Steel Visions

If you are like me as a Gamemaster you have a certain outlook on things. I have always been the type of GM who wants to control almost every aspect of the game. The one exception being control of PCs and the dice rolls of the players. As a young kid this was a way of “winning” or being in control of the outcome of the game for me. The GM was next to God for the players, an important position and I was a GM. Fortunately for me (and later on my players), my insecurities and perfectionism kept me out of the GM chair for the time it took for me to actually learn something. I was insecure about what the players were thinking about my adventures and my perfectionism did not allow me to present anything that I thought would be less than perfect and therefore open to dislike/ridicule by the players. My very first GM however, helped disabuse me of quite a bit of this. Which in the long run was good, but not something I enjoyed at the time.

Where I was controlling and insecure, my very first GM was domineering and power-hungry. He took a perverse delight in building a body count of my characters. There was no character development and he made the die rolls stand. No alternate stat rolling, no averaging, etc. If your D&D Mage rolled a 1 for HP on a 4 sided die then that was what you had and you better hope to heck you never got hit. I had a lot of fun when the dice rolled for me, because for the most part it was out in the open and he could not deny things. But I started to get the sense that when this happened he came up with alternate ways and means to thwart even my most simple and honest goals. I also started to see how he was quick and elaborate in his schemes to ruin my characters. Only if by advancing my character forward, that meant a more impressive doom for that character in the end, would my GM let up on me somewhat. In all of our gaming history (late 1984-early 1985) I had just one character that managed to defy any odds stacked against him. At that point my GM switched games. This was about the time my second GM came along. It was my second GM that put everything I had encountered with my first GM in to perspective.

I knew my second GM from school (we would later become best friends and even now we game each Sunday night via Skype). He also knew my first GM and they had some games together without me. But my second GM ran some games for me and it was at this point that I learned the truth about my first GM. He had not been following any of the rules in any of the printed material. He had made everything up and because of that it all benefited him. There was no way I could win. But when I did the impossible at one point by “winning”  and he packed up and left, I also learned something else. He didn’t want to learn the rules because they restricted what he was allowed to do. And when he encountered people who knew the rules he no longer wanted to play. Later games with him and my second GM bore this out. By that point I was more grown up and had learned his game.

My second GM played by the rules and was fair. He presented all the things we are accustomed to in character generation (alternate rolls, averaging, etc) and sometimes fudged his rolls to my advantage (and the advancing of the storyline). There was plot and character development (however much you could get from a 15 year old) and a story. All of this put the lie to my first GM and we eventually stopped gaming together.

Now, I bring all of this up to make the following point. I had visions and ideas of the way I thought things should be as a GM. But, this experience showed me that forcing those ideas and visions on the players was not the way to be a good Gamemaster. If I had not gone through this experience, I don’t think I would ever have learned that (or learned it much later) and it would have made learning what I learned later more difficult. So, despite this bad GM experience, I am actually very glad I went through it. The side benefit was to make me more sympathetic (hopefully) to my fellow man.

I am going to skip ahead here to my third GM. My second GM and I became good friends and I learned a lot about having a good time gaming and enjoyed myself. Both of us tended to support the other in the advancement of plot and storyline, so I did get into the bad habit of simply assuming that whatever I presented would be pursued. My education was about to be continued in 1995.

So, in ’95 I got together with new friends (and my second GM as a player). I learned a new game (Rolemaster) in the process and new GM tricks. Unfortunately for me, old habits arose. My perfectionism and insecurities came out and it was not until about mid 1996 that I actually tentatively ran my first RM campaign. I was really unsure of the rules, but my friends made it easy on me. However, I made a series of mistakes from which I ultimately learned. One of these was a mistake I am often guilty of and that’s milking the storyline.

Planning is essential to gaming. You have to plan. You have to think about what the characters are going to do with what you present them, what could happen after that and so on. All this takes some time. I’m lazy. So, I was often behind the eight ball when gaming. Ill-prepared, my crutch was to extend roleplaying. Drawing out conversations with NPCs, manufacturing delays to the advancement of the characters to the goal and so on. All so I would not have to think on the fly and then be shown for the lazy GM I had been during the week leading up to the game. The players eventually got tired of this. I got told about it and they were right. You can’t present something one week (the week you actually planned) and then slow it all down the next week because you’re dry on ideas. You have to plan and in the planning you can move the story forward at the speed it requires. The other part of this is that lack of planning can also introduce paper tigers. You put something together because you’re groping for something and present it as this big, difficult thing (with the idea to scare off the PCs or have them come at it slowly) and then, because you are not prepared, when the players engage they find out that they aren’t really facing what they thought. There becomes this sense that the GM is a bit of a fluff piece. Definitely not the image you want to present as a GM. Again, planning will solve this problem.

I also learned to be flexible. Players were getting annoyed because they actually wanted to pursue some of the things I put in the way, but when I yanked them back to the storyline it was a bit irritating. So, I had to learn to strike a balance. And this is what I mean by the title of this post. Your vision for your world/adventure cannot be so inflexible that your PCs are straitjacketed in to a role with no leeway allowed. What fun is that? Who wants to play a PC who is simply following the GM’s script? The other thing on this is more specific to the actual adventure. You have to give the PCs alternate ways to do the job at hand, especially if they are following your storyline. How many people are going to go home happy when there is only one way to save the world and the person who is supposed to do it just fumbled the major skill roll for it? Give the PCs other ways to do things and everyone will be happy!

Want some more in regards to flexibility? How about letting the PCs determine NPC roles? I had a NPC that I was running for a game. She was a mother-figure type to one of my players. Unknown to me, this player had developed a fondness for the NPC. When I killed her off for shock value I got the opposite effect of what I thought would happen. He was extremely angry with me. I’d killed off a NPC he liked – for no reason! So, I learned right there. If you present NPCs as a major part of the lives of your PCs, for God’s sake, treat them with respect and don’t kill them off or harm them unless you have a good reason (advancing the plot is NOT a good reason) or unless chance dictates it.

So to sum it all up here; you have to be flexible. Roll with what happens, with the direction the PCs take you in. If the players want to pursue your storyline great. If not, take them where they want to go. If that means you have to adlib some, then do it and don’t shirk and do as best as you can. Something I’ve learned recently. You are the GM! You are a referee. You AREN’T a storyteller! As a GM it’s your job to present the situation and the storyline. That’s it. After you do that your only job is to referee the game. You determine results and make things happen based on what the players are doing or what they want to do. Remember, ultimately everyone is here to have fun. It’s a game. THAT is the one and only thing that should be inflexible! Your story, your plot, your vision of your gameworld, the way things work, all of that should never be so inflexible as steel that it all cannot be changed so that EVERYONE has a good time.

If you take a moment to think about it (really think) then you just may find something else. Freedom. Freedom to be who you are as a GM, to exercise your own style. Not having to worry about what course things take (the players dictate that) and having the time to focus on the one thing you should be doing – being the Master of the Game!