Sunday, 30 December 2012

Some thoughts on Gamemastering

Or Five Old Guys Go Looking for Their Salad Days

This post started off as a write up of a game I ran last Friday. Then it went a bit philosophical so I’ve split it in two.

On Friday night, I had the pleasure of running a Classic Traveller game for the first time in at least four years. The players were four of my old gaming group who all happened to be in the country at the same time, for the first time in ages, and who all managed to get leave passes from wives and children.

I pregenerated ten Book 1 Army and Marine characters for Dylan and Chris to choose from, using the app on the Signal GK: Online Traveller Resource site, while Jonathan and John manually generated a couple of Book 4: Mercenary Army and Marine characters to refamiliarise themselves with the character generation rules.

I recall that back in the day we used to laugh about how all our characters were these ancient old fossils – Hell’s Grannies – and should really be tucked up in front of the telly with a cup of cocoa, rather than rushing around the universe, getting into gun fights with pirates and rogues. Now we’re saying, “He’s 42, what a pup! And he’s retired. His life’s just beginning. Your character is 22? Can he dress himself, yet?”

Age does tend to change one’s perspective.

I had bullet pointed out the adventure that I intended to run – working up some details to give a bit more background – and pretty much had a beginning, middle and end, though I was a little hazy about what the exact end would be. Oddly enough, this is my comfort zone as a Gamesmaster. Roleplaying is a collaborative exercise in storytelling and I want bits in there that surprise me, too.

In the past I have winged games to great success, and I have written successful scenarios. Of the two, the former relies upon the Gamesmaster knowing his setting very well, and being able to think on his feet. The latter also benefits from having a well developed setting but, to me and for my style of gamesmastering, is much more restrictive.

Early on in my roleplaying experience as a player, I saw incredibly complicatedly plotted adventures come completely off the rails because a) the players did something the Gamesmaster hadn’t expected; b) the players just couldn’t solve the cunning puzzle/trap and got bored; or c) the players missed the vital connection with the NPC who had the clue/tool/map/key that would have taken them to the next stage. In a discussion on G+, I suggested that Gamesmasters shouldn’t over think a scenario – if success of the mission depends upon one “thing” then you can almost guarantee that the players, when meeting the NPC with the clue, will instead mug him and take his stuff; that when the mysterious old man with the limp shows up with the warning, a player will kill him, or the party will flatly refuse to believe him; and when the players should be meeting the shifty ship captain down at the Rough and Tumble Tavern (Thursday night is Quiz Night), they’ll be uptown at Chez Swankies, knocking back wine coolers.

The secret, for me, in plotting an adventure is to work up the background and motives of the various Non-player groups in some detail, and then work out a basic story arc for the adventure as a series of bullet points. This means that you can chop and change your plan in response to the players’ actions while maintaining a logical narrative flow that pretty much writes itself. It also means that you can drop in the information/object/tool that are required to progress the story as you need it, rather than having to say, “sorry guys, if you’d looked behind the counter, back at the shop, you would have found the coil of rope you now need to escape from this Inescapable Pit of Doom.”

Writing a scenario should, in my opinion, be more like plotting a graphic novel or writing a film script, than writing a weighty tome of deathless prose. Chunks of what you plot will never be used, scenes will be deleted, and clever stuff that you’re really proud of will be ignored.

I'm not a fan of Total Party Kills, or even character kills. You do something dumb as a player and I'm usually prepared to help you out of it. Do something stupid, though, and you will be suffering consequences. I would define "dumb" as, say, trying to kill the space monster that's attacking you with a weapon that you can not only not use, but you can barely carry. "Stupid" might be defined as landing your scout ship on the roof of a ruined skyscraper in a city that's been a ruin for 200 years, without checking that the building is sound enough to bear the weight of your ship.

At the end of the day, the Gamesmaster and the Players aren't actually competing against each other - it's not that sort of game. It's about hanging out with friends and having a good time and telling a story together.

And, when time’s been called and you’re packing your dice away, if the Players say, “that was excellent! When’s the next session?” then you know you’ve done your job and aced it.

Next: Secrets in Sulphur – the game


  1. Couldnt agree more: the objective of the game isn't the scenario endpoint, its to have fun!

  2. I'm quite fond of this statement:
    "Writing a scenario should, in my opinion, be more like plotting a graphic novel or writing a film script, than writing a weighty tome of deathless prose."

    I think it applies to character backgrounds as well. A few bullet points of things that happened to your character in the past that can be fleshed out in game when the characters past comes crawling back.