Wednesday, 26 October 2016

How to GM better?

Hello readers, it's been a while! (A year, in fact.) I've been very busy with uni, and life, and work, so do excuse the glacial speed of this blog. I'm hoping to write more often, so pin me at "one a month", as an optimistic pace.

Today I am talking about GMs, in particular how to be a better one through watching as many others as you can. I know that my own GMing skills originated with a GM who was great at telling the game, involving the players, and portraying the characters. I thought they were the standard, but I've been in games, now, with quite a few bad poor and terrible GMs. And I know this will sound cocky, but I want to play in a game where I'm the GM. That's not a bad thing though! It shows I have confidence in my self, and it is based on player feedback as well. Each and every GM I've played under has shown me how NOT to do things, or has done something so well, I've adopted it myself. And that's the key to better GMing.

For starters, you need to know your position in relation to your players. Much like you're told to find out the pace/style of game the players want, you need to know the kind of games you're likely to put on. In my main game, the End of Ecrathon, we had a Cleric, a Sorceror, and 2 Barbarians. The Cleric died, bravely giving their life in order to save a Sverfneblin under-mountain town, and that player is now a Druid.

1 player I know loves the combat, and face smashing, while the other three seem content to wonder around town and talk/act things out, figure out puzzles, etc. Now, this game has been going for two years. How do I keep the action player interested when it gets too much role play?

Part of the answer is "I don't" and the other part of the answer is "I give them a really sweet weapon to make the waiting worth it." They began with a great sword (2d6+STR 1.5), but wanted to give them the first magical weapon. So while the group were underground, saving the Sverfneblin, there was one encounter where a Sverfneblin Wizard has a rod of Earth Moving, but 6 Rust Monsters appear to ruin the day. The players had to battle the bugs for several rounds, until enough earth was cleared to allow safe passage back where they had come from.

Our Barbarian lost his great sword to the Rush Monsters, and the fight itself took 2 hours. That was a lesson for me -- when the creatures deal damage as a condition/effect, add something with real teeth to the fight too. The Barbarians didn't want to use their rage on these little bugs, and the Bugs only ever hit for 1d3 (no str bonus!) damage. Having a real threat amongst the bugs makes sense. They need to rage to deal with them, and may as well keep it up to kill the surprisingly high AC (18) Rust Monsters.

After the session I had the Barbarian roll a memory check, at which point I basically needed to see any roll above a 1 for them to 'remember' that dinky little knife we found down in the faerie section of the underground, with a message "happy birthday" but written in undercommon. The barbarian got the message, and several sessions after finding the dagger (the Gnome Sorceror had taken it) they grabbed the weapon and it immediately transformed into a +1 Vicious Long sword. 1d10+Str 1.5, as well as counting as a +3 weapon so long as the wielder is raging. Well, that worked!

More about GMs, please.

Right, so! I'm not going to use names, but I've known 2 GMs I really like and enjoy and would play in their games any day, and the others I'm not sure, depends on the day.

One GM ran a very arcade style game, where the players Pathfinder but they use older editions of books, 3.0 and 3.5. This was a good play style for ease of access, seeing it was run on a friday night, and it allowed players the most freedom to "taste" the range allowed by Pathfinder. The problem? The GM was is so lenient with the story, any time a character would be close to death there would be a magical healing process some how, and so the monsters lost a lot of their danger appeal. Players were still in fear of the flavour of a monster, but in-game the question was simply 'how do you kill it?', rather than 'are you going to survive this?'

While I like the approach to Pathfinder, for newer players (show up and play), there isn't long over arching storyline, and some sessions nothing has really happened, or the GM seems to be buffering too long, as they figure out something fresh/new to do. Weekly sessions need prep, or they're no fun because there's no real thing occurring.

Another GM, we'll call them Marilyn, ran a very sloppy game. They didn't know the rules, ran swarms incorrectly, and basically wanted to kill off characters. In more than one session the action became totally focused on one character and what they were doing, as they ran off into a side room on their own. That's fine to follow a lone character, but not to permanently paralyse everyone else while you do it. The character, a Cleric and my sister, encountered a room of Zombies that they were actually doing well against. The rest of us just weren't given any priority of chance to do anything. Sure, fine -- we didn't know about the fight so we couldn't just run into it, but it REALLY called for a Perception check to see if we couldn't here the fight occurring, allowing us to follow the sounds of battle and help. This irritated me as a player, because we were deliberately being held back from the game and it's contents. Who wants to play Tetris without the 4x1 block, hey?

Another instance is when we've all piled into a room, and there's a Troll cooking at the far end. Barbarian Extreme is with us (this character plays in as many games as they can, and are very often but not always a great front-line fighter) and charges the Troll. The GM didn't tell us about the miles of chairs between us and Troll, so the fight begins, THEN we suddenly all have to roll Acrobatics checks to get there, so again, it's a 1 v 1 fight between a character and a really bad situation. Then I helped kill Barbarian Extreme.

I didn't mean to, but I've read and studied the rules so much that if a question comes up I have a very good chance of answering it. The GM asked me how Rend worked, and I told him, and that turn our Barbarian died to Rend damage. The Troll hit with both claws, 1d6+5 each, then Rended for another 1d6+7. At that point the Barbarian was at negative hit points, and the GM could easily have had the Troll drop the character, in favour of dealing with the rest of us, but they chose to Rend and kill a character. I'm sorry it happened, but not sorry I played to the rules as-is.

While we were all back at the start of the room, running over to help the Barbarian, while some silly chairs were still in the way. Great story, can't wait to tell the kids "avoid churches. They have so many pews."

This style of play is heavily advised against -- the purposeful killing of characters is okay if the dice truly roll that way, but not when the players don't have warning about it earlier. We were never told "You're going to face very lethal threats here" and previously we'd fought a billion bloody rat swarms (true story), but this was the second time we'd seen a player singled out and picked on, while the rest of us weren't able to do anything, despite, you know, even being in the same room.

This GM doesn't run games so much any more, but even if they did I think I'd be sick that day.

How about some Good GMs?

Oh right, Good GM stories? Don't worry, I've had plenty of good GMs too, not just mediocre.terrible ones. I've also got a story about a GM who is so good (for the play group) that they helped out when they weren't even running the campaign, but more on that at the end of this article.

I had one GM who was very brave. And I mean seriously, they took two challenges of GMing as their first ventures into GMing. First off, they wrote a 1 player campaign, to get to terms with things, and that was one I played. This was really great, as a player and GM mentor, because I was able to see what they'd learned, as well as trying my own hand at being a player. I know that players will always come up with a different idea to what the GM had in mind as a solution, so I was purposely breaking into houses and shops of a mostly abandoned town, in an effort to force the GM to improvise. Instead, I found the magic weapon and a very key item in my first shop. Not bad! I felt great for having done some thieving (if you ask, my default character is always Halfling Rogue) and also good that I believed the find, too. It didn't 'stick out' as obvious that the GM had planted the items right in front of my PCs eyes. Second, it was also good to see if I could spot the areas of the campaign where the GM had asked for my advice on situation X, what mods to use, what kind of roll it would take, whether Intelligence of Wisdom was the key here, etc.

And their second campaign was a 7 player Underwater adventure. This is their first proper campaign with fortnightly sessions, and they worked on everything, picking the right water monsters, and townsfolk (Merfolk, hiya!) and even working on the "where are you underwater" system, which is a slight of paper with a clip, so you know you've gotta charge down 2 squares and 3 across to get to the bad guy. Noice! In this instance, the water has become paramount over everything else. Every player really engaged with the water theme, and had to find a way to give their creature underwater movement and breathing, so we had 3 Undines (I'm an Undine Druid, while another is a fighter and the last a Sorceror) along with a Gillmen, and a Grippli (I forget what race the other two are). With the Advanced Players Guide and Race Guide, etc, everyone was able to swap out racial traits for amphibious. And the most fun for me was being a level 8 Druid - having to find forms that would work underwater, or finding spells that'd let me be a swimming, breathing Bear underwater, was great fun.

This GMs play style reminds me most of my own, I think, and I can see aspects of my own GMing appear in their running of the game. Which is good! I can remember the GM I got the habits off, and it seems to work well because a lot of GMs who come across it adopt it to some extent. Basically when the group is asked What do you want to do, and one player replies, that's taken in, and then the rest of the PCs are asked what are they doing during that time. Do they go along with the player, sort of making a small "buddy system", or are they curious and want to explore the nicnac shop the PCs have just discovered, with magical fishbowls that show you the ocean while you're still stood on dry land?

This allows the splitting of the group safely, because typically the group won't wonder too far away that a simple Perception check won't bring them all together if real trouble occurs, but allows twice as much of your world to be interacted with. Maybe the first player will get the story line NPC discovered and on board, while the other half find a sweet magical item to purchase next session, after the loot is gathered from this current adventure.

I really support this kind of play style as a GM, because it's what I use and what I want to see more of. I even watched this GM run a game (I'd written the adventure and run it already for the GM I'm going to talk about NEXT, but I thought it'd be a great chance to see this GM run it. They'd get rules knowledge, in-game experience, and I'd get to see if I wrote an adventure that made sense to others reading it!) and they did wonderful, there was never a moment when a PC was left out, or wasn't asked directly "What is your character doing?" It's very inclusive, and listens to the PCs, which should always be your first port of call for what to do put in a game.

The next GM surprised me incredibly. As in, I'd never played a session like this before, and I don't think I ever will again, unless I specifically ask "Can I continue that story line?" This GM lives in another state, and we would often talk about campaigns, or discuss rulings or different rolls that would be called for in certain situations. So when I visited them out of state, we both ran a game for one another. Their partner played in both games as well, and it a shock in general I think, because of the kind of story this GM runs.

I normally run an actioned game, but action comes after a lot of investigation, running about, unlocking the dungeon, etc. I'll try and make an interesting Monster actually the key to the session, and everything hangs around them. For example one entire session was baby sitting a Treant, who'd gotten up from it's grounding and went to Look around. The PCs were shown the Treant and told to take it back to it's place, because a load of nasty breeding Goblins had taken it's old place, and were threatening to over run the town within very few generations. So the dungeon was out doors, in the sunshine, birds singing and flowers blooming, and the Treant itself was so big it was the danger. They came across a stream where he wouldn't budge, so they had to use social interaction skills to get him out. Then another river was too large for them, so they had to convince the Treant to ferry them across, only an over zealous Intimidation check had the Treant throw them all across (for Rock throwing damage each). That's the kind of game I'll try and set up, because it's fun to play out, and it's fun for the PCs to play through.

This GM I'm talking about had a sandbox approach, moreso, and I didn't roll initiative once. At first, I admit, I was annoyed at the session, but then I realised I wasn't playing action Pathfinder. This was ROLE PLAYING, true and proper, where your sheet informs you of your PCs characters, first and foremost.

I was a Sorceror with an Ice Dragon heritage, and Mighty Fist bracelets to match, but the world the GM built up was huge. Snow, everywhere. And an artifact that made the snow, well that was here but kinda broken. Who broke it? Can we fix it? Don't we need the snow?

Second, my group. It was myself and two Dwarves, genders unknown. In fact, it was regarded as rude to ask. To HAVE a gender was rude, so neither knew. AND they were twins. They didn't know and didn't want to, thank you very much. One was a druid with a super randy panda, and the other... I think was a cleric. Of Healing and X.

Once we'd had the main load of information about the town and it's history, we were given free choice of where to investigate. I wanted to hit the springs, because having cold resist 5 I thought I could actually bluff some unsuspecting idiot into giving me some of their money, with a bet about staying in the freezing cold water - in this icy region - the longest, however I didn't expect a live birth.

Yep, through sheer chance I managed to pick the one location that focused on the Cleric, and my hopes of duping people for money were soon out the window. Once we got into the area, a Dwarf went straight into labour, and the trouble was that the dwarf didn't want anyone else to see the birth. Not for modesty, but because that baby weren' gonna come out reg'lar!

The Cleric flies into nurse mode, ushering everyone away with successful Cha checks, including the other 2 PCs. While we're outside, being ignored by the action, the Nurse finds out that the dwarf is going to be half human, dammit, so that's why the secrecy. Thereafter, the role playing and nonsense about it was entirely and utterly devoted to this dwarf who just wasn't having their baby.

So, sandbox game. At this point it became an opportunity to bugger around as much as possible, so I convinced the other ejected PC that we should help out, and we hop on their Bear mount. The problem? There's people everywhere, it'll take ages. The answer? "I cast Fly on the Bear." That was actually a really cool moment, in 1) the game 2) my playing history and 3) solutions to problems.

The bear then soured high into the air, we found the birthing scene, and started to descend. The nurse, seeing us with her Perception check, tried to say "Go away, not here!" but my own failed Perception check meant I was free to ignore that, so I whispered to the Druid "They said to hurry up."

We land, and I'm thinking about more spells I could use. I had Enlarge person, and the dwarf's hips weren't designed to birth a human/dwarf hybrid, so I reasoned that I could Enlarge Person just the mother. That was okay, but the GM had me roll an Intelligence checks, and basically if I did that, any magic around a baby can be dangerous, mangling it in the process. OR I could bugger up the casting, and enlarge mother and baby (same problem) or just the baby (and in this case, so close to the magical artifact that made it snow, damage and lots of it).

So the baby is delivered and the session ends. I wanted to con someone of their lunch money, and wind up flying a bear to hopefully explode a baby and it's mother.

Wowwee. It was an entirely new gaming experience for me, and one that I'm always going to remember. Suddenly my sheet would have been better laid out as a bunch of 'options' I had, rather than in the order of the character sheet, because it was about how I thought, certainly not how I fought.

As a GM style, I really like it, but again players need to be aware beforehand what kind of session they're getting in to. I'd say it's HEAVY ROLE PLAYING, and it has the same benefits/hazards as the arcade style, where one character is deliberately focused on for quite a while, but I don't mind because the overall story is quite interesting and engaging. That was because it was Dwarves hiding a hybrid birth, and the intrigue of possible cheating (it was a dwarf couple...), so if it had been 2 humans having a human child I would've been wonderfully bored. I CAN walk into a hospital and see that on my own (and then be told to "leave, sir. Now." Assuming the PCs are up to it, they'll love it. And if they aren't, it'll take one session for them to get to 'know' what a typical session is like, and then it's up to them whether they keep on.

And that's the most of it for today, I will write more tomorrow. I did say I'd tell you about a GM who helped when they weren't even GMing, but that's for later. I've got to get ready for work.

Charlatan Fox.

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