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30 Days of Gamemastering: Catching-Up Edition

October 26, 2013

This is part of the continuing series of posts for the “30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge” from Triple Crit.

I’ve been road-tripping with the family for the past week, so I’ve gotten a little behind on my postings…

What are your favorite books about gamemastering?

In general, I love looking at role-playing books. I’ve got quite a library of games that I’ve never played, but use to crib notes from, etc. It’s hard to beat the original AD&D DMG (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide) for reference. There’s a table for darn near anything in there. But my most recent favorite is probably Never Unprepared by Phil Vecchione. It is chock full of solid advice for the gamemaster.

A novel solution: what’s the best advice you’ve borrowed from a totally different field?

I suppose the field that borrow the most from (outside of gaming) is writing. Roleplaying games are essentially collaborative storytelling and so it’s easy to apply the precepts of good writing to good RPG plotting. Sure, you cede a lot of your control of character action to the players, but the basics are still there. I try to have character development arcs, story arcs, and good, well-developed antagonists to round out the story. Probably the best advice from that field that I can apply is “show, don’t tell”. It seems a little counterintuitive in a verbally-based game, but what it means is that I try to paint a picture of the situation with my words, not tell or give them everything that they need, allowing the players to derive their clues and such from the scene. Instead of saying that the sergeant is a belligerent bully, I have him act as such. It sticks much more with the players and the spirit of roleplaying that way.

What effects do the system mechanics have on the story?

Hopefully–none whatsoever. I always hope that the game system we use is fairly seamless with the storytelling involved. That’s not always the case, however. It’s especially true with the magic systems of fantasy games. Magic affects the game in so many intricate ways and the way in which magic works affects play–especially in what can and cannot be done. I really like rules-light systems for this reason–I can play with the rules enough to where players are not limited by them in what they can do (as long they are limited by the realism of the story and the precepts of good storytelling–not rules).

Canon vs. alternate universe vs. original settings? What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?

I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to world building. So working within a “canon” world can be a bit of a challenge for me–especially if “canon” varies a bit. For example, when I did my Serenity RPG campaign, the details of the ‘Verse in the main rule book were a little skimpy. So I ventured out into the Cortex for more data and came up with a variety of ‘Verses to choose from!  So, the biggest advantage of canon settings is that most of the heavy lifting has been done. You can still–and often have to–fill in some of the finer details. No two supposedly “canon” settings will be exactly alike for this reason–and it can grate a little against my perfectionist sensibilities. The drawback, I think, is that you feel like you need to stick to canon–you can lock yourself into a box of someone else’s vision. Which can stifle a bit of your creativity.

I’ve not really played in an “alternate universe” setting. I suppose you would run into the same strengths and weakness for it was you would a canon setting. A lot of the work is already done and you have baked-in familiarity with the world, but you can be locked into the rules (or the alternate rules) of that world.

Original settings are probably my favorite. I love world building. To be sure, there is a lot of work to be done on the front end of creating an original setting. And its all on you to make it real for the players. But it makes it easy to add to the world as you go, as it is a process and you are not locked into any other scheme. One disadvantage is that your players will have to be introduced to the new setting, a setting for which they have zero familiarity. This can result in a lot of info dumping at the beginning, which can slow down play. I try to do a write-up that describes the world for the characters and give it to them before character generation to help mitigate some of this. Original settings are a lot of work, but are, to me, ultimately the most rewarding.

Problem players and drama llamas: what’s your horror story and how did you resolve it?

I’ve been ultra-fortunate in that my group, which I’ve played with for over 15 years, is pretty drama-free. I don’t really have a horror story to relate involving a bad player. We do, however, have a player that can be very creative with the rules of any game. If there is a loophole, this player will find it and try to exploit it. He can be a bit of a munchkin that way, which can sometimes be a bit of a trial for a GM. However, it can also be a boon to the campaign. Because of him, I’ve had to step up my game, rules-wise. We’ve also found holes in the rules systems that we’ve played with that we would not have found, otherwise and have thus worked to correct them. So, while sometimes it can be tiresome to have such a player, ultimately, he makes the game better and I try to take advantage of that.

Are GMs bad players? How do you step back when someone else is running the show?

I definitely enjoy being a GM more than being a player. Which is surprising to me when I think back on how daunting the prospect of being a GM was to me back in the day. I don’t think this makes me a bad player, though. I still enjoy playing, but in my mind, my GM’s hat is constantly on. I don’t have any trouble stepping back, though, because I’ve never been an “in front” player in the first place. I tend to answer questions when asked and keep a pretty low profile. This was true even before I became a GM. Sometimes I help the GM running the game with a rules point or what-have-you, but I tend to only do so when asked. Essentially, I try to be the player that I would want at the table when I’m behind the screen. I don’t want to be the rules lawyer or the “drama llama”. And I’d never say “I’d do it like this…” because it’s not my place to say so. It’s not my call and I won’t make it.

What about you? Any horror stories to relate? What do you think about canon or original settings? Do GMs make bad players?  Throw down some comments below…

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