Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Sole Trick To Being A Good GM

Hello people. I don't normally do this, but after a conversation I had yesterday with a housemate (hilariously, not even about table top gaming) I've come up with a trick. Maybe trick isn't the right word. Maybe it is a rule. Maybe it is something else. Eitherway, this trick/rule/whatever is, in a lot of ways, the culmination of three years of writing this blog and a life time of gaming, thinking about gaming, and trying to improve at being a GM.

The Rule
To put it plainly, the rule is this:

A good GM minimizes ludonarrative dissonance and maximizes player choice.

See, simple. Follow that rule and you'll automatically improve as a GM. More to the point, your players will have more fun, you'll have more fun, and everyone will wonder just what made you such an awesome GM (it can stay our little secret, don't worry.)

The thing is, all joking aside, that actually does capture the core essence of what makes for a good game, and as such for a good GM. I truly feel this, and it applies for story heavy games and more exploration and character based campaigns. Course, just becuase the rule is easy to say doesn't mean it's easy to do.

Excuse Me. WTF Does That Mean?
I'm willing to bet, especially with the topic choice up there, that some of you are reading this for the first time. That's cool, but it also probably means that you aren't quite sure what ludonarrative dissonance is. Hell, you probably aren't even sure what a ludonarrative is. Don't worry, I've got you covered. First, you can read this article and it will explain the concept in the means it was originally designed for (discussing videogames.) Second, you can read yesterday's blogpost about what ludonarrative matters to see my initial thoughts on how those concepts apply to the game table.

Umm, Just Tell Us?
I would like you to read those links, but to keep things contained. Ludonarrative Dissonance is, effectively, when the story being told in the story bits and the story being told in the gameplay bits doesn't add up. For example, if in your campaign your players do everything they can to get every advantage out of every situation and react to setbacks with violence and arson it wouldn't make sense for them to be seen as the heroes of the land, even if they did kill the ancient and evil witch king Toza. And yet, a lot of games have that happen. The players have justified their actoins (we need it, we're heroes. Also, he's just an NPC, etc) and the GM goes along with it because the story they are trying to tell needs the heroes to be players. Only, that doesn't add up now does it? The story not adding up weakens it. So, sure, maybe the players have fun but the story itself is no longer all that compelling.

Now, on the other hand, sometimes the GM has a narrative that makes complete sense. It's huge, it's intricate, and it is awesome. The only problem is that the players have very little say in what is going on. This situation is commonly referred to as railroading because, effectively, the plot is on rails and there ain't a thing the players can do to effect it. Now, this kind of game can tell an amazing story, but the gameplay itself isn't very fun (at least to most groups.) Eventually the players start to wonder why they even bother, accept that they can't impact the plot, and then realize that them being there for a session isn't really all that important aside from the social time. Basically, the story is there, but the game isn't.

The trick then is to protect the story and keep it making sense while making sure the game is there and that it matters for the players to show up.

How Do I Do That?
Well, the trick is to be flexible. The story has to be able to mutate and change with the player's choices, and the players have to have the ability to change. The GM minimizes ludonarrative dissonance not by defending the story at all costs but by placing consequences - realistic consequences - into place that keeps what the game is and what the story is matched up and working together. If the players go west then the game has to go west. If the players attack and make an enemy out of a character that was supposed to be their ally, then the story needs to adapt to allow that character to be an enemy instead of an ally, or at least justify why they remain an ally despite being attacked. While the GM is doing this, they are, effectively, maximising the players ability to choose. How? because they are resenting a world that reacts to the players. It no longer is a situation of "this NPC is protected and this NPC isn't" but rather a case of "if I attack this person there will be consequences and that will change everything that comes afterwards."

So Let The Players Run Rough Shod Over Everything?
Simply: no. Consequences can be bad. If a player attacks the King, for example, the consequences could be very bad (and very lethal) while still being real and believable.  Consequences can be good and bad, and sometimes the result of a player's choice is fatal to the character whose player made the choice. That is simply what happens. Beyond this, there are ways to guide players through a narrative without confinining them to one path.

How? Well, that's where hooks and set up come in. Left to their own devices a player could do anything (including doing nothing.) However, faced with a prompt and a player will respond to the prompt. Asking "what are you doing?" is different from "It's Friday night, what are you doing?" is different from "It's Friday night and you're in downtown New York, what are you doing" and all three are a lot different from  "An army of orcs is approaching your town from the east, what do you do?"

Beyond the prompting and the hooks the GM also has setup. If the story gives the player a reason to care, and motivates the player towards a certain course of action then the player (and her character) will likely head in that direction. A properly motivated and hooked PC is rarely as destructive as one without proper motivation. Why? Because the Player is already entertained which means they aren't looking to start things to entertain themselves because they're already there.

What It All Means
What it all means is that if you want to run a story heavy game you need to work on ways to make the players care enough and make their characters motivated enough that they pursue the story. Don't confine them to the story, but entice them to follow it.

For a more character driven game, then you want to be prepared with the consequences to the PC's actions and be ready to have the world react to them and what they do.

In both cases the players have to be free to choose. You, as the GM, have to be prepared to react to the choices that the player makes and be able to react in a way that keeps the narrative and the gameplay lined up and making sense.

Like I said, hard. It's something that won't come without practive. But it is also something that can be achieved, and as you get better at it your games will become stronger as a result of it.


  1. I'd never heard that word before, it's a good one.

    Would it be wrong for a GM to step in and force a player to roll awareness/whatever-skill-comes-close-to-commonsense to remind the player about the consequences, should the player get swept up in a scheme that might be something a character would never consider doing?

  2. The roll or not roll would be up to the GM based on their group and the game. In general I don't see anything wrong with letting players know that their actions could have consequences, particularly when they're hyper focusing on a course of action and may not be seeing things fully. If they still want to go through with it, thats on them. But that's kind of what RPGs are all about.

  3. Part of good GMing is to hint at consequences (some generated by the GM, others by player speculation) without explicitly stating them. Managing them and presenting them is part of the drama of the game.

    I'd utilize incremental failures (consequences) before resorting to a binary die roll. As for player awareness of consequences, sometimes they willfully ignore the hints. But ludonarrative alienation will result if stuff just happens to the characters with no hint as to why.

  4. Love this blog post topic. I'm getting back into GM'ing after a lifetime away & need all this I can get. This topic has been on my mind a lot, that critical question of what is at the heart of good skilled GM'ing.

    Keep'em coming!