[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
Despite 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
As 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)
I 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: