A (growing) list of things that great DMs do.
In role-playing games there are two factions. The players or (PCs) come to a table with the expectation that they will have a good time. The game master or GM hosts the table with the expectation that he or she will also have a good time. When both factions are able to accomplish their goals, the person who gets credit for this is the GM.
What constitutes having a good time sounds subjective. But in role-playing games a “good time” for players is easy to define. Players experience a good time when they help make a story, play critical characters in that story, have those characters grow in ability as the story progresses, and kill things. A GM who helps a player experience these aspects of role-play quickly becomes known as a great GM (what makes a game fun for a GM is far more personal and difficult to define. For understanding that part of this article you should read On Fairy Stories by JRR Tolkien).
1) Know Your Group: Your group of players is one of the physical manifestations of the fantasy world trapped in your head. Knowing who they are makes understanding what happens next in your game intuitive. How well you know the players in your group determines how smooth and effortless your planning and your games will be. If the only time you see your group is when you all sit down to play, you do not know your group.
2) Believe in Your Setting: The fictional world you play in is yours to define. Even if it comes from a box and was written by someone else, it is your world. Read it, think about it, walk the streets for money, talk to the local sheriff, burn down the buildings you don’t like, build new ones you do. It is a real world that belongs to you. If you don’t believe in the world you are presenting to your players then why should they.
3) Role Play: You are every person in that world except the players. Unless you have an extremely odd world of clones of you, every person is unique. Those people come from somewhere. Channel those Non-Player Characters from books you’ve read, movies you seen, people you’ve met, and what makes sense for the situations.
4) Know What You Have Given the Players: A large part of the job of GM is storytelling. Practice being a storyteller. Here are some powerful tools you can use to tell stories better. Each depends greatly on what the players have in their possession:
MacGuffin: This is a neutral plot hook great for opening a story line. It is an object that is needed in order to do something or simply something somebody wants. It provides conflict and motivation to your story (the “briefcase” in movies like Pulp Fiction and Ronin are examples). Does it matter what it actually is? No, it‘s a MacGuffin intended to drive the story forward. Example: Something a player finds and cannot identify could be the very thing someone mean and nasty has been hunting for and now is coming after the character for it. Sound fun?
Chekhov’s Gun: This is a plot hook where it matters what the object is because it serves a purpose to the story. These are specific objects included in the story that the players will need in order to resolve the conflict that drives the story. Example: If you give a player a potion of healing, know that that player is expecting it to be important later. The more specific the object is , the higher the expectation will be. Meet that expectation with story development.
Plot Coupon: This plot device is a catch-all. Before the story has reached a lull, on the sly, collect character sheets. Look through the lists of odd things collected by the players. Make a note of each one that has yet to find a purpose. The next “big challenge” will depend on the players having and using those very objects.
5) Use Your Meta-knowledge: The biggest difference between a player and a GM is meta-knowledge. This is information that comes from the real world and is used in the game. Generally, players are discouraged from using meta-knowledge. GMs depend on it. Example: If you see the players are bored with the current direction of the game, don’t be afraid to change the game. Mysterious towers sprouting from the ground over night can really enliven a dull game.
6) Hit Them With a Two by Foreshadow: Events and objects in your descriptions can be made more important later. Foreshadowing is an effective way of drawing the players further along in the game and gives them something to look forward to developing. If you foreshadow something make sure you deliver. Example: A sheriff looks at them suspiciously when the party walks into town. The party witnesses a fight at a tavern. Later, one of the NPCs in the fight talks to them about it. That NPC is murdered. The sheriff interrogates the group over the murder.
7) Guide Them With a Story: How are the players hedged? Knowing where the players are helps determine how much story is taking place between actions. How freely a player can move determines the pace of the story building.
There are a few ways PCs' actions are contained within the story you are all making. Here are some typical constraints to PC freedom of movement:
The Tavern/Church: This is in any microcosm of a settlement. PC actions are limited to inside or outside the building, in a room, or in a common area. Story starting, role-play, and story crossing (moments when the story changes direction) occur most frequently here. Groups of PCs assemble here. Most actions and story furthered by PCs.
Towns: In a town the player is limited to inside the walls. The gates can be closed, port shut down, ballista installed to shoot down flyers. Encounters are usually always with NPCs. Supplies that commit players to the story are acquired here. PCs as individuals are portrayed growing here. PCs interact with NPCs to drive story forward.
The Road: A group of PCs moves with the highway and can stay on the road going toward or away from town. Encounters on the road are usually controlled by what is close by. They can encounter NPCs, creatures, and occasionally monsters. Through adversity and trials a group of PCs will bind to each other. Time moves quickly between actions and encounters. Tell players to mark off rations and have them arrive. Encounters and NPCs of interest lead the story on the road.
The Wilds: This is where the PC is when not on a road. They can encounter monsters, creatures and occasionally NPCs. Individuals tested with adversity. The group grows in strength as the challenges are met. Story pace moves up and down, with spikes in action when party stops at rivers or to camp. Encounters, overcoming obstacles, and survival skills use lead the story.
The Boat: PCs' actions are contained within a small area on a river. Encounters are limited to NPCs and monsters. Intensive role-playing opportunities can tests PCs against each other. Long uneventful stretches pass quickly between encounters. Smart GMs roll a die and fudge toward that many encounters planned for the river.
The Ship: PCs' actions contained to within a ship and the ocean. Encounters are against groups of NPCs and larger monsters. There are group role-play and individual role-play opportunities available. The risk of group infighting as well as the risk of a lull in the game is high in this arena. Large scale events between unplayed periods of time can make this fun. Roleplaying just after port and after each large encounter moves the story along smoothly.
The Dungeon: The groups' actions are bounded by walls and ceiling. The success of the delving is dependent on how well the group acts together in nearly every encounter. This is where the group is tested together. Individuals must have already committed to group actions in order to survive. Action increases with limited freedom of movement. Encounters should come with few pauses between. It seems contrary but it's likely if your group is not taking notes or making maps on how to get back out then they have too much time between encounters.
The Planes: When they have been over every hill and dale, what is left is unlimited freedom of access. At this point, the story writes itself with every lurch toward the surreal you can imagine. Don’t linger in the planes.
Organizing before the game for encounters by where the players are is a helpful way of moving seamlessly through exchanges and fights. Knowing the setting also helps you the GM shift from one task (combat) to another (role-play) with enough time to prepare for either.
8) Suspend Their Disbelief: RPGs depend on the players' imagination. Without an imagination, games like D&D are very dry and boring with seemingly no purpose. Those few of you who have videotaped a game and watched it later can attest to just how dull a game can be without imagination to fill in the gaps. With that, one of the hardest jobs of a GM is building, maintaining, and responding to that moment of willingness in the mind of the players to go along with the voice of the GM. That moment at its creation is the Suspension of Disbelief. The players nod their heads telling you they are ready to accept what you are saying. Watch for it, it happens. Then maintain it by being fair, consistent, and sure of what you are saying. Respond to their expectations in ways that fit with what you have already set out and it will grow and make the game more fun. The suspension of disbelief is very forgiving as long as you maintain it.
9) It is Shared Fantasy: In a game it is easy to take one of two drastically different approaches. One is more fun then the other. Pick one and stick with it. If you are running a game that has hard and fast rules that shan’t be broken, stick with that. If you are running a game that doesn’t take it too serious, stick with that. The players need consistency. Example: A game where there is a rhinoceros that lives in the dungeon, though no one feeds it and it wasn’t summoned, is probably a game that doesn’t think too much. This is fine if it is what you are comfortable with. Not everything has to make sense unless it already does.
10) Use Rule Number 0: The GM is a facilitator not a judge. There is a certain amount of privilege that comes with being a GM. Declaring yourself the authority is not one of them. There are books meant to outline for the fairness of the game how to play the game. By claiming to be a GM, you are asserting that you are comfortable with the rules of the game you are playing and flexible enough to accommodate the rules when they are important to the game your players want to play. Make the call, but do it informed and aware that in the end you being right can also mean you being alone.
11) Make A Game for All Players: From behind the GM screen is a row of faces. They make up the group, but each is an individual. Make a game for each of them. Listen to them when they tell you what they want. Some will work and make it all up for you. Use that. Some will wallflower waiting for you to know what they need. Decide it for them. Players' needs are simple. Know what they want and then make them crawl over molten dragon scales and jagged lich claws to get it.
12) Hang 'm High!: Kill, maim, end, and otherwise destroy those characters when it makes sense. Character death seldom comes underserved but even when it does, it is better that it happens than to look the other way and let an angel of mercy whisk the character out of harm. Give the player’s character a noble death, give it an excruciating demise, or make it burn in an eternal irony NPCs talk about decades later with faint smiles on their lips. Better that than to steal from the players any sense that what they might fail to do has consequences for failure. Just don’t be mean about it.
13) To Fudge or Not to Fudge?: A "fudge" is when a roll of the die is made and the outcome is manually adjusted for affect. This is a real temptation to the power behind the screen. Do you pull your punches? Or do you give them everything you can (and then some)? It comes to fairness and good storytelling. If you do choose to fudge, never get caught fudging your roll or from then on your players will think you either are going soft or hard depending on their opinion of you at the time. For any would-be fudger, moderation and good judgement are best guides. If it serves the story and lends more momentum to a particularly good story thread, there is no harm in it. If it serves to squash someone at your table, it's better to adopt a no-fudge rule for yourself.
14) Avoid the Suspicious Gazebo: Efficient broad descriptions and trivial sideshow details each have a place in storytelling. They help in their own way moderate the pace of the game. If you take time during a particularly fast part of the game to describe something with a few words, it can become more important then you intended. If something has taken the attention of a player, there is little you can do to convince them that it is unimportant. And why should you even try? If they take time to investigate something further, pause. Breath. Look at everyone quickly and decide if the player is interested because they are looking to derail the game or because they have a real interest in the object. Then have it turn into a mimic and attack him. Or make it a tell that gave away a secret door that opens to an unkempt broom closet. The player took time to be inquisitive. Reward that instinct with a minor "white elephant" prize and move on. Don't grumble or punish anyone for trying to learn more but looking like they were trying to take your lead from you. Have faith in the group even in the face of evidence to otherwise.
Have fun and don’t take it too serious. It is a game after all. If you find you are getting frustrated or feel unappreciated, take a break. Go back to being a player for a while. Work on your world, think through the power structure in that unruly house in the coastal village, and write some of those scenes for your book. Then, when you are ready, let your group know that the game is back on. Of course they’ll come back. You are known as a great GM.