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One-on-One With…Michael McCarthy!

August 2, 2012
One on One

One on One

This week we get to hear to from a game master that has achieved what I suspect is the secret dream of many GMs out there: professional adventure writer! Michael McCarthy has been a GM for over a decade and has had his Pathfinder adventure modules published by Dreamscarred Press and by As both a GM and an industry professional, Michael presents a unique perspective on our hobby. I think you’ll enjoy hearing what he has to say as much as I did…
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?
My name is Michael McCarthy, online known as RonarsCorruption, and I live up in Ottawa, Canada. You know, that big frozen place up north. By day, I’m a web developer of learning and training content. So, I see a lot of material in passing, from safety to entertainment. By night, however, I write Pathfinder adventure modules (find them at Dreamscarred Press or Adventure A Week), something I’ve been doing professionally for just over a year now. I’ve been gaming for just shy of fifteen years, and GMing for almost all of that. Twelve or thirteen years of GMing – nearly half my life.
In your opinion, who are game masters?
At the most basic, game masters are people who run adventures. Without them, the game couldn’t be played. In fact, they are even more critical than a game system, because if you strip away all the dice and rules and papers, you just get a story. Some people are the heroes, but one person – the game master – controls the world. He keeps the story moving, alive and especially exciting. GMs also write adventures, craft worlds, and do a million other things behind the scenes that players don’t even always notice. A game master is the conduit through which players can experience the game.
How do you describe to “outsiders” what a game master does?
A game master is a storyteller, plain and simple. Other players participate as heroes and villains, but the bulk of the story – literally everything except those heroes – is controlled and watched over by the game master.
How did you get started game mastering?
When I was really young, I had a lot of friends who played DnD, 2nd edition at the time. After playing for a bit, the people who ran the games moved away, and some of the other players lost interest, but I didn’t. I still wanted to play, because gosh-darn-it, it was fun. So, I grabbed that table in the back of the DMG with random dungeon features, and I started rolling up dungeons that I could run for my friends. It took me a few years beyond that to finally get into GMing for real, though. I was barely a teenager when I started, and I was distracted easily. I discovered Play By Post, which is a lot like a really heavy role-playing group, and after a few years in rules-light systems, and a few more in rules heavy ones, I found my way back to DnD, which was in 3.5e now, and that became my system. I owned dozens of books, and read them all cover to cover. I moved back to tabletop from online (though I still play by post nearly every day), and found the difference…jarring, to say the least. But all the while I was running games, and I loved it all.
How has being a game master affected you as a player? Or vice-versa?
One of the biggest ways GMing has affected me as a player is the metagame. I know so many of the rules back to front, every universal monster ability, spell, special material…things players have no need to know except that one encounter a year when they’re fighting a creature with DR/adamantine and need to know if they can kill it. I’ve learned both how to more quickly identify a monster’s traits and weaknesses – even custom made ones – and how not to have my stupid fighters blurt it out to the rest of the party. I think both playing and GMing have improved my skills in the other, and it’s really hard to be great at one without knowing how to do the other.
How has game mastering impacted your “real” life–if at all? And has “real life” impacted your game mastering?
GMing affects my daily life all the time. And not just because I write adventures professionally, because it gives me and my friends an excuse to come together and hang out. It doesn’t matter if we get through one room or ten so long as we’re having fun, and every day I get just a little better at running the game that everyone loves so much.
What inspires you as a game master?
Just about everything. Movies, TV, games, off the cuff comments made completely randomly. You learn to find inspiration everywhere when you GM. Just recently, I wrote a whole adventure inspired by being casual labor at a warehouse over a weekend to help out my wife. You’ve just got to put the right spin on things.
How would you explain your philosophy or approach to game mastering?
Well, I have a “give as you’d like to get” philosophy, so a lot of my dungeon mastering relates to how I am as a player. Because that’s who I cater to most of all, myself. And I’m a lot about kicking down the door, and moving action along quickly. However, I’m also a glutton for feedback. I may not always like what I hear, but without feedback you can’t get better. You will always stumble in the same place, and that’s something I can’t let myself do. So every month or two I’ll ask my players “So, how am I doing, you still having fun?”.
What do you like best about game mastering? Least?
I love the stories. I get really passionate about telling an interesting story, creating a living world and real people to fill it with. I’m also little narcissistic, I suppose, but who doesn’t like to be told they’re doing a good job? It’s the flip side of getting criticism, when you ask your players how they’re liking things and they say “this campaign is awesome.”
What I like least would have to be how long a good stat block takes to make. You can’t always take your monsters straight out of the book, which means that nearly half the time I spent writing or preparing for a session involves heavy math, combing treasure charts, and balancing encounters. And I still have to adjust them on the fly half the time as PCs catch me off guard.
What is the most challenging aspect of game mastering? Why?
Thinking on your feet, no contest. Players are the most unpredictable group of people that exist, and that means you have to have a good grasp of both the rules, and the campaign, and the adventure, and their characters, and the monsters… all so you know what to do when the PCs sneak up on the enemy’s lair in the middle of the night and start rolling in barrels of lamp oil and gunpowder.
What are the traits of a good game master? Are there different traits needed to be a good player?
One trait that spans both categories is compromise. To be a good game master, you have to be willing to let players do things just outside the rules to encourage fun, while as a player you have to know how far is too far. There’s a fine line between using a spiked chain as a tripwire and building a medieval Gatling gun.
Other good traits for game masters include quick-thinking, as I mentioned above, as well as creativity and a good memory. Knowing what book any given rule is in makes life a million times simpler.
For players, probably the best trait is a good attention span. Especially when combat slows down at low levels, if you’re ready for your turn when it comes up, the game will be twice as fast than if you weren’t.
What is your favorite game story (with you as the GM)?
My favorite story I’ve ever GMed was an evil campaign called Corrupted. In it, the characters were drafted into work by an evil baron, and eventually unleashed an evil artifact they were trying to capture. The second half of the campaign had them running around the multiverse, finding the right tools to put the sword of souls (which was the evil artifact) away for good. A few things that made this game amazing were the group of players, and the fact that they stuck it out through the whole campaign. Which is part of what I loved about the game, the fact that it went from a prologue, all the way through to an epilogue, over a span of years. It’d be hard not to be proud of a game like that.
And, fortunately, you can read the whole thing here:
Michael was also able to give me some insight into the industry…
As someone who works in the industry, what do you think draws new players to the hobby?
There are a few factors that draw people into the hobby. Friends that already play is probably the biggest one. After all, what better way to start doing something than it already being a hobby of people you already hang out with? Another big one is the starter boxes. They had stopped making them for a long time, but recently, Pathfinder, 4e, and lots of other systems have started making these really simple “this is how to play” boxes with trimmed down rules, pre-made characters and even miniatures. I think they’re great, and I see that they’re really high sellers on Amazon and similar sites, which must mean they’re attracting new players, right?
How hard is it to go from “hobbyist” to “industry professional”? Does it change the way you think about gaming? Does it change your game?
It was a lot harder than I thought. I mean, I was fairly lucky that I got an in on one of the first applications I wrote, but many people aren’t like that. After my first few adventures, however, the demand for pre-written adventures is a lot lower than I was hoping, as is the demand for people who write them. Finding a demand is really the hardest part.
As to how I think about gaming because of it… It hasn’t changed a whole lot. I do read a lot more about game design and gaming tips than I used to, and that helps my play on the table and some of my adventure writing, but as a whole I still see the game the same way as I did years ago.
What is it about working in the RPG industry that is different than working in other professional fields? What’s the same?
Well, much as I hate saying it, RPG gaming is still a bit of a niche hobby. And as such, the companies, and money, are much smaller than in other industries, especially when starting out. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are some good jobs out there, but it’s a bit like being a professional writer. There’s not enough money available for more than a few full-time game adventure writers, and most of them are employed by big companies like Wizards and Paizo. So, you’re either a starving artist, or… you’ve made it big, I suppose is the best way to put it. I haven’t seen any middle ground in my experience yet.
How prevalent do you think “GM stereotypes” are in the general culture? Are things changing now that “geek is chic”?
I’ve been compared to the GM in “Gamers: Dorkness Rising” a few times, but beyond that I don’t know of any GM stereotypes beyond the same ones that apply to all geeks. People think we’re loners, or that we live in our parent’s basements, or that we wear huge horn-rimmed glasses. Perhaps more-so than other geeks even. And for some of us, I’m sure most of those traits are true, but as RPGs are primarily a multiplayer activity, I’d say at least the whole antisocial part is wrong.
And now that ‘geek is chic’… I don’t think it’s started to change yet. Sure, there are occasional glimpses of “so and so movie star plays DnD”, but it’s not really making any change on how people outside the ‘geek’ field see us. Just on how we see ourselves, and we don’t usually apply stereotypes to ourselves, do we?
RPGs went into a decline for awhile and then surged a bit with the Open d20 (OGL) license. How do you think the industry is doing now?
I think the industry is doing okay. The biggest problem right now is the “Edition Wars”, especially with DnDNext coming out. We have five seperate editions of DnD, plus Pathfinder, and there are people clinging desperately to each of them. I’ve played every single edition except the original, and I know I picked one over the others (3.5e, then Pathfinder) and it’s tearing at the seams of the community. And really, I think the only one that can stop it is Wizards. We need fewer editions of DnD, not more. DnDNext had better be compatible with everything from here to eternity, because if it isn’t, it’s just going to continue to fracture the community further, and weaken the industry. Which is a real pity for the company that started it all to have it’s finger on the trigger like that.
Thank you Michael! Your passion for the game is infectious, to say the least. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. And if any of you folks out there are curious about the kinds of adventures Michael’s talking about, check out the links:

From → Interviews

  1. Vitti permalink

    Awesome Interview!!

  2. Raphael Temple permalink

    Fantastic interview… as a new player, the insight from the questions and answers opened my eyes to some elements that I hadn’t know before today. That goes to show that Mr. McCarthy has a special way of explaining things that both new and old players understand. I hope I’m lucky enough one day to experience him as Game Master. Thank you!

  3. I agree, Raphael. I think it’d be awesome to have a space at his table. Thanks for dropping by!

    • There’s always room At my virtual tables a Come give me a shout (ronarscorruption) or follow me on twitter: @ronarcorruption

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