Monday, April 1, 2013

GM Bootcamp!

I don't have much to say about the concept of a Game Master Bootcamp, other than it should be a thing.  There's a bootcamp for everything else, why not one for becoming a better GM?  Of course, there are already a few blog and forum posts about "GM Bootcamp" out there in cyberland.  That's fine.  Great, even! In fact, I'd prefer it if there were hundreds of accredited bootcamps for Game Masters all over the world.

Even good DMs, Judges, Referees, Maze Controllers, Narrators, Storytellers, and Keepers of Arcane Lore could be doing better.  I am no exception.  My mastery of the game is not what it should be.  Fortunately, there's no better way of crystallizing one's knowledge into a practical application of the primary concepts than teaching.  That statement's probably debatable, but I think most people would agree that teaching a set of skills tends to improve that same skillset.

There are many wonderful books on GMing, and I hope to use those as a frame of reference for my bootcamp.  I'm going to examine various tips, pick them apart, and just see if they're worth copying down in our figurative spellbooks.

I'll keep adding to this particular blog post as time goes by, so feel free to keep coming back.  Ask questions or post your feedback (especially critiques of my wisdom).  That will greatly improve the usefulness of it.  Maybe one day I'll be able to host a face-to-face GM Bootcamp in the Bahamas for several hundred dollars a head.  Right now, I'll settle for helping out a couple gamers just because I love this hobby.

Ok, without further ado, here are a few random things I'm setting down for your perusal...

1.  The best in-person GM technique I picked up recently is this: fold a bit of paper in front of each player seated around the table.  On the outward side of the folded paper (think of a plastic fast food drive-up window number) write the character's name.  If there's a new guy or everyone's just met, then put the player's name on the card as well.  And anything else which might be pertinent, such as alignment, prominent physical feature (why not a little drawing?), deity worshiped, insignia, etc.  Especially if you're not using miniatures, I think the extra details, besides character name, are worth writing down.

I can't tell you the number of times I've wanted to use a particular character's name in the heat of battle or whatever only to have it escape my memory for a few seconds.  Then, of course, the moment's gone.  I end up saying, "Dude, you're guy gets hit."  Or "Jason's character falls off the ledge."  Well, not anymore.  This helps fellow players, too.  Hopefully, the quantity and quality of actual roleplaying will go up.

2.  There's a nice google+ community I belong to.  It's called "Game Master Tips".  An individual on there asked me how he could possibly incorporate an element from my blog into his Eberron campaign.  If the characters haven't fully explored a setting aspect yet, then now's your chance to incorporate something new, alien, weird, and non-standard.  OSR!  No setting book is a bible, just as there isn't a biblical core book of rules.  Do as thou wilt, DM, shall be the whole of the law!  Subverting expectations is great for elevating the players' sense of mystery - without it, your setting might become a bit predictable and dull.  So, do the unexpected!

Having to retroactively alter the game world is not cool, though.  "Hey guys, remember when I said that Half-Elves didn't exist in this world?  Well, yeah, I guess they do now because this adventure has a few Half-Elves in it.  Oops."  I don't recommend that.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways around it.  For instance:  a) what the PCs previously encountered was just the tip of the iceberg.  b) what the PCs were told was a false rumor or superstition (wishful thinking?)  c) a gateway to a new world recently opened up nearby - and that dimension is very different than this one.  d) magic!  Yes, the strangeness of sorcery can pretty much make anything possible.  e) the PCs fall into a parallel world or alternate reality where most things are the same, but a few things wildly diverge.  f) All that stuff which came before?  Just an illusion... or maybe that's what the Dark Gods wanted the PCs to believe?

3.  When the players have subverted the GM's expectations, what is he to do?  I asked for some examples of stuff that could flummox a GM.  I received some great suggestions:  What if a PC wants to act against the party?  How about when the GM wants to tailor-make an upcoming encounter for a particular PC?  Or there's an obscure rule for something a PC or NPC wants to try - you know it's somewhere in the book, but have to take a few minutes to read and consider options - what then?

All that stuff takes a bit of time; too much time to just sit there and make everyone wait without calling some kind of recess.  Isn't there a method of instantaneously deciding how things should proceed?  There's a choice GMs have to make.  Either take a 5 - 10 minute break, or roll some motherfucking dice!  Most of the time, I choose the latter.

In the end, whatever the rule book says doesn't really matter.  Stories need drama, excitement, the unexpected.  What could achieve that better than letting a couple ten-siders decide the outcome?  Ultimately, the GM decides the outcome based upon the situation, PC actions, intentions, game world, and all the little details swimming in his head.  First, he pics a likely scenario - how things would normally play out (all things being even) - and, second, he picks an unlikely scenario which, most of the time, would just be a lot of fun to watch (assuming, of course, that the GM is a heartless bastard who gets off on the voyeuristic pleasures of watching warriors and wizards suffer).

Will the cursed scimitar destroy the wand when it makes contact (as the PCs planned), or is there going to be a catastrophic explosion that rips a hole in time and space?  That second option gets a 33% of succeeding because that's what it always gets.  If there's a chance something spectacular (doesn't matter if it's spectacularly good, bad, funny, etc.) happens, then I roll percentiles and see if it comes between 01% and 33%.  Maybe one of the players suggests a possible outcome or it just makes sense or something popped into my devilish GM's brain.  Roll the dice. The game goes on.  No breaks.

Having said all that, I don't think players would have a problem with taking five (or even ten).  While the GM schemes, the rest of the table can get snacks, go to the bathroom, figure out what they're going to do when the game resumes, or ponder their character's next level advancement.

But before calling a stop in the action, consider if this break (and the understanding it might yield) would really heighten some aspect of the game, or unnecessarily delay it.  After a couple seconds consideration, experience will tell a GM if rolling is preferable to stopping.

One last piece of advice, if I was going to call for a break, then I wouldn't make it any longer than ten minutes, and I definitely wouldn't call for more than 1 per session.  The 33% rule.  It works, my friends.  Sometimes, it almost works too well.  ;)

4.  Don't be a pushover, GM!

If you don't want to tolerate disruptions, like cell phones or email checking, then speak up.

Some players will bellyache or grumble in the moment when something unexpected happens.  That's part of our sadistic fun!  Take a few moments after the game and ask yourself if you're really being too hard on everyone or a specific individual.

When players constantly bug the GM about playing some super-powerful race or class or whatever, then find out the reason.  If it's a non-powergamer reason, then allow it with appropriate restrictions.  If it's just about being superior to everyone else, then shut it down with a diabolic laugh and a flourish of your black cape (if you don't have one of those... that might be the problem).

Be tough, but fair.  Hear everyone out, and then try to be generous without overdoing it.

5.  Minimize assumptions!  Before the game starts - or in the middle if you've already began the campaign - send out a survey.  This is the briefest one I could think of...

Based on your previous gaming experience, tell me what are your A) must haves, B) likes, and C) DO NOT WANTs in a roleplaying game.

Getting that information is like having a +7 bonus to be awesome.  Even individuals who reply back with, "I just want a good adventure" have given you something to go on - they're low-maintenance with an easy going attitude.  Preparation like that is greater than spending hours honing your next session's combat tactics.

While you're at it, ask yourself the same thing, GM.  What should your ideal sessions must have, probably include, and get thee behind me, Satan!

Now, there's 5 things - with more to come.  What else would you like to ask, submit, or think I should consider?



  1. Nice article, Venger. I absolutely love to learn to be a better GM. If Chris Perkins did a real GM bootcamp I might have to do that one!


  2. Thanks, Chris!

    Stay tuned to this post, give the ideas some thought, try stuff out, and there's no reason you can't be as awesome a GM as Chris Perkins.


  3. I wrote an enormous thing about my DMing philosophy while I was wrapping up a long 4E campaign.

    I mention my Rule Zero at the end. When I revise this, I'm going to put this at the beginning. This is it:

    SHUT UP AND LISTEN: When someone says something that surprises you, something you don't anticipate, something that contradicts your understanding of the game's canon, then you should

    stop talking
    stop thinking
    light a match so you're ready to burn your expectations
    start listening

    And only after you've engaged those four steps should you begin playing the game again.


  4. Interesting stuff. I'll check out the link. Thanks, johnzo!