Welcome to the third of four installments presenting “10 Simple Rules for a New GM.” These represent my thoughts on things a new Game Master (or Dungeon Master, or Referee, etc.) should know when considering taking on the mantle of GM for a roleplaying game. These rules can be grouped into three core aspects regarding being a GM. The first four explain the “Role of the GM,” the next two concern “Creating the World,” and the final four involve “Being the GM.” Together I hope that they result in a GM that knows the story they want to tell, can build the world where they want the story to take place, and then own it.
Last week I completed my discussion of the first four rules about the Role of the GM. This week I will explore the two rules regarding Creating the World. Come back next week for the fourth and final installment!
10 Simple Rules for a New GM (Continued)
Rule #5 – Be prepared for the game session. (Creating the World)
As the GM, you are running the game and setting up the story. You should be prepared with your encounters, NPCs, and locations for the game session. With experience, you may be able to run sessions off-the-cuff, but you should still be prepared to move the story forward. If you are not prepared then you are allowed to reschedule, but don’t reschedule too often. If you commit to playing a game every other week on a given day then you should respect the time of your players and keep to that schedule.
Preparation is key to having a productive game session whether you are running a session that is completely home-brewed or a commercially purchased adventure module. Most of the time, I have encounters prepared for my campaigns that are designed to move my campaign story forward whether they are standalone events or just dropped into an off-the-shelf adventure supplement. However, it is very easy to think that you have one campaign encounter ready and now you can just throw down a module and be ready to go. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way at the game table in most cases. You need to, at a minimum, read the published adventure cover-to-cover and be familiar with the plotlines and branching side-plots of the adventure. Ideally, you need to have initiative sheets or note cards ready for the major NPC’s, any visual aids you want to share with players, and maps, miniatures, tokens, etc. ready for any combat encounters. You can prepare some of this at the table, but remember, you are taking away from the playing time for the players. Nothing burns-out a gaming group more than to feel like nothing ever gets done at the game table; four hours of gaming turns into one hour of action and three hours of waiting for the GM. That is not fun.
If you have a scheduled game looming and you realize that you are not as prepared as you should be then have the courtesy to let your players know. Sure, you can try to fake it and I have actually faked it a number of times, but that was with game systems and campaigns where I knew the source material forwards and back and could recite common NPC and vehicle stats from memory. Still, I knew if my group was expecting to take action against a crime lord they weren’t going to be as thrilled to carry out an impromptu raid on an Imperial convoy. The crime lord adventure would be taking the story arc forward while the raid would just be a filler. Instead, it might be a good time to see if someone else has another game ready to run and use the time to play that. You might even find that given the choice a few of your players have other things they need to be taking care of and appreciate the chance to reschedule; they didn’t want to be the one person who didn’t show or who asked to change plans.
Rescheduling is fine and good, but only on rare occasions. If you commit to playing a game every other Sunday, but you end up canceling one game per month, aren’t you just running a game once per month? That probably means that you are better off with a more flexible approach in general. Maybe you should explore an open-table model of campaign where you announce a game time and you play with whomever shows up for that session? That makes it more difficult to complete a lengthy multi-part adventure module without explaining away why PCs drop off and return later to the group, but it allows more consistency in that you are playing when you are prepared as GM. The approach to the campaign then has to become more of an episodic play style where the multiple acts of an adventure story have to be broken into “complete” sessions. Part of the group completes Act I and then passes on information to have other PCs complete Act II. This kind of flexibility may also be a better fit for players that have work, school, or family commitments.
In summary, as GM, you are creating the world and you must be prepared for the game session. The players are there as you have made a commitment to them. Respect their time and make the time at the table count. If you find a rigid game schedule does not work for either you or them, then be prepared to reschedule or restructure how you approach the game. Your players will thank you for this and your game will be better for it!
Rule #6 – Be flexible when things don’t go as expected. (Creating the World)
There is an old adage that “no game idea survives contact with the players.” This is an aspect of RPGs that I truly love and is how tabletop RPGs are superior to their digital counterparts; players can do anything they choose. It is impossible to guess just how creative a group may be in devising ways to defeat your latest trap, plot twist, or BBEG. This is sometimes described as having the game “jump off the rails,” but a good RPG should never be on the rails to begin with. Even so, it is possible for players to pursue options that carry the party further and further away from the central objectives of the encounter or goal they should be pursuing. At these times the GM needs to be flexible, adapt to the players, and try to put the goals and objectives back in front of them.
In preparing for a game session, I typically focus on 3-5 possible (and obvious) courses of action and give hints to the players through my narration and those are what I focus my preparation on. Even so, a group will invariably come up with a plausible idea you didn’t anticipate. Don’t panic. Just roll with it and see how things go. Here’s an example:
I once spent a lot of time preparing for a game session with one of my Star Wars RPG groups. In their previous session, the party had been attacked by High Inquisitor Tremayne and a Force-sensitive NPC contact had been captured. Alliance Intelligence advised the PCs that the NPC was likely being taken to a high-security prison codenamed “Maelstrom.”. The planet the prison was located on was hidden inside a treacherous nebula and part of a system of rocky planets orbiting a proto-star. The planet itself received just enough light from the star and surrounding nebula to be locked in almost eternal twilight conditions with the flora and fauna being adapted to these. Plant life consisted of ferns and other underbrush with bioluminescent qualities and large tree-like fungi growths. To further complicate matters, the Empire had erected a partial orbital nightcloak system in geosynchronous orbit over the prison structure. The nightcloak kept the prison and its surroundings in a 1,000 km diameter circle of total night and this was stocked with an array of nocturnal predators to dissuade a ground approach to the prison and prevent escape. The recommended approaches to the prison were to steal a shuttle and infiltrate as part of a resupply or prisoner transfer ruse, land stealthily on the planet and navigate over land to gain access, or allow a Force-sensitive PC to be captured and attempt an escape from the inside.
The PCs never. Entered. The system.
Instead they proceeded to play “stump the GM” and built a case for allowing them to pull off an elaborate and, ultimately, successful ruse to convince High Inquisitor Tremayne to transfer the prisoner to the custody of Imperial Agents reporting directly to Lord Darth Vader himself. This wasn’t some pie-in-the-sky, Hail Mary pass play that they entered into with a lot of bravado and luck. No, they used exactly every tool I had already given them in the previous few sessions of gameplay and turned it all against me in a way which I never envisioned. I shrugged my shoulders and said: “Ok. You’ve got me. Let’s see what you will have to accomplish to pull this off.”
They explained what they wanted to do by the numbers. Steal an Imperial shuttle and forge ID codes. Use a recording of a holo-message sent from Vader to the High Inquisitor which they previously obtained and fake a new communique from the Dark Lord. Slice into a holonet transceiver and upload the message to Maelstrom Prison. Wait at the provided rendezvous coordinates and take custody of the prisoner. My carefully crafted prison break adventure turned into a session full of espionage and skullduggery. The players had fun and I did too. Even if I never did get to use my prison in that campaign.
Sometimes though, especially when gaming with players new to your table or perhaps new to roleplaying in general, players will see plots and dangers where none exist and you may soon find them making a scene overly complicated or focusing on an imagined goal that gets them no closer to resolving an encounter. It can also be the result of a plot hole that the GM has failed to account for. I will usually let the party try a few actions and if it looks like subtle clues and hints aren’t steering them back on course I may have an NPC intervene and ask for a status report or inquire why it is taking so long to pick up the McGuffin and get moving. When this has failed, I am still loathe to just bluntly tell them they are wasting their time. “No rails,” remember? Usually I will just tell them that I have to stop the session at that point as I have nothing prepared for taking the story in the direction they are going in. Most players will then realize that if they want to continue playing that session they need to regroup and reconsider their actions.
Always know that no amount of preparation can have the GM completely prepared for everything a party might do. When players do the unexpected a good GM is able to be flexible and adapt the story to what the players are trying to do. Sometimes their actions will make sense and you may end up with a better game than you originally planned. At other times the GM may have to step in and get the players to refocus their efforts. If you always approach the role of GM with a commitment to having fun, everyone will have fun even if the story doesn’t unfold in a way that you ever imagined.