The GM As Master Of Ceremonies

From Johnn Forty-four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0228

A Brief Word From Johnn

Contest Winners

Thanks again to everyone who entered the Roleplaying Quest contest. Entries are being edited as we speak for your future edification.

The winners are:

  • M Clay [alki…]
  • M Anderson [michaelf…]
  • A Voelker [Dragons…]
  • Orbfire Ristipolku [orbfire…]
  • Jean De Blacque [jean…]
  • Jeff Lucarelli [bhun…]
  • Chris Young [shade_…]
  • Ross Tony Shingledecker [meju…]

And the following prizes were split amongst them:


Johnn Four
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The GM As Master Of Ceremonies

This is a very important topic, though it has never occurred to me to write about it before. The GM is the de facto leader of the group on several different levels–especially for new groups and to players joining new groups. The players look to the GM to get things going, resolve disputes, manage the game session, and take general ownership of game play.

I’ve known a couple of GMs whose players organize everything for them, including purchasing some or all of the GM’s books. They arrange time and place and the GM just needs to show up. But, based on my experience, these situations are the exception. Usually, it’s the GM who is the motivator and organiser for game sessions.

Sometimes, one or more players get delegated with organisation tasks, but the GM usually takes ultimate responsibility for getting sessions together.

As far as game play goes, even if the players are aggressive, motivated, and drive the plot, it’s the GM who must decide on consequences, reactions, and results. He possesses authority the players do not.

For these main reasons, the GM is the leader of the group. Leadership is a skill (cross-class for some folk :), which means it can be practiced and improved.

I feel GMs who are good, effective leaders, in terms of group and session dynamics, produce better and more satisfying games. Therefore, I feel it’s of value being a good leader and is something that we should pursue, practice, and perform for the benefit of our players.

Below are a few tips to help GMs become better leaders, in the form of adopting the role of Master of Ceremonies, if they’re willing.

GM As Master Of Ceremonies

(1) A person who acts as host at a formal event, making the welcoming speech and introducing other speakers.

(2) A performer who conducts a program of varied entertainment by introducing other performers to the audience.

— A game session is an event. It’s a production and the sum of its parts: preparation, participation, and interaction. People show up, play, and perform on the game table stage. They are each other’s audience, regardless of whether their role consists of maximizing the character building process or of adopting a different personality and portraying somebody else for a few hours.Despite the fact that the show is impromptu and the audience small, it has all the ingredients of a ceremony.

As the group leader then, you have an opportunity to put on the hat of Master of Ceremonies to facilitate a wonderful, fun time, and to help make everyone feel welcome and valued.I feel this is a powerful and effective form of leadership. If you’re a shy GM, don’t worry. This doesn’t require you to do any public speaking or strange activities other than what you’d normally perform while running the game.

It’s just that no one else is going to keep a big picture view of the game session in the back of their minds and tweak things as needed to ensure the event is going smoothly and that all the performers are comfortable and confident. But, can you understand and imagine how such a caretaker could improve everyone’s experience and enjoyment of the game?

If you can picture this and agree, then add the MC hat to all the others that you wear at each game session and become a more effective leader.

Do Introductions Right Away

I remember attending my first game session with a new group a few years ago. Circumstance allowed me to play with those gamers just once, but I remember well the poor introduction experience and learned a lot about how I could be a good MC.I arrived at the apartment and rang the buzzer. I introduced myself, got an unintelligible reply (bad speaker phone), and heard a click.I took the elevator and then wandered up and down the floor a couple of times before figuring out the apartment was in a nook at a far end.

Ok, there’s lesson one. Give the New Guy instructions on how to get to your place.I knocked on the door and heard a voice say, “the door’s open!” Ok, technically, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a casual situation. But, for the New Guy, I’d have appreciated a personal greeting, warm smile, and a hand shake to let me know I’m welcome. This is a picky point, but it goes a long way towards making players feel welcome, killing the butterflies, and getting a newbie involved.

I must admit that I’ve done the exact same thing in recent memory, so it’s an easy thing to slip into.So, I opened the door and…enjoyed the view of a nice, empty hallway. No one put their head out a door and said, “the game’s in here.” I had to walk around a bit and discover where the GM was hiding.

As more players arrived, the GM was doing his thing–getting ready, finding books, chatting about character stuff. The players and I were left to introduce ourselves. Again, not a major faux pas, but things would have been much more comfortable if the GM had introduced me to each new player as they arrived. With a middleman making the introductions, the whole process would have been just so much easier.

Based on what I experienced and learned, you might consider this scenario for acting as MC and making new players feel welcome and comfortable with minimal fuss.

  1. Open the door for each player as they arrive. If you’re busy, ask another player to do the meet & greet. Do this for each session until the group is comfortable with each other. Sometimes, this only takes a single session.
  2. Introduce yourself and who you are. “Hi, my name’s Johnn. I’m the GM.” Smile, be friendly. Act like you care.
  3. Introduce the other players as soon as possible. An effective greeting format is to provide the player’s name, the name and type of character they’re playing, and an interesting tid bit, to break the ice. “This is Bob. He’s playing the gnome archer I told you about. Bob collects all the new D&D minis, just like you.”
  4. Find the player a seat. It can be quite uncomfortable to tread through a room of strangers on a quest for some place to sit, and then have to ask someone to move their stuff to make room. As MC, point out a comfortable place and clear the way so that the New Guy fits in seamlessly.
  5. Make the player a name cheat sheet. It’s easy for the regulars to remember the New Guy’s name because they just need to recall a single name. The New Guy, though, must try and remember several names at once. A cheat sheet with player and character names given to the New Guy once he gets seated can be a comforting thing! A gold star to MCs who do this.

Get Everyone Involved Right Away

This tip has appeared in the ezine before, but it’s an important courtesy to perform every session. As a new player, I’ve been in a situation of waiting for a long time for my PC to get introduced. It’s not fun watching everybody else play. It’s even worse being the odd man out, not only because you’re the New Guy, but also because you are the only one just sitting there, not playing the game.

For regular players, there might be situations where a PC is separated from the party or ahead in the time line when the session begins and they can’t participate right away.There are a few solutions to this, but the most important step is to recognize when this situation is occurring. It’s easy to put your head down and got lost in the act of GMing, forgetting that not all the players are engaged. Sometimes, you might figure that the player will be back in the play very soon, but then circumstances change and the delay grows longer–and you forget or lose track of time and the player loses an hour of potential game time before you realize it.

Here’s recap some of the solutions from past issues for keeping idle players busy:

  1. Divide your time during party splits between each separated character of group. Keep switching back and forth at a good pace so everyone feels like they’re getting attention.
  2. Concoct a reason for why the player can return to play sooner than expected. For example, if a player is out because his PC is unconscious, provide some means of healing. Wandering monster and other types of random encounters are good methods for introducing party unification methods on short notice.
  3. Give the player some NPCs to run or some other delegated task. Remember though, the player most likely showed up to play their character, not yours.
  4. Initiate split party play. If a character is sleeping far away from the action, for example, engage the player in a dream sequence. If a character is waiting for the main party’s actions to be resolved, introduce an NPC for roleplaying, minor plot advancement, or providing a bonus clue.

Use Names Strategically

Names are powerful. When yours is called, your ears immediately perk up. A name identifies you, so the words have much more personal meaning than any others. And names are the best way to get someone’s attention–much more effective than, “hey you!”In RPGs, players have two names! They have their real world name and they have their PC’s name. Part of your job as Master of Ceremonies is introducing the performers on the stage to the audience. Therefore, names are an important part of your job.

As mentioned in an earlier tip, help the New Guy whenever possible with the players’ names to avoid embarrassment. You can do this by frequently saying the names of the other players as you game. Instead of, “hey dude, pass me the chips,” try, “hey Barney, hand me the bowl or I’ll tarrasque your ass.” :)From personal experience as being the New Guy in many groups, you gain a lot of confidence once you’ve mastered everyone’s name.Apart from helping new players fit in, you can use names for other strategic purposes.


When speaking in-character as an NPC, use the player’s character name, not their real world name. Even when handling other GMing tasks, refer to group members by their character’s name. This helps creates immersion and gets everybody in the mood.Sometimes, players won’t call each other by their PC’s name. They might not be immersed enough, not thinking about it, or uncomfortable with it (especially if they’re new to roleplaying). So, be the leader and the impeccable MC by setting a strong example and use character names as much as you can.

Slipping in and out of character seamlessly

I’ve seen various ways that players and GMs indicate whether they’re speaking in-character or out, and names are one of the easiest and most efficient possible.Use PC names when you’re speaking in-character or in in-game situations. Use player names when you’re speaking out of character or when you’ve entered a real world discussion.This tip is old hat to many, but the part that is often missed, even by veteran GMs, is to initiate character name use as soon as possible and to be 100% consistent with name use over time.

Using PC names right away helps get everyone focused and sets a firm and clear example. Being consistent helps generate compliance and makes the technique more effective. If you drop out of in-character discussion and use a player’s name, that should be a clear signal read by all, which means you don’t need to do anything other than use names strategically for effect to save yourself having to explicitly say you’re speaking out of character or that you’ve started a real world discussion.

In others words, use player names when speaking to the audience and use character names when you’re speaking to the performers for fast, clear, and efficient game play and conversation management.

Use Questions To Generate Participation

A good MC ensures all the performers get their spot in the limelight. (Or is it lime in the spotlight? Margaritas anyone?) In GMing terms, this translates to encouraging and enabling all players to participate. An effective method for encouraging player participation is asking them questions.

  • “What are you doing now Phrandor?”
  • “Do you agree with what the others are saying, Barl?”
  • “Merlon, what do you think about this?”

A oft-used technique is to ask a question to which you already know the answer, but you ask it anyways just to garner a player’s participation.

  • “Eckbar, what spells have you used so far?”
  • “What are the name of your parents again, Abraxus? And they live where? What are they up to right now?”
  • “So, Brianor, can you recap the party’s plan for me? I just want to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”

Sometimes, a loaded question full of false perceptions, purposefully slanted jargon, and misaligned points of view is just the trick to jar a quiet player into voicing their opinions.

  • “So, Tremail, you’ve just emerged from a dank, stinky dungeon. You haven’t bathed in a week. You’re covered from head to toe in monster guts. Your longsword dangles from your hip like a threat. And you just simply walk into the tavern, order a drink, and wink at the waitress???”
  • “Yavonivilious, you’re going to let the other party members trick you into leading this band of murderous cutthroats and grave robbers into the tomb that probably contains a thousand deadly traps, a lich, and icky spider webs? You’re going to let them push you to the front like that?”

As a good MC, try to keep all your performers on the ball and interested in the game. Another aspect of being a good MC is encouraging and facilitating the players and characters to interact with _each other_. It’s not enough to get everyone chatting with you in-character and out, and to have players excitedly moving their minis around on the map. You need to help get some good, entertaining, player-to- player and character-to-character interaction happening.

The best way to do this is to get to know your players. This allows you to bring their interests, knowledge, and skills into play in relation to the other players. Keep an ear out for common interests, shared points of view, diverse points of view, and any commonalities in general.

When the opportunity presents itself, use questions to reveal these things to the other players. Hopefully, they’ll speak up (“hey, I saw Spiderman too and agree, it was a great movie) and start interfacing with each other.

For example:

  • “Bob, how long have you played D&D for? Tried any other game systems?”
  • “Anyone seen the new Spiderman movie?”
  • “So, Bob, last session when the party axed those goblin babies… You don’t think that was evil?”

The second part is to ensure the characters are interacting with each other. If they’re already doing this, great! Step out of the way and resume your other GMing duties. If it’s not happening though, then you might consider putting the MC hat back on.

First, you should get to know the characters so you can bring their interests, knowledge, and skills into play. Also, try to get a handle on the players’ playing style. Then, use questions to start in-character conversation and interaction, much the same way you did to get the players talking with each other.

  • “Mandrake, some of your spells are quite similar to Father Kine’s, aren’t they? [For role-players:] Why is that? [For roll-players:] Could you share material spell components and complement each other’s magic somehow?”
  • “Bartock, do you feel the current arrangement is the best, tactically speaking? Have you spoken with the others about this?”

Comment On What Just Happened

Comment on notable character actions. Nothing is worse than when something important, cool, or complimentary happens because of good play and it goes unnoticed or unrecognized. It should be the job of the players to praise and support each other. However, everyone gets busy and self-absorbed during the game.As a good MC, keep an eye out for shining moments. If there’s no player acknowledgement, then comment on them yourself, or spark awareness with a calculated question.

In addition, if something meaningful happens that’s perhaps too subtle, or if it requires interpretation that the group doesn’t perform, then point out your observation.For example, after a long, grueling combat, the PCs are just glad to have come out alive. The players are a bit tired and are thinking about what to do next. However, the combat was quite meaningful. The PCs have just defeated a stage boss and dealt a heavy blow to their enemy. Instead of keeping this realization a secret, thinking to penalize unobservant players, point it out to the group.

Perhaps describe a cut scene of the main villain cursing the PCs’ names to the gods, or come right out and say, “congratulations!” You could also ask a question. “So, Barrakus, what do you do with the body of the demon commander now that you and your pals have defeated him in hand-to-hand combat?”

Be A Good Host

If you’re hosting your game, try to set-up an optimal gaming environment. This topic has been discussed before, so to summarize:

  • Be clear on game time, date, and location, with as much advance notice as possible
  • Minimize distractions during the game
  • Ensure players are comfortable
  • Get the food and snacks issue dealt with right away so it doesn’t become an annoying interruption
  • Take breaks to re-energize

Last year, my wife and I started getting bottled water from a delivery service. It’s about twenty bucks a month. I discovered that it’s also a great gaming aid! Cool, refreshing water is always appreciated. It doesn’t cause the sugar crash that pop and juice can. It doesn’t run out after refueling just half the group like our old water filter system would. And, as the water cooler happens to be right beside the game table, it’s very convenient too–no trips out of the room any more to the kitchen tap.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Starting With A Riot

From Nick Maggs

Thanks for this week’s Roleplaying Tips #227. The article on bringing the PCs together was interesting as I’ve just started GMing a new scenario with fresh player characters.

I wanted to get things off to a bang and wanted an unusual way of bringing the PCs together. In the end, I decided that the PCs didn’t have any connections at all, but were brought together by a riot on market day in the town square.

One of the PCs was a preacher, another a noble ‘out on the town’, another a thief, another a wizard ‘on the run’ from his guild, and another was the troublemaker who actually started the riot (who was paid to do so by a shadowy organisation).

The initial ‘adventure’ involved a large brawl using non- lethal combat rules. The players got to know their characters, have a fight, and find out what they could do. As the scenario progressed, it changed from being light- hearted to something more sinister. The scenario ended with a murder (of the noble PC’s father) that the PCs witnessed and the PCs getting framed and arrested for it.

The next session started with the PCs in jail, that they escaped from after some interaction with an NPC prisoner. The heroes are now on the run from the authorities. Later, they will be breaking back into the jail to rescue the NPC prisoner. After that, they can attempt either to flee the land or clear their names by discovering the details of the murder.

The conspirator behind the murder and his cronies are out to eliminate the PCs as well. The PCs have discovered that certain members of the local authorities are in on the murder and that the victim was basically assassinated.

Graphic of section divider

Classic Tip: Rename Your Monsters

From Stephen Colbert

The tip called “Creating Unique Monsters” in last week’s issue reminded me of a campaign I had with a group of experienced players. They knew every creature in the book and a simple orc was _not_ threatening. I decided to twist things a bit to throw them off.

At this point, none of their characters had met an orc. They were in a foreign land. I simply renamed the orc. Orcs were now called “Kraag”. I also changed the way I described them. I was careful not to describe them as pig-nosed creatures.

The illusion worked wonderfully. The party had no idea that they were encountering orcs. The creatures were new and mysterious…and threatening.

Of course, they were surprised when they went home and discovered that the same creature was called an orc.

ADD GM Tip: Reusable Adventures

From Peter

An additional option for the ADD GM.

Create reusable mini-adventures or encounters. Or use commercial ones that can be recast fairly easily. This obviously only works if you have different players most of the time.

For example, I like the d20 module “Sunless Citadel”. It has only a little bit of stuff that needs tweaking to move it between game worlds. It fits into my Earthsea style campaign just as well as it fits into my mountain world campaign.

My personal ADD problem is doing large world designs, but never having a group to play with, nor am I very good at creating the specific adventures that the players need. My outlet for that is to create worlds that others can use, and I have started to participate in the Fargoth project. I have also started following your tip about keeping old campaign notes. I’ve got 6 campaigns I’d like to play in or run, so now all of the notes for them are kept as files on my computer.

Another ADD GM Tip: 5 Minute Adventures

From Ryan

I am writing you about your last article ADD GMing. I found it good but I noticed that you either didn’t think of or just didn’t add in the whole Episodic campaign idea. You see I suffer from ADD and even take medication for it. My ADD does indeed effect my long-term adventure running.

In order to fight this, our group has developed the Episodic campaign. Well, we didn’t just develop it for that; we did it so that everyone that wanted to could GM. You see, my group has 3 full-time GMs. Doing things this way gives everyone a break and everyone a chance to GM. It really allows for added creativity.

We also practice the “5 Minute Adventure”. In a nut shell, this is a short plot game, such as Save the Princes, or Slay the Beast. The beauty of these quickies is that it allows multiple games each night and, in turn, multiple GMs per night. Just so you know, the above mentioned plot types for these quick games aren’t usually used. More likely than not, a game is a mystery and lasts about 1 to 2 hours, thereby allowing 2 games per night. The best part about this is that I get to GM and play and have an ongoing character that isn’t a tag-along NPC.