The Unsubtle Art of GMing

Today, I’m going to dip back into GM advice, because occasionally I get reminded that the world needs a lot more GMs who are skilled, willing, and aware that the game is a shared story, not a case of GM vs players.

First and foremost is the matter of willingness, which is what stops a lot of potential GMs in the first place, more than skill ever will. Some people have legitimate excuses not to sit down behind the screen, but many more just think that being back there is too complex and complicated for them to be able to swing it. In truth, being a GM isn’t that more complicated than having a thoroughly developed PC – yes, you have to be responsible for a lot more characters and an entire world, but that same breadth means you don’t need to invest the same degree of depth into each piece.

Unless your players latch onto the character, there’s no need to detail the three goblins they’re facing off against, beyond knowing that one will run if it gets reduced to 5 HP while the other two will fight to the death because they’re afraid of the Boss. And you don’t need to know the full backstory of their Boss – just that she had a bad experience with an intolerant wannabe-paladin of the sun god and hates the faith of the sun god as a result.

You don’t need to know anything about the goblin tribe, unless you intend for it to be relevant to the plot. If the Stickleback Goblins are only involved because they’re convenient, and the PCs will get to forget them as soon as the plot moves on, just note the name down and keep going. (You note the name down because in six months they’ll ask about it.)

You don’t even really need to know much more about what you’re doing than what your villain’s endgame is, what they’re doing while the PCs are doing the thing they’re currently up to, and at the end of the session, what the players want to do next. That’s it. Build the following session from their response and the Big Bad’s plan. Your early efforts will be hack work, and it’ll show, but as long as the players have a good time (that includes you, the GM), it’s fine. Finesse and skill come from practicing the craft of being a GM; keep it up and occasionally ask for feedback and you’ll get there.

And always remember that while you’re the GM, you’re only one part of the table. Make sure each player’s character and interests are woven into what you present at the table. Trying to run a game as if you’re showing off your masterwork creation won’t work – it barely works when you have a table full of people who’ve all agreed to play an official campaign as written by the company behind the game system, much less if it’s your homebrewed campaign. Be flexible, be open to players getting to influence the story, and have the courage to let the players try weird ideas and see where they lead.

Because a good GM gets far more use from phrases like “Yes, you can do that, and this is what results,” and “No, you can’t do that, but here’s what you can do that’s got a similar feel of cool to it.” I promise y’all, if you sit behind the screen and put in the effort to let the others at your table feel like they matter in the game world, you’ll be rewarded with a solid and memorable game.

And really, isn’t a good time what we’re all here for?

The Unsubtle Art of GMing

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