Monday, March 16, 2009

Mastering the Game - GMing Part 1

There's a lot of articles about game mastering on the web. I am sort of sad at the content in most of them. Most articles I read seem to think that the person elected to GM is either a novice who has never GMed before, or a retard who shouldn't be GMing anyway. Most guides have some silly idea of how to construct an adventure, and a million really boring plot hooks. Everyone other than Palladium Books has no idea how to instruct someone in the ways of GMing.

I absolve Palladium Books from all guilt - their GM's Guide is actually pretty good even if you've never played Rifts and never intend to.

A lot of people decry the 'really bad' examples of GMing, especially railroading and Monty Haul gaming. Obviously these extremes are bad, but saying that they are bad does absolutely nothing to teach us what to do. I'm going to, in more than one article, explain some of the fine arts of GMing in as much brutal detail as possible.

The first big hurdle to GMing, and the one that is the absolute most important thing, is that you should know the game you are playing. No, I don't mean know how to make characters and how to make attack rolls. I mean you should know exactly how everything in the game works. This is not always possible, but you should start by knowing perfectly what each of the players are capable of, alone and in concert. You need to be able to understand the synergies that occur between each of a player's abilities, and also the synergies between the players.

I know a lot of you are looking at me like "I have to know -everything- they can do?!" I do not think this is an unreasonable thing to say. I really think you should know everything in the rules, or at least everything that will be available to the players in the future. However, you should at the very least know what the player party as a whole can do, in exact detail.

The next question all of you are probably asking, is "why?" I'm sure there will be some arguments here about how the game rules are just guidelines, and the point of the game is to have fun. Believe me, I know this better than most. The first reason why you should know everything there is to know about the game, or at least to a massive degree more than the players, is so that the players don't have to. Your job as the GM is to run the game, to provide fun to everyone else. If you can answer the players' questions quickly, more time can be spent roleplaying and having fun.

Knowledge of what all the players can do in relation to the game also has another point to be had too. If you know exactly what all the players can do, you can design adventures a thousand times better. Knowledge of player abilities lets you give the players a multitude of solutions to a potential problem. Let's say your adventure path involves the players breaking into a manor and stealing a valuable item. Sure, they could charge in and kill everyone and take the loot, etc. But if you know one character has Stealth and Lockpicking and another character has Research, another has Ettiquette, etc. you can really tailor your adventure by letting the player with Research get floor plans to the manor. The player with Negotiation can get invitations to a party at the manor so the player with Ettiquette can get in and run distractions for the Stealthy thief who breaks in and steals the loot. A party mage can detect and notify the thief of possible magical wards and traps, and so on.

This is obvious stuff, and I'm -sure- you're thinking that, but the challenge can be geared very specifically to work in a way you want it to. What's the difficulty in scaling the manor walls? What about picking the locks? If you know the party's abilities you can plan that sort of thing in advance. Sure, they might charge through the door, and that's cool, but at least you were ready in case they got creative.

Combat is the most important reason you need to know though. A certain GM I played for did not know the rules for fly-by attacks in D&D 3e, and I had to tell him that the way he was playing it was wrong. In much the same way, you should know how immediate actions, opportunity actions, and other jargony terms work. You should know how all of the players' abilities work, so that they can make good use of them during the battle. Knowing all of the players' powers isn't so you can design a drop-down list of counters to them, but rather so you can make them feel useful and strong while at the same time presenting a good challenge to them so that they feel accomplished at the end of the fight. That's the difference between being a knowledgable GM and one that is unpracticed - encounters are too hard or too easy. Both are bad!

As soon as one of my players picks a class or ability, I look it up. I also ask them why, so I can hear a decent justification. Not all of us have the advantage of players who will give out all their plans for their character, but the player's justification gives us a good idea of where not to look when trying to find something abusive. I might give the player's explanation a cursory glance though.

To take an example from D&D 4e, say a player warlock chose the Star path on the basis that"Dire Radiance combined with the figher and paladin taunts gives bonus damage a lot of the time." Dire Radiance is a warlock ability that lets the warlock attack an enemy for low damage. If the enemy moves towards the warlock after being hit though, they have a chance to take some additional damage. Since the fighter and paladin taunts basically force foes into melee with the tank character, they have to take damage from Dire Radiance too. But Dire Radiance says "moves towards the warlock." This means that characters can push or pull enemies with other skills to force them to take damage, so it's worth looking for other things that can move characters around besides taunts (the paladin taunt is probably the most exploitative thing you can do with it, though, as an fyi for 4e DMs).

This was just an example, if a lengthy one, about the thought process you need to go through. Whenever you see an ability, the first thing you should do is read the entire text of the ability. The flavor text generally doesn't matter, but it may put some ideas in your head for story ideas later. The important thing is the functionality. After you've read over the ability and its flavor, you should read over the functional text again. Omit the flavor so that you can readily put in your head what the ability does exactly.

Simple things like "gives a +2 bonus to two skills" is easy enough to learn, but "if the target strikes you before the start of your next turn, you make your riposte against the target as an immediate interrupt: a Strength vs. AC attack that deals 1[W]+Strength modifier damage" is a little more complex (that's a damn level 1 rogue ability from 4e btw, wtf). We need to know a whole ton of stuff just to sort out what's going on in that attack. We need to know what constitutes the start of your turn, what an immediate interrupt is, and all that Strength vs. AC nonsense. I would also question the word riposte too, but it's actually not a technical term used by the game system. I'd look it up anyway - you never know.

Once we know exactly what all this technical stuff means, you know exactly how it works. A turn is based on initiative rolls, and it's pretty much impossible to get more than one turn in a combat round. You don't take extra turns otherwise, so extra attacks like this one aren't considered a turn. Then we know that the attack is an immediate interrupt. That means it actually happens before the opponent's attack even goes through. Once the interrupt fires, the opponent gets to continue attacking unless the riposte killed him or otherwise kept him from attacking. This ability also isn't triggered by anything except an attack, so anything that isn't an actual "attack" in its description won't trigger the ability. This ability only works against the target you hit with the initial attack, and not on any other targets. Because immediate actions can only be taken once a round, you can't do this more than once, nor can you couple it with other immediate actions of any kind in the same round. You also can't trigger it during your turn.

Whew! That's a lot of information, but now we know exactly what that skill does. We will never be surprised when it goes off, or maybe we will, but we won't be caught with our pants down when the player tries to say that it interrupts the opponent's action and it never goes off. This knowledge keeps us in control as GMs. It also lets us know what kind of abuses the player might put us through.

Keeping the GM in power is important. It's not because we need to have power trips, but it is because you cannot allow the players to rules-lawyer you. Oftentimes there is a niche clause in the rules somewhere that prevents a rules-lawyer player from running circles around you. If it is there, you need to find it. If players come up with some awesome synergistic combo that IS allowed in the rules, you should have feasibly seen it coming, because you looked at every little ability the players have.

This allows us to act within the game rules and not make up random, on the fly judgments about "you shouldn't be able to do that, I think it's dumb" or whatever. If you have to change something because your players abused it, it makes you look bad and often affects your mental state while GMing. If you made a decision about something ahead of time, then the players see that you're prepared and in control. I know about both sides of this coin firsthand, believe me.

One time in a game I was running I got into a minor conflict with a player about the function of thermal imaging. The player was right in this case (we actually had to look up the real function of thermal imaging to prove the case, as it wasn't really clear in the book) and it caused a small conflict about the outcome of the situation for the players. In the end it settled down, but I looked bad and unknowledgable.

On the same note, I've run numerous games where I have made many modifications in the name of balance. I talked over many of the changes with my players and explained why I felt what I did, and the majority of them agreed with the majority or all of my changes. Later on, when it became apparent that a particular skill was 'must-have' even in the changed rules (it was left unchanged as I felt it was more or less fair) I had to look it over and decided it gave too much benefit and retroactively changed it. While several of my players were using the skill at the time, they agreed with my decision because it was clear I had put a lot of thought into my other design decisions as well.

So this first article about GMing in depth is about knowledge. You need to have it!

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