I’ve been getting a lot of questions about DMing lately. For those of you who may not know, DMing (dungeon mastering) or GMing (game mastering) is the art of running a table top game like Dungeons and Dragon or Mage: The Ascension or Fudge. This role can also be known as the ST (Story Teller) or EH (Event Holder) depending on the table top or live action system you’re playing in. Its the GM’s responsibility to have the story, to know the NPCs and their reactions and most importantly to know the rules and be able to arbitrate them should a disagreement arise between the players. GMing is an amazing skill that teaches not only story telling and game design principles, but also teaches organization and planning. It can also help with social skills, depending on your player base.
So, you’ve heard how amazing it can be to run a game, or maybe you think you could do it better than your current GM, or maybe there’s a story in your head just itching to get out. Either way, you want to run a game. Where do you begin? The first thing to worry about, even before your system, is your story. If you left this for later, you might decide that you want to run a social intrigue, no combat, no magic game when you already told the players to make 4th ed D&D characters, and that certainly won’t work. Once you’ve decided upon a genre and a rough story idea, you need to decide how you feel about rules. Are you a rules heavy GM or rules light? Do you like having mountains of D6? How about piles of D10? Is the D20 where your heart lies? Or do you prefer to go diceless? Do the dice not matter to you? How about the magic? Is there magic? How about Cthulhu? What about bunnies? Can the players only be human? Based on all these sorts of things you can finally decide upon a system. Wikipedia has a very nice list of available systems here sorted by genre.
Then comes preparing for the game. How well do you know your players? Do they like combat? How about roleplaying? Are your players likely to have crippled their characters under a mountain of flaws or are you looking at a team of min-maxed supermen? Has every skill point been allocated with the utmost care heading towards a specific prestige class or do you have a bardbarian with profession(midwifery)? If you put an NPC infront of your PCs, do they see it as a person or as a walking pile of XPs? This is an important distinction for you as the GM to be able to make. If you hinge your game on the players developing an emotional connection with an NPC that they see as little better than some XPs and equipment that periodically talks to them, then you have a problem. You have to tune your game to your players. For example, I’m running a campaign for a bunch of heavy roleplayers, one of whom despises combat, and the game is largely intrigue and Scooby Doo-esque mystery solving with very few moments of combat, and only really then if the players deem it necessary. If you want to learn to feel the difference in a group of PCs, try writing a one-shot and running it multiple times for different groups. You’ll be able to see the differences. One group might handle the entire adventure in under 24 in-game hours and another group might take game days to do the same thing. One group might solve their problems with violence and reckless fireballs and the other might use their charisma and social skills without ever lifting a weapon. Believe me, I’ve watched it happen. I ran the same one-shot 3 times over the course of a weekend. The first group roleplayed to their hearts content and used their magic very intelligently, and they treated the students (this was at a magical school) like they were students and took complete responsibility for handling everything. The second group was also mostly roleplaying like amazing. There was one player who wasn’t used to heavy roleplay gaming, but he managed. The characters in this group actually managed the entire one-shot without using very much magic. One of them cast no spells and just used social skills and wit to get through the game. The third session was odd. I’m not really sure how to describe it, but there was one player who found almost the entire plot but had the flaw: compulsive liar. The rest of the players never found the plot because they were too deeply embroiled in PVP.
Your challenge, should you accept it, is to make the players care. How you do this depends on your players. Do they like shiny objects? Do they want to save orphans? Do they want to beat up the bad guy? Do they want to ascend? Even if you just have players who want to hit level 20 with lots of shiny items, you know what they are willing to work for. There isn’t a player out there that doesn’t want something. And if there is, I don’t want to find out because it destroys my views of reality. You’re the GM, its your job to make the players have fun (whether they want to or not) and in order for them to have fun, they have to care. I don’t just mean that on their character sheet, their character is motivated, I mean the player wants to see their character’s goals actually get achieved.
Reality. Its that pesky thing we game to escape, right? Wrong. Its that thing that without which a world doesn’t make sense. I don’t mean that your world has to match up with the real world, I mean that within your game world, if magic doesn’t work on Tuesdays, then magic ALWAYS doesn’t work on Tuesdays unless there’s a damn good reason why it did today. And if the players don’t like the way something works, they should be able to change it. Does gravity work differently? Is the sky red? Can the players learn your world’s laws and learn to work within them? Verisimilitude is the word you’re striving for. The sense of reality, of a cohesive world with its own internal laws and consistencies. And just as important as your players being able to understand the world is that the players need to be able to change the world. I don’t mean necessarily on the grand cosmological scale, but if a fledgling wizard tosses a magic missile at a building and leaves a scorch mark and years later when he’s a master and he comes back to that same town, that scorch mark is probably still there. Its those kinds of little things that make a world real. And more than that, if I’m running a rebellion game and I scripted out how the rebellion will work and the players decide to do something I didn’t plan for, I shouldn’t try to shoehorn them back into my little railroaded reality.
So here comes the question that stumps many a fledgling GM. How much free will is too much? Lets say one of your players has a chaotic neutral character, but they’ve been resorting to violence an awful lot and they came really close to killing a defenseless peasant. Are they slipping towards evil? What are you going to do if they slide the entire way? Do you tell someone to make a new character just because they became evil? If the party doesn’t sort it out themselves, its up to you as the GM to make a call. Your players might not want to play with someone who’s evil, for example, but not in-game realize that he’s evil yet. Or one of a hundred million other problems comes up. Is that cleric forsaking their god? Did the paladin knowingly allow evil to live? Its up to you to decide! Can you do it? Its kind of a big deal.
And remember, when all else fails, you are the god of their pathetic little world. Sure, you have the responsibility on your shoulders to ensure that they all have fun, but they have the responsibility to treat you like a human being and not like a perl script. Have the players ordered out and left you to clean up every week for the last 12? Have they gotten food you can’t even eat? Are they talking about other things and slowing down your game? They are insignificant in your cosmos and this is your world. When in doubt: gazebo.
Ok, so maybe not so much on that last part. But remember, that you and your players are in a partnership and you both have to remember that the other is real people. If your game ever hits the point where game conflicts are causing real life conflicts, you should seriously consider putting a halt on your game, at least temporarily. If people are fighting out of game, then no one is having fun. Here’s what I consider the most important thing to remember: Don’t be a dick. Its something one of my professors taught me and to be perfectly honest, it will get you pretty far.