Roleplaying is one of great traditions of Fantasy and Science Fiction nerds. The most important person in a D&D game is the game master. To help budding (or experienced) game masters along, here are some tips for game masters.
The game master and roleplaying
If you’ve never played a roleplaying game before (the bedroom doesn’t count), you might want to read my introductionary post. Or you can watch this video with Vin Diesel. Yes, Vin Diesel is an avid D&D player. And yes, Vin Diesel is playing Kaulder from his movie the Last Witch Hunter – a pretty terrible movie, but I’ll cover that another day.
In a roleplaying game, the game master is the person responsible for the story. A game master is a storyteller, just like a writer. However, there are differences between the two.
I’ve been game mastering for 20 years now, and since a few years I think I actually know what I’m doing. So, I have some nuggets of game mastering wisdom to share.
1. Know the rules
Roleplaying games are not just about sitting around a campfire telling stories, they are games. This means that there are rules, and the game master should know them. All of them.
The rules in a roleplaying games are not just about making it a game. The rules provide structure to the characters. Contrary to a book, a roleplaying campaign has a group of people involved. All people are different, and the rules provide a level playing field for everybody. Some people will naturally take the spotlight more than others. A group dynamic forms, but without rules to keep people in check, some members of a group can be pushed out of the game completely. This can really ruin a roleplaying game.
Secondly, most people play roleplaying games to feel heroic. We want to feel the rush of victory over an ancient evil, or be a saviour of the world. Or we just want to pretend to be a powerful warrior. However, we feel that sense of victory most when it is hard-won. A game where everything is a breeze quickly becomes boring.
A game master needs to know the rules well enough to keep all the players engaged, and to make their victory challenging. Given the large tomes of rules that go along with roleplaying games, this is actually quite hard. A game master can look up specific rules when required, but this can ruin the pacing of a game, so the less this happens, the better.
The boy scout motto is ‘be prepared’. It could also be the game master motto. A game master should be prepared for each session they run. That means having rough ideas of the places the story might go, and what the players might do. Bad guys to fight need to be set up in advance, locations need to be described, and other characters in the story need to be fleshed out.
Unfortunately, all that preparation won’t survive contact with the players. Players tend to do things differently than what you’ve prepared for. They’ll go left when you were certain they’d go right. They’ll let the princess die when you’d thought they’d rescue her. They mistrust where you thought they’d care, and they’ll hate what you’d thought they’d love. You need to suck it up, though, and roll with the punches.
Being prepared means setting up multiple scenario’s. Being prepared means having non-player characters at the ready, but having them do something different than you’d expect. I try to operate on two levels: the coming session and the overarching story.
The coming session requires locations, characters to interact with, and the broad scope of an adventure. The overall story I don’t prepare, but keep track of. This is a major difference with writing a novel. For a novel I usually start with the climax and work backwards from there. For a D&D campaign, I usually start with a starting conflict and see what happens. I keep track of the actions the players take, and how that affects the other characters and conflicts going on in the world. At some point a story emerges and I can guide that to a climax.
In short, be prepared, but be prepared in the right way.
3. Don’t railroad
Having prepared a lot of cool locations, and conflicts, it’s easy to fall into the trap of railroading. You try to manoeuvre the players to go the castle, but they refuse to go (because it is a silly place). So, you have the players get lost and find themselves back at the castle. Or you send in a group of knights who drive them to the castle. Or….
Don’t do it.It’s too obvious.
Roll with the punches and improvise. That big encounter you had planned in the castle? Put it in a town house in the village that the players go to instead. Or, try to subtly guide them back the way you want. For example, if they go to the tavern in the nearby village and ask around for treasure in the vicinity, have the bar tender point them to ‘that castle supposedly has a big treasure in it. Did you miss it on your way here?’
Make sure that the players feel that they have a choice in the matter. Doesn’t matter if behind the scenes they really don’t, as long as they don’t notice.
4. Make it about the players
Another pitfall with all the preparation, is that you create a really cool story, but it does not involve the characters. One of the reasons I do not plan an ongoing overarching story, is that I want to make sure that the characters are the driving force. The world around the characters should react to the choices the players make, not play out regardless of them.
There is an entire episode of the Big Bang Theory where Amy ruins Raiders of the Lost Ark for all the guys. She points out that the end result of the movie would have been the same with or without Indy’s involvement.
This is exactly what can happen in a roleplaying game. A campaign where the end result is the same with or without the player’s involvement is boring.
5. Hurt the characters
Your players want to feel powerful. They want to be heroes. I’ve already written that that requires it to be hard. The rules provide one mechanism, but the rules don’t cover all. The rest is up to the game master.
I’ve run a campaign with one player playing an assassin. She was cold, without scruples, and murdered several people in cold blood. It was all in line with the rules, but as all out-of-control serial killers find, there is a point where you get caught. I saw my chance when the group of players tried to burgle a mansion, got their asses handed to them, and the assassin lagged behind during the escape. The simple option was to kill her, but that would have been un-epic. I had her captured instead and had her brought before the queen on several charges of murder.
The point is, you need to make the characters’ negative actions have bad consequences. Don’t let them get away with everything. Don’t let them win every fight. Don’t let them treat (fictional) others badly. This is a variation on the ‘yes, but/no, and‘ rule for writing. Yes, the characters achieve their short-term goal, but it comes back to bite them in the ass. No, the characters don’t succeed, and one of them is arrested.
That’s it. Know the rules, be prepared, don’t railroad, make it about the players, and hurt their characters. Simple, isn’t it?