This is the first article in our new series, The Blogger’s Guide to Being an Awesome GM. I’d recommend reading the introduction if you haven’t already. Look out for part two in the next few days!

A Gamesmaster’s Duty

Like I said in my introductory post, different roleplay groups want different things, and it’s the GM’s job to take that into consideration when running games. The golden rule is to make sure your players are enjoying themselves! Ask yourself if they’re having fun. If they are, you can ignore everything else you read here; everything is secondary to running  an enjoyable session. Of course, you might find that some of the things below will help you to put less effort into everyone having a good time, or they’ll make sure the fun is consistent and well-paced.

Again, at the risk of repeating myself, you’re not competing with the players. Oh, there are times when you’ll pull a devious trick and whip the rug out from under them, and of course you’re controlling every obstacle in their path, but everything you do should be for the good of the game, and the long-term enjoyment of everyone involved. After all, if everything was plain sailing, the players wouldn’t feel like they’d achieved anything. Conveniently, this brings us onto my second point!

What Makes Players Tick

Being a GM is a bit like being a businessman – everyone wants something, and if you don’t understand what that is, you’re doomed to failure! Okay, that might be a bit extreme, but I do think that it’s vital to consider the sort of things that motivate your players when you’re planning or running a game. Again, every person and every group is different, but here are a few broad categories to get you thinking:

  • Being part of a story. Players love being able to tell the tale of their character. Any GM who’s ever been a player in a roleplay session (which, let’s be honest, every GM should have been!) will know the thrill of taking Bob the rat-catcher and following his progress until he becomes the sort of hero that people sing songs about in taverns. Also, the overall plot of the game is a major draw for a lot of players. Running around stabbing bad guys is awesome and all, but if there’s a broader mission at stake, there’s an even greater (and more lasting) thrill.
  • Being surprised! This doesn’t mean you should start using out-of-the-blue “Tales of the Unexpected” style endings. (“The mission over, your weary adventurers return to the mayor to report their success… at which point the mayor turns out to have been a giant lizard all along!”) What this means is that the occasional twist can get a real reaction from your group, and it’s all the better if they figure it out for themselves. Do make sure it’s occasional, though, otherwise your games will be just like M. Night Shyamalan movies, with everyone trying to guess the twist and forgetting the plot.
    I can’t talk about this without wanting to recount my all-time proudest moment as a GM – but I’m going to hold off and put it up separately as a bonus article!
  • Accomplishment. It’s not just about “winning”, it’s about succeeding at something. Players get a feelgood vibe whenever they overcome an obstacle, stop a nefarious plot, or even just make a dice roll against slim-to-nothing odds. If players don’t feel like they’re accomplishing anything, they can get disheartened and stop caring.
  • Getting a chance to shine. All characters are different; that’s the joy of a roleplaying game! Whether your group is built around expected archetypes (Fighter, rogue, tank, healer) or is weird and wonderful, each character has his or her own strengths. Players get frustrated when they’ve spent hours designing and developing a cool character and don’t get a chance to use them in the way they were intended. If your group includes a talky / intellectual character, a bit like Simon in Firefly, Simon Pegg’s character in the recent Mission Impossible films, or even C-3PO in Star Wars, that player will have no fun at all if every session is one long hack-and-slash. Conversely, if your group has a Jayne, Ethan Hunt or Han Solo, don’t plan a diplomatic no-weapons-allowed plot arc in which there will be extended peace talks and strictly no fighting. Of course, this is a balancing act, and you shouldn’t worry about making every single session contain a bit of everything, but try to consider it when planning your major plot. (Of course, don’t be afraid to put characters in uncomfortable situations. Like that bit where Han had to use his nonexistent conversational skills to try and convince Death Star Security that everything was okay after a gunfight. Or where Simon had to step up and start shooting at people. Characters don’t grow if you don’t push them out of their comfort zone , and character growth is a great way of driving a good story!)
  • Affecting the world. Interactivity is key to player involvement and enjoyment. One of the things that bugged me when I tried playing World of Warcraft was the knowledge that, after I’d rescued Little Stevie from the forest trolls and claimed my XP for the quest, he’d be back out there, waiting for someone else to come and save him. This is a limitation of the medium, so I’m not criticising the game, but if you’re looking for an immersive experience look at something like Skyrim, where your actions can determine which areas of the map are held by different factions, and your progress through the game has visible repercussions. One of the greatest advantages tabletop roleplaying has over its computer-based equivalent is its adaptability, and you should revel in this! Did the players accidentally blow up a town? (It happens.) Put the prices up in the surrounding area as there’s suddenly a much higher demand for goods and services. Has one of the players done some great deed? Get him hassled in the streets by admirers and fans, or people looking for help. One of my favourite examples of this was pulled off by Andy, who’s been mentioned on this blog a couple of times; he was running a game set in the Fighting Fantasy universe (remember those old gamebooks?) and during the course of a campaign, Port Blacksand – a pivotal location – was effectively destroyed. Gone. No going back. Suddenly, things seemed very real indeed, and we all got immersed in what happened as a result!
  • (Feeling like they’re in) Control of their destiny. No one likes sitting on a predetermined path when they know they could be running free and causing trouble. A lot of novice GMs (and some more experienced ones…) railroad their players, writing a plot in advance that will be stuck to no matter what. Any attempts by the group to deviate from the set path is unsuccessful. This can be obvious (“You try to go that way, but the bridge has been swept away in a gale and there’s no way to cross the ravine”) or it can be oblique (You try to bribe guards for advice on about how to sneak into the fortress undetected – rather than making the full frontal assault that your GM has prepared – but are met with a suspicious lack of information.) Players should feel like they have several options open to them. They don’t need to feel that they’re entirely “off the rails”, so don’t panic that you have to create an open sandbox and let players do whatever the hell they want (more on that later), but they do need to have some choice. Of course, if you’re careful, you can make it feel like players have got free choice when you’re actually herding them towards an important scene, but be careful when you’re doing this, because if it’s done wrong your intentions can suddenly be really obvious, and players will feel like they’ve been tricked as well as railroaded. I’ll cover this in a bit more detail later.
  • Having fun! This goes back to the golden rule. No one takes part in a roleplay group unless they’re enjoying it, so make sure there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had. No matter how serious the game is, never penalise your players for seeing the humour in the darkest situation, even if it breaks the tone for a second. The best roleplay groups I know have dozens of running jokes or funny stories about situations their characters got into.

So that’s the first part of the series. Part two is going to cover “GM Theory”, and will talk about the different ways of planning and running a game session. Have you got any thoughts on what you’ve read, or anything you’d like to see covered in future posts? Get commenting!