Building a Better GM: Making use of your experience (part one)

Building a Better GM: Introduction

When it comes down to it, the players’ experience of your game is channeled through a single point of entry—you. What you are able to present to your players—and how you do it—can be a deciding factor in whether, when the session is over, everybody wants to do it all again. This, of course, puts a bit of pressure on both the seasoned veteran and the rookie; let’s not forget that we are all doing this because it’s supposed to be fun! I hope, with this series, to take a little bit of the burden from your shoulders, and help you get the most enjoyment possible out of your game mastery.

With all of the gaming supplements and third-party modules currently, it easy to become overwhelmed: how do you decide what to use? In internet forums and cons, everyone has an opinion (some of them conflicting), and everyone is dying to share it with you. In this deluge it’s an easy mistake as a GM to forget the single greatest resource you have: yourself.
Making use of your experience

Part One – Drawing from Your Reading

If you got this far, it’s a safe bet to assume that you’re literate. More than that, you probably even like to read. It may seem silly to point that out, but it’s actually a big point in your favor. With the average attention span of the population as a whole going down, actually enjoying reading (and especially enjoying those crazy epic-length sci-fi and fantasy novels) gives you a decided advantage. Why? Two reasons:

1) Because reading is directly linked to an important GM skill: writing. It’s generally acknowledged that reading more can help you become a better writer.

2) Because every book you have ever read was actually a gaming supplement in disguise.

Those dozen-plus R.A. Salvatore novels? Supplements. Those books you read for your English class? Supplements. Those science and history textbooks? Yep, also supplements.

If you stop and think about it, almost everything you have ever read is a potential source for campaign material. Need ideas for convoluted politics and shady backroom dealings? Look no further than a current newspaper. Star-crossed and unexpected romance? Shakespeare, anyone? Or, how about subversion of a shared, common goal, through deft manipulation by an insane, revenge-fueled tyrant? Yeah, I’m talking about Moby Dick.

One of the first steps you can take is to identify what has really jumped out at you in your reading, as well as the things that have stuck with you through the years. Was there a particular character or plot twist that was so remarkable or so unexpected that you’ve never forgotten it? If you want to, make a list.

Next, try to identify the why: why did that character or event stand out to you so much? Was it something inextricably linked to the plot or writing style, or was it something you can replicate yourself?

Things to think about:
-for characters:

  • how did their relationships define them?
  • were relationships with other characters their main appeal, or was the focus more on their personality?
  • were their motivations unique or unexpected?
  • did they have unusual speech patterns or mannerisms that made them unique?

-for plot twists:

  • where in the story was the twist placed? how did this affect your perception of the event? would moving the twist to an earlier or later point in the story have altered its effectiveness?
  • was the twist delivered out of the blue, or was there foreshadowing? how did the twist affect the characters and/or subsequent development of the story?

Additionally, elements of settings can be of great use—things like particularly evocative phrases or descriptions can go a long way in immersing your players.

Finally, once you’ve identified elements of your reading that are replicable, the real challenge is to find ways to integrate them into your game. The most rewarding way to do this is often to simply experiment: take a few elements, and feel out how they might work in your story, without worrying too much about the details—those can be worked out later, and even changed based on how players react. By planning ahead and preparing extra material in advance, some items can be placed into play ad-hoc, perhaps with minor adjustments (names, timelines, etc.) to fit the situation at hand. Start to build yourself a bag of tricks, and don’t be afraid to make things up on the spot.

After all, it’s your game, isn’t it?


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About sabbacc108

Library worker, musician (as if), RPG enthusiast.

One response to “Building a Better GM: Making use of your experience (part one)”

  1. calebtgordan says :

    I like how you mention taking notes on what you want to use in your games. I recommend carrying a small notebook with you everywhere you go and taking notes on things as you experience them, not just in books. Having all these rough ideas in one place allows you to go back and take a look at what has inspired you when you are looking for game material. You can also have a bookmark folder in your web browser that have bookmarks just for your games. I cannot say how many times I have surfed around the net and found great art, articles, videos, or photographs that inspired characters, settings, and plot.

    Both of those ideas are good habits to have a writer in general, and are great tools to use when you want to jump start your imagination.

    Carl has experienced my games many, many times. He knows how often I just have a few notes written down, a couple characters ready if I need them, and a few settings in mind. Most of my personal games are improved right at the table, and the advice Carl gives is one of the major reasons why I can do that effectively and quickly.

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