The art of the Games Master is a tricky one to learn. By design, much of what the GM does is kept hidden from their party of players. It is also a solitary activity – unless you are joining the crew of a LARP, you will be performing the task on your own from the moment you throw your hat into the ring and start a campaign.
Basically every published role-playing system includes a section on how the GM's role functions. Combined with what can be learned as a player, most people should be able to perform the task to some degree of ability by the time they pluck up the courage to try. The hard part is improving your skills as you go on, since this is often down to trial and error.
My local society toyed with the idea of running a GM master-class a couple of years ago. It didn't happen, but it got me thinking. I have been GMing role-playing games for over 16 years now and have run games for the Student Role-playing Nationals on several occasions. Over the years I've accumulated a fair number of observations on good technique. Many will probably be obvious to experienced GMs, but hopefully there will be something of use for everyone here.
The GM's role is different!
Because of the effort and knowledge that GMing entails, most role-players start out in the player party. By the time they try being the GM they have developed their own interpretation of the setting and their own preferences as to how the game should be run. Taking the reins yourself means getting the chance to craft your own vision of the perfect campaign. Sadly, the very process of creating the campaign means that you don't get to play in it.
Many first-time GMs create a Player Character of their own, joining the party in the same way that they always have whilst running the NPCs and plot in addition. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work. One of the major sources of player enjoyment lies in unravelling the mysteries and solving the problems that the GM places before them. However deftly you mix wisdom and folly into your portrayal of the GMPC, you are fundamentally isolated from these shared experiences by virtue of having created the mysteries and obstacles in the first place. The need to portray the other NPCs dilutes your portrayal of the character in a way that prevents them from fully meshing with the party – and when the GMPC interacts with other NPCs, the players are reduced to watching you talk to yourself.
More experienced GMs tend to ditch this idea, but can still fall prey to the same mindset. They create pet NPCs to give themselves a chance to engage in satisfying role-play and dream up imaginative 'set pieces' to show off their descriptive skills. These practices allow the GM to enjoy the game in the same way that a player would.
Unfortunately the pet NPCs are vulnerable to becoming Mary Sues that are more beloved by the story-teller than the audience. A better technique is to wait and see which NPCs your players love (or love to hate) and develop these characters into recurring features of your campaign. Set pieces are a perfectly good part of pre-planning, but you should avoid rail-roading the players in order to make one happen. It is far better to let the planned scene drop than to make the players resent seeing it.
Ultimately, the GM takes pleasure from different things to the rest of the group. Although all players should strive to provide an entertaining experience for the group as a whole, most rate their enjoyment of a session on the basis of what they got to do in it. The GM is there to skilfully orchestrate a good session for everyone else – and to truly enjoy the role you need to be able to take more pleasure from succeeding in this than you do from acting out an NPC character. Players do appreciate an entertaining and evocative GM, but the effect you are having on them needs to be at the heart of your own enjoyment in the campaign.
Be aware of the effects of group size.
It is technically possible to run an RPG with only one player, but such a game would be very different to the standard experience. The PC would only have interactions with your NPCs and you would both be intensively called upon to play them for the entire length of the session. Adding a second player to the mix produces one of the vital pillars of a successful campaign – relationships between different PCs.
Because each player plays only one character, the dynamic between two PCs is likely to be much more developed than the relationship between a PC and an NPC. It will be more complex in terms of motivation and their ability to cooperate with or scheme against each other will be a central part of the action. The fact that the players are talking to each other also takes pressure off you – when the party are talking amongst themselves, you can sit back and take a moment.
Adding a third player triples the number of relationships in play to three, whilst adding a fourth PC gives us six. Three players is typically the minimum needed for a good session, providing enough interactions to make the game feel lively and reducing the pressure on each player to constantly contribute. Four is therefore a good minimum number of people to recruit, so you can still play on weeks that one person can't make it. Adding a fifth player gives you ten relationships and a sixth person raises it to fifteen.
By the time you have six players, however, certain downsides start to emerge. The greater the number of interesting character relationships you have bubbling away, the more likely it is that two of the characters will wish to talk to each other. Although the players need you in order to interact with the rest of the world or to resolve a skill-based conflict, there is nothing to stop the players concerned from just playing out these conversations while you do something with someone else. Unfortunately this tends to raise the noise level in the room as the different conversations being held try to be heard over one another. This is bad enough with ideal seating arrangements, but if you are talking across each other the whole thing can swiftly become untenable. The conversing players are also guaranteed to miss any declarations you make, bringing drama to a screeching halt while you update them.
You can put a stop to this by simply requiring everyone to wait their turn and limiting talk to the person who has your attention. Unfortunately, that attention is getting spread increasingly thin. With six players each one is only getting 10 minutes of play per hour on average, or 30-40 minutes in a typical session. If you push the number of players in your party much higher, you are forced to choose between having random unlucky players being basically ignored each session or having every player bored and frustrated due to a lack of play.
I'm not saying that you absolutely need to refuse the seventh candidate for a spot at your table. But if you're lucky enough to have plenty of prospective players, don't be afraid to fill a set number of slots before declaring yourself 'full'. If the campaign is short, those left out can always get first shot at the next one. If the campaign is long, you can invite them in if an existing player has to drop out.
Don't forget that PC actions go through you.
In simple terms each player controls their own character. At a more technical level, however, your control of the world they inhabit means that players only declare what they want their character to do. The action in question is not technically completed until you accept it and describe the outcome.
This allows you to veto any PC action by simply refusing to accept the declaration. On the face of it this is a total violation of the player's freedom to play their own creation, but there are circumstances in which it is justified. Players often know things that their characters would not – if a counter-intuitive action is obviously advantageous based on OOC knowledge, you can refuse it unless the player can supply a credible IC rationale.
This veto also allows you to prevent the players from bringing themes and content that are outside the scope of the normal game and which may cause discomfort into the story. No player has an absolute right to bring violent sexual assault into your Lord of the Rings game, even though such things would logically happen in Middle Earth and their character has the means and opportunity to succeed. The content of the game should be limited to what the participants are comfortable with – and make sure to include yourself in that assessment. You can even purge unwanted elements of the published setting in this way, though in such cases you should tell the players you are doing so when they create their characters.
Give everyone an equal share of the limelight.
As the GM, you should strive to ensure that everyone gets an equal amount of time as the 'active' player and that every PC is useful with equal frequency. This parity of 'turns' is natural from a gaming perspective. However, role-playing is also about crafting a story together – and stories usually have a main character. Creating a story with two truly equal protagonists is hard from an authorial perspective. Creating one with six is virtually impossible. If you adhere to normal story-telling practice you will inevitably develop an overall focus on some PCs over others.
The only way to fight this is to deliberately turn the focus on each character in turn – using your knowledge of their stats and backgrounds to alternate who will be most concerned or useful. The most simple division is to ensure the correct mix of combat and social scenes. I was once in a summer-long campaign that didn't include any proper combat scenes after the second session – my extrovert mercenary captain simply never got to use most of her stats, but the taciturn warrior monk had a real problem getting involved. On the other hand, most of us have probably had the experience of making an emotionally complex socialite Vampire for a game that turned out to be 90% Discipline use and machine-gun fire.
A game that truly involves each player equally may feel like a sprawling, poorly focused mess from the GM's chair. The curious thing is that you are the only person who will feel that way. Everyone else experiences the story through the eyes of a single persistent main character – their own PC.
Players are encouraged to think of events from their PC's perspective. They are constantly aware of what that character is thinking (even if they never share that information). In effect, you are telling up to six different versions of the same story at once. Good thing you have help from the players! This is why RPGs are a poor spectator sport, even for fans of the hobby. An audience member cannot properly attach themselves to any of the single threads and is not privy to all of the information a participant has.
You will also need to push the more reticent players for input when speaking to the whole group – potentially delaying your response to the more verbose. If you simply toss out a situation and go with whoever speaks first, you will end up responding to the same couple of players most of the time. If you are a male GM, keep in mind studies have shown men frequently over-estimate the percentage of the talking that women do in group situations.
Role-playing games are not morality tales.
The basic process of a tabletop RPG is that the player declares an attempted action and the GM describes the result. In many cases there are multiple plausible outcomes, which can be good or bad for the PC. In these circumstances dice rolls are usually used to determine which outcome occurs. The probability of the good outcome is modified by the basic challenge rating of the task, the skill level of the character attempting it and the environmental factors in play.
One thing that is not normally used as a modifier is the morality of the deed being attempted. This means that PCs can commit immoral acts as easily as virtuous ones, escaping any kind of immediate punishment for their actions by passing the necessary rolls to beat the hazards involved.
Some sections of the Christian community have complained about this almost as much as they have about the occult content to be found in some games. They argue that allowing successful evil play (or the morally complex play represented by characters like a good-aligned thief) makes RPGs fundamentally harmful to the upbringing of our children. Even if you don't subscribe to such a limiting perspective (or do your role-playing with adults) you might still find this difficult due to your role as a story-teller. When the heroes do bad things, all the laws of dramatic convention demand that they should suffer for it.
The thing to understand here is that avoiding the tropes of dramatic convention is one of the big attractions of being a player. We've all seen a hundred heroes act in the same conventionally heroic way – an RPG is the chance to explore what would happen if the people charged with saving the world were more pragmatic, ruthless or just plain selfish. If you block the players from advancing along these lines, you force them to start playing an over-used stereotype instead of playing their own concept.
Immediate karmic punishment is also unfair from a gaming perspective. Why bother to let the thief make all those skill rolls if the universe contorts to deprive them of their earned advantage five minutes later? If you don't veto the action itself, make any negative consequences plausible and sensibly paced in their approach. Above all, remember that the players are here to explore their own ideas – not to receive yours in fable form. Role-playing allows people to explore a wide variety of character mindsets, a task best accomplished if the consequences of their actions are causally realistic rather than arbitrary.
Don't let the eventual success or failure of a PC hinge upon whether their actions are just. If your overall vision for the campaign requires that characters who cross certain lines are eventually punished, discuss this with the player concerned and come to an accord on the matter. Many players don't actually mind if a given character comes to a bad end, as long as the journey is satisfying.
All players are liberal individualists.
Since RPGs are primarily a non-conformist hobby for young intellectuals, there is a definite political bias in this direction among the community. That being said, there are some role-players who vote Conservative. Even so there are certain near-universal rules for how players will treat the world of the game.
The difference between being a player and simply listening to a story is that you get to make choices. In the game – as in the real world – those choices may be constrained by authority figures and social norms. As the GM you both offer the choices and control all the authority figures and societies. The more that these factors force the players' hands, the more you are offering choices only to take them away again.
This is not to say that such forces should not exist within your game world. Indeed, some players will act out until they are effectively stopped just to test your limits. Many RPGs are set in positively dystopian regimes and the PCs do not always have any hope of staging a successful revolution. The important thing is that the constraining forces are obstacles that the PCs must overcome if they wish to act in a contrarian way. In order to create an interesting story in which the PCs are uniquely placed to be important, such defiance is nearly always necessary. Despite the prevalence of armed combat in RPGs, it is rare for the PCs to be soldiers in the regular army because of the ways in which this limits their chances for agency. When they are all soldiers, they will usually get dropped off without support to fulfil a simple objective by any means they choose. However technologically advanced the setting, good communications with your superiors are virtually unknown.
The reason you need to be aware of this fact is that many games come with a ready-made faction of 'good guys'. One easy way to get the PCs together and fighting the good fight is to require that they are all members of this faction. But the moment the commanders of this group start pushing the party around, they become obstacles in the minds of the players. Be too dictatorial and the players are likely to throw you a devastating curve ball late in the campaign – either by staging a meticulously planned coup, or by simply resigning from the faction after being humiliated one too many times. If you can roll with it, this can still be awesome. If you can't, it will suck. Either way these actions are ultimately the result of player frustration with your game rather than character motives.
Most PCs must survive most stories.
As a story-telling medium, role-playing games come in a variety of styles and genres. The best systems are designed to reflect the stylistic conventions of the setting they pertain to, allowing the game to naturally turn out the way that it is 'supposed to'. This is why Wizards' fad for buying popular titles and releasing new editions with the D&D rules imposed upon them has so many fierce critics.
One effect of this variation is that the fragility of PCs is massively variable between different systems. Some favour heroic legends full of super-human valour, whilst others bring home the deadly consequences of violence as a mirror of the real world. The setting information will play this up, with some games driving home the idea that no-one in the PCs' line of work should expect to live very long. GMs often feel pressured to represent the game world faithfully (it is one of their basic tasks after all). In this case, however, there is a very important rule worth spelling out:
The desired length of the campaign is the ONLY factor that determines maximum desirable levels of PC mortality.
Any ongoing story requires continuity. Even if the events of the world form a single narrative, the players will need a persistent main character to follow them with. You can't expect replacement characters to keep getting involved in the same business that the dead ones cared about. The character development that PCs can display also makes a persistent cast more interesting than an ever-changing one, with the relationships I've already mentioned growing and evolving as a result.
If Buffy had killed off a Slayer, Watcher or Scooby every 3 or 4 episodes, it would have been unwatchable by the end of season 2. Audiences would have ceased to invest in the new characters, knowing that they had no prospect of staying around long enough to get interesting. To make matters worse, the replacement characters in an RPG are played by the same people as the preceding ones. However good the writing and acting, by the time Sarah was on her fifth Slayer or third Watcher they would all have blurred together in our minds.
Some game systems make prolonged survival functionally impossible. These games are only suitable for short campaigns and there is nothing wrong with that. In other cases you simply have to tailor the amount of peril the PCs face to the type of game you are playing. If the party can handle two combat encounters at a push, don't keep creating adventures with five in a row. The bottom line is that if you expect every player to lose more than 2 different PCs over the course of your main campaign, it probably isn't going to work out.
Fear makes it hurt more.
Despite what I have said above, players desire a challenge. The real possibility of failure and character death are a vital source of tension that you cannot do without. The logical conclusion would seem to be that you should hit the party with everything they can actually handle, before allowing them to stagger over the finish line with all of their resources spent.
The problem with this approach is that the randomness of the dice can interfere with these calculations. A string of bad rolls can cause you to accidentally wipe out the party with an encounter that they could normally have handled. You can mitigate this by fudging the results of your own rolls since you can make them in secret. (Incidentally, making the odd important roll publicly in the middle of the snack table is a great way to raise the mental stakes for your group). But if the players become consciously aware that you are altering your rolls to prevent them from losing, all the tension evaporates and combat becomes nothing but a slog.
The solution lies in the building of tension and threat before the pay-off of the actual fight. Get your players focused on the narrative aspect of the confrontation, rather than the game systems. Most rules drastically underestimate the dangers of battle and you can use this in your favour. A sufficiently levelled party can certainly kill a hill giant, but it is still intimidating to track something by its knee-deep footprints only to find it wielding a carelessly uprooted tree.
Once the fight begins, keep the players in 'story mode' as much as possible. Take time to describe the results of each attack rather than simply reeling off numbers. Narrate hits by the effect they have on the target – a blow from said giant that takes 20% of the target's HP is a glancing hit, even if it was close to maximum on the dice. After all, narrative logic says that a direct hit would have killed them. This keeps the fear of a fatal direct hit alive in the player's mind.
The more the players are afraid of the encounter, the less you actually have to beat them up before they feel like they've survived something tough. This means you can have shorter combats, which helps to balance the combat and non-combat scenes better. It also means that the players are less likely to get a read on the average damage output of the thing they are facing – at which point they will calculate how many blows they can take and become less scared of the next one.
If you still need to wear them down, a succession of short fights can accomplish the same attrition with less error. And on the rare occasions you throw everything at them at once, they will be certain they are all about to die and feel like epic heroes when they don't.
Bait your hooks correctly.
At the beginning of a campaign you get away with a lot of rail-roading. Most player parties are a diverse collection of people who wouldn't normally hang out together, often with no desire to get involved in an epic quest to save the world. Unless they are all already recruits for the good faction, you will have to force them into mutual peril through circumstances beyond their control until they have formed enough of a relationship to tackle the revealed over-arching plot together.
Of course, you can't keep this up forever. At some point the characters will be able to make their own choices about what happens next. When this happens you will usually offer them a 'plot hook' – an interesting thing that they can choose to investigate if they like. Since you only have so much prep time, doing so is probably the only course of action that will fit with your plans.
Players are notorious for ignoring the intended plot hook to poke at an incidental detail of the setting instead. You can't help that, but you can avoid presenting a hook that the characters will deliberately choose to pass up. Tailor your adventures to the interests and motives of your party – one group might love the chance to rob a bank, another would never consider such a selfish crime.
The worst outcome is when some characters take up the quest and others refuse it. Not only do you have to keep switching between two separated groups, but you have to invent something for the others to do back at home. You can just leave them out as a consequence of their own choices, but this punishes the player for faithful character play.
This problem will mostly solve itself once the group becomes friends (another reason to keep a persistent cast). The paladin might not be sympathetic that the rogue is in trouble with the mob, but he won't just stand by and let the woman who saved his life five times get murdered. Just be aware that the GM cannot rush this process. I once played in a Vampire game where everyone started calling the PCs a 'coterie' after they'd only met for five minutes. Several of our politically diverse characters were so offended by this that they denounced the rumour and deliberately tried to distance themselves from each other...
Plan one ending, allow many.
The player party do not have to be capable of solving all of the world's problems – sometimes it is fine to show them something they can do nothing about. A plot hook, on the other hand, is an invitation to get involved. Think ahead and ask yourself how the party you've got will be able to deal with the issue. An unsolvable plot will simply get your party stymied or killed. Even something of the correct 'challenge rating' might require abilities that no party member possesses or presume a greater combat focus than they have.
On the other hand, you shouldn't see the quest in terms of working toward that one solution. If the PCs try something different, play it out however it falls. Don't be afraid to let the players succeed more easily if they do something clever you didn't think of. Most of the time they will make things far harder for themselves by doing the unpredictable, so it's only fair.
If the players are consistently out-thinking you, you can apply the 'super-genius rule' to a major villain. Rather than providing the NPC with their defences in advance, simply decide that they foresaw whatever the PCs try first and grant them the appropriate counter-measures on the fly.
Take note of what doesn't work.
Most beginning GMs are already familiar with a wide range of story-telling and gameplay techniques from their exposure to other mediums. Many of these can be profitably applied to RPGs. Some, however, fall foul of the specific qualities of the hobby. If you are lucky you will learn these lessons from playing in other people's campaigns. If you are less lucky you will learn from the missteps of your own.
Here are a few things I've picked up that don't work out well:
- Background music. A well-timed burst of appropriate music can lend a great deal of power to any kind of scene. It is natural to want to enlist this benefit when creating experiences for your players. Unfortunately role-playing is almost entirely enacted in the form of verbal communication. If the players have to strain to hear you, all of the effect of your GMing is lost. The most dramatic events also do not happen in real time – set the 'combat music' on loop and it will drive you mad before the fight is over. Play it once and it will die away before the pace of events has lessened.
A single piece of music can profitably be played at the beginning of the session to set the tone. Otherwise it is best to compose a lengthy playlist and have it on very low volume throughout the session. Eventually random chance will create an appropriately timed musical link – which your players will actually appreciate more than a deliberate one.
- Dream sequences and vision quests. These wild pieces of symbolism offer a great chance to flex your creative muscles and in theory provide great character pieces for your players. The problem is that these sequences are intended to end with an epiphany that guides the character going forward. This basically means that you end up holding the character hostage until they give the 'right' answer, unless you are good enough to roll with whatever they come up with. It is also possible that the player simply won't be able to figure out the intended message, however obvious your symbolism is to you and everyone else.
Dreams are also solitary events – even if the players get one each they are going to be sitting out for a prolonged period. The one time I've seen this work was when the GM had the PCs use magic to collectively enter the dream of a comatose party member. The dreamscape was provided in advance by the player of that character, with the GM running it like a pre-written adventure.
- Cliffhangers. RPG campaigns are effectively episodic ongoing stories. If you want the players to be excited about coming back, what better way to do it than to leave the cast in mortal peril? This is particularly effective in our age of binge-watching, since they really do have to wait until next week.
The downside is that you are forcing yourself to resume the narrative exactly where you left it. This means that the absence or late arrival of one player will cost you play. Even if everyone can make it, you are demanding that they instantly return to the head-space they were in after 3-4 hours of continuous gaming a week ago.
It is actually better to plan sessions so that they end at some kind of satisfying conclusion. You will still get cliffhangers when your planned story overruns, so save the benefits for then.
- Crowd control abilities. Many games provide the ability to immobilise a target for a short period of time. These have great tactical utility for PCs which explains their popularity. But unless you plan to use them to take the party alive or enable a villainous escape, don't fire them at party members. Being forced to sit out of an entire scene doesn't add anything to a player's night. If you want your villains to divide and conquer, a Charm effect is much more fun...
- Memory wipes. Characters get more interesting and complex as they develop through play. The primary source of this development is the experiences their adventures provide. When you take those experiences back, you are effectively asking the player to 'roll back' their character. If you think level drains suck, they've got nothing on laser guided amnesia.
The same could be said of artificial Alignment changes. The Alignment of a well-made character is nothing but a crude label for their complex collection of beliefs and goals. When a PC's motivation abruptly changes to 'Hail Hydra', the player will have a hard time equating that with the thoughts the character should be having. To play as instructed they will pretty much have to suppress the real character and play a crude stereotype. On the other hand, these effects at least motivate the player to take actions. A memory wipe does nothing but take motivation away.
You will fail.
However much you have already learned from watching other GMs, you will make your own mistakes. Sometimes your plans will go wrong or your awesome idea will fall flat. Sometimes you will misread what your players want or the players will just be in a poor mood. Whatever the reason, not every session can be awesome.
As the focus of the group's attention and the person who is bringing your prepared work to the table, it is natural for even an experienced GM to feel a touch of stage fright now and again. A bad session can really knock your confidence and make this worse. There is nothing to be done about this except to get back on the horse and run a better one next week. Learn from your mistakes, but don't beat yourself up over them.
During my time in the hobby I have twice witnessed a 'player revolution' – when the GM was so consistently bad that the players collectively asked him to step down in favour of another member of the group. If this doesn't happen to you, you're doing OK. (If it does, learn all you can from their complaints and apply it to whatever you do next).
Own your ending.
Some campaigns are pre-planned to terminate at the conclusion of a particular plot arc. These build to a focused finale and come to an epic conclusion. Others are open-ended, consisting of a sequences of smaller plots connected by a shared world and persistent characters. These last until the GM wants to do something else, at which point they wrap up at the conclusion of the current quest.
Some games terminate earlier than expected. The GM or players may decide that they are not having fun with a new campaign. Scheduling changes may make the group non-viable. Or the PCs might get wiped out by accident or their own stupidity.
Unfortunately most RPGs do not end in any of these ways. Perhaps the most common way for a game to die is for multiple sessions to be missed in a row due to unusual circumstances. Eventually people stop trying to reschedule and the game is never mentioned again.
As the GM it is your responsibility to organise sessions. Because of the amount of work the GM has to put in, most players will not presume to schedule a session for someone else to run. (My wife has occasionally dropped me in it this way, but that's a special case).
There is nothing wrong with saying that you don't want to run any more, or that attempting to organise the game is clearly not working out. If you are conflicted about whether you want to continue, it is entirely OK to place a game 'on hiatus' (even though virtually no game frozen in this way is ever thawed out again).
The problem is when you say nothing. In this case each player unofficially leaves the game separately when their patience runs out, This is a poor last impression for your campaign to leave – and is most painful and protracted for your keenest fans. Always take the time to declare your game dead – maybe someone else in the group will start a new game in the time slot and you'll actually get to play...