A friend’s Facebook thread got me thinking about how the sweet science of game-running is taught and refined. Now, as you likely know, I’ve been writing for Tribality for more than four and a half years, and helping GMs hone their craft is a central element of our mission statement. But I also read a lot of online conversations in which (presumably) experienced players and GMs talk down to new players and GMs. This ain’t the way. In this post, I’ll touch on how I learned, specific things I learned, and so on.
The GMing Novitiate
There are, in a sense, only two ways to start learning game-running. The first, which is all but guaranteed to be the most common, is that you start as a player in a game someone else is running. Time passes, and you learn the ins and outs of the game from the PC side of the fence. Motivated by creative drive, the dissolution of that campaign, or (probably more rarely) discontentment with the current regime, you decide to strike out on your own. You get some oxen, some extra wagon wheels, definitely at least one spare axle, and dysente… no, wait. That’s something else. You get a group together and take your first turn behind the screen, using what you’ve learned from your experience as a PC. Depending on the rest of your experience with creative writing, improvisational theater, narrative structure, parsing rules, and so on, your new campaign might or might not be heavily inspired by the one(s) you’ve played, because that’s the way to game that you know.
Or you do what I did, which is less common. Thanks to the wide distribution of the D&D Starter Set, though, it’s a lot more common than it was when I started out. You buy some materials, which might or might not be all that you need in order to play, because you have to read the fine print to figure out what you need and it’s all expensive. With the Dungeon Master’s Guide (or whatever, but D&D is the most popular tabletop gaming brand in history by many orders of magnitude) as your only teacher, you start doing this thing.
There’s a third option now available that was unthinkable when I started: you can watch acclaimed GMs do their jobs as a spectator, thanks to Twitch, YouTube, and similar wonders of the internet. I don’t personally know of anyone who has learned their GMing from streaming video of other GMs (as their primary means, that is), but it’s happening. In any case, I think there’s a ton of promise in this department. We’re also seeing a few more Actual Play streams run behind-the-scenes commentary, which can be a huge boon to teaching the art.
Beyond the Novitiate
Setting aside streaming games, there are basically three sources for improving your game-running: development through practice, reading, and podcasts or streaming shows. Taking the last one first, I am sure there are a ton of great YouTube shows and podcasts out there that go into great detail on how to improve your GMing, of which Matt Colville may be the most famous. (This is as separate from the many, many shows that discuss gaming content in general.) Honestly, there’s more out there than anyone could ever listen to.
Reading might include every kind of source: blogs (Harbinger of Doom!), Tribality and other sites, various books titled Dungeon Master’s Guide (the 5e DMG has a wider variety of useful content than you might have noticed), tabletop games other than the one you’re planning to run, books of advice like Nightmares of Mine, and so on. I want to talk about a few of the sources that I have found compelling lately.
In addition to kicking off the whole Powered by the Apocalypse thing, AW and Dungeon World do an amazing job of reframing the flow of play and showing how the game-runner is an active participant rather than a passive referee, and the GM’s actions control tension both in a scene and over a longer span.
Particularly in the context of D&D 4e-like skill challenges, I’ve talked about how there’s not a clear “DM’s Turn” – a point at which NPCs, fate, or environmental hazards can make life harder for the PCs. In combat, this is obvious: NPCs act in initiative order, and fate or the environment acts on initiative count 20 (losing ties). That is, you don’t have to be a legendary creature in your lair for an encounter to have “lair” actions. AW (and probably most PBTA games) has clear times when the MC (AW’s term for GM) makes something happen, and that something almost always ratchets up the tension.
The other big thing I get from reading AW and DW is creative setting of stakes, which those games store in the outcomes of their moves. More informed writers than I have talked at very great length about the structure of AW moves; what I want to point to here is the thorny choice that most moves offer in the outcomes of rolls. These range from “gain only a few of these good things” to “prevent only one of these bad things,” and everything in between; moves that push a combination of those onto the player fire my imagination like nothing else.
I’ve read 13th Age a little bit at a time for the History of the Classes column, and what I love most its Icons. To be a little jargon-y, Icons are AW’s threats crystallized into a character, firmly attached to a PC’s character sheet at the start of play, and offered as a tool for both the player and the GM. This is the reminder that enemies always crop up again at the least convenient time, friends are there to help you (but also have complications), and complicated relationships are the best kind in roleplaying games. I could do myself a lot of favors if I fully engaged with this idea and wrote out the thirteen top power centers of my campaign, and let players attach to three of them. With my campaign’s blend of city-scale, domain-scale, and cosmic powers, I would probably tell every player to pick one cosmic power, one city power, and one of any scale. Think how easy it will be for them to remember who’s who when that name is a stat on their character sheets.
Dungeon Master’s Guide II
Okay, I admit, I haven’t read this lately. I just want to talk about the fact that the first DMGs of 3e and 4e are useful technical manuals on how to achieve minimum competency and make a game happen. To be fair to them, there’s a lot to cover, so they have to sacrifice some detail. Both of the DMG IIs profited immensely from the passage of time and, presumably, listening to fans who had been using the first DMG of each edition. They introduce new bits of game technology to shake things up, as well as offering plenty of advice.
I confess that I’ve never gone in for tailoring sessions to player motivations, which was indisputably the hotness of game-running advice when the 4e DMG II was published, and had been for quite awhile. I run games on the presumption that some players are shy and some are not, some like combat and some don’t enjoy it as much, but everyone likes encountering challenges and demonstrating the ability to overcome them – whether that means eloquence in conversation, tactical and character prowess, remembering the right fact at the right time, or having the needed spell, I think everyone likes to contribute to a team and sense that their contribution was valued. The kinds of people who fall outside this very broad description… probably won’t like my games, and I have to be at peace with that. I don’t believe that the desired end-point for master-class game-running is appealing to 100% of potential players, because some people don’t enter the game in a good-faith effort to enjoy it and let others do the same. (Thankfully, this is rare in my personal experience.)
Two elements of the 4e DMG II that made it so useful when it came out are its revamp and deep discussion of skill challenges and its excellent pages on alternative rewards. Probably everyone reading this already knows this, but skill challenges are one of the pieces of rules tech that set 4e apart from D&D editions before or since. Skill challenges are, in brief, intended to pose a meaty challenge, with a meaningful chance of failure, without using combat directly. What worked and what didn’t in that system is outside the scope of this article, but expanding on and revising what the first 4e DMG presented was much needed.
Technically, 2e didn’t have a DMG II, but the blue-cover series – especially Creative Campaigning and Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide – did their level best to be that. I found those to be very inspiring to read between sessions – descriptions of what one might aspire to, I suppose – but hard to apply directly. I think there’s a good chance that my brain is just monstrously, idiosyncratically uncooperative, when it comes to applying game-running lessons in session planning or the heat of the moment. As someone who writes a lot of game-running advice, I have to hope the rest of you get more directly-applicable material out of my text than I do out of most text.
The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide
There was a whole Thing on Twitter a few weeks ago about whether the 5e DMG succeeds or fails as a text. That’s way behind the scope of this article! Instead, I want to highlight a few cool things from skimming through it again.
Page 6: This is a one-page summary of Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, my copy of which coincidentally arrived today. Thanks for the birthday present, Rabbit!
This is about how to target players with content they’ll enjoy. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of it as a model for the GM to engage with the players. I do know people whose tastes are simple enough that they fit neatly in one of its categories, but IME, 90%+ of all players are Storyteller-and-other.
To de-jargonize the ways of appealing to a Storyteller:
- use players’ content (backgrounds. past actions) to guide & inform story
- make each encounter advance the story
- give NPCs meaningful personalities that you get some kind of benefit out of understanding.
That’s literally the core of collaborative storytelling right there. These are DW-style GM Principles, if incomplete. They’re stated broadly enough that a truly new DM may need more help turning that guidance into something actionable. I know I often struggle to turn maxims and truisms into implemented content. But it’s only page 6!
Acting, Exploring, and Instigating are also universal to TTRPGs, or at least their bullet points are. It’s easier to imagine a game without Fighting, Optimizing, or Problem Solving, though those would be unusual for D&D.
Page 314: Jumping to the other end of the book, we get a collection of maps. 8 different locations: a 2-masted ship, a recognizable update of a classic 1e DMG map, and so on. These are especially useful for a one-shot evening of play! Back in 4e days, I ran a goodly number of one-shots off-the-cuff. I’d poke around on the internet for a map (thanks, old Wizards website!), flip through the MM for some likely-looking candidates, and stitch the encounters together with whatever story suggested itself. These maps are ideal for that kind of play, and they’re also great for the hexcrawl/saltcrawl mode of Ghosts of Saltmarsh. The dungeon, town, and overland-exploration maps are strong on water features, too!
Page 49: It’s a little thing, but I had previously missed the sidebar on Seelie and Unseelie Fey. It makes the unusual (relative to other games/settings) decision that many fey, including hags and fomorians, are outside the Court structure rather than being Unseelie.
On 48-49, we also get the Ethereal Plane. I have read this bit before, I just want to point it out as planar content that almost never gets showcased in adventures. If you want a Deep Cosmic Weirdness twist for an adventure, look no further. The Ethereal is a standout candidate for the Mirror Realm, if you liked the Dr. Strange movie as much as I did, and especially its conceit for how mages can throw down in a crowded city street without killing everyone.
Pages 72-81 are about as robust an adventure-building toolkit as you could want, followed immediately by a good but less exhaustive encounter-building toolkit. On the downside, this section is dense and potentially daunting. On the other hand, it skimps on nothing. t divides adventures into Location-Based, Event-Based, Mystery, and Intrigue. “Dungeon” is in the name of the game, so location-based gets a lot of love here. But it continues with a great section on Complications: Moral Quandaries, Twists, and Side Quests.
Huge numbers of blog posts – including my own – have taken any one piece of this toolbox and expanded it to 2,000 words. Doubling the length of this section wouldn’t help anything – at most, I’d suggest a page of flowcharts. There are Very Good Ideas here that WotC’s published adventures don’t use much, and that the MM doesn’t help you implement. “Villain can’t be defeated until you exploit their secret weakness” means what in encounter-building? Invulnerability? More legendary stuff?
Page 235 made me laugh. Third bullet point under Dice Rolling: “Rolling behind a screen lets you fudge the results if you want to.” All of the endless debates around whether fudging is ever okay, and the 5e DMG clearly sanctions it – as long as you deny doing it.
I have two things I want to say about the practice. First, I don’t hold with it; my players have secondary PCs, there’s not much they couldn’t recover from in time, and a later adventure that was a corpse run for an earlier party wipe makes sense in my campaign’s conceit. Second, take a hard look at how you’re setting the stakes. If either side of a Y/N result means the adventure can’t go forward or becomes a lot less fun, maybe it becomes Yes, And/Yes, But, or even No, But/No, And. (Use the latter VERY rarely.)
Page 242: Resolution and Consequences. STOP what you are doing and GO READ this page. Here’s the discussion of shifting stakes or introducing little twists as part of rolling exactly the DC or missed-by-1-or-2 rolls. The third bullet point is critical for any Mystery adventure.
Absorb the Culture
There are a lot of elements of game-running – good habits, bad habits, whatever – that no one writes down in books of game-running advice. Instead, they exist as a memetic virus parallel to the game-as-published. Spend five minutes sifting through a large online community and the things people talk about, and you’ll see a few of them. One of the most common is the DMPC, the pernicious idea that the DM can have a PC with full agency alongside the other players. (Note that I’m not talking about rotating-GM setups – I mean a PC in a session that person is running.) The reason I even know about DMPCs is that people start threads on message boards and FB groups to complain about them or ask if they’re “legal” within D&D. I’m going to casually guess that 99% of all references are slanted negatively, at least.
Of course, an NPC companion who comes on every adventure but doesn’t steal the spotlight – that’s a sidekick, not a DMPC. We just got rules for that, first in UA and then in the Essentials Kit! Nothing wrong with that – the details make all the difference.
In the earliest days of tabletop gaming, Gygax and Arneson had distinctly contrasting game-running styles, and reading accounts of other DMs from around that time only reveals further schism. It’s common for the early years of any creative endeavor to be a hothouse of new ideas. What’s interesting is that so many ideas have become part of the DNA of D&D for some players, but never entered the official text. Even if “incorrect,” they are essential elements of how people learn game-running. More regrettably, they shape a lot of people’s earliest experiences of running or playing D&D. The worse habits have permanently soured any number of people on D&D or the concept of a GM.
I’ve met people who talk about D&D as if it is unthinkable to have adventures outside the scope of “clear out that cave full of monsters.” Considering that my campaign has cloak-and-dagger political thriller elements alongside a struggle for control of the cosmos, this is as bizarre to me as claiming to actually like the taste of cilantro. (I’m one of those people who think cilantro tastes like soap and ruins meals even in minute quantities.) They’ve absorbed a culture in which D&D is one narrow thing, regardless of the text of every DMG since 2e to the contrary, while I learned to expect D&D to resemble and expand upon fiction and historical source material.
Capitalize on Experience
Okay, you’ve run some games. Maybe you’ve run a lot of games. Maybe you’ve been doing this for 26 years, as I have, or even more. How do you use that experience to improve, rather than repeating the same mistakes?
I wish I knew.
But you can start with detailed postmortems, whether that’s conversation with your players or self-reflection. I do both of these; it helps that I’m married to one of my players, so we have plenty of time to talk about what’s working and what’s not. I’ve also written session and storyline postmortems in my blog. I could still be doing a lot more with through-line theme, engaging combat encounters with fun terrain features, and creating space during a session for deeper character portrayal. Once I make some visible-to-me progress on those, I’ll find new problems. I hope so, anyway – there’s nothing worse than knowing you need to improve but not having even one thing to work on fixing.
I’m wrapping this post up now, but I’m interested in what creative resources have improved your game-running the most. I don’t need your personal Appendix N – I’m genuinely happy that you’re into Jack Vance, I am too – but talk about how his work informs your game-running. Books, blogs, podcasts, shows, streams, and influential friends: how did you learn to run games?