The Secret to Being a Good GM
First, note that I am a HUGE believer in playstyle being variable. I don’t think there is one BEST way to do almost anything in gaming. I often get annoyed if people are being too silly when I want a serious story… but that doesn’t mean I am right and they are wrong. Similarly if a group wants to focus on tactical miniatures combat using RPG rules, that’s fine, as long as they are all having a good time.
But for me, and the styles I engage in the most, this is the thing that I have done as a GM, and that GMs of mine have done, that has generated the most total fun.
Ready for the secret?
“Create the environment to tell the PCs’ stories.”
That’s it. … And that is a lot.
Anything I do — building memorable NPCs, adding GMPCs, worldbuilding, props, funny voices, creating a meta-plot, creating random encounters–it’s all designed to create an environment where players can build the story of their characters.
Yes, I want to have fun doing that. But I am specifically trying to tell HALF a story. I don’t want to write how the villain falls. I want to write how he rises, grows, becomes a threat… the players will write his downfall.
To me, this idea has two main corollaries.
First: Build the details in the places the players show interest.
Yes, it can be annoying if I mention there are two people in a bar (a mysterious cloaked figure with a circle of runes floating around her head, and a dirty pig-farmer), and the players only show interest in the boring one I *didn’t* build an adventure around.
But that’s okay. All my ideas connected to the circle or runes are still available. I just get there a different way, or table them until later. If the players want to know what’s up with the pig farmer, then THAT is the story they want, and I’ll give it to them.
What IS a pig farmer doing in the same bar as women with magic halo crowns? How can he afford a drink? Why isn’t he tending his pigs?
The answers to those questions can form the same story, or a new one. I’m even okay railroading PCs… as long as I build the track through the scenery they want to see.
Second: Give PCs opportunities to change, and be changed.
Gaining a flaming sword? Kinda cool, especially for some players. Gaining the ability to make any sword you use flaming because you saved a fire elemental envoy from being killed by evil water wizards and were named a Knight of Emblazoned Honor, a peer fo the Plane of Fire?
Of course, the player can turn that down. Or then seek out other elemental titles. Or embrace the idea of fire being their birthright.
On a smaller (lower-level) scale, let players save the owner of a tavern, and get free drinks. Be befriended by an entirely mundane mockingbird. Have one horse hate them. As with all elements of telling their story put out feelers, and build on what the players enjoy.
Look at their character histories for hints on this. A summoner who doesn’t know why they can summon a chickenlike outsider? Give hints to multiple potential answers, and see which ones they build on. A fighter who carried their grandfathers sword from the Otyugh Wars? Leave hints their grandfather did more than they ever let on… and the sword may have a destiny as well.
While non-item rewards are part of this, so it just giving the players a sense that their characters impact the world in ways large and small, and the world can impact them as they interact with it.
Don’t force change. But make it available.
While, of course, trying to give players more of the things they seem to enjoy, and less of the things they don’t.
It’s the most complex simple thing in the world. 🙂
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The GM’s Day Story
I tell this story, as best I can remember it, nearly every GM’s Day.
I met Gary Gygax once, at a Gen Con in the late 1990s. He was running a D&D game in-or-near the TSR Castle. (For those who don’t know, TSR was a company that used to own D&D, and they used to have a big prop castle they set up as their booth at Gen Con. It was impressive as heck.)
I don’t know what edition the game was. It didn’t matter.
A crowd of us were watching a small group get to play with a titan of rpgs. Mr.Gygax was mesmerizing. I’m sure some part of that was me being googly-eyed over actually seeing one of the icons of my favorite hobby, in person. I twas like going to a concert, but the music was tales of vague shapes in the darkness and surprisingly tactile descriptions of damp soil and thing wisps of fog. He was evocative and earnest in a way that made this casual pastime seem extremely important. I don’t remember what anyone else playing looked like, but I remember that the imaginary setting Mr.Gygax described was night, at a camp in a clearing, with only one fire to provide light.
The details about the reality of that moment are vague, but I remember the fictional setting clearly. If his skills as a GM could have been packaged in every Red Box, video games never would have caught on.
Someone died (killed mysteriously in the darkness, having walked away from the campfire without a light). That player had to get up, and Mr.Gygax pointed at me and boomed “You want to play!?”
Of course I did.
A character sheet was slapped in front of me. My turn came soon enough. THINGS were circling our camp. And I felt possessive of it. It was OUR camp… even though I didn’t even know the names of any other player or their character. This place was ours, and we had to defend it. Fictional jingoism, I suppose.
I was a warrior of some type – I think a ranger, but I didn’t last long enough to get acquainted with my character. As my one action, I grabbed a burning log from our campfire and hurled it out at the multiple sets of red eyes stalking us. “Good!” Mr.Gygax shouted approvingly, and had me roll a d20. I have no idea what I rolled. Mr.Gygax had approved of my action. At that moment, my life was complete.
It wasn’t good enough to hit any of the red-eyed threats, but it was enough to illuminate them. Massive black wolves, snarling and, we realized talking.
“Kill that one!” Mr. Gygax had the biggest wolf growled to the pack.
And they did.
I lasted exactly one round.
Mr. Gygax smiled, told me I was dead, and I should let someone else play,
I got up, smiled back, and said “Thank you.”
I know my favorite hobby was built by many more people over many more moments that just Mr.Gygax or just that day. But he was a big part of it, too. I like to believe he understood I didn’t just mean “Thank you for this one game, this one time.”
I meant “Thank you for ALL the games, forever.”