Saturday, 21 December 2013

Guest Article - An Introduction to GMing

This guest article is by a local hobbyist and GM, Phil.

The attention to detail he puts into props and background for his campaigns and the depth of the worlds he creates is absolutely incredible so I figured if any-one was a good candidate to write a guide to GMing then it would be him. Now over to's his first article...


How many of you have wanted to run a role-playing game but you've been unsure of the specifics and you haven’t taken the plunge yet? I'm imagining some hands up, some nodding of heads and some uncomfortable shuffling at the back of the room.

It’s this topic, and how I prepare for running a RPG that I wanted to discuss today. Not everyone will do it the same way as I do. I'm not claiming my way is right just this is how I do it, so if you take anything from this article it’s this...If you want to run an RPG game, then do it. Running games is how we learn and running these types of games is a continual learning experience. I know what it’s like to dive in the deep end but I know how rewarding it is too. My first role-playing experience was running a game of Dark Heresy about five or six years ago and I've never looked back!

Now to assault you with a wall of my opinions…

The first and foremost concern when I’I'I'm thinking about what game to run and how to begin writing it is to consider who I'm writing it for. Obviously I'm writing it for me, as a GM you have to enjoy your game. You will not finish running it if every session is like pulling teeth. Just as important is your audience, you wouldn't show Nightmare on Elm Street to a seven year old…right? Well the same is true for RPGs, your game has to match its intended audience. Talk to your prospective players, what type of game do they want to play?
Do they want a tense crime thriller full of atmosphere and investigation that leaves them jumping at shadows? If that’s the case then a shooty, shooty, bang, bang game like Deathwatch may be a bad call. If they want to run around jumping off walls shooting two handguns at mooks and acting like John McClane in Die Hard think about writing a Feng Shui scenario rather than an investigative heavy Call of Cthulhu. Part one of a successful RPG is pitching the right game for the right audience. If it’s something they want to play then they’re pre-disposed to enjoying it and to staying in character, but more on that later.

Thanks to an editorial oversight there’s no rule to say this can’t be a concealable weapon!?!?!
Right, so you've picked your game of choice and you know how your group wants it to play out? So where do we go now? Well, a lot of systems have a pre-written scenario. Usually at least one will be present in the core rulebook so if you don’t want to write your own or if time is of a concern then that’s a great place to start.

I would suggest two things, number one being to tell your players to not read the scenario in the core rulebook upon pain of suitable punishment and number two to embellish on these pre-written stories. You want to make the characters and descriptions yours. Often these stories will have something like “the characters move down a corridor” which is a perfectly apt but utterly pedestrian way of setting a scene – make the description yours and your draw your players in. Once you’ve done that you’re ready to run the story.

For those writing their own campaigns it’s a bit more complicated, I hope you’re taking notes there will be a test (there won’t…).

Here’s a hard truth that you learn through running games. You will never be able to make your players do anything, running a game is like trying to herd cats in a factory that sells bits of string and tiny balls that jingle. As the author and narrator of the scenario we are blessed with absolute knowledge. We know where to go and what to do and what seems obvious to us can be as opaque to your players as a sign on a brick wall saying “this is really quite opaque”, hidden behind a small copse of trees. The best advice I can give is to embrace this fact now. Accept it. The sooner you do that then the quicker you’ll realise that you can cope with it and  you can make it so the game enjoyable for all involved without doing the worst sin of the GM.

The worst sin of a GM is railroading your player’s actions or choices, even from a place of good intentions nothing kills the believability of a story like an obviously forced choice. It’s what the invisible wall is to video gamers, or a conspicuous pile of healing items and weapons that might as well have a sign saying “here be monsters”.  It’s you leaning into the game world and announcing “You have to go this way because of plot reasons” and it can come across as incredibly trite and works only in the most basic of shooting galleries.

Look how sad John Hurt is, it’s because he railroaded his players to try and maintain the story and now it’s all gone wrong...
The games that tend to most easily fall into this style of writing is Dungeons & mythical creatures (see: Dragons) based adventures, where one room in the dungeon leads to another etc and all other routes are blocked due to plot devices and deux ex machina. The end results are predictable characters engaging in predictable actions and combat is reduced to “I'm going to do my x or y power, I roll a # to hit” I know! Nail biting drama there, right? The last thing I think you want your story to be described as is mechanical, like the example I've given above is. The example relies on dice rolling and the exact rules of the game rather than characters naturally evolving and interacting in the world.

So am I suggesting you plan for every eventuality, every possible scenario or place that your players could go? No, not at all in some games that could be an entire planet or larger. Life is too short you’ll spend all your time writing and none of it playing, and at the end you’ll be a running mate with George R. R Martin for length of time between episodes.

Seek a middle ground. Have an idea of the places players could go, how they may act and what sort of people they can meet there and what information they can find out, but none of these needs to be set in stone. Ad-libbing is totally acceptable and in most cases once your players realise that a location they go to is not vital they will move on. Instead plan out the major locations the players can go, these areas that are either intrinsic to the story itself or that can contain characters who are essential to the plot.

Even the exact layout of these locations needs not to be absolute until you have revealed it to the group in game. I'm running a Cthulhu campaign at the moment, when I plan places I decide what rooms are in each location and what is in each of those rooms. All the locations are in the body of my text document along with what they contain and any details I need to remember to emphasise. The rest of the details are ad-libbed around the core that I have defined, because the fine detail isn't essential to have pre-written up exactly and in the nicest way who has the time? Not only does ad-libbing save on planning time, it can make scenarios feel less rigid which can occur when they are over-structured.

More important in my opinion is to define your non-player characters that are essential to your world. Having believable NPCs helps keep your players involved with and believing in the world you are creating. When I define my characters I like to define their physical appearance and mannerisms, their personality and the background events that have happened to them. Non-player character background history is important to making the characters you play real. Your players may never find out all the details that you have written for each character that is true, a lot of this detail may only ever be known by you as the GM.

The more background they have the easier it is for you to become them and to act as they would. Often people find changing speech pattern, rhythm or adopting different mannerisms or tics helps with characterisation. Develop and learn your characters motivations and the events that shaped them. You bring them to life, the more rounded and human they seem the better.

When narrating events in your story remember to evoke the sounds, smells and sights of the world as your players navigate through it and do not underestimate the added touches you can give to enhance a scene. If they enter into a room and there is background music on in the background, if you have a laptop actually put that music on quietly. If your players find a letter, actually have a copy of it written or printed out if you can. Hand it to the person who found it but don’t say what it says out loud. They can read it and share it if they want to, or not. “You find a letter, it says blah blah blah” can get monotonous and people can easily forget but physical props stick in people’s minds and enhance the experience.

Lastly I want to discuss something I've come to realise over time. At first I was an adherent to the letter of the law regarding game rules and what actions called for what specific tests. I wanted to run everything by the book, if there was a stat I wanted to test it every time when it was applicable. Looking back I’d tell past me to not be afraid to be fast and loose with the rule set.

If someone convinces me by being in character and by giving me a story that is told well, is convincing and makes sense – then there’s really no need for that convince roll, assuming my NPC has no reason to doubt the player characters word. Too often have I seen stats scupper amazing role-playing, or the mechanical application or dice rolls become a substitute for the weaving of a compelling character driven story.

It’s perfectly within the rules…the spirit of the game may be weeping in the corner, but it’s totally within the rules...
So here’s my summary, don’t worry about the small details, define your key locations and the key non-player characters and keep your descriptions fresh and evocative of the setting. Use whatever you can to generate atmosphere, prompt interaction with the world you’re creating and to bring the world to life. Involve your players at every step of the process, make sure you know who you are writing for and what their expectations are. It sounds obvious but do not underestimate the value of feedback. Constructive criticism and praise on a session by session basis can help improve each session and build confidence, ask your players to be honest with their thoughts.

I hope that in some way this has given some food for thought, even if you ultimately disagree with things that I have said. Thank you for reading.

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