So I’m running a side campaign of Pathfinder for my wife and I. We’re having fun with it and it’s something to do to scratch that roleplaying itch when we can’t play with the rest of our group. This last session something bad happened…and, as GM, it was entirely my fault.
You see, I planned this encounter for her and her NPC companion. It was meant to be challenging, but survivable–a little side-trip from the main adventure to allow them to get a little bit of advancement. It nearly turned into a TPK*.
The player made no bad decisions to place herself at death’s very door. The dice were falling as they will, sometimes in her favor and sometimes not. But the encounter was clearly too much for them. The baddies were entirely too powerful. No matter how well the dice would have rolled, the PC was probably going to die.
This falls on me 100% as the gamemaster. I should have planned better. I should have known.
So what did I do? My number one rule as a gamemaster is that the game should be fun but fair. But I felt like this party-killing encounter was not the PCs fault and, frankly, it was only supposed to be a diversion from the main story. Nothing major was at stake here other than the party’s survival.
I gave the PCs every possible benefit. And I may have fudged a few hits here and there.
But they lived to fight another day. Possibly to die later. But not today. Not when the stakes didn’t matter.
Am I a bad GM?
Maybe. I don’t know.
It’s not as if I’m a GM that lets the PCs win every battle and gives them Monty Haul dungeons. And, when the stakes matter, I let the dice fall where they may. I want the PCs to have a good time and want the story to matter. I want there to be real danger and consequences for failure.
But I don’t want to kill off a campaign based on bad judgment on my part. When I paint the PCs into a deadly corner and give them no way out, that’s not fun. That’s not fair. And, as GM, I feel like I should try to mitigate that as much as possible.
What would you have done behind my screens?
* TPK = Total Party Kill
I’m in the midst of my first Pathfinder campaign and things are going fairly well. It’s a rules-heavy system, so there has been a lot of looking up and puzzling out various arcane codes to figure out what’s going on in combat, but it has, nevertheless, run fairly smoothly.
When playing a new game, I usually like to play completely in the “rules as written” (RAW). I simply don’t feel comfortable enough in the game to make modifications as I go because I don’t know the repercussions of such change. Especially in a complex game like Pathfinder. One tweak can affect not only the rule itself, but any feats, spells, or special abilities that depend upon that rule. Thus, I’m very wary to deviate from the rules unless I have a good sense of what else that rule affects. I want to learn THIS game, not the game I think it should be, before I start with any home rules.
That’s not to say I never tweak rules or come up with alternate ways to do things. I just usually like to start with the RAW and see where that takes me before jacking with it.
Some may see this as a very conservative approach, but I like to think of it as prudent.
What about you? Do you make tweaks as you go with a new game or play in the RAW?
Today we get to hear from Wendy Kuehr-McLaren, a self-described “slacker housewife” who is not your typical gamer.
Give me a brief bio of yourself. Where are you from? What do you do for a living? How long have you been gaming and/or a game master? You don’t have to give your full or real name if you don’t want to.
My name is Wendy Kuehr-McLaren. I’ve lived in a small town in NC for almost 30 years. I like to say I’m a slacker housewife, which is to say I’m a stay at home mom who is (perhaps) less crazy than the average helicopter parent. I mention this because, as a 50-year-old mom of 5, I’m not the typical gamer.
In college (back in the early 80s), I played a little D&D with my husband (then boyfriend). I don’t remember which edition, but the one that used THAC0. Since it was just the two of us, it was less fun than it could have been. As life went on, and kids started happening, I played some PC games and board games, but my role-playing was limited to Barbies and teddy bear picnics. I advanced from there into World of Warcraft, thanks to a Mother’s Day gift from the kids. I loved that and became a guild leader on an RP server and even had a podcast about RP in MMORPGs.
When the kids got a little older, we found the “new” Red Box set and decided to try D&D 4th Ed with them. Big success! The home game that spun off that lasted nearly 2 years. During that time, I found a local MeetUp group called Raleigh Tabletop Roleplayers and jumped in. I found lots of games and gamers to play with and I”m currently one of the Organizers for the group.
So, counting from my re-boot, I’ve been playing and GMing for about 3 years.
In your opinion, who are game masters?
Game Masters are the facilitators of the game. They are the ones who create the world or scenario and keep play moving. They draw the players into the story and help them shine as characters.
How do you describe to “outsiders” what a game master does?
A GM is like a director in a play, keeping everything going.
How did you get started game mastering?
I’m a bit of a control freak and I’m also a writer. When the family needed someone to GM, I was also the logical choice, due to the flexibility of my time.
How has being a game master affected you as a player? Or vice-versa?
I love to play, as well as GM. It’s fun to not have to worry over the behind-the-scenes stuff and I can relax more. But I also like watching other GMs at work so I can improve my own skills.
How has game mastering impacted your “real” life–if at all? And has “real life” impacted your game mastering?
I think my management skills really help my GMing, keeping things organized and running smoothly. Also, the creative flow is essential to my personal happiness and fulfillment. When I’m prepping a game, I have more ideas for writing, and when I’m writing, I come up with more ideas for games. It’s like priming a pump.
What inspires you as a game master?
I love pulling ideas from books or movies to run as games. For example, I used one of my favorites, How To Steal A Million, as a one-shot scenario I’ve run several times for different groups. I also follow several gaming blogs and often get ideas I can use.
How would you explain your philosophy or approach to game mastering?
Everyone should have fun, both players and GM. It should be immersive enough to forget real-world troubles for a while, and exciting enough to want to do it again.
What do you like best about game mastering? Least?
I love prepping for a game. It’s a lot like throwing a party. I set the stage with decorations or props, I often dress in costume, food is usually on the same theme. When we’re playing and I see all my players intent on navigating through the scenario and we’re in the zone, it’s the most amazing thing.
I dislike those who are sticklers for the rules to the point that it interrupts the flow and fun of the game. I dislike those who blame dick-moves on their character. “It’s what my character would do” is no excuse.
What is the most challenging aspect of game mastering? Why?
For me, the hardest part is finding time to run all the ideas in my head. I have a very active imagination and with access to all the fantastic blogs, newsletters and forums, this problem is compounded. With the other responsibilities of adulthood, finding time to run or play in a game doesn’t happen more than once or twice a month very often. Keeping games alive with long down times between game sessions takes work. Getting players to even check a site like Obsidian Portal is nearly impossible, let alone getting them to contribute to it.
What are the traits of a good game master? Are there different traits needed to be a good player?
A good GM is a lot like a good parent, guiding without pushing; leading by example, challenging players to do better, be better. Knowing what aspects of the game each player likes and giving each one a chance to shine keeps players eager, interested and happy.
A good player also thinks of the other players, and lets others have a turn without hogging the spotlight. A good player wants others to succeed because shared success is more fun. A good GM can be a good player, if they remember that they are not the GM at the time. Spouting rules when not asked or railroading the party towards a destination is the mark of a GM being a bad player.
What is your favorite game story (with you as the GM)?
When running a short campaign for D&D 4e, the players were supposed to solve a puzzle to open a secret passage. One of the NPCs just happened to like telling riddles, and somehow, the players decided that those riddles were integral to solving their puzzle. I sat back as they brainstormed and ran around gathering the items referred to in the riddles: leaves, fish, fire and a skull. One of those was actually a wrong answer to the riddle, but they had no idea. I scribbled down as much as I could about their answers and decided that it should work for them. After all, they’d put so much work and effort into it, did it really matter if my way to open the passageway was the ONLY way to do it?
I really enjoyed setting the scenario and watching the players run with it. They weren’t just going through the motions, they were creating their own version of reality within the game. The synergy was amazing.
As you said, you don’t fit the typical gamer demographics. Has this been a help or a hindrance to you fitting into gaming groups? What has your experience been like?
Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I’d call it a help, but that’s partly due to my own personality. I enjoy catching people off-guard so seeing people surprised when they find out I’m a gamer (and a good one, at that) is fun. At the same time, my appearance is friendly and non-threatening (I’ve been compared to a 2nd Grade Teacher), so people are comfortable coming to me for help. This is helpful since my function in our MeetUp group is welcoming newcomers.
There have been a few times when I’ve been condescended to. Some people think I can’t possibly know what gaming is. If that person is a store owner or clerk, my reaction is a swift correction. If it continues, I’ll spend my money elsewhere. If the person is a fellow member of our MeetUp, the correction is best left to showing by example.
What advice would you give to new GMs or those getting back into the hobby?
As for those new or returning GMs, my advice is to use your own life experiences to help you out. Everyone pretends now and then. Everyone reads, watches TV or movies: draw on those characters to use in games. Also, the best advice I ever got when I was new to GMing is that the other players at your table WANT you to succeed, because that’s more fun for everyone. Keep that in mind, and relax.
Thank you so much Wendy for your time and your insights!
How do we grow the hobby?
We live in an exciting time for this hobby. I remember the “bad old days” when roleplaying games in general (and Dungeons & Dragons in specific) were thought to be weird, satanic, and even dangerous. Nowadays, it’s featured on major sitcoms and is a common pop culture reference point. The geeks have inherited the earth and life is pretty good.
But we can do better.
That’s part of what this website is all about. Getting to know gamemasters as people. Revealing, and reveling in, the fact that gamemasters are as varied and a diverse a group as any cadre of humans. We are men, women, young, old, straight, gay, pale, dark, and all shades in-between.
I really think that the best way to grow this hobby is to be as diverse a hobby as possible. Roleplaying games are the ultimate big-tent hobby. We have to make it accessible to as many people as we can. In this way, not only does the hobby grow in numbers, but in content and quality. The more voices are heard, the better.
We have to make our FLGSs* friendly to all kinds of customers, not just the “traditional” gaming geek. We have to make our conventions and events accessible to everyone who could possibly want to sling dice. We have to create gaming spaces that are safe and comfortable for all kinds of gamers.
Truly, the best way to grow the hobby is to make the hobby grow up.
This is the final posting in the 30 Days of Gamemastering series. It has been a blast posting so much useful (I hope) content about our hobby. If you have any comments, please share them below. Also, if you haven’t yet, click on the How to Participate button up top to find out how you can participate in the Master of the Game Project.
*Friendly Local Game Store
Teaching the rules: how do you sell players on the system while running a demo or con game?
I, personally, have never had the pleasure of running a demo or con game. I have, however, had to educate my gaming group on the play of a new game. Mostly, I don’t have a good plan for this. I can, however, lay out a tips based out of my experience.
- Know the System: I cannot stress this enough. Be familiar enough with the system to answer basic questions and be able to run a demo conflict. If you don’t know something, be familiar enough with the text to be able to look it up quickly. Nothing, and I mean nothing, takes away from selling the group on the game more than not being able to explain it simply and effectively.
- Make Quick Reference Sheets: One thing that I always try to do is to make reference sheets for your players to use. That way they can quickly refer to your reference sheet instead of hefting the rule book and you become more at ease with rules in the making of the sheet. I’ve also taken to creating a “Player’s Guide” rules reference on our Obsidian Portal page.
- Work on Character Creation Together: I’ve found that one of the best ways to start understanding a new system is start rolling up characters. For most systems, the character is the core. If you can understand character creation and how the various attributes affect the rules in-game, you’re well on your way to understanding the game. And working on this aspect of the game together creates a cohesion within the initial group and lets people bounce questions off of each other.
What about you? How do you introduce a new game to a group of players?