Sunday, December 2, 2012

GameMastery 101: Part 1 - Types of GMs.

Getting Started.
You’ve gone through all of the preliminaries.  Everything is ready.

You’re stoked.

You have your dice shined and polished.  Your books are stacked.  Character sheets are still cooling after being ejected from the printer.  Maybe you have a twelve pack of Mountain Dew, Coke, or even some beer chillin and ready.

Your players show up, ready for a game… and they stare at you.  And stare.  And stare… and stare…

And it sinks in slowly.  You’ve never done this before.  You’ve never run a game.  You’ve played them, sure, and it looked sooooooooooo easy to just get up there, flip open a book, and try to murder your friends with dice.

But it’s not that easy, is it?  It’s not that easy when you’re staring down the hollow eyes of five disappointed friends who trust in you, who have faith in you, who have a firm belief that you, and you alone, can transport them on the shoulders of your imagination to a world they’ve always wanted to visit and then horribly mangle.

So what’s a wannabe GM to do?  It’s not like Yale offers a course on gamemastery.   The first thing you’ll want to do is try to figure out what gamemastering style you work best with.

Style #1: Hardline.

First you have Hardline.  Why do I call it Hardline?  Because it sounds cooler than “Nazi-style GM.”  Plus, uh, apparently Nazi has some connotations.  But I digress.

Hardline GMs tend to be very rigid and structured.  You like your shit locked down.  You like deep notes.  You like stats on every single NPC that you are going to use.  If you have a rat that’s going to run through the gutter when a PC steps out of a Taxi on a rainy Seattle day in ShadowRun, then BY GUM you want those stats!  In fact, that’s not deep enough!  You want a background!  You want to know what motivates this rat, and why he chose this particular shoe to run across.  You know where he came from (working out at the YRCA), you know where he’s going (first to the Circle-K, then home to see his lovely lady wiferat who he hopes didn’t find his kitty-fetishist porn stack hidden under the bedding like she did last month, one of the reasons why he’s running instead of just ambling casually), you know when he last ate (32.5 minutes ago, stale Domino’s crust) and how the meal is sitting with him (badly.)

Being a Hardline GM can be marvelously rewarding to both players and yourself.  Because you put so much work into the world, because it is so structured and real in your own head, you have a much easier time with imparting your vision to the players, of drawing them into your world as well.  Through your investment, the game takes on a very real aspect, and your players will most likely appreciate this.

It’s not all a cakewalk, though.  Being Hardline can very easily lead to being a ScreenHitler and railroading your games towards a specified end that you desire.  Is this the way to do it?  Honestly, it just might be.  It all depends on if your players enjoy that, which is something we’ll touch on later.
Hardline GMs tend to be extremely strict with rules.  If the GM’s manual doesn’t explicitly state that you get a combat bonus for ambushing your target by leaping from a 10 foot ledge and landing on his head with a battleaxe, then by golly you aren’t going to get combat bonuses!  But you will most likely take that falling damage, thankyouverymuch.

Hardline GMs also tend towards a structured play environment, to keep the world continuously feeling the same in a physical aspect to the players.  Playing in the same room, with the same maps on the walls, with the same stale, half-empty cans of Mountain Dew that Steve ALWAYS leaves on the freakin windowsill can be a great help to a player settling back into a role week after week.  You want your game to run like clockwork.  Every Tuesday at 4 pm, running until 10 pm, or the like.

The Hardline GM style could very easily be attributed to a Lawful perspective.  You follow the letter of the laws laid down in the manuals, and you follow every single letter to the grave.

Style #2: Revolutionary

On the opposite perspective is your Revolutionary (or Chaotic) GM.  Revolutionary GMs tend not to believe in things like, like… books… man.  They play the game because of the spirit of the, like, game, and those McCarthy-era rules and strictures don’t have any place in this world, man!  Revolutionary GMs tend to show up to game without such things as notes… or sometimes books… or even dice.

The Revolutionary GM commonly doesn’t give a crap about having all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted.  They’ll cross and dot as those letters present themselves.  Revolutionary GMs tend to read through the game world books repeatedly out of sheer love, where Hardline GMs do it out of a deep need to know every last modifier and oddball rule.  This pure love for the spirit of the game is a double-edged sword, though.  Revolutionary GMs tend to have very vibrant games that hinge heavily on the desires of the players instead of a pre-fabricated plotline and designated end point.  They’ll introduce subplots left and right, chase a few of them, and leave the others to wander aimlessly in a game-less universe in which they are suddenly free.  If a particular subplot interests the majority of the players, they’ll go after it, if not, then off it goes to la-la land until it becomes convenient to reintroduce, if it ever does.  The converse of this is that, due to the Revolutionary GM’s lack of note-taking ability or preparation, games can be rather erratic in playstyle.  A Prime-NPC (one that reoccurs through the storyline) that you fought 3 sessions ago may use entirely different tactics and abilities, instead of remaining constant.  An entire village may disappear from the shores of the sacred River of Black Thorns because you didn’t write it down.

Revolutionary GMs tend to play hard and fast with the rules.  If the player takes the time to climb up to a 10 foot ledge to ambush someone from behind and above with a battleaxe, then the Revolutionary GM will most likely figure out some delicate scientific equation (read: pulling it out of your butt) and give the player a combat modifier which is fitting.

Revolutionary GMs have a massive benefit over the Hardline types in that they tend to be ready to run anywhere and anywhen at the drop of a hat.  They don’t need notes, because they don’t use them.  They have some (or sometimes even most) of the important details stuffed into their cranium, and they can spin a story purely off of that.  A large note of caution to any wannabe Revolutionary GMs is to not let the players closest to you have a ludicrously higher amount of playtime than those who are not.  If you’re running a 5 player game, and 2 of them live with you as roommates, you could easily have ‘mini games’ with those two players every night.  This would be marvelous for them, but very, very crappy for the rest of the players.  The players who are not involved in those ’sub sessions’ will quickly lose track of what’s going on in the game as it continues to grow more and more focused on that fraction of the group that you dedicate more time to.  Another warning, if you do run ’sub sessions,’ is to do them no more than one sub session for every two real sessions.  Even though the plotline continues to spin and unfold in your lovely little skull between games, if you run too much, you’ll find yourself quickly burning out on the game and concept.

How do I know these things?  I’ve been both.  The earlier part of my career as a GM held me as a Hardline, but later on I “evolved” into a Revolutionary.  Why the quotes?  Because the word evolution typically denotes that the after-change state is better than the pre-change state.  That’s simply not true.  Both styles have wonderful advantages.  Knowing which you need to be is important.

Style #3: Common Sense GM

Or you could ignore all of that, and do your best to be a Common Sensist GM.  To save my fingers, we’re going to abbreviate that to CSGM.  A CSGM walks the line between the two, creating a super-fueled Hybrid of both styles, taking the best from both and leaving the worst.  You know, like a half-drow, half-orc ninja/ranger/sorcerer/priest who grew up in the Orient learning the sacred secrets of lovemaking from the famed Pink Lotus Geisha.

CSGM style tends to be -very- difficult for beginners.  Why?  Because beginner GMs usually have a poor grasp of exactly which rules can be fudged (combat modifiers) and which ones can not (stat or skill gains) without major game repercussions.  In order to grasp what can and can not be changed without mucking about with basic concepts, you need to first have a deep understanding of not only the game you’re running, but game mastery in general.  Does this mean you shouldn’t try?  No.  By all means, do go ahead, it’s the best way to discover which kind of GM you are, but do warn your players first.  Tell them straight up that you’re experimenting with some new concepts and ideas, and that it may jam up the game from time to time if you get stymied at how to cross a T which is suddenly leaning heavily to the left, or how to dot an I that is now inverted entirely.  Gaming Science at it’s finest.

The most important thing to understand about being a beginner GM is that you will make horrible mistakes.  Your buddy Brad will convince you that there’s really nothing too powerful about playing a drow elf.  Sweet Michelle will help you understand why a plasma pistol isn’t really -that- overpowered… I mean everyone else is running around with laser guns anyway, she just wants to be beautiful and different.  You will, at some point, most likely give someone a baby dragon as a familiar.  Don’t sweat it.  Drow elves can be killed.  Plasma pistols can be stolen.  Baby dragon familiars can grow up and decide the PC would make a better snack than they make a master mage.

The Dreaded TPK.

You will most likely experience a TPK.  A Total Party Kill.  This event will (or at least should) change you.  You’ll feel a brief rush of exhilaration as you realize that you actually won.  That the player’s didn’t win.  And then you’ll look around the table at the crushed and hollow eyes of your forlorn players, who stare alternately at you and at the crumpled remains of Tristian The Fearless Doombringer’s character sheet.  You’ll see the pleading eyes, the quivering lips, and you’ll realize what a shitty job you just did at GM’ing.  You may decide that it’s not for you.  You may decide that you need to take a long break.  You may feel your own eyes begin to water, your own lip begin to quiver.

You’ll need to man up at that point.  TPKs happen.  They happen to the best GMs and the worst GMs.  The worst GMs are the ones who cackle madly at the victory and then never run again, stopping while they’re ahead.  Maybe the GM in question pulls a TPK and then grows depressed and despondent, vowing never to wield such terrible and awesome powers for evil again.

The best GMs are the one who realize that every end is just another beginning.  Experience a TPK?  Have a nearby king/diplomat/archaeologist/historian hire a new party to go find out what happened.  Not up for the whole “Mr. Johnson hiring a party” scenario?  Have your players write up peasants, or young people, or refugees from a war-torn nation nearby that stumble over the remains of the old party.

Or just ditch the whole thing entirely, and go start another game with the same players.  No matter what it is you decide to do, you have to do something.  You can’t just wallow in grief/victory and let your players rot.

Few players have the skills to be a GM.  Fewer still have the balls to stand up and do it.  Of that small percentage, only a fraction has the raw talent to be an excellent GM right from the start.  I should know, I sucked when I started.  I experienced TPKs.  I experienced the dreaded Walk Out, where your players just decide to screw the game and go to a movie.  I’ve been told, to my face, that I suck and I’m the most horrible GM ever, and that I’m the only reason the person who told me this no longer roleplays.  (The exact moment of ‘breaking’ came when he stood below a helicopter, killed the pilot by shooting through the copter’s floor, and then didn’t move.  Then he got horribly angry that I had the temerity to land the damn copter right on him, because, you know, physics?  Anyway, I digress.)
That’s not the same story now.  I persevered.  I scratched and clawed and crawled and limped and then walked along the trail to becoming a “Good GM.”  Now I stand here, moving easily at a swift trot, making sure not to outdistance the players, but still keeping them seeking the same goal I am:  An incredibly enjoyable gaming experience.

This is your duty.  You are part of the few who are brave enough to take the blame, to take the burden, to provide for your friends in a way nothing else can.
You are a GM.  Congratulations.  Just don’t give up, and you’ll see it gets better.
At the end… there’s cake.

In this case: Not a Lie.

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