The Surest Way to Become a Better Game-Master

TL, DR: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying.
Heavy Metal -- Ard

[Edit for Redditers: I noticed a number of new readers arriving from Reddit thought I was a “pure-player” and wondered “She claims DM is such an easy job once you let the players play loose, why is she just playing?” I actually love to GM, and after this article I posted five more on how to follow my own advice as a GM. They are linked at the bottom of the page. I hope they help!]

The last six role-playing games I played in during September were, uncharacteristically, all d20-based systems (Mutants & Masterminds 2e, Pathfinder, 13th Age, and a heavily home-brewed Spycraft version) with six different game-masters. The first five were at a game convention, and the sixth at a game-day event at the friendly local gaming store. And the first of the six was a lot of fun — while the last five were awful railroads. My husband and I have told the story elsewhere (note that he had one more bad Pathfinder game which I didn’t sit on, making his own record 1 for 7), but here is my analysis of the common points.

Four were veteran GMs, who had put tons of prep into their games. They had miniatures, maps, backstory, handouts, in one case an extravagantly lavish terrain display, etc. They knew their scenarios and characters, they had put lots of time getting ready. Not only were they prepared, they were enthusiastic about the games they were running, and communicated this enthusiasm very well. They talked well, they were focused on their games, and they actually seemed like “fans of the PCs” (in the words of Vincent Baker in Apocalypse World), genuinely excited at the idea of the PCs doing extraordinary things and jumping the rails.

The other two of GMs were eager and smart but inexperienced and only somewhat prepared; they had maps and miniatures, but they were not familiar with the scenarios they were running and clearly did not understand some parts; one had not printed the pre-gen characters and had not even noticed that there were only four while he was running for six players; the other had noticed but had supplied additional characters that were actually not canon and not acceptable for ongoing play in the Pathfinder Society. It’s worth noting that these two were the only two PFS-organized games which I have attended, and according to my husband, his other PFS experience was also like that, an inexperienced and unprepared GM. I’ll get back to this point, but first I want to discuss the other games, run by experienced, non-PFS GMs.

Veteran of the Psychic Wars

Den of EarthDespite their apparent enthusiasm for PC “awesomeness” (a word I heard a lot), all but one of the veterans said “No” to player ideas which didn’t run along their preconceived notion of how the adventures should unfold. Only one of the veteran GMs, the excellent Cyrus Harris running M&M2e, was open to ideas, excited when the players were creative, and willing to say yes even when player actions wrecked his GM characters’ plans.

The other three were so busy telling us about the world and the story that we could barely get a word in edgewise, or they would cut the players off mid-sentence, not even allowing them the time to express their ideas fully. And yet, and yet… They really wanted us to shine, to do fantastic things; but they couldn’t let go of their idea of how we should do this.

Interestingly, they all wanted feedback, they all wanted to hear what the players had liked about the games. And everyone, even players that had clearly been bored to tears during the games, was very polite and gave faint praise before scurrying away without telling the truth. Including me. None of us had the heart to disappoint them, or the energy to try to reform them right then and there.

Working in the Coal Mine

Heavy Metal screamAs for the junior GMs, they were well on their way to becoming these deaf veterans some day. They too said “No” and refused to hear players, or were distracted by thumbing through the adventure to find out what was supposed to happen next. They too chose to prepare by concentrating on the regalia of role-playing — maps, miniatures, etc. — probably because it’s in many ways easier.

In addition, they were running too many games during the convention weekend, spreading themselves too thin in order to earn their GM stars from the PFS as quickly as possible. GMs are ranked strictly based on the number of sessions they have run during officially sanctioned events: 10 for the first star, 30 for the second, and so forth, offering different tiers of rewards. Only if a GM gets a fourth star (100 sessions) does quality of play factor in. From the Guide to Pathfinder Society Organized Play:

Four-star GMs are eligible to obtain a fifth star based on the quality of their play. If a 4-star GM attends any convention that the campaign coordinator is personally attending and the campaign coordinator witnesses you running a scenario and find your GMing mojo to be excellent, he will award you a fifth star. Five-star GMs are the cream of the crop.

Who can blame the newcomers for grinding through the sessions as quickly as they can while on their own quest to the special loot and recognition?

I don’t think that d20 or organized play have to lead to bad game-mastering; but I do think they attract a certain kind of GM and even foster bad GM habits. After a GM reaches the second star with 30 sessions of organized play, bad habits are well established. And if in turn the veterans they see around them have perfected the deaf, railroading approach to an art, what’s to nudge them away from the style?

Crazy? (A Suitable Case for Treatment)

Captain Sternn and CharlieI believe that all these GMs whose games were failures from a player’s perspective actually wanted the players to have fun, the player characters to shine, and extraordinary magic to happen in the adventures. Unfortunately, they wanted this to happen along a specific path, perhaps dreaming of the way they would love to play through the adventure themselves. And none of us gave useful feedback because frankly, after a GM has been deaf to your input for six or seven hours, it doesn’t seem very worthwhile to tell them “Look, you’re not listening.”

Nevertheless, I am convinced than each and every one of them could learn to listen and would then be a wonderful game-master. Listening is not a technically difficult skill, but it does require effort. GMs need to stop talking, stop thinking about their precious plot, stop thinking about how they want this or that character to be played, STFU and listen to the players. So I’m going to throw this for all GMs and would-be GMs out there:

Yes, this means you.

And it means me, and all of us. Because let’s face it, if you really are as good a GM as you think you are, it will hurt nothing at all to shut up and listen even more. And if you’re not as good as your shell-shocked players have led you to believe, by God it will improve your games a hundredfold. Maybe it will take a bit to coax the players out if they’re used to being treated as mere props in your games, but they too can learn.

And now, I’ll tell you a secret: after the initial challenge of changing your style, it will make your life so much easier. Game preparation will be vastly simplified: all you need is an attention-grabbing initial situation, a few interesting GM characters, and a list of things that could happen if the action flags. Once you learn to really listen to the players and build on their ideas, they will do most of the work for you. You won’t need to know how the story is “supposed” to end and corral the players there; they will spin events in a whole new direction you had not even thought of.

And it will be awesome.

Edit: Some thoughts on how to do this in practical terms.

Edit #2: Edmund writes related thoughts on why it’s generally a bad idea for GMs to say “No.”

Edit #3: Answering other objections.

Edit #4: Some examples of games I recently ran, how I prepped, and how they unfolded:

29 thoughts on “The Surest Way to Become a Better Game-Master

  1. Well, if your adventure is Prefabricated, then you have to Reach Out and occasionally step outside the box, and embrace player input with Open Arms, for the most part. But don’t be afraid to occasionally veto something a player wants, because If You Listen To Fools, The Mob Rules.

    Also, don’t be too Stern!

  2. This is really good advice. I ran a terrible game on Sunday– organized play, very railroady adventure. I tried to give the players lots of room to make choices, even though their choices resulted in no survivors. A huge part of it was the module, a decent portion was the players (sorry– when one third of the players is not paying attention and may be ill…), and I’ll own my own failings as a DM– not reading carefully enough ahead (after 25 pages of non-stop grammar errors… I was tired) and not adapting the adventure to what the players thought they were doing.

  3. Love the use of song titles from HM to frame the sections. And good advice contained within as well. That is pretty much how I try to run my campaigns, convention games are a whole different kettle of fish though.

    1. I’m going to disagree with you there, seaofstars. I think we put too much emphasis on seeing the plot through to its conclusion, particularly in one-shots like convention games. But I think that a convention game has a better chance of success by listening to the players and letting them do what they want as much as possible, even if it results in never getting to the climax of the adventure, than by forcing the players to stay on the rails for the sake of getting to the big ending.

      I have played in some really good one-shots where we never made it anywhere near the scenario climax. And one of the defining characteristics of a bad one-shot for me is a game where it feels like the GM has hold of my character’s ankles and is forcing it to walk a certain way.

      1. I am not disagreeing that player should have fun and that the GM run with it. But the basic framework of a convention game is likely to be much more obvious and direct the players towards a certain end even if they do not choose to follow that path.

    2. Sean, I’m going to suggest you run the experiment for yourself. Run more open-ended one-off convention and in-store games games for a while, really listening to what the players want to do and incorporating it into your adventure. Compare for yourself, and let us know how it goes! 🙂

      1. In my experience (15 years of arranging at convention and the last 10 with collaborative storytelling games), open-ended scenarios are hard to predict how long they will take to play. Having a strict time frame to keep to is probably the reason why rails occurs so frequently at conventions.

        The collaborative storytelling games that I played that works well on conventions, like InSpectres and similar games, had a pacing mechanism. Rails got fixed scenes. Open-ended games … not so much.

        Other open-ended games, like Lady Blackbird … well, you have to break that game after a while. That said. Saying “yes” and being open-ended doesn’t have to be the same thing. Saying “yes” can be used in rails too. Player influence is what Feng Shui (a rail roady game) is built around, as an example.

    1. My experience in convention games and one-shots has been different than yours. I’ve been going to Dragonflight for about 6 years, and participating in a weekly one-shot game for about 7. I find that the less I stick to my story, the better.

      Since it’s a one-time thing, nobody is terribly invested in the characters or the story, and that means players are more willing to take risks and do over-the-top things. The less I say “no” to going off-script, the more fun the games are.

      I would say that this rule applies even more to convention games and one-shots then your weekly campaign games.

      1. My last post was supposed to be a reply to SeaOfStars. I must have replied to the wrong post, because it isn’t showing up that way.

  4. Yeah, but these GM’s have been conditioned to think ‘the fun is in THE story’. If they go off the story, then it’ll stop being fun (they’ve been told). And listening to you would make them go off story.

    Indeed your expectations and calling it a failure game further exacerbate this, as the only fun they know is ‘follow THE story’, so they become even more slavish to the story rather than taking any player (read: co-author) input.

    I think these GM’s need to be told, by a player (or as a player, in an advice column), what the player will find fun (that is not part of a pre-written story). And frankly a lot of thespian idealism has decided to say a GM presenting combat, for example, as not a fun thing (when it is).

    Until they know what is a fun thing they can deliver, they are going to stick to the dogma that paizo tells them – ‘following THE story is fun!’.

    Tell them what else you’ll have fun with as a player without there being a story, and they’ll likely consider defecting from THE story.

    1. Here’s how we did it. WE set aside 20 minutes or so at the end of a session to talk about what was fun, and more importantly, what wasn’t…

    2. By all means, I approve of good communications among the group to clarify what people enjoy in the game. Different people like different things, our moods change, our styles evolve.

  5. I don’t do convention games, but I’ve been a DM for many years. The critical thing is that the DM often has an idea of how things work, but that understanding is probably not fully shared by the players. So when a DM says “No”, he/she is often referring to his/her internal “How things work” ideas, then rejecting the player’s idea based on that information.

    But the DM is not sharing that internal info with the players, so it means the players have to play by braille. Saying “yes” or “yes but” is really just a shortcut way of saying “show your work”. The best thing a DM can do to really become an excellent DM is EXPLAIN to the players. Don’t assume they understand the ramifications of courses of action – tell them. Information empowers them, letting them understand the how things work assumptions of the DM’s game, so they can make informed decisions.

    So don’t say “no you can’t use a fireball in here”. Say “You think that doing that might cause the roof to collapse. But you could fire it way into the far end of the room and maybe just collapse the back of the room. If you are really lucky…”

  6. Reblogged this on The Dice Mechanic and commented:
    A great post about something that I’m most GMs can benefit from. Listen more, talk less, and you’ll have a better game.

    (and on a side note, don’t over prep because if you know your stuff, you’ll find improvising on the fly is easier than you imagine)

    Well worth a read.

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