Master of the Game

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Master of the Game

Becoming a Dungeon or Game Master may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but it's really just about knowing your role.

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A good DM/GM/ST does have to wear several hats, and they are all equally important. I personally wouldn't rate story, rules or arbitration above or below the other things a good DM/GM/ST needs to do in order for the players to have a fun, interesting and immersive experience.

You can run a game without a story, sure. Demos at conventions can go this route. And sometimes you can have a session that's almost all story and no game, as players build their characters and get to know one another. Focusing entirely on one aspect of it, however, at the expense of another feels like it's diminishing the experience for everybody involved.

I think this is a great article that sheds some light on everything that's involved in running a tabletop role-playing game. And I don't think that the story should necessarily overtake the other aspects of the game. But to call the story the least important aspect, or implying that it's an insignificant one, doesn't feel right to me.

That's just my personal opinion on it, though. Feel free to save vs. aspiring novelist.

I look at the DM as a living simulator. Their job it to provide a compelling environment with consistent rules with which the players can tell their own story. I made the mistake of scripting out my first campaign down to the NPC dialogs in advance. Now a days I draw up dungeon maps and give NPC's names, hit points, a few character traits, and just wing it from there.

The winging it is what keeps pen and paper alive in a world of next gen video games. All content for a video game is made prior to the start of a game play session, but with pen and paper I can react to completely unexpected player actions, like hacking your way through the wall next to an obviously trapped front door.

Ah-ha, the debate begins already! I'm sure my position here will be controversial, but I'll expand more in later installments. The short version is that I think story is exceptionally important, but it doesn't require the DM to be a storyteller. I'm discussing what the role of the DM is, not what's important to a game.

Archon:
Ah-ha, the debate begins already! I'm sure my position here will be controversial, but I'll expand more in later installments. The short version is that I think story is exceptionally important, but it doesn't require the DM to be a storyteller. I'm discussing what the role of the DM is, not what's important to a game.

And you hit the nail quite nicely! (Did you crit? ;) )

I look forward to reading your thoughts on what's important to a game. I'm sure even more debate will be sparked!

I think this could help me with my desire to play RPGs, the only thing holding me back seems to be that I know nobody that is into them. If I learn I have no doubt I could get some of my friends to play.

As someone who's been gaming since I could read (literally, I started playing warhammer when I was three and started on dnd when i was seven) I like to think I have a fairly strong base for my knowledge of DMing and I personally think, there is no such thing as a truly bad gm, just maybe one who is not suited for his players, or perchance a touch new at the whole thing and a little overwhelmed.

I had to start GMing really early for my friends, and my entire style has been ended up being built around six other people, which has resulted in me having built giant map on a hex grid for them so they don't get lost, and a massive population, so when our beserker can't actually kill off whole towns in one go. No one can be a good GM straight away, but I think that if set up with the right players anyone can be a good gm eventually

As a GM (I generally prefer the term GM to the alternatives, because it's more neutral - Dungeon Master and Storyteller have strong ties to a specific system) I realize that there are many roles to play, and many of them are similar to the roles a wargame judge plays. However, the most important rule for a GM is something that isn't really an issue for a wargame's judge: Make sure everyone involves is having a good time.

After all, an RPG is a game, and games are meant to be fun. Sure, the players can (and should!) contribute to that as well, but as 'master' of the game, the GM is chiefly responsible for what goes on, and before anything else he needs to make sure that the game is fun. Being a judge is an important factor in keeping the game fun (for example to prevent one player from dominating the game, or to defuse arguments before they escalate), but it's just one factor.

The other roles can certainly add a lot to the fun, but aren't necessary at all. If you're a GM without imagination and you're running a pre-written adventure by the book, and your players are having a great time? You're a great GM! If you're being a lousy adversary and just indulging the players all the time, and your players are having fun? You're a great GM! If you're running a dungeon-crawler with zero storyline, and your players are having a blast? You're a great GM!

I think you could have been clearer in your point about storytelling to avoid a lot of unnecessary debate. Based on my own experience, and the few hints you've dropped about what is coming, I think that what you mean is that storytelling is less important for the GM, because it's the only one of the four roles that the players get to help with.

Aside from that, I really appreciate this article. As a fairly experienced GM always on the lookout for opportunities to get even better, I look forward to future installments. You seem to have a good grasp of what things are foundational and what things are variable.

One thing you didn't mention, that I'm curious if you plan to touch on later, is the out-of-game role of the GM as a mediator of player dynamics.

I'll be following this with great interest over the coming weeks. I've been roleplaying for about 6 years or so, and wargaming for nearly 15, and the only time I've ever really been on the GM side of things was running games of Inquisitor which is an interesting half-way house. Its not a skirmish level game per se, more a heroic, narrative-driven wargame. Creating campaigns and stories for that is interesting but also fundementally limited; the vast majority of what goes on in a story revolves around the battlefield. Given that most of the players are wargamers, what they're interested is the table-top conflict side of things. In comparison to a 'regular' RPG the whole thing is basically a dungeon crawl with shiny figures.

I've written a couple of rule articles for Inquisitor in my time, including both a vehicle combat/chase system, and an advanced close combat system too, so I'm on side with the 'know the rules, explain the rules, don't make your players feel like they're in a maths exam' bit, though I'll be interested to see what you have to say on the issue.

Hurr Durr Derp:
However, the most important rule for a GM is something that isn't really an issue for a wargame's judge: Make sure everyone involves is having a good time.

QFT, the game I'm playing in at the moment generally disolves into in-game anarchy and an almost complete disregard for the plot, but everyone including the GM has a great time. Why? Because its fun; even in the face of near certain death, everything has a fun ring to it, we laugh and joke and make enough double entendres to make a hooker blush, but most of all we just enjoy ourselves. The rules we use are pretty simple, and don't require too much working out so everything runs smoothly. Except for our plans that is; our GM refers to himself as a rope merchant, not because his adventures are ropey; far from it, but because whatever he gives us, we always find enough rope to hang ourselves with!

Last week, for example, our plan to unmask a phoney witch doctor resulted in three of the party having mescaline trips, a fourth almost ODing on Opium and our witch doctor dead on the floor with no face. Whereupon we decided to murder half the New Orleans police force on our way out.

When the game was done the GM confessed that actually the witch doctor was looking for an excuse to get out, and would happily have confessed to being a fraud if only we'd asked!

One last thing before this post turns into an epic, I'm curious to hear what you have to say about Paranoia? Given that the rules are to some degree optional, and so long as everyone is having fun, there really is a sense of 'us versus them' between the GM and Players, how does GMing a game of Paranoia differ from regular GMing? I guess the focus is on telling a compelling story and making sure that everyone gets a good game out of it, but since the game is largely spent trying to undo everyone's hard work and subvert the mission, its difficult to see how it fits in.

Any thoughts? Or perhaps tips for someone who's GMing his first game of it in a months time!

In all my experience with the Storyteller system with WoD, I can't think of an example of a GOOD Storyteller that didn't cut their teeth in another system or system(s). There are some pretty universal lessons learned that are independent of the gaming system you patron.

Also, to be fair, White Wolf did have various Storyteller guides as part of their library. WoD was by design more story driven and bucked a lot of the core concepts of other traditional game systems like loot, "leveling", etc etc. I always thought it was simply an alternative path a gamer could take if they wanted to depart from their comfort zone.

I thought I might add my own opinion after I finished reading the article so I came over to the comments section only to find all my own points already addressed.

My first experience with pen and paper RPGs was as a DM of D&D 3e (yes, I'm young). Those first few sessions were pure hack and slash, I knew ALL the rules and the plot for each quest was basically "Fetch". I have only rarely played as a character since then and I never enjoy it as much as I do when Mastering (my preferred term). Today, however, I focus more on plot, atmosphere and making interesting NPCs, whether friend or foe.

The ultimate goal of a Master is, as has already been stated, to have fun and how you do that is entirely up to the group. Which is one part of why it is always difficult to start Mastering a group with a bunch of people you have never played with. I've played with groups where dice were cast only once or twice during the entire campaign and I've played with groups where all they did was kill things. It just depends on what the group, as a whole, finds entertaining. And that is the number one responsibility of a Master:

To provide a means for everybody to have fun for a few hours.

John Wedge:
Except for our plans that is; our GM refers to himself as a rope merchant, not because his adventures are ropey; far from it, but because whatever he gives us, we always find enough rope to hang ourselves with!

[...]

One last thing before this post turns into an epic, I'm curious to hear what you have to say about Paranoia? Given that the rules are to some degree optional, and so long as everyone is having fun, there really is a sense of 'us versus them' between the GM and Players, how does GMing a game of Paranoia differ from regular GMing? I guess the focus is on telling a compelling story and making sure that everyone gets a good game out of it, but since the game is largely spent trying to undo everyone's hard work and subvert the mission, its difficult to see how it fits in.

Any thoughts? Or perhaps tips for someone who's GMing his first game of it in a months time!

Paranoia? I love it! If I can get the players to do stupid things with a correctly timed cough or smile I consider my job done.

...oh, wait, you mean the system... yeah, never played that. Sorry.

hamster mk 4:
I look at the DM as a living simulator. Their job it to provide a compelling environment with consistent rules with which the players can tell their own story. I made the mistake of scripting out my first campaign down to the NPC dialogs in advance. Now a days I draw up dungeon maps and give NPC's names, hit points, a few character traits, and just wing it from there.

The winging it is what keeps pen and paper alive in a world of next gen video games. All content for a video game is made prior to the start of a game play session, but with pen and paper I can react to completely unexpected player actions, like hacking your way through the wall next to an obviously trapped front door.

I used to wing it a lot but I have found that causes a quick slam into the wall of writers/creators block. While winging it makes sure that your ideas are not undo by players at the same time it can cause a lack of interest and a lack of consistent story if there is not some story that is for the base. Now, planing out dialogue is never a good idea becauset dialogue is a fluid thing that needs to have a level of off the cuff. The best way is to establish a personality for your npcs so that you get into your head how the npc thinks and that way you can have adaptive dialogue no matter what comes from the players.

Another way to help this process is to learn your players. No matter what you play your players are going to have a base level of personality that they will display in every character. For example: In my usual group I have a few players that have some base archetypes that I can plan around. One players loves to play the leader/center of attention type, another loves playing the mischievous/fae type characters, and the other like to play the smart, intellectual combative type.

If you can start out with such archetypes and then adapt them once the new character comes more into focus then it is a lot easier to have a written story path that is still adaptive and evolving to the story and the players needs

Now I keep getting lost between being the evil trapmaster or the help you along your way person trying to make as little boob referances as possible...

seriously if you play with immature players the first thing they will say when they find a girl is either "Is she hot?" "Can I sleep with her?"Also when playing with players expect nothing, for example:

a really powerful wizard who attacks your friends that is obviously a "secret ally" is not so obvious to the players. I shit you not we have 6 people really low level and this REALLY powerful wizard semi-hurts one of us and we attack him all head on without doing any dialogue, and ironically we manage to kill him with a broken beer bottle shard and my characters head. The DM resurrects him and sadly we were not aloud to loot him -.-

Me and some friends are just starting playing DnD for the first time from scratch, including the DM!

Luckily our DM is a big fan of RPGS and totally gets what DMing is all about, your right. It isn't just story telling, there are many roles to fill and more often than you'd think she has to settle arguments!

This was a great article, thanks!

A helpful tip to new DM's out there. If you already have a game going with someone else DMing, try playing a spell casting manipulator. Check with your DM before you do because it tends to hijack story arcs as your character turns the plot to meet his own ends. The hijacking aspect allows you to slowly take greater control of the game and think outside the box while staying with in the rule set. By the end you should be controlling all aspects of DMing aside from World builder (and maybe adversary if your characters motivations stray from that of the groups).
Overall a good article. Most players don't realize how much work actually goes into running a game, especially when you play with clever players that also DM. The first game I ran was an evil campaign and it was way more than I could chew, but it made me get better fast.

The first time I played back in nineteen canteen (Seriously 1985 Holy crap) it was by the numbers word for word interpretation of the adventure module with a dubious football match with a goblin added as whacky GM interlude. It wasnt the GMs fault he was humouring his younger brother and his friend. My sister read aloud a gamebook and constructed some stories and narrative a month later. Within a year I started GMing on and off until I hit a good streak for our group in 1985 and we RP'd daily with breaks for weekends for about 6 years.

I occasionally allowed other players to GM and after cleaning up the mess of a ship covered in mirrors of holding and Rings of Wish or worse the time travelling mutant animals in RIFTS gear in a very low key and tech TMNT&OS campaign I learned my lesson.

4 years in we joined a local RPG group and played with other people and made friends with a few. This revealed a interesting thing. I was a frikken amazing GM. I played to my players desires and strengths, I eliminated useless dice rolling, I guided subtly and not so subtly and allowed my characters to create their own stories and devices. Other GM's were powertripping assholes acting out some antagonistic power fantasy where rolling dice took precedence over encouraging action and intelligent behaviour.

The words 'You get raped' cropped up alot in these overheard games, in the most inapprioriate ways for both male and female players. Any action against the GM's decision didnt end well for player not in a simple beating but removal of goods and a crippling of the character. THis was not what gaming is about.

Its about giving players a theoretical situation allowing them to explore its solution and dealing with the ramifications all within the confines of a set of natural laws that may or may not be like ours.

Its a real shame most players get put off gaming in later years by the immature and disruptive attitude of the GM who isnt telling the story but acting out his fantasies. The only good side to this tale is one of the afformentioned power trippers now drives a cab for a living :D So there is some small measure of justice in the universe.

Gary Gygax's book is excellent BTW and I have a few others which I will ISBN for the folks next time Im home unfortunately they are all out of print years ago :D.

However RoleMasters ' Nightmares of Mine ' is a fantastic guide for horror RPG GM's alongside Stephen Kings Danse Macabre of course :D

John Wedge:

One last thing before this post turns into an epic, I'm curious to hear what you have to say about Paranoia? Given that the rules are to some degree optional, and so long as everyone is having fun, there really is a sense of 'us versus them' between the GM and Players, how does GMing a game of Paranoia differ from regular GMing? I guess the focus is on telling a compelling story and making sure that everyone gets a good game out of it, but since the game is largely spent trying to undo everyone's hard work and subvert the mission, its difficult to see how it fits in.

Any thoughts? Or perhaps tips for someone who's GMing his first game of it in a months time!

Hehe You will find that Paranoia isnt Us vs Them its Them vs Them. Ive had players punch each other in the head (playfully) :D The GM is merely there to give them enough rope to hang themselves by thecord of their Plasma Generators. No really Paranoia is a fantastic experience but ... (hold on B U T ... it has to be GM'd by a very relaxed naturally witty GM any powertripping or antagonistic behaviour can easily be misconstrued as bullying.

THe game is designed to kill players, but you need to remind your players that they are meant to try to stay alive :D.

Still hysterically funny game :D

Hmmm, I would agree with the premise of non-StoryTelling GMs, and follow on that it is players who should be Storytellers, since they want to tell the story of their characters. The GM needs to provide a consistent setting and set of NPCs, and perhaps seed a few ideas or create an environment of tension so that players pro-actively engage, but I think it falls to the players to weave the tales they want to weave.

hamster mk 4:
I look at the DM as a living simulator. Their job it to provide a compelling environment with consistent rules with which the players can tell their own story. I made the mistake of scripting out my first campaign down to the NPC dialogs in advance. Now a days I draw up dungeon maps and give NPC's names, hit points, a few character traits, and just wing it from there.

findelhe:
I used to wing it a lot but I have found that causes a quick slam into the wall of writers/creators block. While winging it makes sure that your ideas are not undo by players at the same time it can cause a lack of interest and a lack of consistent story if there is not some story that is for the base.

I'll say that both you guys have points - it's important for the GM to have a firm setting with NPC motivations, and also an overall story perspective (e.g. "Evil Mage goes grocery shopping in town and causes chaos") but "winging it" serves the important function of allowing players to influence story and events in an organic way. Having planned encounters, for example, is fine but you have to willing to discard them if the players go a different way with the story, rather than "railroad" them there.

I've also run an infinity of sessions with no backstory, just a setting and a some PCs, and telling them "right, what do you want to do?". Seems to me most players already know what they want to play and will tell you :)

I tend to write out the core storyline and then see what the Players do. I know where they are starting each week, and I know where I want them to get to, and I might have a couple of ideas for the middle, but mainly I try to let the Players choose what they are doing. Keeps it interesting for both sides.

On a sidenote, the DnD 4th Ed GM guide is a pretty good tool for aspiring GMs. If you ignore all the DnD specific rules it does have a lot of information about how to form a game, how to adapt to different playstyles, stuff like that. I would have appreciated a guide like that when I started GMing.

Thanks for all the info, i'm thanking about starting DnD with some friends, maybe i'll become dungeonmaster myself, even though it sounds like a though role to fill, especially because DM's can't allways play a guy themselves (which wouldn't matter much because they are like any other thing in the game. I only got a problem with finding D20's.

I find it funny that you say Storytelling is the less important aspect...

I can deal with a DM who 'cheats' or doesn't know the rule all that well. I've been in several p&p rpg session where we never even roled any dices as a matter of fact.

However, if you want to turn me off your game, a poor plot and a rigid mindset when it comes to players idea are the best way to do it.

Your column is often geared toward the new players, so I can understand that for them, the DM being a rule encyclopedia is important. But once you've been playing the same system for half a decade (or more), even the absent-minded player in the group has a pretty good grasp of it.

Regardless thought, when people start babbling about their favorite game, they'll usually mention some brilliant piece of roleplay brought about by the DM's plot/story... now how awesome of a rule lawyer or adversary the DM was in that one campaign.

standokan:
Thanks for all the info, i'm thanking about starting DnD with some friends, maybe i'll become dungeonmaster myself, even though it sounds like a though role to fill, especially because DM's can't allways play a guy themselves (which wouldn't matter much because they are like any other thing in the game. I only got a problem with finding D20's.

You can put in a PC-like NPC in the party that is controlled by you as GM. However, if you're just starting, I wouldn't recommend jumping that hurdle just yet, it has to be handled with kid gloves. I've seen too many games where the party tries to make that NPC the de facto party leader which puts the DM in a do-loop. I've also seen where the DM grew too attached and played it as an equal to the PCs and overshadowed them in some cases, which is equally bad mojo to a campaign. Usually, a happy medium is playing as one of the Party's henchman and giving it some flair other than another dice roll in the combat round.

domicius:
Having planned encounters, for example, is fine but you have to willing to discard them if the players go a different way with the story, rather than "railroad" them there.

You never railroad your players into anything. Planned encounters are wonderful the main thing you must remember is they must be fluid in their use. What I mean by that is the capability to use the encounters in any situation. Sometimes you use them right away other times the group chooses another path and you file the encounter in the, "use later," bin. Some spontaneity is great but if the GM doesn't have at least a footnote on where the plot is going then it is highly likely that the group will get bored or feel that the GM really doesn't care.

To tell you the truth my group loves to see me sitting at the end of the table with pencil and paper and take an hour or so to plan out a combat or encounter. When I take time to sit and compare characters and situations the game is much more entertaining for me and them...whereas the sessions I've been lazy on and just throw in things that I think might work the session usually isn't as much fun because something just doesn't work out.

Both ways are fun but I find that if you have a GM that constantly works with his players, plans ahead to make sure the main plot is intact, and is flexible in what happens everyone has a great time.

I have only GM'ed one game in my life and im still running that same game over a year later (i'll be running it tomorow as a matter of fact). I run a Dark Heresy game which for those who don't know is one of the RPG's set in the 40k universe. I plan on starting the other 40k RPG system Rogue Trader in the summer and am planning a very different experiance for my players.

No one taught me how to GM and tbh you don't need to be taught how to do it. As a GM you are providing a background for the players to interact with. To know if you can do it or not you just need to try. Play as a player for a while and then find a game system you like and an idea for your game and just go for it. Success means you can GM although if the game fails it doesn't mean you can't do it just that you may need more practice or that the game you wanted to run was not necissarily the game people wanted to play or a number of other reasons.

Talk to the players, find out what they want, observe the way they play and attempt to adapt the game to fit that style. Roleplaying is a colaborative process you need to find something that works for all participents. It may be that your GMing style is just incompatable with the group you are playing with which. If this happens then you can either change your style, give up GMing and just play or find a group which matches your GM style.

I am rather privilaged in that almost everyone I know wants to run a game of some sorts whether its WFRP, nWoD, Exalted or 40k RP but even then alot of the time games don't work out. One of our group just has tastes that don't match with the rest of the group and so the games he wants to run tend not to be the games we want to play.

I do wish that The Escapist would branch out its coverage to other RPG systems other than D&D, they present a rather one sided view of roleplaying and alot of the common DnD tropes that get mentioned in Escapist articles I would find abhorant in any game I played in.

Kaihlik

Tarkand:
I find it funny that you say Storytelling is the less important aspect...

I can deal with a DM who 'cheats' or doesn't know the rule all that well. I've been in several p&p rpg session where we never even roled any dices as a matter of fact.

However, if you want to turn me off your game, a poor plot and a rigid mindset when it comes to players idea are the best way to do it.

Your column is often geared toward the new players, so I can understand that for them, the DM being a rule encyclopedia is important. But once you've been playing the same system for half a decade (or more), even the absent-minded player in the group has a pretty good grasp of it.

Regardless thought, when people start babbling about their favorite game, they'll usually mention some brilliant piece of roleplay brought about by the DM's plot/story... now how awesome of a rule lawyer or adversary the DM was in that one campaign.

5 years ago I thought how you did, but I don't any longer.

My own evolution as a gamemaster has gone in precisely the opposite direction. I started off running games that were very story-focused: Dragonlance series of modules, with premade characters who couldn't be killed off until the plot said so. Star Wars RPG by West End Games, where the games actually included scripts and cinematic cut scenes. Cyberpunk 2020's marathon module Land of The Free. DC Heroes by Mayfair Games, with its comic book story plots.

As my DMing style has matured, I've come to believe that plot should not be imposed on the players, and that it isn't a DM's plot/story that makes the game good - it's the choices the players decide that makes the game good. So now I focus on games that maximize player choice.

For player choice to be meaningful, rules have to be consistent - that means the DM needs to know them and apply them consistently. You cannot have meaningful choice if the outcome of your choices is subject to arbitrary DM fiat. And for player choice to be meaningful, it must be able to impact the setting and the character. You can't impact the setting if the DM puts his plot ahead of the character's actions - railroading. "I need the players to get to the mountain" "Tim's character can't die, I need him to introduce the second act" - it's all railroading.

So now I run what are called "sandbox games" with no plot, just backstory. There's story behind but no story ahead, save what the players do. And these are by far my most wildly popular campaigns that I've ever run. It is from this perspective that I am writing the article. I'd have written a different article when I was in a different stage of my DM style.

Archon:

5 years ago I thought how you did, but I don't any longer.

My own evolution as a gamemaster has gone in precisely the opposite direction. I started off running games that were very story-focused: Dragonlance series of modules, with premade characters who couldn't be killed off until the plot said so. Star Wars RPG by West End Games, where the games actually included scripts and cinematic cut scenes. Cyberpunk 2020's marathon module Land of The Free. DC Heroes by Mayfair Games, with its comic book story plots.

As my DMing style has matured, I've come to believe that plot should not be imposed on the players, and that it isn't a DM's plot/story that makes the game good - it's the choices the players decide that makes the game good. So now I focus on games that maximize player choice.

For player choice to be meaningful, rules have to be consistent - that means the DM needs to know them and apply them consistently. You cannot have meaningful choice if the outcome of your choices is subject to arbitrary DM fiat. And for player choice to be meaningful, it must be able to impact the setting and the character. You can't impact the setting if the DM puts his plot ahead of the character's actions - railroading. "I need the players to get to the mountain" "Tim's character can't die, I need him to introduce the second act" - it's all railroading.

So now I run what are called "sandbox games" with no plot, just backstory. There's story behind but no story ahead, save what the players do. And these are by far my most wildly popular campaigns that I've ever run. It is from this perspective that I am writing the article. I'd have written a different article when I was in a different stage of my DM style.

Being a storyteller doesn't mean you'll refuse your character the ability to change the plot - that's where 'winging it' comes in... if your player totally wreck your plans by killing Lord Fancy Pants 10 game session early, a good DM will be able to cop with it... a bad DM will either shut it down or let it happen but lose control.

You mention a sandbox game, and while a huge part of a good sandbox game is is the world building aspect, the second most important part is the Storytelling - when your players do something crazy (or just something really mundane), you have to make the world and the npc in it react.... call it 'acting', call it 'roleplaying', call it 'winging it', the fact of the matter is it all falls under the storyteller aspect of the job. Unless of course, you solve every single interaction with a die roll. And while there's nothing wrong with that, the great strenght of p&p rpg over CRPG is that not everything is resolved by a die roll or by having a high enough statistic in Charisma (or whatever).

I also prefer the sand box style... I'll create a setting (for example, in a Vampire game, it'll be a city, with the Sabbat/Camarilla situation already underlined and a description of every key characters). I'll than have some event happens to create some conflict, and than let the players roll with whatever it is they want to do. I still consider myself a storyteller fist thought.

I guess what we disagree on tho, is how important it is. I'd personally settle for a DM who doesn't know the rule and build a crappy world (or even just borrowed one from a setting book) but who can spins an incredible tell and/or make his npc come to life over one who's essentially a computer running a rule system at me.

Than again, I always assume people playing D&D are friend in the first place, when playing with stranger at a hobby store or what not, the DM's role as a referee becomes much more important, that's a given. However, if the group sticks together more than one campaign, friendships usually develop and people become much less scared of being screwed over and that role once again fall back to the less important spot.

Again, this is all about opinion - I'm what you'd call a rule 'lawyer'. I tend to remember obscure and useless system very well, and I enjoy reading, understanding and ultimately breaking them - I enjoy War Gaming precisely because of that, and when I go to RPG, it's usually not because I'm looking for a system to play, but a story to be a part of. As a result, I usually have a much better understanding of the system than the DM does and really couldn't care less about weither he remembers the rules for D&D 3.5 grappling rules or not.

Archon:

5 years ago I thought how you did, but I don't any longer.

My own evolution as a gamemaster has gone in precisely the opposite direction. I started off running games that were very story-focused: Dragonlance series of modules, with premade characters who couldn't be killed off until the plot said so. Star Wars RPG by West End Games, where the games actually included scripts and cinematic cut scenes. Cyberpunk 2020's marathon module Land of The Free. DC Heroes by Mayfair Games, with its comic book story plots.

As my DMing style has matured, I've come to believe that plot should not be imposed on the players, and that it isn't a DM's plot/story that makes the game good - it's the choices the players decide that makes the game good. So now I focus on games that maximize player choice.

For player choice to be meaningful, rules have to be consistent - that means the DM needs to know them and apply them consistently. You cannot have meaningful choice if the outcome of your choices is subject to arbitrary DM fiat. And for player choice to be meaningful, it must be able to impact the setting and the character. You can't impact the setting if the DM puts his plot ahead of the character's actions - railroading. "I need the players to get to the mountain" "Tim's character can't die, I need him to introduce the second act" - it's all railroading.

So now I run what are called "sandbox games" with no plot, just backstory. There's story behind but no story ahead, save what the players do. And these are by far my most wildly popular campaigns that I've ever run. It is from this perspective that I am writing the article. I'd have written a different article when I was in a different stage of my DM style.

If I'm honest, I'm with you on this one about 75% of the way. I agree wholeheartedly that railroading is a bad thing; sticking the players in a world they cannot have any effect on is something akin to the DM wanking in the player's faces. They can look at what the DM's come up with, but it's hardly any fun (at least, for most groups. Some people seem to prefer this, but hey..).

But honestly, I still think a good plot is damn near essential to the game. One that has a predefined start and end, with a loose series of events that will define how the plot turns out. The big thing to remember about this plot, though, is that it WILL change. Have your BBEG's schemes set out, and have all the different facets of the war plotted, so if the players don't do anything about it, things will happen to progress the game along. New events rise to the present, and the scenario evolves. On the flip side, be ready to improvise; unless the players are incompetent, bored, or have found something wholly unrelated to run with, odds are they'll get involved in your story. By getting involved, they'll leave their own footprint on the chain of events, meaning you'll need to edit things as they go. I honestly have never met a good DM who couldn't improvise on the fly to begin with; there's always bound to be that one idea from the party that, while perhaps brilliant or stupid, is so completely off the wall as to catch the DM with his proverbial pants around his ankles. This is where it's just about essential to have a solid grasp of the rules, as well...a game without some form of rules can be fun, but in a general sense, it just doesn't work too well.

So. Basically, plot/story good, railroading bad, improv good, rules good.

On a final note, I should probably make the point that there's no "right" or "wrong" way to DM. As long as the end goal is reached (you and your players enjoy the game and have fun), then you're DMing well enough to enjoy it. Past that point, there's only differences of style and opinion, ranging from one group of players to another.

I am GMing a Shadowrun 4E game right now, and I feel that my grasp on the rules is lighter than it should be, but I handwave well enough at this point to get by. The players don't seem to mind, but the biggest thing is it breaks the flow of the game when something comes up that none of us know how to handle.

I will do my homework this week.

domicius:
Hmmm, I would agree with the premise of non-StoryTelling GMs, and follow on that it is players who should be Storytellers, since they want to tell the story of their characters. The GM needs to provide a consistent setting and set of NPCs, and perhaps seed a few ideas or create an environment of tension so that players pro-actively engage, but I think it falls to the players to weave the tales they want to weave.

hamster mk 4:
I look at the DM as a living simulator. Their job it to provide a compelling environment with consistent rules with which the players can tell their own story. I made the mistake of scripting out my first campaign down to the NPC dialogs in advance. Now a days I draw up dungeon maps and give NPC's names, hit points, a few character traits, and just wing it from there.

findelhe:
I used to wing it a lot but I have found that causes a quick slam into the wall of writers/creators block. While winging it makes sure that your ideas are not undo by players at the same time it can cause a lack of interest and a lack of consistent story if there is not some story that is for the base.

I'll say that both you guys have points - it's important for the GM to have a firm setting with NPC motivations, and also an overall story perspective (e.g. "Evil Mage goes grocery shopping in town and causes chaos") but "winging it" serves the important function of allowing players to influence story and events in an organic way. Having planned encounters, for example, is fine but you have to willing to discard them if the players go a different way with the story, rather than "railroad" them there.

I've also run an infinity of sessions with no backstory, just a setting and a some PCs, and telling them "right, what do you want to do?". Seems to me most players already know what they want to play and will tell you :)

I think this is where you can learn something from video games. Two of my favorite video games are Pirates! and Mount & Blade. Both of these games give me a fully fleshed out world, a large cast of characters with stories of their own, and ask me, "So...what do you want to do with it?"

I can understand saying the plot is not the quintessential most important task for the DM, but in my view it is. You must construct a world, it's stories, and it's people. You must be able to explain to your players why they should give a damn, and why they should help those poor peasents/lords/ladies/etc. It's nice to fully understand the rules, but I assure you that one player at your table will rule lawyer with you, meaning that knowing all the rules can merely get you into an annoyingly long fight. Honestly though, take a page from Paranoia about rules. They are there to give a semblance of order, but if they get in the way ignore them.

So, I liked this article, and I hope you don't try and downplay the importance of storytelling in RPG's. Remember, it's the story that allows you to...well, role-play. Otherwise it would just be a miniature game.

Joshc Shin, we may perhaps be arguing semantics at this point as I don't think we actually disagree in fundamentals.

In my mind, a game like Mount & Blade, which I loved, is an example of a game that is NOT about storytelling. It's a sandbox game where the story is what emerges from your actions. It's a game about story-emerging. Contrast this with, say, the Final Fantasy series, where the story has been written in advance, and your actions "unlock" progress towards a pre-scripted ending.

What I am saying is that as a DM, your job is not to sit down and write a novel and then figure out how to plug your players into it and "get them to your ending". Your job is to create a fleshed-out world (worldbuilding) with interesting adversaries and clear-cut rules, and then let the players have fun within it.

Stories can be told about what happense, but they are the player's stories, not your stories, and the stories emerge after the fact.

There are two things that I believe exemplify the role of DM: familiarity with the rules and flexibility in response to players.

DMs not only have to rule in a manner that is "fair" in the context of what the players feel is appropriate for the game they also have to apply the rules in a fun manner. This also goes back and forth as to how much the rules should promote/interfere with the play of the game.

A truly skilled DM should be able to go from one group to another shifting from min-max number crunching to freeform talk-fest.

The above flexibility is the main variable that sets a DM apart from a computer during arbitration and flow of a game (and therefore the major difference between the two mediums).

Archon:
It's been my experience that most people who like games, given the chance, will participate in a tabletop RPG, and once they start participating, continue to enjoy it. But most people don't get to ever even try an RPG, simply because there is a worldwide shortage of Dungeon (or Game) Masters.

This.

I have been wanting to play a tabletop RPG for a while (I did play WH40k for a while, but there was a shortage of non-asshat people to play against...) and the only thing that has stopped me is the fact that the only person that I knew who could DM was a friend of a friend, and he has been way too busy to start the game up because he's trying to get into grad school...

Anyway, keep up the awesome work. I really like what you're doing with the column, and I can't wait for the next one.

I'm a novice DM who is just starting out. I enjoyed reading this column and I'm looking forward to the next.

My group actually deals with this a lot. We've been getting looser on the storytelling, and moving much more into campaigns where very little is planned. Theres is a setting, some kind of antagonist, and a vague idea of the end of it. From there, the players get dropped somewhere, and then meander about, following whichever breadcrumb trail intrigues them the most.

The way we tend to handle this is treating it like the old saying, "All roads lead to Rome". Theres a beginning, and there is a destination, but no one knows what will happen on the way there. Theres a good one or two encounters planned ahead of time, that the party will reach through there own means, with any other encounter happening on the volition of the party. And if the party does something crazy on their own, I adapt the campaign to it. The less of a set plan I have, the more fun it is for me and for the players.

As for DMing, its very much a practice thing in my eyes. I come from a group that had only one experienced DM at the time. He was a master at baiting, and railroading in such a way that the players barely noticed. It was there, but there was always player incentive to follow along. That DM left after the first 4 years do to college, and we got another skilled DM then. He was the opposite, and is the person I take my running philosophy from. He has a beginning, a vague end, and will re-write parts of the campaign based on what players come to him with in their characters.

Over those years, I had tried DMing to very little success. My first campaign, with 2 years of experience role-playing, I kept switching between too loose and too controlling. As a result, the characters had no reason to follow the plot or to deal with the antagonist, and ended up sinking a small continent. My second campaign, with 6 years of experience role-playing, I was a bit too loose, and lacked the world for the players. I was on my heels far too much, and it ended prematurely. As for my current attempt, with 8 years of playing, it is going well, but I still have a ton of room to improve. It is open, in a developed world. The players have incentive to be interested in the antagonist, but are also very driven by their own personal goals in the world, which is a good medium for me right now.

/ramble

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