Before we get into any specific advice or instruction, I want to rectify the most basic and chronic misunderstanding about what goes into running a good roleplaying game.
Anyone can spot the external functions of the GM: you’re referee and storyteller. You enforce the rules, you describe people, places, and events, you establish how difficult certain kinds of actions are. If you’re good at all of those things, great–they’ll absolutely make you a better GM. But they won’t, by themselves, make you a good one–and you can be terrible at one or all of them and still run a good game. They’re your job, but they’re not your real job.
They’re not your core responsibility, which I will state as bluntly and unromantically as possible:
As a GM, your real job is to give your players something to do.
Obviously I don’t mean just anything. Worksheets, dirty dishes, and yardwork are unlikely to form the nucleus of an enriching tabletop session. But never forget that your players are not there to watch a movie or play a boardgame; they are there to play a character. They’re there to encounter situations and respond to them, and you, above anything else, are there to give them those situations. Your GM superpower isn’t that you know the rules or get to describe what the carpet at the castle looks like–it’s that you can conjur from thin air consternation, obstacles, opportunities, and mysteries for players to interact with.
Making sure your players have things to do is the only skill you absolutely need as a GM. If you can tell an interesting story or administrate the rules fairly, that’s great. If not, that’s absolutely something to work on. But if players get bored because they’re not doing things, that’s a critical problem no amount of skill at the other stuff will address.
Once you start looking at your job not as referee, not as storyteller, but as stuff-to-do-giver, it takes some of the pressure off–and makes it a little easier to prepare. Approach the job as though coming up with stuff for your players to do is your only real job and you’ll be off to a fine start.
At the very beginning, before you’ve even figured out what your game’s about–before you know anything about your system or your storyline–talk to your players and figure out, above all, what stuff they want to do. Do they want to explore dungeons, kill monsters, gather treasure? Do they want to fight or lead a war? Do they want to run a kingdom–or tear one down from the inside? Do they want to hunt vampires? Solve mysteries? Fix spaceships? Are they going to want to react first, think later–more suited to a madcap game where things happen with little warning and problems are smacked down as they emerge? Do they want to sit and think through problems–as they could in a game with riddles or mysteries or grand-scale tactics? What kinds of movies, books, videogames do they like? All of this is crucial data you need to prepare the right game.
When you know more or less what kind of game you’re going to run, share that idea with your players. See what they think. Then study up on how players can make characters in your chosen system, teach them those rules, explain the basics of the setting, make clear the broad scope of possibilities, and let them all make the kind of character they want to play. And most importantly, for the love of god, do this before you do any more planning–before you name a bad guy, create a faction, or plot out one session.
Why? Because by creating their characters, in a very real sense, your players have just created your campaign. Your job is to come up with stuff for those characters to do, and there’s no sense starting to do that before you know what the characters are and what they’re about. Your players didn’t create a big tough bruiser just to play in a game with no opportunities to fight, wrestle, or bully at important moments. They didn’t create a character with a terrifying appearance only to encounter a world full of disaffected, jaded people who aren’t moved by scary looks. They didn’t create a battlefield mechanic because they don’t want stuff to break on them all the time. Plan a game where their character’s skillsets are suited to:
- Fix imposing short-term problems (warrior defeats an ambush, mechanic fixes a busted truck, doctor heals a broken leg)
- Drive forward action (warrior seeks better weapons and armor, mechanic knows where to get the part to fix important machine, doctor directs quarantining efforts)
- Resolve long-term problems (warrior defeats dark lord, mechanic gets the ancient spaceship restored to its full power after a thousand years, doctor uses hard-won samples to cure the global virus)
Now, if your players are creating characters that pull in vastly different directions–if one’s all about running for congress and everyone else is about knife fighting and explosives–that might be your cue to talk to your players and get them to tweak their characters a little. Then again, maybe a campaign where one guy uses his knife-fighting mercenary comrades to win him a seat in congress is a really interesting campaign and, if you’re up to the challenge and do a halfway decent job, everyone involved in it will remember it for decades because it was weird and unexpected and quintessentially theirs. Maybe the guy who created the congressman knew exactly what he was getting into–maybe he doesn’t mind sitting out of the combats because that makes him feel like a boss, sitting in casual safely while his partners do all the dirty work. Maybe he’ll be happy as long as he gets to make a speech or two and act like a used car salesman in between fights. Maybe the knife fighters enjoy that they get plenty of action and like that it’s in service of a fellow player character’s goals and not somebody else’s prewritten narrative. Don’t count stuff like this out–often unconventional parties make for really cool stories.
Maybe it’s not the story you would have come up with on your own–and maybe that’s what your players are for.
So when character creation’s finished you’ll sit down, you’ll scratch around in your notebook–and as always, you’ll make some things for your players to do. The congressman wants to run for office? Then he needs an opponent. He needs scandals to fight against, debates to win, constituents to appease, journalists to dodge. Come up with a few ideas. Now come up with things for the rest of the party to fight, because that’s what they’re all about–they’re fighters and that’s what they want to do. They’ve had a good session if they’ve beaten somebody else in combat. If you’d like, this is when you can come up with a few specific things that are going to happen in the first session. If you’d really like, this is when you can come up with a few long-term story twists or goals. Do what you have to for your players to have a good time, but know that–as long as events flow naturally from one to the other and they always have interesting things to do–they’re not going to know or care how much of it’s preplanned and how much of it’s totally improvised. That’s something I’ll get into at great length later.
Obviously, I’ve still got a lot to talk about as far as planning session and campaigns goes. But I wanted to take a full post to drill this principle, because I cannot stress enough how much it is the foundation of an engaging roleplaying experience. Forgetting this is a sure way to end up with bored players and a bored GM.
And now some homework questions. I’ll share my example answers next week, but for now, see what your answers to some or all of these are:
- The party your players came up with consists of three traveling musicians and one warrior. The warrior’s player describes her character as a “strong silent type,” someone who tries to avoid violence but ends fights decisively. While the three musicians are playing a gig at a tavern, what’s something you can throw at the warrior to give her something satisfying to do?
- Your players create a party of monster hunters for your vaguely-medieval-European setting. It’s a band of no-questions-asked daring adventurers who use skill and cunning to defeat their foes. What’s an interesting challenge for them all to face together in their first session–something that reflects not just the campaign setting, but their characters and the way they want to approach situations?
- Choose a really boring scene, chapter, or episode from a movie, book, or show and come up with something for the characters to do that would have made it more interesting.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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