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Ten Tips For Stress-Free Gamemastering
From Kevin Davies | updated May 20, 2021
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #020
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 was altered by two factors: first, that 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, and second, that so 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 my experiences as a GM I’ve put together the following tips for stress-free and fun-filled Gamemastering.
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.
Give Everyone a Chance To Participate
Both the 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?”
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.
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 Gamemaster Characters and competing against the player’s Characters, 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.
Use the Simplest Rules You
Can Find That Make Sense To You
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.
Details of specific ‘current conditions’ can be included as modifiers to your action resolution rolls by applying +/- 5% toward the target number (Action Value) prior to rolling. Simple. Fast. Effective. 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.
Only Roll Dice When Necessary
There are two situations where it is desirable for a GM or player to roll dice:
- When an action resolution result is required that can’t reasonably be provided by a direct GM response, and
- 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.
Don’t hold back a Character
If a Character’s desired action seems at all plausible (given the genre you’re playing) 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 will only result in timid players and a less exciting game. Try not to deny Characters the opportunity to attempt things — let the players set their Characters’ own limitations based on their experiences of past failures.
Play to the Characters
Try to get to know each Character’s distinctions and then over the course of the adventure provide at least one event or encounter specifically geared to their interests, skills expertise, personal 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.
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 which causes them to omit a location or event, let it go. Remember, the Characters 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 they could have seen.
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 Gamemaster Characters and events (e.g., a crisis or opportunity requiring a quick response) into the developing story. When you confront the 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.
Just 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.