Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 03: The GM as Storyteller

By Bryan Shipp

“Story trumps rules.”

This is an old adage, and nearly every experienced GM can roll this off her tongue.  It has been published in core rulebooks and master’s books for nearly every system, and for good reason:  the role of the GM did not originate as a storytelling role. 

The earliest Game Masters, or Dungeonmasters, were not necessarily the best entertainers or the best storytellers, they were the people who knew the rules best and who could afford to buy all the rulebooks and supplements.  They were in control of the world, the rules and the story.  But over the years new systems were introduced and the role evolved—and so these game systems now include this fundamental commandment to remind us that while rules are involved in our games, they are not the heart of our games.

And the GM who is not enslaved to the rules can really focus in on the needs of story and the needs of his players without necessarily knowing all the rules.  Because while story is of tantamount importance to a good GM, it is not of sole importance—if it were, we would be nothing more than novelists who didn’t bother to publish!

Through collaboration with our players, we can make our stories more expansive, and tailor their themes and scope to both their desires and our own.  For instance, if your players want more of a horror-themed RPG, and you would rather focus more on medieval adventure, you can combine the two into something set in Ravenloft.  Through working with our players, we will wind up telling stories that might be out of our normal routines, but which we may find are much richer as a result.

Collaboration continues after the story is framed through interaction with players within the game.  This interaction can spin the story in directions we did not anticipate—for example, let’s say an orphaned character meets her biological father.  We’re thinking the character will have an internal emotional conflict about this—but then the player, upon reflection, decides that her character moved on years ago and no bond is formed.  This throws a bit of a curve in our story, but the character has advanced even though it is in a different direction than we were expecting.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 02: Overlooked Facets of GMing

 By Bryan Shipp

The role of the Game Master is a role which wears many different hats. The most important role of the GM, bar none, is that of the Entertainer.  The GM must maintain a balance of challenge and reward, of story and rules, of silliness and seriousness, all while staying a step ahead of the players.

Nearly all of these facets, though, fall into certain categories:  Storyteller, Referee, Adversary, Actor, World-Builder, and Mastermind.

In coming posts I will cover each of these roles in depth and the various ways in which a GM can fulfill them.  Before we begin those categories, though, let’s start with roles that are often easily overlooked, roles that are often dismissed or glossed over because they are less “sexy,” or because they don’t deal directly with GMing.  But these are nevertheless roles that a GM embodies, whether or not he is specifically thinking about them, because they are absolutely vital background skills for a GM to have, skills that make the GM’s life. . .and his player’s lives. . .a better one.

Time Management is one such vital skill.  Time management involves more than just ensuring you don’t spend 20 hours preparing for a 4-hour gaming session; it also plays an important role during the session, while you keep one eye on the clock and one eye on the players, making sure to keep everything on track.  This is a vital skill for proper pacing for telling the story, as well. 

One of the best methods for managing your time effectively is to keep a notebook or other note-taking tool with you at all times; be it your smartphone, or a small steno pad, or even a napkin or a pen and the palm of your hand!  You can never be certain when an idea will strike you, and if you don’t get that idea down right away, you can spend hours trying to recover it later.  After taking your randomly-jotted notes, you can later assemble them using various note-taking tools appropriate to your goals (Obsidian Portal, Google Docs, EverNote, etc—see for a list from Eric's recent Software Tools SIG).

Another technique for using time more effectively, particularly during sessions, is to block off the time for your scenes based on the amount of time you have for your session.  For instance, let’s say you have 5 hours to play and, in your session, you have 4 intensely social scenes where all your players will be involved, 2 transitional scenes, and 3 combats.  Depending on the game system you’re using, combat will either take a very long time or a very short time—if combat tends to take longer in your chosen system, you should block out the time for your combats first to minimize how much of the combat you have to fudge.  If your game system is more social-based, though, and combat is more of an option of last resort, you should block off your intensely social scenes first.  The amount of time you should use for blocking off social interaction is largely dependent upon your players’ styles; we will go into more detail on this during the Reconciling GM Styles and Player Styles GM SIG.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 01: Is the GM God?

By Bryan Shipp

In the early days of roleplaying, it was commonplace to hear the Game Master described as a “god.”  And whether with a big G or little G, whether or not the Game Master should be considered a god is still debated today.  Those who grew up with the notion passionately defend it, while others—often those who came into the hobby more recently or later in life—find the notion less absolutely necessary.  The idea that a GM is also a god seems more and more a relic of an antiquated time year after year—one participant even said that almost no one under the age of 25 even considers GMs to be gods anymore.  So what happened to this notion, and is it a boon or a bane to our hobby that it is going away?

The first thing that sprang to mind among attendees was a lament that “GM as god” is on the wane—the thoughts that were laid out for the table were that players only want loot, not challenge, and the GM cannot be a god because the players have weakened him.  Similarly, the increased reliance on player participation and collaboration, and increased availability of rules-system and story information to players have eroded the GM’s ability to be the absolute and final authority on all things.

The idea here being that the players, ultimately, are at fault for GM as god going away.  They have become more demanding on the time of the GM, they have become more skillful at manipulating the rules.  And the hobby has expanded--other GMs are now available, so individual GMs don’t have a monopoly on the ability to game any longer.  They have become expendable because players, if they do not get what they want from one GM, will find themselves another GM, one that will be less likely to say “no.”

In short, it’s hard to be a god when you have to work harder in a  more competitive environment.

So what does the GM lose by not being god?  Here as before, the complaints were the same:  only as god does the GM have the authority to say “no” when a player or a situation gets out of control—this ability is seen by many who enjoy the role of godhood as absolutely necessary, and that only as god does the GM have the control and comfort of saying “no.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

4dventure, Part 2: Not All Encounters Are Created Equal

Session 2 of my 4E game can be summed up thusly: Combat grind. Combat grind. Combat grind.

I mean, holy crap. We started playing just after 7:30 and aside from trading secrets with some nymphs for about ten minutes (a suggested interaction that fell completely flat, I might add), the PCs were fighting displacer beasts and stirges until at least 9:45.

It was a frustrating process for all involved. The new (Essentials-style) rules for calculating the miss chance on attacks made against displacer beasts are meant to streamline the number of rolls needed to run the encounter, but in execution it makes the players feel like they have less control over whether their blows land. Core 4E called for a 50% miss chance, which you could calculate however you wished (easy way: high-low roll on a d6); Essentials dictates that odd-numbered attack rolls miss and even-numbered attack rolls that exceed the target AC or Defense hit. There was also no exemption for critical hits to overcome the displacement effect, which core 4E allowed (though this exception may be implied in Essentials but not explicitly stated, admittedly).

What this meant in actuality was that the eladrin warlock would waste her turn each round nullifying the displacement effect so that the other combatants would have at least some chance of dealing damage, which was no fun for her at all.

After completing the combat, I rechecked the difficulty balance of the adventure to see if I was missing something, and indeed I was: "Madness at Gardmore Abbey" assumes a party of 5 PCs. Given that they have the opportunity to pick up as many as two simultaneous NPC followers running the scenario by the book, this suggests that the baseline difficulty of the module is quite high indeed. I've instructed my four players to level on up to 7th (they began at 6th per the module guidelines), and hopefully this will correct the problem.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Game Master's SIG: Software Tools for Game Notes


This is a survey of the tools that a GM can use to improve notes lookup and information retrieval during a game. This workshop centers on looking at various tools for taking notes and storing information. Caveats for this workshop

Uses for note‐taking software and online services

Note‐taking software and online services are powerful tools for a game master. The two basic uses we'll be talking about in this workshop are Pre‐ and In‐Game note taking and Information Storage.

  • The first basic use, Pre‐ and In‐Game note taking refers to notes generated by the game master to run an RPG scenario. Descriptions of areas, PC, NPC and creature stats, treasure, and anything else that affects the immediate function of the game that would be noted. Also included are in-game notes made to capture actions of PCs/NPCs/Creatures, changes to the scenario through play as well as any other in‐play adjustments.
  • The second basic use is Information Storage. This includes storing house rules, campaign notes, and other pieces of information that do not go into directly the running of the scenario, but do have an impact on the game as a whole. Included in this are players journals and discovered knowledge, maps, pictures and other sorted pieces of information that pertain to the campaign.