Monday, August 22, 2011

Building A Better GM: My Approach

The fellow over at the Hill Cantons gameblog, inspired by another fellow named Beedo at another blog, came up with the following 'question/challenge':

"Active GMs worth their salt are constantly honing up, mulling over, tearing apart, and obsessing around what makes or breaks their home games. Why is the topic so under-represented in our writings? Why the strange disconnect?"

"something I'd like to see more bloggers discuss is their successful table techniques that translate into good games."

First, I don't know that we don't see this. I am trying to understand exactly what he means by the statement. Surely Jeff Rients, Zak S., Oddysey and many of the other blogs I follow do this regularly.

I have seen several responses to this post, ranging from interesting to helpful to 'great googley moogley! And people game with you??' It's this last one that prompted me to post this response of my own. See, I couldn't believe it when I read one fellow's 'best practices' and my first thought was that it was GM's like him that made me want to GM and not play.

I won't link the blog or name names, as that's not what this post is for. Likewise I will state that I do not believe this person's GM style to be wrong (boo, hiss) and mine to be right (heroic trumpet sound). Rather, it is wrong for me. It is not what I and my players like. At the same time it did get me thinking...

Here it is 2011 and there are those who stand by and promote a style I have found no fun for over 30 years. When asked to describe what you think makes for a better GM, this is the style being recommended. I was a bit bummed by this revelation, so I decided to put in my two cents. Alternate viewpoints come cheap don't they?

Let's see if I can answer the "Building A Better GM" questions without causing the OSR gang to require system shock rolls...

Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at

Three huh? Hmmm. Ok, got it! Improv, improv, improv!

Seriously though, improvisation is probably my strongest suit and it does a lot toward making my games feel fast paced and unique. I almost never look up a rule, never lack an explanation and never don't know what's in the chest/behind the door/causing the Warp Field Manifold to leak plasma.

NPC voices and personalities. My players love talking to my NPCs because they like interacting with characters who each have a unique style, voice, speech pattern or trait that makes them memorable. It helps the NPC feel alive, which in turn makes the world feel alive. You are not talking to stats. You are talking to a person (even if that person is an alien, robot, faerie, etc).

I practice certain voices repeatedly and listen to the voices of various actors and actresses to get different accents and techniques for creating cool sounding people.

Related to my improv in an odd way, I do massive amounts of research and development on my world that the players rarely see or even know about. The reason I can improv so easily is because I know what is happening in any given part of my campaign milieu and any given time. I read and re-read books, websites and other information sources on the genre/subject of my game to make sure what I say 'fits' the setting.

What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?

Honestly, I am not sure how to answer this one. They do 'pop' but why do they 'pop'? Not sure. Because I care? Because, unlike a lot of GMs I have encountered, I am trying to entertain you. I am not only trying to entertain myself. I am also not trying to challenge you above entertaining you. I intend to do both but entertain is my priority.

How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?

Aside from what I have already said, I am not sure. A lot of my style comes from the gut and as such there are no nuts and bolts elements to impart. That said, the biggest pieces of advice I can give are...

Run the scenario or idea for the game you're going to run over and over in your head before game day. Do it with what you think the most likely responses from your players will be. Now do it with what the next likely responses would be. Now do it with unlikely responses. Now do it again with virtually random courses of action. Expect nothing. Be ready for anything and everything.

Know and listen to your players. Know and listen to yourself. Include elements in the game that they will enjoy and ones you will enjoy. Try to find things you both enjoy equally. Play those up. Remember it's a team sport. Work together.

Don't move so freaking slow. My gosh, most games I've been in as a player drag like a wounded, three legged mule with weights tied to its legs. Look up a rule, lose several seconds to a minute. Roll on a random chart for something you could come up with your dang self, loose several seconds to a minute. Get an egg timer or take the 5 minute hourglass out of your Boggle game and time how long it takes you to describe a room. Be descriptive but concise. Keep it moving.

I don't know if this really did what I wanted it to do but considering this month celebrates my 34th year playing RPGs, it was fun to post how I do what I do. Did I do myself any justice? Eh, who knows? Will I keep doing it? Yep. As long as my players and I are having fun.

Good Gaming,

Barking Alien


  1. No response? Really? And I jumped on the band wagon and everything. :(

  2. Perhaps you made too much sense....?
    Maybe you should have pointed fingers, linked links, slung mud, and named names.

    PS: I hope you ran a great session to celebrate your 34th~

  3. Hehe, he who jumps on the bandwagon late will find it hard to add something new. I find myself impressed with your practicing of voices and learning of new accents. I'm not sure how I could add that to my game, however. Perhaps I should have a little list of movie references in front of me such that I can easily pick one and don't fall back on the same five voices.

  4. It's more about listening to the sounds of things.

    I do have a knack for noise making don't get me wrong but a lot of it is just paying attention when you hear an interesting sound. I do the same time with sound effects for spells, explosions, monster/alien growls, etc.

    The key is to watch far too many films and too much television over a 42 year period. ;)