In my last article I talked about the various levels which can be encountered while playing an RPG. That article looked at the levels from a more player-centric view, and we all know that Gnome Stew is a GMing blog. So, this week I want to look at how to GM for each of the levels and how you can traverse the levels during a session.

What Past Article?

If you want to get caught up from the previous article you can find it here. If you don’t have time to read the previous article, let me sum up the levels:

  • Game Level – Interacting with the mechanics of the game.
  • Character Level – Portraying your character in the game.
  • Group Level – Exploring the relationships between the PC’s, working for the outcome of the group.
  • Story Level – Focused on the overall story being created by the entire group.

GMing The Levels

GMing each level really involves understanding what activities make up the level, and structuring a scene or a session to emphasize those activities.

Game Level

At the game level the players focus is with the interaction of the mechanics of the game. Your job as a GM is to make this interaction as interesting as possible by creating scenes and encounters which leverage the mechanics within the game. A fight in a 10′x10′ room will not be as exciting as fighting on a crumbling, icy bridge over a frozen river. The latter will need rules for keeping balance on the ice, avoiding falling into the river, and inevitably swimming in a frozen river. Players who thrive on this level want to be challenged by the rules, so create NPC’s who have the same mechanical complexity as the player characters to provide a greater mechanical challenge to the players.

In order to create these mechanical challenges, you will need to have a solid understanding of the rules. This understanding will be more than just the core rules, and include the more ancillary rules. It’s these ancillary rules which are often the spices for more interesting scenes. Do these things with balance and fairness. Mechanically complex does not mean “killer”. Give reasonable challenges for the players to overcome through their mastery of the rules of the game.

Character Level

At this level, the focus of the game centers on the portrayal of the character. GMing on this level requires the GM to create and present all sorts of interesting things for the characters to interact with . Create a world full of compelling NPC’s, locations, and events. Any NPC has a potential for interaction, so besides the host of documented, important NPCs you create in your prep, you will also need to be at the ready to improvise any minor NPCs with which the players wish to talk.

At the character level your plots should involve hard personal choices for the players, to challenge their beliefs and understanding of their characters. These players want to feel the inner turmoil and have to struggle with decisions. The best character growth occurs through these struggles, and by turning the heat up on the characters you will create the opportunity for the players to discover their characters further.

The biggest source for this kind of material will come from their backgrounds. Players who operate at this level typically have backstories loaded with potential. Mine their backstories for ideas of how you can make things personal to their characters to really connect with them.

The Group Level

This level builds off the character level, as the characters explore their relationships with one another. Some of this will happen spontaneously as the individual characters begin to connect with one another and a group spirit forms. These interactions will result in times where the characters converse with one another in light banter or deeper discussions, mostly during non-combat scenes.

As a GM you need to create opportunities within your sessions for this kind of play to occur. Create scenes without any NPC’s present, where the characters can sit and talk, or include a scene where the players need to plan some kind of job, heist, etc.

Groups tend to enjoy two types of interactions, collaboration and tension. Foster collaboration by giving them a challenge that requires them to work as a team; rescuing someone from a dungeon. You create tension by presenting the group a challenge where the group will have differing opinions of how to proceed; present them with a goblin child in the middle of a dungeon.

Story Level

At the story level, you need to provide sufficient player agency to allow the players to help guide the story; giving the players a mechanism for helping direct various scenes. The GM needs to create plots which are open enough to allow the PCs to dictate the way a scene will be resolved.

At this level you need to do two things during a session: present challenges, and escalate them. Create challenges for the players, but never come up with the solutions. Doing this gives your players opportunities to have their characters come up with the way to solve things, giving them the ability to craft the story. For instance: Create a locked door, but do not require the only way to open it is by using the key.

Escalation is turning up the heat on the story to create tension and having the players take bigger stakes within the story. This increase of tension makes the success and failure of a story more grand. It makes the player tense and can lead to unexpected actions which are often the things that make stories the most memorable. You can achieve escalation by adding new dangers (i.e. ninjas bust through the door) or by adding a twist (i.e. the murder you were investigating is part of a vast conspiracy).

Playing The Levels

Know thyself and know thy group. In order to understand what levels you should be engaging during your game, you need to understand what levels are important for your players as well as what levels interest you. In most cases this is going to be more than one level, where your group has a favorite, a least favorite, and two middle ones.

Once you know what levels you and your group are interested in playing, you can then work to incorporate scenes which take advantage of these levels during your session. Then as you craft your sessions, you can switch from one level to another to change how people are interacting with the game. You can then balance out the frequency that you are hitting levels, as well as switching from one level to another in a way similar to the use of beats in Robin Laws’ book, Hamlet’s Hit Points.

Here’s a Quick Example:

  • Scene 1: Characters are on a road talking to themselves (Group level).
  • Scene 2: They come across a group of bandits attacking a merchant (Game level).
  • Scene 3: The thankful merchant attempts to talk the players into guarding his caravan (Character level).
  • Scene 4: The characters debate if they should take the rough mountain pass, or go through the haunted woods. (Group and Story level).

Firing on all Levels

The idea of how we interact with the games we play can be a powerful tool for creating satisfying games for you and your group. With a little insight and understanding, you can find the levels that your group enjoys the most, and then design your sessions to hit those levels the most.

How do you design your games to have different focuses on different levels? Does your group prefer one level, or are they spread among multiple levels? What are some of your favorite levels as a GM?

Also, are there any others aspects of this concept you would like me to talk about more? If so, leave it in the comments.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.



2 Responses to Levels of Play (Part 2): GMing The Levels

  1. Nice break-down. I don’t know that I separate it out like that with my style, but definitely agree that you have to be looking at and addressing different aspects of the game to keep the whole thing on the up and up.

  1. SCGRUBER.COM – Levels of Games

    […] recently read Phil Vecchione’s article Levels of Play. In it (and the sequel), Phil discusses four aspects of player style: game, character, group, and story; and how GMs can […]

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