The Culture Beneath the Stairs
By Conan McKegg
Best of the Best: What Constitutes Good Gaming? Part II - The Game Master
Last week I began discussing how we might go about identifying the marks of good gaming. Initially we looked at players, the negative aspects and some suggestions on how to turn those negatives into positives. This week I'll turn the gaze over to Game Masters and then follow up with some thoughts on some possible identifiers of good gaming.
Unlike the players of a game, the GM is a tougher nut to crack. Naturally, a bad GM can find himself without players if he doesn't fix his habits - but often we don't identify a GM as a bad GM due to varied gaming experiences. Many players may be used to being railroaded to the point that they simply don't think there is any point in speaking out against the GM - after all, there are more players than GMs and when faced with the choice of gaming with a bad GM or not gaming at all; many players simply choose to suffer through the game and make the best of it.
The Game Master From Hell
The question is, what really constitutes a bad GM? After all, one man's horror is another man's pleasure in roleplaying. Below I describe a number of game mastering styles that, again, seem to be universal in the negativity expressed towards them.
However it isn't as easy to resolve bad game mastering as it is to resolve a case of bad players. There is more risk of offending the GM, and many players simply don't know how to deal with such a thorny issue.
Ideally, I believe that honesty in a gaming group is vital to the enjoyment of everyone involved. But I do realise that it can't always be this easy. Part of the trick of dealing with a bad GM is to be diplomatic. Emphasise that it is a case of the GM's style not suiting your own style of play. Try to propose some middle ground.
To be honest, if a GM isn't willing to compromise to ensure that everyone is having a good time - you are better off trying to locate another group that better suits your gaming style. But always keep this as a last resort; most GMs are willing to compromise.
My goal with this following list is a little different from the last one. This is aimed at the GMs themselves. Come on, you need to be honest with yourself and ask if you fit any of these types - then try to break out of your comfort zone. I feel that bad Gming comes from complacency with your style, in my view a good GM is like a good writer, always trying to break into new ground, try out new techniques and constantly striving to develop new ways of running games. I have, personally, been guilty of most of these faults of Gming myself - and I do believe that most GMs commit these at some point or another...
- The Fat Controller: Whenever you try to make the players follow a very prescribed path within a game, you are at risk of being a fat controller. I take the name from the character of the children's series "Thomas the Tank Engine" because fat controllers are those GMs who often railroad their players. But they needn't do so - more accurately a fat controller literally controls the PCs. These are the GMs who tell you what your character is thinking and doing. They carefully plan out the entire game and all the scenes and events. Everything is so precisely planned and balanced that the fat controller quickly finds himself out of depth if the players do anything unplanned. In response, he (or she) directly intervenes by a number of techniques - NPCs intervene, walls and obstacles leap into the PCs way, or there is simply nothing to be found anywhere other than the planned route.
- The True Storyteller: Conversely, a fat controller can also be the supreme storyteller. Most control type GMs have a strong understanding of narrative flow. They create epic tales that, with a little more freedom, can become truly memorable gaming experiences. Tricks to learn when you find yourself being a fat controller are based around being flexible with your plot. Look over your notes and identify the key events that MUST happen to move the story along. Try to revise the event into something more general. Remember that narrative is about cause and effect. As GM you are introducing a cause when you start a scene, but it will be the players who show the effect and provide the next causal action - learn to think about how this changes your story, and change it to suit the PCs actions. While roleplaying games are narrative, they are not narrative in the same manner as a novel. Learn to embrace this freedom as a way to challenge your storytelling skills.
- The Politics GM: Politics and intrigue are great methods for generating a narrative conflict that isn't necessarily based on combat. It is also one of the most difficult issues to deal with effectively in roleplaying. Let's face it, most of us are not that skilled at politics. If we were we'd be in politics and not here roleplaying. The Politics GM has embraced political intrigue as the greatest way of dealing with conflict. Hundreds of factions, multiple plots and schemes, the entire game is just steeped in subterfuge and double-dealing. The problem is that this can lead to a number of issues if the GM isn't very well versed in social and political philosophy. From the case of everyone involved in the same old boring political schemes from game to game, to the politics being so convoluted the players can't keep up; or worst, their characters just have no influence - Politics GMs need to realise that a good narrative is more than just a set of schemes - there is a definite flow and development to a story.
- The Setting Master: Firstly, a Politics GM is a master of setting design. Most Politics GMs create truly fascinating, living worlds. This is a strength, and a weakness. If you find yourself fitting the bill of a Politics GM, then make certain that your rich setting also has room for the PCs. Remember that every story needs protagonists - and that is the role of the PCs in a roleplaying game. Your strength lies in creating a world that the PCs can truly interact with. Learn how to slowly reveal the multiple plots to the players via cut-scenes and effective planning on the players' part. Work at getting the players involved in the politics of your world, but also remember to break the atmosphere at times with action or other dramas.
- The Morality Master: I haven't come across this one much myself, but I have heard the stories and read a couple of scenarios written by these types. Basically, if you are building an adventure around a very specific moral value that you want the players to learn or discover in play, you are at risk of being a morality master. This is really an issue I'll be exploring in more detail in the weeks coming, so I wont go into too much here. While the use of moral dilemmas and issues can be a great addition to an adventure - there is also a serious risk of going too far and coming across as a preacher rather than a game master. Handled ineffectually, a moral dilemma can come across as trite and meaningless - losing its power as a turning point for a game.
- The Master of Metaphor: If you find yourself heading for the soapbox when writing up a scenario - stop and think about how you are handling the issue you are broaching. A good way for a GM to handle a moral dilemma is to try and present it in a metaphorical light. Challenge the players with imagery that highlights the dilemma and the difficulty with making a choice. Try to not presuppose the "right" choice - a true moral dilemma isn't about making a right and wrong choice, but rather about making the right choice when all the choices could be seen to be right. That's what creates the dilemma. For example - should you rescue children from a burning building is not a moral dilemma. Should you rescue suspected murderers from a burning building can possibly be a moral dilemma. Most importantly look at why you are adding this situation into the game. If you want to make some point, better to do so via metaphor rather than an actual event. This then rewards the players for thinking about the game.
- The Man (or Woman) of Many Faces: Essentially The Man of Many Faces is an Actor type player who has graduated to Gming. This is the GM who takes pride in his acting skills and spends a large part of gaming playing different characters, talking to himself in the voices of each character and generally having a grand old time. The problem with this style arises when the NPCs start dominating sessions and the GM spends less time actually adjudicating the game or even guiding the adventure along.
- The World of Characters: Not as much a bad GM as some of the previous types mentioned, if you find yourself spending large amounts of GM time acting out each NPC, just remember to keep focused on the game as well. Essentially the benefits of a GM of this style match those with dealing with Actor players - draw on the enthusiasm and character and use it to promote similar habits in the players. But also remember the following two rules; One, much like the mention in White Wolf's World of Darkness - a GM who does all the NPC dialogue between NPCs just ends up looking goofy. Do act, but when NPCs are talking to each other, don't act out the entire dialogue. Two - some players don't like acting. Don't try to force them into doing something that they wont enjoy...
- The Clueless Wonder: Okay, so you have recently decided to run a pulp action serial style cinematic adventure - without ever having seen anything that remotely relates to the style. At character generation you look at the character sheets and decide that the players are too overpowered and so advise them to be more realistic about their decisions. The game starts and the players start acting all weird and doing things that you think are impossible - like firing two guns at once and talking in silly voices. One of them is even trying to build some bizarre machine. If this sounds familiar, you may have been at risk of being a Clueless Wonder. This is where you really have no idea what you are doing, but persevere because its what the group really likes, or you think it would be a cool idea but you never bothered to try and understand the tropes.
- Chance to help a new GM develop: A clueless wonder is usually a very different case from other GMs. More often that not, they will be new GMs who saw a movie they liked, or read a novel, or even bought an exciting game and really want to play. Unfortunately either they are not familiar enough with the genre, or the game doesn't provide enough decent advice on Gming the style. The best thing to do in this situation is to be honest as soon as possible. The minute the first game ends, discuss concerns about genre with the GM. This should quickly establish if you are dealing with a new GM or not, and it will help the GM figure out where things need to be fixed.
But what makes for good gaming?
So now that we've looked at Game Masters and Players, are we actually any closer to truly identifying what makes for good gaming? Well in a manner of speaking we have. By identifying some of the negative styles it seems to me that there is a universal trend that pops up - that of entertainment and self-indulgence.
More than anything else, a good game is just like a good book, movie or play - it entertains us. Sometimes there is a message or theme, but most of all we enjoy the journey through the narrative. For a roleplaying game it needn't be the narrative that entertains us though. Because roleplaying games bridge the gap between passive and interactive entertainments it can bring enjoyment via a fun social experience, an entertaining narrative, or even an exciting and enjoyable game.
In some ways the signs of a good game lie in identifying consistent behaviour from both players and GMs. A good player is someone who convinces you that their character is more than just numbers. Whether through acting or actions, they convince you that their character is a real person within the game itself. In much the same way good Gms convince you that their setting is consistent, coherent and alive.
Yet I would posit something else as well. Good GMs and Players work together and show good social skills. A good GM will draw all the players into the game, and will not exclude a bad player. Instead a good GM get the group working together and promotes the other players into drawing out the strengths of each player and each character.
These are all elements that also relate to a good player, in my opinion. Someone who works with the other players to create a game that is engaging and enjoyable. Whether telling a narrative or not, a good game doesn't come from realism or narrative accuracy - it comes from every member in the group participating to create an enjoyable evening.
This does involve identifying what each player expects to get out of the game, but it also involves compromising to ensure that everyone - including the GM - get the most out of the session. Be it serious or light.
Seems rather obvious, doesn't it. Take another look over the examples of bad GMs and players. Note how they are all thinking about only what they are personally getting out of the game. I find that this tends to lie at the root of every bad gaming experience. Whereas every game where the players and GM have worked together to just have a good time and enjoy themselves - even when the narrative went out the window - seems to end up being touted as an excellent night of roleplaying.
It really does give you something to think about...
Next week we'll be looking at something a little more controversial. Using moral dilemmas and ethical quandaries in roleplaying. When is it a good thing and when is it a bad thing... Following that, I'll be moving focus further from the basics and start looking at how we can use some ethical situations to give games some depth and we may have a brief look at some ethical theories and how we can use them in roleplaying games to create interesting and thought-provoking challenges for gamers...
Remember - you can always contact me at Culture Beneath The Stairs if you would
like to discuss any of the ideas I mention, or have any other questions relating to this
Until next time! Take Care!