Gm Interview: Christopher Burdett
This week we interview Chris, a free flowing GM who enjoys using a variety of game mechanics, from dice to jenga blocks, to bring his adventures to life.
Please introduce yourself
Christopher Burdett – Not the same one that does art for WotC, however.
Do you have a blog, website or campaign wiki?
I don’t leave my campaigns out in the open at the moment, but I have considered it. If I found there was significant enough interest in my work, I wouldn’t hesitate to put one up.
How long have you been a GM?
I have been a GM since 1991, now for over 2/3 of my life. My first roleplaying experiences were in early AD&D 2nd edition games run by my older siblings and their college friends.
I approached them as the annoying kid brother and in a moment they might regret now, didn’t anticipate my tenacity and said I first had to have my Player’s Handbook, have read it cover to cover, and have a set of my own dice.
It’s a good way to know if a young newbie really wants to play, and play I did. It would only be a year before I began running my own games with peers from grade school.
What are your favourite games to run?
I spend a good amount of time running Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Mage: The Ascension, and these days a lot of indie titles.
I occasionally pit my core player group against 24 Hour RPG products that are released on 1km1kt.net; I highly recommend looking through them for freebies.
How did you first get into GMing?
When I started playing, I was not yet a teenager, and it took up at least one day a week. Friends my own age got curious about it. They asked what I was doing with my brothers on those days that had me so busy, and they begged me to run a game for them.
It was only a few weeks before a group of misfits came together: the poor kid, the class clown, the morbid art girl, the curious wealthy kid, and the quiet nerd.
I was the poor kid, so it was quite the rush to have them all focusing on me. It would be a few years before I DM’d anything other than AD&D, but it was like my world exploded in all directions as an older friend handed me Mage: The Ascension and said, “I don’t know anyone who could run this, but you might be interested in reading it.”
I devoured the book, which is daunting in retrospect, and contacted him the next day to say I’d give running it a shot. I’ve DM’d thousands of sessions in dozens of games since then.
How has GMing affected your life over the years?
GMing gave me a creative outlet that both school and other hobbies could not—it allowed me to hone my skills as an oral storyteller.
Oral storytelling was the primary way our species passed on its history for thousands of years, happens around the campfire when you tell a ghost story, in a class presentation when you give a speech, and in the business board room when all eyes are on you, expecting an answer.
It made me quick at responding, adlibbing reasons for events occurring, and gave a significant boost to my ability to see the world through another person’s shoes.
Although I doubt science will give GMing much of a look, in my experience it also has a heavy effect over a person’s empathy. It does bring out moments where it’s too natural to be an egotistical monster that uses GM power against players, but at other times, gives us opportunities to help other people develop their precious creative ideas.
I find great joy in every time I can inspire a narrow-minded Drizzt Do’Urden wannabe to make an original concept character. As a GM, you get to help people make that transition from playing stereotypes to playing new masks of themselves.
Your GMing Stat Block
What is your usual gaming schedule?
1-3 game sessions a week. Usually there is at least one out-of-town GM who comes in for a once a month game, while I run an evening game each week, and another GM takes up a rotation on every second Friday.
There are weeks where we play Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Because of this rotation those weeks are tiring but awesome.
Sessions are everywhere from 4 hours to 12 hours, depending on the frequency of the game. Games that happen less often tend to be a lot longer, while frequent games are more like vignettes.
As a teenager, I GMed every available day off and for whole weeks of free time during summers. But with the pressures of work, school and life needs, it becomes a lot harder to get together.
It has to be a priority to make it work, or groups drift apart. But it’s natural when they do—life must go on, and it’s important you respect your players and their needs to get out in the world and experience it.
Where do you play?
We have played in apartments, in houses, on university campuses and in available low-traffic public places. It depends on what you can get your hands on, how old you are and what the rules are.
Most of our games are either in my apartment or on campus in unused public spaces these days. But when I was younger, we spent a lot of time in peoples’ basements or anywhere with enough sitting space to keep us comfortable.
Do you use published material or create your own?
Both. From my writing desk, I can see a fringe of the collection I’ve bought; all of D&D 3.5, Iron Kingdoms, Spycraft, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, the new World of Darkness (the base game in blue covers is far better than the expansions), Exalted, and so on.
But hidden around the space are copies of indie games like Dread, which uses a Jenga tower as its mechanic. It sounds weird at first, but it is incredible at building apprehension during a horror game. Very little system, a whole lot of play, and very simple solutions to complicated problems.
Over time, I began to discover that most of the things I want to do in a game, I can come up with on my own. The biggest hurdle was knowing how to construct systems, and spending a little time reading high-theory blogs like lumpley.com and wandering the Forge over at indie-rpgs.com made me realize that system is there to settle conflicts rather than create them.
Every since then, it’s a matter of finding an agreement with my players on how conflict is settled—anything from a coin-flip or Jenga pull to a traditional die roll—and then telling each other a story.
System is important when someone starts out. It gives them the rules they need to feel comfortable in the game world they are imagining, but as players become more experienced, there are times where the system just holds you down.
My personal game system, which I’ll find time to release for free online at some point, is based entirely on flat comparisons of stats, so that a hectic combat can happen in hectic near-real time to keep people from sitting around twiddling their thumbs while the wizard tries to decide which spell is best that round.
My advice for that? Don’t give them time to worry. The world doesn’t. And don’t punish them with terrible outcomes if they don’t do what you expect they’ll do. The game has to stay organic and roll with the action.
What non-digital and electronic GM aides do you use (other than books)?
These days I make extensive use of Google Docs. I keep my entire campaign in living, growing documents, where every note I add will be kept for all of time. It lets me create a third-party space for my players to go in and out of, leave me messages between games, explore character development, and track expenditures and leveling where necessary.
In addition, since Google’s data centers will probably be around until the end of time, it keeps a campaign from going missing into the piles of textbooks and notebooks that fill my adult life, so I can pick up a campaign after a hiatus, or use the materials in a later game.
If I could still find all of the materials I had written in the past, I could be a published game designer ten times over by now. But life gets crazy, you need to keep track of that stuff, and if you don’t, it’s like losing a piece of your life.
Minis or no? What do you use for minis, and how do you use them?
Minis are sometimes food. Namely in complicated, large-scale conflicts where players have a good bit of mobility or ranged combat to worry about. It speeds those moments up incredibly, but miniatures can become a crutch for the GM and players if they’re not careful.
After a while, players begin to associate their characters with the miniatures and have difficulty playing them without a mat on the table. This limits the kind of spaces you can play in, and keeps you from being able to enjoy spontaneous games, because everyone (or just the GM) have to remember to bring everything with them every time.
In most of my games, I like to let my players get crazy with the scenery and utilize their creativity to solve problems, rather than relying on squares moved and blast templates. If they had something concrete to work with, I would never get to see their first reaction be to collapse the ceiling on the dragon rather than fight it, because with the room all drawn out and the miniatures all in place, they wouldn’t be thinking in 3 dimensions.
When we are having fun, we tend to be pretty lazy if all of the rules are right in front of us. It makes it too easy not to think hard about a problem.
Minis really are a to-each-their-own kind of thing. Some GMs are way more comfortable describing a scene laid out in front of them. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but I prefer my games to take up all of the space of a dice bag and laptop in my courier bag, rather than a full backpack, a mat tube, and a bag or box full of carefully packed miniatures that I have to keep buying so I can change up my stories.
Our games are limited to our imaginations only, especially when you homebrew your settings, and it adds a lot of legwork when you need miniatures for everything.
Section Two: Opportunities
What is your biggest GMing stumbling block right now? What could you do to fix that?
As a GM, I have a terrible problem with flagging enthusiasm. I can keep some games going for 1-2 years, but others only last 4-6 sessions. It’s like the difference between a story, a vignette, a novella, a novel and a novel series.
When I start a game, I have to sit down and work out how many original ideas I have and figure out if it will be a novella or a novel, and stick to my guns on that.
It’s too easy for everyone to have a lot of fun in a short story and have them beg for it to be a campaign, then give in, even though I have no idea where I would want to take it, and no enthusiasm toward the idea myself.
Creativity makes us a little crazy when it has us in its claws, so we have to know our limits. Too many players or too many plotlines can destroy the memory of a good campaign.
When was the last time you were a player? What insight about GMing did you pick up?
I still play at least as much as I GM, and with very good reason: so I can remember what it is like to be a player. It keeps me in their mindspace and listening to what they want, so I can help make the game match what everyone wants rather than just what I want.
It is like learning—just because you are the teacher all of a sudden, doesn’t mean you aren’t still a student of the game. I have learned so many wonderful things from other GMs that have run games for me from among my friends and at conventions.
The biggest insight I gained from it was the need to encourage mastery of the games for the players. When someone joins our group and plays for a while, I encourage them to try running something in the empty scheduling gaps.
At first it was hard, because you get used to the attention and rules calls being yours. But if you fight it, you discover which of your players are good at GMing, and often these people will be your biggest allies when you GM a game.
They understand what it is like to be in your shoes, to juggle life, papers, family problems, etc. with running games. Players are more forgiving when they know how much work it is to run a quality game.
Describe your perfect gaming session with you as GM.
The perfect gaming session for me happens on a day off, which for most gamers seems to be a Saturday or Sunday. It starts around 2-3pm in the afternoon with everyone (3-8 players) coming together in a large space free of outside distractions, bringing snacks and enthusiasm with them.
Then the chatting begins—every group has to get its tangents out because often we game with our friends, and when we don’t, often who we game with become our friends. Friends need to chat, compare life notes, et cetera, or else they will distract the heck out of your game with every sudden realization of “Oh, I forgot to tell you guys about….”
When that happens, it means you need to spend more time just hanging out beforehand or on other days.
After the chattering we start play. Everyone comes together in a reasonably close circle with good personal space. This could be chairs scattered around a tiny apartment, or chairs around a boardroom table, but everyone should have a pretty equal distance between them. It makes it easier to hold peoples’ attention while you talk with them, and gives everyone a good line of sight while you describe concepts.
I begin the recap of the last game, or by going over the world concept of a new session, describing recent events, timestamping important moments of recent history, pointing out important community figures, looming enemy forces, etc.
Then I ask, “So, what are you each doing at this very moment?” and encourage them to explain some mundane details of their characters’ lives. One is eating at their favorite restaurant, another is visiting a brothel, another is crafting something at home or minding a shop, another is bored and sitting in a public place panhandling.
These tiny details tie them to the characters’ day to day lives. And that is where the conflict begins. All games are about some kind of conflict between two forces, with the players involved directly or caught within the conflict.
At that moment I drag them into it, either all at once, or one at a time, highlighting each character for a few minutes to get a feel for them.
Once the game is in full steam and people are bantering in-character, I run the plot line I had in mind. Sometimes it comes from notes, other times from a collection of incredibly detailed images, snapshots of major scenes, that I have gathered since last session.
Some from snippets of songs I heard or bits of news I’ve read, subtly incorporating what is happening in the world right now with the events in the game, no matter the time period. It helps keep everyone attached to the reality we’re building in the game world and gets stress out.
The game lasts 5-7 hours minus a few short breaks, until minds are tired and everyone is ready to break up, find dinner, get some sleep, and so on. My ultimate goal is that everyone leaves feeling as if they just read book they took part in writing, wondering what will happen next.
I want them to wonder where all that time went, and feel more relaxed when they go back to dealing with their normal life. We game to have fun, and to get all of the crap out of our systems; in my perfect game, it always does.
Section Three: GMing Style
What are the top qualities you look for or need in a player?
A clear understanding of each person at the table’s roles, an ability to separate what makes a good story from a well-ruled game, and the flexibility to listen to what the GM says and think, “Ok, so that happens.” without fighting over every tiny rule they can remember from the book.
Describe in a few words each of your players and their playing style.
The ecologically serious male ranger trapped in a woman’s body who makes decisive and unalterable calls, willing to burn the world to save it.
The modern artistocrat who plays the bad man social deviant with the strong moral code and thinks homicide is justified to save a kitten. 100% pure antihero but always out to save the world.
The mad scientist with the IT day job, who spends his nights dreaming of Victorian life. He deconstructs the scenes he takes part in from behind an old man’s eyes, while looking for loopholes the party can use to game the GM.
The three-term three-service soldier/sailor/airman who walks hard, leaving no doubt he’s in charge, but plays the socially shy misfit teenage kids that always have something goofball to say.
The self-tortured starving artist with a mind full of incoherent images that bring an unconventional approach to anything she touches. The lady gunslinger and ambush assassin who always goes first if the system allows.
The zen psychologist with his eyes on the ivory ring, who vacations inside the emotions of his sneaky rogues while pulling wool over the eyes of others; as misunderstood by other players as by NPCs.
The quiet overachiever who doesn’t speak up much but pre-empts the game session with a 10 page character history that forces a GM to do their homework on the setting. Plays in advance, already aware of a hundred options for every situation.
The shut-in creative genius who lives a life of video games and vivid dreams, but shows up at the game on time, in character, and always ready to be the sly snake or the brave barbarian—living out through games the childhood fantasies we all wish we could hold onto.
Describe in a few words your group’s playing style.
Inverted, deconstructive, unexpected, lateral and hair-pullingly challenging. Every solution is reasonable, intelligent and frighteningly articulate, and keeps the GM jumping from one foot to the other to stay ahead of the blast wave.
Describe in a few words your GMing style.
I am an ad-hoc GM. My style is to construct the world in my head, describe it, motivate it, give voice to the NPCs (often with accents) and completely ham it up. I’m an actor speaking tongues in four voices at once before a small audience, begging them to act back at me.
What is your best GMing skill or ability? What advice would you give to a GM wanting to improve in that area?
My best GMing skill is in lying to my players about how prepared I am. Some of the best games anyone can remember came from a session in which I entered, confident, looking like I had the whole thing planned. In reality, I was well-rested, underplanned and in a playful mood.
But your players are your most creative force for building the story. You’re there to guide them. So sometimes, they will try to describe a scene back at you in a way that is far superior to what you had in mind, changing who the killer is, what the enemy wants, and so on, to the benefit of the story.
If you are trying to learn to run a great story, try to figure out which of those player ideas will work better in your story, and when they bring them up, wink at them as if to suggest they are right. Or coyly smile but not say anything, making a note to change something in the base plot to match.
It makes them feel like they genuinely figured out a mystery of the plot themselves and greatly increases their enjoyment.
Over time, it’s become an open secret in my play group, and honestly, they wouldn’t enjoy the horror games half as much if they weren’t constantly stabbing themselves in the foot by opening their mouths with something terrifying.
What is your typical session planning process?
I am planning every minute between sessions by keeping what happened in mind, and taking in the world. There is inspiration everywhere: music, advertisements, movies, conversations, research studies, household objects, strange videos on the Internet and whatever else I trip across.
I once ran an entire Iron Kingdom’s arc from one line in a Marilyn Manson song I heard by accident.
Other games are an image that fills a daydream when I’m trying to distract myself from another mundane task, and I just reverse engineer the plot to get the characters there, and figure out where it will go after.
It doesn’t work for every GM, but after enough years, you get a feel for what a group can and cannot handle in an encounter, so I can adlib a decent amount of it, but I like to keep in mind their capabilities.
To a young GM, it is important to know what the players can do, but not to count on what the characters can do. Never plan a scene where one specific spell off a single spell list will solve it, or create a fight only one character who secretly has special weapon can defeat in a blink if only they knew to use it.
Why? Because they might not think of the same solution, they may not even pull out that special weapon, and heck, that one person may not even show up for that one session.
What are your favourite online resources for GMing?
GoogleDocs, which I mentioned earlier.
Blogs and websites—these are sporadic, but there is gold in their RSS feed histories. I use Google Reader to look back at them. Many I have printed into PDF ebooks for myself because they are so fascinating.
http://www.fairgame-rpgs.com/ (see the links for ritual, rpg theory, and freeform over on the right side)
A Universal Gaming Theory (I don’t agree with all of it, but good food for thought.)
A background in Principled Freeform (think of it as the extreme version of a rules-light system, or improv theater)
What tools or aides do you wish would be created or invented to help you GM easier?
I often wish someone would come up with a product like Github or Sourceforge, but for developed games, so that people could host a gamewiki or similar from it, get feedback and “bug issues” from players, then incorporate it into new versions of the game for either free distribution or updates to production runs of published games.
It would mean that game worlds could easily cross-reference with each other and create interactive cross-dimensional gameplay, not unlike playing Stargate, but with a thousand systems.
After working through these question and getting a 10,000 foot view of your GMing, what is the number #1 thing you’d like to learn about and work on next to become a better GM?
I would like to spend some time working on ways to take my materials and structure them to give away.
Since I do a lot of ad-hoc game design, rules restructuring, and world building, it gets jumbled up despite a pretty decent system for sorting all of it.
I however have trouble sometimes pulling a project together and creating a product (free or otherwise) from it.
GMing for so many years means I get a lot of my thrill from watching a game in play, less from watching someone’s joy at holding a copy of my work. I’m getting better at it all the time, but I need to spend a lot more time developing it.[interview-request]