GM as Coach
Despite our focus suffering a bit, with Ryan finishing his thesis and me wrapping up Headshots from the Heart, we’re still alive. On life support, but still breathing. And it’s time to get moving.
The GM can be a lot of things: storyteller, adversary, creator, judge, but I think the most important role is that of coach. They work with players to help them succeed, and make sure they face the right challenges to do so. I work with my players from character creation to retirement, advising them on the best ways to get what they want out of the game. Today I’m going to detail some of the ways I do that, and how it’s been helpful.
A coach has to know more than any one player. They’re responsible for the development of all their players, making plans and carrying the team forward, but it’s the players that have to face all the challenges on the field. They need to understand the game better, as well as the metagame, and keep it all in perspective. They’re always watching from the sidelines. In sports, most coaches are former players. There’s a very real point where they can’t play professionally anymore, but their experience doesn’t go to waste on the sidelines. The analogy to GMs seems pretty obvious. As the GM, you have to know the rules better than any of the players, who need only know the rules that apply to their own character. You need to have a deeper understanding of their characters as well, how they fit together, and how they manage their relationships with the world. To them, you’re the resident expert on the game. This is especially true when working with new players.
My game of choice is 3.5 D&D, and my passion is introducing new players to tabletop gaming, so you can see why the coaching role is important. 3.5 edition has a reasonable amount of depth and a lot of complexity that can make it very challenging for new players. Knowing that, I work with them right from character creation, and help them translate their vision into something that works mechanically at a level of complexity that they’re comfortable with. We work together to create a character that’s both interesting and accessible, who’s open to new relationships and adventures. Sometimes I do this by making careful recommendations, like recommending Incarnate over Warlock if they want something straightforward with versatility and blasting power, and sometimes I’m firm. For instance, don’t create a character that’s psychotically obsessed with a single goal. I don’t care how dead their parents are. It’s unhealthy for them, and for the party.
Coaching character creation is incredibly important because it helps people set the tone for their character match their character to parts of the setting and set their expectations for the game. It can help you cultivate opportunities for hooks as well as catching potential problems before they can grow. It also helps define your relationship with them as a person who works with them to create stories rather than as the person who plays the monsters. I coach during character creation by through the following ways.
- By getting players to use the 20 questions to create backgrounds and then giving them solid feedback on their questions. This way I can tease out interesting opportunities and think up ways to develop their character.
- I also always include a paragraph where I paint a picture of their character based on what I’ve learned from their background, so we can compare that to what they see their character as and reconcile any differences.
- I work with them to find a set of mechanics that best express their character concept, which lets them benefit from my experience with the system.
- I always ask before giving advice. Always. It’s their character. They have creative control, not me. They make the choices. If they want a burly bipolar beefeater, that’s up to them. I need to find ways to help make that interesting and cool, not impose my own ideas of what I think their character should be, whether that’s picking background elements or feats.
- I listen. I listen to the relationships and character elements that they focus on, and find ways to bring those to the fore. Maybe it’s an important relationship with a sister, or loyalty to a legacy. Either way, I try to listen to what they want and give them opportunities to act on it.
Coaching during play usually involves reminding people about bits of their background or about abilities they could use, but I also find it useful to help players frame opportunities in a way that’s palatable to their character. More often than not, people’s characters have different values to their own, and the tension between those values can cause some issues. Maybe you want to save the princess (I don’t think my game has ever even included a princess, let alone one that needs to be saved. I should remedy that), but your brooding antihero would never do that. Ultimately the game is about reaching the players’ goals, not the characters, so I help them reconcile those opportunities, and I’m in a position to negotiate on it. Maybe the court wizard will reward them with a secret they seek if they rescue the princess, so they’re not doing it to rescue a princess but because of reasons their character would actually find motivating. This also creates an opportunity for some hilarious noble/antihero interactions on the journey.
As players grow in experience, they need less coaching. Eventually, they start coaching other players, finding opportunities to tell stories where before they might not have seen any, and making things cool in their own way. More often than not, those players start coaching me. It starts with “You know what’d be really cool in your setting? How could we integrate that? Here’s a neat idea for an adventure that I thought of.” And I learn. Some of them even take up the screen, and I get to play in their awesome games. Acting as a caring coach doesn’t just develop better characters, it cultivates better players and ultimately a better game for everyone. At the table you might be adversary, you might be storyteller, and you might be judge, but first and foremost I think you’re a coach, because that’s what’s going to deliver the best play.