Off the cuff GMing advice

So a friend of mine asked for some basic GMing advice. He’s going to be running his first game soon. I thought about it, and then wrote the following up. Please note that I don’t think I’m an expert, just someone who’s GMed a few games. This isn’t meant to be authoritative nor exhaustive of all possible advice in any way shape or form. The real reason I’m even posting it is because I’m interested in what people like and don’t like from it, as well as because I spent an hour on it, so I kind of feel like I want to get more milage out of it than just an e-mail to a friend. So here’s my basic GMing advice to a noob. Feel free to post your advice to people, or anything you might disagree with on this, in the comments. I’d love to get a discussion going.

The number one most important thing to remember when GMing is that you’re not telling a story, per se, but enabling a group of people to tell a story together. It’s a crucial difference. This means that you have to think about the following:

a) Let the players play their characters (i.e. don’t tell them how they feel, what they should do, etc. Let them decide that stuff).

b) Following this, let the players do what they want, even if you didn’t expect it and it breaks what you thought was going to happen (gamers often call it “railroading” when you just push the players through a pre-determined story without letting them “get off the tracks” so to speak).

c) The players, speaking of, are dropping you MASSIVE hints about what they want to see in the game with their characters. A character is a mental projection into a fictional world by the player, right? So if they say “I have a huge sword, and a machine gun, and nightvision goggles,” what they’re really saying is “I would like to use a huge sword, and a machine gun, and nightvision goggles, so drop me in situations where I can use them!” More on this below.

d) Don’t have an ending in mind. I’ve seen Vincent Baker, who I think is a good game designer/theorist, call this “playing to see what happens.” It’s a simple idea, but it’s actually hard and counterintuitive. Intuitively, we have a story we want to tell. We want to be in control. We want to know what’s going to happen. Everyone has more fun (including the GM), however, when you play to find out what happens.

Some examples of these ideas in action:

1) My friend Rob just GMed a short, but intense campaign of Unhallowed Metropolis that I really enjoyed. It was his first time GMing (I’m pretty sure, at least). The first sitting was kind of rocky Not bad, just rocky. He was doing good, but he had a tendency to tell us what we were feeling or doing. This is a very common mistake (I do it all the time). For example, my character, who we had established was somewhat sleazy but also had a stable relationship, was hit on by woman while walking at night who wanted them to go back to his place for some gettin-it-on. My gut reaction was that Enzo (my character) would be a bit suspicious of this and conflicted given his relationship. Rob, however, kind of forced me to go with her. He basically said “she grabs you and you follow her back to her place because she’s so beautiful.” I felt a bit robbed of agency and frustrated by this.

HOWEVER, by the very next session, he totally turned it around- he let me and the other players have a fairly long time (about 20 minutes) to just free role play with each other and develop our characters pretty early on in the session. He got a lot better at asking us how we wanted to do things, what we thought of things, etc. The game became instantly more interesting and fun, and remained that way.

2) What do the players want to see? A while ago, I GMed BASH, a super-hero game. We played the first session the same day we created characters (which is common, obviously). Because of that, I had a lot of stuff planned out before I could sit down and think about the characters. There was nothing wrong with the first session, but I don’t think I played well to their strengths. The group really wanted to do secret-agenty, subterfuge kind of stuff. This was indicated by the powers they took, the personalities they developed, the items they had, etc. Almost no one created a character like The Hulk or Superman, or something. They were all more like Rorschach, The Punisher, and Wolverine- more outside the law, more about sneaking, backstabbing, etc. The first session, I threw enemies at them in a head on encounter right away. They did okay, but it wasn’t too exciting. The second session, I took this into account and let them decide what they wanted to do at the beginning. They wanted to sneak somewhere and break someone out of a mental hospital. The third session began the same way. They had WAY more fun doing that, and only got to do it because I paid attention to what they were telling me they wanted to do with their characters by thinking about what their character sheets said.

A character is a tool- you want to give the players ways to use it that are fun to them. There’s nothing more frustrating than designing a character who’s real good at sneaking around and picking locks, then having the GM drop you in a big field and say “okay, fight this dragon.” You have a screwdriver and someone is telling you to pound in nails with it.

3) With the “playing to see what happens” thing, the best way to approach it is to imagine that you’re not writing a “story” or a “plot” but that you’re writing a setting and characters, so to speak. The plot happens through play. I did this poorly when I ran a game of Starblazer Adventures. I definitely had a lot “plotted out,” which often meant that the characters were just sort of running through my story. At that point, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a good story or a bad story- it tends to become routinized and boring. I could feel some of the players not getting to use their character in the ways they had wanted because they weren’t being put in situations where what they could do was useful. They were too much on the rails. It wasn’t a disaster, by any stretch of the imagination. We definitely had fun, but it didn’t pop like other games I’ve played. Everyone’s favorite scenes in that game were when they just got to free role play a bit. I did this much better in BASH, the superhero game, and the Dust Devils game I just ran, where the characters had a lot more freedom to interact with the world and with NPCs.

Here’s how to do all this, from my vantage point:

1) Know the player’s characters. Take some notes on them. Have those notes ready to refer to. Think about how you can work their talents, personalities, items, etc. in.

2) Ask a lot of questions. Ask the characters “what do you do?” “How do you feel?” “What do you think?” “Where are you going?”

3) Work with your players, not against them. You’re all trying to create something together. There’s no “win” or “lose.” The GM will always “win,” if you think about it like that- The GM can always just say “a million spaceships appear and attack you” or “a building crumbles onto you and you die” or just “fuck it. Game over.” Because of this, there’s no reason to think about it as a competition. This doesn’t mean let the players do whatever they want or not challenging them, but it does mean working with them to create something interesting.

A lot of gamers call this “consider yes” playing. Rather than saying no to your players, “consider yes.” BUT make them face consequences. If someone wants to do something that you think goes outside of what makes sense to you, rather than just saying no, think about what you can do with it. Make them make a choice: “of course you can kill the Big Bad right now, but you’ll have to get closer to him, and you’ll leave your injured friend defenseless.” The aforementioned Vincent Baker says “say yes or roll dice” in Dogs in the Vineyard, as in you should be saying “yes” to everything, unless your ready to go to the game mechanics to find out what happens.

This is also a great way to deal with players being unreasonable or unserious. If someone wants to do some kind of macho action-movie shit that just doesn’t make any sense outside of “check out my character being a hilarious bad-ass,” rather than saying “no,” say yes, then use the mechanics of the game to make them make hard choices. “Yes, you can surf down a crumbling building on a piece of debris. Roll to see if you stay on. You don’t? Okay… you’re going to take a lot of damage, and, on top of that, now you’re pinned under a bunch of rocks and the villain is approaching you. Roll to see if you can wriggle free before he get there.” That sort of thing means that each roll has consequences which force interesting choices to be made. Therefore, if you’re not ready to make those choices and face those consequences, don’t take the actions that require those rolls.

4) Speaking of mechanics… know the rules, but don’t be tied to them. Being quick and fair is better than being accurate. Your players want you to be authoritative on the rules, but no one wants to watch you sit there and flip through books for ten minutes to find some esoteric rule. Make something up if you don’t know, just make it feel right. The important thing with the rules is that you make them count- when the players roll it should mean something and change something. It should give them an accomplishment or give them something new to deal with,

5) On the “don’t write a plot or a story, write a setting” thing: I pulled this off well in my BASH game, not so much in my Starblazers game. In BASH, I came up with a bunch of interesting characters, a few major events, and a bunch of places, then let my players run with it. Instead of knowing “what happens” try to know “what will happen if…”. See the difference? Knowing “what happens” is “this happens, then this happens, then this happens…”, whereas knowing “what will happen if…” is “if they talk to this guy like this, he’ll do this, but if they go here, this will happen, but if they don’t do anything, this person will die…”. That kind of thing. Your players will feel more in control, and it allows for a cooler story. A good way to do this is to have rich NPCs. I like the seven sentence NPCs formula.

By knowing an NPCs values, motivation, interaction style, etc., you’ll be able to react with them as a tool in the world, meaning that you’ll have a character driven story which will be interesting. In the Starblazers game, I had some cool characters, but it was mostly plot driven (this happens, then this happens) so the players often didn’t get to interact with the world as much as I would have liked. When they did, however, those parts of the game were often the best parts. It should feel sort of like structured improv, almost, as you play.

6) Following this, story and play should be emergent. It should come out of the interaction of the people at the table. To use an example, I designed my character in Unhallowed Metropolis to be a self-righteous political type. In play, however, he wound up taking the role of someone who was comically self-agrandizing despite being somewhat naive and useless. This led to interesting interactions with the other characters and, ultimately, a cool ending for him and his sister, one of the other player characters. This comes out of the actual interaction between the players, which means you have to give people time to free role play and allow them to develop over the course of a campaign.

6 thoughts on “Off the cuff GMing advice

  1. This looks like sound advice. The one thing I would caution against as well is doing the OPPOSITE of railroading, which is leaving your players with no clues and no direction. Somewhere between the extremes of “This happens, then this happens, then this happens”, and “Nothing happens. What do you do? Nothing happens. What do you do?” there lies a sweet spot to aim for.

    Regarding the rules: Yes, you should go with a ruling that’s fair and quick if you don’t know the official rule, especially if you’re at a dramatic/intense point in the game. However, don’t forget to look up that rule at the end of the session, and if it’s still not clear, come up with a house rule to cover it. You don’t want to find out 6 months later that you’ve been screwing over so-and-so’s special ability the whole time. (This is why I think having a rules lawyer or two in the group is a GOOD thing.)

    I like the NPC’s formula; flesh out those NPC’s and use them to draw out emotions from the PC’s and draw your players in. Just make sure the players don’t wind up hating YOU, a la that “bad way to run villains” post below. “Don’t make the villain untouchable!” could probably be the sixth one on that list – The worst thing I probably ever did as a GM was make an opponent for the PC’s that was all but impossible to hit. He was a super-speedster in a superhero game that was meant to be annoying, but vulnerable to certain types of attack. None of my PC’s wound up having those attacks, and they were left completely frustrated with me.

    By contrast, in my current Shadowrun game, my players have met an enemy which they hate, but also fear and up to a point, respect, an ally which they are fond of but also pity, and an order of Jedi adepts which they have worked with but also find pompous and annoying.

  2. Good call. I would rather be railroaded any day of the week than just wander around with nothing to do.

    It also depends on the kind of game you’re trying to play, etc. Some games lend themselves well to certain kinds of play, other games to others.

    It’s kind of the whole “story before, story now, story after” thing. People tend to say they want story now, but that’s probably the hardest to do, and story before or after is better than nothing.

    Good point as well about making your NPCs untouchable. I actually did that a little in the BASH game with a character. They wound up beating him by neutralizing him in a different way than combat, which worked out, but it was touch and go for a minute in the game when I realized they could probably never beat him in combat.

  3. I agree that NPC villains shouldn’t be untouchable, up to a point. I was in Todd’s BASH game where we couldn’t hurt the tanks physically, and we knew it. It forced us to come up with creative solutions on how to deal with them.

    Another example is in the L5R game I am running. In one session, the party encountered the main villain of the story arc. He summoned some ghosts to fight for him, and cast some spells to escape. I set it up so that he could get away. Is that railroading? Hell yes. He’s a recurring antagonist, and I didn’t want him to die (or kill half the party) during their first meeting. I fully expect the party to find him and defeat him (or die trying) at a later date, but he was absolutely going to survive the first encounter.

    What I’m getting at is this: It’s okay for a GM to do WHATEVER it takes to create a good story and produce fun for the entire group; however, don’t be a douche. Build trust among the group, and the fun will happen.

  4. What game is he planning on running? It sounds like one in which there is a lot of emphasis on GM-prepared story. So here goes:

    Find out what your players are all about: Don’t assume you know what they want better than they do. People play games looking for distinctly different things, and if they don’t get what they are looking for it’s not going to work. So if your players are all about overcoming obstacles and tactical strategy and you’re playing complex interpersonal drama, there’s going to be issues. Ask about what they really like about gaming, or what they are looking forward to in the session, or what they want to see. Heck, this is the one time when asking them to tell you about past characters is a great idea. Who was your favourite character? What was the best campaign you played in? Why to both?

    You probably think you know this, but have the conversation anyway. It’s worth finding out for sure.

    Depending on what your players are in to, rules fudging is going to be more/less acceptable. In a group that is about tactical advantage and overcoming obstacles, rules fudging is tantamount to cheating. If your players want to have characters that are part of a large, overwhelming story in a strongly “We are audience to this greatness” sort of thing then they’re likely to be more lenient about it. If you’re players are there to have their characters reinforced (“I want to play a paladin, by which I mean a great warrior of holiness and light purging the darkness from the world”) then they’re going to expect your story/world to reinforce that: when the rules would mean they get thwacked upside the head by a single goblin they’re going to be unhappy if it kills them, and likewise they’re going to be upset if they can’t fight evil without killing thousands of innocents.

    Don’t create the story in the vacuum if at all possible. Find out who the players characters are, what they are about, and design the story around that. in this way, You don’t have to come up with reasons why the characters would care, or force them on it: you’re already building a story based on what they care about.

    Read the rules, know them as best you can, encourage your players to know the rules. You as GM have a shit ton to do otherwise, managing the world and the NPC’s and everything. The fact that you have to lookup every rule all the time is bogus. Your players should turn up ready to play, and this includes knowing HOW to play. If their attack is supposed to have a 5 foot radius it’s not your job to remember that any more than it is the job of everyone at the table.

    ESPECIALLY: read the section of the rules that deal with how to run the game. All games are not run the same way, and there isn’t anything mythical about doing it. The game should tell you how it was meant to be played, if it’s a good game. If possible, play a game that is about what your players are about. If that’s not possible, then you might have to do some rules modding to make it work.

  5. Those are very good points, Timo. The game he wants to run is Vampire, so yes, It’s a high GM-prep game. I suspect the reason he wants to run it has something to do with Ron Edwards critique of it here:

    Vampire is a game that, as Ron says, promises a lot of story but doesn’t really have mechanics designed to generate it. A lot of people who wind up playing Vampire because they want story do what Ron is calling extended character exploration, in effect, where you just kind of play your character very intensely and, every once and a while, pick up some dice. When I played Vampire in high school, that’s exactly what we did.

    I’m actually totally okay with that. I think it describes plenty of good gaming experiences I’ve had. I think your points are well taken, though. On some level, in Vampire, you can wind up with:

    -Tactical gameplay
    -Deep character exploration
    -Thick storytelling
    -or Political machinations.

    It’s not the best game for any of those, but thematically, that’s what’s supposed to be going on, if I remember correctly from previous experience with it. I would argue that what the players want out of the above (or anything) will have to dictate things like GM prep, how the GM plays, how many and what kinds of rolls are called for, etc.

    The problem with something like Vampire, once again, as Ron points out, is that it’s the kind of game with lots of mechanics but no real explanation for how they do things like generate story, when your supposed to use them, etc. It’s something I think games have gotten better at as time has gone on (at least from my vantage point). This means that GMs have to do almost extra work in trying to make the game do something, story-wise, which people want out of it but it’s not exactly designed to do. Once again, none of this bothers me, per se… I think you can have a great gaming experience playing in all different ways and in all different games, it’s just a question of what kind of information you have when you go into a game, what kinds of expectations you have for the game, and what kind of tool you’re using to get the job done.

    Good food for thought there.

  6. I think Scott’s point about trust is really important too, and it relates to Timo’s point about knowing your players and what Todd’s saying about expectations.

    Back when I was in college, I asked a group I regularly gamed with to make characters for a superhero game I was going to run, using the Champions (HERO) system. Now as you probably know, that’s one of the crunchiest, rule-heavy systems out there. So we met back after a week during which they had been creating PC’s (which can take hours in that system) and I revealed that their characters would be starting… in another galaxy, having been kidnapped by aliens!

    Now, if this had been a group I had never GM’d before, I would have been in imminent danger of being beaten to death with dice bags at that point. But these were folks I had gamed with for years, and they trusted me enough that I hadn’t wasted their time and they went with it. What resulted was a game in which super-powered humans were traveling about in a Flash Gordon-like sci-fi setting, and we had a blast. I never would have tried it with a group I didn’t know, though.

    In short, I guess I’m just echoing what was said above: Your friend running Vampire should know his players as well as possible, and try to meet their expectations for the game as much as possible (not getting too wild at the start), and that will help build up trust and confidence.

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