Gamecraft: The Stress-Free GM

 Posted by on December 13, 2010  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments
Dec 132010

Over the years my approach to running games has changed and evolved.  I used to spend the game session scribbling notes, rolling dice, consulting charts, and frantically trying to anticipate my players’ actions, and keep them on track.  Oftentimes, the players would throw me off by wanting to go somewhere that I hadn’t planned on, or by interacting with an NPC that I hadn’t fleshed-out, or by taking a totally unexpected course of action.  These are those moments of pure GM frustration, when the players go “off the map.”  Sometimes I would just wing it and hope for the best; other times I would stop the game for a while to readjust and compensate for the new direction things were going.  Both of these techniques worked to varying degrees, but not without adding stress to my life and completely disrupting the game.

These days when I run a game, I do it with the confidence that nothing is going to throw me off or derail the game.  I’m ready for whatever the players want to do and wherever they want to go.  I’m ready to tackle whatever the players throw at me.  So what’s the secret to running the stress-free game? How do you approach your game with this level of confidence and self assuredness?  Well, the answer is simple, really.  Do what I did – run games for thirty years and eventually it will get easier!  However, for those of you who’d prefer some advice that can help you tonight, I’ll let you in on the secret: relax, be flexible, and don’t stress… But since that’s easier said than done, I’m here to offer the following tips and techniques for making your life easier and for making the game as fun for you to run as it is for your players to play.

Tip 1: Change Your Focus

In the past, when I would begin laying out a campaign I found that I was very player character-focused.  My mindset had me thinking about how the PCs would do something, or when an event would happen to the PCs, or what the PCs would do.  Although it is critical to remember that the players and their characters are the focus of the story while actually playing the campaign, they are not necessarily the focus while designing the campaign.

These days when I begin designing a campaign, I start by focusing on the setting and the NPCs.  I develop a feel for the people, places and events that are going to be important during the campaign.  Even before I have a theme, a primary antagonist, or plot line in mind, it’s critical for me to know the setting, to have an understanding of how its components work together without interference.  I get a feel for the setting and then begin thinking about the people within it, more specifically, who they are, why they are there, and what they want.  Once I have some idea about the people in the setting I move on to thinking about my antagonist(s).  I don’t need to think about goals or motivations yet, just what type of antagonists the campaign will feature.  There could be power-mad despots, a criminal organization, psychotic serial killers, or even the environment itself working against the heroes.

Having an idea about the campaign’s antagonist, I beginning thinking about what they want and how they are going to get it.  In my mind I begin telling the story from the villain’s point of view.  I think about where the villain will go, who he will ally with, what he’s going to do, and what he’s already done.  I have found it is much easier to envision the antagonist’s plans at this point without thinking about how it will interact with the PCs.  In a nutshell, I imagine how the campaign will evolve for the antagonist without any influence or interference from outside sources or random factors. Enter the PCs, or as I like to call them, the random factors.

Changing your design focus makes it much less work to remain flexible and adapt to the infinite variety of unforeseeable things that your players and their characters do.  Reacting to the characters’ actions is much easier than anticipating them.  Once you begin thinking from the antagonist’s and the world’s points of view, it usually becomes self-evident what will happen in response to any course of action the PCs choose to take.  A clear understanding of what the bad guys are trying to achieve makes it easier to figure out how their plans will change when they’re interfered with.   When you eliminate the need to anticipate the actions of the player characters your life as a GM becomes much less complicated.  Remember, focus your energy on the characters you control, not the ones you don’t.

Tip 2: You Run the World, not the Other Way Around

As GMs, we continually design and create worlds – even when we use published settings we still take great liberties with the design for our individual campaigns.  However, in an effort to design a realistic and exciting setting, many GMs frequently back themselves into a corner. We do this without even realizing what we are doing every time we place a dungeon on a map, when we pick a specific location for some climactic battle, or even when we decided when an event will occur.  Once we commit to some specific time, place, or event within the campaign, we often become completely inflexible about it.

I use to do this all of the time.  I would design a great location for some fantastic encounter, make it the scene for the final confrontation with some arch-villain, and then I would place it somewhere on my map.  The only problem was the minute I placed it somewhere, whether on a physical map or in my mind’s eye, I felt committed to its location and its circumstances.  I would place myself in a position where I was forced to find a way to get my players to that location or to make those circumstances occur.  By doing this, I allowed the world to control my game and dictate the things I needed to do to make my story work.  The secret to overcoming this is for the GM to not fear having a lack of commitment. I know this goes against everything your parents, boss, and significant other has been saying to you, but it is one of the secret keys to stress-free gamemastering.  I like to think of it as the Schrodinger’s Cat Theory of campaign management.

For those of you unfamiliar with Schrodinger’s Cat (and if you call yourself a geek you should be familiar with it), it is a thought experiment in which a cat is placed into a box wherein there is a 50/50 chance of the cat being killed.  How the cat might die is irrelevant here (maybe it’s a one hit point minion) but Schrodinger suggested that until we actually look into the box we don’t know the cat’s fate, and furthermore the cat’s fate may, in fact, be undetermined until we look into the box.  So what does Schrodinger, his cat, and your lack of commitment, have to do with being a better GM?  Simple, be flexible.  Remember, only the part of your world that the characters are actually interacting with, needs to be in solid, sharp focus with a sense of permanence.   Many of the aspects of your world can be safely tucked away in the box with Schrodinger’s Cat.  They can exist in a state of flux, ready to be used when and where you need them until the characters open the box and “reality” is forced to take shape.

When I gamemaster, there are many “static” features in my campaign – most of the villages, cites, and geographic features of the world are fixed and in permanent locations.  However, there are still many aspects of the campaign area I leave “in the box.”  Say for example, I design a haunted tower. I won’t commit to it’s location until I’m forced to.  Then when I need to use it I can place it in the characters’ path.  Of course, it won’t appear in a place in which the characters have actually been and they know there has never been a tower there (unless it is some sort of “ghost-tower” or something), but it will appear when I need it and once the characters “look in the box.”  This reduces GM stress in a couple of ways – first, I don’t have to worry about how to get the characters to the tower.  I don’t have to drop a bunch of “subtle” hints or worry about “railroading” the characters.  And secondly, it helps maintain the illusion of free-will for the characters.  This approach works for events, locations, NPC’s, almost anything.  Many of the elements of your campaign are things that can remain in the box until you decide that it has been opened.  Remember: flexibility is the hallmark of the stress-free GM.

Tip 3: Just say “Yes”

One of the things that more games are stressing to GM’s is the idea of saying “yes” to players instead of saying things like “no you can’t,” or “no your character wouldn’t do that.”  I’m a huge fan of this concept.  Nothing kills the illusion of free-will like saying “NO” to the players.  Don’t be afraid to let your players attempt anything. Remember, even if success is virtually (or even completely) impossible, it doesn’t mean that some fool (I mean PC) shouldn’t be allowed to give it a try.  It’s completely fair to let the players know that the chances for success are slim to none, but never simply tell them no.  Besides running the risk of making the game less enjoyable for your players, you are missing a golden opportunity to let the game grow on its own accord, instead of you always having to be at the helm.

Why are some gamemasters unwilling to say yes?  There are a lot of reasons.  Sometimes the GM hasn’t anticipated the character’s actions, so feeling the pinch, they say no.  If this is you, go back and read the first section Change Your Focus.  Others may not feel prepared for where a “yes” may take them.  If this sounds like you, go back to the second section, You Run the World, not the Other Way Around, and read that again. But for many of the GMs I know, they are afraid to say yes because they are unsure of a game mechanic or feel they don’t know the rules well enough.  Never let the rules get in the way of a good time.  In some cases rules aren’t even necessary, but if you feel they are, keep in mind that virtually every game out there has some sort of “core mechanic.” Use it.  Pick a stat, roll against it.  When all else fails, simply assign a percentage chance for success and roll away.

The important thing to realize is that saying yes actually makes your job easier by allowing your players to exercise their character’s free-will and being able to do virtually whatever they want – players love that.  It also helps build player/gamemaster trust.  In some campaigns the GM begins to seem like an unyielding authority figure, someone who is always telling the players no and forcing the story upon them.  When a group of players has trust in their GM, he becomes a partner in the story-telling, not a dictator, and he shares in the group experience.  This kind of relationship eliminates many of the problems that can come up at the table greatly reducing GM stress, and that is the key to allowing your best game to come forward.

Tip 4: Let the Players do the Work

One of the most stressful parts of being the gamemaster is the responsibility of continually providing new, thrilling, and creative adventures that characters are emotionally invested in and players are excited to go on.  In fact, the pressure to turn out great stories and adventures can easily cause GM burnout and make running a game feel more like a job than a beloved hobby.  The key to staying fresh and keeping your creativity up is remembering that most of us GMs do a lot more work than is strictly necessary when it come to creating great stories.  As GMs, we tend to forget that our #1 resource for inspiration and motivation are the players sitting around our table.

Earlier I talked about designing the campaign without focusing on the PCs.  Although this helps reduce the frustration of anticipating the characters’ actions, it doesn’t do much to “connect” them to the story.  This is where character hooks become the bridge between your story, and the characters’ stories.  Need to motivate characters into action, use an old friend or ally.  Want the players to care about a community, make it a character’s hometown.  Need an assassin for your arch villain to send against the characters, of course it’s an old enemy with a vendetta.  All of these NPCs may seem like a lot of work, but let me share a little shortcut with you; make the players do the work.

When I’ve finished laying out a few general aspects of the campaign (see Change Your Focus above), I sit back with the players while they create their characters.  I like to help the players come up with interesting backgrounds, character hooks, and ties to each other.  Among other things, I ask players to come up with some NPCs, at least three friends or allies, three rivals, three mentors or contacts, and at least one true enemy.  These don’t have to be more than a name and a one or two sentence description, but right away I have 20 – 40 custom made NPCs for the campaign that tie directly to the characters.  This, combined with a background consisting of at least a place of birth and two or three notable life events, and I have plenty of inspiration for dozens of great adventures.

In my campaigns, I usually have one or two primary plot arcs designed for the overall story.  Oftentimes however, that isn’t enough to carry an entire campaign, or they simply don’t dominate every part of the campaign level-to-level.  Enter the character hooks; they are an excellent resource to mine for adventure ideas and sub-plots.  These act as mini-stories within the greater plot line that help to tie each individual character into the campaign and make each of the players feel like they are part of something greater.  This not only takes some pressure off the GM by giving him some ideas to work with, but also helps build verisimilitude in the world.

Using your players’ own creativity to help fuel yours goes well beyond simply assisting you as the GM; it also makes the players “connect” with the world and keep them emotionally invested in the events that transpire there.  Once your players feel that their characters are the story and not just in the story, the game truly becomes a shared experience, and that motivates the entire group to work together to produce an excellent game.  Sharing the workload is another key to stress-free gamemastery.

Tip 5: Sit Back & Enjoy the Ride

All of the ideas presented here were designed to help you, the gamemaster relax and have more fun while running the game.  By using the tips and techniques presented above you should find the stress and anxiety that sometimes comes with running a roleplaying game to be greatly reduced.  With time, you may even find yourself feeling more like a player and less like the person in charge.  Hopefully, you will be able to shift your role as gamemaster from director, needing to control everything and keep the players on track, to story participant, watching events unfold around you and being pleasantly surprised by where “your” story takes the group.

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John Lewis

John Lewis started roleplaying back in 1983 with the ‘old blue box’ edition of Dungeons & Dragons. He has played and/or gamemastered more games than he cares to admit, or can even remember! Currently he spends the vast majority of his game time running a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying campaign. John's next project is to convert the Warhammer 40,000 RPG's (Dark Heresy, Deathwatch, Rogue Trader) to Strands of FATE. He is also an avid miniatures painter and wargamer and enjoys a variety of different boardgames.

  9 Responses to “Gamecraft: The Stress-Free GM”

  1. Excellent stuff, John! I’m going to have to bookmark this under “Essential Reading for GMs.”

    I love the notion of Schroedinger’s Campaign. It’s amazing how much utility can be pulled out of that little thought experiment … and focusing on the actions and plots of the villains reacting to the actions of the heroes makes perfect sense. That’s pretty much how most books wind up working, anyway, so it seems a natural for roleplaying. 🙂

  2. This style of gaming requires a lot of flexibility and adaptability but most importantly it requires a good relationship between players and GM and a strong focus on telling a great story.

  3. Yeah. I definitely have been using stuff that you describe; it’s good to have it all in one place. Also, the Dolphin Stress Test is awesome.

  4. I often create a couple of encounters that can easily be reskinned on the fly to match my players choices. Heading into the mountains? Meet a troop of Dwarven scouts. Heading into the swamps? Meet a troop of Lizardmen scouts. Negotiate, fight, flee. Play on.

  5. This is an excellent, excellent post. Great advice for anyone starting a campaign or looking to improve an ongoing one. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Yea, this was an excellent post. Using the cat analogy here is something I would never had thought of.

  7. Great article… this is almost exactly how I run my campaigns.

    I think another stumbling block for some GMs is the feeling that they have to have all potential encounters “statted”. In all of the systems I use, I have gotten good at ball-parking the basic stats for encounters, which allows me to seamlessly start a fight or skill test/challenge anywhere the players decide to go and stir up trouble.

    And you’re dead on about player input. If the players come up with a better idea for something than what my original idea was, I’ll often run with it. It gets them more involved and invested in the campaign, and they have a sense of “win” from figuring things out.

  8. Brilliant suggestions, and really quite easy to enact.

    Tip 1: As you say, you can’t predict what the PCs are going to do, so don’t even try: “Reacting to the characters’ actions is much easier than anticipating them.” Instead, figure out the WHERE (setting) and the WHY-WHAT (goals) of your antagonists, since these will both remain unchanged, regardless of the PCs actions. The antagonists’ methods might change, but their purpose will not, right?

    Tip 2: Ooooh, I am SO guilty of this, permanently building the scene in my mind’s stage. On the one hand, I want a flexible and interesting setting, but shouldn’t the players be allowed to bypass an encounter if they are clever? PCs: “Well, we’ll go across the bridge!” DM: “No problem, I’ll just move my haunted tower HERE!”

    Tip 3: While I absolutely agree with the approach, saying yes is a heck of a lot easier said than done. I’ve played with several good, talented, generous, intelligent DMs whose first instinct was to say, “No.” Actual example: I asked if my seeker could use Elemental Spirits to fire a flame arrow into a dark cave to see if anything’s in there. The DM (and he’s one of the good ones) said, “Hmmmmm… no. It’s not really enough light.” As DMs, our biggest concern tends to be fear of unbalancing the game, which may be a misplaced worry.

    Tip 4: Great idea, having the players create significant NPCs! Honestly, that never would have occurred to me, and it’s pure genius.

    Tip 5: I’ve got a couple games coming up at a convention, and I will do my best to remember and apply each one of these. Essentially, what you’ve done is given me permission to avoid GM-ing lunacy, and I appreciate that.

  9. Great to see this post again, thanks John.


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