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The Perfect GM?

Fang asks, What Makes the Perfect Gamemaster? [1].

It is having fascinating world, scenarios and characters? Being able improvise, but not railroad? Perhaps if one lets players act whenever / however they like? Iā€™m a big proponent for keeps things moving; is that it? Maybe a perfect gamemaster can handle a split party with perfectly equal spotlight time? Memorizes all the rules? Is fair to the players but not the NPCs?

I like his required skill set, though they’re as impossible to reach as perfection implies. The linked post has some great advice for answering the first question: for creating and sharing a fascinating world, characters, and scenarios. Read his article [1] for a fascinating way to create and share and exciting setting, while I hunt down some leads on the other questions.

Being able improvise, but not railroad? If you’re looking to react to the character’s plans, you need several things. One important, but often overlooked, required element are proactive characters. If the PCs don’t do anything, there’s no spark for improvisation. If your characters are poking and prodding at the scene (here’s a great article from Heather Grove [2] about encouraging this), then it’s time to improvise. Take a look at Patrick’s advice on the subject [3]. (Or commenter BryanB [4].)

Perhaps if one lets players act whenever / however they like? This may tie into questions about characters do you allow evil characters? [5], or being jerks (argument #3 from this post [6]), but let’s set those “bad apple” cases aside for a moment.

Letting players act whenever and however they like is normally associated with sandbox play [6]. The plot, if any, is in the background and the spotlight is on the characters and their actions. The world responds organically to their actions– NPCs react to the PC actions, rather than having a quest to carry out. The characters get into whatever interests them (or their players), when they get around to it.

Iā€™m a big proponent for keeps things moving; is that it? If you’re looking to keep things moving, keep an eye on Walt’s suggestions for Short Sessions [7]. Take his advice and you’ll dramatically streamline your sessions. Even Dr. Horrible [8] can teach you about pacing. But if you want great advice for pacing, let Fang walk you through The Most Important Gamemastering Tool [9].

Maybe a perfect gamemaster can handle a split party with perfectly equal spotlight time? Troy’s spotlight encounters [10] discussion is great for helping you figure out how to make individuals shine, split or together. Walt has great advice about managing subplots [11]. Martin’s recent post about White Wolf Preludes, Round Robin Style [12] is a perfect example of spotlight management. It will serve you mid-game as well as it does kicking things off.

Memorizes all the rules? Knowing the rules makes a game go more smoothly– no argument here. Still, Sometimes to Run a Fun Game You Need to Ignore the Game [13]. Besides, there are other rules that aren’t in your book that may be just as important to your game. Like the Rule of Fun [14] and the Rule of Cool [15].

Is fair to the players but not the NPCs? This too is important. Who wants to show up to a game where the GM plays Calvinball, changing the rules at a whim to mangle the PCs? Of course, “fair” is subject to a lot of debate– fudging die rolls, inter-player balance [16], and even which scenes must be played out [17].

So that’s the crash course to make you the perfect GM. Let us know if it works!

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Perfect GM?"

#1 Comment By Karizma On March 4, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

For starters, I bet The Perfect GM is a gnome!

Excellent post full of Link Love for me to munch through. The gnomes should get a vacation after today!

#2 Comment By Rafe On March 5, 2009 @ 9:56 am

I hate to come off as way the hell out there but…

The perfect GM = whatever the players and GM are most happy with. Some players like to be led, others like to lead. Some enjoy restrictions and focus, others love the sandbox (re: character options and setting/pacing). Some creative GMs know the rules well enough to run the game and leave rules referencing to their encyclopediae while others like to have a complete understanding of the system.

Ultimately, whatever makes the group as a whole happy is what you go with. I know I change my style somewhat depending on the group of players I’m catering to and the system we’re all enjoying.

#3 Comment By SmallBlueGod On March 5, 2009 @ 11:20 am

Perfect is a funny make believe word. But like Rafe said, the closest your going to get to perfect is a GM who can play to his crowd/audience.

For some of my players I have to write out intricate stories & sub plots which point where they need to go (essentially ‘railroading’ them along even though they don’t know it) to keep them involved while others need an open sand box & a GM who can improvise to let them devise all their own turmoil & plots.

To each their own.

That being said when I get to play (as opposed to GMing) I prefer to play with a GM who has a story & a plot in mind maybe he even knows how it should end, but knows how to adlib and is inspired to more antics by the player characters actions. Not everyone can be quick all the time, but an inspired GM is fun to play with.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On March 5, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

I agree with you all– the perfect GM is a situational, group or player specific person. If you could master all of the stuff in the post, you still might not be the right person for a group. I know that I beat myself up for my imperfections sometimes, so sometimes it is nice to show just how much there is to the role.

Besides, it gave me a chance to link to a lot of great articles– some of them I didn’t clearly remember until google brought them back.

#5 Comment By Tony Graham On March 5, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

I suspect a “perfect GM” would be dull, dull, dull.

A competent GM running a familiar group of players – all dedicated to the game – is as close to perfect as I would wish for. All too often, the imperfections – the mistakes – create the most enjoyable and memorable moments.

Give me effort, emotion, investment & warts every time, please.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 7, 2009 @ 11:28 am

Scott, this is an awesome Gnome Stew retrospective in link form — I love it!

[18] – I like your way of looking at it, Tony. We’re never going to be perfect, and even near-perfection probably isn’t desirable.

#7 Comment By BryanB On March 8, 2009 @ 11:54 am

I think one of the most important things for any GM to remember is that there is no such thing as “the perfect GM.” We all make mistakes, even those of us who have been doing this hobby for decades. The key is to try and learn from the gaffes and apply the knowledge of experience into how we do what we do in future games.

Good post Scott. And ALOHA, I am back from paradise! šŸ™‚

#8 Comment By DocRyder On March 10, 2009 @ 11:59 pm


Back from Paradise? You poor bastard. šŸ™‚

#9 Comment By BryanB On March 11, 2009 @ 9:51 am

[20] – Hey there Doc… Your statement truly applies. You should have seen the stack of mail on my desk when reality hit me on Monday!