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Tips for the Beginning Roleplayer

Getting Started

by Devon Mannix
Dec 19,2003


Getting Started

By Devon Mannix

So. You want to be a GM. You poor, masochistic bastard. You have no idea what you're getting yourself into. The life of a GM is no life to live. Are you willing to toil for hours on end in front of a keyboard/notepad/stone tablet? Are you willing to pour your heart and soul into something, only to have it torn to shreds by an impetuous player? How about the screaming throngs of fans calling your name? How are you gonna deal with them? Huh?

Ok, you might not have to worry about that last part, but it does take a lot of work. Even so, it can and should be an extremely rewarding experience.

Whether you're acting as the Storyteller, the Dungeon Master, or any other game-specific variant of the term, the role of the GM is essentially the same. While the players represent their characters in the game world, the GM represents...well...everything else.

Among many other things, the GM provides the characters with obstacles during their adventures. Without obstacles for the characters to overcome, you couldn't really call it an adventure. The GM creates (and roleplays) the other characters that the PC's will encounter during their adventures. Without other characters, adventurin' can get a might lonesome. The GM also serves as referee and adjudicator. Without someone to enforce rules, act as judge, and work to keep things on track, the whole thing could fall into chaos and become one big game of Pretend.

GM: "You look in the room and see three werewolves surrounding a wooden table in the center of the room. Chained to the table, you see your friend Sally. The werewolves are oblivious to your presence and look to be getting ready to make a meal of your friend."

Player 1: "I teleport across the room and inside the first werewolf's skull, thereby making the werewolf's skull explode and causing the werewolf to die instantly. Then, I make this sound: BOOOOSHAAASHAAA."

Player 2: "I summon the Dark Lord Xxylpoctlir and he uses his psychic powers to enslave the second werewolf's mind. Xxylpoctlir then commands the werewolf to commit suicide by tearing out his own heart and then eating it."

Player 3: "I travel through space and time to just before the third werewolf was conceived. You know. Like the night when his mom and dad got it on? And I go up to his mom and I go, 'yo, baby. Why don't you ditch this loser and make it with a real man.' Then, I punch his dad in the balls and make off with his mom. Then, I do his mom and now I'm his dad or something. Only, this time, when he grows up, I make sure that he goes to college and gets a good job and stuff so he doesn't start hanging out with werewolves."

GM: "...umm...ok. I guess you guys win again."

So, yeah. Rules are good.

Ok. Enough screwing around. Let's get to the tips and stuff.

Know the Game

No matter what game you're running, I think it pretty much goes without saying that it's important to be as familiar with the system and the game rules as possible. That's not to say that you need to have the rule books memorized cover-to-cover, but you need to know enough to be able to adjudicate when the need arises, or at the very least know which page to turn to.

This is easier in some games than in others. For a rules-lite RPG, it might only take you a couple of days alone with a single book to gain enough knowledge to run a game with no problems. For an RPG that's rules-heavy, it could take several years alone with a dozen books. You might hole yourself up with the books in a small, candlelit room for years and years and years, only to emerge one day, wizened and gray, to find that all your players have died of old age. The only thing that sustained your life was your steady diet of Twinkies and beef jerky.

It might be a good idea to try and find a GM that's already familiar with your system and force him at gunpoint to play in your game. Actually, it probably won't be that difficult. You can't swing a dead orc in a gaming store, an RPG forum, or chat room without hitting a GM who would gladly give a nonessential body part to actually play in a game. Also, GM's are usually very friendly (or just have big egos) and as such, they love to teach other people about their favorite game.

Like I've already said, it's going to be difficult to know some games inside and out. For as long as I've been playing and running D&D, I still have to go to the books from time to time. What you want to avoid is spending too much time doing this. If you must stop the game to look up a rule, it can break momentum and that can kill an adventure.

One thing you can do to avoid this is make notes or flag pages in the rulebooks. It might take you a couple of sessions to learn which rules or charts that you use on a regular basis, but if you have those close at hand, it can really speed up gameplay and help to keep things on track.

Oh, and just a little note about game rules. Players are always going to surprise you. A character is inevitably going to try something that you have a hard time finding the rule for or that there is no rule for. When this happens, rather than stopping the game to dig through the books, MAKE STUFF UP. One great thing about being a GM is you get to decide how things work in your world.

Know the Players

Look at the game you run as a product and look at your players as the consumer. If the consumers are unhappy with the product, they could either stop buying the product altogether, or they could start buying from a different company (i.e. another GM). You really only have two options as a GM. You can either strive to provide a good product, or you can eliminate the competition with a crowbar or other similar blunt object. Now don't get me wrong. A little head bashing can be fun, but considering the fact that most places (except Texas) now have laws against murder, it might be better to go with the former option.

The problem is, not all players like the same things. I'm not quite sure why this is, but my bioengineering company, Mannigenix, is hard at work to bring you made-to-order players. Once the research is complete, you'll be able to log onto our user-friendly website, choose your options, and have the players shipped directly to your home. We hope to have everything ready by Christmas of 2004.

Until then, you'll just have to deal with it. Some players prefer the my-character-doesn't-have-a-name-cuz-he-introduces-himself-with-his-axe style of play, while others would rather play a game that requires a bit more finesse. Some like their games with a dash of political intrigue, while others want horror elements. Before you decide upon the type of game you'll be running, if you have players that are already committed to your game, sit down and talk to them. Ask them what they would like to see in this game. Just be prepared to make some compromises. In the end, you need to settle upon a type of game that everyone involved will enjoy.

If you do not have players before you decide upon the type of game, make it whatever the hell you want, then go to work recruiting players for that type of game. I won't go into detail about the different ways to recruit players. I'm sure you know the best way to do that given your location and situation. One bit of advice, though. If you post your call for players on an internet message board, stick it on the cork board at the local gaming shop, or anything along those lines, make sure your message is clear and concise. It should tell the reader four things about the game: the game you'll be playing, the setting, the system, and the style of play. And of course a phone number or email address would probably help.

Also, you should be prepared for the wants of the group to change mid-campaign. Eventually, someone's going to want to make a change. The change could be something slight. A player might request that you focus on her player's back-story a bit more, or someone might ask that you allow him more opportunities to roleplay his character's affinity for the fine art of Jell-O wrestling. The change could also be something as drastic as a different setting in a new campaign. This is fine as long as everyone (yourself included) agrees upon the change.

It's all about communication. Your gaming group is like your lover. Without communication, what do you have? Just a bunch of meaningless sex. Don't let this happen to you. Don't allow your games turn into a writhing mass of bodies goin' at it like horny, emotionless monkeys.

...hmm. I seem to have forgotten where I was going with that. Anyway, just keep the lines of communication open with your players at all times. Welcome any input they have. Trust me, it'll make for much better games.

Set the Ground Rules

Once you have all your players, before you begin play, it's a good idea to set the ground rules for each session. This is where you'll decide as a group on the mundane details of your game, such as the time and place for the meetings, how much money to bring for pizza, and who'll be responsible for bringing the goat each time.

They may seem like they're too trivial to waste precious bandwidth on, but these things are indeed important, so I'm gonna talk about 'em whether you like it or not.

I'll warn you now. Players can be fickle creatures. And it's not always easy to please them all at the same time. MUST... RESIST... URGE... TO... MAKE... LEWD... COMMENT. Also, some players won't speak up when something's bothering them. Making sure that everyone's ok with the particulars of the sessions before you start playing will go a long way toward player retention.

Many gaming groups seem to subscribe to the "we must all convene at the GM's house cuz the GM is our leader" theory. If the distance to your house is the same for all the players and all players agree on that location, then that's fine. Chances are, however, that your house isn't centrally located. If it's not, then I recommend that you endeavor to find a location that is. If there seems to be no such place, you could always rotate. Hold the session at your house one week, someone else's the next, etc. This way, the same people don't have to go out of their way each time.

Once you've worked out where the sessions are going to be, you should probably start thinking about food. Chances are, your session will run through at least one mealtime. The last thing you want is a house full of hungry gamers. Not only is it exceedingly difficult to roleplay on an empty stomach, but there have been stories of gaming groups turning to cannibalism after missing a meal. I've never actually seen this phenomenon first-hand, but I'm sure it happens, since roleplayers are inherently evil anyway. Especially the D&D players. Jack Chick says so, so it must be true.

My games usually take place at my house, just because my players all live within minutes of me. I always tell my wife to cook for my group. Before they come over, I humbly request, "yo, bitch. My peeps are comin' over. Why don't you get your ass in the kitchen where it belongs and fix us somethin' to eat? Chop-chop!" Then, when I regain consciousness, I make arrangements with the group for pizza.

Pizza is, of course, the obvious choice for mid-game sustenance. Most areas have a pizza place that makes deliveries and if so, a simple phone call before the game and a twenty spot can turn a delivery guy into a real-life NPC.

GM: "Oh, there's the doorbell. Must be the pizza. Tim, here's the money, would you like to get the door? Heh heh."

Tim: "Sure." [goes to door and opens it] "Hi, Pizza Dude. Umm...what's that sharp stick for?"

Pizza Dude: [sighs and reads blandly from piece of paper] " an evil assassin. I have come to...umm...assassin you." [pokes Tim with sharp stick]

Tim: "OUCH!! Hey, that broke the skin!"

GM: [calls from living room] "Tim, your character was just killed by an assassin. Now pay for our pizza. I'm hungry."

If you go the pizza route (or any other type of carry-out for that matter), make sure you get the prices of the food from the restaurant before the game, then figure out how much each player will be responsible for, and let them know before they arrive. If there's any change left over from the transaction, it is customary to give the funds to the host of the session. If the game takes place in a public forum, all the players should wrassle for it.

It all comes down to creating an environment that's conducive to roleplaying and having fun. A player who's worried what his significant other is going to say when he gets home and tells her that he had to spring for the pizza because no one else brought pizza money isn't going to have much fun. That's what ground rules are for.

Have Fun

Some GM's skip this step, but it's the most important and as such, should be required. Just remember that it IS a game and the point of any game is to have fun.

...except Monopoly. The game where you strive to humiliate your friends and family through financial burnination.

The life of a GM can be stressful sometimes, especially when you start writing your own campaigns and stuff (which is something we might talk about in another column). Just remember, if it stops being fun and starts feeling more like work than play, take a breather. If you're playing in someone else's game, focus on your character there for a while instead of your own campaign. If you're not playing in someone else's game, find one to play in. Or read a book. Or play a video game. Or have sex.

I recommend that last one there.

Anyway, I think if you keep these few things in mind, you'll be well on your way to becoming a great GM. Soon, you'll be hearing the praises and lamentation of your players that make being a Game Master oh so sweet. Good luck and have fun.

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