Through the past many months, I’ve continued to play and run tabletop role playing games. I’ve seen many types of systems, players, and game masters (GMs) and I’ve gathered some of my observations here. A disclaimer - there are many different ways to play and these observations relate to my preferred play styles; there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the hobby.

Three GMing Skills

There are three high level GM skills that are tough to master but critical for running a great game.

  • Facilitating a great story
  • Enabling player agency
  • Keeping the players challenged

Facilitating a Great Story RPGs can be a great medium for telling stories. They can have awesome overall plots and generate memorable anecdotes about player ingenuity or incompetence during pivotal moments.

Some RPGs have written campaigns (played over many sessions) and modules for a one-shot (single session). These often have well scripted plots and sub-plots with tips for how the GM can adapt the story to the players actions. Other RPGs are meant to be freeform with the players and the GM making up the story on the fly - no pre-written content. Both types have room for GM improve and pressure for the GM to facilitate a great story, but there is a larger burden on the GM during more freeform games.

I’ve written a bit about running no-preparation one shots and I love the improv challenge of trying to tie player input and action into a cohesive tale that will have a satisfying conclusion at the end of the night. It’s very tough and I still have a lot to learn. One tactic is to plant lots of story seeds early on and developing the ones with which the players engage. Another trick is to have multiple possible finales in mind and to create various vectors for the players to get there. To some extent, there are frameworks that help outline and tie together a story on the fly but it really is a skill that is only improved with practice at the table and broader study of storytelling and narrative.

Enabling Player Agency A common GM pitfall is ‘railroading’ - where the GM has a clear plot arc in mind and narrowly limits player action where it would cause the players to take the story ‘off the rails’. For example, if the GM wants the players to go visit the volcano and the players aren’t interested, the GM might have the players kidnapped and dragged there. Railroading isn’t fun for the players as it feels like they can’t affect the world and don’t have any freedom.

However, granting players total freedom has its own risks: they might not take the story in an interesting direction; the pacing might be off; there might not be a satisfying conclusion.

As a GM, it’s very tough to balance between guiding the story forward and giving the players freedom. Depending on the type of RPG or session, you might be able to assign the players a clear goal from the start and give them total freedom in how they accomplish it. As mentioned above, you might have several back-up story arcs or conclusions and you can weave-in the relevant one based on player action. Another option is to create strong and motivated non-player characters and factions. If the players choose not to engage with them, they will be acting in the background and impacting the world. In time, the players will likely choose to deal with these factions in some way, if only to scavenge in the chaos of their wake.

Keeping the Players Challenged Related to player agency is the degree to which the GM challenges the players. Depending on the rules system and the expectations of the participants, the players might expect a tough challenge or they might just want to tell a good story.

Some of the earliest RPGs were all about a creating a challenging dungeon which may take several tries for the players to complete - with failed attempts resulting in all the characters dying. On the other hand, many modern games are all about the story and there is no risk of the players losing.

I think there’s a time and place for games all over this spectrum. In general, I like to keep players on their toes - pushed to the edge of their (and their characters) abilities. Giving them tough challenges makes the victories that much sweeter, provides opportunities for ingenious solutions, and raises the stakes and tension. More rules-heavy games often have ways to calculate a fair set of foes for a given set of heroes but there is a good bit of skill in adapting it to your players. Even in story games, you can challenge players by putting them in tough situations where they need to generate a clever plan to escape.

Anyone can jump in as a player

Over the past year, I’ve led many games that include first time RPG players. Without exception, all of the first time players quickly adapted to the freeform play and loved the experience. Sometimes it took a little while for them to internalize that they can truly attempt anything they dream up, but by the end they’re as creative as a seasoned player.

One Shots vs Campaigns

While most of the games I’ve played are one-shots, I’ve dabbled a little with campaigns. I’ve found that one-shots can generate funny moments and good anecdotes but campaigns tend to yield better narratives. I think this is because players are more invested in their characters and there’s more time for the world to come alive. Early player actions can have consequences that reverberate throughout the rest of the campaign. I’m interested in trying to get campaign quality narratives to emerge in one-shots - I’ll add it to my queue of game design experiments.

The Campaign Scheduling Problem

Most gamers I know have busy lives and it’s tough to coordinate a group through a multi-session campaign. A the beginning of this year, I led five players in a five session campaign and even that was a scheduling burden - we played it over several months. I’ve found two possible solutions to this challenge of scheduling a campaign:

The Decameron Approach The Decameron is a 14th century collection of novellas about a group of friends who hide out in a monastery to escape from the Black Plague. They spend 10 days away from civilization and every night they tell stories. One way of fitting a campaign into a busy modern life might be renting a cabin with friends and squeezing many RPG session into a long weekend. Ideally, the sessions would be interspersed with hiking and swimming nearby. I think this is pretty attainable, even without a plague as impetus.

The West Marches Approach The West Marches was a campaign in which one GM and 10-14 players had many one-shots set in the same, evolving world. The GM started by creating a vague outline of the map and letting players organize sessions. Only a subset of the group - maybe 4-6 players would participate in a give session and they’d create their goal in advance (where they want to go) so the GM could prepare. After a session, they would update all of the players over email so everyone could stay informed of new discoveries about the world. In this way, the campaign continued for years with a rotating cast of characters.

I like the West Marches model as it blends some of the scheduling benefits of one-shots with the broader story arcs and complex world building of a campaign. I might try running something like it in the future, but there are several tweaks I would want to make.

The biggest improvements I’m interested in are tied to two design decisions the original GM made: nothing interesting happens “in town” and there are no non-player characters or factions that have active agendas (i.e. the players are the only ones with agency, shaping the world). I would much rather have active factions that are affecting the world, which the players can either aid, hinder, or ignore. I think this will create a more vibrant setting and also increase motivation for players to show up as they can better influence how the world will evolve. I want to have interesting things happen “in town” because some of the more interesting plots can emerge from political intrigue.

I hope to try a Decameron or West Marches approach in the coming months - I’ve been itching to run a campaign again and these might be the best ways.