It’s like I’m writing my memoirs, bored and dying
I spend a lot of time with RPG’s. I currently play one game weekly, as a player, but I have a few years of GMing under my belt. I have however spent a lot of time with RPG’s, not playing them but studying them. Reading rules, reading other people’s thoughts on things. This has gone for roughly 15 years, since I was a really wee lad. I always tried to see the system in things and perhaps I have found some method to the madness that is RPG’s. I don’t have much to do at the moment so I will write some stuff that I think may be of use to someone, maybe.
I am not entering this ring with any goal other than writing, because I have time. I think however that war stories are the best way to improvement outside of, you know, actually GMing. I’ll make this a 3 or 4 part thing. I’ll be assuming tabletop RPG played at a table, not online, which is an ENTIRELY different ballpark.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the skills needed for a GM’s job, were we to try and categorize them into groups and sub-groups for whatever reason, would boil down to 3 sectors: people skills, game(r) skills and magic. The last part is somewhat tricky, it’s last for a reason. Let’s look at the first section.
Clearly as a GM of a tabletop RPG, you are not going to be alone. The very nature of tabletop RPG’s insists on an experience shared with others(note 1). On the most basic level, you all will need to communicate and being humans, talking is efficient. If you are not a good talker, GMing might be a problem for you. You need to talk A LOT as a GM. If you ummm and errr, the experience will be of diminished quality for all. Two options: surrender the reigns, (absolutely no shame in this, you are exactly the same sort of human that the others in the group are,) or improve. Learning by doing is your only option in this; talk more and actively reflect on how you talked. Take note of all your errs, awkward silences, when you were at a loss for words. Don’t get sad over mistakes, sadness brings no action. Getting mad is a good step: gets your blood pumping, oxygen to the cells. Don’t stay mad though, that makes you select unreasonable choices. After calming down consider what should have happened. What it comes down to is choices and muscle memory: choices are based on theory and calmness at the time of decision-making and practice is based on nothing but practice. Keep talking, try to talk clearly and calmly. Know when not to talk, for whichever reason.
Not talking is by the way an important part of communication. You will need to listen, and sometimes you may need to shut the hell up, for everyone’s sake. Don’t take it too hard, all newer GM’s run into a high sometimes and will try to tell you in the most coked-up fashion an anecdote from their past games, or, god forbid, something funny from the internet. These are bad form. RPG’s are very much about flow, interrupting the flow of the game that the entire group is participating in for your own selfish gratification is disgusting. IMPORTANT: Keep paper handy, write down everything. Every thing. This includes your unrelated anecdotes. Keep a note about the anecdote in the paper intended for post-game. When the post-game arrives, once the game has ended, review the paper and consider telling the anecdote then and consider how hard it would have impacted the flow of the game.
You should always be aware of how much spotlight time each player has gotten and you should attempt to equalize this. All should have about the same relevance in all things. This includes you. Make sure each player gets to talk, ergo do things as their character. Players have different minimum and maximum tolerances for their own actions. Gauge this and consider reasons: why is the player here if they aren’t doing anything? Reasons are many and a good intro to player psychology is ChattyDM’s Player Types, which he overtook and improved on from generations of GM’s who pondered this question. The questions boil down to simple things: waiting for an opening, hoping for a different take on a scene, social anxiety, personal issues… The art here is to find out what the issue is, via experimenting, with as little player awareness of the probing. To do this, grab the reminder-paper for the near future and make sure to note what options you have not yet exhausted: in general you can look for what kind of player it is according to Chatty’s categorization, or you might look at a further text regarding types of progression, then start rating what the player looked like during their scenes. I recommend using words for ratings as opposed to numbers or, the least useful, checkmarks. Your handwriting is a good way of memorizing things, even after months I was still capable of remembering stupid details about a lecture if I wrote down notes with a pen and paper. Some players enjoy their comfort zone. Some enjoy leaving it. Some enjoy being torn out of it forcefully. Make the right choices.
Worst case, but still not as bad as not solving the problem, is simply asking: “Why did you stay so quiet?” and then patiently listening. Again we need to stay calm and not pressure. If it’s social anxiety, pressure is the worst thing, in other cases suggesting options may sway the players opinion and give you what you want to hear but not what the issue is. Consider this too: what if the player doesn’t know themselves? Keep probing and attempt to see what kind of scene and what type of action or progress bring joy to the player or cause him to jump into action.
The solutions to most things are almost infuriatingly zen-like. If it’s anxiety, make them feel at ease. Make friends. If it’s personal problems, they need to solve them. Preferably with friends. If they want a different scene, give them that different scene. Or let them turn the scene into what they want it to be. If it’s harder rules enforcement, give them that.
Empathy is the word we’re dancing around here and it is a skill and talent that there is no reason not to desire. Empathy by definition means finding out the thoughts of other people, useful in all interactions. It’s the “thinking a turn ahead” of chess, but applied to all human interaction. You can do with it what you please, but in the capacity of the GM you should use it to make and keep the game enjoyable for all, including you. An interesting thing to think about too is subtext; never consider something to be just what it appears to be. Every sentence, every action causes ripples and affects future options and actions as well as tells you something about what is going on inside the agent. Try to think about what things happening in games mean, on all the levels, people at the table, mechanics, characters in the game. Consider that the player may not be thinking about consequences. Keep note of consequences, continuity is one of the best things a GM can pull out of his hat of tricks.
Finally, if there ever is a conflict between player desires, take this at face value: conflict is good. Conflict does not necessarily have to end in total defeat for one part and total victory for the other. Both may reach their goal. They may compromise. Do not attempt to solve conflict between players as long as it is on a game level or in-character level. Only if the conflict is related to the people sitting at the game table, should you intervene. One notable exception is griefing; causing in-character problems for the sake of causing havoc. There is a way to play a sociopath character and very VERY few players understand how. Be wary of players who would try and make a character who would cause damage or unsheathe his weapon with no other motivation than “the lulz”. You probably know the sort. Keep away from them. Keep them away from your game. Everything they touch turns to shit, don’t let them touch your game. ChattyDM wrote about this too. Do not ever tolerate this. This is one of the few golden rules that are not “floaty” or “zen” or relating to preference or tastes. Boot assholes. Always.