THE GAMEMASTER #1: Getting Back in the Swing

I’ve been out of Roleplaying Games for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t really played much at all since high school. I’d never really been a game master for any games, either. I was simply a player.

Late in 2011 (just slightly over a year ago) I decided I was going to get my kids HeroQuest to play as a Christmas Eve activity. That’s a thing in my family, to open and play a board game on Christmas Eve. You can read about my quest to find it here. Over the course of 2012, with the help of my kids and siblings, I fell back in love with board gaming.

My sister tried edging me closer and closer to good old-fashioned pen and paper roleplaying. She got me a copy of the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. I found I liked the d20 mechanics of the game and was buying books left and right and they’d somehow convinced me to run a game. Since I’d been the dungeon master for HeroQuest (and later Descent) I was the natural choice to be the game master for our games.

Wanting to do it right, I spent about a month developing a world and a story for us to play in. And, let’s be honest, I’m going to be writing stories about our adventures (and, if there’s demand, the game details in case anyone else wants to run my game). Finally, on Thanksgiving I ran my first game as a gamemaster and I couldn’t be happier with how things went.

We’re playing a mix between Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, mixing and matching the rules into a system that makes the most sense. Mostly Pathfinder, though, since I find the Dungeons and Dragons way of doing and saying things a bit pedantic and needlessly complicated, though there is still some great stuff in there.

Since I’m coming at things from such a different angle, as a writer and a storyteller, I’ve been convinced to pass on the little things I’m doing in my game here, to you guys, in hopes that it might improve your games. And my hope is that we can have discussions about this sort of thing as well.

I’m not going to just be playing Pathfinder and passing on my tips about that, either. By popular demand, I’m going to be running a Star Wars roleplaying game as well.

So, for the first column, I want to talk about my version of what I think a game master is and isn’t.

What I don’t think the gamemaster should be is the opponent of the players. Sure, the gamemaster has to challenge them and take on the role of their opponents, but the chief concern of the gamemaster is to facilitate a fun, strategic, environment in which to tell a collaborative story.

The gamemaster is a referee and a guide. Not the adversary.

If players aren’t having fun, it’s your job to engage them. It’s never your aim to antagonize them (unless you’re playing a non-player character whose aim is antagonism), it’s your aim to have fun with them.

Why do friends get around a table and play a game? It’s not so they can sit around and brood depressively and sulk because they’re not deriving any enjoyment. They’re there to have fun. Since you’re the gamemaster you have to provide the stage presence to set the tone of the night, ratcheting up the fun. That doesn’t mean the story can’t be dramatic. In fact, I think it should be.

The story needs to be strong enough to grip the characters, but you need to be flexible enough in that story to allow the players a say in what happens. Every game I’ve run so far (a grand total of 3) goes drastically different than I planned.

Giving the players a say in what happens makes them feel like their decisions matter in the world you created. The first game I played, I contrived a story that the characters needed to steal a wand from a castle armoury in a daring Ocean’s 11 style heist. I built everything they would need to do it and a thousand different details for them to build plans. I even gave them an NPC to help who knew the inner-workings of the castle.

But they came up with a better plan. And convinced the lord of that castle of a completely different course of action I was’t prepared for. I asked them to take a 5 minute bathroom break and reorganized everything so I looked far more prepared than I was for the change in direction.

They all had fun and their decisions meant something. I didn’t force my story on them, merely the setting. That’s the job of the gamemaster. You’re in charge of the setting and dangle story lures in front of them. The players decide which hooks they bite, you just need to be prepared to reel them in when they choose.

Perhaps this seemed remedial, or RPG 101 to many of you, but I’m just getting my sea legs on this in a serious way for the first time and I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve got some interesting things coming up and I hope you stick around.