A friend’s Facebook thread got me thinking about how the sweet science of game-running is taught and refined. Now, as you likely know, I’ve been writing for Tribality for more than two years, and helping GMs hone their craft is a central element of the Tribality mission statement. But I also read a lot of online conversations in which (presumably) experienced players and GMs talk down to new players and GMs. This ain’t the way. In this post, I’ll touch on how I learned, specific things I learned, and so on.
The GMing Novitiate
There are, in a sense, only two ways to start learning game-running. The first, which is all but guaranteed to be the most common, is that you start as a player in a game someone else is running. Time passes, and you learn the ins and outs of the game from the PC side of the fence. Motivated by creative drive, the dissolution of that campaign, or (probably more rarely) discontentment with the current regime, you decide to strike out on your own. You get some oxen, some extra wagon wheels, definitely at least one spare axle, and dysente… no, wait. That’s something else. You get a group together and take your first turn behind the screen, using what you’ve learned from your experience as a PC. Depending on the rest of your experience with creative writing, improvisational theater, narrative structure, parsing rules, and so on, your new campaign might or might not be heavily inspired by the one(s) you’ve played, because that’s the way to game that you know.
Or you do what I did, which is less common. Thanks to the wide distribution of the D&D Starter Set, though, it’s a lot more common than it was when I started out. You buy some materials, which might or might not be all that you need in order to play, because you have to read the fine print to figure out what you need and it’s all expensive. With the Dungeon Master’s Guide (or whatever, but D&D is the most popular tabletop gaming brand in history by many orders of magnitude) as your only teacher, you start doing this thing.
There’s a third option now available that was unthinkable when I started: you can watch acclaimed GMs do their jobs as a pure spectator, thanks to Twitch, YouTube, and similar wonders of the internet. I don’t directly know of anyone who has learned their GMing from streaming video of other GMs (as their primary means, that is), but it’s now possible and I assume it’s happening. (How we got to being a culture of people that entertain themselves with watching other people do the fun thing baffles me, but then I turned 35 last year. I am no longer where culture is.) In any case, I think there’s a ton of promise in this department. Out of curiosity, are there any Actual Play streams where the GM runs a postmortem, either in cuts or after the session?
Beyond the Novitiate
Setting aside streaming games, there are basically three sources for improving your game-running: development through practice, reading, and podcasts or streaming shows. Taking the last one first, I am sure there are a ton of great YouTube shows and podcasts out there that go into great detail on how to improve your GMing. (This is as separate from the many, many shows that discuss gaming content in general.) I am just starting to scratch the surface of listening to podcasts, and my screen setup at home makes YouTube watching cut into writing time, so this isn’t an area where I’m super knowledgeable.
Reading might include every kind of source: blogs (thanks for reading this!), Tribality and other sites (especially Colin’s Performance Check column), various books titled Dungeon Master’s Guide, tabletop games other than the one you’re planning to run, books of advice like Nightmares of Mine, and so on. I want to talk about a few of the sources that I have found compelling lately.
In addition to kicking off the whole Powered by the Apocalypse thing, AW and Dungeon World do an amazing job of reframing the flow of play and showing how the game-runner is an active participant rather than a passive referee, and the GM’s actions control tension both in a scene and over a longer span.
Particularly in the context of D&D 4e-like skill challenges, I’ve talked about how there’s not a clear “DM’s Turn” – a point at which NPCs, fate, or environmental hazards can make life harder for the PCs. In combat, this is obvious: NPCs act in initiative order, and fate or the environment acts on initiative count 20 (losing ties). That is, you don’t have to be a legendary creature in your lair for an encounter to have “lair” actions. AW (and probably most PBTA games) has clear times when the MC (AW’s term for GM) makes something happen, and that something almost always ratchets up the tension.
The other big thing I get from reading AW and DW is creative setting of stakes, which those games store in the outcomes of their moves. More informed writers than I have talked at very great length about the structure of AW moves; what I want to point to here is the thorny choice that most moves offer in the outcomes of rolls. These range from “gain only a few of these good things” to “prevent only one of these bad things,” and everything in between; moves that push a combination of those onto the player fire my imagination like nothing else.
I haven’t even done a superficial read of the 13th Age main book, but I have read all about how it uses Icons. To be a little jargon-y, Icons are AW’s threats crystallized into a character, firmly attached to a PC’s character sheet at the start of play, and offered as a tool for both the player and the GM. This is the reminder that enemies always crop up again at the least convenient time, friends are there to help you (but also have complications), and complicated relationships are the best kind in roleplaying games. I could do myself a lot of favors if I fully engaged with this idea and wrote out the thirteen top power centers of my campaign, and let players attach to three of them. With my campaign’s blend of city-scale, domain-scale, and cosmic powers, I would probably tell every player to pick one cosmic power, one city power, and one of any scale. Think how easy it will be for them to remember who’s who when that name is a stat on their character sheets.
I’d probably learn a lot more if I read the rest of it.
Dungeon Master’s Guide II
Okay, I admit, I haven’t read this lately. I just want to talk about the fact that the first DMGs of 3e and 4e are useful technical manuals on how to achieve minimum competency and make a game happen. To be fair to them, there’s a lot to cover, so they have to sacrifice some detail. Both of the DMG IIs profited immensely from the passage of time and, presumably, listening to fans who had been using the first DMG of each edition. They introduce new bits of game technology to shake things up, as well as offering plenty of advice.
I confess that I’ve never gone in for tailoring sessions to player motivations, which was indisputably the hotness of game-running advice when the 4e DMG II was published, and had been for quite awhile. I run games on the presumption that some players are shy and some are not, some like combat and some don’t enjoy it as much, but everyone likes encountering challenges and demonstrating the ability to overcome them – whether that means eloquence in conversation, tactical and character prowess, remembering the right fact at the right time, or having the needed spell, I think everyone likes to contribute to a team and sense that their contribution was valued. The kinds of people who fall outside this very broad description… probably won’t like my games, and I have to be at peace with that. I don’t believe that the desired end-point for master-class game-running is appealing to 100% of potential players, because some people don’t enter the game in a good-faith effort to enjoy it and let others do the same. (Thankfully, this is rare in my personal experience.)
Two elements of the 4e DMG II that made it surpassingly useful when it came out are its revamp and deep discussion of skill challenges and its excellent pages on alternative rewards. Probably everyone reading this already knows this, but skill challenges are one of the pieces of rules tech that set 4e apart from D&D editions before or since. Skill challenges are, in brief, intended to pose a meaty challenge, with a meaningful chance of failure, without using combat directly. What worked and what didn’t in that system is outside the scope of this article, but expanding on and revising what the first 4e DMG presented was much needed.
Technically, 2e didn’t have a DMG II, but the blue-cover series – especially Creative Campaigning and Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide – did their level best to be that. I found those to be very inspiring to read between sessions – descriptions of what one might aspire to, I suppose – but hard to apply directly. I think there’s a good chance that my brain is just monstrously, idiosyncratically uncooperative, when it comes to applying game-running lessons in session planning or the heat of the moment. As someone who writes a lot of game-running advice, I have to hope the rest of you get more directly-applicable material out of my text than I do out of most text.
Absorb the Culture
There are a lot of elements of game-running – good habits, bad habits, whatever – that no one writes down in books of game-running advice. Instead, they exist as a memetic virus parallel to the game-as-published. Spend five minutes sifting through a large online community and the things people talk about, and you’ll see a few of them. One of the most common is the DMPC, the pernicious idea that the DM can have a PC with full agency alongside the other players. (Note that I’m not talking about rotating-GM setups – I mean a PC in a session that person is running.) The reason I even know about DMPCs is that people start threads on message boards and FB groups to complain about them or ask if they’re “legal” within D&D. I’m going to casually guess that 99% of all references are slanted negatively, at least.
In the earliest days of tabletop gaming, Gygax and Arneson had distinctly contrasting game-running styles, and reading accounts of other DMs from around that time only reveals further schism. It’s common for the early years of any creative endeavor to be a hothouse of new ideas, but what’s interesting is that so many ideas have become part of the DNA of D&D for some players, but never entered the official text. Even if “incorrect,” they are essential elements of how people learn game-running. More regrettably, they shape a lot of people’s earliest experiences of running or playing D&D, and the worse habits have permanently soured any number of people on D&D or the concept of a GM.
I’ve met people who talk about D&D as if it is ludicrous and unthinkable to have adventures outside the scope of “clear out that cave full of monsters.” Considering that my campaign has cloak-and-dagger political thriller elements alongside a struggle for control of the cosmos, this is as bizarre to me as claiming to actually like the taste of cilantro. (I’m one of those people who think cilantro tastes like soap and ruins meals even in minute quantities.) They’ve absorbed a culture in which D&D is one narrow thing, regardless of the text of every DMG since 2e to the contrary, while I learned to expect D&D to resemble and expand upon fiction and historical source material.
Online communities are culture-transmitters in their own right. I want to call out a particular thread of bad behavior I see all too often, as its implications for gaming culture are repulsive. The general pattern is this:
- A player or a DM starts a thread to talk about how the PCs defeated a dragon in their most recent session. They’re thrilled; this is the promise of D&D. Go into a dungeon, fight a dragon, go home in glory (or an ashtray).
- A few dozen community members descend upon the poor OP like fun-devouring locusts, informing them that either the DM did a shitty job of managing the dragon’s tactics. Whatever it takes to imply that it wasn’t a “legitimate” win.
This has been eating at me for, uh, months, so bear with me. First, it’s fine that you, as a DM, want dragons to be awe-inspiring and scary. That’s fair; they’re statted to be dangerous. Don’t meta-mythologize them within D&D, though: they have stats, they have treasure, they are literally meant to lose a high percentage of all encounters in which they appear. Live with it. Don’t ever try to take away someone else’s good time, because you don’t know the full span of decisions made at the time (by players or the DM) that led to the result. Your apparent goal is to teach other gamers that when a dragon shows up, it means the DM has just decided to win. Y’all, the DM can always decide to win. Game-running is always the art of being creative about holding back, even when you do kill the PCs. This lesson – that dragons or any monster should win and that DMs are failures if they don’t – is simply poisonous to current and future generations of game-runners. Let people share their war stories, and if you can’t think of anything constructive and fun to say, Mute. The. Post.
Okay, thanks, I needed to get that off my chest.
Capitalize on Experience
Okay, you’ve run some games. Maybe you’ve run a lot of games. Maybe you’ve been doing this for 23 years, as I have, or even more. How do you use that experience to improve, rather than repeating the same mistakes?
Shit, I wish I knew.
But you can start with detailed postmortems, whether that’s conversation with your players or self-reflection. I do both of these; it helps that I’m married to one of my players, so we have plenty of time to talk about what’s working and what’s not. I’ve also written session and storyline postmortems in this blog. I could still be doing a lot more with through-line theme, engaging combat encounters with fun terrain features, and creating space during a session for deeper character portrayal. Once I make some visible-to-me progress on those, I’ll find new problems. I hope so, anyway – there’s nothing worse than knowing you need to improve but not having even one thing to work on fixing.
I’m wrapping this post up now, but I’m interested in what creative resources have improved your game-running the most. I don’t need your personal Appendix N – I’m genuinely happy that you’re into Jack Vance, but talk about how his work informs your game-running. Books, blogs, podcasts, shows, streams, and influential friends: how did you learn to run games?