Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jury Duty (Better GM Techniques)

Yep, down at Ye Old Municipal Court for the 2nd time in 5 days, but this time I'm sitting in a big room waiting to be called as a juror (which is a damn sight better than fighting traffic citations).

I brought a bunch of stuff to work on, but due to the free wi-fi, I've been surfing the blogs instead (duh). Wow, I missed this whole Building a Better GM Challenge thing. What a nifty little idea.

Um...didn't I already spend the whole April A-Z thing writing up GM techniques?

Ah, well. The truth of the matter is I have no idea whether or not I'm qualified to offer advice on how to be a "better GM." Truly. Call me self-deprecating if you will, but I always kind of thought I spent so much time in the GM chair because "no one else wants to do it." Or possibly "because I yell the loudest."

In my experience, it's the dude (or dudette) with the best grasp of the rules that invariably gets to run the show. I mean, to a certain point (at a table filled with competent DMs/GMs the game might be run by "whoever wrote up an adventure that week"). When I've sat down to games like Spirit of the Century or Risus it's not me that runs the game...I can play and ham and react to what the GM is pitching, but I don't have the knowledge to run the game.

And when I've attempted to run games in which I'm not particularly practiced/proficient, they generally fry up and blow away after only one or two sessions.

That being said, I do (generally) like how I run my games (when I run them well), and people do tend to return to my games over time (which I take to mean they're enjoyed by the players). Can I sum up three techniques to help keep your players interested in the game? Maybe. I can at least talk about what I like in a DM (and thus, what I try to provide to my players).

[caveat: since all I've been running for the last couple years has been B/X Dungeons & Dragons, your mileage may vary in applying these techniques to other games]

Three "Best Practices"

1. Know the Rules
2. Encourage Role-Playing
3. Balance Hard and Soft

I'm not sure I can provide specific nuts-and-bolts technique for each of these, but I'll talk about each and how I attempt to do it. As with any art form, practice helps.

Know the Rules: For a traditional RPG like Dungeons & Dragons, the GM is God, Jesus, and Umpire all in one. It doesn't help anyone do anything if you don't know how to play the damn game. Players want to sit down and play...their level of interest in knowing the nuts-and-bolts of the game mechanics will vary; some will want the knowledge to "game the system" (optimize in-game effectiveness), some will just want to know what dice to roll when (and some won't even care to know that much). Regardless of player knowledge, YOU as GM must know how the game runs, backwards and forwards. If there are tables and obscure rules and such that you can't be bothered to memorize, you should still be able to find this info quickly in the book and have a good basic grasp of the game play. If you're lost, you can't run an enjoyable game; it doesn't matter how creative you are!

"GAME" is the operative word in that last sentence...you can still run a collaborative story-telling session, or narrate players down your particular linear ego-trip. But if you want an interactive game, then you have to have rules, and the GM is final referee and arbiter of these rules.

Knowing the rules of the game allow you to be an effective judge and referee; it allows you to be an effective teacher of the game and mentor to the players. It allows you to be consistent in your presentation of the game which, in the final analysis, is the closest thing we ever get to "fairness" and "game balance."

Finally, knowing the rules, being a subject matter expert on the game, gives you the freedom to move onto other issues...like #2 (Encourage Role-Playing) and #3 (Balance Hard & Soft) listed above.

Encourage Role-Playing: I'll be blunt here: if you're running a role-playing game, you have a responsibility to encourage role-playing...no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Real role-playing (imagining yourself in the role of your character, making your character's interests your own) is the main thing RPGs have that other games (including computer "RPGs") do not. Those of us who have the privilege of running a game have the responsibility to the hobby to showcase this side of the game whenever possible.

Why? Because it's the thing these games have that others don't; it's the draw that brings people to the game. It's the thing that can keep the hobby going...a hobby that encourages imagination, social interaction, community building, and critical thinking. A hobby I'd like to see last beyond my own limited time on this planet.

Encouraging role-playing means giving the players the chance to think as their characters and not making the game too mechanical. Even when it IS mechanical, one should be able to provide the rational to explain things in terms of character for the players.

Why can't my cleric use a sword? Because the spark of divinity within all creatures rests in the blood, and it is a sacred thing to the Gods, not to be spilled except in very specific rituals at the proper moment of sacrifice; the very creation of a blade used for the injuring of others is antithesis to the tenets of your faith.

I want to throw dust in the eyes of my opponent and then hamstring him with my dagger? Make your attack roll (watches); okay, your roll failed. You scoop up dirt and throw it in your opponent's face, but it appears he's no stranger to this tactic...he sneezes but still anticipates the blow, blocking it with a downward parry.

Can we negotiate our way out of this? Yes, but unless you speak lizard man it may be difficult, though perhaps one of the creatures knows a bit of the Common tongue.

Role-playing comes about when players begin to thing in terms of their character's desires, and this happens the more they can place themselves in the imaginary world of the game. "Shutting them down" and telling players they can't do something because it's not in the rules puts the focus of their game squarely ON the rules; which in turn de-emphasizes the identification with character. It's difficult enough to experience suspension of disbelief at a gaming table when one has to occasionally break the 4th wall to call for an initiative roll or saving throw. Encouraging players to try different things or "think outside the box" not only makes the game more fun and less boring/rote, but will help the imagined world to live and breathe for the players. Do it as much as possible.

Looking players in the eye and practicing active listening is more important to role-playing than speaking in funny voices.

Balance Hard and Soft: The trickiest of all three practices, and definitely one that's fairly specific to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons; I'm speaking specifically to fairly balance risk and reward for players in-game.

Gygax (and Moldvay and Mentzer and everyone else) has written about the need to find balance in the rewarding of characters in-game; that pendulum swing between "too stingy" and "Monty Haul" type campaigns. For me, the treasure/XP factor is secondary to finding balance in the challenge that's handed out to the players. And by "challenge" I mean "threat to (imaginary) life-and-limb" not just "solve the puzzle."

I like the games I run to be deadly. I want there to be a real feeling of threat in the minds of my players when I sit down at the table. I want them to believe that they are risking their character's lives every time they step into the dungeon, that it's possible they'll get energy drained, or poisoned, or smashed in a cave-in, or over-run by goblins and speared to death. I don't want them to think that there's some safety net/dice-fudging thing that's going to happen and save their bacon if they press their luck or blunder into the wrong corridor or fail to screw up through ignorance or possibly bad luck.

Why not? Because, to me, that's what D&D is about. It's not about coming up against Great Old Ones and being driven insane. It's not about Antediluvian vampires that can kill you with a glance and have no need for game stats. It IS a game about heroic individuals undertaking perilous adventure for both gold and glory.

"Perilous" means deadly. But that doesn't mean characters don't get saving throws...player characters ARE heroic, after all. Both purple worms and greater demons can be fought and killed by Joe Human in the D&D game, and sure Joe will probably bite the dust, but it's not guaranteed. Sometimes dumb luck can be an ally in the game...just as it is in real life.

However, with that threat of deadliness (or poison or petrifaction or energy drain) ready to pop out at any time, and the consistency of the DM with enforcement (the "Hard") you create a more visceral experience for your players. Assuming you're following #2 (encouraging role-playing), players can feel real adrenaline and racing heartbeats when the shit hits the fan.

[otherwise, they may just think you're an asshole]

However, the trick (as I wrote) is balancing the Hard with "the Soft" and that means knowing when to give on something, allowing the PCs to survive or overcome an obstacle in a manner or method not otherwise anticipated by the DM. A PC is poisoned and the players use a potion of gaseous form to dump the foreign substance from his body. PCs rig up an elaborate method of getting a treasure item without setting off a found trap (rather than attempting to disarm said trap). Allowing PCs to negotiate with monsters or find "outside-the-box" methods of overcoming obstacles and environmental hazards (White Plume Mountain is a good adventure to practice this kind of DM/PC training). Allowing escape. Allowing capture for ransom. Allowing unusual methods of recovery as rewards for certain benny side-quests.

And definitely allowing REWARD to match the risk. If the PCs overcome a huge threat, give 'em a huge payday. I gave PCs a 4000+ gp piece of jewelry for overcoming a single gargoyle...but they were 2nd level with only a couple magic weapons between 'em and gargoyles can only be harmed by enchanted weapons. On another adventure a PC landed himself in jail for asking around town for a controlled substance (poison) and blowing a reaction roll. He was allowed to escape (with a healthy bribe to a guard); later, when the party overcame a giant snake, he was able to milk the thing's poison sacs for a couple doses.

When players are innovative and creative, reward them. When danger comes a-calling don't coddle them. Give them the hard and the soft with a lot less "lukewarm." These make for a better player experience. And if you can deliver that, then you are on your way to becoming a better GM.

All right, for more ideas on specific topics you might want to look at my April postings. Some folks found these ideas interesting and/or helpful.


  1. Great post, per usual! For my own part, I was always been DM in my circle of friends because I was the one who could come up with the most creative adventure hooks/scenarios. I'm not too shabby in remembering rules, either, but mostly it was my imagination that got me the job. Everyone else was just having us go out and kill goblins. I added in real villains, side quests, etc.

  2. I became the regular DM because I was the one guy in our circle of friends in junior high who didn't smoke weed. The other guys were too baked to maintain... the ceaseless giggling, incoherent descriptions and capricious rulings made them poor DMs. They've all been off the devil weed for more than twenty years, now, but I'm still the default DM.

    Jury duty has been good for the blog, JB. Thanks for making your civic duty work for your hobby and your blog readers.