RPG Blog Carnival: How To Be A Better GM

Well, I’m a little behind the power curve for the March RPG Blog Carnival [1], but considering it’s the first week ever for this blog, I’m going to cut myself a bit of slack and just go ahead with the post.  There’s a plethora of great DMing advice there, and I’m not going to rehash any of it except to say that many of those blogs are awesome, and I’ll be adding them to my blogroll soon. Now, on to my contribution.

The Go-Giver Game Master

My best friend (who also happens to be one of my players… go figure) recently gave me a book called The Go-Giver[2]. A book focused towards salespeople, this friend gifted me with it because of the inspiration it had brought her in regards to her goals about her professional life in general. I, of course, applied it immediately to my GMing. It’s a small book, a quick read, and it is actually the inspiration for me starting up The Action Point blog in the first place. It’s the kind of book that you can breeze through in an afternoon, but then will find yourself going back over it slowly, processing and absorbing more and more.

In the book, one of the main characters imparts his Secret  to the point-of-view character in a series of quotes. The first quote is this, referred to as the Law of Value:

“Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.”

And while I don’t feel qualified to talk about this in a sales sense, I am qualified to talk about applying it as a GM. I turn 30 in a little over a month, and I have been playing RPGs of all kinds since I was 11; the vast majority of the time (I’d say 95%+) I have been the DM/GM/Storyteller/Director/whatever. I’ve been the one who made the game “happen”. I have a great deal of experience in this field, and I’m proud to say I’m pretty doggone good at it.

The Concept In Terms of RPG

In the sales world, the Law of Value refers to the value of your product, and so it does in RPG terms as well. Let’s take a minute to define our “product” as GMs, then, shall we?

As a GM for an RPG game, our product is, quite literally, the game we put on for the players. It’s the sum and total of all the elements that make up your game session, including (but not limited to):

  • Preparedness for that particular session
  • Your mental state when running the session
  • Knowledge of the game system
  • The play space
  • Player Management skills

and a whole host of other things. Many of the blogs in this month’s Carnival go into great detail about these topics, so I won’t belabor them. I want to look at the overall picture. Salesmen deal in hard currency when all is said and done, and I believe that our “cash” as far as gaming goes is measured in fun. But here’s the deal, and also a large part of what I want to address. Thus, the Law of Gaming Value can be restated as: “Your true worth as a GM is determined by how much more fun you give out than fun you take in payment.”

Adding Value To Your Game

As many of us with spouses and children know especially well, the time we spend at the gaming table often has a multitude of other ways that it can be spent. Thus it is of the utmost importance that we as GMs give our players the best value for their time spent. In our modern world there is a largely unspoken time-value ratio. We are so connected to so many other things via Facebook, Twitter, smartphone internet, and a myriad of other things that it’s terribly easy for us to say “I could be doing X instead of this.” While these things are great when waiting in line at the grocery store, they don’t apply so well at the gaming table. What we need is to find ways to focus on increasing the fun-per-minute for our players. If we work hard at deliberately increasing the enjoyment of the other people at our table, those people are both far more likely to keep spending their time in our games as well as more likely to invest emotionally in those games, thus making the games even more enjoyable. It’s a true win-win cycle: as you intentionally increase the fun in your games, your players will recognize this (even if they don’t realize it) and will return the enjoyment back to the table. It’s like the water cycle, only instead of water it’s made of awesomesauce.

They’re Called “Player Characters” for a REASON

Okay, now that we’ve gotten through the theory, let’s see some of this “increase your fun” in action. When I tell you to increase the fun of your games deliberately, that’s exactly what I mean. But in order to do that, you have to know what your particular group finds fun. Notice that the universal phrase we as gamers use is “Player Characters”. I do not think that this is by mistake. You can engage a Character’s game attributes all day long, but if you don’t do it in such a way that the Player enjoys himself, you’re losing out on the majority of the equation.

Robin D. Laws and The Chatty DM[3] are big proponents of what is called Player Styles, and I agree with them. As a GM, knowing what creates fun at the table for your players is of the utmost importance. Knowing what flips their triggers (and, just as importantly, what doesn’t) is the basis for building engaging, fun encounters.

Likewise, knowing what capabilities your characters have and the mechanisms they interact with the game world is important too. But at the end of the session when the dice are picked up it’s the players who will be talking about your adventures later and it’s the players who will or will not return to your table. Thus, I suggest using the characters as a lens through which to increase the fun of the players.

For example, at my current gaming table I have a huge variety in player styles. My buddy Fish (not his real name… it’s an Army nickname he picked up on our first deployment to Iraq and it stuck) plays a half-orc fighter named Belrok. Both Fish and Belrok are pretty straightforward– they like to pound the badguys into paste. It’s easy for me as GM to craft encounters where Fish gets to make with the smashy-smashy through Belrok and lay the smack down on various kinds of badguys. Fish is maturing into a more tactically-minded player than he used to be as well, so I like to put more choices into combat than “I hit that guy” over and over. For a player like this, providing combats with alternative victory conditions such as “protect the minion” or “capture the item before it escapes” add elements that can be a lot of fun to the player. And again, the player is who we are trying to accommodate. Even of Fish wasn’t playing as in-your-face a character as Belrok, I would do my best to put his PC in a position to make a difference in combat. No matter what character Fish plays, I do my best to facilitate the player’s enjoyment through the lens of the character. If he were playing a Wizard, I might use minions specifically with the purpose of letting him obliterate them, or add monsters of significantly lower level to an encounter to let him have moments of awesome against them. For Belrok, and for Fish, the tactical challenge of the encounter and the feeling of awesome he gets by smiting his enemies is where the fun resides.

Another of my players is Scott. Scott is an extremely savvy player, knows the system incredibly well, and is a joy to have at the table. He is able to walk the metagame line between player and character extremely well; in fact, I let him push more into true metagaming territory than I would another player because he uses it specifically to keep the party moving instead of purely to his own advantage. Scott plays a deva avenger named Samael, dishing out a ridiculously high amount of damage to my monsters. Scott, though, is an entirely different player type than Fish. He isn’t focused purely on obliterating the tactical challenges on the battlemat; Scott wants to affect the story as a whole, to make his mark on the game world. Scott wants Samael to make a difference on an entirely different scale, even though Samael and Belrok are melee-focused beatsticks. So for Scott, I craft a wholly different kind of encounter: the tactical details of the combat aren’t nearly as important as the story elements of that encounter. Who he is fighting and how those opponents fit into the mystery of the story are, for Scott, where the fun resides. So even though Samael is a combat-focused character, I can use the character as a lens to filter Scott’s fun through by building fights that reveal more of the story.

Adding Layers = Adding Fun

So I know the ways my players have fun, and I know how to use their characters as a lens to facilitate that fun. So let’s build an encounter that adds these elements together to facilitate Fish and Belrok as well as Scott and Samael.

The current storyline for my Age of Worms campaign has the characters investigating a series of grisly murders in a town influenced by the Far Realm. They’ve tracked the bad guys to one of a couple locations, and have chosen to investigate the warehouse complex that seems to be at the epicenter of the slaughter.

For Fish, I want to build a combat that has a mix of opponents with interesting abilities. I also want to make sure that there are some minions for him to mow through, as well as a couple of mid-range monsters for him to lock down and keep off of the squishy party members in the rear (the party also has an invoker and a sorcerer). In addition, I craft the encounter-space to fill a large warehouse with a upper floor that looks out on the ground level, and place some minion artillery up there– a tactical choice for Fish to make in regards to which opponents he wants to engage. Lastly, I build in a couple of Terrain Powers such as tumbling shipping crates onto an enemy or using the pulleys and winches to lift an enemy off the ground. These are usable by any party member, of course, but I want them to be available to Belrok to use so that there is more available than “I use X power” to him.

Samael, played by Scott, will be in the same combat, so I want to make sure that Samael is challenged on a game-mechanics level as well. He has many powers that deal radiant damage, so if I want to increase the difficulty for Samael I can include creatures with radiant resistance. I want to use this sparingly, however, because one of the core 4E design tenets is “don’t nerf characters intentionally.” Resistances can get really old really fast in any case, so I look at Samael’s sheet again. He has a couple of powers that deal fire damage, and a couple that force movement. Monster knowledge checks, should the party remember to use them, can give clues to monster vulnerabilities, so I decide that a monster with “vulnerable: fire” is a good fit. This works especially well because the sorcerer in the party is fire-focused too. But Avengers work especially well on one single large monster, so I decide to make the “boss” of the encounter the foe that is designed for the Avenger– I make him an elite to ensure that the Avenger will be able to get a couple of rounds dueling with him. I also decide that giving him an immediate reaction attack when subject to forced movement is a tactically fun option as well. It will make Scott consider his moves carefully if he knows that some of his standby powers have additional consequences. But for Scott, that’s only half of the encounter equation. In the end, the monster ends up being a farspawn-tainted fighter with a greatsword. Describing the duel between the two will be great fun.

In addition to the tactical considerations, I also build a couple clues into the encounter. I include two specific layers of clues– one layer related to the plot at hand involving the murders and the warehouse. Finding these monsters while they are hunting is a step towards finding their lair and putting an end to the murders. In the aftermath of the battle the PCs will find these clues. In addition, if they choose to search the area (as part of a multi-scene investigative Skill Challenge) , they will find some additional information pertaining to the murders in the larger scope of the adventure– who they work for, or who summoned them, or maybe some kind of vulnerability that all of the aberrations in the adventure share. This is the fun built in specifically for Scott– finding the pieces of the adventure as a whole, illuminating a little more of the Big Picture so that Scott feels by the end of the encounter that he knows a little more about what is going on in the game world.

Building these elements into a cohesive encounter facilitates fun for multiple players at the table, and in effect makes mini-spotlight moments that let each character shine as well.This theory of encounter-building can be used with a group of any number of players and characters. However, I recommend that you limit the players/characters an encounter is built around to three. Deliberately including elements for more PCs can make for muddy encounter design with too much going on. Just ensure that when you build the next encounter, you pick a different combination of PCs to build around, so that the fun is spread all around the table.

Your Fun Quotient

It’s pretty obvious by this point that I have not mentioned the GMs fun at all. There is a reason for that, and I’m probably going to catch some flak for it but here is my reason: If you are GMing with a focus on deliberately and drastically increasing the fun of your players, your own fun as GM will increase as well.

It’s an “If you build it, they will come” kind of philosophy, but it has worked for me for a long time and I can state from personal experience that it is true. In crafting your story (or sandbox, if that’s your style), focusing on your players and what brings them enjoyment at the table cannot help but make you, the GM, have more fun too. That’s what we’re here for after all– the players. Our games live and die by their enjoyment and whether or not they want to come back to the next session. Without them, we are just lonely guys (and gals) with stacks of notes and dice in an empty room.

It makes a kind of sense that when we stop putting the focus on “I want them to get to X country so they can interact with Y NPC” or “I want to tell a story about Z” or even, “I want to show off monsters A, B, and C from this new book!” and start putting that spotlight on the stars of the show–the players and their characters, in that order– that the fun for everyone will increase.

Everybody wants to be the star of the show, and a secret that I wish someone had told me when I started GMing is that as a GM, the SHOW is our star. When everything is running smoothly and the players are laughing and having a good time or clutching their character sheets in fear of death, or whooping and high-fiving each other because they took down the BBEG after a long hard fight–that’s when the GM is in the spotlight. When our players look awesome and walk away from the table grinning and tweeting that they can’t wait til the next session–that’s when we know that we are successful at increasing the fun at our table. And when you are giving out more fun to your players than you take in at the table, your game will be vastly more successful than it ever has been. When your players would rather spend their precious time rolling dice and talking in a funny accent than just about anything else– that’s when you can call yourself a truly successful GM.



[3] both Robin and Chatty are listed on my blogroll. I highly recommend them.

This entry was posted in Applying Theory, Brittanis, Characters, GM Advice, Group Dynamics, RPG Blog Carnival, Rules, Worldbuilding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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