Building a Better GM: Making Use of Your Experience (Part Two)
Part Two – Drawing from Your Play
Chances are pretty good that if you’re running a game, you’ve played one before. While it’s true that some people may actually start as a Game Master before being a player, this is comparatively rare—and a GM who has never played in another’s campaign is rarer still. If you’re smart, you’ll put your previous player experience to good use when running a game of your own.
One of the most important things to consider is what, as a player, simply didn’t work for you. Meandering plot may have been a game-killer for you. Maybe it was a particularly brutal GM, who took pleasure in teasing and tormenting the players. (Don’t be that guy)
Also, when I talk about player experience, I’m not just talking about tabletop roleplay; computer- and console RPGs count, too—as do games that aren’t RPGs at all. Repetitive play and lack of a sense of progression are just as devastating to an action-platformer on the Super Nintendo as they are to your Friday-night D&D game.
A couple classic pitfalls you’ve no doubt experienced (and will want to avoid):
- Meaningless fetch quests (and their bigger, badder cousins, the dreaded Fetch Quest Chains). A few fetch quests, when grounded in the plot, are perfectly acceptable; when players have to slog through a stack of them just to reveal one or two minor plot advancements (or worse, for no seeming reason at all), it’s easy to lose interest.
- Stock characters and plots. By this point, everybody has seen an unlikely band of heroes rise up to save the world. In fact, almost everybody has been in that unlikely band of heroes. Very few people are interested in doing it over and over again. If you’re having trouble escaping from this plothole, try to at least give your players a good reason (or five) to be doing what they’re doing (hint: “revenge” as a motivator will only get you so far).
- Grinding. On Rails. “Why is there so much sand of the track? Why did we even get on this train in the first place? Do we care where it’s going? Why don’t we just jump off now, and save ourselves some boredom (not to mention friction)?” Worse than giving players no good reason to do what they’re doing is giving them no choice in the matter. One of the big reasons people like to play tabletop RPGs is the freedom that they get to be what they want, and do what they want (within reason). People like to feel like they have a modicum of control, and that extends even to the plot. If the campaign seems like nothing more than a long string of battles, between which the players are carefully shepherded to their next destination, people are going to lose interest pretty fast. (This topic is actually such a can of worms, I’m going to stave off any further discussion here—I’ll address this in more depth in Saturday’s column!)
Of course, there are plenty of good ideas and lessons you can take from prior gaming experience as well. Creative plot structures and settings are great, but techniques for reinvigorating player interest in the game (or providing quick breathers in a heavy plot) are even better.
Here are a few examples of creative game mastery from games I’ve played:
- Hand each player a new character sheet; this is who they’re playing as for this session. It could be a flashforward, a flashback, or a “meanwhile;” it could be for the first thirty minutes, or for an entire session; it could be a one-off oddity, or it could be recurring; the most important things are for it to advance the plot in some way (though the details may not be immediately obvious to the players), and even more than that, for it to be fun. It’s also worth considering telling the players whether it’s appropriate to factor in knowledge that may be gleaned from these events in the decisions made by their main character.
- Reveal that one of the player characters is an enemy mole. Usually, it’s ideal for this sort of thing to be worked out beforehand with the player of the character in question, but if you know the player will be comfortable with it, you may choose to for the revelation to be a surprise for them, too. Has the character been playing the part all along, or are they being insidiously mind-controlled by one of the villains? Are they a thoroughly-indoctrinated zealot, or are they a mercenary who might be swayed to switch sides? What is their motivation? Do they perhaps have doubts concerning their cause after working with the other PCs for so long? Maybe most important of all, should they be ready to roll up a new character?
- Split the party. You know that cardinal rule of D&D? Break it. Forcefully, if need be. Maybe your players are getting a little too comfortable in their party dynamics, sticking with the same roles in combat and NPC interactions; make them try out new strategies. Maybe you’ve just got a strange sense of humor. Be careful, though, not to drag a party split out too long—it’s easy for the players not immediately involved in the “active” party to get bored. (Possible remedy for this: let players on the other side of the split roleplay NPCs. Benefit of this strategy: all players remain involved in what’s happening; nobody feels left out. Drawbacks: it’s easy for players roleplaying NPCs to lose track of what their own character is doing; some players aren’t comfortable jumping into NPC roles; some players will try to roleplay the NPCs the same as their main character, eliminating the point of the party split in the first place)
These are some fairly out-there examples; if you don’t feel comfortable trying them in your game, don’t worry. The most important thing is to recognize the things that will work for you—just don’t be afraid to step a little outside your comfort zone every once in a while: progression is important for you, too, not just for the characters in your game!