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In many respects, it’s easier being a player than a GM. Since the player determines the personality of the character, as well as what the character says and does, there is in fact no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to roleplay any given character – only ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It’s a bit like being able to set the exam questions yourself; no-one should be surprised that you get a decent mark!

Being a GM, on the other hand, means reviews of your work and its internal coherance and cohesion by others – the players, if no-one else. Being a GM can require a certain measure of courage and self-confidance. If your players can’t understand what you’re on about, it will soon become obvious to all. If your decisions are arbitrary or biased in any way – deliberately or otherwise – that too will quickly become aparrant.

The first time I set out to referee, I had experienced only a few examples as a player to guide me, but already I had found that there were things that I liked and disliked about the approaches taken by those GMs, which would result in nuances of style behind the GM screen that have stayed with me ever since.

In part one of this two-part article, I boiled the tutelage I recieved from a friend named Chris Mount in ‘how to roleplay’ into a small number of concrete tutorials, a ‘lesson plan’ if you will. Chris wasn’t able to help me as much when I began planning the Deeps campaign, because he was not a GM; he’d tried it once and it wasn’t his forte. And yet, in many respects, he was the perfect GM Mentor as a result. These are a summary of the lessons that I learned.

Avoid making rules For Rules’ Sake

I had started out by looking at the various character classes in D&D and tweaking each to ‘improve’ the game balance and desireability of the more unpopular classes. Some seemed weak and less desireable to a player, especially at lower levels, while others seemed too dominant. At higher levels, the resulting heirachy can completely invert.

I don’t remember all of the changes, but I do remember giving Monks an extra hit die, and giving Thieves the ability to dodge weapon strikes that would otherwise hit, and boosting the hit-point-die for Wizards at lower levels (while mandating that they cast spells using their own hit points, 1 HP per level of spell; each time they gained a spell level, the cost dropped toward zero for lower-level spells). I also remember spending a lot of time thinking about the impact of different weapon types – slashing vs crushing, etc – and tailoring the damage that weapons did against different armour types, a giving various races an extra die of stats if they chose a favoured class of the race, or if they used a favoured weapon.

I also spent a lot of time doing probability assessments for characteristic rolls – I remember that one stat could be rolled on 5 dice, pick the best 3, another on 4 & pick the best three, two more on 3d6+3, one on 2d6+6, and one on 2d6+1; the choices had to be made and assigned to specific stats before you rolled. There was also an option to let you add one die to any stat if you took it from the 2d6+6 allocation, so you could choose to weaken your least-important stat and boost one that was more important.

When I talked to Chris about what I was planning, his approach on both this occasion and others to come was always to look at things from the perspective of an objective player, and his first question was always “Why do that?”

My first response was usually delivered from a metagame perspective – “it enables players to always be able to qualify for the class they want without giving them too much” in response to the stat-generation system, for example – and he would always counter by asking the question in character terms. The characteristic requirements of each class, from his perspective, were not game mechanic limits, but character requirements imposed by the requirements of each character class. You needed a certain amount of intelligence to cast spells properly; you needed a certain level of nimbleness to be a thief, and so on. Viewed globally, the characteristics of a whole bunch of characters should average out to that of the overall population; individual variations were a career-sorting mechanism.

He never tried to talk me out of anything, but he always made me look at the implications to the game from three different perspectives: the ramifications for the game world, the ramifications for a player generating a character, and the ramifications on game balance. His motto was to always have an objective reason for every change that was made to the rules and be able to articulate that reason on demand; the change might not achieve the goals set out for it, the reason itself might not stand up to scrutinity, but those were always interesting and valid subjects for debate and discussion. He felt that no house-rule was ‘official’ until it had been tried and discussed – a point-of-view that I would do well to remember more often!

But he was most severely critical of rules for rule’s sake; he wanted general principles and concrete examples of their application, and then get on with the game. He argued that you could never think of everything in advance, and the more you tried, the more the rules became like the tax code: full of exploitable loopholes. This is still a lesson that I struggle with from time to time, as my players would be the first to point out!

Some of my ideas survived these discussions, most didn’t – the racial bonuses died unused, for example.

He never raised the issue of game playability, though we did discuss the issue in abstract terms. From his perspective, playability of rules was a moving target, and the optimum balance was individual from one game-table to another; things that were found to be practical would be accepted, things that were not would soon be forgotten or ignored (even by the GM), and the middle ground would be reassessed by virtue of out-of-game discussion, from which a better way could emerge.

First World – start small & simple

My first campaign concept, on Chris’ advice, started small – a Half-elven kingdom (which was apallingly human-medieval in retrospect), the King pays the PCs to clear out a newly-discovered dungeon. That was the entire campaign background, verbatum!

The dungeon itself was huge: an inverted step pyramid (one step per level), 15,000 feet to a side on the upper level, fifteen levels. Maps and level keys took up over 100 handwritten pages in a lecture book dedicated to the purpose. There was no real concept of ecology, no justification or rationale for things being where they were, no real concept of politics or society, either within the dungeon or in the world beyond.

The second-cleverest thing about the design was that – following Chris’ advice – I started small and simple (I know it doesn’t sound that way). I drew up plans for only two levels of the dungeon, leaving the other 13 alone until I had a bit more experience of what worked (and what didn’t) under my belt. Of the top level, I designated six different areas that were controlled by different factions and seperated them with no-mans-lands where a persistant power struggle could take place between them. Of level 2, I only labelled those areas where an already-defined faction could reach, and either specified a function that those areas played within the (simple) society of the owning faction, or specified that there was something so nasty down there that they had walled off the descent.

When the players finally reached the second level, I had enjoyed plenty of time to design both it and the third – assisted because the first was so large, but containing so many similar elements that it had been easy to construct. By the time they got to level three, I had completed the first five levels, and had started compiling ideas for the rest. By the time they had explored those five levels, I had twelve of the 15 levels planned, and so on.

It worked a treat. I always had enough prepared to play regardless of which direction the PCs went, with minimal wasted time; and the more difficult and confined the area was, the longer I had to polish it.

Don’t do today what can wait until tomorrow

The cleverest thing that I did was to start each session with a flashback to the past life of one or more of the PCs, as I learned to develop more of the world and its internal architecture – the politics and economics and social infrastructure and so on. This kept the design requirements under manageable limits and permitted the players to slowly flesh out their characters.

What made these flashbacks so valuable was that I specified that players were not permitted to do anything within them to alter the relationships that were in evidence between the PCs at the start of play, though the context was entirely up for grabs. This allowed me to take my time learning the ropes and developing the aspects of the game world that interested the players while keeping the primary game as a straightforward dungeon-bash. I didn’t have to explain everything immediatly, I didn’t have to spend time exploring all the ramifications in advance, and I could leave certain aspects of the world to the inspired creativity of my players.

You see, they assumed that I was being far more clever than I necessarily was, and developed their own theories as to the relationship between various background threads. In effect, it took their experience and put it to work for my benefit (while most of the players had years of experience as players, some were also experienced GMs).

If I made a mistake and dropped contradictory plot elements into the background – and it did happen from time to time – the players assumed that there was a way of reconciling the contradiction and started theorising amongst themselves. All I had to do was sit there and smile indulgantly while taking notes furiously.

After about 6 months of fortnightly play, I dropped the flashbacks as each PC now had a satisfactory backstory and I had sufficient self-confidence, expertise, and time, to be able to completely redo the surface world with concept twists and refinements – nothing that invalidated what had emerged in the course of play, but enough to ensure that the big finish I had planned (where the King who had sent them on this mission in the first place was revealed to be, not a half-elf, but a half-drow, who had imprisoned and replaced the real king before setting about subverting the surface world. He had used Drow Prophecies to identify the individuals most able to interfere with his plans and sent them into the dungeon from which he had emerged after 1,000 years in suspended animation to be killed. At the bottom-most level of the dungeon was a gate to a demonic realm, a passageway from whence the dungeon had been populated and was artificially sustained (solving some of those pesky ecological issues). What’s more, one of the PCs was revealed to be the only surviving heir to the throne, the descendant of a bastard by-blow resulting from a casual affair of the true King’s great-grandfather.

This big finish was so successful that the players persuaded me to keep the campaign running for another three years even though it had (in theory) ended with the overthrow of the Drow King and reinstatement of the true ruler, complete with his new Heir. (To extend the campaign, I started by deciding that the tortures the King had experienced had unhinged him, mentally; people are willing to accept behaviour in a monarch, especially one that had been so mistreated, that they wouldn’t tolerate in anyone else – until it was almost too late…)

Be prepared to make mistakes

Another of Chris’ lessons was to accept that both I and my players were human and would make mistakes from time to time, and that part of setting up a game was to establish a mechanism to cope with these mistakes, and correct them after the fact.

The mechanism I used then (but have not used since) was based on the concept of a verdict being the judgement of one’s peers. If someone wanted to challenge one of my rulings, they had to put up, as a bond, a percentage of the XP value of their current level (a very D&D game mechanism, deigned to discourage frivolous challenges) and lodge a written protest against my ruling.

When that happened, two non-involved players, at least one with previous experience as a GM, were selected by lot (by die roll, actually) to be Judges of the issue. Both myself and the protesting player had an opportunity to make our cases to the Judges, who then each took a copy of the rulebooks and used them, independant of each other, to determine the verdict. They were NOT permitted to confer with each other.

This produces three possible verdicts:

  • They could both refute the protest, costing the player the XP he had put up to make his challenge – though I could waive that fee if I felt the player was sincere or had good reason for his protest.
  • They could render a split verdict, in which case my decision stood, but the player was not charged the xp cost of the protest.
  • Or they could uphold the protest, in which case I had to negotiate a restitution or a correction to the player concerned with the two Judges.

I could override the entire system if it was a situation in which I knew something that the player had not taken into account and did not want to disclose – in which case I had to place XP equal to what the player had put at risk “in escrow”, to be divided amongst the party when that hidden knowledge was revealed.

Oh, yes – the protest had to be lodged within half an hour of my making the decision that was to be protested, I almost forgot that!

The advantages of this system were that it deferred these resolutions until after play for the day was complete, discouraged frivolous protests, while ensuring that I wasn’t just fair, I was seen to be fair. The disadvantage was that if players conspired to always find against me, the system could be rorted and corrupted; another group attempted to do just that, which is why it was abandoned. I’ve since learned better ways of handling the problem, but for a novice GM, with fair players, it was a workable solution.

Establish A GMing philosophy – then stand by it

This is often thought of in terms of disputed calls, but the context in which Chris used the idea had a broader application, which is why I’ve deliberately placed it both after and independant of the section dealing with those.

One possible GMing philosophy is to stick to the rulebooks, religiously. Another is to decide that the primary objective is for the GM furnish an outlet for all the participant’s creativity. A third is to decide that the goal is for everyone to have fun, and hang any rules or constraints that get in the way of that. There are, literally, dozens of others (or more!).

I’ll write a blog some other time about what my personal GM Philosophy is – it would take up far too much space here – but it comes down to deciding four things: Why do you game? How do you game? What is acceptable, and what is not? And How do you interpret these three answers in concrete terms?

I wonder how many people reading this can articulate their own GMing philosophy?

Why Did They Do That?

Another of Chris’ important lessons was to look at all the things that you didn’t like other GMs doing when you were a player, and ask yourself (as objectively as possible) “Why Did They Do That?”

If you were unable to arrive at a satisfactory answer, talk it over with other GMs and players; and if they also came up empty, make sure that you do the exact opposite when you are behind the screen, at least 99% of the time.

I hadn’t played much, but I already had a number of pet peeves about the style of the GMs that I had played under. Chris forced me to put each under the microscope; I found that some were just the denial of the incipient longings to power-game that almost every player discovers in themselves shortly after they first start out (and that some never seem to grow out of), while others – dividing one’s attention amongst the players in proportion to their character level, for example – were simply bad GMing in my opinion, however natural the tendancy to do so might be.

From time to time, someone suggests doing satisfaction surveys of players. I always find these problematic in terms of getting any practical solutions; instead, I simply encourage my players to come to me with any beefs they might have. And berate them for not doing so if I discover them bitching behind my back – I can’t improve as a GM if all the feedback I get is positive!

I’ve never seen the one survey suggested that I think might have real benefit: getting players to list, and rank in order, their ten biggest playing peeves, whether they are in your campaign or in someone else’s, whether they are committed by a GM or a player or both, while the GMs list their ten biggest peeves about players. Give both sides something to think about, and something to talk about, and maybe both sets of annoyances can be avoided, or at least minimised.

Like most people, I don’t make an unrealistic demand for perfection on the part of GMs and Players that I game with; I do expect them to at least TRY.

Look from the players’ perspective

There was a whole lot of other advice that Chris gave me, stemming from his playing philosophy and the things that had annoyed him as a player in other games, bad habits that he wanted me to try and avoid. Some of those came naturally to me, others I still struggle with from time to time.

But they can all be summed up “Look at [x] from the Player’s Perspective”. [X] could be a piece of campaign background, it could be monkeying with the foundation concepts of a race, it could be a proposed house rule, it could be the description of an encounter – it was anything and everything you did. And not just any players who were directly affected – how might other players feel about it?

I don’t think I’ve ever found a more valuable and profound lesson. You can come up with the greatest plotline in the history of gaming, but if it will confuse your players, don’t use it. You can write the most poetic description of a scene, full of vivid and unforgettable imagry and resounding prose – if your players have to dig out the important facts, they won’t listen. If a rule makes more work for the players, it will have to be pretty darned useful before it will gain acceptance amongst them. If both you and your players keep forgetting to apply a particular rule, your game is probably better off without that rule.

The list of valid interpretations and applications of this golden rule just continue to grow.

A Good GM must also be a good Player

Before you can effectively run two, or three, or twenty-three NPCs at the same time, you have to be able to play one effectively. Sure, it might be necessary to shortcut or economise your NPC’s character development; but never compromise the effort that you expend as a GM unless forced to by outside circumstances of higher priority.

Try to do for every NPC everything that you would do if it were your PC. You won’t be able to do so, but if you must compromise, do so in areas that can’t be seen by the Players: use a random character generator – but work on a personality to match. Heck, use a random personality generator if you have to – but work on ways of expressing that personality to the players.

Learn to write speeches, and narrative, and newspaper headlines. Learn the tricks of acting in a radio play. Learn how to make effective maps and diagrams – even if they aren’t pretty! Learn history, and science, and maths, and geography, and anything else that you might have to describe or draw inspiration from or interpret – even if you only read a primer on the subject.

Go to a university open day and make a list of all the first-year introductory textbooks. Acquire them, one by one, second-hand if you have to, and study them – or at least skim them. Start with high-school texts and subject summaries if you have to. Philosophy, Psychology, Biology, Anatomy, Art, First Aid, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering – they will all be helpful someday.

And having the referances available, five or ten years later, can be invaluable.

Enjoy what you do – or do Something Else

This was Chris’ final piece of direct advice to me, and it’s something that I’m reminded of every time I see the motto of Roleplaying Tips (“Have more fun”). It’s also something that comes to mind every time I read or write something about Burnout, which is (essentially) when it stops being fun and starts becoming hard work.

At the end of my one year of University, Chris and I went seperate ways. I had bombed out in my studies for personal reasons having nothing to do with gaming (if anything, I credit gaming with permitting an escape from the problems that interfered with my education) and wound up working for Australia’s largest bank, some 200+ miles from my gaming group (I still got down to game regularly, thanks to RDOs and holidays and long weekends – a 10-hour trip by train, each way). Chris, meanwhile, had returned to Tasmania to continue his education, having passed the courses that he could not study at home. But every couple of weeks or so, I would take $5 or $10 in coins down to the phone booth and spend hours chatting with him over the phone, about movies, or music, or gaming, or whatever; answering my questions, squashing silly ideas without dampening my enthusiasm, and enjoying vicariously the most recent misadventures of the PCs in my campaign. When I lost that job, and moved back to Sydney, we lost touch; but his memory still lingers.

In recognition of Chris’ contributions to my games and my ability to GM, I am presenting the lessons he gave me to everyone else out there; and encouraging all of you who are reading this to draw on these lessons the next time you encounter a new player, or would-be GM. Don’t treat them as ignorant or as a potential rival; teach them how to be a player that you will welcome into your campaign, and to be a GM whose campaigns you can enjoy.

That’s my gift to all of you out there in this season of goodwill and giving. Merry Christmas-or-it’s-appropriate-cultural-equivalent to you all.

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