GM: The Core Principles

Two themes “out there” this week caught my eye, mostly because they blend together quite well, but then the rallying of quite a few other blogs around the call to Build a Better GM effectively made up my mind about what I would write about this week: the core principles of being a GM

The initial attractors for this were a few semi-related questions I saw on RPG Stack Exchange, and my nascent thoughts on these were brought nearer to realization by a post on the Rhetorical Gamer about a post he’d seen on The Hill Cantons, which was actually in response to a post from Dreams in the Lich House, which was more or less a response to the Tao of D&D’s reaction to something said in an interview posted on The Hill Cantons. I am glad to know that reading the Rhetorical Gamer can save me a lot of steps – particularly the circular ones.

[Before you ask, no – I am not a D&D player and switched to other games in the 80’s after nearly a decade of growing annoyance. I have never gone back, do not see the need to go back, and feel no pull of nostalgia for the system, but am 100% grateful to have been introduced to it, and completely glad I started with it, so that from it I could learn what it takes to really run a game. Moving on.]

There is just as much ground to cover in zones where the three topics which intrigued me do not overlap as where they do, however, I feel it is worth taking a look at Running NPCs, Improvising, and Better GMing all together…. but separately. This coincidentally rubs shoulders with the format for the first part of the challenge posted on the Hill Cantons, but I suspect this post and that challenge are little more than nodding acquaintances.

It’s not What you know it’s Who you know

I feel a good indicator of a good GM in action is the use of NPCs which are both memorable and distinguishable. I do not care how these NPCs are presented in the game, but I do care about whether or not my recollection of the session has the sense that there were other people in the world other than my character and his cohorts. An NPC is a character first and foremost, and even if a GM is not the sort to don iconographic paraphernalia, or use accents and special voices, it is important to walk away from encounters with the sense that other people were present and reacting to events in their own ways.

It is a lot of work to create and run NPCs, and having multiple people to represent in a scene can be both daunting and difficult, but finding the best route to accomplishing it for you and your gamers is something which needs to be tackled early on. Life is mostly a series of repetitious incidents which build habits. If you build the habit of skimping on NPC realism and realization early on, it will be a mark of your style for as long as you run games – or until you exert much more effort to overcome it.

Most GMs in my experience devote a disproportionate amount of energy to the setting, which I tend to view as the most prominent NPC in the game. I feel each room, each hall, each vista overlooking the wider world beyond needs its own sense of character and its own impact – but – as it will be in every scene, it should not be the only thing that the players take away from a session. If this imbalance persists, the result is a shared experience of a world without people. Blissful for some, but not exactly a complete and immersive experience.

Unlike the players, the GM rarely has the luxury of presenting a single persona, and often has to represent more than one side of a conflict, multiple cultures, species, and genders in a single evening, or even a single scene. There are some out there who can handle acting in these disparate voices all at once as though they each were solo characters, but I feel the majority of GMs really cannot, and often cannot afford that degree of focus. Learning how to say and be more with less, is often a better use of time and energy behind the screen, and translates fully to other aspects of the GM’s role.   It is a question of efficiency, the surrender of the need to have the only imagination in the room, and the open door that lets your players enter and access the world you are going to inhabit for a while.

A key for me is to create triggers in the players which spark recognition of characters and character types so that they can trust their instincts when interacting with them, and leave every encounter with a clear sense of the person that they met. I don’t care much if they walk away from a session remembering an NPC’s name, but I do care very much that they leave every session with a mental image of what kind of person they met and a distinct recollection for what they did and/or discussed together. This may mean my full adoption of an NPC’s persona in one scene, the use of snippets of dialogue in different tones from different postures with different body language in another, or the choice to resort to pure narrative in still another – depending on what I need to express, what pace needs to be maintained, and what the players need to experience.

For a good example of a living and breathing world full of interesting NPCs tightly connected to PCs and realized very distinctly, check out this Pathfinder Campaign at Geek Related. I can only hope my own Mechwarrior Campaign will develop into such a strong cast.

Core Principle #1: Fully Realize the World and People Within It

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance…

It is pretty much a Natural Law that players will interpret a scenario differently than expected, and that this will occur with varying degrees of regularity even when a GM knows the players well. With this being the case, expecting to follow a prepared series of events without improvisation at some point is little more than wishful thinking.

Not everyone excels at creativity on the fly, but if there is one core skill that GMs need to expand their facility with, it has to be improvisation. No matter what style of game you run, sooner or later you will need to stretch, condense, reorganize, explain, enhance, or downplay a given scene to achieve a specific goal in a session. Improvisational skill is what keeps these sorts of changes from being noticeable and awkward, and most importantly it is what allows you to ensure the game is directly connecting with the characters your players are representing. Even in games of a very classic nature where the characters are nothing more than physical stats the players’ own personalities can inhabit, connection with them and the effect they are having on the game world is essential.

If you are not the type to feel comfortable with improvisation, that there will be many instances in the run of a normal game where scripted adventures, or adventures you have laboriously created yourself, will leave you stranded in the land of unforeseen circumstances and the only way out will be to make crap up then and there, is something with which to reckon. It strikes me that rather than giving up, finding a method to lessen your discomfort and enhance your improvisational skills will increase everyone’s enjoyment and spill over into other areas of your life.

When we were very young, freeform imagination of interactions and reactions was ostensibly easier than at any other stage of life. Some of us get into more formalized improvisation, or rather, start maintaining that ability at an early enough age that it doesn’t feel awkward to throw out conditions, circumstances, or consequences at a second’s notice and let them stand as ‘real.’ Trusting yourself to imagine on demand with both flare and comprehensiveness, is not easy for everyone, and I have often been surprised at the types of people – especially outgoing and creative people – for whom this has been a problem.

I wish I could submit a tip to aid the recovery and retention of this key skill, but sadly all I can say is that enjoyable practice and enthusiastic effort are all that I can see that can be done. Fortunately, these two things work effectively – if you do.  One suggestion which I gave to a friend which I, as his player, eventually profited from, was to stop a film he was watching and force himself to imagine the rest of it, complete with memorable moments, twists, and climax – within a time limit, and compare his approach to that which the film actually ended up taking. Formal study of beats, plotting styles and structures, and rote learning of successful formulas may work for some, but I find any process which adds a layer over top of what you are trying to do, ends up with the student trying to remember how to do the method while also having to focus on performing the skill. To my mind, that is not a great recipe for success. I vastly prefer controlled practice.

Using martial arts as a metaphor for this: learning forms will build wonderful technique, but will not in and of itself produce a real-world skill. I can produce a better fighter faster (if this is my goal) by controlled practice of specific, limited attack and defense skills with a partner.  If I were to train a complete fighter, I would of course use a different method, but that is a level which far exceeds ‘hobby’ and ‘entertainment,’ and definitely demands a high degree of return on the high amount of effort invested. Returning to the gaming table, I will not help someone feel more confident with improvisation by loading them down with theory and methods, I will instead play short, fun, improv-based games with them and escalate the challenge as they get better and more relaxed.

In the end, for a great game Improvisation is the Holy Grail, and to reach it will – for many, if not most – require a leap of faith.

An excellent summary of tips and approaches to winging your session can be found in this post from the Black Campbell. It makes both a good reminder, and an excellent starting point.

Core Principle #2: Improvise

Whatever good things we build end up building us.

Like a few others out there, I felt a dash of surprise when reading the intimation that there is ‘little written on being a better GM’ in the broad and varied collection of RPG blogs available. In my experience, you can’t swing a dead Halfling without knocking over a post giving GM advice. Perhaps we read in different circles. That said, it is perhaps also true that with the different waves of gamers coming online, restarting or just starting their gaming lives, and with the explosion of different approaches to play, there is perhaps a constant demand to have these sorts of posts out there to be found.

For me, the final element in being a good GM is a balance of consistency in ruling, clarity of vision, and concreteness of purpose. There are a million ways to kill a game, but some of the best ones are:

  • playing favorites with game elements or specific players (lacking consistency and fairness)
  • a muddled or poorly communicated story for the game (lacking clarity in the revelation of and interaction within the campaign)
  • a weak or varying sense of the purpose of gaming together in general and for this story in particular (lacking concrete goals and expectations for the game and its players)

“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

-Mary Shelley, The Modern Prometheus

Any GM worth their salt in my eyes should be trying to get better at what they do best, and improve at what they do worst. A special bonus would be to expand their voice into other realms of imagination, but that is hardly required. A GM’s task is nothing short of the creation of a world and all that is within it – even if they are choosing to bring a published world to life – they are responsible for the life breathed into that world as a vital part of the creative force. Without the GM, nothing lives.

In this sort of endeavor, there are bound to be a few mistakes. What should not be mistaken, however are the players’ sense that rules will be adjudicated fairly and provide risk and reward for all, that the game world itself will not change its nature to suit its creator’s mood or relationship status, and that if they invest themselves in creating characters to undertake the dangerous journeys awaiting them, the group as a whole will be transported through the shared experience of the game, to a memorable climax of Gygaxian proportions, which when complete gives their struggles shape and meaning.

If there is one thing I have found to be true about all gamers everywhere, it is the stories told of past adventures. The love of the story keeps us returning to the dice and table again and again, and that same love finds us telling and retelling our imagined accomplishments (with and without embellishment, memory loss, and sprayed Doritos fragments) in coffee shops, game stores, college dorm rooms, and internet fora. People love to be a part of a good story, and for practically all of us, I think, a good story has an evocative beginning, a perilous middle, and a satisfying end. The details of what makes something evocative, perilous, and satisfying will change from person to person and tale to tale, but that there be shape to the story seems a basic requirement disliked by few to none.

To accomplish this basic requirement a good GM has to be more than just conversant with the rules, and must be willing and able to hold themselves above the pettiness of mood, favoritism, and whim to deliver a consistent play experience where competent players can trust and build on their competence to become even better players in a world that increasingly becomes familiar and ever more their own. They need to be willing to breathe life into those rules by giving the story a theme and direction, and thereby granting the characters within it purpose. Ultimately, they need to be open to the players, open to the genre, open to the tides and sparks of instinct and creativity within themselves, and willing to do the work to shape all of that into something which when it is underway, and especially when it is complete has the players up late sharing its high and low points again and again… and again.

Core Principle #3: Hone your skills

4 Responses to “GM: The Core Principles”
  1. Hungry says:

    Thanks for the link and the great write-up on your take of the discussion. You made some great points in there. Wish I had thought of some of that stuff. 🙂

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for dropping by and reading~
      I think the point you made in your post on the GM Merit Badges idea about ‘trying to do what is best for the game’ is a very significant one, and is the feeling I think which gets me writing posts about my epic struggles with Pulp Action games~ 😉

  2. morrisonmp says:

    Great response. Obviously it seems that we are fairly close in our approach to GMing and I appreciated (once again) the extra layers reading your writing adds to my own thinking.

    Thanks for the link and the kind words as well.

    PS — I also agree with the statements about the GM merit badges idea.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Yes, I think he struck an important chord with the idea of being true to the game. If genre is nothing more than a skin laid over a rules set, while the stories never shift focus, theme, requirements, or goals… I guess we would truly be living in the end times.

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