One of the best ways to learn is by watching other GMs work. Being a player gives you perspective — often a better perspective than what’s offered from behind the screen. Good practices. Bad practices. You can learn from all of it.
Here are some of things I’ve learned about the GMing craft by observing others:

Silence is golden

As a teen I got invited to Bill’s game. That was fortunate — all the other players were college aged. Was I intimidated? Just a tad … (which, admittedly, might color how I remembered those games).

This was the era of gaming greatly influenced by wargaming’s legacy, and Bill was very much in the mold of a judge from that time. He would provide brief room descriptions, then sit back and watch. He would step forward to adjudicate only when required.

He operated like the old basketball adage: If after the game the referees seemed to be invisible, they probably did a pretty good job.

This might fall into the category of “let the players play.”  Anyway, in Bill’s game, the players set the pace. The approach was ideal for his dungeon crawls.

I guess those times Bill roleplayed NPCs were memorable not because he was a particularly adept actor, but because of his restraint in other aspects of the game. Because when he chose to talk, you knew it was time to listen closely.

We call it … a battlemap

Understand, I started in an era when that the only map in the game was the one secure behind  the GMs screen. One player might be designated as the mapper, which he dutifully tried to scratch out on a worn and crumpled piece of graph paper. Its accuracy was questionable, at best.

But the rest of the game was narrative. Combat was described.

Sure, some players might bring minis. And these might be displayed on a grid. But the players controlled that. Only the GM knew for certain if what we were representing on the table was accurate.

(Remember, these were the days when the GM’s role might accurately be described as adversarial — not cooperative, as is the assumption today).

I think the first time I saw a true battlemap in play was for a science fiction rpg at a convention in East Peoria. This GM, whose name I cannot remember, unfortunately, had a easel-sized tablet of grid paper. Each sheet in the tablet was another encounter area, with all the terrain and obstacles clearly detailed in magic marker. As the adventure progressed, all he had to do was flip the page and present a new encounter area.

For a GM running a convention game, it was outstanding preparation. But I immediately grasped how much more streamlined this approach was. Yes, a party is not likely to get lost in Undermountain with such an approach — but any game with turn-based combat, this seemed like an elegant solution. I became an advocate of this approach.

I loved drawing up my own battlemaps in crayon. (Crayon is the best because the colors are so vibrant and so quick to fill in). I even shared that method with the readers of Dungeon. (Prison Mail, Issue 119).

Today, of course, GMs have a score of such products at their disposal, whether it’s Flip-Mats, Dungeon Tiles or a bevy of printable terrain cards. Gaming’s even come full circle with three-dimensional products. And for me, personally, I’m now hip deep into plaster — building my own floor tiles, modular dungeons and set pieces for my games.

But it was that very prepared convention GM who set me on this path.

Short ’n’ sweet

More recently, I got a reminder of how a terse, brief description can be more effective than a shelf full of background material.

I mean, that’s quite an admission, coming from me. I’m the guy who provides a 10-page player background document for players in my setting. I open most sessions with paragraphs-long descriptions of the events as they’ve transpired.

Silence may be golden once the game gets under way, but at the outset, this GM is going to get his say in.

I had to be reminded less can be more in some instances.

This lesson came from Robert, who is taking his turn from our group to move behind the GM screen. My direction for character creation for his new campaign: A single sentence.

You don’t know how liberating that was. I had a clear instruction, a solid idea of the adventure setting, and a target for my PC. What more could I ask for?

There is mystery about this setting, and Robert’s wise about playing it close to the vest. It’s refreshing.

Swing the spotlight over here

If I have GMing mentor, Ken is it. Maybe it’s because he participates in local theater productions, but he always has a sense of drama in his games. And one thing his is particularly good at is providing spotlight moments for players during encounters.

One of his best tactics is “divide and conquer.” In other words, he finds ways to isolate PCs in the midst of combat, providing them with a chance to enter the spotlight. He usually achieves this by the way he moves monsters and NPCs around the encounter area. The trick, of course, is that in most games, the key to overcoming obstacles is for the players to work as a team. He’s pretty consistent at balancing that out.

One thing he does exceptionally well is “read” a character sheet. I admit it, when I look at a PCs sheet, all I see are numbers, and I’m the last person who’ll check the math to see that it’s right. But Ken’s pretty adroit at seeing the intended “character” buried inside those numbers. I think that gives him some insight at laying out situations that beg for players to step into the spotlight. The encounter probably won’t be tailored for a particular PC, but if there is an aspect a given PC might exploit, then Ken will lay it out there for them. Maybe it’s not always subtle, but when is a spotlight subtle, anyway?

About  Troy E. Taylor

Troy's happiest when up to his elbows in plaster molds and craft paint, creating terrain and detailing minis for his home game. A career journalist and Werecabbages freelancer, he also claims mastery of his kettle grill, from which he serves up pizza to his wife and three children.



12 Responses to Troy’s Crock Pot: Learning from others

  1. Those are some great teachers! I’m similar, in that I enjoy a game while it’s going on, but if I really liked it, I try to reverse engineer how they made it awesome.

  2. Troy, would you mind going back into your article and spacing the separate paragraphs? I find it to be a massive wall o’ text, which unfortunately colours my judgement of the content (unfair, but true).

    The article itself was a great idea. I’m trying to think of my mentors. I had two in high-school, one in university and one after university.

    I think, though, that some of the worst GMs I had taught me a lot more than the good ones.

    Sometimes the good GMs are just so good you don’t slip out of the immersion to even take note of it whereas the bad ones’ problems are very easy to stop and dissect because you’re sitting there, very aware that you’re disengaged and that something’s up.

  3. (“spot” not “stop.” Will the Stew ever allow for a timed edit feature?)

    :(

  4. I agree 100% with the article. I always recommend to those who want to dm to watch or participate in as many games as possible to see and check out different styles of Dming.

    Then pick and choose what you think out might like or want to do for your dming style and give it a go when you actually do run the game.

  5. Great article. I also agree that some of the best lessons I’ve learned as a GM came from some of the bad ones.

    A good friend of mine was a decent GM but when he started studying film his games just went down hill.

    He totally had a script that HE wanted to tell, but wouldn’t give us any clues in game as to what was going on. And we’d spend 8 hour sessions accomplishing nothing. We’d all try to do stuff, stuff that could possibly get some action going, but since none of it was in the direction that he had planned nothing manifested. The only reason I showed up after a while was to hang out with friends once a month.

    He’s also the same guy that taught me that there is only ONE gm for a game when a second friend, who lived with the first one, ran a game that we were all in. the first GM basically ran his character as a GM PC throughout the whole thing because between games the two would talk and the first friend would influence the game the second friend would plan and run in the next session.

    I love them both, but I’m really glad I don’t game with them any more.

  6. I’m a huge fan of the silent treatment, but it has to be used in moderation I find. In most of my games I tend to give some background on the world and have the players create their PCs, then set the stage and sit back and watch the fun. More often than not, players know they have the room to run and find far more interesting ways to get in trouble than I may have planned for – but a mix of on-the-fly and planned session bits works great!

    Awesome article Troy!

  7. @Rafe – Or a “preview” feature?

  8. @shadowacid – “some of the best lessons I’ve learned as a GM came from some of the bad [GMs]”

    Oh yeah. A memorably bad game taught me that one of the really bad things a GM can do is bait and switch the players as to the nature of the game being played.

    Nothing like signing up for dark Swords and Sorcery and ending up playing watered-down D&D. He even had Halflings FFS!

    Thanks to this aweful experience, if the direction a campaign I’m running has taken is leading us away from the style of game everyone signed up for I have a damned good think, usually about three hours worth over a couple of commutes, then, if I can’t see a way to keep everything cooking to the recipe everyone agreed to, we talk.

  9. Nice article… however I find that most GMs now, are much more competitive/aggressive than they were in the past.
    Also today, there seems to be much more focus on the details of a combat, that the overarching story.
    Perhaps that is just the crew I hang with.

  10. Very interesting – oddly enough, I find that I remember bad DMs a lot more than good DMs. Here’s a tip: when you’re rolling initiative for non combat situations, pretend to have a call on your cell phone and leave.

    Annihilating important NPCs in those campaigns is always a blast, though, even though you know they’ll be back next scene unperturbed. And now when I GM I have exactly one rule: let the players have their kills. Period.

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