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The Douchey DM » Advice, Alternate Views, Inspiration » On GM’ing :: Being a Thespian GM

On GM’ing :: Being a Thespian GM

This is the first in an open ended series of articles on a variety of technical topics relating to how to go about running a tabletop role playing game. I do not, at the time of this writing, have a plan in mind for what topics I will cover. That might change in time, or it might not. I am wildly in favor of writing things that will help people and will be what they want to read about. To that end, I would very much like to hear from readers regarding topics they would like for me to cover. What I am presenting here is my opinion, and things that have worked for me in the 30+ years that I have been a GM across a wide variety of game types. I do not for one moment propose that my ideas are the only ones, nor necessarily even the best ones. My advice to the reader, glean what you can from my feeble wanderings of thought and incorporate them into your own gaming and throw away what does not help you.

So first, a little background. Most people start gaming as a player in someone’s game and learn by watching. I followed a different path. Because I’m the one who owned the books I was the one who got to DM. I freely admit that my adolescent efforts to create and run games probably constituted a hideous train wreck. When I started gaming there was me and my best friend and two other guys. None of us had ever played before but we understood the basic idea. The DM lays out a story, the players put their characters into that story and go from there. The rules provide a framework for resolving what happens. At least that was the idea that we started with. We had all read Tolkien, and other big names in fantasy literature so we had (or thought we had) some idea of what to do. It may have helped that I almost literally grew up on the stage as my mother was very active in the local community theater and by extension so was I. [To give you a laugh, my first role ever was as a magician’s rabbit. I jumped out of a large hat and hopped around the stage. What do you want, I was three.] In any case, as they say the die was cast. My best friend and I met because we were in drama club together so it was probably inevitable that we would lean towards the thespian side of gaming. Honestly, we didn’t care much about the rules and right away took the view that the rules existed to help us, not to define the game. I have every expectation that we made huge mistakes of rules interpretation in those days. Hell, we probably violated more rules than we enforced but we were gaming and we were having fun so that’s all that really matters.

To quote the Bard, “The play’s the thing.”

It has been said with a certain accuracy that table top role playing games are equal parts collaborative story telling, improvisational theater exercise, and tactical combat game. The question then becomes how do we promote the thespian side of the game? Before I take another step if you’re a rules kind of player and are thinking already that I’m full of crap, for your purposes you’re right I am, but keep reading you may find something interesting coming up.

Most of the time, with most game rule sets the rules do not intrinsically address the thespian side of things. An exception to that assertion is the system underlying the “Mouseguard” game which sets out to quantify role playing. For my playing I find that this is a good time to set aside the rules and just go with it. I will talk before the end of this article about applying rules and mechanics to role playing situations so hang on.

Before we go rollicking off into how to be a thespian GM let’s talk about a couple of things to avoid and why.

For the thespian GM boxed text is an enemy. Not only is it formulaic and static, by it’s nature it pushes the GM towards a flat delivery. Try this exercise, get a tape recorder or whatever you have that you can use to record yourself. Turn on the recorder and read the following.

You enter a medium sized room that shows its age and disuse in the shiny quality of the fabrics and the dank musty smell. Across the room an emaciated figure sits at what was once an elegantly finished writing table. As you enter the figure gets to its feet and turns to regard you with hollow empty eyes that glow with some inner fire. A hideous semblance of what might be a smile curls the creature’s features as it speaks, “Welcome my friends please come in and make yourselves comfortable.”

This is a fairly elaborate and involved description, but listen to your voice on the recording. Do you hear that flat sing-song quality of your voice? That marks it as boxed text and immediately the players emotionally tune out. They don’t mean to, but they do. It is VERY difficult to read prepared text and not assume that sing-song quality in your voice.

Now let’s try that again, but instead of reading the boxed text make up a description of a room with the following attributes.

A once elegantly furnished sitting room
Its furnishings are from a time long since out of fashion
Several chairs, sofas and settees dot the room
At the far side of the room the demi-lich sits at a writing table
Note: The demi-lich is not even aware of his own state of undeath he simply continues to carry out the functions of his previous life.

Now make up your own description and record it. Play it back. Hear the difference.

Like I said, for the thespian GM boxed text is the enemy. Anything that pushes towards a flat monotone or wrote delivery is the enemy.

So what do we do with boxed text? Paraphrase and expand based on the situation at hand. Use the boxed text much like the attributes in the exercise let it give you an idea of what’s there, but make it up yourself. Know it before hand but make it up in the moment. (That’s a key thought that will come back as we go on.)

The other thing I recommend avoiding, and for much the same reason as boxed text, is prepared speeches on the parts of characters. Why? If you start reading a prepared speech you will get much the same thing as you get when you read boxed text. Also the prepared speech cannot adjust to the situation of the game based on what the player characters have done. Know the character who is speaking, and how they feel about what’s going on, how they feel about the situation at hand, and how they might react to the activities of the player characters, then let it flow.

So what DO we want to do to bring out the thespian side of our GM’ing?

Mostly it grows from knowledge. If as the GM you know the characters (both the npc’s and to a lesser degree the pc’s) and you know the world in which the game takes place (more on that in a moment) then what the npc at hand should do and how they should act and how they should feel in any given moment should be as obvious as if it was written down in front of you.

In the moments when the thespian GM comes to life in the game the mechanics that make up a character in terms of fighting are largely irrelevant. What matters in that moment is who is the character as a person? Consider the following questions in relation to the main villain of your current game.

Who are they?
Where do they come from?
What started them down this path?
What are they hoping to accomplish?
Why does this path matter to them?
How far will they pursue their current path?

Can you readily answer those questions about your villain? If you can that’s a very good start. If you can’t it’s going to be very hard to slip into the mindset of a character that you don’t actually know. Once you have a characterization of your villain try to put yourself into the mind of the villain so you’re looking out through their eyes. This process is referred to by actors as, “Getting into character” There are many resources for actors and many books on the subject so let me give you JiB’s quick and dirty how to get into character guide for GM’s.

I find that a catch phrase works wonders for getting me into character. Repeat the catch phrase every time you think about the answers to the questions above. Catch phrase + question = answer framed the way the character would frame it. People will laugh at you if you do this in public so use with caution.

Voices work wonders too if you have a talent for them and have a particular voice for the character. I suggest practicing the voice so that it becomes conversational for you. Again people will look at you funny, but get over it this is for the greater good. [For those of you who have met her, my daughter Pip and I are notorious for picking an accent and using it for an entire trip out. Go to the grocery store and spend the whole time speaking in an Australian accent. You get funny looks but it sure is fun.]

Props can come in handy. I once played in a game and every time the GM was in the part of one of the major villains he had a little item that was emblematic of the character and he would pick it up and fiddle with it or hold it or gesticulate with it or whatever the situation called for. Made it very clear to everyone who he was being.

Speak in the first person. This one can be particularly tricky with the small parts, the guard at the gate, the innkeep, the barmaid the merchant or whatever. It also becomes particularly tricky when the players take a left turn at Albuquerque and head off into areas that you have not prepared as well. In any case, try to discipline yourself to say, “Why surely master dwarf we have rooms available, if you have gold that is,” instead of, “The inkeeper says that he has rooms available for 2gp a night.” Do not hesitate to make a fool out of yourself. I know it’s hard we want people to respect us and like us and not think we’re complete idiots, but do not hesitate to go over the top. One, the players will love it, and two it will help them bring out their inner thespian. Remember, we’re playing pretend here. Embrace the inner child.

The biggest single piece of advice I can give the gm to bring out the thespian side of the craft is this, prepare prepare prepare and practice practice practice. It doesn’t have to be an Oscar worthy performance. The whole idea is to elevate the level of emotion that you as the GM feel in playing your characters (the villains and npcs) and there by inspire the players to do the same. Every little bit will help, and every little bit will inspire that much more.

For the rules minded reader allow me to delve into how to apply mechanics to what we’ve been talking about. Waitaminnit JiB you said the rules didn’t matter for the thespian GM. Actually what I said was we were going to set aside the rules and focus on the role playing, but that doesn’t mean that the rules can’t help us. Let’s take an example of a common interaction. A group of heroes approach a castle gate trying to gain entry into the castle to see the duke. Why doesn’t matter it just is the situation at hand. A purely rules oriented encounter might go something like this.

Character 1: I approach the guard and try to intimidate him into letting me into the castle.
GM: Roll your intimidate skill
Character 1: (rolls) I got a 17
GM: Decides that the difficulty for this is a 17 for whatever reason which the character rolled so in they go. TaDa encounter over.

A purely roleplay approach to this encounter would involve the GM knowing very well how the guard felt about his task at hand, what orders he’d been given, how he felt about the duke, what he may have heard about the characters and a whole host of other non-numerical factors that would influence how the npc would react to the characters attempts to get into the castle. I could write out an example but you get the idea.

Both of those answers have a problems of their own. The purely mechanical solution is flat and doesn’t evoke any sense of emotion or drama. The other requires the GM to have a very in depth knowledge of what a guard is thinking. It also takes longer to resolve.

So let’s try a middle of the road approach. The characters conferring before they go to the castle decide that they will try to bull their way in and intimidate the guards into letting them by. The characters approach the guards and at their challenge in character try to intimidate the guards. What they say and what the guards say is totally up to the moment at hand. At whatever point the GM decides it’s appropriate the GM rolls (or asks the player to roll) an intimidate check and decides based on the results how the guard responds. The same idea works for any number of role play encounters. It is only limited by the imagination of the players and the GM.

The point here being that we want to use the rules and the mechanics to guide the role play not control and define what happens.

I will leave you with the following. I was listening to an interview with Matt Damon in which they were talking about the fight scenes for the Bourne series movies. Matt laughed and said, “I can’t actually fight like that I just do what they tell me to do. At the end of the day I have only one job. I have to be believable. If I manage that then we win.” All you have to do is be believable and expressive. Play with it and have fun that’s the goal of gaming, first, last and always.

Best wishes in all your gaming endeavors,


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Software developer, gamer, ice hockey player, sometime musician.

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2 Responses to "On GM’ing :: Being a Thespian GM"

  1. JoeGunNo Gravatar says:

    Wow JiB, just Wow! Great article, knocking it out of the part. And for those of you with little kids, practice the voices while reading bed time stories…I’ve added about 4-5 new voices just be reading stories and doing voices for the different characters. Note: to really push yourself read a book that is based off of a cartoon! Then you have to try and mimic the voices the Show uses ( at least my 4 year old demands this ) Besides you can’t go wrong with a Dr. Doofenshmirtz accent. It works for all occasions!

  2. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you Joe. I’m very glad if my little twiddlings are useful for someone. Some great thoughts too. Cartoons are a great source for voices and characterizations. Guaranteed to go over the top.


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