So, considering that in a couple of weeks I’ll be throwing my hat (perhaps rather haphazardly) into the Game Mastering ring. In that vein, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing research on the game system I’m running (Changeling: The Lost), but that’s a completely different story. What I’ve also been researching is slightly more important and pertinent to this post.
I’m absolutely terrified of being a terrible GM. I want to make this game as enjoyable for my players as humanly possible. Thus, I’ve been reading up on good Game Mastering techniques as well as horror stories about terrible Game Masters. Today, I stumbled across a forum with a thread containing a “mini game” of sorts, in which the participants were trying to think of 1001 intriguing mysteries that could be worked into different games. That post got me thinking about times that I’ve played in games and been very, very impressed with what’s gone on (be that a video game or a tabletop RPG). It’s those events that really tell of good Game Mastering. Those times when you give your players goosebumps should be what every respectable Game Master lives for.
And here are a few ways I’ve come up with to do just that.
1. Set Your Campaign Somewhere Eerily Close to the Places Your Players Know.
Players, at a basic level, are people. Each one of them lives and breathes outside of the game you’re running. They have homes, schools, favorite haunts. Get to know your players. Find out what they do and where they do it outside of the game. Try to do it discreetly. Then, get ambitious. If a player tells you there’s this little coffee shop they really love, take a trip down there. Make a few notes. Take stock of the layout. Then, in an upcoming session, plot a building (perhaps a tavern), with a similar layout.
2. Reward Players Who Have Put Time and Effort into Their Character.
This one isn’t that hard to do at all. As a Game Master, it should be known that if a player puts a lot of effort into a character, it can make your job as a GM much easier. The player has obviously already put a lot of thought into their character — be that thought in the character’s mannerisms, history, or style. Those characters have been created by players with fresh insight to your world and can perhaps give you a new direction into your campaign when you’ve hit a “gaming block.” When your players are this excited about their character and your game, do not let that enthusiasm and hard work go unrewarded. (Even more tragic, do not ignore all that a player has put into their character.) Instead, take a moment to think of ways you can reward such initiative. Perhaps there’s an item that would really fit well with the character that the player perhaps couldn’t afford to buy at character creation. Maybe you slip a few extra gold pieces their way and let them play with the shiny sword. Perhaps the character has an insignia that’s very important to him/her. Work that symbol into a dungeon and see how the player handles it. Does the character have a grudge? Was she exiled from her family? Working NPCs from a PCs history can be exciting and shiver-inducing.
3. Blur the Lines Between Good and Evil.
Players build characters to play the good guys in games. That’s just the way most tabletop roleplay games work. The games weren’t designed to let people play out their sick, twisted, evil fantasies, but were made with the idea of letting everyday people do extraordinarily amazing (and good) things. It’s very typical for a gang of characters to come together at first under the guiding hand of a certain individual, ruler, country, or company to undo some evil occurring in the world. This first encounter can become a string of long missions, the PCs having become sort of a mercenary group for the “top good guy.” Or if that doesn’t happen, the players have now learned each others’ characters well enough to move on with the rest of the campaign. However, what were to happen if we started to smudge those lines a bit? What if the person initially requesting the PCs help doesn’t have the purest intentions? What if the “bad guys” they have been sent to vanquish aren’t so much “evil” and “misunderstood?” By creating shades of gray instead of working solely in black and white can create a feeling of realism as well as a need to think more outside the box.
4. Don’t Just Be a Narrator; Be a Storyteller.
Even with the most ambitious and excited of players, a Game Master who does very little but deem the success/failure of dice rolls is bound to lose the interest of his players very quickly. This is your universe. You’ve created the towns, the story, the buildings, the landscapes, the “extras.” If you haven’t spent enough time thinking about these smaller details, your game won’t flow as nicely and may end up frustrating your players. By being an accurate storyteller, you can give your players a very real, very detailed look at the world around them. The easier it is for the players to imagine what’s going on around them, the more they are probably going to have their characters doing. Don’t just tell them that they’re sitting in a tavern. Tell them that it’s a slightly run-down building with a faint stench of wood-rot barely masked by the overwhelming amount of booze behind the counter. Don’t just offhandedly mention the barkeep. Tell them that he’s a wary-looking fellow with a scar rendering his left-eye almost completely useless. The more real you make the world, the more real your players will want to make their characters.
5. Avoid the Typical and Cliched; Make the Everyday Become Completely Out-of-Place.
After completing a dungeon crawl for the King and coming upon the final room, it’s pretty commonplace to see a slightly glimmering treasure chest which can be opened to reveal some fancy necklace, perhaps a valuable scroll or book, or any other manner of plainly obviously valuable treasure. But that’s all very commonplace in a world of fantasy and roleplaying. Make it more interesting. Make it shocking. What if after defeating the final monster in a dungeon, your PCs enter a room to find a small pedestal. Upon closer inspection, the pedestal is crafted from the bones of many beasts. At the top are two severed hands from an orc, mostly rotted away. The top bones are stained in a dirty color which was probably once the bright blood of the severed limbs. Clutched in the grasp of the long-dead hands is a pie, still steaming and fresh. (Now THAT would be a shocker. This would probably raise all sorts of questions for the PCs. Who built the pedestal, and why did they do it? What is this pie? Why is it still fresh?) Whenever you take something that could be a cliche moment and twist it into something completely unexpected, your PCs will thank you.
These are just a few things I’ve come up with. I’ll be sure to keep expanding on these ideas as time goes on.