Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Making Every Action Count

So +Douglas Cole talked about “time dilation” and importance of actions on your turn in this blog post. And he brings up a point that I think every GM should be aware of: never, ever, ever make your players feel superfluous or useless. IF YOU DO YOU WILL REGRET IT. Just don’t. Seriously. Now some of you are asking “But Christopher how do I make gritty tactiscale combat go by fast enough so people don’t get bored?” Well, that’s a bit of problem because GURPS tactical combat scale (I call it tactiscale – ’cause reasons) has a lot of moving parts. If you were to imagine tactical combat as a pocket watch then the outside – the actual watch – is what players see. It’s all nice and orderly and works the way it’s supposed to work. Underneath are the complications – the inner workings of what makes a watch a watch – bits seeable only by the gamemaster. Those complications are often what gets the GM into the most trouble. I’m going to present some pretty heretical advice so if some of you want to come burn me I understand. Come at me, bro.

The Watch Face (What the Players See)
The players are in the unique situation that if the GM is either good enough (or obsessive enough – and a lot og GURPS GMs are) or thinks on his feet fast enough then the player will never need to learn more than the basic rules. In effect, the GM is handling the game engine of a computer game and the players are playing it. So what happens when the players glimpse behind the curtain? Usually, nothing, but in combat it almost always results in a rules disagreement. This is bad. Ummkay? First, you don’t want to stall the game because you can’t remember the exact effect of a rule. Just go with what you remember. Look it up later. If you call a prone penalty a -6 then go with it and move ahead. The watch just shot forward a few seconds – no one is going to notice that you screwed up a penalty. You know what they are going to notice? You spending 20 minutes going through a rulebook to figure out the exact skill penalty for something that’s not going to matter a session from now anyways.So how do you get around this?

  • First, Kill your inner rules-lawyer: Take him and put him in the back of your 1977 Buick LeSabre and let loose your inner Joe Pesci. You don’t need to get the rules completely straight, but you do need to make sure people have fun. If you don’t you will soon not be the GM or you will lose your player base. So make sure what your players see is what you want them to see.
  • Improve Your Improv: Get better at improv or “seat of the pants” GMing – this doesn’t have to be your style! Even the best preplanner/worldbuilder GM can benefit from increasing their improvisational capabilities. Skill at pantsing is what sets a good GM apart from a great one. you can have encyclopedic knowledge of the rules, psychological profiles of all your players, and be so capable in all things Gamemastering that you Wesley Crush-it, but if you can’t improvise you will simply not be as good as you could be.
  • Couture Combat: The GM should take special care when designing combats to create encounters where all players can feel useful. This is the same kind of mentality most GMs have when making sure combat-characters have some sort of secondary role to fall back on. Basically, make sure all the players have a chance ot shine in combat. Suggest options they might not otherwise think of. You’re not there as the GM to “win” you are there as a facilitator of enjoyment.

The Complications (What the GM Sees)
The GM has a lot of rules knowledge that is under rug swept. That is, he knows the game system well enough that he can run the game without referencing source material often. When this is not the case the GM is usually new or not well-versed in his chosen rules set. Nothing’s wrong with that. Continuing the metaphor, when the complications aren’t working properly the watch won’t work properly either. So how do you fix this? Well, there are a number of things I’ve learned over the years that helps:

  • Read the Material: Just read the books. All that you own. Any you can borrow. Read people talking about the rules. Ask questions. Make a point of doing it in your spare time and maybe 6 or 7 hours every week (about one hour a day). Make sure you know all the optional rules you are using. The last part is incredibly important. If you are using the Guns are Silly optional rules and don’t know why they are silly you’ve got a real issue. One which will be worse in gameplay.
  • Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff (It’s ALL Small Stuff): If you get a rule wrong, move on. If you get a penalty wrong, move on. If you misinterpret some power or ability…move on. The gaming police will not come to your house. They will not take your to RPGaol. Move On.
  • Know Thy Self: Know your capabilities. Know where you are weak. Know where you are strong. Maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. If you’re a fantastic improv GM do a lot of offthecuff stuff – you’re better when you move so bloody well move. If you are a worldbuilder GM dazzle your players with the completeless of the world you’ve built just for them. Let them know you built it just for them. That kind of personal touch can suck players in faster than anything else.
  • Know Thy Players: Figure out what each of your players like and then deliver it to them. Get to know them. Talk to them. Figure out their favorite movies and TV  shows. What sort of books they like to read or music they listen to. Most roleplaying is an intimate experience – bear with me, we’re freaking adults here – you are not getting nakkie, but you are showing them into your head. Your imagination. Your thoughts on a role or genre. You are just shy of baring your soul. That’s heady stuff. As the GM respect your players enough to know what will fire their imgination and then capitlize on it.
  • G.O.D. (Games Operations Director): You are the GM. Your word is law. Enforce the law so that no one ever wants to break it. Be a dictator – but be a benevolent one. Enforce the law because by enforcing the law you are making sure that all players have an even playing field. You are the games operations director. Be G.O.D. If you set out the particular rules or genre conventions before the game begins and tell your players you’re going to enforce them then if they are broken…enforce them. They may not like it now but they will respect you for it later.

Picking Over the Bones
There is no way to cover all the situations that could crop up in any situation, but the blog post’s title remains the ultimate rule: Make. Every. Action. Count. Don’t bore your players. Let them have fun. Let them be awesome. Making things “hard” so the players are “challenged” is not fun to everyone. In fact, it’s fun to very few. Instead of trying to create a challenge, instead create something that’s exciting and enjoyable and that will be talked about after the game ends. Become a good GM – create fun don’t create challenges. This is how you become a good GM. You build on what came before, pay attention to what is, and plan for what will be.

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