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Eight Game Mastering Truths
Posted By Martin Ralya On February 26, 2009 @ 3:50 am In GMing Advice | 19 Comments
It doesn’t matter who you are, what games you run, or how long you’ve been game mastering — these eight truths are universal to GMing:
Most gaming books gloss over this one, perhaps thinking that no one in their right mind would ever put on the GMing hat if they actually knew how much work was involved.
I dislike that approach — I think every prospective GM should know that yes, it is a lot of work, but:
If you don’t find GMing more rewarding than playing, you won’t be GMing for long. Every gamer I know fills one role — GM or player — substantially more often than the other. Each role is different, and each one holds a different (though interconnected) appeal.
The balance is important, though: Every GM should get a chance to play at least occasionally (it’s a great break, and an even better way to learn new GMing tricks), and every player — yes, every single player — should try GMing at least once.
This is a pretty basic truth, but it’s an important one: If you don’t find GMing more rewarding than playing, don’t do it.
When you see the game from behind the screen, you notice all sorts of things you simply can’t spot as a player. And many of those things actually make you a better player.
For example: As a player, it’s not hard to hog the spotlight without really noticing it; as a GM, it’s painfully obvious when someone is hogging the spotlight, and equally obvious how detrimental that can be to the game. Once you’ve seen it happen as a GM, you’ll watch out for it as a player.
You also develop a different perspective by running games — the most notable aspect of which is your focus on making the game fun for everyone at the table. That translates quite well to playing, as does being able to spot when your GM is trying to make something specific (and fun) happen — so that you can move in that direction.
As the GM, once you sit down at the table the majority of your fun flows from your players. (Pre-game, your fun is largely internal: prep is all you, as is the fun you derive from it.)
If you sit down with just one goal, and that goal is “Make my players have fun,” you will succeed.
This shouldn’t be your only goal (as some of the other GMing truths indicate — for example, you need to set out to have fun yourself, as well), but this really is the touchstone of good GMing: enabling your players to have fun.
Being a player means that you’re entitled to just show up and have fun, too — your focus shouldn’t be entirely on the hard work that’s involved in GMing. It should also be on taking your own preferences into account.
Because while focusing on your players is a winning strategy — arguably, the winning strategy — it shouldn’t happen at the expense of sparing a bit of focus for yourself.
In the most basic, traditional model of a gaming session, players are largely reactive (with much of their fun coming from deciding how to react to the unexpected, in character), while the GM is almost entirely proactive — making things happen, and then seeing what the players do.
Even if you run your games in a less traditional way, fundamentally you, the GM, are required to be more proactive than your players. This starts with prep (assuming you don’t improv exclusively) and flows all the way through the end of each gaming session.
I really wish I had learned this sooner, because I spent a lot of time early on in my GMing career expecting my players to follow my trains of thought, plot threads, and other obscure trails through the game. If I had instead assumed the responsibility of making sure that fun stuff happened, we all would have been better off.
The tricky thing about being proactive is that it guarantees that you will make mistakes. There’s just no way around it — when you do stuff, and that stuff impacts everyone at the table, you’re going to do the wrong thing from time to time.
The important bit is not letting your inevitable mistakes (and sweet baby Jesus do I make a lot of GMing mistakes) get you down. Feel bad, apologize if needed, make amends or retcon if it’s appropriate, and then move on.
Later, when you’ve got a bit of downtime, think about what went wrong, how it might have been avoided, and how to do better next time. Like nearly every craft, making mistakes is a fabulous — albeit painful — way to learn.
The absolute worst GMs are the ones who don’t care to know anything about the gaming tastes, preferences, and tolerances of their players — and don’t really give a shit that they don’t know.
This truth covers a couple of different things. It covers the GMs who are just there to tell their story, and fuck you if you don’t like it (though they would never think of their games that way); but it also covers GMs who don’t pay attention to their players during each gaming session.
When I’m running a game, I take notes about what worked and what didn’t, based on observing my players at the table. And I have a running mental file on each of them — what they dig, what they hate, what they’re getting burned out on, etc.
What other GMing truths have you observed? And do you take issue with the idea that there are universal GMing truths?
My wife, Alysia, and I just had a beautiful baby girl: Lark Gillian Ralya, born 2/11. We are — to say the least! — thrilled (and a bit exhausted, too).
I am also now on Twitter and Facebook, and I always enjoy linking up with Gnome Stew readers.
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