GM’s Toolbox: Fine Tuning Your Gamemaster Skills
My recent articles on tips for both players (7 Tips To Make You A Better Player) and gamemasters (6 Tips To Make You A Better Gamemaster) have been very well received by readers. So much so, that I have decided to continue these topics through a series of new articles that will highlight additional tips and tricks to make players better and gamemasters shine even brighter! This article is the next installment in this new series and where we’ll look at additional tips to help gamemasters shine a little brighter at the table.
Be passionate about the details in any game you run! Being passionate means different things to different people. One thing is for certain, if you can convince players to sit at your table or if you can’t keep them engage and wanting to come back, you lack passion. Passion is typically conveyed through salesmanship to get players to the table and then through vivid storytelling to keep them wanting more. When conveying the world and scenes to your players you will often use broad brush strokes with an equal amount of fine detail. Regardless of the level of detail, be passionate in your descriptions. Pay attention to not overdoing it. As gamemasters, we may have a tendency to go overboard from time to time with the descriptions in an attempt to convey our passion. Keep this in mind and if your players begin to lose interest in your descriptions because they are long winded, chances are your have gone too far. Don’t neglect your NPCs whether they are major or minor characters. Give them some substance and depth that will make them shine and be more memorable to your players. I recommend the use of tarot cards to help give your NPCs life. I wrote a recent article (GM’s Toolbox: Tarot Cards Can Give NPCs Depth) on how to use the tarot to do this quickly and simply.
Create the right atmosphere. This goes hand-in-hand with describing your scenes with passion, but it takes it one step further. Adding atmosphere is more than just painting vivid scenes; it involves setting a three dimension sense of realism. The atmosphere of any scene can be enhanced in several ways, but there are two I highly recommend. The first is through the use of props. Props can be something as simple as maps to give visuals of what is going on in the narrative or it could more complex through the use of physical items. In the past, I have used mock scrolls and potion bottles to represent some of the treasure my players have found while dungeon delving. The sky is the limit when it comes to props! The second way to enhance the atmosphere is to use appropriate music and sound effects. Just like in movies, appropriate sounds enhance the experience of the players. Introducing sounds into your game will require a little experimenting to ensure you have the right sounds, timing and proper volume levels so as not to be a distraction.
Avoid tunnel vision! There comes a time when a player will want to be in the spotlight for a greater length of time. This might be accidentally or on purpose. You must give every player at the table ample time to shine in the spotlight. Every player has something to add to the fictional narrative and a good gamemaster will ensure each character is given time to act and shine in the spotlight. It is your job to regulate the how and when the spotlight is cast upon characters and even if some will naturally want to be in the spotlight more than others. No one wants to feel left out! Make an effort to learn to what level each of your players is expecting to have spotlight time. Naturally, some will be shy and you’ll have to work to coax them out of their shell. Encourage them to enjoy the spotlight, however briefly, until they get more comfortable with it. This an element of gamemastering that does take some time to development to ensure you are applying it evenly and fairly.
Play to find out what happens next. Far too often gamemasters get overly wrapped up in creating a super complex story and many times these stories arcs are far too rigid; whereby certain things must happen according to the grand designs of the gamemaster. In essence, the story railroads the players in certain directions to facilitate certain events happening. A better suggestion is for the gamemaster to have some pre-ordained events that need to happen in the story to move the story plot along, but allow them to be worked in as the player’s actions permit. A loose outline is much better than a rigid structure. Your players will appreciate the ability to be flexible in what they choose to do versus being railroaded in certain directions. If you come from a more traditional background and used rigid adventure modules in the past, this skill will be slightly more challenging to learn and adopt. You have to be willing to give up a little control of the story and allow an outline of important events to suffice. Over time, you’ll find your groove and will be able to take prewritten adventures and work with more easily as flexible structure. Remember, this all about your players having fun and enjoying the shared gaming experience.
The story must go on! Inevitably, many roleplaying games become bogged down. It may be a fight scene in Pathfinder or stumbling over rules in Rifts or even players getting confused on which direction to go in Call of Cthulhu. Obviously, those are just examples, but these things do happen far too often. As a gamemaster, you must be willing and able to assist your players by keeping the story moving forward. If your players become frustrated because they are unsure how to proceed or that aspects of the game get bogged down in the minutiae, they are less likely to want to continue playing. Provide them clues or situations that will keep things moving along. Don’t get overly wrapped up in the rules! Keep time-consuming aspects of a particular game moving; don’t let it bog down. In short, your players want to be there and actively playing the game. If they feel like they are just spinning their wheels and get bored or frustrated they are going to find other things to occupy their time.
Don’t be a rules lawyer! There will inevitably come a time when you are trying to propel the story forward or to just speed up a bulky and cumbersome scene. Sometimes you need to be flexible with the rules. Always remember that rules are there to guide and regulate play, but they are not set in stone. Rules can be broken; the gamemaster is always the arbiter of which rules apply and how! Be flexible by applying or not applying certain rules so long as it works with the fiction that the group is creating. The story and the player’s involvement is far more important to the shared enjoyment of the group than applying a rule that breaks that continuum.
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