Wednesday, 4 March 2015

March 4th - GMs Day

The big man himself, in his Futurama appearance.

 Today is March 4th, a day notable for nerds for two reasons. 

First of all, in 2008 it was the day that Gary Gygax died.  Co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons and major force in popularising the game in its early days, Gygax is a sort of father figure to the roleplaying community and continued to play and write even in his final years. 

But March 4th is also International GMs Day, the totally-not-made-up-honest holiday for commemorating your local games master, dungeon master, referee, storyteller, director, mayor,  headmistress, landlady, HolMeister or whatever you call the person who organises your games.

Obviously this is a pretty minor event but nerdy places get into it - online shops will have discounts for GMs Day, including my preferred PDF selling website

Worth a look.
I usually end up being the Gamesmaster in RPGs.  That's been the case since I was a wee lad, when I didn't know many people who played D&D so the only way to get people to try it was to run it. When I went to Uni and joined GUGS I quickly fell into being principally a GM and even now in my regular group I run all the campaigns, with occasional one-offs by others.

For a while I was in a rotating GM slot group - every Monday we played a game and every month or two we changed to a new GM and system, so everyone ran a game or two every year.  Before that I had never played in any substantial amount and has always been the game organiser rather than a participant.  I've also started encouraging more one-offs by other people in my current RPG group, with short bursts of play from Matthew, Molly and Charles here and there.

I'm usually this guy.
I don't mega-pine for just being a general player, to be honest.  Some people GM grudgingly because no-one else in the group will do it and it's the only way to get a game going - A sort of army rules "he who unvolunteers last" thing.  I actually quite like GMing - world building, adventure crafting and the like are a big part of my enjoyment of the RPG hobby.

However, I've found as a GM that I've learned a lot about GMing from playing more often.  The only way to stay balanced as a GM is to see things from the other side of the screen occasionally, to find out what different people do and ask yourself if you'd do the same thing.  Like a painter finding out other people's techniques or a writer reading other people's books, your own craft improves with a variety of sources.

A Scottish film about non balanced players.

To that end, if I am any good as a GM, it is only because of experience playing under other people.  Whether I liked the game or not I always learnt something, always found something I wanted to duplicate or modify or ignore.  Off the top of my head I've played under various friends including Adam, Aaron,  Robert, Nicky, Michael, Phil, Doc, Molly, Matthew, Charles and a couple of other people from GUGS whose names have escaped me for the moment - and without them I wouldn't be as big as an RPG nerd as I am today.

Awesome art from MoulinBleu on DeviantArt.  I may feel like this when GMing but I certainly don't look it
Below the cut I'm going to sum up four particularly memorable games I've played in, for good and ill, and what I learned in running them.

Get out from behind this now and then

GM: Aaron
Game: Warhammer 40,000 - Rogue Trader
Lesson: You need to see both sides of the screen to make decisions
Details: Aaron ran a short campaign of Rogue Trader on Friday nights at the same time as I was wrapping up a short campaign of my own in the rotating GM group on Mondays. We were using the same rules, the same starting base camp but otherwise travelling in very different decisions.  It was interesting in and of itself to see how we took the same starting premise and went wildly different directions.,

The big lesson, though, was in how different I saw the rules as a player.  Nicky, playing as the ship captain in the game I ran, made complaints about levelling up his character and the breadth of his choices which I dismissed as unreasonable.  When I took over as captain in Aaron's game, though, within a month of play I was hitting the exact same problem he complained about. It made me a bit more suspicious of the system in general but taught me you can't always judge things from your omniscient GM chair - you need to feel it as a player.

Philip J Brown presents a Philip J Brown production of: Philip J Brown's PARANOIA.  Written and directed by Philip J Brown.  (In association with Dean Lerner)
GM: Philip J Brown
Game: Paranoia
Lesson: The Right GM Will Make A Game Sing
Details: While I own multiple Paranoia game book it can be a bit hit or miss at the table for my liking.  Endless backstabbing PvP, adventures full of in-jokes, GMs who think they have to kill everyone or it isn't "real" Paranoia..... In the wrong hands this game can be a total wipeout.

Phil, however, has a sick sense of humour and managed to build a Paranoia game which was serious enough to function as a campaign but daft enough to make us giggle as bad things happen to us.  He forced the team leader into armour shaped like a soft drink can so our elite troubleshooter team's sponsor would be happy; he forced us to play Dance Dance Revolution when our lowly Red-clearance players didn't have the authorisation to touch the Blue-coloured right arrow; he happily warped the setting to reveal we were actually on another planet rather than Earth.  (Maybe?)  Phil taught me that some people are just great at running certain games.

You don't need to try too hard: they'll screw up just fine on their own

GM: Nicky
Game: Traveller
Lesson: Tell The Players What Their Characters Would Know
Details: Nicky's Traveller game was an interesting premise - we were the founding fathers of our space programme, the first ever astronauts shot into space when an alien craft enters orbit and discovered the existence of an interstellar community around us.  We played thirty and forty year olds with decades of experience in exploring, science, military matters or whatever who were chosen for the mission.  It was a strong game and, along with Paranoia, the game I most missed when I left the rotating GM group.

However, Nicky would sometimes leave us out to dry when the players failed to know what our characters couldn't fail to know.  Doc, known to get tounge-twisted and fail with words, played a secret agent with a lot of charm skills and was asked to negotiate with some natives but messed it up because Doc messed it up.  Rob, explorer who had dealt with a lot of low-tech natives in his time, tried to scare a similar group off with gunfire - Nicky ruled that this wouldn't work because he read a book about how some natives who didn't know what a gun was hadn't been intimidated by it.  This is all well and good but why doesn't the explorer know this?  Or at least have a chance to roll to see if he knows this.

It's fine to ask people to roleplay and make decisions themselves rather than always rely on the dice but if characters have skills in charming others, navigating forests or the history of seacraft then you need to at least offer them the chance to use those skills rather than let them hang themselves because, out of character, they don't know how far a campfire is visible at night.   In the end these problems were mostly minor - our characters survived, just had to take detours - but it did feel in each occasion we'd been cheated rather than we'd been stupid.  Nicky taught me to give players enough material to avoid making silly mistakes, because frankly they'll make bigger mistakes anyway just fine.

With a cover like that, how could it NOT sell well in the bible belt?

GM: Mike
Game: Demon The Fallen
Lesson: Get Everyone On The Same Page
Details: Mike was a big World of Darkness fan - he had ran a years long online Vampire campaign and owned a huge swathe of books for the system.  He offered to run one of two games from this world, either Werewolf or Demon.  Werewolf was of no interest to me as I knew little of it save it was more intricately connected to Vampire et al and their shared metaplot..... but Demon was a game I'd picked up second-hand and found curious, so the idea of swishing about as a demon free of much White Wolf continuity got me to cast my vote for that.

Thing is, that's not how it worked.  Mike and I read the same core rulebook and came up with vastly different ideas of what the game would be - I imagined a game about Demons and mortals with little else, whereas Mike imagined a game about the World of Darkness in which we the players were Demons.  Literally our first encounter was with Vampires who were spying on us, with another Demon-like character only showing up in session two or three.  An intriguing mystery about a magic mirror turned out to be predicated on the way magic worked in Mage.   The game was set in 1999 because it couldn't be set in the then present day of 2009 in order to fit World of Darkness end-of-the-world continuity.

Mike saw no problem in this because all World of Darkness games were obviously set in the same universe and I should have expected this; the corebook mentions Vampires and Mages, right? Well, yes, but very vaguely and if you don't already know much about Vampires and Mages you could be forgiven for missing some of it.  For me, turning up to a Demon game full of vampires was like turning up to a Batman game expecting human level crime-fighting and isntead spending your sessions driving the Haunted Tank to fight Parademons.  It's not wrong exactly - they exist in the same universe, right? - but it isn't necesarilly what everyone wants to see.

Although admittedly this is kinda cool..... but not if you expected Knightfall, The Dark Knight or Batman Year One

 Mike taught me I needed to get all my players on board with exactly what each actually meant and moderate the content appropriately.  I was very worried that my Justice League and Star Trek game could turn very fanwanky, with endless back patting as we referenced inventions from C-list episodes of Next Gen or had supervillains run on with no explanation to resume decade-old plot arcs from Animal Man #19. I felt like the Demon game went that way at points and it seemed obvious that Nicky, far more knowledgeable on White Wolf games than I, was having a lot of fun spotting all the interconnections.... but I got nothing out of it, having signed up on very different assumptions.

What I learned to do was have clear discussions up front about what tone I'm going for, what books/films/etc are inspiring me and what the campaign will probably look like.  I needed to make sure when I said "Star Trek" that people knew if I meant Original Series pulp, Next Gen cerebreal, DS9 shades of grey or what.  I needed to avoid a player group consisting of Adam West Batman, Chris Claremont's Wolverine, Alan Moore's Rorschach and Ben Edlund's The Tick  because everyone had different ideas of what "superhero" means. If you think your players couldn't possibly disagree with you and your interpretation is "obvious"..... then you're likely to be unpleasantly surprised.

No comments:

Post a Comment