I’ve seen Master storytellers; Gamemasters who could enthrall groups of players with the most amazing stories, the most perilous adventures and the most delightful characters. I’ve seen game masters who spend hours away from the gaming table crafting entire complex worlds full of wonder, excitement and bristling with daring deeds to be done. I’ve also seen uninspired plotting through rote pre-scripted adventures that the Gamemaster had not bothered to read in advance, and had no particular interest in.
But great Gamemastering is a very subjective thing. Each gaming group is a universe unto itself. As the “Lord High God” of the firmament of any particular universe it may seem a near impossible task to be the kind of Gamemaster that people rave about.
The reality is much more mundane, and your ability to entertain a group (and help them entertain themselves) is often built around a simpler skill set than you might imagine.
1. Because It’s All About the Mix
The whole process starts with the same basic skills you use every day in work and play; the ability to connect with basically like-minded people, share ideas and passions clearly, be able to disagree respectfully, find common ground, and know when it is best to “agree to disagree” or go your separate ways.
All of these skills come into play from the first time you join a group as a player, but they become even more important when you are the GM because you are seen as the person who assembles the group. It takes time, and trial and error, to begin to develop the skill of finding who fits best in a group – not just with your style of playing, but also with the entire group dynamic. Mistakes can range from a person who doesn’t seem to join in or take any interest, to full-out disruptive players.
Being a good GM means having the communication skills necessary to weed out the bad players or take individuals aside and try to work out differences in play styles or personalities. It can be daunting for young player who wants to be a GM, but the confidence usually comes with a little time and a willingness to sometimes make unpopular decisions.
Gaming groups are sometimes like unstable molecules that need work to be held together or courage to be broken apart.
The good news is that developing the skills in a gaming environment can translate very well to real-world personal skills. In fact, building relationships and understanding group dynamics, even if only during a “silly little role-playing game” is the real world.
2. Any Game Session is a Storytelling Party
Sometimes it’s a story about brave soldiers fighting off encroaching alien hordes.
Sometimes it’s a story of courtly love and betrayal in a colorful, faraway kingdom.
Sometimes it’s a story of a bunch of drunken reprobates stabbing every monster insight and stealing their hoarded gold.
Different stories require different approaches, but your players will tell you what they want – both out right and subtly. A game master should make it his job to talk to players before the session starts to find out what their expectations are, and how those expectations work with the GM’s and the rest of the group’s.
Of course it often happens that once a game has begun all bets are off. If a player can’t articulate or doesn’t know their real fantasies it doesn’t have to mean bringing the game to a screeching halt. A very talented and popular Gamemaster once told me “Great stories come from letting the players win all the time.” What he meant was not that players should never be at risk or always succeed.
He explained to me that being a game master meant making people’s fantasies come true whether they know what their own fantasies are or not.
One person may want to simply enjoy the camaraderie or shared struggled with others around the table and care little for great treasure or moments of glory except that they may bring the group closer. If losing everything they own and being thrown into a giant mud hole brings everyone together then that player has “won” by having a great time. Another player may love coming up with a solution or having a wonderful moment that shows why his character is interesting.
Entire books and websites have been devoted to creating “player zodiacs” – entire systems for understanding different types of players and how anyone player can contain more than one type. The basic upshot of all this research and theory is that each game group is different. Each individual is different. Being a game master means paying attention to human nature. Not only because it works and is fun, but because it can be a wonderful education.
3. Mastering Flexibility and Transparency
Most of the best Gamemasters I’ve known are able to demonstrate these two powerful skills. They are not dogmatically rigid when it comes to the story.
The story, they realize, comes from everyone around the table. Instead of locking off possibilities, shutting down avenues, and restricting player freedom, they see the players as fellow creators, and as the single greatest resource they have when trying to make a great game. When players are engaged and they know that their choices make a difference they become more passionate. They are more willing to open up and reveal what it is that they really want to experience and what they are really there at the gaming table for.
Remember you build this group. Cultivate players with creative minds and fall in love with their stories.
Great GM’s are great improvisers. Great GM’s are constantly asking themselves what the player’s actions tell them about where the players want the story to go, and whenever possible take them there.
One of the best techniques I’ve ever seen for doing this is to simply be completely honest with the players about what’s happening in the story. If you want players to traverse a rickety bridge so that you can test their physical abilities and surprise them with attacking birds from the air while they are struggling – just tell them that before it happens. Do they think that would be an interesting scene? Remember that when we re-watch our favorite movies we can still enjoy the characters struggling with unexpected events even though we know they’re coming.
It may greatly change your story to have the players burn the rickety bridge and kill a cloud of surprised flesh-eating birds that were nesting in it with a hail of arrows, but it may also remind you that your players might want to play cagey, street smart characters who aren’t easily ambushed. The entire incident can lead to a great conversation about where the players want the game to go next, and it can give everyone involved a better sense of how close the group is to their personal role-playing goals.
In the end, it is not your job to call your self a great GameMaster or not. That is for other people to decide. But if you can host the exchange of ideas, hopes, and dreams we call Role-playing games with style, humor, creativity, and passion – and if the laughter around the table is the laughter of people vicariously living out some of their deepest, most heartfelt fantasies… then it is difficult for GM to ask much more.
It is said that the greater the mind, the greater the need for play. Psychologists, philosophers, artists, and even religious figures have all recognized the need for a world filled with imagination, and have warned us of the dangers of a world where our imagination is stifled or seen as an enemy. Tyrants, both petty and great, have seen the power of imagination and tried desperately to control it.
Follow your passions. Develop your skills. And encourage imagination everywhere you go. It makes all the difference in your world.