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GMing Tips

I'm participating in a panel on better GMing at Confusion (Troy MI, Jan 22-24, 2010), and I'm compiling a set of useful tips.  It's a one hour panel, and I'm sure I'm not the only one on it.  I'll be storing my own ideas in this post (and will be updating it as things occur to me), and I'd appreciate any tips any of you have.

In no particular order...
  • It's not just YOUR story, it's THEIR story too (collaborate).
  • Don't be wedded to your scenario.  If you plan for 4 possible choices, the players will take the 6th.
  • GM ain't havin' fun, ain't nobody havin' fun.  (The inverse is also true.)
  • Know your players and their characters.  Make sure there's an opportunity for everyone to shine.
  • If you don't want them to screw it up, don't let them roll the dice (contsts/tests should be meaningful - if they need info/success/whatever to continue, *give* it to them
  • Nobody likes a no-win scenario.  Make sure you've thought of at least one way to succeed.  Mind you, the players will probably come up with another.
  • Failure can be even more interesting than success.  (differs from no-win, in that failure at a particular test means an unexpected outcome, as opposed to "too bad, you're dead".
  • Players don't mind losing a character if the death is meaningful.
  • Complicate their lives, complicate their lives, complicate their lives.
  • Dependents, cohorts and NPC friends - snack food for monsters and ways to complicate their lives.
Stuff I've appropriated from other people:
  • Failure is boring.  The credible but unrealized threat of failure is very exciting (Robin Laws)
  • Say "yes" or roll the dice. (Vincent Baker)
  • Try to give your players at least one meaningful choice in an adventure with no pre-determined conclusion. (@slyflourish)
  • "The game must be fun shall be the whole of the Law." Making Light



Jan. 7th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
Players never care half as much about the story as you think they will. Don't get too detailed in your story—the players will forget them—or too hung up on the story itself—the game is about them, not you. The primary attraction of tabletop RPGs is spending time with friends, the story is just an excuse.
Jan. 12th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
I have to disagree with that, with certain caveats. My experience has been that the players care very much about engaging their characters with the story -- BUT -- I consistently base my stories ON their characters and ideas. My home game is intensely collaborative, to the degree that I asked the players to help develop the people and places in the town.

I should probably amend the statement to: "If you're going to kill a character, make it meaningful to the player and/or the story."

RE social time - we build in some social time in each session for catching up, and we socialize a lot outside of the games. This probably contributes to more focus on the story/game when we play, as we have separate social time.
Jan. 7th, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)
Players don't mind losing a character if the death is meaningful.

That may be true with some players, and they may tell you it's true, but I've seen the spark completely go out of a player when he had to get a replacement character. It was dramatic, he said it was fine, he was a great roleplayer -- but when we actually played, his heart wasn't in it any more. Fortunately it was a Shadowrun game, so we were able to retcon his having a clone and he got the PC back with a lot of financial damage and some missing augments.

I would say here that you should know your players and group well, and make a judgment call about whether and when you can get away with killing a character. I wouldn't make the broad generalization.
Jan. 7th, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC)
I think the more mature the player is, the more true this is. I died recently in a D&D game. It was a truly heroic death for my rogue who is only marginally useful compared to the sorceror, cleric and psion. I would have been happy to stop there! Instead I got raised. I contrast that to the death of my character in essentially an Arms Law game over 18 years ago. We all died after orcs blocked the end of a tunnel and we ran out of food and air. Coincidentally the GM was moving to Texas and wanted to end the game. Hardly "meaningful".
Jan. 7th, 2010 06:20 pm (UTC)
I'm not convinced. More mature players can also have a lot of time and thought invested in their character.
Jan. 12th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
Fair enough - re broad generalization. I really meant it more as an exhortation against random dice-generated death.
Jan. 7th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
Don't ask the players to roll unless you're prepared for them to succeed or fail.
Jan. 12th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
I like that - I'll add it to my list! And I am so NOT surprised to see it coming from you! (grin)
Jan. 7th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
Be prepared.

In rules heavy games make fast decisions, or delegate to a player to look it up and return to it.

Props are your friends. They add to a game immersion.
Jan. 12th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
All good, going on the list.
Jan. 7th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
This is a great post!

I wonder about the "dependants are snack food for monsters" philosophy, though. Taken to the extreme, this will discourage players from giving you any dependants in their background at all, since they don't want to give you any rope to hang them with. Don't get me wrong, some people WANT the rope, for the drama of the thing, but some people might get discouraged by that.

I also think some GMs take "this is improv, so don't negate" a bit too far. I think it IS acceptable to negate in certain situations, such as pregame ("Can I play a dragon?") or actions in violation of previously established social contract.

As far as, If you don't want them to screw up, don't let them roll, though, I couldn't agree more with this, and can't tell you how many modules I've seen where there's some junk like "players must succeed on a 25 DC perception roll to see the clue for the next segment..."
Jan. 7th, 2010 08:19 pm (UTC)
Dealing with that in a game right now. Everyone's family has been involved to the extent that we're all related to murderous bastards, mass murderers, racists and in one memorable case, someone who became a lich. Actually, I didn't mind that so much except for the fact that everyone had a DNPC that we didn't get points for. ;)
Jan. 7th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
The behavior you reward is the behavior that will be repeated.
Jan. 9th, 2010 12:09 am (UTC)
Don't let a pushy or rebellious player take over the table.
Jan. 9th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
When a player has his/her PC engage in socially unacceptable behavior and then tells you "I'm just staying in character", then let the PC suffer the reasonable consequences of the acts. For example, the PC engages in repeated sexual name-calling of the very vulgar variety towards either another PC or an NPC; that PC then gets negative reactions from the other NPC's to the point of not getting information, not getting to go to where the others do et c. "We don't likes that kind of behavior here, guv'nor." That's staying in character, too. And generally brings the offensive player back into reasonable line.

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