GMing Goals

After some delay, I decided to make my first real post about GMing goals. It’s a lot of work, but what’s it for, when you really get down to it? I want to explore the overarching goal, some smaller goals which contribute to it, and how to attain them.

The Big Goal: Run a game where everyone is able to have fun.

Of course. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing D&D, Spirit of the Century, Descent, or even Vampire, the end goal ought to be a game where everyone is able to have fun. A game where everyone has fun is better, but it’s not something you’re in charge of. If Tammy’s dog got run over last week, and she’s still broken up about it, she might not have fun no matter what you do, and attempts to get her to have fun could result in less fun overall.

So what goals are going to help create a game where everyone can have fun? A lot, but here are the ones which seem most important.

  • Create a vital setting
  • Cultivate a vibrant style
  • Create a safe space
  • Treat players with respect

Create a Vital Setting
Why? A setting that seems alive, with events happening all around, as well as with the player characters gives players more options. The idea that things are happening off-camera helps create an immersive world, and immersion increases people’s ability to have fun.
How? A sandbox GMing style works well for this, with pre-established chains of events that the PCs can influence by interacting with them. Creating a rumour mill or toown crier network throughout the setting will allow PCs to hear of events going on in distant lands, which may prompt them to go there. Semilinear styles can work for this as well, allowing you an avenue with which to pitch adventures to the party.

Cultivate a Vibrant Style
Why? An adaptive style with good descriptions of scenes is going to speed up play and keep people involved. Short, visceral descriptions allow people to ask more questions, and you won’t run the risk of them getting bored. Boredom is the fun-killer. It is the little death that brings total distraction.
How? There’s an old saying, “Show, don’t tell”. All players have to rely on for what the world looks like are their imaginations and your description. You’re not in charge of the former, so make the latter as good as possible. And better does not mean longer. Use visceral terms, or common sympathetic elements (I could do a dozen posts about those). Write down little snatches of descriptions you might use, and give yourself a word limit for them. Or practice by stopping periodically throughout your day, looking around you, and just describing what’s going on in as interesting a way as possible.

Create a Safe Space
Why? This is second only to treating players with respect. Roleplaying games are about theatre and escapism as much as math and mini combat. People are acting out, pretending to be things they’re not, whether that’s elves or villains. That’s a big part of what makes it fun. But people are less inclined to do those things if they think they’ll be judged negatively by their peers for doing it, whether that’s by people outside the game thinking they’re nerdy, or other players making value judgments about their character decisions. This isn’t to say that criticism shouldn’t be valued, but that it should be framed constructively, and the basis for it ought to be examined. If someone wants to play the villain, or do a bit of gender-bending, why shouldn’t they? If you’re playing Rifts, D&D, Mage, or Call of Cthulhu, you’re already imagining things which are way stranger, and not batting an eye.
How? Look to the needs of your players, and balance them with the logistics of the gaming group. If people are getting self-conscious about being nerdy, try to avoid playing in public places. If they love moving around and being wildly animated, try playing somewhere with a bit more space. Most importantly, try and cultivate a safe space within the gaming group by maintaining a positive and encouraging view on people’s ideas, no matter how strange they seem. People who are comfortable will be more immersed in their characters, and thus more immersed in the game, which means they’ll be able to have more fun.

Treat Players With Respect
Why? This is without a doubt the most important one. Sure, there’s a time and place for adversarial GMing, but if you’re trying to have a character driven game (and you probably are, because if you’re looking for the player-driven tactical game, you should all probably go play World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, or even Risk. They’ll supply those elements in spades) you need to respect your players’ choices. Nothing kills someone’s fun faster than the stonewall “It doesn’t work” or the sense that their choices don’t matter. Everybody’s guilty of this now and again, and all you can really do is try and be conscious of it. Players are not your enemy. They are not whiny babies who want more points. They’re people you sit around and cooperate with in order to have fun. If that’s not the case, you might be playing the wrong kind of game.
How? Lots of little ways. Follow the rules, for instance. Players rely on the rules to tell them what the world is like, so try and follow them as best as you can. Try and find ways for people to be able to do things, rather than ways that they can’t. Burning Wheel is really good for this, establishing stakes before dice are rolled. Spirit of the Century as well, with its negotiation mechanics, allows people to examine what they want from an encounter and then everyone tries to find a way to reach it. View your players as shareholders, rather than adversaries. They have a stake in what you do, and you have a stake in what they do. That makes their considerations relevant, and if they know that you’re behaving that way, it creates an atmosphere where they can have more fun. They’ll trust you, and as long as you don’t betray that trust, you can get a fair amount of leeway.
These are just some of the minor goals that can help you achieve the major one, and I could really do a post on each one, but I wanted to start with an overview.

8 comments

  • Dave G _ Nplusplus

    I would also add believable NPCs to the list for the setting.

    Also, for creating a save place and respecting your players, that includes avoiding themes that bother the players – and dealing with players who are making other players uncomfortable through actions/concepts in or out of character. (And certainly not encouraging the player with the questionable themes, hint hint)

  • Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts, Dave. And I definitely agree with you on the subject of believable NPCs. I'd pack that into part of a vibrant setting. NPCs are the supporting actors of the game, and the more interesting and compelling they are without actually upstaging the PCs, the more interesting the game will be.

    I'm not sure I'm clear on your other point, though. When I talk about creating a safe space, what I mean is a space which encourages everyone's creativity mutually. Exploring things that make us uncomfortable is one of the things we can do in a safe space that we couldn't do elsewhere, just as we might in a theatre troupe, psychiatrist's office, or support group. It seems like what you're suggesting would involve actively discouraging players from exploring topics that they're interested in, which is going to inhibit your fun. Themes will certainly arise where people have varying levels of comfort, but it seems like the best solution would be to sit down with everyone and negotiate a solution, rather than discouraging a single player.

    If I'm your GM, and you want to play a villain, which makes one of the other players uncomfortable, how does my discouraging you from that help you have more fun? This was just a brief overview of various strategies, and I welcome your input on how I could take your perspective into consideration when I finally do a post on safe space.

    • I’m the Club Adviser for Punahou Habitat Club; we#8;217&ve always helped out with gift wrapping on the Honolulu side, do let me know when you have dates and times. Would love to do it again this year.

  • This is great blog which I have just discovered. As a GM that dates back to the days of Basic D&D, I love GM theory.

    So I'd add that one thing I do to increase the fun for my players is to act like a player myself when running combat. I show frustration when the guard at the gate (an NPC fighting the characters to prevent them from escaping) breaks his weapon and delight when he scores a critical hit. I used to think that being impartial meant playing it cool. "This is just what happens…" But I learned along the way that as long as I am running the game fairly then the players don't mind my being "the other guy". If they get ticked when I am trash talking, they are only more excited when they put down my band of orcs.

    It has to be all in good fun, of course. Any GM who is actually invested in the success of his monsters will not run a good game. But "rooting for the monster" simply ups the ante for the players when they recognize that you are not going to give them a pass.

    There are all kinds of games and styles, of course, but the one that has worked best for the various groups I've played with is the kind of game where character death is a very real possibility. It may be a bummer for individual gamers from time to time, but over the long haul it really heightens the attachment and value players place on the characters who survived it all. It was from this kind of style that I learned to show my "player side" and root for the bad guy. The players really get a kick out of winning when I "didn't want" them to. And of course as a GM I could care less what happens. I just want the players to have fun.

    Great overview, btw, with some really nice goals for the playing environment.

  • Re: Vibrant style and descriptions. Sometimes I focus on just one element and allow all the other details to be generic or assumed. For example when the players get to the door of the alchemists tower, I give them just the briefest description of the tower, but I point out that there is a small brown goat tied to a post, eating leaves. Whoever meets them at the door will invariably untie the goat and lead him inside. None of it has any bearing on anything (it is not some "magic goat") but it leaves the players thinking the world must be real because there was a goat eating leaves! Any authentic random detail will do. It convinces the players (fools them into thinking) that you have the universe worked out to the tiniest detail. It also distracts them from the same old list of strategy based questions like "what are the walls like/could I climb them?"

  • Hi sgt_peppy, and welcome to TPK.
    I think you're absolutely right about how expressing the feeling of the characters in the world, not just stating their actions. I love playing the part, both in character by portraying the characters of the world (it's often remarked that D&D is my excuse to talk in funny voices twice a week. Really though, I don't need an excuse), and by playing the part of the challenging GM. Lately I've been playing up on the Killer GM who roots for the monsters bit, and it's actually been having some positive effects. When my players defeat an encounter, they didn't just beat it, they beat me. As long as it's a role, it seems healthy. Look for a post on that in a while, I think.

    Regarding descriptions, I really like the idea of random minutiae, and I don't do it enough. I've got a post in the works on making believable settings, and I'd like to include that, because it's important. Little details can help sell the picture that there's a world full of events that happen around the player characters, rather than everything waiting for their arrival.

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