Friday, August 19, 2011

Building a Better GM: A Challenge


Beedo of Dreams in the Lich House posted a survey piece yesterday that ended with the punchline that the ultimate X-factor in tabletop rpgs is the creativity of the GM. Tearing down or building up that assertion itself could fill up several posts, but I was taken more by a gauntlet he dropped in the resulting comments: “something I'd like to see more bloggers discuss is their successful table techniques that translate into good games.”

Active GM worth their salt are constantly honing up, mulling over, tearing apart, and obsessing around what makes or breaks their home games. Why is the topic so under-represented in our writings? Why the strange disconnect?

No wait, don't answer that.

Instead, let's try and make good on poor Beedo's deathbed wish with the following challenge (to be replicated on your own blog):
  1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
  2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
  3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
Truth be told after typing this out last night, this morning I found it to be harder than it looked. Your temptation will be to cheat; to name more than three or collapse them into a very generalized theme.

Don't give in. Focusing on three very specific techniques makes the whole exercise more concrete, more potentially portable to another GM.

My own entry coming this way by the afternoon. Until then, happy mulling.  

39 comments:

  1. You are confusing technique with creative force. There is no "How to" to CF, that is bred at birth, greatly expanded (or not) during childhood, intuitively practiced in later years (or not) and thereafter grown and sustained (or not) by each and every individual.

    It is like asking, "How best is it to write?" as I have knowledge of the techniques of writing. The best answer to mastering any such hands-on subject is to do it and therein find your own creative form. This addresses "form" vs "formula" the latter which seems so prevalent in this medium.

    Each DM's form will also differ according to the range of material being presented "in each moment," just as different types of stories have varying weights applied to them at different times by the author creating these.Also note the last question of my interview as this is a better starting point, mastering story, for any GM as far as techniques go, and this too cannot be tricked into being.

    Also, this question is being asked in a vacuum. It addresses current DMs (i.e. largely considered as a whole, "veteran DMs") and their thoughts on this as culled from experience but does not, as far as I can see within it, address fledgling DMs, that is, newcomers to the art. While exclusionary, it paints a definite process which was not true for those veterans wnen newcomers themselves.

    The process of learning to DM/story-telling is best discovered in the trenches by creating our own dungeons/locales This personalizes the experience 100% and builds in layers of confidence, objectivity and other enhancements of a greater type not found in running pre-made adventures.. The difference between creating your own story and reading it aloud rather than reading aloud another's.

    For the most part many of us were weaned in "Fun House" climes; but whatever the "adventure" environment, one learns rudiments and essentials and these thereafter take root and grow according to the prevailing creative force in every individual as expressed through personal understanding and application, and in differing degrees.

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  2. A thousand times yes to this. Working on it.

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  3. I agree with Kuntz.

    You seem to be asking what tricks can one use to come across as a good DM at the gametable if one is mediocre.

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  4. After further thinking, I would almost phrase DM techniques as 'execution' - as opposed to preparation or writing. A DM could have a well-developed adventure or use the perfect 'professionally written' module, but what separates the failed table from the successful table?

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  5. Why do you have to be such @#$* pain in the butt, Rob? (I jest, oh tone-deaf Internet.)

    I don't think I confuse them, I think we just may have a difference in perspective.

    You can't teach someone to be a great writer. You can't even cover enough of the bases to teach them to be a good one either. Raw talent, passion, the long-term development of creative and critical faculties, something compelling to write about--lots and lots of X-factors.

    But you can teach people to be better writers, to reach beyond their baseline. Good editors do it everyday of the week. Technique, mastery of the language, and discipline--all teachable or at the least correctable--help deliver the goods.

    And by teachable I don't just mean by the traditional teacher-student set-up, but also by equals in a shared environment (which is what I hope is going on here with this playful challenge.)

    With game-mastering, I think this is even more true, in the main...well... because it is a game with at least a core of definable rules (even if the edges are open and available for negotiation). Games by their nature rely a good deal more on technique as part of the package than an art.

    (I think you could make the case that rpgs are an intersection between games and a performing art but that's a whole other thought train.)

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  6. Reply is up:
    http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2011/08/on-being-forced-against-your-will.html

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  7. And readers, if you haven't read the section toward the end of the interview with Rob the other day, you should.

    He touches on this very subject in a way that has left me thinking ever since that conversation last Fall.

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  8. The process of learning to DM/story-telling is best discovered in the trenches by creating our own dungeons/locales This personalizes the experience 100% and builds in layers of confidence, objectivity and other enhancements of a greater type not found in running pre-made adventures.. The difference between creating your own story and reading it aloud rather than reading aloud another's.

    I actually agree with this very strongly. Gawd damn it.

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  9. I posted up my best three table rules on my blog. I was just thinking about putting them down in writing to reflect on them, too. Nice timing!

    I'll make no claims my techniques are original, special, or cool. But I use them. :)

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  10. Here's a distinction - some DM's home brew their own adventures, some run published modules. There should be techniques to running a better game at the table, part information sharing, organization, exposition, use of the rules, etc, that crosses both approaches to preparing an adventure.

    Regardless of approach, the limiter is the skill of the DM, and the success or failure of the game is mostly on the DM. What kind of advice can we give DMs to make their execution better?

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  11. In answer to Chris and/or others of like mind.

    This is not "just" a game, nor is it separable from its two derived sources: Fantasy, which is the part that equates to the ongoing fictive process; and this relates strongly to art as all fictional processes relate to taste and form; and Game, that part which allows us through the mechanics to put the fictional process into play. Thus we cannot divorce the two parts or just as easily lump them together in searching for How To within the combined process. One is taught, the other is found. Both blossom through hands-on experience, with form finding its unique area of expression.

    Yes, and I agree, raw technique is taught and enhanced as in writing, and this has always been the case; but that does not at all relate to the creative expression which is thereafter embodied by finding one's individual territory within their personal process. That only enters through creative force, and there is no way of teaching that, that is discovered for each individual.

    Let's extend the process a little further. What if the creative force of an individual gravitates towards more story-telling as they find in that process certain ways to improve latent talents and interests, whether theirs and/or in concert with a group who might share that interest? It is possible by design to create such matter as hereby concluded, say in creating a city and having as the adventuring focus the intrigues of a greater political backdrop therein. This is only one example of the range that is possible within expression; and that cannot be treated as a lump sum technique, but will instead be fashioned according to taste and need as their story unfolds.

    Once again, Chris, very sorry, but I must say: "There are no tricks, no short-cuts." And i mean this generally, as an aggregate that cannot be passed along to a group. If they exist at all it is within the specific confines of an individual who has implemented these according to their creative thrust; and that creative thrust depends on a personalized and very singular story.

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  12. I agree with Rob Kuntz, again, you dig?

    Let that be a lesson to you, ckutalhu.

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  13. @Kent. Appreciate the support for individualism but let's not make this an US and THEM, as that is not my point in the matter. Cool? :)


    This is my advice for up and coming DMs and no other.

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  14. I think, Kent, is at least half-joking, Rob. (At any rate, I think I am going to have to co-opt "ckutalhu" as a user-name.)

    This is not "just" a game, nor is it separable from its two derived sources: Fantasy, which is the part that equates to the ongoing fictive process; and this relates strongly to art as all fictional processes relate to taste and form; and Game, that part which allows us through the mechanics to put the fictional process into play. Thus we cannot divorce the two parts or just as easily lump them together in searching for How To within the combined process. One is taught, the other is found. Both blossom through hands-on experience, with form finding its unique area of expression.

    I don't think it is "just" a game either which is why in passing I made the comment about it being in some intersection. I like how you put it here, in fact, and suspect that we share closer ground--on this point at least.

    That you can't teach someone to dream we likely agree on. But I think I being able to deliver that vision to another person we may have a difference of emphasis on. I think you probably need a greater degree emphasis on teachable technique.

    Then again you have been involved with this for a lot longer than I have and what the hell do I know? (I do know that I am tired and have about six plates in the air, and should think about this some more.)

    Maybe I am just talking a circle here?

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  15. OT

    @Kent.

    Wow. I'm a person expressing a considered opinion.

    I take no such title seriously, whether meant in jest or not.

    Wish you well, Kent. :)

    Now, back OT.

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  16. @ Chris.

    We all assume that people who enter this sphere of gaming have a particular creative bent. What that bent is becomes known to them as they immerse themselves in the process and understand it better through creative interchange. This is part of the fun, and the fun in learning, attached to it.

    In the play-tests of D&D we all adhered to that on the intuitive level; there was no set-in-stone understood; and this allowed the greatest range of expression, much like when children play, in fact, and thus allowed a greater learning path as inquiry was self-oriented. The many imaginative games that spawned from this over 3 years of that process in Lake Geneva (1972-1976) were remarkable, as were the many takes on it by those involved.

    This also touches upon "structured" and "unstructured" techniques as have been used in educational play mediums as well, and I might add that creative force, on the whole, tends to rise to greater heights in unstructured play.

    I would say that the best way to "instruct" is by example in this case. This does not lead nor does in confine to a ready set of principles that might otherwise rise on their own accord through the creative interchange and might indeed find greater, or different, avenues of expression. YMMV, but myself and many others have found this to be true.

    Being very tired myself this is likely my final post on the subject. Good luck!

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  17. Personally, I greatly appreciate reading articles about DM tips and techniques. I consider myself a mediocre DM at best and greatly lacking in the "spontaneous creativity" department (I must've been hiding behind the door when that stuff was handed out). I love trying out people's suggestions in my games. Some of them work for me, some don't. All I can say is that I believe my DMing skills have improved greatly through inspiration and ideas suggested by others, largely in the blogosphere.

    So thanks ckutalik, I hope lots of people take up your challenge and I can find some new gold to hone my game and make up for my obvious lack of skill and initiative. My players will be grateful. :-)

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  18. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM.

    1. I trust my instincts in using my imagination.
    2. I don't second guess myself'
    3. I listen and watch my players and adapt my DMing style to their interest level.


    What techniques do you think you excel at?
    1. Intimidation. Nothing creates a sense of excitement like raw fear.
    2. DMing off the cuff. Players are guaranteed to stray. A DM must be able to fill in blank spaces in an adventure he never anticipated.
    3. Plagerism. DM's do not exist in a vacuum. If I had all the time in the world I could refine my setting and adventures to a journeyman's masterpiece (like the infinite monkeys typing out Shakespeare) but I will never hesitate to steal characters, settings, plots, traps and especially maps for my own wicked use.

    What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?

    1. When an adventure really work it is a collective artform. These techniques may not work for anyone else and they do not always work for me. The Stars Must Be Right even if you are a good DM (but for a bad DM the stars are never right).

    How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?

    "You told me what the first rule of wisdom is," I said. "What is the second rule?"

    "That can be answered," he said. "There are five in all. Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any. Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. Never apply your front brakes first."

    ***

    An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood; an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

    ***

    The best things can't be told. The second best are misunderstood.

    ***

    Your sword has no blade. It has only your intention. When that goes astray you have no weapon.

    ***

    "The secret of a happy life, Lewis, is to know when to stop and then to go that little bit further."

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  19. Rob Kuntz,

    I agree with you Rob. Right now Im not jesting. A man doesn't joke around while he is trying to get hold of a copy of Bottle City, don't ya know.

    Oh and with profound apologies to ckutalhu, just this one question about WG4 Tharizdun, (a great favourite of mine). How much beyond the name Tharizdun did you provide for Gary? Im curious if any of the eerie temple details were yours or the ambiguous imprisonment itself? I won't ask any follow uo questions.

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  20. I appreciate thought provoking posts that I can use as inspiration for an article on my own site! I already wrote my entry for today, but I will likely do this Monday.

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  21. Excellent questions, in spite of the various arguments against it. Consider the challenge accepted, and expect my post on it tomorrow morning!

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  22. The process of learning to DM/story-telling is best discovered in the trenches by creating our own dngeons/locales

    Sound nice, fails in practice. Why? Because creating your own dungeons and locales is not intuitive. How to run a game based off what your write is not intuitive. And devoting one page to each out of a 144 page rulebook doesn't cut it.

    The average person needs more to get started. And because it is the 2010's not the 1970s it would help to explain why roleplaying games are a compelling form of entertainment.

    And Ckutalik idea of sharing techniques is a good starting point to collecting what is needed to write this is more. Teach gamers the techniques to run a fun and interesting roleplaying regardless of situation.

    I realize and I think Ckutalik does as well, that techniques are not a one size fit all deal. That why he ask for people to put down WHY they use the technique as well as the particulars.

    By adding the WHY the individual referee can judge for themselves whatever it is applicable to their style and their game.

    For all those that responded to Ckutalik post negatively, I find it hard to believe that you never saw something that another referee did and go that is neat. Then later go ask him why he did it to see if it would work for your game.

    What Ckutalik has asked bloggers to do is no different.

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  23. @ Mr. Conley,

    "Sound nice, fails in practice. Why? Because creating your own dungeons and locales is not intuitive. How to run a game based off what your write is not intuitive. And devoting one page to each out of a 144 page rulebook doesn't cut it."

    Then I suspect that thousands of DMs who did so, including the players from LG and MN and including MAR Barker's crew were all just lucky in doing so with minimal guidance. [rolls eyes[.

    In the immortal words of EGG (which I still find humorous to this day, but fitting in this instance): "Jejune"

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  24. Challenge accepted and posted:
    http://www.msjx.org/2011/08/building-better-gm-challenge.html

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  25. Accepted and posted as well.
    http://rpgrantsandraves.blogspot.com/2011/08/dm-challenge.html?zx=b82b61dcf4e04147

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  26. Then I suspect that thousands of DMs who did so, including the players from LG and MN and including MAR Barker's crew were all just lucky in doing so with minimal guidance. [rolls eyes]

    Yes, and those players had great examples to learn from. They didn't need a lot of written instruction because they had Gygax, Barker, Arneson and yourself to learn from while they created their own material.

    My point isn't about whether people can learn how to referee roleplaying games on their own. It is obvious that many were successful. Pointing this out is a strawman argument.

    And what you don't mention is how many failed to run successful campaigns. Or how many just gave up on refereeing altogether. The issue to overcome today is how to get more people refereeing especially in the face of many similar options that didn't exist in the 1970s.

    What makes Ckutalik idea valuable it is one of many things that can be used get people over the common and uncommon pitfalls that the rest of us manage to overcome. Increasing the pool of people refereeing and allowing them to run a better game for everybody.

    And I guess I have to state this, by better I mean what ever better in the eyes of that particular referee. Not some mythical universal "one way".

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  27. Here's an appeal regarding the "Better GMing/DMing Challenge" - if you've got direct experience playing with some folks you'd consider the best DMs of all time, it'd be useful to hear what kinds of things they did at the table that really impressed you. Lots of those folks aren't with us anymore, but people that game with them are, so let's do what we can to pass the torch of knowledge, eh?

    DMing a table has more in common with oral storytelling than writing, and the oral tradition dies out if it's not passed on.

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  28. Challenge accepted and posted.
    http://vocaciouswright.blogspot.com/2011/08/building-better-gm.html

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  29. Challenge gratefully accepted. My post is up, just follow my name link...

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  30. I realized that if you link to my name that won't do you any good...

    Here is my link for the post concerning the challenge.

    http://morrisonmp.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/the-better-gm-challenge/

    Thanks.

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  31. I don't have three entries, but I just happen to by chance post one that is a discussion on creating suspense in RPGs. So I'm one of the cheaters, but only because I only read your followup post today, and din't notice that this was going on until just now. I hope it will at least add something to the discussion. I could add two more, and focus that one down a bit, but I doubt I will have time before the deadline. So, in case it is not completely useless, here you go:

    http://elthosrpg.blogspot.com/2011/08/suspense.html

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  32. Hopefully I'm not too late. I'd like to have it posted over at ENWorld, but their database decided to not like me just now. So here are my three best practices:

    1 Talk to your players
    It works because it's as simple as that. Players will most likely tell you directly what they want. And surely they'll show it indirectly through their actions. The players are the ones that judge your game so being a good DM is about making the judges happy.
    It's not tricky at all. Ask them. Watch them. Share your thoughts with them and ask for their opinion. It's not only about watching them at the table and listening to them like most people tell you. Surely that is an important part. But discussing your ideas and their ideas off game helps really a great deal. And it's totally simple.
    2 Be prepared.
    An adventure needs a story. A climatic end fight needs a BBEG (in most cases), a mystery needs a puzzle. If you are super-DM yourself your can do that on the fly. I can't and I guess almost any DM can't too. So you have to prepare it. Don't lay down the rails, but collect ideas what the adventure is about. Think out one possible solution to be sure there IS one solution. Select terrain and interesting monsters for your fights (at least to important ones). Surely your plan will crumble to dust once the players enter the field, but all the ideas and thoughts you had will then help you improvising.
    There is no trick in doing it. You just have to get your lazy ass in motion and do it. I know it's hard sometimes. But it pays off. Think out a plot, make up at least on solution and plan your main battles with terrain and interesting but non-frustrating monsters. Maybe adopt them even to the heroes abilities. Maybe chose one battle where the most liked and devastating power of one character is simply countered. Challenge them. And thin a little over the edges of your planned areal. As said, the players will ruin your plan, so you should have some rough ideas what happens around of it.
    3 Improve!
    This is probably the most important rule to me. Nobody is perfect, so you can always get better. There is always room. Even if you have a group and they really enjoy it (which is not the case often enough), you can get better. Maybe you'll discover fun nobody ever dreamed about? Maybe you'll invent a whole new way of fun.
    The trick is to get ideas where and how to get better. And that is done by getting into touch with other gamers. Every DM has his very unique style, so you can get inspiration from anyone. Join new games, go to cons, talk to DMs. Or simply read blogs in your leisure time. Most bloggers are DM (nobody else has the ego to write about his or her doings all the time). But if your are reading this, you probably have made step one and are reading blogs. Go on. Learn. Take a look at yourself, be your worst critic. Try out new ideas cautiously. If they work, ramp it up. If not, forget them. Nobody will blame you.

    My new ENWorld blog is here: http://www.enworld.org/forum/blogs/theclone/
    I'll post it there once it works. But I'd like to have a link to my German blog, if it's okay: www.herzliches-rollenspiel.de

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  33. Thanks for stirring things up, and sending them in an interesting direction. My tangential post on this can be found here: GM: The Core Principles

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