LESSON The Challenges of GameMastering

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY MECHANICS' started by J_"Kraken", Feb 23, 2014.

  1. In order for any sort of adventure, session, etc. to be succesful, a GM (game master, for those who might not know...) is usually needed. There are some exceptions to this rule (Grey Ranks, Fiasco, just to name a few) that pull this off quite well, though they have their own driving force built in to the game system, and so it feels as if the game itself is as much as GM as the actual person would be. However, what exactly makes a good GM? There are several people who say "He writes well and puts story first", but then this leads to a massive issue: does your character matter? Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, does your character being there mean anything, or, is it like the 1980's classic in which Indiana Jones actually did nothing to put the story forth?



    Often times the GM, though in good intentions, ends up making the roleplay unenjoyable for his players through the feeling that their players might not actually matter. Yes, it is the player's character, but sometimes it can end up simply playing Mad Libs - the story stays the same, but the dialogue in between might be a bit different. However, a GM cannot be too easy either. In no world should the GM put drastic limitations on his party, but neither should he let them do whatever they want scot-free. This actually does matter, though. The difference between a good GM in this regard and a bad GM in this regard all goes down to the player. Is this character truly the player's? Or is it just another NPC that happens to be controlled by the player? A GM who says "Hey, you guys might need a means of transportation, why don't you put your spare points into flying?" is not over controlling and has brought up a valid issue to the players. They can chose to ignore it, in which the GM or the players find a solution to this problem. Then there is the over controlling GM who says "We need a pilot. You're the pilot." This is not to say that set characters are evil, often times they're some of the best RPs you'll ever have, but this has to be done with some freedom or else it becomes the above mentioned Mad Libs. But how, exactly, does a GM reach this balance?



    This balance of story-to-fun/game can come in many ways. Sometimes set characters can lead to just the right balance of fun to story. Let's say, for example, that you are roleplaying a zombie-horror setting and you give set characters to your PCs. You don't let them know right away, but, it's really a competition of who survives. The survivors get to progress character development and skills, and the dead ones have to take up new characters of lower experience. This allows for a balance of the experience gaining element of RPGs while still allowing for character development and story. Another method could be an open-ended situation in which you, the GM, have the story, but how the party gets to it is completley up to them. This is not to say put them on one end of a room full of baddies and tell them to get to the other, moreover, it is more along the lines of saying they have X amount of time to get to mission A. After that, you give them the layout of the place and let them have free reign. If they want to blow up the building, let them, after all, they're hosing themselves...

    Handling PC death can be a tricky fix. There is the sort of GM that will kill a character just to advance the story with no ways around the act, and then there are those who make it too easy for the PCs to breeze through the adventure. Killing a PC "just 'cuz" leads to the aforementioned "My character doesn't matter." feeling among PCs, while the second option holds no tension and PCs begin to do cocky things. Several RPing systems have tried to incorporate a method of reviving a fallen comrade from death (be it magic, cybernetics, some mystical happenstance, etc.) however, this can feel like a "cheat" in several circumstances, as it just comes down to a matter of the whole party carrying Timmy back to town and reviving him with magic. Who cares if it costs alot? They've got the gear they need from loot and starting gear. A balance to this issue is to have death-cheating methods, however, they should take a whole adventure, cost something, and be done in a limited time. For example, Timmy's essence dies out in a week. The old shaman on the edge of the mountains can do the spell in three days, we've got four days to gather the gold and set out to find him. This allows for more leniant situations in which PCs can recover from death, but it adds another piece of content and isn't as easy as waving around a magical wand.



    This doesn't mean that worlds where death is permenant are bad either, often times they put a level of rational thinking to the PCs and keep them in check. But neither should you simply cap them off (Unless you are playing Cyberpunk 2057 or Paranoia, in which case funny deaths are promoted). However, even I am hard pressed to find (digital or otherwise) a copy of one of these grand RP systems.



    But then this raises the issue: what if my world is gritty and realistic? Your world can be both those things without killing PCs left and right! For example, instilling a fear of combat (something a friend of mine has done so well we try to talk our ways out of everything) can easily create a gritty world void of death; the PCs know if they draw first they'll die. This works for any period, be it guns or swords (with guns being a tad bit more effective for obvious reasons), and even if you feel combat is what makes your RP fun or engaging, don't kill a PC just because he got hit! That "hit" roll means a bullet hit him, but it doesn't have to hit anything vital, and a wounded leg can easily complicate things for the PCs after the firefight such as staunching the bleeding or what use a limping ally is. All in all, PC death should be avoided at all costs. Your group has invested in those characters, seen them advance, and it's always rough to see a PC die with no real way to save him. Though, don't give them a Cheat-Death-Pass...

    Creating a world. This is probably the thing that defines a GM on the whole, because either they make it entirely implausible or put so much effort into it that it ceases to be about the PCs. This issue also folds upon itself, for several GMs think using a module (pre-set adventure written by other people) is not as good as the homemade world. While I support my Phylus Chronicle world, there is no reason to say using a module is bad. Often times they are quick, have a set end, and leave to a nice little episodic RP. In short, they don't overstay their welcome and don't bore the PCs with huge exposition dumps that might not make sense (face it, most of us aren't paid authors). Even if these short one-shots aren't your style, nothing says they cannot be used to bolster your own sessions. If your PCs are looking for a "side quest", find a module to occupy them while you work on another "main story" adventure. This main story arc can often be made into great depth by using modules, because it gives an insight to what the world is like outside of this main quest and lets PCs react to different sorts of situations you may never have thought of. Overall, the module is a great tool, and while making your own world can be a great experience for you and your players, don't put it above your total enjoyment.

    On one of the last topics is don't be afraid to change your preset ideas of the adventure in order to stick to it, let the PCs come up with their own plan. This came in once while playing an RP based in feudal Japan where myself and the only other PC in the group came upon an inn run by bandits. My companion was the son of a local lord while I was his shinobi bodyguard. This meant that I could have detected poison in the cup that the bandits offered by scent (very small chance, but it is something the character would do). Now, there are three ways to go about this:



    1) Say "No, you can't check" in which case you, the GM, are taking away a part of what makes a character unique and removing a chance to change things up and generally being one of those GMs who puts story before everything.



    2) Let him roll but make it an auto fail. This isn't much better, because it really just gives the illusion of free will while still having that feeling of uselessness.



    3) Have a good to honest roll, if he passes he passes. This is one of the few instances where dice rolls matter. Often times they only make for a PC doing everything right and still dying, but in this case it's alright. After a bit of an arguement, my GM let me roll the check and I passed (With a less than 2% chance), allowing me to not drink the poison. My companion passed out, and so I was left with a far more interesting choice than simply "Fight them with your fists, get your gear, move on." Instead I had to choose between leaving my charge in order to come back that evening, pretend I was asleep and surprise them, or simply ambush them on their way in. The choice of this dice roll as opposed to the story allowed for more PC freedom, and that's what makes an RP fun as opposed to listening to a story where your characters are in it.


    Last on the agenda is character advancement. This can be either story-driven or stat driven (depending on the focus of the campaign), but most often it is best to use a mix of the two. However, this is also assuming that you do not use the terribly simplistic leveling system which simply allows for an arbitrary number to make a hero stronger in the middle of combat. If, for example, you are using the GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System) "point value" then there should be two categories for advancement:



    1) Did the party succeed in their mission?

    - This means did they save the princess, did they take down their target, did they not kill their charge, etc. etc. The bonus for this mark should be relatively small and used only in skills that were used during the session (simply meaning the man with the guns can't all of the sudden pick up hacking as a hobby....). Typically, again using GURPS, this advancement only covers around 1-5 points (1 for a failure, 5 for a success). To those who do not use GURPS, this is only about one level in a skill or a minor advantage at most or spare points for later at the lower ends. Regardless of the format, however, PCs should not be able to horde advancement oppritunities and "cash out" later. Typically this pool needs to be only enough to cover at most a stat increase.



    2) Did they roleplay their character well?

    - This can take on a myriad of forms. Did the coward suddenly grow a back bone? No! He still whimpered in the corner pretending to give covering fire while the others saved his skin. Did the alcoholic not take his nightly drink? Shame on him. These sorts of disadvantages allow for a character to be interesting, and allowing for PCs to benefit from having disadvantages promotes good roleplaying, to a degree. This bonus, again using GURPS, is anywhere from 1-5 points as well, however, these points are used for paying off disadvantages (where avaliable). Maybe the coward learned that throwing a grenade back isn't that hard, or maybe the alcoholic only took half a glass last night. As long as they roleplay it well, anything is possible as to explain these points.


    Just a bit of food for thought for any aspiring GMs and the perils that might face them!
     
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  2. Bro... Them's fightin' words. :v

    Good stuff though. I've seen all of these during my short stints as a player in the P&P scene, and it drives me crazy. I try to avoid the "railroading" as much as possible when I'm GM. On the other hand, when a GM has gone "off-script" and allowed unexpected things to happen it's been some of the more memorable moments in gaming. One example was a friend of mine GMing for a group of level... 6-ish? Something like that. Anyway, he threw us against a Beholder with the intent of having it knock us all out to further the plot. As it so happened, our tank got a lot of lucky crits against it while it was busy knocking out the healer, the mage, and me. The thing also just couldn't get a good damage roll to save its life (pun not entirely intended). In the end, we beat it and he changed up the way the next set of events unfolded to reflect us coming into them on our own terms instead of the villain's.
     
  3. Oh, I like the movie as much as anyone else, Big Bang Theory is to blame for that line I'm afraid.
     
  4. My biggest challenge, being a DM/GM, is that everyone wants to do their own thing, their own way. I've learned that creating a story line is almost futile. What I usually do is create the world and a lot of NPC's. But I don't set them is specific locations. I do this with planned events and such as well. Someone will try to mug you, whether you're on the road, or chose to wander in town. I list the main plot Ideas, but make it flexible.

    Flexibility is a good GM's main asset. A story feels bland if the GM forces a player down a certain path. I believe the character has to make his own choices. Maybe you spent all night making a dungeon, only to find out the characters choose to avoid it. That's what I mean.

    But you can save that dungeon layout for later, and when they do come across something they want to explore you can use it then.

    I guess that's my two cents. :D
     
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  5. That brings up a very valid point in GMing. I personally have the PCs create their character/ideal character first and then proceed to work on the adventure. Sometimes it's best to have their goals be the goals of the story instead of the GM attempting to force them into situations that might not make sense. For example, expecting wealthy gentlemen to suddenly leave home and head off for the hills on the first sight of adventure doesn't really work out in the long-run unless their character would do that. Definetly a better idea to create the characters first and ask for interests and goals and make the adventure around that, but that means you'll need motivation as a GM and from your players. This adventure might take much longer than normal - and will certainly seem longer to the PCs who might have built up excitement about this particular character. All in all, it really is sometimes worth the risk of this delay to make the overall RP more interesting and meaningful.