Friday, April 23, 2021

Some Advice You Probably Haven't Heard About Being a Game Master

A relatively new D&D player decided to ask for some advice on running the game on Twitter. And, as I have been looking for a smarter topic than reviews with which to engage you all, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. He was getting all the usual good (& awful) advice from the rest of the Peanut Gallery, so I thought I would answer him with advice he probably wouldn't hear, and then tease it out on the

So here is some advice that you probably won't hear about being a Dungeon Master, but should.

Treat Roleplaying Games as a Social Event First

If you are running a TTRPG, then you are the host of a social gathering, as well as being its moderator, and an entertainer. The more socially adroit you are, the better a game you will be able to run. 

Four social skills in particular that are valuable to DMing are particularly valuable to focus on are:

  • Reading the room. 
  • Building rapport. 
  • Seeking (and Gracefully Accepting ) Feedback 
  • Overcoming Anxiety. 

Reading the Room lets you get a feel for when a change of scene, theme, or pace is necessary to keep your players engaged and happy. I will break this down in a future article, but there is some behavior and body language that you can use as cues as to when you need an adjustment. 

  • Building Dice Towers: give this players character something to do. 
  • Thumbing Through the Books: unless they are planning their next move in an action sequence, they are waiting for a different kind of scene. 
  • Leaning back with Arms Folded: something: a ruling or player interaction has jarred this player out of enjoying the game. Take a break, ask if you are not sure what happened, and try to shift gears. 
  • Doodling: depends on the player. Some players doodle to help bleed off energy and stay focused (this is fine), others are bored, and need a bigger, more intense challenge. 
  • Knitting, Beading, Making Chainmail, etc.: another attention booster, if they are looking up often and occasionally putting their project, you have their attention. If they have their nose in it, it is time to bring their character into some kind of action. 
  • Slouching and Unfocused (table) or Slumped (couch): Extreme boredom. Take a break for washroom, make coffee, plan an exciting change. 
  • Staring at a Tablet or Phone: If they are thumbing through .pdf books, see above. If they are surfing, you have lost them. Your game needs a break or a total change of scene. 

Building Rapport is about creating trust and comfort with your players. The best rapport comes from  

Seeking (and Accepting) Feedback. No one grows as a host or entertainer without some feedback. While people coming back for more is a good indicator that you are doing alright, it really helps to ask two questions at the end of a session. The first is "Did everyone have fun?" the second is a question about one thing you were working on. For example:

  • Was the adventure too fast or too slow? 
  • Did you like the treasure your party found? 
  • Were my NPCs interesting? 

Where necessary followed up with "How could I do better?" and honestly listening to the answers, sitting on them, then asking if they were fair, and if so, how to use them to improve the next session. 

Overcoming Anxiety is a matter of good self-talk, feeling prepared, having good rapport, and reminding yourself that everyone there wants to have a good time and will work with you to make that happen. If you consistently get jitters before you play, there are tools you can use to overcome them. 

It helps to keep in mind that all social skills, including Charisma, poise, empathy, and comfidence, are all learnable and teachable skills. I highly recommend anyone who struggles with any of these skills, or with leadership at the table consider joining Toastmasters as an affordable and open way of getting support and mentoring. Competent life coaches are another option if you are really struggling. 

Burn Your Script

The fun of Roleplaying Games are that they are open-ended VR experiences. Players can do anything they can conceive of within the constraints of the setting. They are free to be heroes or villains, to heed a call to adventure or make their own. The more players make their own story, the more satisfied they will be. 

An Adventure, whether you have home brewed it, randomly generated it, or are using a module serves only one purpose: give your players a suggestion about what to do next. Your campaign fronts ("plot") are the same way. It gives villains, disasters, and rising threats to respond to or ignore as they see fit. 

When players decide to go off script and do something completely unexpected, they are showing you that they are interested in your world, even if you have not dangled a carrot that they want to bite immediately. And they are showing you that they trust your ability to provide them with a fun experience even without a script. 

Once you understand this, you realize that it doesn't pay to plan too much in advance, and that you should treat modules at best as a simple outline. If you have a big and complex outline for your campaign, be ready to gladly burn it the moment the players have other ideas. And be sure to have the tools and resources to make this easy on yourself. 

Keep Something Weird in Your Back Pocket

It pays to have a handful of cool encounters, short adventures, and wild ideas in your back pocket to break out when your players run off without warning. When your players wander off the beaten path, reward them with a discovery they won't forget. 

This is a great reason to know the five room dungeon structure inside-out, and to know how to make good use of one-page dungeons. I actually keep some one page dungeons from the One-Page Dungeon Contest, Paths Peculiar, and Trilemma Adventures on my 'phone so that I can run something in a moment' s notice. 

Embrace Chaos, Embrace Fun

A lot of modern GMing advice frowns on leaving play to chance, much of the randomized elements of play have been stripped out of modern games like Dungeons & Dragons 5e or Pathfinder in favor of GM fiat. This puts a heavy cognitive load on the GM, as it forces the GM to do a lot more role-play than necessary. 

Moreover, it removes surprise from the game for the GM. They are making all of the choices as to how the NPCs will act. Nothing is unexpected except player choices. 

Randomized systems like morale, reaction rolls & wandering monsters take a lot of the load off of the GM. More importantly, while they have a rough idea of the scenario, how at least the initial encounters go is a surprise to the GM. This lets the GM have an adventure of their own: swiftly adapting to shifting conditions determined by the dice. It will make the game more fun. 

To Be Good at Dungeons & Dragons, Play Shadowrun 

Well, not necessarily Shadowrun (although SR4e was awesome ), but it certainly helps to choose a few different TTRPGS to play and run other than your go-to game. Firstly, because if you have only played one TTRPG, you haven't had a chance to see what you like and don't like in Roleplaying experiences. Trying a few different systems can vastly expand your ideas about how a game can be run and structured. And, if you have found something you like, then you can steal it and put it back into your go-to game System. Importing new rules into a game thay you like is pretty simple. I already have a short series 1, 2, 3) on the art of hacking the rules, if you don't know where to start. 

Play to Remember What Players Like

Odds are, if you are a halfway decent GM, you are going to be doing it more often than playing. Many GMs get caught in the Forever GM role... And a good number of them absolutely prefer running to playing. After awhile, however, you can forget what makes being a player fun. Your adventure designs can drift slowly away from fun. I know my games became more fun after I started playing in Stephen Smith's World of Weirth playtest campaign

Don't Buy Every Book

I get the desire to be a completionist and get everything for the system of your choice, or every album from your favorite band. But, having grown up in the boondocks it was never an option for me to collect much of anything. If I wanted a game book, I had to mow a half-dozen lawns, then plead with my dad to drive me an hour into the city to hit a crowded mall on a weekend. It forced me be painfully selective about my games as a kid. I had to  be ruthless in asking myself if "this one" was content I wanted and if my game would be better for it. 

Most of of the games out there have a habit of bloating with sourcebook after sourcebook, adding new content and especially player options. Players have a predictable habit of looking at new material and seeing something they desperately want, and will push hard to have included in the game. In the early 90s we called it the "New and Better Syndrome." And it was infectious. Once a GM adds a single option from a new book, they tend to feel obliged- (and players will apply pressure-) to include all options from that book.

Some games were particularly prone to this kind of bloat, such as RIFTS and Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e. And a campaign could become unweildly, and require you to carry a 25lbs backpack full of books around to run your game (or was that just me?) I also once had a PC in one of my campaigns who required six Sourcebooks to find all of the material for his build. 

Bloat is not your friend, and New and Better Syndrome will totally shift the balance of power in your game, slow it down, and change the mentality of your players from playing a role to building perfect combat monsters. 

Don't let you game be infected! Before you buy a book look at it carefully to make sure it includes content that will really enhance your current campaign. Once it is on your shelf, it is fair game as far as the average player is concerned. When you are asked to include Sourcebook material, negotiate exactly what material is permitted from the book ahead of time. 

Have Minis, and Don't Use Them

I don't like playing with minis or using complex VTT setups. I couldn't get minis as a kid, and I am glad that I learned to play using the Theater of the Mind, because it really honed my descriptions and my adventure design. And I was, for a long time, very proud of that fact. 

In the early noughties when D&D minis were easily bought even at Chapters, I grabbed a couple of boxes to help my wife figure out attacks of opportunity for a complex melee character. And playing with them taught me new skills and habits that helped me even when I gave away my minis to a nephew and returned to Theater of the Mind.

Now that I am teaching my son how to play RPGs, I use a mix of games, some of which, like Hero Kids are very reliant on battle maps and paper minis. And my kid is gaga over my home made standees and Ultimate Dungeon Terrain. (A shout out here to The Dozen Dooms for having great papercraft tips that not even Hankerin over at ICRPG had.) 

Both playstyles have skills to teach, and are worth your time. Especially as papercraft mini resources are plentiful these days. 

Shun the Dice

Lots of players and GMs love their dice, and find rolling fistfuls of them extremely satisfying. Modern TTRPGs are often designed to require a lot more rolling that the Old-School games I have gone back to because - in the moment - it feels more fun and is a bit addictive to roll the bones. But it is a trap. 

The more you roll dice, the more your players start looking for mechanical solutions to their problems on the character sheets, rather than coming up with clever narrative solutions. They will tend to rush into combat, rather than look for ways to set up ambushes, stack advantages, or resolve things peacefully. As a result, the sense of risk, and the sense of reward, will diminish in your game. 

Instead, reward players by letting them succeed automatically if they describe their actions. The PC who describes rifling through drawers and knocking on the bottoms should never have to make a roll to find the treasure hidden in the dresser. The player that describes exactly how they jam a wedge under both sides of a pressure plate needn't make a disarm traps roll... Or should get a massive bonus at the very least. 

In the short term, you might get less of the casinoesque thrill of rolling the dice, but in the long run, the players will have a far more rewarding and creative experience. 

Kill Characters That Players Love

In any game with intense action sequences, there needs to have high stakes. Players need to believe that their characters can die, go insane, or at least have bits carved off of them. The first time a PC escapes certain doom unscathed thanks to plot armor, your campaign loses all sense of danger. No matter how much dread your adventures are meant to inspire, the players will never fear for their PCs.

If you let a PC die when the dice determine it, then you are ensuring that they will fear for their characters. It will change the way they play, and make them immerse themselves more in the role of their PC. 

Of course, you can be kind by adding alternatives to death: there are plenty of excellent Injury and Dismemberment tables and rules that can be added to your game to give them a chance to survive what ought to be character death instead changed.

If you are running a game where PCs have connections to NPCs, such as if they have beloved hirelings or are running a Dominion, sometimes the price of failure is not the PC's own life, but the life and limb of someone that the PCs care about and were meant to keep safe. In games with scalability issues like the level system in Dungeons & Dragons, the death of weaker innocents are often a more frightening threat than attacks against powerful PCs. 

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