~Beyond the Border~ > Rumia's Party Games

On storytelling, gamemastering, and the approaches thereto

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I've seen Rumia's gain more and more activity for the past year or so, with lots of people hopping in as game masters to some sort of RPG or other. I think this is great, and I do feel that a GM is no less an artist than a playwright or a painter.

I've had a lot of experience as a GM, and I'd like to think I've picked up a few things over the years. I know that some of you out there also have your experiences to share, and I am certain that novice GMs must also hold some interesting views on what they do and how they do it.

In this thread I wish to hold discussion on, essentially, what makes a good GM, their philosophy, the techniques they use, the tricks and methods to really make an RPG work.

I will start off with a little discourse on what I feel is most important to being a GM:

Rule Aleph

This is a game for a GM and several players. Everyone must have fun. If there is somebody not having fun, then it is up to the GM to figure out why. To reiterate - this is a game for a GM and several players. This is not an opportunity for someone to dump their noninteractive novel onto some onlookers.


Pretty much a requirement of being a GM, a good sense of improvisation allows one to achieve many things, allowing a game to run seamlessly without the players being any the wiser when they mess everything up. This is really too broad to really go into detail - the ability to develop anything from throwaway NPCs to entire dungeons on the fly, the control of how quickly a session runs, the ability to respond to the madness that players usually bring - but I will bring it up in the next few paragraphs.

A sense of story and plot

Some will argue that the best RPG is of the sandbox type, where the player characters are tossed into a world to mess around in, and the GM responds to their shenanigans. I call nonsense. Most players, and I state this confidently, have no idea what they want to do, even having put together a character and backstory. (I will discuss the exception later.) Due to this, players simply need to be led around with a technique commonly referred to in a derogatory manner as railroading, literally meaning that the players are stuck on one track that goes in one direction. (Of course, this is a terrible practice in excess, which I will also discuss later.) It then becomes up to the GM to stitch together a plot from which stories can emerge, that the players can latch on to. If players are unable to decide what they wish to do, the GM is to present a plot hook to them, an obvious anchor point that the PCs can follow that will lead them on adventures with satisfactory conclusions. Unless running a game from pre-written material, it is then, obviously, entirely up to the GM to put together a setting and to detail it enough that such plot hooks can emerge which players can follow.

The exception: Player buy-in.

Active players are a blessing. They will not only work with the GM to flesh out a setting, but they will also clearly establish what they want from a game, and strongly make their character a part of the world, making it exceptionally easy to develop challenges and stories for them. They will also initiate stories by themselves without the need for plot hooks. If you have such players, appreciate them.


I personally prefer to prepare everything in advance. I mean everything. I have spent from a summer vacation to a whole year preparing games - major NPCs, factions, locations, plot points, the works. I like to think I have a good sense of plot, and I can spin a pretty good yarn. I need time to do so, however, and I thus take this time to make sure everything comes together and makes sense. Typically, however, a GM will prepare a session or two in advance from foreknowledge of the previous session, and that is fine. Preparation really comes from the above section on a sense of plot - this is the time that the GM takes to find plot hooks, double-check story connections, and, of course, make sure the monsters have numbers attached to them. In a curious sense, the ability to improvise comes as almost a counterpoint to preparation - surely one removes the necessity for the other?

In a sense, they do - a perfectly improvised game will be almost be indistinguishable from a perfectly prepared game. However, none of us are perfect, so we have to have the two work in tandem to make sure that one fills in the holes in the other. For example, I believe that no dialogue should be prepared - it's the difference between talking to a person and to an answering machine - hence I make sure to improvise all NPC dialogue. On the other hand, I know that sometimes when I improvise a dungeon, they tend to be too dry and functional, so I spend time preparing to add detail to make them come alive - the difference between a rat-infested sewer dungeon and an underground almost-city with its own rules and inhabitants.


Nothing is worse than seeing players looking bored, wondering what to do next, while one of them puts together clues that only they understood. Improvisation comes in here - how do you get everything back on-track again, and the players rearing to get to their next objective? The obvious-sounding solution that it took me quite a while to get is, well, give them their next objective. Were you planning on dropping the big reveal in the middle of the sky-cathedral as the hosts of Heaven look on? It won't happen if the players are stuck figuring out where to go from a dank tavern in the middle of nowhere. Pull in the story tighter, accelerate events, do not be afraid to make things happen earlier than they should. Improvisation and preparation really shine together here, as one has to be well-prepared to be able to shuffle things around on the fly without everything falling apart.


In the wise words of Some Guy On The Internet:

--- Quote ---The GM is the world-master, the forger of stars and planets, the birther of all life, and the grand mind behind life, the universe and everything. Yet even the most minor of NPCs is more important than the GM.
--- End quote ---

The GM must quickly realise that the players are, ultimately, more important than him to the game. After all, without them, it would just be a person at a table with some books and some numbers. Whilst possibly in contradiction to some of the things stated above, a GM should be ready to change at a moment's notice to please his players. The GM's hand should never be felt in a game, there should be nothing that tells the players "hey, you're just my pawns here." Going back to Rule Aleph - it is the players that make the story, ultimately, not the GM. There are lots of grey areas here - inactive players will need to be led by the hand before they do something, for example, but if a player says "I want to do this" the GM had better have a damned good reason if he does not immediately say "Yes." An acceptable alternative would be "Roll the dice".

I'm dedicating a whole paragraph to the dreaded GMPC. The Player Character controlled by the GM himself. No. Never, under no circumstances, ever do this. Even GM's Voice characters - NPCs that exist solely to tell the PCs what the GM thinks they should be doing, or simply tell them plot or setting information - are poor form.

It's running late for me, so I'll leave this here. I'll go into finer details later - the GM's tools and tricks, like Foreshadowing, Thematics, Allusions, Blatant Stealing etc.

Hello Purvis:
To build on Fightest's Note about Railroading: Creating a track is not a bad thing. Forcing players to stay on it when they have other desires is. Assuming what they're trying to do isn't anti-plausible in their characters' reality. If they'd rather do Y than X, look into the plausibility of Y.

Excellent input! Brings this to mind:

I understand. it is a simple matter of good Game design. Something that ZUN talks about, also what Square did back in the day where there was Square. Generally you want to design as much imagination as possible. It is a matter of how you think others would go with the situation. Nowdays... someone said that there are already something in people that they approach games with, some sort of understatement of the role of the system, which you gain exp, deal damage etc... It is the goal of the game, to kill someone, so why bother to talk with him?

Interestingly enough I put my trust into having players talked what they are doing exactly, then rolling the necessary dices. Such things however, generally are checks that they know they can do. They do not try to think about the situation as a fictional world, where you can do ask you character to do anything. But the true matter, in my opinion, is that not many people want to do such risky moved, knowing that there might be consequences for that, are to shy do preform such things, or do not think like their character would, but rather for themselves. It is rather hard to make an campaign for everyone...

Smok, destroyer of thoughts:
I plan ahead some things, but most is improvisation. If you give players freedom, they come up with ideas you as a GM might not every come up with yourself.

Then again too MUCH freedom might leave players unknowing what to do next, making them bored and leave your game.

Well, I do hold a quest, as you see, and I'm grateful Purvis plays it actively, sometimes Inaba and E-Nazrin throw in a comment, but that's it. I'm happy with what I get, but I do have moments when I scratch my head and think "I probably screw up on improvisation" and such.
But I don't think I'll achieve the genius of Himiko- snatching at least 4-5 active players to her/his Parsee quest. I must admit that the game is constructed well and the read is enjoyable as Sect and Purvis go on with the show allowing me to bud in and also participate making the show great and magic. I actually started liking ALL SA characters more as Himiko quest begun.
I still wonder what am I screwing up then.


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