Running the Game: Style and Substance

I’ve been kicking around a post like this for a while now and it’s finally coalesced (for the most part) thanks to the Meaningful Choices posts I’ve been doing and what two other blogs I enjoy reading have been writing about. Thanks to Barking Alien and Odyssey for their unintentional contributions to my thinking…

Anyone who reads this blog already knows this but just as a refresher/disclaimer — I’m a huge defender of the role of the DM/GM at the table and it pains me to see the position eroded in some games. I’m sure that it’s fun for those folks and they are welcome to it — but I don’t understand it. I’m also a huge fan of highly narrative play even when I’m running a highly structured system… I mean, I’m running Pathfinder (lots of rules) and I’m working on a diceless game of my own design (less rules/no randomness).

But the point is — what do I actually do at the table? Or more importantly, how do I do what I do at the table?

Well, looking over my insights into being a GM I realize that my style is similar to Barking Alien’s based on the post I read… I’m an improviser more than anything. I believe in winging it and it causes me a lot of problems when I force myself not to improvise.*

So here’s a little Boons and Banes discussion of my GMing — maybe no one else will care but it helps me to get it down somewhere. Maybe I can point new players to this so they’ll know what to expect when gaming with me? I’ll start with the good:

I think I do three things pretty well as a GM — I’d call them my strengths except that I never really thought of them as strengths because they’re just “how I run games” right? The first is characters, the second is winging it, and the third is reactivity.

The first and second points go hand in hand so I’ll touch on those first together. When running a game, I hate being “on script.” I try not to use published adventures — though I certainly don’t mind mining those for ideas — and I’m very, very good at making stuff fit. When running a session I’ll spend the majority of the session just making stuff up as we go along and then, if necessary, I’ll retcon it all into a manageable form after the session. It’s a trick I learned while running Amber DRPG. When the players would go to the Courts of Chaos I’d have little set-piece encounters I was making up on the fly and if the PCs connected to one and it grew bigger then I’d figure out how it fit into the larger picture (now or in the future) and I’d make that important. Which is the point about being reactive… I love to build my stories around the PCs. I tend to be of the mind-set during the session that what the players are prioritizing is what I need to focus on — not all the time, I have my own moments but I really love to let the PCs set the pace/end point of an adventure. And (I’m gonna be immodest for a second) I’m really good at making it all make sense — even when it didn’t seem to in the moment. Probably one of my finest traits as a GM.

But that also extends to making up encounters. Again, BA mentions his frustration with watching someone crack a rulebook and start scanning for monster stats mid-session or rolling on a chart… I’m with BA on that one. People would always complain that making up a high-level villain in 3.5 was a pain in the neck… and I never understood why, until I realized that they were actually trying to make NPCs the way you’d make a PC, with all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted… Why would you ever do that? I’ll run a 12th level wizard or cleric against my party any day and I won’t have one dang thing written down — I can do the basic math in my head and after that it’s all just pretty lights and stuff happening and dice rolling. I’ll use the spells I remember, maybe covertly look up one or two during a quick snack break if I’m worried, and then boom — Fight is on!

And the moral of the story is: Don’t be afraid to improvise, right? Exactly. And I tell my players the same thing!

But when it comes to being a GM and being proud of the work I do at the table? Nothing makes me happier than the characters I create. The heart of any roleplaying experience — for me — is the role-playing. I mean, yeah, some nights I just wanna blast stormtroopers, sure, but mostly, I’m looking for my very own table-top soap opera, with relationships between PCs and NPCs, mentors, god-parents, wives and families all playing a part. I mean, I’ve had one of my most stalwart number-gamers at my table (who is a great guy anyway…) actually get embarrassed by his character’s mom (this was a D&D game, he was a half-celestial and his mom was an Eladrin who only visited from time to time when she’d drop in on his blacksmith dad). That relationship was a great one — but it’s nothing compared to the romance that same player had (in a different game) with one of the other PC’s mother… and I have a million of these stories. And they’re the ones I love to tell. Not that time I rolled a crit and wasted two Blue Slaad in one turn — nope — that’s just rolling a die and being rewarded for having a certain combination of numbers on a piece of paper. I had very little agency in that outcome — but character inter-relationships — those build, over time, with care, and they are lasting moments of joy for the player and the GM. It’s what I love most about my job on the other side of the screen…

Wow, this is really long and I hate to leave off without telling you the bad stuff — but I’ll get back to that tomorrow… so it will be a whole day of what I suck at… that’s heartening.

Anyway — Thanks for reading — and I’d love to hear about what makes you tick/great/terrified about being a GM…

*OH! I almost forgot… Published adventures and stuff. Well, I’m running the Kingmaker Adventure Path right now and it’s very, very hard — because I’m trying to run it “by the book” including random encounters and all that jazz. I hate it. I’m awkward doing it. The best sessions we’ve had have been the ones that went off the rails a little. But I’m committed to seeing it through so maybe I’ll feel better when it’s all done…**

**Oh, who am I kidding? It’s like wearing a straightjacket lined with awkward and needles. Once I get through this, I promise — never again.


3 responses

  1. What makes me a decent GM?

    A dedication to playing the game – it may not always be my A game, but I’ll be there trying. I don’t flake. I think 7 years I’ve had a last minute cancel of the game three times: once when my grandmother passed away and I found out Friday to fly up to VT on Saturday; once when my A/C died on a 95+ degree day, we ended up playing, but it was only after a lot of chaos; and I’m sure there was a third time that I canceled day of for my own personal reasons, I’m just not thinking about it.

    My ability to create consequences that reinforce the verisimilitude of the world that I’m working in, whether it is high action and drama, or gritty horror. Related, convoluted plots that make sense at the end of it – and yeah, usually at some nugget of them at the beginning.

    Finally, my ability to sell my reactions to the players – good at not giving away how not in trouble they are, at maintaining tension. I want players to feel tense at the table not knowing what is the result, when I’ve generally realized how something is going to go. But I can sell the tension.

    I’ll save my sucky bits to be pair with later.

  2. hah, I was just lamenting that I am unable to run more pre-made adventures with my one home game as we meet only monthly and running a module would take forever to advance any kind of story so I am forced to right my own.

  3. @Scott — Looking forward to sharing the sucky stuff.

    @MAGM — well, to each his own. It just doesn’t work for me — but like I say, I still don’t mind mining pre-made modules for ideas.

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