Category Archives: Game Mastering

From A Certain Point of View…

…Or, Don’t Post Angry.

So I did a bad thing the other night. I made the mistake I try to avoid at all costs and I wandered into the horrible wallow of awful that is a gaming forum. I know better. I know how they make me feel and I know that nothing good can come of it. But I did it anyway. I was on the Paizo site and they always have this little box on the sidebar showing recent forum posts and well… I was seduced in. With a title like, “Fall or Not – Opinions on the Actions of a Paladin” I just… well, I couldn’t resist.

And true to form – what I read made left me sad, angry, and despairing. It’s my own fault.

Now seriously, with that title, I really knew better than to expect anything resembling reasonable discussion but I continue to hold on to the hope that at some point I’ll be rewarded for continuing to have faith in my fellow man… The results were fairly predictable but what really stood out to me, more than anything, was how quickly the thread took a turn toward blaming the Game Master. In fact, not just blaming the GM – but ripping the poor GM apart for being an ******.

As I read the initial scenario the GM laid out, I admit that I was working my GM muscles – idly thinking about what I might have done differently, what I might have done the same, putting myself in his shoes and trying to see it happening at my own table. But I stopped really thinking about that as soon as I got to the GM-hating.

This GM may (may) have overestimated the abilities of the PCs a little bit. Maybe. But 7 PCs, 2 NPCs, and them all having really good gear – this encounter seems winnable. Heck, in my games I often have the problem that my PCs will proceed into danger no matter what the cost – but these guys RAN AWAY from a completely workable encounter and left the Paladin alone…

And that last point is where I really went sideways with the responses. One poster basically says that since the others ran away it is now the GM’s responsibility to change the encounter completely – turning the BBEG into just a servant or something – so that the paladin could prevail alone. But the encounter wasn’t for the Paladin – it was for the party. And the party – as a whole – opted out. So the paladin should have gone down gloriously defending the villagers and then that player and the GM should have maybe had a long talk with the rest of the players about their expectations for the game…

But, but, to shame the GM for not completely abandoning all pretense of verisimilitude or consequences and encouraging that behavior by rewarding it… I was “flip a table” mad. If a player came at me with that line at my table – I’d be mortified. I’d talk to them, be reasonable with them, but I’d be completely flabbergasted… why do players think this way? How did this happen? Is it just me?

Now, to be fair… I’m committing the same sin I accuse the other posters of. I’m projecting on the situation when I assume that the GM had some reason to believe his players would attempt to be heroic. Their actions throughout this scenario don’t paint that picture – but I’m still assuming. Just like the posters in question who were hating on the GM were assuming (it seems to me) that he just sprung this encounter on the party out of nowhere with no context or sense of expectation and that the party was totally blindsided by the bad guy… which (also) did not seem to be the case, but again, it’s all assumption.

I write about GMs here more than players. I love being a player but I’m more of a GM at heart. So maybe I’m the crazy one. Maybe. But when I read something like this – where the immediate assumption is that the GM is a ****** and that it’s all the GM’s fault. I despair.

I don’t know… it might be me.

One thing I do know. I’ll try to make it another six months (at least) before I make the mistake of returning to a gaming forum. Seriously, I have no one to blame but myself.

As always, thanks for reading.

PS – also, whenever someone starts talking about “paladin-baiting…” No, I’m just gonna quit while I’m ahead.

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The Game of Words

…or a few thoughts about the flow of information between GM and Players in RPGs.

More than any other game, running Amber causes me to reflect on the nature of what happens at the game table, what happens between players and GMs. The thing is, without dice, without random factors, it becomes a world of subtlety in interaction. What exactly do characters know? What can they learn? After all, if you can’t just roll Sense Motive, how do you know if the guy you are talking to is lying to you? And don’t take that the wrong way… I’m actually a huge fan of the Sense Motive skill – applied with a modicum of common sense – because it provides a convenient window for players to view other NPCs through based on how good their character is at reading people.

But in Amber, it’s an interesting and unanswered question how to play the game of words… Diplomacy, Bluff, Con, Fast-Talk, whatever skill titles your game of choice uses, Amber doesn’t. And you have the potential to have characters in this game (PC and NPC) who range from actual teenagers right up to people who have been kicking around for (potentially) tens of thousands of years (Shadow Earth reckoning). And some of these mightily savvy demigods of the Court of Amber get lied to all the time and they’re terrible and seeing through BS. So how does this work for PCs?

Going to the game-rules is surprisingly unhelpful. After all, for all it’s diceless, interpretive-intuitive glory, the Amber game books are actually filled to bursting with helpful information about running the game. But talking gets overlooked. Let’s think about stats. Would it be covered under Warfare? Warfare is your strategic stat. If you were playing poker – I’d probably use Warfare to see how well you read the guy across from you. If you were fighting a duel, Warfare lets you read your opponent to try and anticipate their moves. But still, this seems unlikely that Warfare would govern interactions of the conversational variety… after all, Brand doesn’t really seem to be one who is much for Warfare and he’s a master of deceptions. So the next question would be Psyche… maybe that’s the way to judge these contests. But this also seems less than stellar, as a solution, because Psyche is more about Mental power than mental acumen or perception. Certainly, if your Psyche is high enough you can have powerful intuitions or even skim the surface thoughts of weaker minds around you… but again, Psyche isn’t really about talking or subtlety.

With that said – it seems likely that you could allow either of those two traits (or even both in some cases) to have an effect on the outcome of how PCs perceive a conversation, especially when that conversation involves lies and deceptions. And I have no problem with that solution.

But I think it has to proceed from questions. A player can ask – “I have a really high warfare, I look for clues in his behavior… do I think he’s hiding something based on my read of him?” Or, “I spent 25 years acting as a riverboat gambler in an Earth Shadow, what do I get from this guy?” Even those examples are just quick, surface kinds of examples though.

It’s difficult sometimes to speak as the GM-speaking-for-an-NPC. Players often take what you say to be gospel and then, if your NPC lied to them, get upset when it comes out that they were lying. I try to avoid giving players situations where they have absolutely no chance to realize that they might be getting lied to, but if they don’t ask questions or pursue the matter (strangely, in an “out of character” kind of a way) then they run the risk of hearing lies and not being able to do anything about those lies.

In many ways, I see navigating a conversation in a gaming context in a very similar way to the manner in which old school gamers would search a room. You ask a lot of questions, you pull stuff, you poke stuff, you open stuff, and sometimes you stick your hand in a hole in the wall looking for a lever… and sometimes you lose your hand. Ultimately, I think that – for me as GM (and really as Player too) – what roleplaying games are, at their best, is a game of questions and answers.

One of the “innovations” of games was the addition of skills to help players shape their questions and give GMs guidelines how to answer (a DC 25 knowledge check gets you this information and no more). One of the truly intriguing innovations of a lot of so-called story games is that they attempt to change the dynamic of who is asking and who is answering the questions. Both of these are good things. Both of these help out with the process and cater to a certain manner of thinking or style of getting enjoyment from gaming. Heck, I have a lot of players who would hate being given the responsibility of “answering the questions” because they hate being put on the spot. I have other players who relish these opportunities.

But in the end, we can print all these beautiful maps, have all our digital game aids, and make a million different ways to share the gaming we love, but it always comes back (for me) to the most magical words I ever heard as a kid… “What do you do?”

GM: Never Too Old to Change

So I’m running an Amber game for a mixed group of players… some who know Amber well, some who are totally new, and some who are reading the books even as we play our first few sessions. I always love the amazing joy of the first few sessions when people are reading the books and learning about Amber as we go… I’ve always found it to be a magical place, one that I can return to again and again and it never gets old.

But running an Amber game is different than many games. It’s a game that involves a lot of talking, very little fighting, and by default it is very (sometimes painfully) player-driven. And sometimes, as a GM, you can learn new things, try new things, no matter how long you’ve been gaming. Last night was our second full play session (not counting the auctions and character creation). And we were stalling a little. Sputtering might be a better word.

I don’t prep for Amber. I mean, I have a vague outline of some plot elements I can hit. I have some vague NPC interactions rumbling in my head. But Amber is so player-driven, so fundamentally open, and so ridiculously simple to learn mechanically, that prepping too much is actually worse.

But I’m not always good at conveying to players what Amber needs. And we’ve had a few false starts. We’ve drifted a little. I think sometimes players are expecting there to be a “PLOT” and they are looking for “RESOLUTION” and as a GM I’m really mediocre at the first and really bad at the second. I’ll admit it. It’s part of why Amber works for me – I riff off of what the players want and just try to make it as awesome as I can. I give the players a LOT of freedom… maybe a paralyzing amount at times.

And I’m not a person who is good at explaining the “feel and flow” of a game. But we were sputtering. And I felt like it was my fault, not the group’s. And then a player asked a question (thank you Poppy/Jillian). She asked if her character noticed anything. It was a broad, open, weird question with too many options for answers. But she turned the wheel in my mind a little – got the gear cranking over, as it were – and I just paused the game, took a moment to collect myself, and explained in a very simple, direct way what kind of freedom the players had. I was able to express how – through asking questions – they were able to really control the flow of information. I forced myself to be very transparent about the way I run, what my expectations are, and how I wanted them to be in total control of events. They responded. We stopped sputtering. Players who had been largely silent became vocal, one of the New-to-Amber types completely erupted on the session – walking the Pattern, disappearing on the party altogether, and finding out about her mother and father in completely unforeseen ways.

And I found an NPC they seem to like. He’s exhausting and a joy to play as the GM. But they really came up big – and I’m so happy for them and for our game. I’d like to take the credit – but all I did was correct a bad behavior I’ve long held as a GM. They made it work.

But ultimately, I think – between my new approach to my current Pathfinder game and now Amber – that they real takeaway for me is that I’ve gotten a chance to actually improve as GM. It’s easy to develop habits “behind the screen” both good and bad. It’s easy to blame the players (and sometimes it is their fault, right?), but it is never to late to try something new, to change your approach, or to take a risk.

I love GMing. I think the reward for a campaign (or just a session) that goes really well is magnified exponentially for the “man behind the curtain.” I think I get more out of being involved in games as the GM than I do out of any of my other social outlets. But after being a GM for a long time I was in a rut. So thank you to my Amber group (and my Pathfinder group) for helping me to experiment and take a few chances with my GMing style. So far it’s paying off well.

So, you know, I suppose the payoff here (so I can be better about RESOLUTION) is that I’m going to encourage all GMs who read here to do the same. Start a new game. Start it with new players. Get out of the rut, take a few chances, incorporate mechanics and ideas from other games than the one you are running… do whatever it takes, just do something new.

As always, thanks for reading.

Improv, Accepting Good Ideas, and D&D

For many years I ran Amber games which were about 15% planning and 85% improvisation. I’d just run with the flow of the game, make stuff up when I felt I needed to, and just generally inserted whatever felt right at the time. Prophets who sing their prophecies hidden in nursery rhymes? Why not? A prince of Chaos never mentioned before? Sure. A sweet, slightly naive guy who wanders around with the party until they realize that he is a physical manifestation of Corwin’s Pattern? Go for it. A player who wants to learn the power of the Storm Riders (bad guys in my game running) and comes out the other side of the ordeal as a much younger version of herself..? Exactly.

But Amber’s like that. Weird stuff is the order of the day. The game universe is, for all practical purposes, infinite. Why not make it up, right? And the simple fact is, I’ve had some truly great players in my Amber games. I was blessed to have my players. And to be fair – it’s what I’m good at as a GM. Improv’ing my way through sessions is my only true gift as a GM – just running with it, having it be wacky and amazing, then worrying about tying up the loose ends later.

But I’ve never been able to do that when running other games. When I run D&D (and Pathfinder, etc.) I find that I’m often troubled by the thought of improvising. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do it – but I’m always worried about it. I’m self-conscious about it. I’m afraid to admit to my players that I’m making stuff up and I’m afraid that they know it.

So this month I’ve started two new games… a Pathfinder game and an Amber game. And I’m trying something new with Pathfinder. I’m making it all up. And in the spirit of that, here are two of the things making this experiment in faking it work:

Being open about it

Last summer I tried an experiment where I ran the Kingmaker Adventure Path and tried to run it “by the book.” I ran the AP as written with only the most minor changes. I wanted to see what that would be like. Something between a stress test of Pathfinder and an attempt to run something entirely out of my comfort zone. It was fun but deeply flawed. The longer the game went on, the more I had to modify just to keep the game moving. This should be expected with pre-written modules, but hey, it was worth it. So when I started this game I basically opened with telling the players — “You live in the city of Theris, a sprawling monstrosity of a city somewhere in between Constantinople and Casablanca, with a little bit of Gotham thrown in for good measure.” That’s what I know about the city… the rest will get filled in as we go along. And so far it has been awesome. I don’t feel the least bit self-conscious. I can trust that they know already that I’m pulling stuff out of thin air and that they can too. I can open the Bestiary mid-game and just pull a monster… I need a CR 2 with electric powers? Shocker Lizard! Of course, I re-purposed it to actually be two twin sisters who had been modified with magitech to have these abilities. Who’s counting?

Get the Players Involved

I’ll admit it. I’m pretty adamant about my dislike of FATE style games. I’m pretty against many of the “innovations” that come along with the modern era of narrative control tools. I’ve always been of the mindset that I want my players to be willing to just throw stuff out there. Of course, I’m reflective enough to admit that maybe my own self-consciousness about winging it at the D&D table was being picked up on by some of my players and they thought – “if the GM is uncomfortable, I am too.” That’s a fair thought. One thing I love about games like Dresden Files and Houses of the Blooded is the way they involve the players during character creation in defining elements of the world the players will be playing in. I’m also a huge fan of games like Shadowrun where all the PCs start the game with networks of established contacts. So I asked my players to do just that. Each one of them got to define some element/some truth about the city and got to define a contact. And it was awesome. My players came up with all kinds of craziness. I read one of them and just looked at the player… he responded with a smile and a “you like that? You’re welcome.” I’m stoked about working those things in. And letting them define their own contacts really helped to ground them.

So, there’s more to it that just those two things. And nothing I’m doing is particularly innovative or even exciting… but it underscores the fact that we, as GMs, can have bad habits we fall into just as much as we have good habits honed over years of play. And just breaking some of those bad habits can help to really push a game from being a chore to being a joy again. I’m stoked about my Pathfinder game now in a way I haven’t been in a long time. That alone makes this experiment a success.