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The GM Sounding Board

Posted By Phil Vecchione On March 12, 2010 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

No GM should be an island of ideas. As a GM we are a creative bunch and have many ideas floating around our head: a plot for a future session, a killer encounter, a new artifact, an NPC, etc. Let’s be honest not all of our ideas are great, and worst a lot of them sound great to us, but fail to impress the players when we drop them at the table.

The best kinds of ideas are one that have been vetted by someone else and have received constructive feedback. What we might think is the greatest plot twist may, in truth, offend the players, or crush their free will in within the game. Quite simply, a GM’s need someone to run ideas past. We need a GM Sounding Board; that person who will listen to our ideas, and make suggestions, but most importantly be honest with us; not afraid to tell us if our idea is cool or totally sucks.

Job Requirements

Not just anyone can fill this role. There are a few requirements for being a GM Sounding Board (which, because I am feeling lazy we will now abbreviate as GMsb).

Relationship

First thing, and this may be obvious, but the GMsb needs to be a person that is not a player in your gaming group. If they were, they would be privy to upcoming in-game events, and that would not be any fun at all for them, and likely to anger the rest of the group. So, the GMsb needs to be someone that is separate from your group. Here are a few types of relationships that would work:

  • Spouse or Significant Other
  • Friend who does not play in your group
  • Members of a Discussion Board, where your players do not frequent
  • A Gnome (but never Halflings…ever)

Understanding

While having your GMsb be a full-fledged gamer, is an advantage, it is not a requirement. Someone who has a good grasp of literature or cinema can also be a good fit. Any person with a good grasp of what makes a book good or a movie a hit is going to have the necessary skills to evaluate your ideas.

My GMsb is my Wife who is not a gamer, but is familiar with my games, my players, and is both an avid reader and movie watcher. She has no problem following most of my plots, and she often pulls in great ideas from books and movies, I am likely never to have read or seen on my own (chick flicks, movies without helicopters, guns, explosions, kung fu).

Honesty

Your GMsb has to be honest. When you have an idea that stinks, you need to be sure that the person you are telling is going to give you an honest answer about how bad it is. They can be nice about it, but honesty is everything. Sometimes this is not fun to hear, especially if you think you have the best idea ever, but a bruised ego is much better than a session that sucks.  So, if you do not believe that your current GMsb can perform this most candid service for you, you might want to consider shopping around for a new one.

Thought Provoking

The best GMsb’s are not just Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down people, they should challenge your ideas, ask you to defend your ideas, and very often add something that you had not thought of.  So your GMsb has to expressive, needs to make you work for that idea.

A good idea can be made into a great one, when your GMsb asks the right question, or offers up the “and…” to your idea. I am very fortunate that my GMsb, has a great understanding of story structure, and a knack of asking a question that explodes in my head and causes ideas to rain down.

Compensation

The GMsb gets the short end of the deal on this. They listen to your ideas, they offer up their opinion, and even collaborate with you. But in the end, you write the session notes, and you run it.  Your players think you are some kind of GM savant, but you were not alone. So from time to time, do something nice for your GMsb, and give some props to them.

Two Minds Are Better Than One

The GMsb is a valuable resource for a GM. Having someone who will make sure your bad ideas never see the light, and your good ideas are improved, is a valuable asset.  If you don’t have a GMsb, seriously consider finding one, and you should see an improvement in your sessions.

If you have a GMsb, then feel free to give them that praise they richly deserve in the comments below.  Tell us, who they are, and some of the best ideas they have helped you with, or some of the worst they talked you out of.

And to my Wife, thank you for listening to me, for 9 years go on about characters, scenes, plots, etc. and for offering up that question or idea that makes my ideas better than had I done it on my own. Thanks.

Your turn….

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.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "The GM Sounding Board"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 12, 2010 @ 7:57 am

“Members of a Discussion Board, where your players do not frequent”

Shameless plug – http://www.youmeetinatavern.com/index.php

A forum for GMs where the admin is a former GS contributor and the moderators are current GS contributors. At the Tavern we are all about helping GMs in a friendly and polite manner.

#2 Comment By jaydot On March 12, 2010 @ 8:51 am

Of course a DM needs a sounding board! I’m a big advocate of using my actual players as a sounding board. Sounds crazy, but I pretty much keep them in the loop on where the adventure is going, and they love it. They’ve done more to make the game more epic and awesome than I could have ever come up with on my own. I’d say, don’t forget your players as a valuable resource for making sure your plot ideas are sufficiently awesome–after all, they’re the ones who’re going to be playing through it!

#3 Comment By DNAphil On March 12, 2010 @ 10:40 am

@jaydot – I like to use my players for a sounding board for some things, and I am a huge advocate for letting the players drive the direction of the game, but there are times when I have ideas that I want to surprise the players with, that I cannot use them as my sounding board. It in those cases, I like to go to my GMSb and run ideas past her.

#4 Comment By jaydot On March 12, 2010 @ 11:17 am

Hmm maybe that’s my failing then. Every time I’ve tried to surprise my players, I find they’d have rather had a greater hand in the plot reveal.

… Or maybe I need a better GMSb!!

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 12, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

My wife and I often emulate the lopsided interaction between Drs House and Wilson on House MD. I have something simmering on the back burner, and am talking about something else entirely, and BAM! there’s the answer in an analogy. Or I’ll just be explaining the situation and she will ask a simple question that will break the logjam in my head.

She’s not a gamer, but she’s smart and willing to listen to my gamer prattle. And that works for me.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On March 12, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

That’s a drawback I hadn’t really considered to gaming with my wife. We get to play together, which is awesome, but when I’m GMing, I rarely get to draw on her insight.

I was a pretty good sounding board when she was making her first adventure– she had the vision and knew what she wanted to do, while I was able to ask the “so how does this follow from the last scene” and “hey, your villains are were-beasties… why not make that puzzle moon based”? That was for the girls group– a game I knew I wouldn’t be playing in. It would be awesome to harness some of that for the other weeks…

#7 Comment By longtooth On March 20, 2010 @ 12:28 am

While not a player, My wife is very supportive of my gaming. She knows when I have just come up with something cool and lets me tell her all about it. I have also started trying to make a more a more permanent record of my ideas, and she helps me edit the content, and gives me feedback. She rocks!

#8 Comment By BryanB On March 23, 2010 @ 9:36 am

I love the idea of a GM Sounding Board. It is one of the reasons that I participate in the RPGnet forums. Most of the local GM’s that I would value using as a sounding board play in my games. That just doesn’t work for obvious reasons. :D

So I turn to the forums on RPGnet and see what GMs at large think about what I am planning. Since none of my other players frequent this forum, I am fairly confident that my plots remain unseen. And if they saw a game thread by me, I’m sure that they would stay out to avoid the spoilage.


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