The Bard's Philosophy on Game Mastery
Well met friends, adventurers, Game Masters, players and dice chuckers alike. I am Ed The Bard. The name may be familiar to a few of you, but to those who have never delved into the dark dungeon of my imagination, I welcome you. I feel that introductions are in order, today. For you see, today I came to a strange and comforting realization.
I have a philosophy.
I've never figured myself the type of person to have such a thing lying about. I've considered myself sort of a vagabond, wandering from place to place, table to table, collecting bits of knowledge and interesting ideas from here and there, polishing them, and incorporating into what I do before moving on to the next place. A Game Mastery Hobo, one might say. I've certainly sported that beard before.
"It was just a phase. A glorious phase..."
It turns out when you cobble together bits of knowledge and interpretations together int a streamlined belief system, you have a philosophy. I never really thought about it until this past weekend, when I started and stopped writing three separate articles, deciding to backlog them because there each possessed a portion of this philosophy that I never bothered to flesh out or even put down on paper.
The vast majority of my contributions here on the blog are just deconstructions of things that I do at my gaming table. I dissect what I know and offer it up to anyone that wants to listen, sort of like that annoying guy in Skyrim, always screaming about Talos.
"Y'all need to get right with Talos."
I felt it was time to do the same with this. So, with a sinful amount of caffeine at my disposal, I am resolved to leave this testament. If you see something you like, then I by all means take what works for you and yours.
Everything In Moderation
Socrates had a pretty good thing going, right up until that whole poisoning thing. But when it came to moderation, the man had a great point. A little bit of everything is a good thing. Too much of a good thing just takes the fun out of it. Too much chocolate ice cream, and you are either going to wretch or get a headache. Too much cheese and you won't see another bowel movement until next easter. Too much tabletop... well, it's not a perfect system.
Moderation is how I plan and plot every aspect of my game, from the locations to the dungeons, and even the monsters. A handful of this and that is better received than a bucketload. Want to use orcs? Use a few, and remember that orcs keep slaves a good amount of the time that they have no problem throwing on other people's swords. They train God-awful beasts to fight for them, like owlbears and dire wolves, and they are pretty good at forming tenuous alliances with violent idiots like ogres and other giant kin.
Moderation tells you if you are adding too many rooms to your dungeon, handing out too many magic items, or casting out too many plot hooks. The first rule of the stage, my friends; always leave them wanting more.
You Only Have As Much Power As The Players Give You
I've seen a lot of power-tripping Game Masters in my time. You know the sort, the ones that believe they wield all the power at the table. After all, it's their story, their rules, and their game. But the truth is the matter is this; the players are the ones that start with all the power, and they are the ones that give their Game Master the right and ability to do what they do. It is a transference of power, allowing the Game Master to have a limited, though still potent reign over the characters and that power can be taken back at any time.
I have never forgotten that, and it always inspires me to do right by my players. I love running games, but my passion is running games, and if I am still behind the screen, then the game must still be hopping... or no one wants to GM.\
I will leave the concentrations that the Game Master/Player dynamic is almost identical to a kinky Dom/sub relationship for another blog.
"I' can't see my character sheet, Mr. Grey."
Coolness Is Paramount
If I am sitting at the table, and one of my players says or dies something I find to be cool, that player gets rewarded. Not all the time, as per my rule about moderation, but enough to encourage that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that that some of us long time players and Game Masters tend to forget about in the usual grind.
Coolness can take a lot of forms. It could be a death-defying stunt, a witty one-liner, a stand against odd the player knows they can't beat so that their friends can escape, or even a radicle and interesting idea. The more cool things I can get my players doing, the more memorable the game becomes, and memories are how a game becomes immortal.
“The worthy GM never purposely kills players' PCs, He presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own.”
- Gary Gygax
The world of an RPG is a dangerous place full of roving monsters, capricious bandit kings, and unspeakable tombs full of deadly traps. It is hard to imagine that in such a world, where even the dead are known to walk and slay the living, that anyone would act without a tiny bit of caution. Sometimes watching a player do something questionable forces me to question if their character lacks common sense, or is downright suicidal.
A good number of players who started off fresh with me would engage in acts that are downright dumb, like diving head first into a gelatinous cube to fetch something shiny. Those players learned the hard way that it pays to think before you act. Even impulsive characters, like barbarians, do not willfully throw themselves to the slaughter. If they died, how could they fight anymore?
When a player does something stupid, I punish them for it, much the same way I reward them for playing smart, or at least sensible. Those characters often have some manner of life reminder of what happens when you don't exercise all your brain cells before running off into danger.
If the big green ominous face of the devil statue has an opening in its mouth just big enough crawl through, and no light can penetrate the darkness within, it is a good bet that you should STAY AWAY FROM THE MOUTH!
"Free kittens inside."
Know When Not To "No"
If there is one word I hate using at my table it is "no". All tabletop games are based on your players using their collected imaginations to perform tasks most others could hardly conceive. To say no to a suggestion, no matter how outlandish, just feels like a disservice to the player. Instead, there are a few phrases I prefer to use instead.
There is nothing like positive reinforcement. When a player asks something reasonable or wants to do something within the realm of their capabilities, there is nothing wrong with a friendly "yes". It doesn't get any better unless you go with...
"Yes, and" is really good for piling on the positivity. This is usually reserved for instances when the player does just the right thing or knows just what to say. Often it happens after a well placed critical.
Sometimes good isn't all the way good. Sometimes it comes with a helping of bad. "Yes, but" is good when a player succeeds... partially. Yes, you managed to steal the keys from the guard, but now he is staring daggers at you. It's always useful when livening up a session. Almost as useful as...
When failure isn't entirely a failure. This is one of the few times I will say no at my table, but it is usually because through the character's failure, an opportunity arises that will be beneficial at some point. No, you don't glean the information you want off of the seedy merchant, but you do notice that when you mention the name of the high priest, the man gets an involuntary twitch in his left eye.
You can try...
This is my favorite. It is usually reserved for the outlandish, bizarre, impossible, or downright stupid. Trying to balance on the tip of a dagger? You can try. Trying to sneak past the hydra as one head lazily follows you? You can try. Trying to coax the GM into giving you an inspiration/action point? You can certainly try.
It's short. It's sweet. It's how I roll. Every Game Master has their own philosophy and their own way they do things. This is mine. Now you know, in case we ever throw dice together, which could be.... soon.
Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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