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The Douchey DM » Advice, General Gaming, Inspiration, Misc, Resources » Evolution of a GM part 5: Setting the mood.

Evolution of a GM part 5: Setting the mood.

Thanks for returning to and my little blog series here, I appreciate your dedication to what I have to say. Speaking of what I have to say, let’s get to that shall we? For this little session of “Evolution of a GM” I’d like to discuss the way that I run a game during actual play, and what I do to draw my players in and make the game more interactive for them. I have a decent amount to say on this subject so let’s get right to it.

The first thing I do in my games is encourage personality. In this instance I’m not talking about the characters, I’m talking about the players themselves. Nothing makes a game seem less enjoyable than a table full of people who are emotionless, rigid, and completely stale. So think about the kind of environment you want in your game, and this purely depends upon what kind of feel you’re pushing around the table. If you want a fun and light hearted game of Pathfinder, and one of your players wants to get angry all the time when the others crack jokes and twist the fun up a notch, then you need to make sure he understands that a serious game is not what you’re running. In that case he might need to either change his outlook or look for a different game. Of course, your goal is to make everyone happy but that’s not always possible. Your primary goal should to make sure as many people are having fun as possible. Just remember that if the GM isn’t having fun, chances are… no one else is either.

Now still on the topic of personality at the table, and also talking about the mood of your game, you need to let people know what kind of characters you are willing to see in your game. If you are running that same light hearted game of Pathfinder you might be more willing to accept a Halfling Cleric who worships Jeff, the God of Biscuits. On the other hand an evil murderous psychotic assassin is probably not going to work. Don’t feel compelled to let someone play a character that is not going to fit the personality of your game. Just as before when you might have to let Mr. Angry go as a player, you also might have to let the sociopath character go by the wayside and push your player into something a bit more fitting to your setting. There is always the desire to let your players do what they want to do because you think that is the best way to assure everyone is having fun, but one of the biggest jobs of a GM is being that final arbiter of what stays and what goes.

My next big thing is to encourage the player to be comfortable. Doing a voice, performing certain mannerisms, and being in character are all hard things to do around other people. So I take it upon myself to take that first step. I act the fool and do ridiculous voices for my characters, hunch up my shoulder like I have a hump, or screwing my eye shut tight like I’m missing an eye or have a horrible disfigurement. All for the sake of the others around the table, so they can feel more comfortable acting their characters out and becoming the person on the character sheet. In the same vein, talk to all of your players before any actual roleplaying happens and tell them all to respect one another and not laugh or poke fun at someone else’s attempts at roleplaying.

Third, encourage your players to get immersed in their character. Have them think about their character, think AS their character. Come up with a background story and little personality quirks for them, and figure out a way to play them. Everyone has been in a group with that one guy that is just sort of there as a way to spend his Friday night and doesn’t really care about his character, just wants to know when it’s his turn to roll the dice. That’s fine in some cases, but in the end that player is going to miss out on some level because the GM has no way of really drawing them or the character into the plot of the game. In those cases I recommend something that I’m pretty sure is still available out there in pdf and that is Alderac Entertainment Group’s “Ultimate Toolbox.” It’s a book that is just jam packed with tables for all sorts of things, but the most important one for this discussion is the chapter on character. There are tables for every conceivable aspect of a character from your family, the surviving members of said family, your little quirks like nail-biting or a superstition, whether or not you have a tattoo and where, names of adventuring parties you may have been a member of, and tons more. Either pick that up, or make your own and have that player roll on the tables. Trust me, it works.

Ok, now that the prep for the table environment is out of the way, let’s talk about the table itself. Personally I use a battlemat most of the time right now because I’m running Pathfinder, but just as easily you could use some Gaming Paper or something entirely different. Whatever you do, tailor it to your game in some way so that it doesn’t interfere with the game. For example, I am about to start a massive dungeon crawl in my home game where I can fully expect my players to move from room to room multiple times in a single night. Drawing the room, then dragging out the squirt bottle to wipe off the wet erase marker, then drawing another room would not only be tedious it would dramatically slow down the game. Instead I went out and bought a few sheets of 12” by 12” scrapbooking paper. You can buy scrapbooking paper these days with no end of interesting designs on them that can probably fit your game if you look hard enough. In my case, the paper I bought has a sort of stone look to it and would be perfect for the floor of a dungeon. I plan to put a 1 inch grid on each sheet and then tape them together to create a 24 inch square of space that will serve as my base. For dungeon walls, hallways, chests, chairs, tables, etc. I am cutting out squares of cardstock and drawing the objects on the cardstock. It won’t take but a few seconds to rearrange my cardstock walls and objects to create a new room as they explore each level. In addition to speeding up the game it will give the players an opportunity to see what is actually in the room just by looking at the table. It will definitely help a little with that immersion issue I was talking about earlier.

Perfectly painted lead miniatures would of course be awesome. I don’t know about you, I don’t have a very roomy wallet in my back pocket. Mine is pretty tight actually, so I have to make do with the few pennies I can squeeze out of it. Instead of the nifty metal miniatures, I tend to use plastic little toys that you can pick up just about anywhere. I have little native americans, police officers, cowboys, dinosaurs, animals, rocks, trees, tons of different little things. And if all else fails, there is always my little wooden disks that I can toss out there to represent anything. I have them in 1 inch and 2 inch sizes so I can use them for medium or large sized creatures. To be perfectly honest I actually prefer the disks in many ways, you can’t accidentally knock them over as you reach out to move your character, and they are definitely more conducive to checking out the scene. Whatever you decide to use, just make sure that it fits into your game and helps you instead of hindering you.

Now that the table is set up let’s get into actually running a game. At this point you have prepped your notes, created your NPCs, gotten your monster stats together, and have your plot outline. So basically all you need to do is set the scene for the players and let them play their characters. Don’t be afraid to “yes and” until the cows come home. What I mean by that is don’t say no. If a player comes to you and has an idea for something outlandish that would completely destroy what it is you have put together, don’t just lay down a no and walk away. Instead say yes. Then immediately follow that up with and or but. “Hey GM I know you want us to save the Queen, and that is your obvious end goal for this story, but how about I just kill her instead. Can I do that?” Your immediate response might be what the hell man? Take a deep breath and respond with “Yes, but in this world by killing the royal family you are demonstrating yourself as more worthy to rule. Now you will be the King, and the people looking to murder the Queen will be out to murder you instead.” If the player still wants to do it then fine, guess what? The party just became his royal guard and their new job is to protect their old party member from these assassins. If he doesn’t want to do it, that’s great too you can get back to your original plot. Either way it was the player’s choice and you didn’t shut down that creativity. Outside of that I like to let my players run wild and do whatever they want to do. If I have to, if they are stagnating and just have no idea what to do or where to go within the story that you have in place just give them a carrot to get them moving in the right direction again. Just don’t be too heavy handed and force them in a certain direction. This is cooperative storytelling not a theater production. The players have just as much say in the story as you do, so let them be a part of it.

Lately on the Happy Jacks forums there has been a discussion on how to set a scene with your description, and there have been some great points made in different arenas. There is a way of handling it that involves pre-written descriptions put into your notes and outline that is commonly referred to as “box text.” I for one do not like box text because it more often than not comes off as stale and bland when read off the page. I prefer to make some notes about the setting of a scene and come up with that “box text” on the fly during the game. There was a great suggestion in the conversation though that I think deserves some attention. That is to read and memorize the box text and learn it as you would lines from a script. When it comes time to insert them into your game they will come off naturally and with more flavor than a few sentences read monotone from a prewritten description.

My opinion is that running a game is easy. It’s the prep and the background behind the scenes type stuff that takes work. Once you are at the table, just take your time to relax and have a good time with it. Do what you are comfortable with. Its important to push yourself at times and try new things, but don’t try to do things that will put you on edge. Hang out with your friends and have fun like they are, just keep things moving while you’re doing it. I think I have meandered enough with this topic so I am going to end this here. I will see you next week for what I am assuming will be the last installment of Evolution of a GM where I will wrap up all the things I’ve presented here with my top 10 rules for GMing. I hope to see you then.

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SirGuido has been a Happy Jack's RPG fan since the first moment he heard Stu on Kicked in the Dicebags. He hopes one day that he will get to meet all of these great people and play lots of games with them.

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