In many ways, the GM has always seemed to be smarter, faster, trickier, and more knowledgeable than the players at the table. In more traditional games, the GM has all the information laid out for her disposal: the story, the enemies, the stats for the enemies, their behaviors, the dungeon, the treasures, and the like. In less traditional games, the GM shares the story with the players, but still generally knows more about the world and its people than the players, and must be ready to improvise new behaviors at the drop of a hat, often more so than GMs of traditional games.
But does that necessarily mean the GM has to be smarter, or more clever, than the players? While it certainly helps (in the same way those characteristics usually do), with a little trickery you can appear to be all of these things without actually being so. "More knowledgeable," in a strong-GM system where the GM creates and/or is in full control of the scenario, can be used to very easily mimic smarter-faster-cleverer if you put in the time and effort.
Harkening back to that understated role of preparedness, if you are fully aware of the motivations of your NPCs and their goals in a scenario, and you also know the ins-and-outs of the locale and the history that's led up to the events in your scenario, you have all the datapoints you need to be able to make it seem like you're ready for every turn the players take. This kind of Practiced Improvisation is very useful and doesn't require overmuch effort, though it does require understanding the material thoroughly and not just skimming over the important bits. And if they take some turn not covered by the material you've got? Take a five-minute break and make something up, then be sure to write it down so that you don't forget it or get confused about it later.
What about weak-GM systems, then, where the GM guides the story and the players do as much of the storytelling as the GM does? In these systems, there are two major paths you can take: you can either try to create just about everything, which is a heck of a lot of work but well, well worth it if you have the time and energy; or you can be more spontaneous, taking what comes and rolling with it, while also ensuring everything is kept consistent and logical.
The second road is harder.
The first is just a variation of what you can do in a strong-GM system; the second, though, to a degree does require a lot of cleverness on the part of the GM. If you're not good at thinking on your feet, you will probably not be very good at using this method, so be warned. Much of what we do is illusion, but the illusion with the Spontaneous GM is much, much closer to the surface. Here is the most important thing to remember when taking this road: be ready to admit you made a mistake. We GMs are not gods, even though some of us like to think so, and we are fallible. Being ready to admit "yeah, sorry about that, that doesn't make any sense" is an excellent way to build player trust and also keep them from going completely off-track.
On the other hand, if your game and your players like the game being a little weird, a little gonzo, or you're trying to evoke a feeling of madness or paranoia (games with Sanity rules, and Paranoia, come to mind) then this is definitely a method that you can aim for—and maybe those little inconsistencies aren't failures but just sauce for the goose.
Whatever technique you choose to make yourself clever (and we of course won't much discuss the third method—actually being smarter and cleverer than your players—because that's largely a more innate talent than teachable skill and really, this author is not of the mind to enhance the arrogance that often sadly plagues GM-kind), you're not done being a mastermind just yet. Because you now have the techniques to react to the players—but what about techniques you can use to force the players to react to you?
Our hobby is roleplaying, and playing roles is what we and our players do for fun. But no matter what role a player is playing, the core personality is still in there: it is still that person playing that character. So, to a degree, what you can do is to try to become a Pocket Psychologist, studying the player and his character so you can learn how to manipulate the character.
Here's an example: Let's say you have a player who, in real life, is very logical and goal-focused. He's stubborn, doesn't like to be wrong and doesn't like to do things incorrectly. The player is trying to play a character who's more laid-back, so he doesn't dominate the table (good player! Two biscuits!). The possibilities here are endless, because you understand the core personality behind the character. Should the rest of the players start going astray, this otherwise laid-back character will speak up and redirect them. And if you give the group a challenge, like a bad guy out to end the world, you know you can't expect the group to go side-questing when this player is along because he's got his eyes on the prize: the Big Bad. And no matter how hard he tries to hold back, he's eventually going to break character.
But what you can do is frame your side-quests as "attacking the villain's allies, so he can't rely on them, thereby slowing his plans." This changes them from "oh, I had this neat idea for something you could do on the road between here and there" to something more palatable to the goal-focused player, and will actually better enable him to play his character instead of his core personality, because the design doesn't fundamentally conflict with his nature. You could also not introduce the world-ending villain early. . .but where's the fun in that?
The above example demonstrates two benefits to psychological manipulation: you're keeping your story on-track, and you're enabling your players to play their characters rather than tossing their planned characterizations aside. You can also use these techniques to provide a richness to a character that would not have otherwise existed.
Another example: You have a player who is very straightforward and good-hearted, but he doesn’t tend to think very many steps ahead. He's playing a character whose main goal is to make friends while having adventures. This is not a very deep character concept, and that's okay—not every character has to have the complexity of Russian literature. You can add a little spice to the character, though, by putting the character in various situations with his friendship: have him make friends with allies, have him make friends with people who turn out to be enemies, have him criticized by other NPCs for the friends he keeps (for instance, he is being criticized by a politician for being friends with a known thief). This will challenge and define the character's (and player's!) notions of what friendship means, and how much trust and faith it takes to be a friend. Because this player was probably thinking "if I make NPCs my friends then they will do good things for me," and it can be oh so much more complex than that.
If you're going to manipulate the players and characters in this way, though, you have to make sure to keep track of and balance the consequences for the players' actions and the NPCs' reactions. Because part of designing your game and its encounters—social or otherwise—is ensuring that your design does not lock the players out of completing their goal or advancing the story. Unless, of course, the players do something so colossally, so mind-bendingly idiotic that you can't justify any other action—but, really, this situation is really rare and you should probably give them a warning or two in-game ahead of time, letting them know that this is perhaps not the wisest course.
One method to ensure you have enough paths the players can travel down is to ask yourself "how can I screw with their heads?" By doing that, you can transform apparent villains into secret allies, turn what looks like the wrong path into the right path and the like. But you have to understand the personalities in play around your table to be able to craft your story and your mindgames around them. Otherwise, it won't work. If the character is an orphan and doesn't care about her birth parents, confronting her with her birth parents isn't going to expand your game at all.
Don't find yourself limited to coming up with things that the PCs might interact with, either. If you develop a dozen plot threads, and the PCs only travel down one or two, that's not necessarily wasted work—you could weave those other threads in when the players take unexpected courses of action, or just save them for future campaigns.
So, ultimately, does the GM have to be the cleverest clever that ever clevered a clever? Certainly not! There are many ways to draw your players into your story, and to direct them, that don't require you to be smarter or more clever. But you do have to be observant, you do have to practice, and you do have to be creative, in order to GM well.
Observant because it serves you well in your storytelling, in your acting, in your worldbuilding and in your ability to manipulate. Storytelling, because you've observed the kinds of stories people enjoy, and you know what kind of stories you enjoy. Acting, because you've watched the way people move and speak, and can mimic them. Worldbuilding, because the details of your world will be crystal-clear and have a real feeling, because you have seen how things are in the real world. And in manipulating, because once you know a personality you can discern how to affect it.
Practice because, like anything, GMing is a skill that needs honing. And be prepared to learn the hard way—by going through it, with the people around your table. Be prepared to be criticized, and be prepared to take that criticism and grow from it. There's always more growth to have, more practice to be done, and more learning on the way.
Creative because, ultimately, this is a game of imagination. If you lack it, how can you excite it in others? This one comes last because, at the end of the day, this is the most important and the one that you cannot GM without. We are the creators—the storytellers, the world-builders, the rules-makers and the rules-followers. We take air, and we weave it into magic.
We've examined, now, the big roles a GM plays, and how to play those roles well. Next time, we'll learn the opposite lesson: what we, as GMs, should avoid. See you then!