Running the Game, Part Two: The “Sucky” Bits

I borrowed the title from a comment on part one… and I’m happy to report that I’m feeling much better and ready to expose my flaws as a GM to you…

First, I hate description. This may seem odd since I write, and read all the time, but I really am a minimalist when it comes to description. When I’m reading something, I hate seeing a lot of descriptors and would prefer to be given just a sketch so that I can fill in the details in my own head. Unfortunately, as a GM this is a bad trait. I’ve often left players without a complete picture of a situation, which for my more literal-minded players makes them need to ask a lot of questions — and some players are shy about that kind of thing. I could do better with setting the situation and translating ideas from my “vision” into the words that players need to feel where they are. As well as I can craft NPCs for the party to interact with I am the exact opposite at painting a picture of place at the table.

Speaking of crafting NPCs — I’m really, really bad at villains. Not because I can’t run them or don’t enjoy running them, but because I prefer villains to be rational and to have reliable motives. My villains can tend to be a little “samey” because they are almost (almost) always erudite, rational, and motivated by something that makes sense. I do this primarily (I think) because I’ve always loved the scenes in stories when the hero and the villain sit down and have a chat… at least figuratively. I like the idea that heroes and villains develop a relationship over time and have communication. This can be a good thing, and it does make for some fun play at times, but I could do better with this, I could be more varied and more surprising. Something to think about.

In that same vein of coming up with ideas — I’m good with the big ideas, I can plot an adventure from a few word associations in about five minutes and it’s probably going to be awesome, BUT, on the smaller scale, I still — after more than 20 years of GMing — struggle with making encounters more interesting, especially combat encounters. I mean, I’m fine if it’s a talking head scene — and I think it links to my uncomfortable feelings with description. If you are looking for super-intricate encounters with traps and terrain and perfectly selected creatures and mood and music and all that jazz, well, I’m not your guy. I’ll come up with convoluted plots and crazy-wicked NPCs but my encounters can be a little plain. I’ve experimented, with mixed results — but I often find that as a player I don’t like “complicated” encounters — but that transfers too much into my GMing. Sometimes when we finish an encounter at my table I feel like I’m leaving something undone — that it could have been better.

Overall, the good: My people, my plots, and my improvisation. The bad: My encounters, my villains are all the same, and my lack of descriptors. Frustrating.

How about you? Any suggestions for my weaker bits? Thanks for reading.

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5 responses

  1. Sucky Bits –

    1. I have a hard time letting go my big idea. “I want to run a player driven game with their motivations driving the game!” “Okay we’re on for that.” And then we have a few months of fumbling until I give them an obvious problem, which they fix, and then we fumble again. Stuff that could have been avoided had I let go of them driving the movement – but alas, something more collaborative between GM and players where I release some of the control is where my interests are lying (a place where the author and I differ).

    This I think led directly to my burn out – player mismatch to goals, and I’m a bit stubborn to holding to the goals.

    2. I can’t do voices. Or rather I can do voices – about three of them, and two of those are definitely not human in nature. It got bad enough I made name tags in complicated scenes to define who was speaking.

    3. As relates to #1 – I have issues with players who don’t want to be stars for even a little bit. In the Robin Laws taxonomy, they’d be the social players who are just there to socialize and participate a little. Frustrates me to no end, “But I’m giving you the chance to shine, and you look like a dear in headlights.”

    More frustrating when this person is your wife.

    1. Scott — I feel you. I’ve struggled with finding the balance for player driven play. I love having the game center around the PCs and their decisions, but sometimes you just have to put something in front of them… prime the pump as it were.

  2. Well, I think in general I share alot of the same types of strengths and flaws overall. I can’t stand premade adventures. Or even “writing” adventures to that level of detail. It’s just too much preparation and it’s more fun to improvise most of the time. I at least, though, have a general framework of characters, their goals and personalities and so forth, and a way to frame the overall problem for the players so that they are likely to go in a direction I expect. A basic framework of the most important parts if you will.

    As far as description, I have a similar approach. The most important thing to communicate (IMHO) is the emotional impact I want the players and their characters to feel. For example, in my Orkworld games, I always try to describe the Trals (Trolls) as freakish, scary, toxic, disgusting, and above all, extremely dangerous. I do this by saying things like “Its stench makes you gag. It’s claws and skin glisten with a kind of black tar so that after it slashed you, a wave of numbness spreads from the wound. The sounds it makes are alien, while it’s demenor is beastial.” With every sentence, the monster should seem more and more horrifying, and if the players are left with a terrible dread and feeling alittle sick to their stomach, I know I have succeeded. And all I have to know are what I want the players to feel during this encounter. I improvise the rest from there. [Your description of that spectral monster in a previous article fits the bill perfectly]. Again, prepare the framework of the most important, and improvise the rest. For the things you don’t describe, the players can fill in with their now emotionally charged imaginations! 🙂

    I do the same thing as a player. I take a core, and yet unusual idea like “Half-Orc Monk” and a random result of “Dogfish” from the character generator and quickly come up with a withdrawn, gentle character that despite his humble social status, has a charming outlook on life. I’m sure you’ll remember that early scene in the campaign when the human guards were mocking him by introducing themselves with equally rediculous names. Dogfish just shook his head sadly and said “Children can be so cruel”. I focused on the emotional impact I wanted to convey to the other players and GM, and improvised the line. I maintain that making an “emotional impact” is the best way to make a moment or character memorable.

    Although off-topic, I often extend this overall structure to the game mechanics themselves. I’ll make some rolls simply for inspiration, and actually improvise the results regardless of what the dice say. I mainly do this when I don’t want to take the time to calculate the “exact” target number and add a bunch of numbers together. It’s basically a “that’s close enough” kind of call. I think that mainly I just don’t like to swap between a “creative” and a “mathmatical” mindset over and over again. Of course, all of this is done in secret behind a GM screen.

  3. As far as villians go… I try to treat them in a similar way to all of the rest of my characters. All of my characters have to have at least a sliver of who I am. It’s important for me to identify with them, so very different character personalities from mine are a challenge for me. Similarly, it can be pretty hard to look at the negative aspects of yourself and focus on them to the exclusion of all else. That kind of thing can be just alittle too intimate for a “game”.

    My specific approach to villians is to make their “evil” plots be reasonable to themselves, either from a flawed initial assumption, or an “ends justify the means” kind of mindset.

  4. Dave,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I appreciated the insight about your villains. I think it is important as a GM to have NPCs that are thoughtful and have motivations that make sense — even if only in their own minds.

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