Ten Tips For Stress-Free Gamemastering

From Kevin Davies

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0020

Like many gamers, when I first entered the hobby, I thought that it was desirable and even necessary to have rules to account for the outcome of every possible character action or environmental condition. Thick rulebooks were the norm, although roleplay games were typically thin on descriptive and inspirational background material.

While gamemastering a gaming group over a 10 year period, my outlook changed because of factors:

  • Many of the rules established by the games I played didn’t provide what I thought was an ‘adequate simulation’ of the actions I was trying to recreate in my adventures
  • Many rules inevitably led to numerous game stoppages requiring rulebook consultations and occasional player debates

Additionally, I rarely had the time to prepare a detailed adventure in advance for the weekly session — I was forced to wing-it. Drawing on these GMing experiences, I’ve put together the following tips for stress-free and fun-filled gamemastering.

1. Make Having Fun Your Goal

More than anything else, keep in mind that the primary objective of playing any game is for everyone to have a good time — the GM and all the players. The satisfaction of having spent your time well, in the company of people whose companionship you’ve enjoyed, and together experienced an adventure, is what it’s all about.

2. Give Everyone a Chance To Participate

Both GM and players need to cut others some slack — especially if they’re new to roleplaying. Offer roleplaying suggestions where appropriate but don’t roleplay other people’s characters for them. While you should not discourage the louder, enthusiastic players, they should not be the only ones who get to influence the outcome of the game. Make an effort to involve shy or quiet players by asking each player in turn (after describing the current game events that pertain to their character), “What are YOU doing now?”

3. Play With People You Like

You should not feel obligated to play with people you dislike or who dislike you. If you think you’ve given another player a fair chance to fit in with your group and they continue to be abrasive or disruptive, tell them in a friendly way what they’re doing that’s upsetting and give them the option to change their behavior or leave the group.

4. There Are Two Types of Games: Character Hostile and Character Neutral

Tell the players which style you’re using (or give them the option of choosing) before gameplay begins. Character Hostile games were common in the early days of roleplaying and most often take the form of dungeon crawls. A Gamemaster creates an environment full of nasty creatures hoarding lots of treasure, while the players, knowing full well that the GM is out to kill their characters (and in some cases, the characters are out to kill each other), enter and try to emerge wealthy and in one piece.

Character Neutral games are best for realistic scenarios and prolonged campaigns. The gamemaster, rather than taking the side of the creatures and competing against the PCs instead presents situations and conflicts that contribute to making the most interesting story possible. Situations which allow character development and the accumulation of a personal history should be pursued.

5. Use the Simplest Rules You Can Find That Make Sense To You

The rules you choose will often reflect the seriousness of the stories you wish to roleplay. Humorous games, where character death rarely occurs (though great pain and embarrassment is frequent), are well suited to a minimalist system — even diceless.

Serious games, where character death is a real and ever-present danger, may require more specific rules to convince the players that the GM is unbiased when they reveal that a character has taken a bullet to the leg and must now suffer wound trauma. Use the level of detail that is right for your game. Be consistent and fair.

I personally prefer a system where either a d10 or d100 is used for practically all rolls. Occasionally, I include d6’s for a smaller numeric range of inflicted damage. All skills are expressed as a percentage. All Stats (rolled against when no skill is available or applicable) are factored up to a percentage. Use details of current conditions as modifiers to action resolution rolls by applying +/- 5% toward the target number prior to rolling. Simple. Fast. Effective.

6. Only Roll Dice When Necessary

There are two situations where it is desirable for a GM or player to roll dice:

  1. When an action resolution result is required that can’t reasonably be provided by a direct GM response.
  2. When you want to scare a player into thinking that you’ve got something up your sleeve and thus keep them on their toes — this is an artificial means that the GM can use to instill tension into a situation when the players’ roleplaying skills are not capable of adequately providing it for their character.

At any other time you can simply provide a description of the outcome of a character’s action attempt.

7. Don’t Hold Back a Character

If a character’s desired action seems plausible, let them attempt it and use the outcome (successful or not) to stimulate the plot of the adventure. Some GMs will limit their players by stating that their character can’t even attempt a specific act. This results in timid players and a less exciting game. Try not to deny characters the opportunity to attempt things — let players set their characters’ own limitations based on their experiences of past failures.

8. Play to the Characters

Get to know each character’s distinctions. Over the course of the adventure, provide at least one event or encounter specifically geared to their interests, skills, traits, or weaknesses. If another character takes the bait instead, go with it. However, if you’ve constructed the situation correctly, it should be clear that the party must address the situation through the targeted character.

9. Go With the Flow

This is crucial to stress-free gamemastering and difficult for some to apply. If you’ve established an outline or script for your plot in advance and the characters take a sudden turn that causes them to omit a location or event, let it go.

Remember, players don’t know what cool thing they’ve missed — they’re responding to events as they’ve encountered them. Concern yourself with what logical encounter or event the characters would experience on their new course, rather than worrying about what could have been.

10. Let the Adventure Write Itself

If you’re GMing without a predetermined and detailed plot, pay attention to what the characters say and do and use their successful actions (and failures) as windows of opportunity to introduce NPCs and events (e.g., a crisis or opportunity requiring a quick response) into the developing story.

When you confront characters with an event or encounter, try to consider two or three possible outcomes to the situation and how they might impact on the plot. Ask yourself: “What 3 possible things could happen next?”

Then, when the Characters act in response, you can smoothly present whatever events that flow logically from the situation. If the Characters act in a way that you did not consider, again, go with the flow and see where it leads. You will often be thrilled by the results.

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Kevin Davies is the president and creative director of Peregrine. Peregrine produces the humorous roleplay games MURPHY’S WORLD and BOB, LORD OF EVIL, plus ADVENTURE AREAS miniatures gameplay surface, GRIT miniatures rules, and ADVENTURE AUDIO background music.

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Reader Tips

Is it Considered Pathetic To Use Movies for Misc. Plot Elements?

Johnn: It’s absolutely not pathetic. In fact, taking inspiration from books and movies is a fantastic way to build your stories and plots. It’s important that you disguise things though, such as names of people, places and things. And avoid the really obvious plots, such as stealing from the rich to give to the poor, etc. If the players catch on then the mood and atmosphere of your game could be ruined. A good trick is to take two plots and mix them up a bit.

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What Do You Do With a Vengeful Player

You see, we run 3 games, my Heavy Gear game, a Whitewolf game & a MW3 game. But I accidently screwed up someone’s plot & let’s just say they didn’t take it well. I’m almost sure he will do something similar in spite. Should I just set his target numbers a bit higher or what?

Johnn: This is a tough one. I wouldn’t use roleplaying in any way as a weapon to “get someone back”. The whole purpose of playing games is to have fun, right? So, if possible, have a chat before you play next and try to work things out.

If you were playing in character and you accidentally messed their plot up I don’t see a reason to get upset at you personally as you were just playing the game. But if you had read their module or notes beforehand, or if you were playing a character who was particularly contrary or erratic, then perhaps you could start things off with an apology.

Either way, listen intently to what they have to say and try to understand where they’re coming from. Then ask them politely to try to understand your point of view. Then, hopefully, if everyone understands that mistakes can honestly be made, agree to have fun at the gaming table and try not to step on each other’s toes.

If there is anger, animosity or negative feelings within your group, and they can’t be resolved, then excuse yourself from their games and ask that they excuse themselves from your games for a little while until things can be worked out.

What Do You Do When a “YOUNGER” Player Wants To Join a Game Steered Towards an Older Group of People.

I always feel bad when I have to turn down a 10 year old kid who just wants someone to play with. But my other players always get incredibly angry if I let him in.

Johnn: Another tricky situation. My inclination would be to run one or more special sessions that would include the younger player on occasion. Make those sessions optional for your other players to attend so there is no animosity. I would also clearly explain to the younger person that you value their time and desire to play but that the group is not right for him to play with on a regular basis.

And then help him organize his own game with his peers–perhaps teach him the rules, lend him the books, play with them a couple of times to get them started, etc.

No matter what, be honest with everybody involved and don’t blame anyone (i.e. “THEY don’t want you to play”). It’s always the best way to go.

For more advice and information on roleplaying with younger players there’s a great ezine called Kids RPG. The email address is: [email protected]

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