A lot of the articles on WholesomeRage are targeted towards new and beginning storytellers, and a very common reason people dip their toe in the proverbial waters is tabletop gaming. Dungeon Mastering in Dungeons and Dragons, Storytelling under the White Wolf Line, a Master of Ceremonies if you’re Powered by the Apocalypse, but the most common umbrella term is GM: Game Master.
I’ve been mastering games every week with varying degrees of success for seven years now — a veritable novice by a lot of standards — and trading places with other GMs to compare styles. Here’s what I’ve found works best for my groups, and myself as both a player and a GM.
Every group, every GM is different. They have different needs, different philosophies, and the most useful advice is simply to communicate those needs.
That being said, here’s my personal philosophies, and why.
1. Communication is Key
First, we really should codify what I mean by communication.
Some players want to feel an influence on the world. They won’t make characters so much as instruments of change. Whereas I’ve previously said a character should be a philosophy on being a person, this kind of character will be a statement on the player’s philosophy of the world. This player wants to see meaningful change, and is more interested in worldbuilding than characterization.
Another player might be fully gung-ho, put on the silly voice and costume, and get way more into the roleplay aspect of the game. They want to be another person, a person that is interesting to them.
This player might rightfully get frustrated at the first player, and the first player might be confused as to the problem.
So… what do?
As a GM, you need to be able to identify the needs and desires of your players and build your games and gamestyle around what your players want. The truth is, neither of those desires are conflicting, they’re just different styles and ideals of play. There is enough room in a game session to build elements that appeal to both, and encourage the first player to act more in-character to enforce the changes that he wants to see, and give prompts and inciting action for the second player to bounce off that leave both satisfied.
But you can only implement that resolution if you actually know what both players actually want.
The truth is, most players don’t actually understand how or why they want to play the way they do. They’re just doing the things that they find enjoyable without necessarily analyzing the ‘why’; they’re too busy figuring out their ‘what’s’ and ‘how’s’
Coming to those resolutions requires you to understand what your players are looking for, and where the conflicts might be.
I’m going to say a session’s going to be around four hours for you, yeah? Considering the trouble of organizing people regularly, getting a group together, we tend to gravitate from around-to-at-least that long. Longer than that and you’re probably having a full meal — diner or lunch break — during.
For around every four hours of play, I recommend at least half an hour of debrief, discussion. Your players tend to love gushing about what they’ve just done and why and comparing notes with the group. Making a hard-locked time to do it in though, as a GM, as opposed to an informal wait-for-it-to-happen, guarantees that you’ll get enough time to listen to what the players enjoyed most, what they didn’t like, what they wanted to do most — listen to what they talk about that happened, but just as importantly, listen to what they don’t talk about.
And hell, write up a question and answer at the end. Just flat out ask; “What did you enjoy about X?” “Are you interested to know more about Y?” “What did you want to do that you didn’t get to?”
It feels awkward to do. Asking those sorts of questions just feels like going to the doctor to ask them to look at your weird mole, in a way. But if you get into the routine of it, if you just take it for granted as a ‘done’ thing, more importantly than being a better GM, you’ll get better at being a GM for your group.
Feedback is vital, and fun. Make sure you have time for proper debriefs.
And give bonus experience for it, too. It makes the players think about their answers more to feel like they earned it.
2. The DM and the Players are Not Enemies.
Easy to say, hard to understand, harder to practice.
It’s not the GM against the players. You are not enemies. The GM should not be trying to make the players lose, and the players should not be conspiring or metagaming in order to get the upper hand.
You’re working together to make the best experience for everyone possible.
The truth of the matter is, players want to win… but only just. By the skin of their teeth. That doesn’t mean killing their darlings, cutting their story short. It just means giving the appearance it could happen at any moment.
Last time I ran a long Call of Cthulu game, my players were terrified of me, thought I was a cruel and cunning monster ready to murder them at every turn. They all brought two spare character sheets to every session, just in case.
None of their characters died in those weeks, but the fear, the tension to them, was still extremely real.
That’s the balance that I like to strike.
Characters can still die, certainly. Every time a character was at risk, I talked to the players and let them know that death was very likely, and they agreed that this would be a fair and fitting way for their character to go out. By their wits, and some good dice rolls, it never went that way… but on both sides of the table we were aware it could, and that it would be fair.
Compare and contrast to the misadventure of Tiny Nothing, a gnome rogue I rolled up for a Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition game. He was replacing a character I had been playing up until that point, who’d gotten a little overpowered. I’d rolled up a pacifist monk-like character who was purely specc.d into taunting and dodging. It had become actually impossible for the DM to do damage to the party with me around, I guess.
It’s the first time I’d been accused of making a character too overpowered when he never dealt a point of damage in his life.
So, I respectfully put the character offscreen, and spent the week rolling up Tiny Nothing. Tons of flavour to him, some really interesting combat mechanics, very balanced relative to the rest of the party, I was really looking forward to playing him.
Fifteen minutes in, character’s introduced, I’m getting into the guy and we find a room of sarcophagi. I roll 18 on a search check, the character’s specialized in it, this sarcophagus isn’t trapped. Awesome. Crack it open with a prybar then.
Whoops! Inside is a mummy with monk levels. No, your search didn’t reveal it, because it’s undead. It was hiding and you didn’t notice, so it gets a sneak attack round. Whoops, rolled a natural 20, that’s a critical. The damage from it is twice Tiny’s health? Fuck, he’s dead, no saves.
The DM later admitted to me it was out of spite for the previous character. He saw me as the enemy, and he took it out on my character fifteen minutes into the session.
It was utterly transparent, and it made me very angry, because I put a lot of thought and effort into that little gnome and keeping him at a power level the DM could manage. In return, he saw him as ‘vulnerable’ and killed him in ‘revenge’.
“Did you bring a spare character sheet?” he asks.
“Yes.” I say.
Yes I did.
He had declared himself an enemy. This was no longer a collaborative experience, and he had broken down the trust barrier. The spare character sheet I brought out was a teenage sorceress named Bottlecap – named for the currency in Fallout.
You see, Bottlecap was a min/maxed fucking nightmare of a character I had made for an optimization board. She had quite a few levels in Incantatrix and a functioning charisma of… 40? 60? Something arbitrarily high. Metamagic specialization out the wazoo, already a bad omen, and on her own she could take down two Tarrasques a round through Ennervate abuse, then use their wights to kill a third.
That wouldn’t be fun or fair to my fellow players though. No, it was us vs the GM, not me vs fun. An incantatrix shines because they can apply their metamagic to other players’ spells and abilities. It required a skillcheck, but she literally couldn’t fail it.
The druid had a blast doing 10,000 damage in a 100ft radius with first level spells, he had a lot of fun just trying to figure out how to best use his spells to do very silly things with my help. The assassin’s normally mediocre spells were suddenly making them the goddamn shadow warrior, and for the first time in the game they were actually overcoming resistances.
When the GM got angry about this and teleported the barbarian into a kill chamber on his own and ganked him in revenge, the druid and I Million Dollar Man’d him so he was the kind of stuff that makes a munchkin go “Woah, maybe dial it back a bit?”. Fantastic.
Everyone but the GM had a great time for a while, before I retired Bottlecap by the end of the month.
All of this is a very roundabout way to say; You, as the GM, only have the illusion of being all-powerful. But if you make the players the enemy, they will not want to compromise with you. They will not want to collaborate with you. They will see you as something that needs to be defeated.
Remember; Everyone came here tonight to have fun. Don’t make it a fight over whether or not people get to have it.
Make that clear to your players. You want to see them win, too. You all want it to be the best story possible. How can you best accomplish that together?
3. World First, Story Second.
This is especially unintuitive to a lot of GM’s who are used to learning their storytelling from prose or script writing.
Gaming is a collaborative writing process with an information imbalance. You’re making what they explore, and they’re trying to explore what you’ve made. The discovery process doesn’t work if they already know what they’re looking for.
What that means, though, is that quite often they’re going to act and react in very different ways to how you expected or planned. Sometimes it makes no sense to the players or the characters to act in the way you anticipated them to act, to find the clues you anticipated they’d find, whatever. This should be seen as part of your fun and challenge as a GM, but it can be extremely frustrating as well.
Your players are going to see and know you’re getting frustrated, and that’s not fun for anyone. But if you just try to nudge them back onto your planned tracks, it’s not fun for the players; It feels like you’re taking away their role as a collaborator, that you’ve put them on rails.
“Railroading” is the term that’s often used here; You’re not growing out branching paths, you’re laying down a track to be followed.
It’s a fast way to make the GM feel like the enemy. It makes it feel like the players have to fight him to have more of an influence in the story, and that’s not fun.
So how do you avoid this?
I’ve found the best way is, even if you have a long term plan, a large overarching story… don’t plan events. Don’t plan for things happening. Plan the characters and the setting. Figure out the major players and factions, give them strong ideas and motivations, and then plan your story around that.
What this means is that when players go against your expectations, your world is flexible and malleable. You can think about how the non-player characters in it will react, will deal with the new direction, based on what you understand their objectives are. Even if the players throw a wrench in the main plot, you still have all the pieces working independently to keep everything moving.
This prevents you from getting too frustrated at your work being undermined, and allows you to think much faster on your feet. It allows you to give your players a lot more freedom to interact with the world, as well, because you’ll need to ‘nudge’ them back onto a path to keep them occupied a lot less.
Ideally, try to only plan your games a few sessions in advance. Treat them like a weather forecast; the longer it goes out, the less confident in your predictions you should be.
A friend of mine, and a fantastic GM himself, put it like this to me:
“Don’t move the world faster than the players; Plan the next session around the last session, and plan it around the characters.”
4. You Get What you Incentivize
A personal idol of mine taught me this phrase, a Colonel in the US military. He was saying to me that to make Colonel you needed a Masters in something. To loosely quote:
“There’s a maxim in the military that you get what you incentivize, which is to say that if you incentivize having a masters degree, you start to get a lot of officers with masters degrees. So while it used to be that masters degrees were a thing colonels had, now you start seeing them in lt. colonels and majors, and after enough years, even captains.
The air force started to realize this was a problem, because early careers are supposed to be a time to focus on your job. A few years ago they changed the policy, so promotion boards no longer see if you have a masters degree unless you’re competing for colonel.”
There’s a lot to unpack here that’s interesting.
The first is that the Masters doesn’t have to be in anything. He knows one pilot whose degree was in music theory. It’s just a metric to show higher education in your leaders, and that they have the discipline to complete the course.
So we see a desired end goal that it’s trying to promote: Not specific knowledge, but proof of the capacity for it.
However, while you might get two shots at colonel, your chances of being promoted the second time are only 2% or so compared with 40% the first time. So it’s important to have the Masters by then. This causes creep down the ranks; those who get a headstart on it because they’re looking at advancement get it for the rank lower. Then it becomes the expectation at that rank as enough of your colleagues notice the same thing, so it creeps one lower…
Here we see the intended objective for Colonels create a warped incentive structure: A Masters is such a clear metric of success it’s now more desirable at lower ranks than focusing on the job itself.
Realizing that this was conflicting with desired objectives, a solution was put in place at the Colonel level to prevent the knock-on effect. Now, the value of the Masters at lower ranks was negated, while still fulfilling its original intended purpose.
It’s incredibly important to think of how you run games like this;
What do you want to achieve? How are you encouraging players to come to that conclusion themselves? Are the incentives you’re giving to your players leading them to undesirable outcomes for you?
Valve are the master of subtle incentive, and the developer’s commentary on Portal provides fantastic examples of it.
A lot of players were getting lost because they didn’t realize they had to go directly up in places; Humans don’t naturally look above their eye line. The solution was ladders. The player character can’t use or climb ladders, but putting the ladder there naturally guided their eyes up.
The companion cube? Originally just because players weren’t realizing they had to take the same cube through the whole level, dragging it behind them. What became one of the most immersive features of the game, one of its most popular aspects, was just designers trying to think of ways to get players to solve the puzzle without getting frustrated.
What conclusions do you want a player to reach, and what have you done to make them reach it on their own?
Telling a player their character wants something isn’t going to work if the player doesn’t want that for their character. Instead, work out how to make a player want something for their character.
If you want more roleplay in your game, what are you doing to incentivize it? If you want your players to be more creative, what are you doing to incentivize it?
Moreover, if there are behaviours you dislike, are those behaviours being discouraged? If your players are all being “murderhobos”, that is, they go around killing everything, looting it, and moving on… is there any reason for them not to be? Because, odds are, they believe that that’s what’s getting them the best mechanical rewards, most efficiently.
As long as they’re enjoying the combat, they’re not likely to change that behaviour on their own. But it could easily get stale, and it’s usually not very fun for a GM to run, either.
To help think about how to think about this, I recommend… basically, everything Nick Case (http://ncase.me/) has ever made.
5. Rule Zero is Bullshit
Rule Zero: The GM is always right.
There’s a reason for this rule existing. Sometimes the players want to rules lawyer the GM, or argue about the story, or whatever. The GM exists as the last word on the matter, and what they say goes. They’re judge, jury and executioner.
When the GM needs to be an arbiter, this rule exists for a reason.
However, for all other purposes, it’s bullshit.
Here’s a common one: Sometimes a player has spec’d their character to do a specific thing, and that specific thing is brokenly powerful. The player was upfront about what they were doing, and the GM simply didn’t realize the implications of it until they saw it in use.
The player is happy about this. Of course they are; they put a lot of time and thought into being able to have their character do this thing, and they were looking forward to doing it well. But the GM can’t work around it, because it’s simply too good.
A bad-to-typical GM just says; “You can’t do that. The Rules As Written are obviously wrong.” Swings the nerf-bat at them, takes it away from the player without compensating them for it.
This fucking sucks. It feels like the player is punished for playing the way they wanted to.
The player being game-breakingly strong is obviously a problem, sure, especially when it steals the spotlight away from other players. But when the GM makes this kind of executive decision, they’re basically treading on the player’s rights to be a collaborator. The player feels like they can’t do stuff without the fear of the GM’s hammer taking away their fun toys for being ‘too good’.
A lot of the time this isn’t even from munchkins, or done on purpose at all. An example from the GM who taught me the importance of communication is one of his games as a player character in a World of Darkness: Werewolves campaign. He ended up breaking the game in a really interesting way by choosing to have a Jewish heritage, and playing that up because that interested him.
Rules as written, the meat of supernatural creatures gives werewolves great buffs, but the blood in it is super toxic and gives debuffs/poisons.
Problem; Jewish werewolf ended up picking up the skill “kosher butchering”. Which is to say, safely drawing all the blood out of the meat.
Players get super proud of figuring out stuff like this, solutions, problem solving. As a GM, it can be hard to figure out what to do about it, and you can be tempted to just say ‘no’.
Please, please don’t.
Rule Zero is bullshit because it puts the GM above the players, when the GM is more there to facilitate the game than to be the game. It’s collaborative storytelling. Everything that I said about not making the GM and the player enemies applies here.
When you tell a player ‘no’, they’re going to see you as the enemy. They’re going to see you as revoking your right to collaborate on the story.
And a lot of the time, they’re probably going to be right to think that.
If it is at all possible, never tell a player ‘no’.
A player is always right when they tell you how they feel. If a decision is making them feel bad, you’ve probably fucked up.
This also ties back to communication; If they really are breaking the game too much — or hogging the spotlight, or making other players uncomfortable, whatever — talk to them about it. Sit down and work out as a team what you can do about it. Come to an agreement the player is okay with. You are not their enemy either, and they should want to work with you.
If you have to invoke Rule Zero to get the players to follow your plot, stay with you for a moment, trust something… what are you doing to earn that trust, that respect? If you were a player hearing you say that, how would you feel?
As a GM, you control the world and the NPCs. Don’t describe the player characters’ actions or traits without that player’s permission. Don’t touch their character sheet without talking it through with the player. Don’t mess with their backstory.
You have more power than they do, but don’t make your players resent you for having it.
The GM should see themselves as the first among equals.
The true rule zero is Wheaton’s Law: Don’t Be A Dick.