Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Old Dog Says...Give Them A Show

My previous post on Gamemaster advice has gotten quite a lot of views but very few comments. My guess is that most people are not sure how to respond to it for one reason or another. True, it is a difficult concept to explain and after re-reading it myself I think the post lies somewhere between, "Yes, I think I delivered my message well" and "Geez, this sounds like I'm saying my advice to being an awesome GM is to be as awesome as I am", which is not really advice at all.

Switching gears a bit, I am not going to suggest another way to make your campaign cool but instead a way to make your GM technique effective. I have touched on this subject before, long ago it seems and I rarely see anyone else mention it so, here goes nothing...

Picture an average* RPG session with an average* GM and an average* group.

You've got the GM sitting at the head of the table, sometimes behind a screen of charts and/or notes, with the players likewise around said table, snacks and drinks in the center or in front of each person.

Now look at this if you would...

I stand up when I GM. I move around. If a major threat or tense situation threatens a PC, I move in toward that player very quickly...than ask them what they do as I slowly pull away. I raise my voice for shouting villain and lower it to a whisper for nervous informants. I spin, I bounce, I wave my hands in the air (often, like I just don't care) and generally avoid remaining static.

I almost never describe hallways or tunnels as "Ten feet by twenty feet". I say, "It's the same size as...you see that door there? OK, from me to the door."

I will use your snacks as props. I will, and often do, place your soda cans and orange juice containers in the postions that roughly illustrate when the incoming fighters are located in relation to your Free Trader ship.

Part of the reason for this is that I find engaging the players in this more animated way gets them more excited and involved in the game. As inspirations for my gamemastering style, I look to famous entertainers and directors and especially MCs who were (or are) skilled at holding the attention of a crowd. So moreso than Gygax and Greenwood, I try to emulate P.T. Barnum, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtain, Johnny Carson, Steven Spielberg and various stand up comedians. These men and women are people adapt at timing, staging a scene and (and this is key) misdirection. David Copperfield and of course Houdini are also people to look to in this regard.

Are you ready...coming full circle...

One of the reasons the approach detailed in my previous post works for me is because I have studied and adapted the techniques listed above. I am an expert at stalling, looking like I know when I don't, or maybe I do. The GM is smiling and looking toward the Pilot PC; Is the ship in danger of crashing after what the Engineer just did to fix the Manuver Drive? An innocent, sad puppy face and be as scary to players as an evil chuckle is played at the right time. A favorite phrase of mine after a particularly daring move and an important roll is (after staring at the dice and blinking dramatically, followed by an 'aw shucks' face), "Wow. And I so liked your characters...".

You are more than the referee. You are a Showman (or Showperson if you prefer). You are there to direct, to dazzle, to entice, to excite and to entertain. Maybe no one else wants to. Maybe you are just the best at it in your group of gaming friends. Whatever the reason, the spotlight is theirs but the camera is yours. Welcome them to your Show of Shows!

Barking Alien

*Zak would scoff at the term 'average'. He would be right to do so (and he would also be getting nitpicky over semantics but that's neither here nor there.). Suffice to say that what I mean by 'average' in this instant is 'what you encounter most often if you surveyed the lot of us gamers the world over'. If that is too confusing for you or rubs you the wrong way than I'm using to mean, 'that which helps me illustrate my point' and we'll leave it there.


  1. while this sounds like your sessions are a real blast, i am not sure this "showmanship" is something everyone can learn. it takes some talent, don't you think?

    also, don't you think you might steal the spotlight from the players like this? while i use some of the techniques you mention, i tend to be much more active as a player, as a gm i generally let the players "take the stage".

    1. It's interesting to not that while I agree with what you are saying in theory, in practice I have sometimes found it necessary to be a bit less David Arneson and a bit more Sid Caesar.

      While I am very careful not to steal the spotlight in most instances, I found that a bit of showmanship keeps the attention of my often fairly large gaming groups.

      Over the past two or three years my group has consisted of 3 to 5 players on average, a far cry from a year or two prior when my group's average size was 10 players per session. From Junior High School all the way through my early college years I have several groups but each other those saw about 8 participants each time we say down to game.

      Keeping the attention of 8 people for 8 hours at a time is not an easy task. At the same time, some of what I do as a GM is designed for just that purpose.

      Now, can anyone learn these techniques? No probably not. It does take some talent and I am sure if I had played my cards right or had the devotion to the idea needed to succeed I could have been an actor or at the very least a stand-up comic.

      Still and all, I am merely suggesting you watch the masters at work as you would a great GM at GenCon or a similar gaming event. What you can learn from comedians and similar storytellers is when to speed up, when to slow down, how effective body language can be and other incrediblely useful skills for the GM trying to stand out from the rest.

    2. 10 players average! i'm not sure i could manage that. got any advice for very large groups?

      if i had 8 players for 8 hour i would definitely make them do all the work. :D

      you must be totally spent after such a session!

    3. I'll let you in on a little secret.

      I have a form of clinical insomnia that basically prevents me from feeling tired easily. It's not a superpower (well, not exactly), I do actually experience fatigue, I simply don't really notice it.

      If you can imagine that most of the time the endorphine fawcett in your head is shut off or on stand by and it only opens when something exciting happens, mine has a bit of a leak. It's a slow drip the never seems to shut off.

      Since I don't feel tired often, I can do things like run an 8 hour game on my feet, stay up really late posting on my blog or what I used to do for a living; I manned the booths at Comic Book and Anime conventions hawking toys, models and DVDs. I would stand up the entire day for three days shouting about our cool products like a barker at a carnival.

      Not getting tired after considerable physical exertion has...um...other benefits as well. ^ ^;

      Advice for running large groups...I'll have to think on that a bit but one thing I can say is keep it moving. If you have 10 players and you get to someone and it's their turn in the round and they don't know what to do, skip'em. They had the time is takes for between one and nine guys to think of something.

  2. Oh yeah, the down side of my Super-Endurance...

    I spend most of the first hour to two hours of every day really, really exhausted after I wake up. I rarely get enough sleep to pay off the debt of the time I spent awake.

    Once every few months I sleep for something like 8 hours, a normal person's sleep and I feel like crap when I wake up. My body says, "What the hell was that? We slept 8 hours?!? Dude! What is wrong with you?!?"