What Should the Game Master Fight For?

I have kicked off lots of campaigns as a GM, and none of them have been completed to my satisfaction.  Some campaigns withered as I grew disinterested, others collapsed as integral players left, and to my recollection none of my campaigns have completed.

I want to run a long-standing campaign, at least 15 sessions, to it’s conclusion.

Typically I spend quite a bit of time thinking about where things should end up – in 10 sessions – and much less focused on the present situations.

I don’t prepare adventures but prefer to act and react with the players and their characters.  Certainly I could create more challenging “set pieces” for the player characters, but I don’t know if that’s in my gamer DNA.

Burning Wheel builds on the assumption that you will “Fight for what you believe.” And the question hit me – What if this imperative is not just for the characters’ players but is for the Game Master as well?

What should a Game Master fight for?

First and foremost, we are all playing a game, and as such all participants should fight for enjoyment.  The short-term enjoyment of a single in-game moment, the medium-term enjoyment of a resolving story-arc, and the long-term enjoyment of character development and narrative closure.

A Game Master should fight to challenge the players and characters.  Guaranteed success is boring. In fact, my most memorable sessions are inevitably where situations spiral out of control, ala Fiasco-style, because success wasn’t guaranteed.  Typically these sessions are also very combat-lite.  A thinly veiled threat of splitting the loot 2 ways comes to mind.

Most systems I’ve played have two possible outcomes for a given roll…Success or Failure.  If I succeed, I am given narrative control.  If I fail, the GM is given narrative control.  There is no negotiation. No compromise.

I believe Apocalypse World gets it so very right by codifying that moves have a third possible outcome: Partial Success. Partial Success is a negotiated success…I get something that I want, but with a cost.  In the case of Apocalypse World, I’m negotiating with the rules.  In the case of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits, I’m negotiating with the table.

And lastly fight for what the characters and players believe in.  I struggle with engaging everyone’s beliefs.  In part this is a natural consequence of my failure to help shepherd character creation by not successfully conveying my campaign vision.  Also, beliefs are adjusted and change according to developing goals.  Keeping this information up to date is a challenge…especially if you can’t get confirmation from your game group that you are even playing that weekend.

In summary, understand what your players want then challenge and engage them via the story and the system.

Gamemastering by Brian Jamison – A Behind the Screen Look

Behind the Screen of Gamemastering

A look behind Brian James' gamemastering screen

A few days ago, I was puttering around on RPG Geek, and I saw a front page forum conversation for Gamemastering.  Intrigued, I took a look, and immediately went to Gamemastering.info to download the free eBook Gamemastering by Brian Jamison.

Introduction

Brian Jamison states that the reason for writing the book was that by 2003 the gaming community did not have a comprehensive book for Gamemasters.  He rose to the challenge, and over the course of several years, wrote Gamemastering…and is giving the eBook away for free, though he does encourage you to donate or pick up a physical copy.

Inside this massive 300 page book is a formula for starting, preparing for, and running a long-term campaign.

One-Time Preparations

The crux of the first four chapters is Brian pointing towards a better way to start a campaign:

Traditional Way Better Way
GM chooses game system GM chooses players
GM buys/writes adventure Everyone agrees on setting
Characters are rolled up GM chooses game system
Start playing Characters are co-created
Adventure skeleton is written
Start playing

Brian Jamison strongly advocates for a sort of character questionnaire that the players work towards filling out. This involves filling out beliefs, goals, friends, foes, and defining your position regarding various vices and virtues.  It isn’t too hard to see parallels to Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard.

In the case of Diaspora: The Precious Few, we followed the Better Way, and had a fantastic time creating our setting and characters.  There was an interconnectedness to the characters that helped to naturally create the adventures.

In the case of Bloodstone, we are in the process of co-creating our characters. It may look as though I chose the adventure first, but my intent has been to use the Bloodstone series as a setting.  I fully intend to have the characters choosing the direction of the game.

As I’ve looked at other campaigns that have been memorable, they typically involve characters that were very interconnected, as well as a handful of memorable NPCs.

The general message of these first four chapters is take the time before hand to bring the characters together and place them in a dynamic environment full of relationships and cultures.  By spending time up front, the amount of time will pay dividends both in greatly reduced adventure preparation and in creating a verisimilitudinous world.

Prepping for the Game Session

Much like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, Gamemastering advocates playing to find out what happens. Before a game session, Gamemastering recommends reviewing the goals, beliefs, friends, foes, and cultures to loosely flesh out what could happen in the game session.

Gamemastering lays out the case for avoiding dungeon crawls and three act adventures, instead advocating to focus on conquering obstacles (i.e. conflict).  Overcoming obstacles involves three steps: discover, challenge, and celebrate; each step of which Brian Jamison provides expert advice.  Use existing NPCs, match skills, everyone must have something to do, challenge multiple characters, pace the difficulty, and have at least two ways out.

In short, know your player and characters and how they connect with the world.  By reviewing this information, and chewing on it, conflict will naturally emerge.

Running the Game Session

Brian Jamison advocates for having using a GM screen.  In doing so, you create a natural division between you and the players.  The division is not for propagating the GM vs. player mentality, but helps to “set up a tiny but important psychological barrier between the players and the Gamemaste.”  This division can instill a sense of mystery in the players.  They never know when they have “gone off the rails.”

Three roles of the GM are highlighted: Judge, Actor, and Camera.  There is advice on seamlessly transitioning from one role to another.  In particular with regards to highlighting important elements of a scene.

Conclusion

Gamemastering is an opinionated grimoire loaded with ideas and advice.  Given the price tag, all I can say is please download this wonderful work and give it a read.