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One on One With…Shawn!

September 7, 2012
One on One

One on One

Shawn Ervin has been a game master for a very long time–nearly three decades–and is proficient in a great number of games and styles. He and some mutual friends of mine used to get together fairly often and play board and card games–but, unfortunately, I have yet to get the chance to do RPGs with him. I’m certain it would be a great experience. And reading his responses below, I’m sure you’ll see why…

If you like, 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?

I am originally from small town Iowa, currently living in the MVDC (Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia) area, via Dallas, Texas. I am a systems analyst for an insurance company.I have been gaming for about 30 years and have been a Gamemaster for about 26. Off & on.

In your opinion, who are game masters?

Gamemasters are those who want to take the responsibility for organizing the game & who are willing to open their stories & ideas up for others to interact with.  This depends of course on the nature of the agreement between the players & the GM.  I have seen games run (mostly successfully) where not only did most of the players rotate through being the GM, but it was also a shared world between all of the gamemasters.

How do you describe to “outsiders” what a game master does?

1 part narrator, 1 part sound effects, 1 part set dresser, 1 part writer, 1 part rules lawyer.  Add a dash of actor and judge.

To insiders, I have a different explanation.  Which is about being more of a narrator for the shared story with the player about their character.

How did you get started game mastering?

Depends on when you consider my career in GM-ing to have started.  Originally, I was just looking to introduce other people to the game, so had to shoulder how to run through a pre-created dungeon.  The old TSR modules.  B2- Keep on the Boarderland, B1 – Search for Adventure, Chateu de Amber, this whole S series… X1- Idle of Dread…  G 1-4 w/ D 1-3 & Q1… the whole suite of the Giants, Drow & ending with the Queen of the Demonwebs.

Later, I was interested in exploring the giant unknown universe that D&D or AD&D had left open.  I, with a friend, started trying to map out some of the planes of hell for our own adventures & to possibly sell to TSR.  A dream that never came to be.

In college, after playing in a few dissatisfying games, I teamed up with a couple different friends in order to co-GM a few games.  Most of those revolved around using some variations on the game systems in order to create tension within the story.  An artifact hunt in one case…  Trying to heal magic in another case…  all sorts of things.

How has being a game master affected you as a player? Or vice-versa?

After I learned how to relax the iron-grip of MY STORY in order to share the story experience with the players, and found that I enjoyed that experience, I stopped trying to build each character in order to win each encounter.

I started building in easier hand-holds, flaws or story lines for the Gamemaster to use as part of their story.  I left them area where I didn’t know the answers & that they could easily pick up to make their story more OUR story.

Also, as a Gamemaster I try and now have discussions with the players about their expectations from the game.  If they just want a stress release, I try to provide that.  If they want to explore the world through my eyes, I do that.  If they are interested in exploring the fall of morality and decent into being a monster… I work with them to see what they want.  It isn’t just about me as a Gamemaster, but their enjoyment that I am responsible for.

I also make sure to find out if they have hard lines or areas where they don’t want the story to go.  I have seen players blind-sided by story elements that caused them emotional pain or discomfort and try to avoid that when it isn’t desired.

How has game mastering impacted your “real” life–if at all? And has “real life” impacted your game mastering?

Gamemastering led me into a community where occasionally we all had to take responsibility for the environment, or local convention.  So, I learned that I can organize & make advanced plans.  More than I ever thought I would be able to do.

I make oblique references to some of the larger events or convention duties on my resume, since they are exampled of my ability to manage projects.

Real-life has indeed impacted my gamemastering.  I decided that when I got married that I would need to heavily curtail the time I would spend organizing and planning certain games.

What inspires you as a game master?

That moment of realization in the player’s face when they collect all of the puzzle pieces together and finally see the depth of the problem.  That moment of dawning realization is wonderful to see.  I suspect that for some teachers it is a similar look of understanding on their student’s faces which makes them feel good.

How would you explain your philosophy or approach to game mastering?

A mixture of “Gods in Small Boxes” (a phrase I have stolen from Shannon Prickett) and creative re-application from many sources.

Gods in Small Boxes is a phrase relating to NPC management… this NPC is an expert or master of a small domain/skill set and won’t stray far outside of that domain.  One doesn’t ask Vlad Taltos to provide lessons on how to juggle, but if you want someone to put the shine on someone, he is the small god.

As for the re-application of other sources; when I was running a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Campaign, I would utilize published material that I knew the players had previously run through in other manners.  Most of the time as thought experiments of “what if the original set of adventurers had failed to solve the problem? How would this adventure be different, the same or worse?”

What do you like best about game mastering? Least?

Being able to use the story being told to clear my head from the scene snippets that I have imagined and are percolating.  Also the moment of realization mentioned above.

Missing. Having an off night.  Not performing meeting the players expectation or my expectation of a good game night.

What is the most challenging aspect of game mastering? Why?

Maintaining the story in such a way that every player is engaged.

What are the traits of a good game master? Are there different traits needed to be a good player?

Flexibility, good memory, a solid sense of story pacing and setting. Knowing when to adjust on the fly in order to stop the TPK (Total Party Kill) when things have gone wrong.

Players are similar, without the knowing when to adjust from above, but need to have trust or faith in their GM.  A GM can kill a character at any moment by having an asteroid strike the character on the head.  The players have to trust the GM won’t do that and that whatever rule the player thinks is being broken isn’t, or is for a reason which will make for a better story in the end.

What is your favorite game story (with you as the GM)?

The situation in a Vampire LARP when a character received $4,000,000 through the the US Postal System.  This resulted in the package being accidentally opened, only $3,000,000 being delivered to his ghoul, said ghoul stealing about $500,000 of it, the rest being deposited in 1 bank account in 1 lump sum deposit, the IRS, FBI & Homeland Security being notified & the character willingly submitting to the rite of destruction before the evening was over.

All for poor decisions the character had made.  The player loved the whole thing.

I love the idea of “Gods in Small Boxes” for NPCs. I’m starting a couple of new campaigns and will have to try to work that in myself.

At any rate, many thanks to Shawn for talking to us and sharing his experience with us. I may have some follow-ups with him soon.

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