Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Being a Worthy GM

This thread on the forums brought up something that is near and dear to my heart: “How do you determine if a GM is worth your time as a player?” The subject is actually a little complicated so I’m going to invert it a bit and instead ask: “How do you as a GM determine if you are worthy of your player’s time?”

So how do you figure out if you’re worthy? Well, it’s not a hammer that you can just pick up to figure that out. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years from heartfelt discussion with players to the hard won knowledge of losing them because I wasn’t worthy enough.

Be Kind to Be Worthy

Your job as the GM is not antagonistic (unless playing something like Paranoia or similiar “the referee is out to get you!” games). Your job as the GM requires that you be kind. That you be nice. Don’t beat a player up for not knowing a rule. That’s not necessarily their job. It’s your job to know the rules. Your job to explain them. And it’s your job to enforce them (but see, “Be Firm to Be Worthy” below).

Be Firm to Be Worthy

Sometimes as the GM you gotta be firm with your players. Remember the scene in Roadhouse where Patrick Swayze’s character is says “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice”? (see here for the line from the movie, but it’s got some NSFW language). Being the GM is your job and sometimes to do your job you need to be firm. Maybe you have a rules-lawyer at your table (like…don’t, but let’s say you do) and they want to creatively reinterpret something you already ruled on. Argument breaks out. Now you’re searching the books, forums, etc. to find something to put that undead rules menace back in its grave. It’s the only way to silence them and even then . . . probably not. But anyways, be firm. Tell the players what you’re doing and then do it. Table questions and ideas on the rule for after the game.

Be Fair to Be Worthy

The GM must be fair in their approach to players. This means amongst other things don’t lash out at specific players “just cause.” It means you should have a system in place for Player hosery – if hosing is actually needed. Jen shouldn’t be hosed all the time because they are on your list. Spread the GM Muckery around if you must muck at all.

Be Mindful to Be Worthy

Pay Attention To Your Players. I could have put that in all caps but that’s too shouty for me. This is so important. Learn to read your player’s ticks and little idiosyncrasies. Try to understand what makes them tick. Do they like having horses in fantasy games named Buttercup? Do they go all one-man army in modern games? Whatever they like, pay attention to it. It will help you design games for them later on. In the long-term learn to read their expressions if that’s something you can do. You’ll have a barometer for when folks aren’t having fun and can course correct while running.

Be Honest to Be Worthy

This one is so, so, so important. Be honest with your players. Give them honest feedback about what they are doing in game. Give compliments when needed (and complain when needed too). Players thrive on feedback and if you’re doing your job as a GM you’ve probably got some to give. This also means being honest with the rules and mechanics as well. (but see, “Be On the Same Page to Be Worthy” below).

Be Consistent to Be Worthy

A game can happen sans heavy rules or even any at all, but if the GM is inconsistent with their application of whatever rules the game system requires players will (and rightfully so!) feel like the rules don’t matter. This is one of my sins. I tend to go for the drama of a situation instead of what the rules might say. I lost a good player over this and since they left I’ve tried my damnedest to be more consistent and open with my application of the rules.

Be On The Same Page to Be Worthy

Whatever you are doing, whatever scenario you want to run, make sure the players are on the same page as you. Be as transparent and blatant as you possibly can be. Make sure all the game materials are obvious, accessible, and player-facing. Make sure all interactions whether it be over email, vidchat, text, or voice convey exactly what you mean. Text carries no inflection or emotion behind them so giving those communication channels a second read before sending is a good habit to be in. This is an ongoing process for campaigns. Have a post-mortem every couple of sessions if possible. Have your players make comments if they can. See what they think and where you can improve and vice versa. Gaming is a social and cooperative hobby, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your skill at it.

Picking Over the Bones

Those seven little rules can really shape how you perceive gaming and how you might perceive your players. Being able to look inward and understand your own faults as a GM and then attempting to overcome them is hard. Those are habits you’ve had ingrained in you by years of play and as such it’s hard to break them. But you should at least try. Don’t take the curmudgeon’s way out. Be the kind of GM you’d want to be a player under. Be that GM. Be better than that GM. Be the best GM you can possibly be and then try to go further. A GM’s reach should exceed the grasp of their dice. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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  1. Fair set of rules to play by. The last one is troublesome for me: I never know how much folk are understanding what I am communicating and the uncertainty can be crippling at times. I guess it’d be useful to know what tools are best for getting and keeping everyone on the same page.

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