Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Hill Cantons Challenge: Building a Better GM

I think game blogs are at their best when they're either (a) facilitating a free and fecund exchange of ideas; or, (b) providing insights into how other people game, both in terms of the behind-the-scenes action as well as the actual in-game philosophies. This very blog leans heavily towards the (b) end of things (it's basically why I bother posting my Pendragon actual play reports, for example), so I was delighted to see the inimitable ckutalik of Hill Cantons post a challenge for all us GM-bloggers (aka 99% of us) to extrapolate on our creative techniques:
1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?

2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?

3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
Before I get into my answers, I just want to address the opinion expressed in the comments to the original post that this sort of thing is a waste of time because GMing, in essence, can't be taught. As someone who had to teach himself how to run games with almost no outside input, I to this day greatly appreciate concrete insights into other folks' GMing approaches and very much enjoy sharing my own as a way of passing on the shared oral tradition of GMing to folks who are just starting out. Sure, GMing is largely a question of instinct and experience, but there's also a major cognitive component to the activity. I doff my cap to the "thousands" of GMs back in the 70s who, apparently, were able to intuitively run endless dungeon crawls through bottle cities with "minimal guidance" but - call me jejune, if you will - I for one have always appreciated adding any hands-on analysis of GMing style to my creative quiver.

At any rate, with that mini-rant out of the way, here is my constructive attempt to add to the conversation via my answers to the challenge:

1. I'd have to say my three best practices as a GM are: preparation, pacing, and characterization. Of the three, I'd say I excel at preparation (as explained below).

2. When I talk about excelling at preparation, I'm not talking about statting up NPCs or writing detailed, plot-heavy adventure notes, both of which I actually find a bit tiresome (although I'm working hard to change the former). In fact, my adventure notes these days, whether adapting a published scenario or running one of my own, tend to be in the form of tersely-worded bullet lists. When I talk about preparation, I'm talking about research. If the game is set in the real world, I research the adventure locale and time period extensively. In a fantasy environment, I look for real world analogues and weave them into the setting. But most of my games these days tend to be set in the real world or something based very closely on it, partly due to my penchant for research. When I ran my Cthulhu San Francisco game, I had at my side a 1924 California travel guide and a poster map reproduction of a map of the city circa the mid-1920s mounted in a cheap frame. My players were very appreciative whenever I hoisted that map up to show them where things were happening in relation to each other; it really gave them a sense of place. Players can also tell when you've done your background research properly; it comes through in the game in many subtle ways.

Pacing is something I worked on for years, and I'm quite satisfied with how I pace my games at this point: I always keep one eye on the clock and make an effort to not only wrap things up on time but also in a satisfying manner. If that means wrapping up an hour earlier than planned, so be it. If the scenario is finishing up that day, I make sure there's enough time to handle after-game tidying up (skill checks, experience points, etc.). If I can tell we won't be able to finish the scenario that session, I make sure we leave off at a suitably dramatic point (a cliffhanger, if I can at all swing it).

Of the three practices listed above, I personally feel that characterization is my weakest, but at the same time I have received many compliments on how much my players love to hate my villains, or on managing to successfully run multiple NPCs at once. I feel like my NPCs "pop" because I put some effort into differentiating them while simultaneously not making it overly obvious at first which ones are the "plot NPCs" and which ones are there merely for local color.

3. Getting a handle on pacing is partly a matter of knowing your group and how quickly they work. It doesn't take that long to do this. I started a new group made up entirely of strangers back in February and by the third session I had an excellent idea of how they worked together (which is quite quickly and efficiently, as it turned out!). Probably the best advice I got on pacing came from John Tynes in an old Unknown Armies essay online (link long since lost, unfortunately). He suggested watching movies, particularly thrillers and capers (I remember Heat was specifically called out), with an eye towards how the director paces the scenes, alternating intense action with dialogue-heavy sequences. (GMing advice really came into its own with the internet; some of the bet tips I've picked up have been from online sources.)

The internet has, of course, also been a godsend for my preparation-related activities. As much as possible, I try and prepare visual aides, and the internet is great for finding fodder. My Pendragon games are full of color printouts of heraldry, armor, actors-as-NPCs, and maps, for example, all culled form the internet. When I run Call of Cthulhu, I go out of my way to create "realistic" handouts: if there's a photograph-cum-clue, I find a suitable subject on sites like or the photo archives of major metropolitan libraries and then print it out on glossy photo paper; if a note is supposed to be crumpled, I crumple the paper. Nothing too over-the-top, just enough to let the players' imaginations fill in the gaps (good GMing advice in general, incidentally).

I've always been a bit of a mimic, so my characterizations sometimes feature different voices. I don't go overboard with this either, but if the PCs are talking to a Russian count, for example, I trot out my best Russian accent. Working on mastering a broad range of believable accents is one of my great ongoing goals as a GM. For differentiating multiple NPCs without resorting to cartoon accents, I can't recommend enough simply listening to audio books (available for free from your local library). Just as you'd closely watch movies for their pacing, so too should you listen attentively to how the reader gives each character a slightly different inflection. Listen also to how male readers read female characters and vice-versa. Stephen Fry's readings of the Harry Potter series are particularly excellent. It doesn't take much to give an individual NPC some vocal character and you certainly don't have to resort to hammy acting or cheap theatrics to do so.

I think that about covers things, but if I've glossed over anything feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments. I hope this has been some help to fellow GMs out there, veteran and novice alike. Thanks again to ckutalik for posting these excellent questions in the first place!

Edit: A couple other things to add from my GMing toolbox that don't fit the "big three" I came up with above but are definitely worth mentioning:

  • Accept the "iceberg theory" of GM prep: there will always be more going on behind the screen than the players ever see, and that's a good thing. Having a few notes on an NPC's background, even if the players never find out about it, can help you determine the NPC's motivations and actions in the moment.
  • Random elements are your friend. In fact, the more randomness the better. It helps keep you from turning into a railroader, and it's just plain fun. Don't forget the "G" part of "RPG": these are supposed to be games for everyone involved, including the GM, and figuring out a way to integrate off-the-cuff random elements into your precious story is a tremendously fun challenge that can open up possibilities you'd never previously thought of. It's one of the reasons I love Pendragon so much: the trait and passion rolls can drive PCs and NPCs alike in completely surprising directions.
  • Don't shy away from using published scenarios, but make them your own. There's a certain snobbishness, particularly in OSR circles, about running your own material in preference to using modules or published adventures. The poor reputation that published adventures enjoy, I suspect, comes from GMs who simply run them as-written, reading blocks of text out loud, their noses buried in a book. As someone who, due to time constraints, more often than not will use a published adventure if at all possible (it also helps that my two favorite games each boast repositories of literally dozens of scenarios), I can firmly say that running someone else's stuff in no way need hamper your own creativity. Take the published stuff and make it your own. Replace NPCs in the text with NPCs from your own campaign. Add or drop encounters. Change place names. Change MacGuffins, motivations, and anything else you don't like. Don't simply read the flavor text aloud; extemporize off the text the same way you would your own notes. Over the years I've observed that, doing this, the players legitimately can't tell the difference between when I'm running a published scenario versus one of my own devising.
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