Many people and many different game systems will give many different opinions as to what makes a successful Game Master. In the world of pen and dice RPG’s Game Masters or GM’s at their core are story tellers, referees, and character actors all rolled into one. When one considers the how-to’s and why for’s of game mastering one must understand what a role play game truly is at its core. RPG’s at their essence are made up of a group of players who under the guidance of a Game Master go on a quest while portraying persons of a heroic nature in a land of fantasy.
The GM has the twofold purpose of presiding over the game system rules and maintaining the illusion of the game world in which the game takes place. The game master provides the essence of the game world and is the source of its physical realities, situations, and possibilities through the art of descriptive narration and character acting. There are a myriad of tools designed by a myriad of game companies, hobbyist groups, and individuals to aid the game master in his creation of the player universe. These tools run the gambit from reference books to complete scripted and mapped out adventure scenarios. However the experienced GM knows these are only tools to aid in presenting the individual game adventure and feel of the game world.
As a game master you utilize the rules or game system texts of whatever game world you’re playing as the source for the physical realities of that world. In these texts you will find the “nuts and bolts” that make the game playable. You will also find descriptive history or back stories to assist you in presenting the world setting of the game as intended by its creators. These books however should not be used as step by step guides such as those written for board games. Rather they serve the dual purpose of providing the mechanisms by which game elements such as combat, movement, and achievement are regulated and impart an all encompassing vision of the game world. Grasping the rules systems of die rolls, reference tables, and items usage is essential to being a GM as it is obviously necessary for game play. However of equal importance and possibly greater scope is being the story teller presenting the game world and all its features, physical laws, situations, and characters. The latter portion of being a GM is often more elusive as it requires one to use their imagination and narrative skills to take the players verbally into a fantasy world.
It is important to remember that there is no scenario that is set in concrete even if it is intricately scripted with many optional variations. Effective GM’ing that will be enjoyable for both the players and the GM involve using a little imagination and flexibility. As each player will perceive the game world according to his or her point of view the game play will never go exactly as the scenario outlines: this is where imagination comes in.
There is always room for drift in the story and as a GM you can add your own “spin” on the scenario tweaking its structure and intended event sequence to fit the flow of the game. By making the story your own you avoid possible and sometimes tedious step by step “A” to “B” feeling of a restrictively scripted scenario. By allowing the scenario to become a free flowing adventure the GM interacts with the players, using their ideas and perceptions to create an interactive story that everyone is part of.
Essentially, it’s OK if the player characters want to deviate from the scenario and run off to get drunk or go shopping for new weapons. These diversions can be added to the scenario or are even provided for by the presence of locations like towns and cities designed for such purposes. This affords the GM the opportunity to be more creative in their interpretation of the game script while allowing the players to experience their own “spin” on the game setting.
Returning the players to the scenario objective can be as simple as involving them in a bar brawl, or having them accused of cheating a merchant. Any number of Non player characters designed for the GM to use in the quest settings can be inserted or even invented by game masters to guide players back on track when needed. It often becomes necessary to manipulate player actions if they get too far out of story line. By the same token the game sometimes becomes more fun if they game master allows the story to precede in a direction of its own guided for a time by the players actions.
NPC’s or non player characters are any creature from simple monster to helpful ally played by the game master and often described or scripted in adventure stories that give depth and interaction to an adventure. NPC’s played by the game master are not intended solely as scripted automatons used to supplement combat or appear in one place doing one thing as they do in many video games. Rather they can be as in-depth and flexible as is needed within the limits of their abilities as described in scenario texts or rule books. Non player characters are one of the primary means by which the GM guides and steers the players and the game setting through their placement, intent, and quest knowledge. For example: A player decides to deviate from the scenario script to go get drunk.
The GM can use an NPC as a drinking buddy, the antagonist who starts a bar brawl, or the person who bails the player out of jail thereby leading them back to the scenario objective. NPC’s are essential to any role play game and invaluable tools for the GM’s use as they are the costars, bit players and filler that provide the interactive aspect of the game world. Since you as the game master act out the NPC’s you can use them to retard or enhance player progress through the adventure. They are a very good way of giving hints to lost players who become stuck or miss important clues to reaching quest goals. In the case of Monster NPC’s you are the direct adversary to the players as you make all the monsters attack die rolls and attempt to harm players.
Other than playing the part of hostile NPC’s game masters should not see their role as adversarial as an RPG is not a competition between players and the GM. Rather it is theatrically presented challenge to the players with both danger and reward presented in the context of a theme or loosely scripted story. While the game master is (usually) the only one to see maps and descriptions which may include the location of traps and hazards this still does not necessarily create an adversarial situation between GM’s and players. GM’s who play to “kill” player characters often lose players and do not run enjoyable games. In a sense the game master is analogous to god of the game world since they have all the fore knowledge of every bad situation and great reward the players are likely to face it would be far too easy to manipulate them into hazard. There is really no challenge or enjoyment in this style of game mastering and is not considered to be in the spirit of the RPG genre. That having been said there are many times where the game master will not reveal the presence of unseen or lurking danger as the flow of the story or player actions do not warrant warning.
Role Play Games are very much “real world” in terms of the players actions or lack thereof determining the outcome of any given situation. There are many instances where players may simply forget to use that magic danger sensing ability or simply not look before they leap. In these cases GM’s are never considered adversarial if they don’t tell players about things they could not have seen or known about. This may at times cause disputes and this is when your knowledge of game mechanics or rules processes comes into its own. If players run afoul of some hazard or lose a battle or fall into a trap they may often ask if there is a die they can roll or a chart they can look on to see if they can escape or win. In most cases the appearance of danger or challenging situations automatically invokes some die roll.
However it is up to the GM to decide what rolls and when and who makes them for any given situation. All this knowledge is included in various game texts produced by the creators of the various adventures or systems they are designed to be used under. The sometimes tricky part comes about due to the “free form” nature of RPG’s that creates situations that are sometimes in the gray areas of the rules and do not directly invoke a specific die roll or rule driven decision. Game masters in this situation must decide which die rolls apply and sometimes either make up a die roll or a judgment call in the spirit of the rules system being used. By possessing a good working knowledge of the rules, the game world, and the general idea behind how the whole thing is supposed to work GM’s can make these judgment calls on the fly quite easily and fairly.
The bottom line for good GM’ing is that you the GM are the creator of the illusion and administrator of the natural laws of the game world. It is your adventure and you run it with the hope of giving players an immersive fantasy adventure that gives their characters ample opportunity for personal gain and glory while providing sufficient peril and challenge to make it exciting to play.