Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Reducing GM Overhead

Roleplaying games in general can get complicated even if it’s far on the end of narrativism. Simulationist RPGs tend to get a bad rap for overcomplications, rules, etc., but narrativist games can have the same problem with the GM having to interpret on the fly when a circumstance or event happens in game that the (usually) rules lite narrativist game doesn’t cover – it’s two types of complication and the results are the same. (Gamist is kind of in the middle as it can sort of be one or both of these things when it wants to be.) The GM needs to either find the right rule and interpret it or make up a new rules on the spot. So how to cope with such issues? Here’s what I do.

Know the System

Whatever you are running – know it inside and out. Know where to hunt for rules or obscure fixes to odd situations. Know where the rules leave off so that you apply your own knowledge and logic when a situation pops up that isn’t covered by the rules.

Know the Players

Know your players. This comes up so often on this blog it ought to get its own header. But seriously. KNOW your players. Don’t just play games with them. Do stuff outside of gaming. Get to know them. Be friends if you can (and you are playing with someone who you can’t at least tolerate you have a whole other problem). Getting to know your players means that you can guess what they might do next and doing that means you can do the next thing (see below) more effectively.

Know When to Prepare (and When Not To)

I have a love hate relationship with GM prep. I like doing it. It’s fun. I can build what is needed for the game and then move onward. But failure to guess what is needed so I haven’t wasted my time? That just annoys me. I’m sure you other GMs cannot deny when a player walks into the trap you just prepared and it doesn’t get sprung you get grumpy. So how to deal with that? Know the players. Know the game. Know the campaign. Those three things are the “temperature gauge” for reading the game and what it’ll need. Pay attention long enough and what you need to prep will become second nature as will what you don’t need to prep and thus what you can improvise.

Know the Setting

Whether you are homebrewing or playing in an established setting, know the important details. Then memorize them. Then print them out and boil them and drink them like a soup. Know the setting. Internalize it. Do this and you will be able to reduce overhead dramatically by knowing what is and isn’t important to you and your group.

Know When Not to Sweat the Small Stuff (It’s All Small Stuff)

Seriously. Forget to apply a rule correctly? Who cares. Make a note to look it over between sessions and move on. Forgot to ask for a dice roll? It’s fine. Nothing is going to break down. The point is that details both matter and don’t matter at the same time. You can be the most learned GM of your favorite system and still forget even the most core rules. Know why? Because you are juggling a damn world in your brain that other people are interacting with in novel ways you cannot necessarily know in advance. Think about that for a second. You are a machine. Gamemaster’s are badass storytellers who entertain others with just their imagination, some math rocks, and a set of arbitrary rules for paper people. If you are a GM you contain multitudes with more visiting every game session. So seriously, if you forget something. It’s okay. Everyone does it. Move on.

Know When to Use the Dice

This one is so overlooked because everyone loves rolling dice. Seriously, dice are natural. Dice are fun. Not everyone rolls them, but everybody should. But not all situations require die rolling. I know. I know. I just talked about this in my post on GM immersion, but it bears repeating. If it’s not dramatic or important to the story you are trying to tell don’t roll. Just…don’t. Move on. It’ll be okay. I promise the RPGPD won’t come after you. They are after career rules lawyers and GMS who fudge dice rolls all the time.

Picking Over the Bones

This six little rules have long been internalized for me and it takes a lot out of me to pick apart how I do things because of that, but I promise you that if you try to follow them your game is going to improve – if only a little. These bits of knowledge were hard-won required I walk a thorny path and made lots of mistakes. Making a mistake is ok in all aspects of life, but it really is okay when you’re playing a game. Your players will forgive you. I promise. (And if they don’t maybe think about playing with them in the first place.)

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