nothing.
I ended up attacking a structure behind him so that it collapsed and knocked him out.
As a referee, a good GM should exercise fair, quick, consistent judgement, and should accommodate disagreeing players. Read more
GM as Writer
A good GM also acts as writer, whether he has written the stories himself or not. The situation is similar to a playwright who has created a script, yet has to endure the directors differing interpretation, the casting director’s questionable role assignments, and the actor’ mediocre performances. The end result of all this is often quite different from what the writer had in mind originally, but given good people, the resulting play can be greater than its original manuscript.
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)
Writing a game scenario is different than writing a book or a play. The characters involved get to change the script as they go. It’s similar to improvisational theatre, in which the actors are (sometimes) given a topic, and they develop their own characters and plot as they go.
A GM can start with a great story, but what happens when the players don’t do what the GM expects? The GM has the choice of giving the players complete freedom to do what they want and go where they want, or of railroading the players onto a predetermined path. Or, of course, something in between.
A good GM finds the compromise that best suits his players and himself. This is not always easy to do.
Some GMs are great at improvising as they go. I’ve played with some GMs who can craft a wonderful story, and always seem to have the answer to what happens next, with only ten minutes to prepare (“We need to you GM tonight.” “Oh, okay.”)
But not all GMs have the gift of quick thinking. Some rely on fluid scripting. For example, a GM might set up a crossroads for the characters, and want them to take the left fork so that they will gain the ally they need before they take the right fork to battle the enemy. But then the players insist on taking the right fork, so the GM ensures that the ally just happens to be traveling the right fork on the way to battle the enemy anyway, and the party is fortified even though they did not do what the GM expected.
Example: In my Star Hero game, the heroes got caught in a hyperspace whirlpool, and got transported to a universe where magic works. There was a planet right in front of them when they emerged into the new dimension. As I had planned it, the planet was the inadvertent cause of the vortex, because it was drawing magical energy from hyperspace.
My players found it odd that a planet was right there, and debated whether or not to explore it so they could possibly find a way back to their own universe. Eventually, they decided that even if they decided to go somewhere else to explore, whichever planet they landed on would end up being this Planet X which was in front of them, so they decided to land after all.
I was relieved that they decided to land on it, since logically, no other planet would have been causing the whirlpool. I was a little insulted being thought of as a railroader, and if they had gone elsewhere, I would’ve had to probably postpone the session, since I had nothing else planned. But it all worked out in the end.
As a writer, a good GM needs to tailor the game to the players interests. By plotting a script that everyone wants to be a part of, it becomes much easier to keep the players following “their part of the script.”
Dave barely touched on the many writerly jobs the GM performs. Creating the plot is the cornerstone, of course, but there are characters to be developed and a world to build as well. In what other ways do the skills of a writer transfer to the craft of Game Mastery?
This article was originally published in The Way, the Truth, & the Dice. Due to the original article’s length, it is being serialized for this format.
Back when I started gaming, almost twenty years ago, there was practically no material on how to have a good game—so I had to learn the hard way. All of the tips, tricks, and advice in this article come from years of GMing badly and gradually getting better. Watching other GMs that you like and practicing a lot are some of the best ways to improve your game.
Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.
Please don’t use this article as an excuse to dump on your fellow gamers by saying “Look, it says here that you’re a bad gamer!” Likewise, don’t feel that if you don’t do all of these things that you’re not a good gamer, and realize that this is not a complete list of good gaming qualities. Just use this article to improve your own gaming techniques. Read more