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The Guest GM Experience

Posted By Don Mappin On May 23, 2011 @ 12:50 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Recently I was afforded the rare opportunity to slide into the center seat and be a guest GM — or “Narrator” in this case — for our regular Star Trek game. I say “rare” because in my 30 years of gaming, it’s something I’d never done before.

It started innocently enough, with Martin not having enough time available to prep a game I casually made mention that Star Trek game ideas for me are like those old AOL discs that showed up in the mail: unsolicited and far more than you could ever possibly use. Next thing I knew we were discussing my filling in — leaving my Delta commanding officer on the sideline — to run an adventure as a guest Narrator.

There was some concern on Martin’s part that my game might be “too good” and the group would be reticent to return to his tired and worn stories. Poppycock, of course, but a concern that I hadn’t, frankly, considered. This was a bit of an unusual situation in that I’ve been running Star Trek games for a good portion of those 30 years and have design and writing credits for several products within the last two iterations of the published RPG. This was Martin’s first Star Trek campaign.

The idea that I pitched was a below decks campaign — starting characters on board the same vessel, the U.S.S. Endurance — but with dramatically different duties and perspectives versus the “regular cast.” Essentially the season seven Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Lower Decks,” on a reoccurring basis.

The Same…But Different

Part of the appeal was taking the life on board the U.S.S. Endurance and turning it on its side. A chance for the players (and Martin) to experience things from a slightly different point-of-view. Using the same ship allowed for continuity; the players already knew the major characters on board.

Making the new PCs ensign rank characters also changed the scope of the stories that I would be telling dramatically. While Martin’s campaign is, ostensibly, about the mounting tensions with the Romulan Empire, impending war, and pesky Iconian conduits, mine would be about more mundane — but still important — events that would realistically be beneath the command crew’s purview.

I had their other characters (sans Martin, of course) make guest appearances, including my own captain. I figured everyone would get a thrill in seeing glimpses of how the “little people” perceive their regular command characters.

For Martin I made sure to use his signature NPCs, from the always-complaining chief medical officer, to the droll Vulcan bartender from the ship’s bar, “Shakleton’s.” All characters he created and has had to play. So each of them is, in a way, a friendly nod to his hard work.

The ensigns were the first step; I also required the glue to keep them together. In this case I created “Response Teams” on board the vessel. Emergency response teams that muster in the case of an emergency (alert status) and are assigned to a deck. I stuck them on the largest deck on a Excelsior-class starship, deck 7 of the primary hull. Deck 7 has lots of neat stuff: the primary and secondary computer core access, transporter room, sickbay, battle bridge, “Shakleton’s,” turbolift control, science labs, and portions of the impulse reactor core. Lots of stuff to break and involve the ensigns in!

In fact, deck 7 is so large that two teams man it: RT-71 (port team) and RT-72 (starboard team). The other team is comprised of up-and-coming ensigns hellbent on being the next Captain Kirk, so instantly our players have a reoccurring foil for their adventures and of roughly the same power level.

So as to disarm the concern that my ensigns adventures would somehow be “better” or overshadow Martin’s campaign, the first two were deliberately “echos” of our primary character’s adventures, simply from a different point-of-view. That may not sound interesting, but while the overall mission and timeline of events were the same, much more different experiences were happening “below decks.” Discovering a Romulan saboteur, disarming a bomb, helping administer triage to wounded Starfleet personnel, and more.

Instead of competing with Martin’s adventures, I was complementing them.

Finally, I snuck in a small, overarching plot of my own to provide continuity through adventures and using the concept of the “temporal cold war” first used in Enterprise. Should I screw anything up I’ve got time modification (hey, it’s Star Trek!) sitting in my corner, ready to go. It also differentiates my ensign game (temporal cold war bits) from Martin’s (Romulan incursion).

The General Orders

Martin and I never discussed any rules and he’s given me access to everything I need, including our game wiki to update and keep current. However, I’ve mentally made a list of a few of my ground rules for the campaign:

  • Leave everything as I found it. If an NPC has to die, it’s one that gets introduced in the episode I create. The major NPCs (Martin’s) have script immunity. So do the primary PCs who are safeguarded while I’m in command. The Endurance may get banged up (gotta love space battles!) but in the end she makes it back.
  • When possible, dovetail off the “canon” episodes that Martin has already done. Not only does it support the adventures from another angle, but it also allows us to revisit them. This is a good thing. They were fun the first time so why not see them from a fresh pair of eyes? Even so, they are different enough that Martin has no advantage himself.
  • Maintain the scope and power level. The characters are ensigns and the default target number (TN) for tasks in my game is significantly lower than in Martin’s with the command crew. These are basic characters just out of the Academy; they’re not of the same vein as Kirk, Picard, and Sisko (yet). So the adventures need to support this. Even their scope needs to be smaller and deal with less “heavy” things like stopping interstellar war. The ensigns shouldn’t be doing the jobs that the PCs do in Martin’s game.
  • Provide new wrinkles to the game. I’ve already introduced two new mechanical elements to the campaign to help make the ensign’s game feel different instead of just a rehash of the main game with a new coat of paint. I feel it’s important to try to enhance the game and give something back, rather than just run my game in a silo.
  • Provide hooks and opportunities to Martin to tie into the ensigns game and potentially bring those adventures into the primary game. In short, if I can leave enough potential hooks out there and that becomes the genesis of an adventure for Martin then that’s a good thing as that (presumably) makes his adventure creation easier, thus allowing us to play more Star Trek.

So that’s all I have for now. The experiment is a few months old and everything seems to be going strong. As I said, it’s my first foray into guest GMing, so I’m not quite sure what to expect! One downside is that this does drain enough of my time that prep on my other game is falling by the wayside. I’m unsure if anyone cares as we’re having a blast!

Running a guest campaign of your own? Share some of your tips below!

Engage!

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Guest GM Experience"

#1 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 23, 2011 @ 8:48 am

Sounds awesome, Don!

I’m a bit confused by the terminology. At the beginning of the article, you mention taking over for an adventure, but you ended up designing an entire campaign (and called it a campaign at the end of the article). That’s much more involved than what I think of as a “Guest GM.”

#2 Comment By DNAphil On May 23, 2011 @ 9:03 am

Love It!

In my Corporation campaign I am running, the players are getting to the point where their Division will be assigned a Green Division, for them to use as a resource, running small missions and such. This would be an awesome spot for letting one of my players run something very similar.

#3 Comment By drow On May 23, 2011 @ 11:20 am

did something similar in my eberron campaign, based on the SG-1 episode ‘The Other Guys’. the party had recovered a floating city of the titans from orbit and were using it in a raid on Shavarath. in our case, one of the players wasn’t going to be able to make it that week. instead of calling off the game completely, i prepared an alternate scenario involving a group of Cyran survivors aboard the vessel (pregen PCs) trying to stop some low-level demons from sabotaging it from within. it turned out great, and was pretty memorable.

#4 Comment By Virgil Vansant On May 23, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

First off, I love the idea of a “Below Decks” campaign. I’ve done something similar when there’s a shortage of players, and sometimes ran a shorter side story with tangential characters. They’ve been fun, but it looks like you’ve taken it to the next level. You’re not doing some one-shot guest adventure, but you’ve made a whole complementary campaign. I agree with Walt that you’re short-changing yourself by calling yourself a “Guest GM” — it sounds so much more like a shared world.

#5 Comment By evil On May 23, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

I’ve done something like what you’ve done, except from a slightly different view….the adventure that I guested in followed the main story but from the point of view of low-level henchment. The PCs didn’t do anything horrible, but some of their antics and crimes created ripples that were later cleaned up by the players in their hero costumes. It’s always fun to turn things around, and a guest GM (we usually like this to come in the form of a player that is killed out early or has to leave play for whatever reason) is a good way to do it.

#6 Comment By Don Mappin On May 23, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

@Walt and @Virgil:
You’re right, the verbiage isn’t entirely clear but I’ve kept it as-is because, initially, the design was to simply run an adventure (or two). But over time — and at Martin’s insistence — the ensigns adventures are a part of the larger Endurance campaign. So what started as just a “side fling” is now incorporated into the larger whole. My episodes are part of the campaign listing and are more tightly integrated; Martin and I consult in broad terms as to what each of us are up to. It’s a little tricky since one of us plays in the other’s game. ;)

So the situation has kind of evolved. I still consider it his campaign, however. I just get to play around in the sandbox some. :)

#7 Comment By ongoingworlds On May 23, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

Great article! There are loads of ways you can expand the Star Trek universe, it’s so versatile! There are some examples here http://sciencefictionideas.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/10-ideas-for-star-trek-rpgs/
and here
http://sciencefictionideas.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/10-more-ideas-for-star-trek-rpgs/

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 23, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

Sounds like a great experience. I like the way it evolved from a one-shot filler into a braided campaign– it’s certainly less pressure to let it evolve that way than design it in from the start.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 23, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

“Braided campaign” is a great description, Scott — this is so much more than Don guest GMing, really. The things he’s introduced — brilliantly — have given me all sorts of ideas, enriched the whole group’s experience of the game, and overall added something I wouldn’t have been able to guess at without seeing it in action. I’m probably not doing a good job describing it here — it’s hard to describe how cool this has been!

Great piece, Don! In 10 years, this is going to be a campaign I remember fondly in large part to your co-GMing and the richness of the whole experience. I say “experience” because it’s no longer just a game I GM or play in, and it’s more than just a game I GM and play in.

Suffice to say, if any of our readers get a chance to try this, jump at it!


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