I’ve been playing a variety of roleplaying games for over five years – I’ve been a player, a Dungeon Master (or Games Master if you will) and just about everything in between. My longest running group ran for three years across two different campaigns. In that time I’ve picked up a trick or two.
The quality of sessions I’ve played has been quite varied. Some campaigns are so much fun I think about them even years after, whereas others are so bad that they’ve been lessons in themselves. Hell, I’ve run sessions we chat about at parties, and sessions I’d rather forget ever happened. I’ve decided to write down what I know, in the hopes that you and your players don’t have to go through these same issues.
Welcome- to Goof’s Guide to Gaming.
I’m going to start somewhere that seems intuitive: As a Game Master, you are not playing the game. You are running the show.
This might seem like it’s obvious but trust me when I tell you that many Game Masters running sessions forget they are there for the enjoyment of others, and not their torture. If you’re going to run a session for people, realise your enjoyment does not come from scoring a hit or killing a player. Those things should be the foundations for where your enjoyment really needs to come from: telling an awesome story.
You want your players to feel emotion, relish in their well-earned triumph, laugh at the absurdity of situations. I’ve had sessions where players ride on the backs of Pegasi as a giant Cyclops with a Beholder for a head shoots laser beams at them, I’ve had sessions where players are trying desperately to keep NPC allies alive as they run through the streets from various factions, and I’ve had Gnomes be flung thorough the air by their werewolf allies at gigantic elementals. I get the biggest rush when players are talking about a session I ran a week, month or even a year later. They talk about these memories as more than a game, but rather like they were there. This is what our aim should be. We’re sharing in a collective imagination, which is really trippy and cool when you think about it. These worlds exist to us in our imagination. If one of us talks about a city/character/event from one of our sessions, others know what we’re talking about.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have characters do cool things. Or Monsters inspire fear or admiration. But this doesn’t have to mean you walk over your players. Player death is a tool to instill fear and seriousness into a situation, it shouldn’t be used arbitrarily. It’s all about timing and when to do what. People don’t sit at the table to lose for hours on end. I think that Game Masters need to put themselves in the place of their players. Would you enjoy it? Is it both entertaining as a story idea and as a game situation? I actually often start with the game mechanics first, trying to build something interesting and then shape a story around a series of interconnected gameplay mechanics. Having said that, some of the impromptu sessions where I just threw a story at my players and let them have-at-it are some of my favourite to date. There’s no right or wrong way to start, but there is a right and wrong way to run it.
And for the love of Behamut, remember that your players are roleplaying. Whether they’re LARPing or not, whether they’re talking in first person or third, chances are the character they’re playing is different to how they are in real life, whether contrary or enhanced by fantasy/science fiction elements. In order for a person to feel like they’re the character they want to play, there needs to be situations and events in which their character is important. If you take a group of level one characters and put them in a situation where they can’t do anything (you encounter a level 20 door. Sorry fellas), they’ll get bored. If you’re actively trying to kill all players, then it’s going to be pretty easy given you have almost unlimited power to add monsters and change situations at a whim.
I like to have focal points in a campaign, where one of my players is central to the story, and attempt to have this for each player as the campaign continues over time. But we’ll cover that in a future guide.
When you create challenges, try having a bunch of ways to complete it, or even just create a challenge with no clear solution and accept the answer whenever the players come up with something that makes sense (sounds odd but I promise it creates some interesting results).
If you have the extra time (and it doesn’t have to be a lot), when your players create their characters, see if elements of the adventure can be incorporated into their backstory, or if elements of their backstory can fit into the adventure. I once had two Drow, one whose family had been killed and house had been destroyed; and another who was hiding the identity of their family (worked into the storyline prior). I decided to add the destruction of the first Drow’s house into the storyline of the second Drow. It made for some very intense moments.
You don’t have to be an expert novelist or have a silver tongue to be a storyteller. Maybe your expertise doesn’t lie in weaving a complicated narrative but rather in the small personal moments. Maybe you tell your stories through the challenges you create, or maybe you bridge the chapters of your tale with creative dungeons and puzzles. There are many ways to tell many different stories. Experiment and find the one that fits you.
And don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. It’s how we grow. Decide on a simple point, and expand on it in some odd and bizarre directions. One of my favourite ideas was to decide that I wanted to have a tribe of people who worshiped Necromancy, but were good people. I had to decide what their ideology was, why they worshiped Necromancy, what were their limits, what impacts this had on their young and old alike, what this meant about their beliefs around life and death and even how this impacted their tribe economically/spiritually/historically. I had no idea about this tribe, and I rarely play Warlocks or Necromancers in games. It’s not really my style. But I got to learn about this tribe in my world, and in the future when I use Necromancers I can twist that knowledge and experience into new ideas.
I could write for hours and hours on this topic, so it’s probably best to end thy lesson here and hope you enjoyed it enough for me to write more. My first bit of wisdom to impart: A Game Master’s fun is in the storytelling.
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