Five Tips for Good GMing

Posted September 13, 2012 by Beeker00Zero in Gaming
Drawing on years of experience, Byron shares five tips to improve your GMing game.

One undeniable highlight of my time in Toronto was getting to game again with Brad. Developing Soft Horizon into a one-on-one game forced me into picking up the mantle of Game Master for half of every session. Initially Brad ran the session and I simply played. Then Brad suggested the GM Swap, midway through each session the mantle of Game Master would be traded. I went from being a solo Player Character to being everyone and everything else.

Gaming with Brad became a master class in GM’ing, due to his decades of experience. In fact, One of the more nervous I’ve been was about five years ago when I first ran a session of Spirit of the Century for Brad, Tim and Toph. Brad and Toph had run successful episodes of Spirit of the Century and I wanted to give it a go. I’ve been a GM before, but my abilities were rusty. Luckily the session proved enjoyable for all.

Over four months my abilities to run an enjoyable game improved markedly thanks to Brad’s insights and my own desire to help Brad design and enjoy his game.

1) Have Fun

This sounds blatantly obvious, but first and foremost, have fun running the game. Over on it is easy to find threads detailing horror stories of groups and sessions gone bad. Whenever I sat down to game with Brad it was because I wanted to spend an evening with a friend. We would eat dinner, chat about whatever and then enjoy a beer or some scotch while doing an activity both of us wanted to partake in.

Some weeks we weren’t feeling up to it; on those weeks we would play a board game (such as the fantastic Small World) or when Magic: the Gathering didn’t suit my style we watched the Mighty Boosh or something on youtube.

There is an idiom in the gaming community; “No gaming is better than bad gaming.”

This is a hobby, a pastime, the way we choose to spend and evening with friends. It is supposed to be fun with friends, so enjoy it!

2) Preparation meets Improvisation

One of the major faults that some GMs fall in to is called railroading, wherein they force the players to follow a script they have pre-planned. If that interests someone, go write a novel or a short story. What I learned was to have a few set pieces in mind for the players. A couple of intriguing options in the form of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) or compelling buildings or captivating natural (and unnatural) wonders.
Invariably the players will latch on to something unexpected and derail the planning, that’s when the improv comes into play. Let the players explore where they want, they’ll feel more involved and they’re investigating things that interest them. It also helps suggest where future game nights should go. It takes some practice to wing it, but looking at the PCs suggests their interests.

It also helps to always have some sort of creature tucked inside the GM Bag o’ Tricks to throw at them while plotting the next stop on an unexpected adventure.

My greatest bit of ‘winging it’ was when Brad opted to ignore a magically expanding castle and king I had in mind and went instead to find an Earth Deity. Thinking fast I had him roll a tenacity check for the winged sprite he was playing. He failed the roll and I immediately challenged him with a creature devoted to the Earth Deity due to him having the audacity to approach a deity of the ground by flying through the air. It lead to a fun, memorable conflict stemming from something minor.

3) Challenges over Rewards

A lot of adventures are looking for gold, jewels and magical gear. Which is fine, but as I get older, I’m less interested in “killing things and taking their stuff” than I am in throwing challenges at the players to see how they react to it. Partially I think this is due to the games I’ve been playing recently, its been less about XP and gold and more about competent characters who don’t fret about things like how to pay for a room in the inn or maintaining the upkeep on a spaceship. There is definitely a place for XP and magical items but focusing on making the challenges memorable and appropriate – neither too tough or too easy seems to be what I remember. It’s not about the 500 silver pieces and a +2 flail but the magical duel with 3 rakshasa that sticks in my memory.

Players will generally remember doing amazing feats more than the loot.

4) Say Yes or Roll the Dice

This is borrowed from, D. Vincent Baker creator of Dogs in the Vineyard, and it simply means let the characters due what they want and if you don’t want the group doing that get out the dice, roll them and see what happens. If it is essential that the party have access to a submarine or need to meet with the high priestess in order for the story to advance, then denying them that item or person makes no sense. Give them the submarine, invite them into the temple and get on with the game.

If the players decide they want to poison the water and kill off a village, then send in the knights or ninjas or dragon to stop them and have the dice hit the table.

5) Make Failure Interesting

This final piece of advice comes courtesy of Luke Crane author of Burning Wheel, when the players fail in a roll or conflict, have that drive the story forward. Instead of them focusing on winning at all costs, realizing that losing a conflict doesn’t mean a character dying opens up all sorts of potential stories.

During the playtesting of Soft Horizon failure caused my character to be forced to help three rakshasa try to liberate their brethren from a wizard intent upon wreaking havoc upon the planes. We played a half-dozen sessions on the Glass Paradise and only during the final night of gaming did any characters (major or minor) die. We both succeed and suffered set-backs but by opening up the option of failure leading somewhere interesting it doubled the possibilities every time we went to the dice.

That’s it, have fun, throw the dice and get your game on.

About the Author