Saturday, May 4, 2013

So you wanna be a GM eh?

I am a rare duck. The same day I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons 1st ed. I wanted to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  I am the kind of person that just has a bunch of stories inside me I guess.  On top of that I love to collaborate with my friends and sharing ideas.  NERD.

Most other people that I know were somewhat intimidated by the idea of running a game.  You may have a story idea or a new game you really want to run but you are intimidated by the task of managing a game, writing a fun adventure or simply being judged by your peers. Well, let me tell you what... STOP IT.  It's going to be ok. Jacques Cousteau said, "When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself." It may not be sea exploration, but making something from basically nothing but your neurons and a piece of paper is truly extraordinary and if you want to do it, try it.  How do you get started?  You've come to the right place.

This is the first article in a series.  Here I will give some very basic tips to get you going on the right kind of thinking. Following up will be a series of articles that will talk about different styles of games, the kinds of stories that go well with them and how to get started writing that kind of story.

The best advice I can give to anyone considering running a RPG session is this. Be like water. Know your people. Never leave a good idea behind and run games with people not AT people. What do all those things mean? Well let me elucidate.

Be Like Water

"Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

-Bruce Lee

What I mean by this is that if you are too rigid you will fail. If you are too rigid with the rules, you may deny you and your players the chance to craft an interesting scene or simply weigh things down with minutia. Do you really want to make your players count down to the ounce the amount of equipment they carry?  If it's not salient to the plot it doesn't matter.  If you want to run a zombie horror game where every bullet counts then yeah, they have to keep a tally because it important to the tension of the game. If your characters are travelling from New York to Montreal by bus its really not important to note how much they spent on chips and hot dogs on the way.  Just get them to Montreal! Sweat the big stuff, not the small stuff.  This way you clear up time, energy and focus for what is truly important. Being able to tell what is important and what isn't is the bedrock of good decision making.

If your story is too rigid, your players will derail it.  Write your plots loosely. Never be too rigid in your storytelling it keeps you from being able to adapt to player driven situations. This is a bit of a hard concept to wrap your brain around, so let me put it like this.  When you write a story, you don't want to wire in series, you want to wire in parallel.

For those of you who do not speak electronics there are two basic kinds of circuits, series and parallel. As an example, consider a very simple circuit consisting of four light bulbs and one battery. If a wire joins the battery to one bulb, to the next bulb, to the next bulb, to the next bulb, then back to the battery, in one continuous loop, the bulbs are said to be in series. If each bulb is wired to the battery in a separate loop, the bulbs are said to be in parallel. In a series circuit, every device must function for the circuit to be complete. One bulb burning out in a series circuit breaks the circuit. In parallel circuits, each light has its own circuit, so all but one light could be burned out, and the last one will still function.

This means that your plot elements are all built independent of each other, so if one fails the rest can continue to function. When you make linear plot points its difficult to react when the players decided not to take the plot points in order or dismiss a plot point all together.  It's hard at first, but it gets easier as you go.  I will have much more advice on this as we go along.

You are not a slave to rules or plot points. Use them like tools, but never let them hamper your ability to tell your story. Most of the creativity in being a GM is reacting to the random shit your players will do to your story.

Know Your Peeps

Get to know your players. Find out what they like to do or better yet what their characters like to do. Know their loves, pet peeves, good and bad habits.  Try to tailor at least some part of your story to each player.  Don't be afraid to talk to your players, ask questions and answer theirs. They can make it easier for you by giving you backstory for plot hooks and can collaborate with you to create new story elements in general.  Remember that they are your partners in this endeavor so make sure you keep the lines of communication open and easy.

Never Leave a Good Idea Behind

Sometimes I'm sitting on the can and come up with some of the best story ideas.  Sadly, I am getting old and these ideas speed out of my mind like a spooked bat from a belfry. Story ideas are like gold, don't waste them. Jack Kirby, one of the most prolific Comic Book writers ever had a habit of keeping a box of index cards with simple plot ideas on them.  He would come up with a random idea like, "Machine gun wielding dinosaurs from Venus" write it down on an index card and stuff it in the box. When given a project, he would sometimes pull 3-5 cards out of the box and then write ways to connect the disparate story elements together and BOOM THERE GOES THE DYNAMITE! Use your daydreaming to your advantage. I sometimes will send myself a voicemail with an idea just so I won't forget it. Even when it seems like something crazy out there, you never know.

Run Games With People NOT At People

Don't run your game like a puzzle. Don't create situations where there is only one way out or hinge on a single skill, dice roll, save or RP resolution. When you make games like this you are not playing along with the players you are playing at or against them.  Your players are NEVER the enemy. That goes against the very concept of cooperative storytelling.  There are plenty of you versus them games out there and I can list quite a few by genre, difficulty and quality, but none of them are RPGs. The goal here is for everyone to have fun.  If you create scenarios where people are frustrated, confused or angry you have failed at your job.  For many, playing RPGs is about hero worship and people want to see their persona's be outstanding at least at some point. I'm not saying that the players should always win and there should not be any risk for gain.  What I am saying is provide players with options, that way you never deny their contribution.

Next episode: The Encounter Driven Plot and YOU!

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