Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How Do You Run a Game?

There are few skills that I have even come close to mastering.  Game Mastering is one of them.  And it came through more mistakes than I care to remember, but will make an effort, or else no good can come from the information I'm about to share.

But before all that, I refer back to my previous article I wrote, in which I described my worst GM and players.  There's one I neglected to describe due to a lack of time and the steady growth of the article.

This youth, let's call him Stupid Head, was a huge power gamer, which I normally don't mind and I'll explain why at the end of this document, but the reason he was a terrible player was that he had overwhelming expectations for his character, which he put above the other players and their enjoyment.  That should be the first important thing you learn when wanting to become a GM: the game is only fun when everyone is having fun.  Sometimes a player will be in a bad mood because their idea was voted down, but it only turns detrimental when they brood about it most of the game, start whining constantly or arguing with the other players.

Stupid Head followed this pattern.  He railroaded the entire game, whether he was describing what his character was doing, arguing with me or another player about a rule, or spending 40 minutes talking about an RPG system he wanted to write.  When the session was over, he stayed in the game, talking to the other players while waiting for me to leave.  Then he began backbiting.  One of my players informed me that he was ripping into my methods for GMing, accusing me of not knowing what I was doing, etc.  Had any of this been accurate, I would have gladly accepted any criticism made against my methods, but what it all boiled down to was the following:

First, he accused me of not listening to players.  As the other players pointed out, this meant he was angry with me because I kept shutting him down or cutting him off every time he cut off another player.  Yes, I was listening to players and I heard them every time he interrupted them to narcissistically bring the game back into focus over himself.

Second, he accused me of being disorganized.  This was ludicrous since I had everything set up, my maps, my NPCs, etc.  All stuff I will go over later, but for him I was "disorganized" because I had never read any Dragon Magazine or Pyramid Magazine articles, which provided other peoples' house rules for weapons and abilities.  How this makes me unorganized, I guess he expected me to allow whatever he brought up, simply because "other GMs he knew" allowed it.

Third, and this is related to the second criticism, he accused me of being closed-minded and intolerant.  This is because I refused to allow this outside material into the game.  Normally I considered requests, but everything he showed me was intended to make himself better-equipped than the rest of the party.  He used the tired power gamer justification "if it helps me, it helps the party."  While this is true mathematically, it hurts the game in the long run as it gives a majority of the success to one person and the rest of the group is left feeling ineffective and useless.  RPGs are meant to be group games and enjoyed by everyone, not just one person.  But sadly, in Stupid Head's world, he was the PC and the other players were just NPC minions.

Lastly, he complained that I was an "ass-hole", again, not a legitimate critique and a complaint that arose because I "kept interrupting him."  I had also shut him down soundly when he kept insisting that I allow his character to have a rifle that did 12d6 damage right from the start.  I told him this wasn't fair to the other players and his response was "screw the other players."

Needless to say, I kicked him out.  One of the players, a friend of his, tried to get me to reconsider letting him back in, saying "it's not his fault, he has Asperger's and can't help it."  That is not a legitimate excuse: my brother-in-law and half of my players have Asperger's, or some other spectrum of Autism, and none of them behave like that.  But that's a topic for another article.

Fortunately I have had successful campaigns and have had the opportunity to meet some excellent players from all around the world and many walks of life.  I don't claim to be a perfect GM.  Nobody is.  I have a lot of shortcomings that need to be remedied, but in spite of this, I have at least learned to focus my creativity into making fun worlds for players to live in for 3+ hours a session.

Let's get started: How I GM.

First, I make a setting.  This can be an entire world or a smaller geographic area, all full of stuff.  I'm a fantasy/science fiction writer and have come up with what I am content to call "comfortably original" ideas.  This means ideas that have their own style while bearing the standards of a classic fantasy/sci fi adventure without trying so hard to be unique that they wind up simply being weird or uncomfortable.  (I hate it when GMs try to create what, in their minds, are clever twists on a campaign concept, but in reality are more like role-play scenarios that an amateur improv class wouldn't touch: "in this campaign, players will assume the roles of magic items and will wait in a dragon's lair while adventurers come to claim them.")

How do I make a setting?  I look for visual and mental stimuli.  This happens naturally over the course of time.  It's frustrating to me when I hear writing experts say you want to spend most of your time reading books in the same genre you want to write in so you can "get ideas."  This is stupid: it's like saying you want to make a new kind of grape juice by adding other, more successful people's grapes.  What do you get?  Grape juice, only it doesn't taste as good as the more successful grape juice because they put more thought and more work into it than you did.  Truth be told, you will be inspired to create original fantasy/sci fi ideas from reading a fantasy or sci fi story, but if you want to really develop your own and make something unique and wonderful, you need to read absolutely EVERYTHING ELSE!  Here is a list of the following things I read or watch to get ideas, and mind you, I look up everything I can find in each of these categories, and I write copious notes:
Books and documentaries on every major world culture, and then pidgin cultures.
Books and documentaries on different languages.
Books and documentaries on how stuff is made (like cheese, steel, houses, machines, etc.)
Books and documentaries on history (like the neolithic age, the bronze age, the iron age, the renaissance, the Napoleonic period, the Victorian period, current events, and practical, theoretical science.
Books and documentaries on combat and warfare, modern and past, especially Roman since Rome developed military tactics that are still used today in every branch of the military.
Books and documentaries on architecture, both modern and past, again, especially Roman since they revolutionized many aspects of architecture and stand as an example of an ancient culture whose technology was more advanced than many of the centuries that came after.
Books and documentaries on food and cuisine from all around the world.  These are fun since many of the hosts of these shows go to 3rd world country bazaars and shopping districts, which are almost unchanged from how they have been for the past thousand or so years.

There's much more, and while you wouldn't want to base an entire campaign after just one thing you studied and got excited about, these should help you flesh out your larger world and make it believable.  Some folks, especially the anime porn-obsessed youth of today's modern culture hate realism and want everything to simply be abstract and redundantly over-powered with endless combat, but this grows boring really fast.  Like eating nothing but candy, it'll leave you with a sour stomach.  You need real history and real culture to develop a world or setting, because the more realistically grounded a game is, the more immersive it is.

Don't believe me?  Let's look at Baldur's Gate and any number of those anime-porn cell phone RPGs.  The cell phone RPGs are incredibly superficial and depict characters with huge, jagged shoulder pads, huge, jagged swords ridiculously flamboyant costumes. Gameplay consists of them running around and nuking everything with magic or explosive, slashy buster sword moves.  No story (at least no original story), no immersion: just endless, tedious hours of "Magician shoot fireball go boom."  This is just sad and I've seen far too many GMs run games like this: take a quest, nuke the monsters, earn gold and XP: wash, rinse, repeat.  No immersion, no story, at least no interesting story.  The players always get bored and either the campaigns end, or they make new characters and start a new, but similar campaign, thinking it'll somehow make things more interesting, which it can, but only for the first session, then it's back to fetch quests and monster hunting as usual.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Look back at Baldur's Gate: a massively successful game set in an RPG world fleshed out by a man who clearly studied his real world history.  Sure, Ed Greenwood made a magical world with fantastical creatures, but at their core they draw heavily from events in our world's history.  They're familiar and meaningful, because their cultures reflect on ours.  The fantasy just gives it a more dynamic flavor, but not to the point of overpowering.  The plot to Baldur's Gate.  There's a reason it's one of the most popular games of all time; it has political intrigue, interesting and unique characters, an economy, racial and cultural tensions, big, sprawling cities you can get lost in with dark alleys hiding secrets on top of secrets.

When building a campaign, you want to create an effect I refer to as "The Underside of a Rock."  When I was a small child, I liked to pry up large stones in our back yard because you never knew what you were going to find under them.  Usually a bunch of centipedes, spiders, ants and earthworms would be squirming around the damp shadows, with little tunnels dug everywhere: it was almost chaotic and even though it usually made me run away screaming, it was still fun and I liked showing my friends and cousins so I could see their reactions.

How this translates to making a campaign: when you flesh out a world, you want to peel off the surface and put a lot of stuff beneath it.  Fill it with tall towers masking hidden dungeons, mountains hiding labyrinths and lots and lots of creative or just plain silly encounters.  Populate your world with enough stuff that, from the moment the players first set foot, they have lots of choices.  This ties to a saying my friends and I made while playing the Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3/4: "if you can see it, you can go there."  If the players think of something they want to do, like if they want to raise winter wolf pups, brew and sell ale, gather honey from a beehive set in a hollow tree, they should be able to do it!

Which brings me to the next part of developing a campaign: leave some room for the players to help flesh it out.  Encourage your players to ask questions, and accept them within reason.  To explain this, I use the ballroom example.  Once, when I was still learning to be a good GM, I had an epiphany.  It used to be that, whenever a player asked me if something was present in a game and my notes didn't express whether or not it was, I usually would immediately say "no" as I stupidly believed it would sidetrack from the "plot."  But on this one occasion, I had my players exploring a ruined and abandoned palace that had recently become overrun with monsters. The players had worked their way into a ballroom and were fighting a large monster, I think it was a Gorgon.  One of the players asked me if there were any chandeliers in the room.  I almost said no, as I was automatically accustomed to, but it suddenly struck me: I never said there weren't any and what would it hurt if I said yes?  I told him "yes, you see one hanging from the middle of the ceiling."

His rogue character used this to his advantage, climbing to an upper balcony and leaping to the chandelier where he gained a bonus to strike at the monster from above with his ranged weapon.  Then, the fighter positioned the monster underneath the chandelier, allowing the rogue to cut the rope and bring the whole thing crashing down.  The party loved that; it was cliche' but fun as hell, and I left that session with the realization: "if the players ask for something, and it seems sensible, just say yes."  I mean, you will want to say no from time to time so they don't spam the same thing over and over, like looking for chandeliers in every dungeon.  But I found and still find that this helps flesh out the campaign in ways I could never have dreamed.  It has a built-in rewards system where the players know that their creativity is being rewarded and compels them to invest themselves in each and every place they visit, listening to descriptions and asking questions about the terrain and the NPCs they encounter.

One last example: a group of PCs entered an old church to take shelter during the rain.  I rolled a random encounter that nearly proved too difficult for them.  A pack of were rats came in out of the storm, and after failed attempts to parlay, they attacked the PCs.  Only one of the PCs had a weapon that could actually harm the foul beasts, so one of the players, on his turn, asked me if there were vials of oil in the church.  This made the other players scoff a little; "why would there be oil in a church?" but the player explained that some churches used oil to anoint or bless things.  I decided this was reasonable and had him roll to search for it, giving him a moderate difficulty.  He succeeded and I said "yes, you find some bottles of oil.  He then doused his and everyone else's non-magical weapons in oil, lit them with a torch and made it possible for everyone to actually damage the were-rats.  I gave them extra experience points for using creativity, because this made the encounter into something way more awesome than simple hack and slash shenanigans.

Lastly: the campaign plot!  Don't railroad your PCs, which I'll get into later.  You can have a plot to your game, but use what I call the Elder Scrolls Rule of Thumb: if they pursue the main plot, they can run it through to the end, but if they want, they can deviate at any time to pursue other actions (unless they're in the middle of an encounter or trapped in the middle of a dungeon, etc.)  Let the players create their own plots as well: if they want to build a stronghold, create dilemmas surrounding the building of the stronghold.  Create enemies or competitors, have a charismatic nemesis try to lead away their workers, do whatever you can to stop them from accomplishing their goals, just don't smother them with relentless difficulty or outright take things away.  They should earn it, but enjoy the luxury of having fun while doing so.

Now let's get into actually running a session:

Learn the Rules!  Learn those damn, number-crunchy rules!  This needs to be done well in advance of actually running a system.  Don't just skim the books and say you'll pick it up as you go.  If something seems complicated, read it three times over.  If it still doesn't make sense, look it up online: there are lots of gifted GMs who have written articles and do an excellent job boiling down hard rules. And for goodness' sake, don't house-rule!  This is a trap I always fell into every time I learned a new RPG system, and I did it because I thought it would simplify running the game.  All it did was create confusion and anger.  For example, I was raised on D&D 3rd edition, but when I picked up AD&D (which is now my absolute favorite RPG system), I could't wrap my head around how combat initiative was done, so I defaulted to my knowledge of 3rd edition and created my own peculiar house rules that used the mechanics of AD&D.  When I drew in veteran players of AD&D they pointed out how broken and confusing this was. Fortunately, one of them explained it very simply and I eventually got it, but it took away about fifteen minutes of valuable game time.

Another problem with house rules, it's hella frustrating to players who transition to a new GM.  It's common to hear a player say "I feel like I'm learning an entirely new system each time I switch GMs.  We're all playing (RPG name), but it's never the same from one GM to the next."  Just learn the rules: the people who wrote the system made the rules that way for a reason.  If you find that you don't like a majority of the rules in a game, find another one.  Don't change published materials to fit your own strange ideas of how things are done, or to supplement your own inadequacies that come from not learning the system in the first place.  Trust me: I was the stupid, bungling creep who had a ponderous stack of house rules and printed them off for the players to read.  They looked at me like I had a knife sticking out of my forehead, and they usually left my campaigns; rightfully so!  All I had to do was actually read the rule books and follow proper procedure.

Next, let's talk about setting up a game:

You should never, for any reason, be unprepared to run a game.  But I know, life can get in the way and you may miss out on prep time that week.  This is why you prepare, before you ever advertise wanting to GM.  Never begin a campaign until you have finished fleshing it out and have all your material ready to go.  But how do you do it?  How do you find the time?  Some GMs will spend a couple of hours before a session, just doing prep work.  That's okay, but it's unnecessary.  Here's what I do: I make the campaign and make sure it's finished.  I find a time, usually on a day off from work, or when I'm sick, and I write it out and edit the whole thing.  This can take months, but all that work means you never have to prepare a game for years to come.

If a book has random tables, use them!  Roll encounters and, where appropriate, roll alignments for the encounters, since some creatures, like Centaurs, aren't automatically a murder band.  Roll weather, roll terrain, roll communities and settlements, just let the dice decide what the players encounter and use your creativity to blend it in together.  If the system you're using doesn't have any of this, make it yourself: look up other systems with tables and get ideas for your own!  I spent about three months writing a series of d100 tables, each consisting of three columns.  The first column was a generic scene, like an abandoned town, a ruined mansion, a standing stone covered in ruins, etc.  The second column was a condition that the scene was in: were there holes in the ground, are there evidence of a recent battle, is a storm raging overhead?  And the third column was a list of problems, like a monster was using this for a lair, some bandits are using it as a meeting place to exchange hostages, there's a strange fissure that monsters are coming out of, it's a hiding place for a dungeon, etc.  Three lists of 100 stuff equals about a million unique ideas!  You'll never run out of adventures!  Just make sure each item in the list is unique, but worded vaguely enough that you can creatively combine each into a nice, tidy adventure.

Have a ready stash of images and maps.  Put up pictures of the locations the PCs are entering, especially dungeons.  Have pictures of NPCs, maps of the interiors of places that are scaled for grid combat.  A lot of players have a hard time visualizing what's going on, so pictures help immerse them into each situation and provide a point of reference for every possible action.

Next: listen to what your players say to each other: you should do only about a third of the talking, maybe even less!  Listen to what they say and get ideas, because players never follow the rule "don't give the GM any ideas."  Everything they say should spur your creativity.  If a player says "that bridge is probably being guarded by a monster," and you didn't actually have anything intended for the bridge, put something there!  Maybe not a monster, but something should be encountered there because they're expecting it and they deserve to be pleasantly surprised.

Sometimes player actions may land them in trouble: they encounter a band of orcs that prove too strong for them.  Offer them a chance to surrender and put them in prison.  Yes: you can do that.  A lot of GMs warn against locking up players, saying this will upset them.  Of course it'll upset them, but the thing is, you always make it possible for them to escape and get their stuff back.  This is memorable: they will always talk about the time they bit off more than they could chew, but lived to tell the tale.  (Of course, they could also just run).

Don't take their purchases.  As mentioned above, it's okay, once in a blue moon, to have all their earthly possessions stolen, but always give them a chance to reclaim their stuff.  Just don't be a jackass and deliberately/permanently take away their wagon.  I've encountered at least a dozen GMs who adamantly believe in taking away the PCs' horse or their wagon or the ship they all saved their money to purchase.  These same GMs will kill their hirelings or other NPCs they took along with them.  Why?  Because it's too complicated to keep track of them.  What a load of crap: there's no reason a GM should feel overburdened by having the PCs bring hired help or to buy transportation for the loot they've claimed.  There's no reason they shouldn't be able to build a stronghold to store their treasure and then hire an army of NPCs to protect it while they go off on another adventure.

Just write it down.  Better yet, have the players write it down!  Make them mini GMs over their resources: let them hire NPCs, record their stats, name them, and buy them equipment.  Let them catologue everything they've encountered so far for future reference.  Let them control their NPCs during combat: if you know the combat rules like you should, this won't slow things down at all.  It may speed up normally slow combat encounters, because many hands make lighter work!  Most important, allowing the PCs to track their own resources and hirelings helps them feel  invested into the campaign.  They feel like everything they do has significance, which makes them want to do more!  They won't be able to wait until next session when they'll finally earn enough gold to buy their henchmen suits of full plate and +2 longswords!

Reward players for good role-play.  I don't care if you intended for the PCs to sneak into the castle through the sewers and instead they decided to schmooze and then bribe the guards at the front gate.  Don't tailor a railroad scenario: set up each scene as reasonably as you can, provide all relevant details and let them make their own plans.  This goes back to listening to PCs for ideas.  Say they have to rescue the merchant from a gnoll compound.  Rather than require a specific, step by step course of action for them to follow to get the job done, let them come up with their own damn plan.  This isn't a video game with limited interface that requires the triggering of specific events; this is a tabletop RPG!  The possibilities are endless!  The players shouldn't have to complete steps A-Z, they should be able to assess the situation, acquiring whatever insights their dice rolls afford them, and then go from there.  If they come up with a solution through a lot of good planning and hard work, especially through teamwork, give them bonus XP and maybe a bonus magical item.  They've earned it.

Let them live, let them die.  This is a hard one and generally it depends on what kinds of players you have.  Some players get attached to their PCs and don't want to see them die.  In this instance, feel free to fudge the rules a little to keep them going.  It doesn't hurt and it doesn't require you absolutely spoiling them rotten or performing a Deus Ex Machina.  If you want to run a gritty, realistic campaign with permanent death, make absolutely sure the players know this before they join the campaign.  Don't simply assume they'll be okay when an enemy sniper hits them in the head with a .50 round and kills them instantly.  This doesn't mean there shouldn't be consequences for their actions: for example, if a player says he's going to open fire on a group of guards (something that happened in one of my games), it stands to reason that he will be shot and killed by all of the other guards.

Power gamers and rules lawyers are welcome!  A lot of GMs hate to have their knowledge challenged, especially when they think they know the rules by heart.  Trust me, you never know the rules as well as you think.  Always give a rules lawyer the benefit of the doubt and if you have to, just look things up and clarify them quickly.  Everyone will learn how to play the game better and it helps ensure you go by the book, which is good since it helps avoid house rules (and we all know that house rules are for GMs who don't know the rules).  But going back to power gamers: yes, I know they can be annoying and usually have one track, DPS minds, but in my experience, as long as you remind them to keep civil tongues and not berate other players' character builds, they generally fall in line.  If one proves troublesome, you can take measures to deal with them.

Keep the game going at a steady pace, but provide adequate prep and rest time.  This means you shouldn't constantly push the players from one adventure to the next with little or no time for them to rest, memorize spells or buy equipment.  Equal parts of everything works best.  And as for keeping the game going, it should generally be understood that game time is for game talk only.  If a player brings up the latest movie or goes off on something political, remind them that crap like that is irrelevant to the game.  The only exception to this rule is when an emergency comes up, like if a player has to run off to help family or friends, or has to go to work, etc.  Just don't let the players eat up your time with a lot of irrelevant babble.

This pretty well sums up how I work.  Like I said, I can't give advice on how to deal with trouble players since I'm not very skilled with conflict resolution.  When posting a game on roll20 I generally make my intentions bluntly clear: no annoying or evil characters and the expectation that PCs work well together.  You will always draw in at least one stinker every now and then; hopefully not as bad as I and other GMs have encountered, but lucky for you this is a wonderful hobby with a lot of great guys and gals who play and have a good time.

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